Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 15

Time has been compared with a stream, but it differs — you cannot cross it, grey and even-flowing, wide as the world itself, having neither ford nor bridge; and though, according to philosophers, it may flow both up and down, the calendar as yet follows it but one way.

November, then, became December, but December did not become November. Except for a cold snap or two the weather remained mild. Unemployment decreased; the adverse balance of trade increased; seven foxes escaped for every one killed; the papers fluttered from the storms in their tea-cups; a great deal of income tax was paid; still more was not; the question: “Why has prosperity gone to pot?” continued to bewilder every mind; the pound went up, the pound went down. In short, time flowed, but the conundrum of existence remained unsolved.

At Condaford the bakery scheme was dropped. Every penny that could be raised was to be put into pigs, poultry and potatoes. Sir Lawrence and Michael were now deep in the ‘Three P. Plan,’ and Dinny had become infected. She and the General spent all their days preparing for the millennium which would follow its adoption. Eustace Dornford had expressed his adherence to the proposition. Figures had been prepared to show that in ten years one hundred millions a year could be knocked off Britain’s purchasing bill by graduated prohibition of the import of these three articles of food, without increasing the cost of living. With a little organisation, a fractional change in the nature of the Briton, and the increase of wheat offals, the thing was as good as done. In the meantime, the General borrowed slightly on his life assurance policy and paid his taxes.

The new Member, visiting his constituency, spent Christmas at Condaford, talking almost exclusively of pigs, instinct telling him that they were just then the surest line of approach to Dinny’s heart. Clare, too, spent Christmas at home. How, apart from secretarial duties, she had spent the intervening time, was tacitly assumed. No letter had come from Jerry Corven, but it was known from the papers that he was back in Ceylon. During the days between Christmas and the New Year the habitable part of the old house was full: Hilary, his wife, and their daughter Monica; Adrian and Diana, with Sheila and Ronald, now recovered from the measles — no such family gathering had been held for years. Even Sir Lionel and Lady Alison drove down for lunch on New Year’s Eve. With such an overwhelming Conservative majority it was felt that 1932 would be important. Dinny was run off her legs. She gave no sign of it, but had less an air of living in the past. So much was she the party’s life and soul that no one could have told she had any of her own. Dornford gazed at her in speculation. What was behind that untiring cheerful selflessness? He went so far as to ask of Adrian, who seemed to be her favourite.

“This house wouldn’t work without your niece, Mr. Cherrell.”

“It wouldn’t. Dinny’s a wonder.”

“Doesn’t she ever think of herself?”

Adrian looked at him sideways. The pale-brown, rather hollow-cheeked face, with its dark hair, and hazel eyes, was sympathetic; for a lawyer and a politician, he looked sensitive. Inclined, however, to a sheepdog attitude where Dinny was concerned, he answered with caution:

“Why no, no more than reason; indeed, not so much.”

“She looks to me sometimes as if she’d been through something pretty bad.”

Adrian shrugged. “She’s twenty-seven.”

“Would you mind awfully telling me what it was? This isn’t curiosity. I’m — well, I’m in love with her, and terrified of butting in and hurting her through ignorance.”

Adrian took a long gurgling pull at his pipe.

“If you’re in dead earnest —”

“Absolutely dead earnest.”

“It might save her a pang or two. She was terribly in love, the year before last, and it came to a tragic end.”

“Death?”

“No. I can’t tell you the exact story, but the man had done something that placed him, in a sense — or at all events he thought so — outside the pale; and he put an end to their engagement rather than involve Dinny, and went off to the Far East. It was a complete cut. Dinny has never spoken of it since, but I’m afraid she’ll never forget.”

“I see. Thank you very much. You’ve done me a great service.”

“Sorry if it’s hurt,” murmured Adrian; “but better, perhaps, to have one’s eyes open.”

“Much.”

Resuming the tune on his pipe, Adrian stole several glances at his silent neighbour. That averted face wore an expression not exactly dashed or sad, but as if contending deeply with the future. ‘He’s the nearest approach,’ he thought, ‘to what I should like for her — sensitive, quiet, and plucky. But things are always so damnably perverse!’

“She’s very different from her sister,” he said at last.

Dornford smiled.

“Ancient and modern.”

“Clare’s a pretty creature, though.”

“Oh, yes, and lots of qualities.”

“They’ve both got grit. How does she do her work?”

“Very well; quick in the uptak’, good memory, heaps of savoir-faire.”

“Pity she’s in such a position. I don’t know why things went wrong, and I don’t see how they can come right.”

“I’ve never met Corven.”

“Quite nice to meet; but, by the look of him, a streak of cruelty.”

“Dinny says he’s vindictive.”

Adrian nodded. “I should think so. And that’s bad when it comes to divorce. But I hope it won’t — always a dirty business, and probably the wrong person tarred. I don’t remember a divorce in our family.”

“Nor in mine, but we’re Catholics.”

“Judging by your experience in the Courts, should you say English morality is going downhill?”

“No. On the upgrade, if anything.”

“But surely the standard is slacker?”

“People are franker, not quite the same thing.”

“You lawyers and judges, at all events,” said Adrian, “are exceptionally moral men.”

“Oh! Where did you get that from?”

“The papers.”

Dornford laughed.

“Well!” said Adrian, rising. “Let’s have a game of billiards . . . .”

On the Monday after New Year’s Day the party broke up. In the afternoon Dinny lay down on her bed and went to sleep. The grey light failed and darkness filled her room. She dreamed she was on the bank of a river. Wilfrid was holding her hand, pointing to the far side, and saying: “‘One more river, one more river to cross!’” Hand in hand they went down the bank. In the water all became dark! She lost touch of his hand and cried out in terror. Losing her foothold, she drifted, reaching her hands this way and that, and his voice, further and further away, “‘One more river — one more river,’” died to a sigh. She awoke agonised. Through the window opposite was the dark sky, the elm tree brushing at the stars — no sound, no scent, no colour. And she lay quite still, drawing deep breaths to get the better of her anguish. It was long since she had felt Wilfrid so close to her, or been so poignantly bereaved once more.

She got up, and, having bathed her face in cold water, stood at her window looking into the starry dark, still shuddering a little from the vivid misery of her dream. ‘One more river!’

Someone tapped on the door.

“Yes?”

“It’s old Mrs. Purdy, Miss Dinny. They say she’s going fast. The doctor’s there, but —”

“Betty! Does Mother know?”

“Yes, miss, she’s going over.”

“No! I’ll go. Stop her, Annie!”

“Yes, miss. It’s a seizure — nurse sent over to say they can’t do nothing. Will you have the light on, miss?”

“Yes, turn it up.”

Thank God they had managed to put the electric light in, at last!

“Get me this little flask filled with brandy, and put my rubber boots in the hall. I shan’t be two minutes coming down.”

“Yes, miss.”

Slipping on a jersey and cap, and catching up her mole-skin fur coat, she ran downstairs, stopping for a second at her mother’s door to say she was going. Putting on her rubber boots in the hall, and taking the filled flask, she went out. It was groping dark, but not cold for January. The lane was slithery under foot, and, since she had no torch, the half mile took her nearly a quarter of an hour. The doctor’s car, with its lights on, stood outside the cottage. Unlatching the door, Dinny went into the ground-floor room. There was a fire burning, and one candle alight, but the crowded homely space was deserted by all but the goldfinch in its large cage. She opened the thin door that shut the stairs off, and went up. Pushing the feeble top door gently, she stood looking. A lamp was burning on the window-sill opposite, and the low, sagging-ceilinged room had a shadowy radiance. At the foot of the double bed were the doctor and village nurse, talking in low tones. In the window corner Dinny could see the little old husband crouched on a chair, with his hands on his knees and his crumpled, cherry-cheeked face trembling and jerking slightly. The old cottage woman lay humped in the old bed; her face was waxen, and seemed to Dinny to have lost already almost all its wrinkles. A faint stertorous breathing came from her lips. The eyes were not quite closed, but surely were not seeing.

The doctor crossed to the door.

“Opiate,” he said. “I don’t think she’ll recover consciousness. Just as well for the poor old soul! If she does, nurse has another to give her at once. There’s nothing to be done but ease the end.”

“I shall stay,” said Dinny.

The doctor took her hand.

“Happy release. Don’t fret, my dear.”

“Poor old Benjy!” whispered Dinny.

The doctor pressed her hand, and went down the stairs.

Dinny entered the room; the air was close, and she left the door ajar.

“I’ll watch, nurse, if you want to get anything.”

The nurse nodded. In her neat dark blue dress and bonnet she looked, but for a little frown, almost inhumanly impassive. They stood side by side gazing at the old woman’s waxen face.

“Not many like her,” whispered the nurse suddenly. “I’m going to get some things I’ll want — back under the half-hour. Sit down, Miss Cherrell, don’t tire yourself.”

When she had gone Dinny turned and went up to the old husband in the corner.

“Benjy.”

He wobbled his pippin head, rubbing his hands on his knees. Words of comfort refused to come to Dinny. Just touching his shoulder, she went back to the bed and drew up the one hard wooden chair. She sat, silently watching old Betty’s lips, whence issued that faintly stertorous breathing. It seemed to her as if the spirit of a far-off age were dying. There might be other people as old still alive in the village, but they weren’t like old Betty, with her simple sense and thrifty order, her Bible-reading and love of gentry, her pride in her eighty-three years, in the teeth that she ought long since to have parted from, and in her record; with her shrewdness and her way of treating her old husband as if he were her rather difficult son. Poor old Benjy — he was not her equal by any manner of means, but what he would do alone one couldn’t think. Perhaps one of his granddaughters would find room for him. Those two had brought up seven children in the old days when a shilling fortunately went as far as three now, and the village was full of their progeny; but how would they like little old Benjy, still argumentative and fond of a grumble and a glass, ensconced by their more modern hearths? Well, a nook would turn up for him somewhere. He could never live on here, alone. Two old age pensions for two old people made just the difference as against one for one.

‘How I wish I had money!’ she thought. He would not want the goldfinch, anyway. She would take that, and free and feed it in the old greenhouse till it got used to its wings, and then let it go.

The old man cleared his throat in his dim corner. Dinny started and leaned forward. Absorbed in her thoughts, she had not noticed how faint the breathing had become. The pale lips of the old woman were nearly closed now, the wrinkled lids almost fast over the unseeing eyes. No noise was coming from the bed. For a few minutes she sat looking, listening; then passed round to the side and leaned over.

Gone? As if in answer the eyelids flickered; the faintest imaginable smile appeared on the lips, and then, suddenly as a blown-out flame is dark, all was lifeless. Dinny held her breath. It was the first human death she had seen. Her eyes, glued to the old waxen face, saw it settle into its mask of release, watched it being embalmed in that still dignity which marks death off from life. With her finger she smoothed the eyelids.

Death! At its quietest and least harrowing, but yet — death! The old, the universal anodyne; the common lot! In this bed where she had lain nightly for over fifty years under the low, sagged ceiling, a great little old lady had passed. Of what was called ‘birth,’ of position, wealth, and power, she had none. No plumbing had come her way, no learning, and no fashion. She had borne children, nursed, fed, and washed them, sewn, cooked, and swept, eaten little, travelled not at all in all her years, suffered much pain, never known the ease of superfluity; but her back had been straight, her ways straight, her eyes quiet, and her manners gentle. If she were not the ‘great lady,’ who was?

Dinny stood, with her head bowed, feeling this to the very marrow of her soul. Old Benjy in that dim corner cleared his throat again. She started, and, trembling a little, went over to him.

“Go and look at her, Benjy; she’s asleep.”

She put her hand under his elbow to help the action of his stiffened knees. At his full height he was only up to her shoulder, a little dried-up pippin of a man. She kept at his side, moving across the room.

Together they looked down at the forehead and cheeks, slowly uncreasing in the queer beauty of death. The little old husband’s face went crimson and puffy, like that of a child who had lost its doll; he said in a sort of angered squeak:

“Eh! She’m not asleep. She’m gone. She won’t never speak agen. Look! She an’t Mother no more! Where’s that nurse? She didn’ ought to ‘ave left ‘er —”

“H’ssh! Benjy!”

“But she’m dead. What’ll I do?”

He turned his withered apple face up to Dinny, and there came from him an unwashed odour, as of grief and snuff and old potatoes.

“Can’t stop ’ere,” he said, “with Mother like that. ‘Tain’t nateral.”

“No; go downstairs and smoke your pipe, and tell nurse when she comes.”

“Tell ‘er; I’ll tell ‘er — shoulden never ‘ave left ‘er. Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh, dear!”

Putting her hand on his shoulders, Dinny guided him to the stairway, and watched him stumbling and groping and grieving his way down. Then she went back to the bed. The smoothed-out face had an uncanny attraction for her. With every minute that passed it seemed the more to proclaim superiority. Almost triumphant it was, as she gazed, in its slow, sweet relaxation after age and pain; character revealed in the mould of that brief interval between torturing life and corrupting death. ‘Good as gold!’ Those were the words they should grave on the humble stone they would put over her. Wherever she was now, or whether, indeed, she was anywhere, did not matter. She had done her bit. Betty!

She was still standing there gazing when the nurse came back.

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