Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 25

Dinny made the effort needed to go round to South Square next morning. Except with Clare on her arrival from Ceylon, she had not been there since the day of Wilfrid’s departure to Siam.

“Up in his workroom, miss.”

“Thank you, Coaker, I’ll go up.”

Michael did not hear her come in, and she stood for a moment looking at the caricature-covered walls. It always seemed to her so odd that Michael, inclined to over-estimate human virtues, should surround himself with the efforts of those who live by exaggerating human defects.

“Am I interrupting, Michael?”

“Dinny! You’re looking a treat! You gave us a bad turn, old thing. Sit down! I was only looking into potatoes — their figures are so puzzling.”

They talked for some time, and then, the knowledge of what she had come for invading both, fell silent.

“You’ve something to give or tell me, Michael.”

He went to a drawer, and took out a little packet. Dinny unwrapped it in her lap. There was a letter, a little photograph, a badge.

“It’s his passport photo, and D.S.O. ribbon. In the letter there’s something for you; in fact, the whole letter is really for you. They’re all for you. Excuse me, I have to see Fleur before she goes out.”

Dinny sat motionless, looking at the photograph. Yellowed with damp and heat, it had the uncompromising reality that characterises passport photographs. “Wilfrid Desert” was written across it, and he looked straight at her out of the pasteboard. She turned it face down on her lap, and smoothed the ribbon, which was stained and crushed. Then, nerving herself, she opened the letter. From it dropped a folded sheet, which she set apart. The letter was to Michael.

“New Year’s Day.

“DEAR OLD M. M. —

“Greetings to you and Fleur, and many good years! I’m far up north in a very wild part of this country with an objective that I may reach or not — the habitation of a tribe quite definitely pre-Siamese and non-Mongolian. Adrian Charwell would be interested. I’ve often meant to let you know my news, but, when it came to writing, didn’t — partly because if you don’t know this part of the world description’s no use, and partly because it’s difficult for me to believe that anybody can be interested. I’m writing now really to ask you to tell Dinny that I am at peace with myself at last. I don’t know whether it’s the strength and remoteness of the atmosphere out here, or whether I’ve gained some of the Eastern conviction that the world of other men does not matter; one’s alone from birth to death, except for that fine old companion, the Universe — of which one is the microcosm. It’s a kind of queer peace, and I often wonder how I could have been so torn and tortured. Dinny, I think, will be glad to know this; just as I would be truly glad to know that she, too, is at peace.

“I’ve written a little, and, if I come back from this business, shall try and produce some account of it. In three days from now we reach the river, cross it, and follow up a western tributary towards the Himalayas.

“Faint echoes of the crisis you’ve been having trickle out here. Poor old England! I don’t suppose I shall ever see her again; but she’s a game old bird when put to it, and I can’t see her being beaten; in fact, properly moulted, I expect her to fly better than ever.

“Good-bye, old man, my love to you both; and to Dinny my special love.

“WILFRID.”

Peace! And she? She rewrapped the ribbon, photograph, and letter and thrust them into her bag. Making no noise, she opened the door, went down the stairs, and out into the sunshine.

Alone by the river, she unfolded the sheet she had taken from the letter, and, under a plane tree as yet bare of leaves, read these verses:

“Lie Still!

“The sun, who brings all earth to bloom,
Corrupts and makes corruption flower,
Is just a flame that thro’ the gloom
Of heaven burns a little hour;

And, figured on the chart of night —
A somewhat negligible star —
Is but a pinpricked point of light
As million-million others are;

And, though it be the all in all
Of my existence and decay,
It has as simple rise and fall
As I have, and as short a day.

But that no unction to my heart
Will lay; the smallest germ in me
Plays just as passionate a part
As I do, in eternity.

The germ and I and sun, we rise,
Fulfil our little lives, and die;
And to all question God replies:
‘Lie still! I cannot tell you why!’”

Lie still! The Embankment was nearly empty of people and of traffic. She walked on, crossing the main lines of the traffic, and came to Kensington Gardens. There on the Round Pond were many small boats, and many children interested in their vagaries. A bright-haired little boy, something like Kit Mont, was guiding his boat with a stick to a fresh attempt to cross the pond. What blissful unconsciousness of all else! Was that the secret of happiness? To be lost in the moment — to be out of oneself, like a child! He said suddenly:

“It’s going! Look!”

The sails filled, the little boat floated away. The small boy stood with arms akimbo, and, quickly looking up at her, said:

“Ha! I must run!”

Dinny watched him stop now and again with a jerk to calculate the landing of his boat.

So one ran through life, watching each venture coming to shore, and at the end lay still! Like birds who uttered their songs, hunted for worms, preened their feathers, flew without seeming cause, unless for joy; mated, built nests and fed their young, and when all was over became little stiffened bundles of feathers, and passed into corruption, and dust.

She followed slowly round the pond, saw him again guiding the boat with his stick, and said: “What do you call your boat?”

“A cutter. I had a schooner, but our dog ate the rigging.”

“Yes,” said Dinny, “dogs like rigging — very succulent.”

“Very what?”

“Like asparagus.”

“I’m not allowed asparagus, it’s too expensive.”

“But you’ve tasted it?”

“Yes. See, the wind’s catching it again!”

Off went the boat, and off went the small bright-haired boy.

Adrian’s words came into her head. “I was thinking more of children.”

She walked into what in old days would have been called a glade. The ground was covered with crocuses, yellow, violet, white, and with daffodils; the trees had eagerness in every twig, stretching their buds upward to the sun’s warmth; the blackbirds were in song. And as she walked she thought: ‘Peace! There is no peace. There is life, and there is death!’

And those who saw her thought: ‘Nice-looking girl!’ ‘These little hats!’ ‘Where’s she goin’, I wonder, with her head in the air?’ or, again, just: ‘Coo!’ She crossed the road and came to the Hudson Memorial. It was supposed to be a home for birds; but beyond a sparrow or two and a fat pigeon, there were none; nor were more than three people looking at it. She, who had seen it with Wilfrid, glanced at it for a moment and walked on.

“Poor Hudson! Poor Rima!” he had said.

She went down to the Serpentine and walked along it; the sun was bright on the water, and beyond it the grass was springy and dry. The papers were already talking of drought! The sound currents from north and south and west joined in a mild continuous roaring. Where he was lying it would be silent; strange birds and little creatures would be the only visitors, and odd-shaped leaves would drop on his grave. There came into her mind the pastoral scenes in some film pictures of the Normandy home of Briand, that she had seen at Argelès. “A pity we have to leave all this!” she had said.

An aeroplane droned its way over to the north, a high, silvery, small, noisy shape. HE had hated them ever since the war. “Disturbers of whatever Gods there be!”

Brave new world! God no longer in His heaven!

She turned a little north to avoid the place where she used to meet him. The roofless tabernacle of oratory close to the Marble Arch was deserted. She left the Park and went towards Melton Mews. It was over! With a queer little smile on her lips she turned into the Mews and stopped at her sister’s door.

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