Maid in Waiting, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 36

The feeling that such things did not happen persisted with Dinny even after her interview with Adrian; she had too often read of them in books. And yet, there was history, and there were the Sunday papers! Thought of the Sunday papers calmed her curiously and fortified her resolution to keep Hubert’s affair out of them. But she conscientiously posted to Jean the Turkish primer, and took to poring over maps in Sir Lawrence’s study when he was out. She also studied the sailing dates of the South American lines.

Two days later Sir Lawrence announced at dinner that ‘Walter’ was back; but after a holiday it would no doubt take him some time to reach a little thing like Hubert’s.

“A little thing!” cried Dinny: “merely his life and our happiness.”

“My dear, people’s lives and happiness are the daily business of a Home Secretary.”

“It must be an awful post. I should hate it.”

“That,” said Sir Lawrence, “is where your difference from a public man comes in, Dinny. What a public man hates is NOT dealing with the lives and happiness of his fellow-beings. Is our bluff ready, in case he comes early to Hubert?”

“The diary’s printed — I’ve passed the proof; and the preface is written. I haven’t seen that, but Michael says it’s a ‘corker.’”

“Good! Mr. Blythe’s corkers give no mean pause. Bobbie will let us know when Walter reaches the case.”

“What is Bobbie?” asked Lady Mont.

“An institution, my dear.”

“Blore, remind me to write about that sheep-dog puppy.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“When their faces are mostly white they have a kind of divine madness, have you noticed, Dinny? They’re all called Bobbie.”

“Anything less divinely mad than our Bobbie — eh, Dinny?”

“Does he always do what he says he will, Uncle?”

“Yes; you may bet on Bobbie.”

“I do want to see some sheep-dog trials,” said Lady Mont: “Clever creatures. People say they know exactly what sheep not to bite; and so thin, really. All hair and intelligence. Hen has two. About your hair, Dinny?”

“Yes, Aunt Em?”

“Did you keep what you cut off?”

“I did.”

“Well, don’t let it go out of the family; you may want it. They say we’re goin’ to be old-fashioned again. Ancient but modern, you know.”

Sir Lawrence cocked his eye. “Have you ever been anything else, Dinny? That’s why I want you to sit. Permanence of the type.”

“What type?” said Lady Mont. “Don’t be a type, Dinny; they’re so dull. There was a man said Michael was a type; I never could see it.”

“Why don’t you get Aunt Em to sit instead, Uncle? She’s younger than I am any day, aren’t you, Auntie?”

“Don’t be disrespectful. Blore, my Vichy.”

“Uncle, how old is Bobbie?”

“No one really knows. Rising sixty, perhaps. Some day, I suppose, his date will be discovered; but they’ll have to cut a section and tell it from his rings. You’re not thinking of marrying him, are you, Dinny? By the way, Walter’s a widower. Quaker blood somewhere, converted Liberal — inflammable stuff.”

“Dinny takes a lot of wooin’,” said Lady Mont.

“Can I get down, Aunt Em? I want to go to Michael’s.”

“Tell her I’m comin’ to see Kit tomorrow mornin’. I’ve got him a new game called Parliament — they’re animals divided into Parties; they all squeak and roar differently, and behave in the wrong places. The Prime Minister’s a zebra, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s a tiger — striped. Blore, a taxi for Miss Dinny.”

Michael was at the House, but Fleur was in. She reported that Mr. Blythe’s preface had already been sent to Bobbie Ferrar. As for the Bolivians — the Minister was not back, but the Attaché in charge had promised to have an informal talk with Bobbie. He had been so polite that Fleur was unable to say what was in his mind. She doubted if there was anything.

Dinny returned on as many tenterhooks as ever. It all seemed to hinge on Bobbie Ferrar, and he ‘rising’ sixty, so used to everything that he must surely have lost all persuasive flame. But perhaps that was for the best. Emotional appeal might be wrong. Coolness, calculation, the power of hinting at unpleasant consequences, of subtly suggesting advantage, might be what was wanted. She felt, indeed, completely at sea as to what really moved the mind of Authority. Michael, Fleur, Sir Lawrence had spoken from time to time as if they knew, and yet she felt that none of them were really wiser than herself. It all seemed to balance on the knife-edge of mood and temper. She went to bed and had practically no sleep.

One more day like that, and then, as a sailor, whose ship has been in the doldrums, wakes to movement under him, so felt Dinny when at breakfast she opened an unstamped envelope with “Foreign Office” imprinted on it.

“DEAR MISS CHERRELL —

“I handed your brother’s diary to the Home Secretary yesterday afternoon. He promised to read it last night, and I am to see him today at six o’clock. If you will come to the Foreign Office at ten minutes to six, we might go round together.

“Sincerely yours,

“R. FERRAR.”

So! A whole day to get through first! By now ‘Walter’ must have read the diary; had perhaps already made up his mind on the case! With the receipt of that formal note, a feeling of being in conspiracy and pledged to secrecy had come to her. Instinctively she said nothing of it; instinctively wanted to get away from everybody till all was over. This must be like waiting for an operation. She walked out into a fine morning, and wondered where on earth she should go; thought of the National Gallery, and decided that pictures required too much mind given to them; thought of Westminster Abbey and the girl Millicent Pole. Fleur had got her a post as mannequin at Frivolle’s. Why not go there, look at the winter models, and perhaps see that girl again? Rather hateful being shown dresses if you were not going to buy, giving all that trouble for nothing. But if only Hubert were released she would ‘go off the deep end’ and buy a real dress, though it took all her next allowance. Hardening her heart, therefore, she turned in the direction of Bond Street, forded that narrow drifting river, came to Frivolle’s, and went in.

“Yes, Madam”; and she was shown up, and seated on a chair. She sat there with her head a little on one side, smiling and saying pleasant things to the saleswoman; for she remembered one day in a big shop an assistant saying: “You’ve no idea, Moddam, what a difference it makes to us when a customer smiles and takes a little interest. We get so many difficult ladies and — oh! well —” The models were very ‘late,’ very expensive, and mostly, she thought, very unbecoming, in spite of the constant assurance: “This frock would just suit you, Madam, with your figure and colouring.”

Not sure whether to ask after her would harm or benefit the girl Millicent Pole, she selected two dresses for parade. A very thin girl, haughty, with a neat little head and large shoulder blades came wearing the first, a creation in black and white; she languished across with a hand on where one hip should have been, and her head turned as if looking for the other, confirming Dinny in the aversion she already had from the dress. Then, in the second dress, of sea green and silver, the one that she really liked except for its price, came Millicent Pole. With professional negligence she took no glance at the client, as who should say: “What do you think! If you lived in underclothes all day — and had so many husbands to avoid!” Then, in turning, she caught Dinny’s smile, answered it with a sudden startled brightness, and moved across again, languid as ever. Dinny got up, and going over to that figure now standing very still, took a fold of the skirt between finger and thumb, as if to feel its quality.

“Nice to see you again.”

The girl’s loose flower-like mouth smiled very sweetly. ‘She’s marvellous!’ thought Dinny.

“I know Miss Pole,” she said to the saleswoman. “That dress looks awfully nice on her.”

“Oh! but Madam, it’s your style completely. Miss Pole has a little too much line for it. Let me slip it on you.”

Not sure that she had been complimented, Dinny said:

“I shan’t be able to decide today; I’m not sure I can afford it.”

“That is quite all right, Madam. Miss Pole, just come in here and slip it off, and we’ll slip it on Madam.”

In there the girl slipped it off. ‘Even more marvellous,’ thought Dinny: ‘Wish I looked as nice as that in undies,’ and suffered her own dress to be removed.

“Madam is beautifully slim,” said the saleswoman.

“Thin as a rail!”

“Oh, no, Madam is well covered.”

“I think she’s just right!” The girl spoke with a sort of eagerness. “Madam has style.”

The saleswoman fastened the hook.

“Perfect,” she said. “A little fullness here, perhaps; we can put that right.”

“Rather a lot of my skin,” murmured Dinny.

“Oh! But so becoming, with a skin like Madam’s.”

“Would you let me see Miss Pole in that other frock — the black and white?”

This she said, knowing that the girl could not be sent to fetch it in her underclothes.

“Certainly; I’ll get it at once. Attend to Madam, Miss Pole.”

Left to themselves, the two girls stood smiling at each other.

“How do you like it now you’ve got it, Millie?”

“Well, it isn’t all I thought, Miss.”

“Empty?”

“I expect nothing’s what you think it. Might be a lot worse, of course.”

“It was you I came in to see.”

“Did you reely? But I hope you’ll have the dress, Miss — suits you a treat. You look lovely in it.”

“They’ll be putting you in the sales department, Millie, if you don’t look out.”

“Oh! I wouldn’t go there. It’s nothing but a lot of soft sawder.”

“Where do I unhook?”

“Here. It’s very economic — only one. And you can do it for yourself, with a wriggle. I read about your brother, Miss. I do think that’s a shame.”

“Yes,” said Dinny, and stood stony in her underclothes. Suddenly she stretched out her hand and gripped the girl’s. “Good luck, Millie!”

“And good luck to you, Miss!”

They had just unclasped hands when the saleswoman came back.

“I’m so sorry to have bothered you,” smiled Dinny, “but I’ve quite made up my mind to have this one, if I can afford it. The price is appalling.”

“Do you think so, Madam? It’s a Paris model. I’ll see if I can get Mr. Better to do what he can for YOU— it’s YOUR frock. Miss Pole, find Mr. Better for me, will you?”

The girl, now in the black and white creation, went out.

Dinny, who had resumed her dress, said:

“Do your mannequins stay long with you?”

“Well, no; in and out of dresses all day, it’s rather a restless occupation.”

“What becomes of them?”

“In one way or another they get married.”

How discreet! And soon after, Mr. Better — a slim man with grey hair and perfect manners — having said he would reduce the price ‘for Madam’ to what still seemed appalling, Dinny went out into the pale November sunlight saying she would decide tomorrow. Six hours to kill. She walked North-East towards the Meads, trying to soothe her own anxiety by thinking that everyone she passed, no matter how they looked, had anxieties of their own. Seven million people, in one way of another all anxious. Some of them seemed so, and some did not. She gazed at her own face in a shop window, and decided that she was one of those who did not; and yet how horrid she felt! The human face was a mask, indeed! She came to Oxford Street and halted on the edge of the pavement, waiting to cross. Close to her was the bony white-nosed head of a van horse. She began stroking its neck, wishing she had a lump of sugar. The horse paid no attention, nor did its driver. Why should they? From year’s end to year’s end they passed and halted, halted and passed through this maelstrom, slowly, ploddingly, without hope of release, till they both fell down and were cleared away. A policeman reversed the direction of his white sleeves, the driver jerked his reins, and the van moved on, followed by a long line of motor vehicles. The policeman again reversed his sleeves and Dinny crossed, walked on to Tottenham Court Road, and once more stood waiting. What a seething and intricate pattern of creatures, and their cars, moving to what end, fulfilling what secret purpose? To what did it all amount? A meal, a smoke, a glimpse of so-called life in some picture palace, a bed at the end of the day. A million jobs faithfully and unfaithfully pursued, that they might eat, and dream a little, and sleep, and begin again. The inexorability of life caught her by the throat as she stood there, so that she gave a little gasp, and a stout man said:

“Beg pardon, did I tread on your foot, Miss?”

As she was smiling her ‘No,’ a policeman reversed his white sleeves, and she crossed. She came to Gower Street, and walked rapidly up its singular desolation. ‘One more ribber, one more ribber to cross,’ and she was in the Meads, that network of mean streets, gutters, and child life. At the Vicarage both her Uncle and Aunt for once were in, and about to lunch. Dinny sat down, too. She did not shrink from discussing the coming ‘operation’ with them. They lived so in the middle of operations. Hilary said:

“Old Tasburgh and I got Bentworth to speak to the Home Secretary, and I had this note from ‘the Squire’ last night. ‘All Walter would say was that he should treat the case strictly on its merits without reference to what he called your nephew’s status — what a word! I always said the fellow ought to have stayed Liberal.’”

“I wish he WOULD treat it on its merits!” cried Dinny; “then Hubert would be safe. I do hate that truckling to what they call Democracy! He’d give a cabman the benefit of the doubt.”

“It’s the reaction from the old times, Dinny, and gone too far, as reaction always does. When I was a boy there was still truth in the accusation of privilege. Now, it’s the other way on; station in life is a handicap before the Law. But nothing’s harder than to steer in the middle of the stream — you want to be fair, and you can’t.”

“I was wondering, Uncle, as I came along. What was the use of you and Hubert and Dad and Uncle Adrian, and tons of others doing their jobs faithfully — apart from bread and butter, I mean?”

“Ask your Aunt,” said Hilary.

“Aunt May, what IS the use?”

“I don’t know, Dinny. I was bred up to believe there was a use in it, so I go on believing. If you married and had a family, you probably wouldn’t ask the question.”

“I knew Aunt May would get out of answering. Now, Uncle?”

“Well, Dinny, I don’t know either. As she says, we do what we’re used to doing; that’s about it.”

“In his diary Hubert says that consideration for others is really consideration for ourselves. Is that true?”

“Rather a crude way of putting it. I should prefer to say that we’re all so interdependent that in order to look after oneself one’s got to look after others no less.”

“But is one worth looking after?”

“You mean: is life worth while at all?”

“Yes.”

“After five hundred thousand years (Adrian says a million at least) of human life, the population of the world is very considerably larger than it has ever been yet. Well, then! Considering all the miseries and struggles of mankind, would human life, self-conscious as it is, have persisted if it wasn’t worth while to be alive?”

“I suppose not,” mused Dinny; “I think in London one loses the sense of proportion.”

At this moment a maid came in.

“Mr. Cameron to see you, Sir.”

“Show him in, Lucy. He’ll help you to regain it, Dinny. A walking proof of the unquenchable love of life, had every malady under the sun, including black-water, been in three wars, two earthquakes, had all kinds of jobs in all parts of the world, is out of one now, and has heart disease.”

Mr. Cameron entered; a short spare man getting on for fifty, with bright Celtic grey eyes, dark grizzled hair, and a slightly hooked nose. One of his hands was bound up, as if he had sprained a thumb.

“Hallo, Cameron,” said Hilary, rising. “In the wars again?”

“Well, Vicar, where I live, the way some of those fellows treat horses is dreadful. I had a fight yesterday. Flogging a willing horse, overloaded, poor old feller — never can stand that.”

“I hope you gave him beans!”

Mr. Cameron’s eyes twinkled.

“Well, I tapped his claret, and sprained my thumb. But I called to tell you, Sir, that I’ve got a job on the Vestry. It’s not much, but it’ll keep me going.”

“Splendid! Look here, Cameron, I’m awfully sorry, but Mrs. Cherrell and I have to go to a Meeting now. Stay and have a cup of coffee and talk to my niece. Tell her about Brazil.”

Mr. Cameron looked at Dinny. He had a charming smile.

The next hour went quickly and did her good. Mr. Cameron had a fine flow. He gave her practically his life story, from boyhood in Australia, and enlistment at sixteen for the South African war, to his experiences since the Great War. Every kind of insect and germ had lodged in him in his time; he had handled horses, Chinamen, Kaffirs, and Brazilians, broken collar-bone and leg, been gassed and shell-shocked, but there was — he carefully explained — nothing wrong with him now but “a touch of this heart disease.” His face had a kind of inner light, and his speech betrayed no consciousness that he was out of the common. He was, at the moment, the best antidote Dinny could have taken, and she prolonged him to his limit. When he had gone she herself went away into the medley of the streets with a fresh eye. It was now half-past three, and she had two hours and a half still to put away. She walked towards Regent’s Park. Few leaves were left upon the trees, and there was a savour in the air from bonfires of them burning; through their bluish drift she passed, thinking of Mr. Cameron, and resisting melancholy. What a life to have lived! And what a zest at the end of it! From beside the Long Water in the last of the pale sunlight, she came out into Marylebone, and bethought herself that before she went to the Foreign Office she must go where she could titivate. She chose Harridge’s and went in. It was half-past four. The stalls were thronged; she wandered among them, bought a new powder-puff, had some tea, made herself tidy, and emerged. Still a good half-hour, and she walked again, though by now she was tired. At a quarter to six precisely she gave her card to a commissionaire at the Foreign Office, and was shown into a waiting-room. It was lacking in mirrors, and taking out her case she looked at herself in its little powder-flecked round of glass. She seemed plain to herself and wished that she didn’t; though, after all, she was not going to see ‘Walter’— only to sit in the background, and wait again. Always waiting!

“Miss Cherrell!”

There was Bobbie Ferrar in the doorway. He looked just as usual. But of course he didn’t care. Why should he?

He tapped his breast pocket. “I’ve got the preface. Shall we trot? And he proceeded to talk of the Chingford murder. Had she been following it? She had not. It was a clear case — completely! And he added, suddenly:

“The Bolivian won’t take the responsibility, Miss Cherrell.”

“Oh!”

“Never mind.” And his face broadened.

‘His teeth ARE real,’ thought Dinny, ‘I can see some gold filling.’

They reached the Home Office and went in. Up some wide stairs, down a corridor, into a large and empty room, with a fire at the end, their guide took them. Bobbie Ferrar drew a chair up to the table.

“‘The Graphic’ or this?” and he took from his side pocket a small volume.

“Both, please,” said Dinny, wanly. He placed them before her. ‘This’ was a little flat red edition of some War Poems.

“It’s a first,” said Bobbie Ferrar; “I picked it up after lunch.”

“Yes,” said Dinny, and sat down.

An inner door was opened, and a head put in.

“Mr. Ferrar, the Home Secretary will see you.”

Bobbie Ferrar turned on her a look, muttered between his teeth: “Cheer up!” and moved squarely away.

In that great waiting-room never in her life had she felt so alone, so glad to be alone, or so dreaded the end of loneliness. She opened the little volume and read:

“He eyed a neat framed notice there
Above the fireplace hung to show
Disabled heroes where to go
For arms and legs, with scale of price,
And words of dignified advice
How officers could get them free —
Elbow or shoulder, hip or knee.
Two arms, two legs, though all were lost,
They’d be restored him free of cost.

Then a girl guide looked in and said . . .”

The fire crackled suddenly and spat out a spark. Dinny saw it die on the hearthrug, with regret. She read more poems, but did not take them in, and, closing the little book, opened ‘The Graphic.’ Having turned its pages from end to end she could not have mentioned the subject of any single picture. The sinking feeling beneath her heart absorbed every object she looked upon. She wondered if it were worse to wait for an operation on oneself or on someone loved; and decided that the latter must be worse. Hours seemed to have passed; how long had he really been gone? Only half-past six! Pushing her chair back, she got up. On the walls were the effigies of Victorian statesmen, and she roamed from one to the other; but they might all have been the same statesman, with his whiskers at different stages of development. She went back to her seat, drew her chair close in to the table, rested her elbows on it, and her chin on her hands, drawing little comfort from that cramped posture. Thank Heaven! Hubert didn’t know his fate was being decided, and was not going through this awful waiting. She thought of Jean and Alan, and with all her heart hoped that they were ready for the worst. For with each minute the worst seemed more and more certain. A sort of numbness began creeping over her. He would never come back — never, never! And she hoped he wouldn’t, bringing the death-warrant. At last she laid her arms flat on the table, and rested her forehead on them. How long she had stayed in that curious torpor she knew not, before the sound of a throat being cleared roused her, and she started back.

Not Bobbie Ferrar, but a tall man with a reddish, clean-shaven face and silver hair brushed in a cockscomb off his forehead, was standing before the fire with his legs slightly apart and his hands under his coat tails; he was staring at her with very wide-opened light grey eyes, and his lips were just apart as if he were about to emit a remark. Dinny was too startled to rise, and she sat staring back at him.

“Miss Cherrell! Don’t get up.” He lifted a restraining hand from beneath a coat-tail. Dinny stayed seated — only too glad to, for she had begun to tremble violently.

“Ferrar tells me that you edited your brother’s diary?”

Dinny bowed her head. Take deep breaths!

“As printed, is it in its original condition?”

“Yes.”

“Exactly?”

“Yes. I haven’t altered or left out a thing.”

Staring at his face she could see nothing but the round brightness of the eyes and the slight superior prominence of the lower lip. It was almost like staring at God. She shivered at the queerness of the thought and her lips formed a little desperate smile.

“I have a question to ask you, Miss Cherrell.”

Dinny uttered a little sighing: “Yes.”

“How much of this diary was written since your brother came back?”

She stared; then the implication in the question stung her.

“None! Oh, none! It was all written out there at the time.” And she rose to her feet.

“May I ask how you know that?”

“My brother —” Only then did she realise that throughout she had nothing but Hubert’s word —“my brother told me so.”

“His word is gospel to you?”

She retained enough sense of humour not to ‘draw herself up,’ but her head tilted.

“Gospel. My brother is a soldier and —”

She stopped short, and, watching that superior lower lip, hated herself for using that cliché.

“No doubt, no doubt! But you realise, of course, the importance of the point?”

“There is the original —” stammered Dinny. Oh! Why hadn’t she brought it! “It shows clearly — I mean, it’s all messy and stained. You can see it at any time. Shall —?”

He again put out a restraining hand.

“Never mind that. Very devoted to your brother, Miss Cherrell?”

Dinny’s lips quivered.

“Absolutely. We all are.”

“He’s just married, I hear?”

“Yes, just married.”

“Your brother wounded in the war?”

“Yes. He had a bullet through his left leg.”

“Neither arm touched?”

Again that sting!

“No!” The little word came out like a shot fired. And they stood looking at each other half a minute — a minute; words of appeal, of resentment, incoherent words were surging to her lips, but she kept them closed; she put her hand over them. He nodded.

“Thank you, Miss Cherrell. Thank you.” His head went a little to one side; he turned, and rather as if carrying that head on a charger, walked to the inner door. When he had passed through, Dinny covered her face with her hands. What had she done? Antagonised him? She ran her hands down over her face, over her body, and stood with them clenched at her sides, staring at the door through which he had passed, quivering from head to foot. A minute passed. The door was opened again, and Bobbie Ferrar came in. She saw his teeth. He nodded, shut the door, and said:

“It’s all right.”

Dinny spun round to the window. Dark had fallen, and if it hadn’t, she couldn’t have seen. All right! All right! She dashed her knuckles across her eyes, turned round, and held out both hands, without seeing where to hold them.

They were not taken, but his voice said:

“I’m very happy.”

“I thought I’d spoiled it.”

She saw his eyes then, round as a puppy dog’s.

“If he hadn’t made up his mind already he wouldn’t have seen you, Miss Cherrell. He’s not as case-hardened as all that. As a matter of fact, he’d seen the Magistrate about it at lunch time — that helped a lot.”

‘Then I had all that agony for nothing,’ thought Dinny.

“Did he have to see the preface, Mr. Ferrar?”

“No, and just as well — it might have worked the other way. We really owe it to the Magistrate. But you made a good impression on him. He said you were transparent.”

“Oh!”

Bobbie Ferrar took the little red book from the table, looked at it lovingly, and placed it in his pocket. “Shall we go?”

In Whitehall Dinny took a breath so deep that the whole November dusk seemed to pass into her with the sensation of a long, and desperately wanted drink.

“A Post Office!” she said. “He couldn’t change his mind, could he?”

“I have his word. Your brother will be released to-night.”

“Oh! Mr. Ferrar!” Tears suddenly came out of her eyes. She turned away to hide them, and when she turned back to him, he was not there.

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