Maid in Waiting, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 6

Her luck held, and she flushed her third Uncle contemplating his own house in Mount Street, as if he were about to make an offer for it.

“Ah! Dinny, come along; your Aunt’s moulting, and she’ll be glad to see you. I miss old Forsyte,” he added in the hall. “I was just considering what I ought to ask for this house if we let it next season. You didn’t know old Forsyte — Fleur’s father: he was a character.”

“What is the matter with Aunt Em, Uncle Lawrence?”

“Nothing, my dear. I think the sight of poor old Uncle ‘Cuffs’ has made her dwell on the future. Ever dwell on the future, Dinny? It’s a dismal period, after a certain age.”

He opened a door.

“My dear, here’s Dinny.”

Emily, Lady Mont, was standing in her panelled drawing-room flicking a feather brush over a bit of Famille Verte, with her parakeet perched on her shoulder. She lowered the brush, advanced with a far-away look in her eyes, said “Mind, Polly,” and kissed her niece. The parakeet transferred itself to Dinny’s shoulder and bent its head round enquiringly to look in her face.

“He’s such a dear,” said Lady Mont; “you won’t mind if he tweaks your ear? I’m so glad you came, Dinny; I’ve been so thinking of funerals. Do tell me your idea about the hereafter.”

“Is there one, Auntie?”

“Dinny! That’s so depressing.”

“Perhaps those who want one have it.”

“You’re like Michael. He’s so mental. Where did you pick Dinny up, Lawrence?”

“In the street.”

“That sounds improper. How is your father, Dinny? I hope he isn’t any the worse for that dreadful house at Porthminster. It did so smell of preserved mice.”

“We’re all very worried about Hubert, Aunt Em.”

“Ah! Hubert, yes. You know, I think he made a mistake to flog those men. Shootin’ them one can quite understand, but floggin’ is so physical and like the old Duke.”

“Don’t you feel inclined to flog carters when they lash overloaded horses up-hill, Auntie?”

“Yes, I do. Was that what they were doin’?”

“Practically, only worse. They used to twist the mules’ tails and stick their knives into them, and generally play hell with the poor brutes.”

“Did they? I’m so glad he flogged them; though I’ve never liked mules ever since we went up the Gemmi. Do you remember, Lawrence?”

Sir Lawrence nodded. On his face was the look, affectionate but quizzical, which Dinny always connected with Aunt Em.

“Why, Auntie?”

“They rolled on me; not they exactly, but the one I was ridin’. They tell me it’s the only time a mule has ever rolled on anybody — surefooted.”

“Dreadful taste, Auntie!”

“Yes; and most unpleasant — so internal. Do you think Hubert would like to come and shoot partridges at Lippinghall next week?’

“I don’t think you could get Hubert to go anywhere just now. He’s got a terrible hump. But if you have a cubby-hole left for me, could I come?”

“Of course. There’ll be plenty of room. Let’s see: just Charlie Muskham and his new wife, Mr. Bentworth and Hen, Michael and Fleur, and Diana Ferse, and perhaps Adrian because he doesn’t shoot, and your Aunt Wilmet. Oh! ah! And Lord Saxenden.”

“What!” cried Dinny.

“Why? Isn’t he respectable?”

“But, Auntie — that’s perfect! He’s my objective.”

“What a dreadful word; I never heard it called that before. Besides, there’s a Lady Saxenden, on her back somewhere.”

“No, no, Aunt Em. I want to get at him about Hubert. Father says he’s the nod.”

“Dinny, you and Michael use the oddest expressions. What nod?”

Sir Lawrence broke the petrified silence he usually observed in the presence of his wife.

“Dinny means, my dear, that Saxenden is a big noise behind the scenes in military matters.”

“What is he like, Uncle Lawrence?”

“Snubby? I’ve known him many years — quite a lad.”

“This is very agitatin’,” said Lady Mont, resuming the parakeet.

“Dear Auntie, I’m quite safe.”

“But is Lord — er — Snubby? I’ve always tried to keep Lippin’hall respectable. I’m very doubtful about Adrian as it is, but”— she placed the parakeet on the mantelpiece —“he’s my favourite brother. For a favourite brother one does things.”

“One does,” said Dinny.

“That’ll be all right, Em,” put in Sir Lawrence. “I’ll watch over Dinny and Diana, and you can watch over Adrian and Snubby.”

“Your uncle gets more frivolous every year, Dinny; he tells me the most dreadful stories.” She stood still alongside Sir Lawrence and he put his hand through her arm.

Dinny thought: ‘The Red King and the White Queen.’

“Well, good-bye, Dinny,” said her Aunt, suddenly; “I have to go to bed. My Swedish masseuse is takin’ me off three times a week. I really am reducin’.” Her eyes roved over Dinny: “I wonder if she could put you on a bit!”

“I’m fatter than I look, Auntie.”

“So am I— it’s distressin’. If your uncle wasn’t a hop-pole I shouldn’t mind so much.” She inclined her cheek, and Dinny gave it a smacking kiss.

“What a nice kiss!” said Lady Mont. “I haven’t had a kiss like that for years. People do peck so! Come, Polly!” and, with the parakeet upon her shoulder, she swayed away.

“Aunt Em looks awfully well.”

“She is, my dear. It’s her mania — getting stout; she fights it tooth and nail. We live on the most variegated cookery. It’s better at Lippinghall, because Augustine leads us by the nose, and she’s as French as she was thirty-five years ago when we brought her back from our honeymoon. Cooks like a bird, still. Fortunately nothing makes me fat.”

“Aunt Em isn’t fat.”

“M-no.”

“And she carries herself beautifully. We don’t carry ourselves like that.”

“Carriage went out with Edward,” said Sir Lawrence; “it was succeeded by the lope. All you young women lope as if you were about to spring on to something and make a get-away. I’ve been trying to foresee what will come next. Logically it should be the bound, but it may quite well revert and be the languish.”

“What sort of man is Lord Saxenden, really, Uncle Lawrence?”

“One of those who won the war by never having his opinion taken. You know the sort of thing: ‘Went down for week-end to Cooquers. The Capers were there, and Gwen Blandish; she was in force and had much to say about the Polish front. I had more. Talked with Capers; he thinks the Boches have had enough. I disagreed with him; he is very down on Lord T. Arthur Prose came over on Sunday; he estimates that the Russians now have two million rifles but no bullets. The war, he says, will be over by January. He is appalled by our losses. If he only knew what I know! Lady Thripp was there with her son, who has lost his left foot. She is most engaging; promised to go and see her hospital and tell her how to run it. Very pleasant dinner on Sunday — everybody in great form; we played at comfits. Alick came in after; he says we lost forty thousand men in the last attack, but the French lost more. I expressed the opinion that it was very serious. No one took it.’”

Dinny laughed. “Were there such people?”

“Were there not, my dear! Most valuable fellows; what we should have done without them — the way they kept their ends up and their courage and their conversation — the thing had to be seen to be believed. And almost all of them won the war. Saxenden was especially responsible. He had an active job all the time.”

“What job?”

“Being in the know. He was probably more in the know than anybody else on earth, judging by what he says. Remarkable constitution, too, and lets you see it: great yachtsman.”

“I shall look forward to him.”

“Snubby,” sighed her uncle, “is one of those persons at whom it is better to look back. Would you like to stay the night, Dinny, or are you going home?”

“Oh, I must go back to-night. My train’s at eight from Paddington.”

“In that case I’ll lope you across the Park, give you a snack at Paddington, and put you into the train.”

“Oh! don’t bother about me, Uncle Lawrence.”

“Let you cross the Park without me, and miss the chance of being arrested for walking with a young female! Never! We might even sit, and try our luck. You’re just the type that gets the aged into trouble. There’s something Botticellian about you, Dinny. Come along.”

It was seven o’clock of the September evening when they debouched into Hyde Park, and, passing under the plane trees, walked on its withered grass.

“Too early,” said Sir Lawrence, “owing to Daylight Saving. Indecorum isn’t billed till eight. I doubt if it will be any use to sit, Dinny. Can you tell a disguised copper when you see him? It’s very necessary. The bowler hat — for fear of being hit on the head too suddenly; they always fall off in books; tendency to look as if he weren’t a copper; touch of efficiency about the mouth — they complete their teeth in the force; eyes a trifle on the ground when they’re not on you; the main man dwelling a little on both feet, and looking as if he had been measured for something. Boots of course — proverbial.”

Dinny gurgled.

“I tell you what we might do, Uncle Lawrence. Stage an accost. There’ll be a policeman at the Paddington Gate. I’ll loiter a little, and accost you as you come up. What ought I to say?”

Sir Lawrence wrinkled up an eyebrow.

“So far as I can recollect, something like: ‘How do, ducky? Your night out?’”

“I’ll go on, then, and let that off on you under the policeman’s nose.”

“He’d see through it, Dinny.”

“You’re trying to back out.”

“Well, no one has taken a proposition of mine seriously for so long. Besides, ‘Life is real, life is earnest, and the end is not the gaol’!”

“I’m disappointed in you, Uncle.”

“I’m used to that, my dear. Wait till you’re grave and reverend, and see how continually you will disappoint youth.”

“But think: we could have whole columns of the newspapers devoted to us for days. ‘Paddington Gate accosting incident: Alleged Uncle.’ Don’t you hanker to be an alleged uncle and supersede the affairs of Europe? Don’t you even want to get the Police into trouble? Uncle, it’s pusillanimous.”

“Soit!” said Sir Lawrence: “One uncle in the Police Court per day is enough. You’re more dangerous than I thought, Dinny.”

“But, really, why should those girls be arrested? That all belongs to the past, when women WERE under-dogs.”

“I am entirely of your way of thinking, Dinny, but the Nonconformist conscience is still with us, and the Police must have something to do. Without adding to unemployment it’s impossible to reduce their numbers. And an idle police force is dangerous to cooks.”

“Do be serious, Uncle!”

“Not that, my dear! Whatever else life holds for us — not that! But I do foresee the age when we shall all be free to accost each other, limited only by common civility. Instead of the present Vulgate, there will be revised versions for men and women. ‘Madam, will you walk?’ ‘Sir, do you desire my company?’ It will be an age not perhaps of gold, but at least of glitter. This is Paddington Gate. Could you have had the heart to spoof that noble-looking copper? Come along, let’s cross.”

“Your Aunt,” he resumed, as they entered Paddington Station, “won’t rise again, so I’ll dine with you in the buffet. We’ll have a spot of the ‘boy,’ and for the rest, if I know our railway stations, oxtail soup, white fish, roast beef, greens, browned potatoes, and plum tart — all good, if somewhat English.”

“Uncle Lawrence,” said Dinny, when they had reached the roast beef, “what do YOU think of Americans?”

“No patriotic man, Dinny, speaks the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, on that subject. Americans, however, like Englishmen, may be divided into two classes — Americans and Americans. In other words, some are nice and some are nasty.”

“Why don’t we get on better with them?”

“That’s an easy one. The nasty English don’t get on better with them because they have more money than we have. The nice English don’t get on as well as they ought with them, because Americans are so responsive and the tone of the American voice is not pleasing to the English ear. Or take it the other way round. The nasty Americans don’t get on well with the English because the tone of the English voice is unpleasing to them. The nice Americans don’t get on as well with us as they should, because we’re so unresponsive and sniffy.”

“Don’t you think they want to have things their own way too much?”

“So do we. It isn’t that. It’s manner, my dear, that divides us, manner and language.”

“How?”

“Having what used to be the same language is undoubtedly a snare. We must hope for such a development of the American lingo as will necessitate our both learning each other’s.”

“But we always talk about the link of a common tongue.”

“Why this curiosity about Americans?”

“I’m to meet Professor Hallorsen on Monday.”

“The Bolivian bloke. A word of advice then, Dinny: Let him be in the right, and he’ll feed out of your hand. Put him in the wrong, and you’ll not feed out of his.”

“Oh! I mean to keep my temper.”

“Keep your left up, and don’t rush in. Now, if you’ve finished, my dear, we ought to go; it’s five minutes to eight.”

He put her into her carriage and supplied her with an evening paper. As the train moved out, he added:

“Give him the Botticellian eye, Dinny. Give him the Botticellian eye!”

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