Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 24

But she WAS ill, and for a month in her conventual room at Condaford often wished she were dead and done with. She might, indeed, quite easily have died if such belief as she had in a future life had grown instead of declining as her strength ebbed. To rejoin Wilfrid, where this world’s pain and judgments were not, had a fatal attraction. To fade out into the sleep of nothingness was not hard, but had no active enticement; and, as the tide of health turned back within her, seemed less and less natural. The solicitude of people had a subtle, pervasive healing influence. The village required a daily bulletin, her mother had been writing or ‘phoning almost daily to a dozen people. Clare had been down every week-end, bringing flowers from Dornford. Aunt Em had been sending twice a week the products of Boswell and Johnson; Fleur bombarding her with the products of Piccadilly. Adrian had come down three times without warning. Hilary began sending funny little notes the moment she had turned the corner.

On March the thirtieth, spring visited her room with southwest airs, a small bowl of the first spring flowers, some pussy willows and a sprig of gorse. She was picking up rapidly now, and three days later was out of doors. For everything in nature she felt a zest such as she had not known for a long time. Crocuses, daffodil clumps, swelling buds, sun on the fantails’ wings, shapes and colour of the clouds, scent of the wind, all affected her with an almost painful emotion. Yet she had no desire to do anything or see anybody. In this queer apathy she accepted an invitation from Adrian to go abroad with him on his short holiday.

The memorable things about their fortnight’s stay at Argelès in the Pyrenees, were the walks they took, the flowers they picked, the Pyrenean sheep-dogs, the almond blossom they saw, the conversations they held. They were out all day, taking lunch with them, and the opportunities for talk were unlimited. Adrian became eloquent on mountains. He had never got over his climbing days. Dinny suspected him of trying to rouse her from the lethargy in which she was sunk.

“When I went up ‘the little Sinner’ in the Dolomites with Hilary before the war,” he said one day, “I got as near to God as I ever shall. Nineteen years ago — dash it! What’s the nearest to God you ever got, Dinny?”

She did not answer.

“Look here, my dear, what are you now — twenty-seven?”

“Nearly twenty-eight.”

“On the threshold still. I suppose talking it out wouldn’t help?”

“You ought to know, Uncle, that talking one’s heart out is not in the family.”

“True! The more we’re hurt the silenter we get. But one mustn’t inbreed to sorrow, Dinny.”

Dinny said suddenly: “I understand perfectly how women go into convents, or give themselves up to good works. I always used to think it showed a lack of humour.”

“It can show a lack of courage, or too much courage, of the sort fanatical.”

“Or broken springs.”

Adrian looked at her.

“Yours are not broken, Dinny — badly bent, not broken.”

“Let’s hope so, Uncle; but they ought to be straightening by now.”

“You’re beginning to look fine.”

“Yes, I’m eating enough even for Aunt Em. It’s taking interest in oneself that’s the trouble.”

“I agree. I wonder if —”

“Not iron, darling. It sews me up inside.”

Adrian smiled. “I was thinking more of children.”

“They’re not synthetic, yet. I’m all right, and very lucky, as things go. Did I tell you old Betty died?”

“Good old soul! She used to give me bulls’-eyes.”

“SHE was the real thing. We read too many books, Uncle.”

“Indubitably. Walk more, read less! Let’s have our lunch.”

On the way back to England they stayed two nights in Paris at a little hotel over a restaurant near the Gare St. Lazare. They had wood fires, and their beds were comfortable.

“Only the French know what a bed should be,” said Adrian.

The cooking down below was intended for racing men and such as go where they can appreciate food. The waiters, who wore aprons, looked, as Adrian expressed it, “like monks doing a spot of work,” pouring the wine and mixing the salads with reverence. He and Dinny were the only foreigners in either hotel or restaurant, not far from being the only foreigners in Paris.

“Marvellous town, Dinny. Except for cars in place of fiacres and the Eiffel Tower, I don’t see any real change by daylight since I was first here in ‘88, when your grandfather was Minister at Copenhagen. There’s the same tang of coffee and wood smoke in the air; people have the same breadth of back, the same red buttons in their coats; there are the same tables outside the same cafés, the same affiches, the same funny little stalls for selling books, the same violently miraculous driving, the same pervading French grey, even in the sky; and the same rather ill-tempered look of not giving a damn for anything outside Paris. Paris leads fashion, and yet it’s the most conservative place in the world. They say the advanced literary crowd here regard the world as having begun in 1914 at earliest, have scrapped everything that came before the war, despise anything that lasts, are mostly Jews, Poles and Irishmen, and yet have chosen this changeless town to function in. The same with the painters and musicians, and every other extremist. Here they gather and chatter and experiment themselves to death. And good old Paris laughs and carries on, as concerned with reality and flavours and the past as it ever was. Paris produces anarchy exactly as stout produces froth.”

Dinny pressed his arm.

“That was a good effort, Uncle. I must say I feel more alive here than I have for ages.”

“Ah! Paris pets the senses. Let’s go in here — too cold to sit out. What’ll you have, tea or — absinthe?”

“Absinthe.”

“You won’t like it.”

“All right — tea with lemon.”

Waiting for her tea in the quiet hurly-burly of the Café de la Paix, Dinny watched her Uncle’s thin, bearded form, and thought that he looked quite ‘in his plate,’ but with a queer, interested contentment that identified him with the life around.

To be interested in life and not pet oneself! And she looked about her. Her neighbours were neither remarkable nor demonstrative, but they gave an impression of doing what they liked, not of being on the way to somewhere else.

“They dig into the moment, don’t they?” said Adrian suddenly.

“Yes, I was thinking that.”

“The French make an art of living. We hope for the future or regret the past. Precious little ‘present’ about the English!”

“Why are these so different?”

“Less northern blood, more wine and oil; their heads are rounder than ours, their bodies more stocky, and their eyes are mainly brown.”

“Those are things we can’t alter, anyway.”

“The French are essentially the medium people. They’ve brought equilibrium to a high point. Their senses and intellects balance.”

“But they get fat, Uncle.”

“Yes, but all over; they don’t jut, and they hold themselves up. I’d rather be English, of course; but if I weren’t, I’d rather be French.”

“Isn’t there anything in having an itch for something better than you’ve got?”

“Ah! Ever noticed, Dinny, that when we say ‘Be good!’ they say ‘Soyez sage!’? There’s a lot in that. I’ve heard Frenchmen put our unease down to the Puritan tradition. But that’s to mistake effect for cause, symptoms for roots. I admit we’ve got an urge towards the promised land, but Puritanism was part of that urge, so’s our wanderlust and colonising quality; so’s our Protestantism, Scandinavian blood, the sea and the climate. None of that helps us in the art of living. Look at our industrialism, our old maids, cranks, humanitarianisms, poetry! We jut in every direction. We’ve got one or two highly mediumising institutions — the public schools, ‘cricket’ in its various forms — but as a people we’re chock-full of extremism. The average Briton is naturally exceptional, and underneath his dread of being conspicuous, he’s really proud of it. Where, on earth, will you see more diverse bone formation than in England, and all of it peculiar? We do our level best to be average, but, by George, we jut!”

“You’re inspired, Uncle.”

“Well, you look about you when you get home.”

“I will,” said Dinny.

They had a good crossing the next day, and Adrian dropped her at Mount Street.

In kissing him good-bye, she squeezed his little finger.

“You’ve done me a tremendous amount of good, Uncle.”

During those six weeks she had scarcely thought at all about Clare’s troubles, and she asked at once for the latest news. A defence had been delivered and issue joined; the case would probably be on in a few weeks.

“I’ve not seen either Clare or young Croom,” said Sir Lawrence, “but I gathered from Dornford that they go about as before. ‘Very young’ Roger still harps on the need for getting her to speak about her life out there. Lawyers seem to regard the Courts as confessional boxes in which to confess the sins of your opponent.”

“Well, aren’t they?”

“Judging by the papers, yes.”

“Well, Clare can’t and won’t. They’ll make a great mistake if they try to force her. Has anything been heard of Jerry?”

“He must have started, if he’s to be here in time.”

“Suppose they lose, what is to be done about Tony Croom?”

“Put yourself in his place, Dinny. Whatever happens, he’ll probably come in for a slating from the judge. He won’t be in a mood to accept favours. If he can’t pay up I don’t quite know what they can do to him; something unpleasant, no doubt. And there’s the question of Jack Muskham’s attitude — he’s queer.”

“Yes,” said Dinny under her breath.

Sir Lawrence dropped his monocle.

“Your Aunt suggests that young Croom should go gold-digging, come back rich, and marry Clare.”

“But Clare?”

“Isn’t she in love with him?”

Dinny shook her head. “She might be if he’s ruined.”

“H’m! And how are YOU, my dear? Really yourself again?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Michael would like to see you some time.”

“I’ll go round tomorrow.”

And that, meaning much, was all that was said about the news that had caused her illness.

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