Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 17

Though Dinny had no expert knowledge of pictures, she had, with Wilfrid, made an intensive examination of such as were on permanent show in London. She had also enjoyed extremely the Italian Exhibition of 1930. It was, therefore, natural to accept her Uncle Adrian’s invitation to accompany him to the French Exhibition of 1932. After a syncopated lunch in Piccadilly they passed through the turnstile at one o’clock on January the 22nd, and took stand before the Primitives. Quite a number of people were emulating their attempt to avoid the crowd, so that their progress was slow, and it was an hour before they had reached the Watteaus.

“‘Gilles,’” said Adrian, resting one leg; “that strikes me as about the best picture yet, Dinny. It’s queer — when a genre painter of the decorative school gets hold of a subject or a type that grips him, how thoroughly he’ll stir you up. Look at the pierrot’s face — what a brooding, fateful, hiding-up expression! There’s the public performer, with the private life, incarnate!”

Dinny remained silent.

“Well, young woman?”

“I was wondering whether art was so conscious. Don’t you think he just wanted to paint that white dress, and his model did the rest? It’s a marvellous expression, but perhaps he had it. People do.”

Adrian noted her face with the tail of his eye. Yes! People did. Paint her in repose, render her when she wasn’t aware of how she was looking, of keeping her end up, or whatever you might call it, and wouldn’t you have a face that stirred you with all that lay behind it? Art was unsatisfactory. When it gave you the spirit, distilled the essence, it didn’t seem real; and when it gave you the gross, cross-currented, contradictory surface, it didn’t seem worth while. Attitudes, fleeting expressions, tricks of light — all by way of being ‘real,’ and nothing revealed! He said suddenly:

“Great books and portraits are so dashed rare, because artists won’t high-light the essential, or if they do, they overdo it.”

“I don’t see how that applies to this picture, Uncle. It’s not a portrait, it’s a dramatic moment and a white dress.”

“Perhaps! All the same, if I could paint you, Dinny, as you truly are, people would say you weren’t real.”

“How fortunate!”

“Most people can’t even imagine you.”

“Forgive imperence, Uncle, but — can YOU?”

Adrian wrinkled up his goatee.

“I like to think so.”

“Oh, look! There’s the Boucher Pompadour!”

After two minutes in front of its expanse Adrian continued:

“Well, for a man who preferred it nude, he could paint what covers the female body pretty well, couldn’t he?”

“Maintenon and Pompadour. I always get them mixed.”

“The Maintenon wore blue stockings, and ministered to Louis the XIVth.”

“Oh, yes! Let’s go straight from here to the Manets, Uncle.”

“Why?”

“I don’t think I shall last much longer.”

Adrian, glancing round, suddenly saw why. In front of the Gilles were standing Clare and a young man whom he did not know. He put his arm through Dinny’s and they passed into the next room but one.

“I noticed your discretion,” he murmured, in front of the ‘Boy Blowing Bubbles.’ “Is that young man a snake in the grass, or a worm in the bud, or —?”

“A very nice boy.”

“What’s his name?”

“Tony Croom.”

“Oh! the young man on the ship? Does Clare see much of him?”

“I don’t ask her, Uncle. She is guaranteed to behave for a year”; and, at the cock of Adrian’s eyebrow, added: “She promised Aunt Em.”

“And after the year?”

“I don’t know, nor does she. Aren’t these Manets good?”

They passed slowly through the room and came to the last.

“To think that Gauguin struck me as the cream of eccentricity in 1910,” murmured Adrian; “it shows how things move. I went to that post-impressionist exhibition straight from looking at the Chinese pictures in the B. M. Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh — the last word then, hoary now. Gauguin certainly IS a colourist. But give me the Chinese still. I fear I’m fundamentally of the old order, Dinny.”

“I can see these are good — most of them; but I couldn’t live with them.”

“The French have their uses; no other country can show you the transitions of art so dearly. From the Primitives to Clouet, from Clouet to Poussin and Claude, from them to Watteau and his school, thence to Boucher and Greuze, on to Ingres and Delacroix, to the Barbizon lot, to the Impressionists, to the Post-Impressionists; and always some bloke — Chardin, Lépicié, Fragonard, Manet, Degas, Monet, Cezanne — breaking away or breaking through towards the next.”

“Has there ever before been such a violent break as just lately?”

“There’s never before been such a violent break in the way people look at life; nor such complete confusion in the minds of artists as to what they exist for.”

“And what DO they exist for, Uncle?”

“To give pleasure or reveal truth, or both.”

“I can’t imagine myself enjoying what they enjoy, and — what is truth?”

Adrian turned up his thumbs.

“Dinny, I’m tired as a dog. Let’s slip out.”

Dinny saw her sister and young Croom passing through the archway. She was not sure whether Clare had noticed them, and young Croom was clearly noticing nothing but Clare. She followed Adrian out, in her turn admiring his discretion. But neither of them would admit uneasiness. With whom one went about was now so entirely one’s own business.

They had walked up the Burlington Arcade, when Adrian was suddenly startled by the pallor of her face.

“What’s the matter, Dinny? You look like a ghost!”

“If you don’t mind, Uncle, I’d like a cup of coffee.”

“There’s a place in Bond Street.” Scared by the bloodlessness of her smiling lips, he held her arm firmly till they were seated at a little table round the corner.

“Two coffees — extra strong,” said Adrian, and with that instinctive consideration which caused women and children to confide in him, he made no attempt to gain her confidence.

“Nothing so tiring as picture-gazing. I’m sorry to emulate Em and suspect you of not eating enough, my dear. That sort of sparrow-pecking we did before going in doesn’t really count.” But colour had come back to her lips.

“I’m very tough, Uncle; but food IS rather a bore.”

“You and I must go a little tour in France. Their grub can move one’s senses if their pictures can’t move one’s spirit.”

“Did you feel THAT?”

“Compared with the Italian — emphatically. It’s all so beautifully thought out. They make their pictures like watches. Perfectly art-conscious and thorough workmen. Unreasonable to ask for more, and yet — perhaps fundamentally unpoetic. And that reminds me, Dinny, I do hope Clare can be kept out of the Divorce Court, for of all unpoetic places that is IT.”

Dinny shook her head.

“I’d rather she got it over. I even think she was wrong to promise. She’s not going to change her mind about Jerry. She’ll be like a bird with one leg. Besides, who thinks the worse of you nowadays!”

Adrian moved uncomfortably.

“I dislike the thought of those hard-boiled fellows playing battledore with my kith and kin. If they were like Dornford — but they aren’t. Seen anything more of him?”

“He was down with us for one night when he had to speak.”

He noticed that she spoke without ‘batting an eyelid,’ as the young men called it nowadays. And, soon after, they parted, Dinny assuring him that she had “come over quite well again.”

He had said that she looked like a ghost; he might better have said she looked as if she had seen one. For, coming out of that Arcade, all her past in Cork Street had come fluttering like some lonely magpie towards her, beaten wings in her face and swerved away. And now, alone, she turned and walked back there. Resolutely she went to the door, climbed the stairs to Wilfrid’s rooms, and rang the bell. Leaning against the window-sill on the landing, she waited with elapsed hands, thinking: ‘I wish I had a muff!” Her hands felt so cold. In old pictures they stood with veils down and their hands in muffs; but ‘the old order changeth,’ and she had none. She was just going away when the door was opened. Stack! In slippers! His glance, dark and prominent as ever, fell to those slippers and his demeanour seemed to stammer.

“Pardon me, miss, I was just going to change ’em.”

Dinny held out her hand, and he took it with his old air, as if about to ‘confess’ her.

“I was passing, and thought I’d like to ask how you were.”

“Fine, thank you, miss! Hope you’ve been keeping well, and the dog?”

“Quite well, both of us. Foch likes the country.”

“Ah! Mr. Desert always thought he was a country dog.”

“Have you any news?”

“Not to say news, miss. I understand from his bank that he’s still in Siam. They forward his letters to their branch in Bangkok. His lordship was here not long ago, and I understood him to say that Mr. Desert was up a river somewhere.”

“A river!”

“The name escapes me, something with a ‘Yi’ in it, and a ‘sang’— was it? I believe it’s very ‘ot there. If I may say so, miss, you haven’t much colour considering the country. I was down home in Barnstaple at Christmas, and it did me a power of good.”

Dinny took his hand again.

“I’m very glad to have seen you, Stack.”

“Come in, miss. You’ll see I keep the room just as it was.”

Dinny followed to the doorway of the sitting-room.

“Exactly the same, Stack; he might almost be there.”

“I like to think so, miss.”

“Perhaps he is,” said Dinny. “They say we have astral bodies. Thank you.” She touched his arm, passed him, and went down the stairs. Her face quivered and was still, and she walked rapidly away.

A river! Her dream! ‘One more river!’

In Bond Street a voice said: “Dinny!” and she turned to see Fleur.

“Whither away, my dear? Haven’t seen you for an age. I’ve just been to the French pictures. Aren’t they divine? I saw Clare there with a young man in tow. Who is he?”

“A shipmate — Tony Croom.”

“More to come?”

Dinny shrugged, and, looking at her trim companion, thought: ‘I wish Fleur didn’t always go so straight to the point.’

“Any money?”

“No. He’s got a job, but it’s very slender — Mr. Muskham’s Arab mares.”

“Oh! Three hundred a year — five at the outside. That’s no good at all. You know, really, she’s making a great mistake. Jerry Corven will go far.”

Dinny said drily: “Further than Clare, anyway.”

“You mean it’s a complete breach?”

Dinny nodded. She had never been so near disliking Fleur.

“Well, Clare’s not like you. She belongs to the new order, or disorder. That’s why it’s a mistake. She’d have a much better time if she stuck to Jerry, nominally at least. I can’t see her poor.”

“She doesn’t care about money,” said Dinny coldly.

“Oh, nonsense! Money’s only being able to do what you want to do. Clare certainly cares about that.”

Dinny, who knew that this was true, said, still more coldly:

“It’s no good to try and explain.”

“My dear, there’s nothing to explain. He’s hurt her in some way, as, of course, he would. That’s no reason in the long run. That perfectly lovely Renoir — the man and woman in the box! Those people lived lives of their own — together. Why shouldn’t Clare?”

“Would you?”

Fleur gave a little shrug of her beautifully fitted shoulders.

“If Michael wasn’t such a dear. Besides — children.” Again she gave that little shrug.

Dinny thawed. “You’re a fraud, Fleur. You don’t practise what you preach.”

“My dear, my case is exceptional.”

“So is everybody’s.”

“Well, don’t let’s squabble. Michael says your new Member, Dornford, is after his own heart. They’re working together on pigs, poultry, and potatoes. A great stunt, and the right end of the stick, for once.”

“Yes, we’re going all out for pigs at Condaford. Is Uncle Lawrence doing anything at Lippinghall?”

“No. He invented the plan, so he thinks he’s done his bit. Michael will make him do more when he’s got time. Em is screamingly funny about it. How do you like Dornford?”

Asked this question twice in one morning, Dinny looked her cousin by marriage full in the face.

“He seems to me almost a paragon.”

She felt Fleur’s hand slip suddenly under her arm.

“I wish you’d marry him, Dinny dear. One doesn’t marry paragons, but I fancy one could ‘fault’ him if one tried.”

It was Dinny’s turn to give a little shrug, looking straight before her.

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