Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 19

Young Croom awoke, stiff and unconscious of where he was. A voice said:

“It’s just getting light, Tony, but I can’t see to read the hymn.”

He sat up. “Heavens! Have I been asleep?”

“Yes, poor dear. I’ve had a perfect night, just a little achy in the legs. What’s the time?”

Young Croom looked at his watch’s illumined hands.

“Nearly half-past six. Pins and needles. Wow!”

“Let’s get out and stretch.”

His voice, far away, even from himself, answered: “And so it’s over.”

“Was it so terrible?”

He put his hands to his head, and did not answer. The thought that next night and all the nights to come he would be apart from her again was like a blow over the heart.

She opened the door.

“I’m going to stamp my feet a bit. Then we might have a stroll to warm ourselves. We shan’t get breakfast anywhere till eight.”

He started the engine to warm the car. Light was creeping into the wood; he could see the beech-tree against whose trunk they had passed the night. Then he, too, got out and walked towards the road. Still grey-dark and misty, the wood on either side of its dim open streak looked mournful and mysterious. No wind, no sound! He felt as Adam might have felt, dragging towards the Park Gates of Eden without having earned the right to be expelled. Adam! That quaint, amiable, white, bearded creature. Man before he ‘fell,’ a nonconformist preacher in a state of nature, with a pet snake, a prize apple, and a female secretary coy and unshingled as Lady Godiva! His blood began to flow again, and he returned to the car.

Clare was kneeling and attending to her hair with a pocket comb and mirror.

“How are you feeling, Tony?”

“Pretty rotten. I think we’ll shove along and have breakfast at Maidenhead or Slough.”

“Why not at home? We could be there by eight. I make very good coffee.”

“Fine!” said young Croom. “I’ll do fifty all the way.”

On that very fast drive they spoke little. Both were too hungry.

“While I’m getting breakfast, Tony, you can shave and have a bath. You’ll save time and feel comfy driving back. I’ll have mine later.”

“I think,” said young Croom, at the Marble Arch, “I’d better park the car. You go on in alone; it’s too conspicuous driving up at this time in the morning; the chauffeurs are sure to be working. I’ll slip along in ten minutes.”

When, at eight o’clock, he reached the Mews, she was in a blue wrapper, the little table in the downstair room was set for breakfast, and there was already a scent of coffee.

“I’ve turned the bath on, Tony, and you’ll find a razor.”

“Darling!” said young Croom. “Shan’t be ten minutes.”

He was back again in twelve, and sat down opposite to her. There were boiled eggs, toast, quince jam from Condaford, and real coffee. It was the most delicious meal he had ever eaten, because it was so exactly as if they were married.

“Aren’t you tired, darling?”

“Not a bit. I feel thoroughly chirped up. All the same, I don’t think we must do it again — too near the hambone altogether.”

“Well, we didn’t mean to.”

“No, and you were an angel. Still, it’s not exactly what I promised Aunt Em. To the pure all things are not pure.”

“No — blast them! God! How shall I live till I see you again!”

Clare stretched her hand across the little table and gave his a squeeze.

“Now I think you’d better slip off. Just let me look out and see that the coast’s clear.”

When she had done this he kissed her hand, got back to his car, and by eleven o’clock was standing alongside a plumber in a horse box at Bablock Hythe . . . .

Clare lay in a very hot bath. It was of the geyser type and not long enough, but it provided a good soak. She felt as when, a little girl, she had done something unpleasing to her governess, without discovery. But poor dear Tony! A pity men were so impatient. They had as little liking for cool philandering as for shopping. They rushed into shops, said: ‘Have you such and such? No?’ and rushed out again. They hated trying on, being patted here and there, turning their heads to look at their back views. To savour what was fitting was to them anathema. Tony was a child. She felt herself much older by nature and experience. Though much in request before her marriage, Clare had never come into close contact with those who, centred in London and themselves, were devoid of belief in anything but mockery, motion and enough money to have from day to day a ‘good’ time. At country houses she had met them, of course, but withdrawn from their proper atmosphere into the air of sport. Essentially an open-air person, of the quick and wiry, rather than the hefty, type, she observed unconsciously the shibboleths of sport. Transplanted to Ceylon, she had kept her tastes, and spent her time in the saddle or on the tennis ground. Reading many novels, she professed, indeed, to keep abreast of the current, with all its impatience of restraint; but, lying in her bath, she was uneasy. It had not been fair to put Tony to such strain as that of last night. The closer she allowed him to come to her, short of the contacts of love, the more she would be torturing him. Drying herself, she made good resolutions, and only with a rush did she reach the Temple by ten o’clock. She might just as well have stayed on soaking in her bath, for Dornford was busy on an important case. She finished what jobs there were, looking idly out over the Temple lawn, whence fine-weather mist was vanishing, and sunlight, brightening to winter brilliance, slanted on to her cheek. And she thought of Ceylon, where the sun was never coolly comforting. Jerry! How, in that horrible, common phrase, was he ‘keeping’? And what doing about her? All very well to determine that she would not torture Tony, would keep away from him and spare his senses, but without him — she would be dull and lonely. He had become a habit. A bad habit perhaps — but bad habits were the only ones it was painful to do without.

‘I’m naturally a light weight,’ she thought. ‘So is Tony; all the same he would never let one down!’

And the grass of the Temple lawn seemed suddenly the sea, and this window-sill the ship’s bulwark, and he and she leaned there watching the flying fish spring up from the foam and flitter away above the green-blue water. Warmth and colour! Airy shining grace! And she felt melancholy.

‘A good long ride is what I want,’ she thought. ‘I’ll go down to Condaford tomorrow, and on Saturday be out all day. I’ll make Dinny come out with me; she ought to ride more.’

The clerk entered and said: “Mr. Dornford’s going straight from the Courts to the ‘House’ this afternoon.”

“Ah! Do you ever feel hipped, George?”

The clerk, whose face always amused her because it so clearly should have had mutton-chop whiskers on its rosy roundness, replied in his cushiony voice:

“What I miss here is a dog. With my old Toby I never feel lonely.”

“What is he, George?”

“Bull terrier. But I can’t bring him here, Mrs. Calder’d miss him; besides, if he bit a solicitor —”

“But how perfect!”

George wheezed.

“Ah! you can’t have high spirits in the Temple.”

“I should have liked a dog, George, but when I’m out there’s no one in.”

“I don’t fancy Mr. Dornford’ll be residential here much longer.”

“Why?”

“He’s looking for a house. I’ve an idea he’d like to marry.”

“Oh! Whom?”

George closed an eye.

“You mean my sister?”

“Ah!”

“Yes. But I don’t see how you know.”

George closed the other eye.

“A little bird, Lady Corven.”

“He might do worse, certainly. Not that I’m a great believer in marriage.”

“We don’t see the right side of marriage in the Law. But Mr. Dornford would make a woman happy — in my opinion.”

“In mine, too, George.”

“He’s a very quiet man, but a fund of energy, and considerate. Solicitors like him; judges like him.”

“And wives will like him.”

“Of course he’s a Catholic.”

“We all have to be something.”

“Mrs. Calder and I’ve been Anglicans ever since my old dad died. He was a Plymouth Brother — very stiff. Express an opinion of your own, and he’d jump down your throat. Many’s the time I’ve had him threaten me with fire and slaughter. All for my good, you understand. A fine religious old feller. And couldn’t bear others not to be. Good red Zummerzet blood, and never forgot it, though he did live in Peckham.”

“Well, George, if Mr. Dornford wants me again after all, would you telephone me at five o’clock? I’ll look in at my rooms in case.”

Clare walked. The day was even more springlike than yesterday. She went by the Embankment and St. James’s Park. Alongside the water, clusters of daffodil spikes were pushing up, and tree-shoots swelling into bud. The gentle, warming sunlight fell on her back. It couldn’t last! There would be a throwback to winter, for sure! She walked fast out under the chariot, whose horses, not too natural, worried but exhilarated her, passed the Artillery Memorial without a glance, and entered Hyde Park. Warmed up now, she swung out along the Row. Riding was something of a passion with her, so that it always made her restive to see someone else riding a good horse. Queer animals, horses, so fiery and alive at one moment, so dull and ruminative the next!

Two or three hats were raised to her. A long man on a good-looking mare reined up after he had passed and came back.

“I thought it was you. Lawrence told me you were over. Remember me — Jack Muskham?”

Clare — thinking: ‘Lovely seat for a tall man!’— murmured: “Of course!” and was suddenly on her guard.

“An acquaintance of yours is going to look after my Arab mares.”

“Oh! yes, Tony Croom.”

“Nice young chap, but I don’t know if he knows enough. Still, he’s keen as mustard. How’s your sister?”

“Very well.”

“You ought to bring her racing, Lady Corven.”

“I don’t think Dinny cares much for horses.”

“I could soon make her. I remember —” he broke off, frowning. In spite of his languid pose, his face seemed to Clare purposeful, brown, lined, ironic about the lips. She wondered how he would take the news that she had spent last night with Tony in a car.

“When do the mares come, Mr. Muskham?”

“They’re in Egypt now. We’ll ship them in April. I might go over for it; possibly take young Croom.”

“I’d love to see them,” said Clare; “I rode an Arab in Ceylon.”

“We must get you down.”

“Somewhere near Oxford, isn’t it?”

“About six miles; nice country. I’ll remember. Good-bye!” He raised his hat, touched the mare with his heel, and cantered off.

‘My perfect innocence!’ she thought. ‘Hope I didn’t overdo it. I wouldn’t like to ‘get wrong’ with him. He looks as if he knew his mind terribly well. Lovely boots! He didn’t ask after Jerry!’

Her nerves felt a little shaken, and she struck away from the Row towards the Serpentine.

The sunlit water had no boats on it, but a few ducks on the far side. Did she mind what people thought? Miller of Dee! Only, did he really care for nobody? Or was he just a philosopher? She sat down on a bench in the full sunlight, and suddenly felt sleepy. A night in a car, after all, was not quite the same as a night out of a car. Crossing her arms on her breast, she closed her eyes. Almost at once she was asleep.

Quite a number of people straggled past between her and the bright water, surprised to see one in such nice clothes asleep before lunch. Two little boys carrying toy aeroplanes stopped dead, examining her dark eyelashes resting on her cream-coloured cheeks, and the little twitchings of her just touched-up lips. Having a French governess, they were ‘well-bred’ little boys without prospect of sticking pins into her or uttering a sudden whoop. But she seemed to have no hands, her feet were crossed and tucked under her chair, and her attitude was such that she had abnormally long thighs. It was interesting; and after they had passed one of them kept turning his head to see more of her.

Thus, for a full hour of elusive spring, Clare slept the sleep of one who has spent a night in a car.

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