Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 35

Tony Croom had spent a miserable week in his converted cottages at Bablock Hythe. The evidence given by Corven on his recall to the box had seared him, nor had Clare’s denial anointed the burn. In this young man was an old-fashioned capacity for jealousy. That a wife should accept her husband’s embrace was not, of course, unknown; but, in the special circumstances and states of feeling, it had seemed to him improper, if not monstrous, and the giving of his own evidence, directly after such a thrust at his vitals, had but inflamed the wound. A sad unreason governs sex; to be aware that he had no right to be suffering brought no relief. And now, a week after the trial, receiving her note of invitation, he had the impulse not to answer, to answer and upbraid, to answer ‘like a gentleman’— and, all the time, he knew he would just go up.

With nothing clear in his mind and that bruise still in his heart, he reached the Mews an hour after Dinny had gone. Clare let him in, and they stood looking at each other for a minute without speaking. At last she said with a laugh:

“Well, Tony! Funny business — the whole thing, wasn’t it?”

“Exquisitely humorous.”

“You look ill.”

“You look fine.”

And she did, in a red frock open at the neck, and without sleeves.

“Sorry I’m not dressed, Clare. I didn’t know you’d want to go out.”

“I don’t. We’re going to dine in. You can leave the car out there, and stay as long as you like, and nobody the worse. Isn’t it nice?”

“Clare!”

“Put your hat down and come upstairs. I’ve made a new cocktail.”

“I take this chance to say I’m bitterly sorry.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Tony.” She began to mount the spiral stairway, turning at the top. “Come!”

Dropping his hat and driving gloves, he followed her. To the eyes of one throbbing and distraught, the room above had an air of preparation, as if for ceremony, or — was it sacrifice? The little table was set out daintily with flowers, a narrow-necked bottle, green glasses — the couch covered with some jade-green stuff and heaped with bright cushions. The windows were open, for it was hot, but the curtains were nearly drawn across and the light turned on. He went straight across to the window, stifled by the violent confusion within him.

“In spite of the Law’s blessing, better close the curtains,” said Clare. “Would you like a wash?”

He shook his head, drew the curtains close, and sat on the sill. Clare had dropped on to the sofa.

“I couldn’t bear to see you in the box, Tony. I owe you a lot.”

“Owe! You owe me nothing. It’s I—!”

“No! I am the debtor.”

With her bare arms crossed behind her neck, her body so graceful, her face a little tilted up — there was all he had dreamed about and longed for all these months! There she was, infinitely desirable, seeming to say: ‘Here I am! Take me!’ and he sat staring at her. The moment he had yearned and yearned for, and he could not seize it!

“Why so far off, Tony?”

He got up, his lips trembling, every limb trembling, came as far as the table, and stood gripping the back of a chair. His eyes fixed on her eyes, searched and searched. What was behind those dark eyes looking up at him? Not love! The welcome of duty? The payment of a debt? The toleration of a pal? The invitation of one who would have it over and done with? But not love, with its soft gleam. And, suddenly, there came before his eyes the image of her and Corven — THERE! He covered his face with his arm, rushed headlong down those twisting iron stairs, seized hat and gloves, and dashed out into his car. His mind did not really work again till he was far along the Uxbridge Road; and how he had got there without disaster he could not conceive. He had behaved like a perfect fool! He had behaved exactly as he had to! The startled look on her face! To be treated as a creditor! To be paid! THERE! On that sofa! No! He drove again with a sort of frenzy, and was brought up sharply by a lorry lumbering along in front. The night was just beginning, moonlit and warm. He turned the car into a gateway and got out. Leaning against the gate, he filled and lit his pipe. Where was he going? Home? What use? What use going anywhere? His brain cleared suddenly. Drive to Jack Muskham’s, release himself, and — Kenya! He had money enough for that. A job would turn up. But stay here? No! Lucky those mares hadn’t come! He got over the gate and sat down on the grass. Relaxed against the bank he looked up. Lot of stars! What had he — fifty pounds — sixty — nothing owing! An East African boat — go steerage! Anything — anywhere away! Close to him on the bank were ox-eyed daisies slowly brightening in the moonlight; the air was scented by ripening grass. If in her eyes there had been one look of love! He let his head fall back on the grass. Not her fault she didn’t love him! His misfortune! Home — get his kit together, lock up, straight to Muskham’s! It would take all the night! See those lawyers — Dinny, too, if possible! But Clare? No! His pipe ceased to draw; the moon and stars, the ox-eyed daisies, the grassy scent, the shadows creeping out, the feel of the bank, lost all power to soothe. Get on, do something, go on doing something, till he was again on shipboard and away. He got up, climbed back over the gate, and started his engine. He kept straight on, instinctively avoiding the route through Maidenhead and Henley. He passed through High Wycombe and approached Oxford from the north. The old town was lit up and in evening feather when he dropped down on it from Headington and threaded into the quiet Cumnor road. On the little old New Bridge over the Upper Thames he stopped. Something special about this upper river, quiet and winding, and withdrawn from human blatancy! In full moonlight now the reeds glistened and the willows seemed to drip silver into the water, dark below their branches. Some windows in the inn beyond were lamp-lit, but no sound of gramophone came forth. With the moon riding so high, the stars now were but a pricking of the grape-coloured sky; the scent from the reedy banks and the river fields, after a whole week of warmth, mounted to his nostrils, sweet and a little rank. It brought a sudden wave of sheer sex-longing — so often and so long had he dreamed of Clare and himself in love on this winding field-scented stream. He started the car with a jerk, and turned past the inn down the narrowed road. In twenty minutes he stood in the doorway of his cottage, looking into the moonlit room he had left sunlit seven hours before. There was the novel he had been trying to read, tipped on to the floor; the remains of his cheese and fruit lunch not cleared away; a pair of brown shoes which he had been going to shine up. The big black beams across the low ceiling and around the big old fireplace rescued from Victorian enclosure and brown varnish, the copper fire-dogs and pewter plates and jugs and bowls he had hardily collected, hoping they would appeal to Clare, all his res angusta domi, welcomed him dimly. He felt suddenly exhausted, drank half a tumbler of whisky and water, ate some biscuits, and sank into his long wicker armchair. Almost at once he fell asleep, and awoke in daylight. He woke remembering that he had meant to spend the night in action. Level sunlight was slanting in at the window. He finished the water in the jug, and looked at his watch. Five o’clock. He threw open the door. Early haze was bright over the fields. He went out past the mares’ boxes and their meadows. A track, sloping down towards the river, led over grass broken by bushy scoops and green banks covered with hazel and alders. No dew had fallen, but the grass and every shrub smelled new.

About fifty yards from the river he threw himself down in a little hollow. Rabbits and bees and birds — nothing else as yet awake. He lay on his back staring at the grass and the bushes and the early sky, blue and lightly fleeced. Perhaps because he could see so little from that hollow all England seemed to be with him. A wild bee close to his hand was digging into a flower, there was a faint scent, as of daisy-chains; but chiefly it was the quality of the grass — its close freshness, its true greenness. ‘Greatness and dignity and peace!’ That play! Those words had given him a choke. Other people had laughed, Clare had laughed. “Sentimental!” she had said. “No country ever had, or will have ‘Greatness and dignity and peace.’” Probably not, certainly not — a country, even one’s own, was a mish-mash of beauties and monstrosities, a vague generalisation that betrayed dramatists into over-writing, journalists into blurb. All the same, you couldn’t anywhere else in the world get just such a spot, or just such grass to feel and see, a scent that was wellnigh none, a tender fleecy sky, tiny flowers, birds’ songs, age and youth at once! Let people laugh — you couldn’t! Leave grass like this! He remembered the thrill he had felt six months ago, seeing again English grass! Leave his job before it had begun; chuck it back at Muskham, who had been so really decent to him! He turned over on to his face and laid his cheek to that grass. There he got the scent better — not sweet, not bitter, but fresh, intimate and delighting, a scent apprehended from his earliest childhood — the scent of England. If only those mares would come, and he could get at it! He sat up again, and listened. No sound of train or car or airplane, no human sound, no sound of any four-footed thing; just birds’ songs, and those indistinguishable and a little far — a long meandering tune wide above the grass. Well! No use making a song! If one couldn’t have a thing, one couldn’t!

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