Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 38

During that strange week-end, with only Michael and Fleur at ease, Dinny received one piece of enlightenment as she strolled in the garden.

“Em tells me,” said Fleur, “you’re all worked up about those costs — she says YOU think Dornford paid them, and that it’s giving you a feeling of obligation?”

“Oh? Well, it IS worrying, like finding you owe nothing to your dressmaker.”

“My dear,” said Fleur, “for your strictly private ear, I paid them. Roger came to dinner and made a song about hating to send in such a bill to people who had no money to spare, so I talked it over with Michael and sent Roger a cheque. My Dad made his money out of the Law, so it seemed appropriate.”

Dinny stared.

“You see,” continued Fleur, taking her arm, “thanks to the Government converting that loan, all my beautiful gilt-edgeds have gone up about ten points, so that, even after paying that nine hundred-odd, I’m still about fifteen thousand richer than I was, and they’re still going up. I’ve only told YOU, in confidence, because I was afraid it would weigh with you in making up your mind about Dornford. Tell me: Would it?”

“I don’t know,” said Dinny dully; and she didn’t.

“Michael says Dornford’s the freshest egg he’s come across for a long time; and Michael is very sensitive to freshness in eggs. You know,” said Fleur, stopping suddenly, and letting go her arm, “you puzzle me, Dinny. Everybody can see what you’re cut out for — wife and mother. Of course, I know what you’ve been through, but the past buries its dead. It is so, I’ve been through it, too. It’s the present and the future that matter, and we’re the present, and our children are the future. And you specially — because you’re so stuck on tradition and continuity and that — ought to carry on. Anybody who lets a memory spoil her life — forgive me, old thing, but it’s rather obviously now or never with you. And to think of you with ‘never’ chalked against you is too bleak. I’ve precious little MORAL sense,” continued Fleur, sniffing at a rose, “but I’ve a lot of the commoner article, and I simply hate to see waste.”

Dinny, touched by the look in those hazel eyes with the extraordinarily clear whites, stood very still, and said quietly:

“If I were a Catholic, like him, I shouldn’t have any doubt.”

“The cloister?” said Fleur sharply: “No! My mother’s a Catholic, but — No! Anyway, you’re not a Catholic. No, my dear — the hearth. That title was wrong, you know. It can’t be both.”

Dinny smiled. “I do apologise for worrying people so. Do you like these Angèle Pernets?”

She had no talk with Dornford all that Saturday, preoccupied as he was with the convictions of the neighbouring farmers. But after dinner, when she was scoring for the four who were playing Russian pool, he came and stood beside her.

“Hilarity in the home,” she said, adding nine presented by Fleur to the side on which she was not playing: “How did you find the farmers?”

“Confident.”

“Con —?”

“That whatever’s done will make things worse.”

“Oh! Ah! They’re so used to that, you see.”

“And what have YOU been doing all day, Dinny?”

“Picked flowers, walked with Fleur, played with ‘Cuffs,’ and dallied with the pigs. . . . Five on to your side, Michael, and seven on to the other. This is a very Christian game — doing unto others as you would they should do unto you.”

“Russian pool!” murmured Dornford: “Curious name nowadays for anything so infected with religion.”

“Apropos, if you want to go to Mass tomorrow, there’s Oxford.”

“You wouldn’t come with me?”

“Oh! Yes. I love Oxford, and I’ve only once heard a Mass. It takes about three-quarters of an hour to drive over.”

His look at her was much as the spaniel Foch gave when she returned to him after absence.

“Quarter past nine, then, in my car . . .”

When next day they were seated side by side, he said: “Shall we slide the roof back?”

“Please.”

“Dinny, this is like a dream.”

“I wish my dreams had such a smooth action.”

“Do you dream much?”

“Yes.”

“Nice or nasty?”

“Oh! like all dreams, a little of both.”

“Any recurrent ones?”

“One. A river I can’t cross.”

“Ah! like an examination one can’t pass. Dreams are ruthlessly revealing. If you could cross that river in your dream, would you be happier?”

“I don’t know.”

There was a silence, till he said:

“This car is a new make. You don’t have to change gears in the old way. But you don’t care for driving, do you?”

“I’m an idiot at it.”

“You’re not modern, you see, Dinny.”

“No. I’m much less efficient than most people.”

“In your own way I don’t know anybody so efficient.”

“You mean I can arrange flowers.”

“And see a joke; and be — a darling.”

It seemed to Dinny the last thing she had been able to be for nearly two years, so she merely replied:

“What was your college at Oxford?”

“Oriel”

And the conversation lapsed.

Some hay was stacked and some still lying out, and the midsummer air was full of its scent.

“I’m afraid,” said Dornford suddenly, “I don’t want to go to Mass. I don’t get so many chances to be with you, Dinny. Let’s make for Clifton and sit in a boat.”

“Well, it IS rather lovely for indoors.”

They turned off to the left, and, passing through Dorchester, came to the river by the bend and bluffs at Clifton. Leaving the car, they procured a punt and after drifting a little, moored it to the bank.

“This,” said Dinny, “is a nice exhibition of high purpose, I don’t think. ‘Something done’ isn’t always what was attempted, is it?”

“No, but it’s often better.”

“I wish we’d brought Foch; he likes any kind of vehicle where he can sit on one’s feet and get a nice sick feeling.”

But in that hour and more on the river they hardly talked at all. It was as if he understood — which, as a fact, he did not — how, in that drowsing summer silence, on water half in sunlight, half in shade, she was coming closer to him than ever before. There was, indeed, to Dinny something really restful and reassuring in those long lazing minutes, when she need not talk, but just take summer in at every pore — its scent, and hum, and quiet movement, the careless and untroubled hovering of its green spirit, the vague sway of the bulrushes, and the clucking of the water, and always that distant calling of the wood pigeons from far trees. She was finding, indeed, the truth of Clare’s words, that he could ‘let one’s mouth alone.’

By the time they were back at the Grange, it had been one of the most silent and satisfactory mornings she had ever known. But between his: “Thank you, Dinny, a heavenly time,” and his real feelings, she could tell from his eyes there was a great gap fixed. It was unnatural the way he kept his feelings in check! And, as became a woman, compassion soon changed in her to irritation. Anything better than this eternal repression, perfect consideration, patience, and long waiting! And all that afternoon she saw as little of him as she had seen much all the morning. His eyes, fixed on her with longing and a sort of reproach, became an added source of vexation, and she carefully refrained from seeming to notice them. “Verra pavairse,” her old Scottish nurse would have said.

Bidding him ‘Good night’ at the foot of the stairs, she felt a keen pleasure at the dashed look on his face, and an equally keen sense that she was ‘a beast.’ She entered her bedroom in a curious turmoil, at odds with herself, and him, and all the world.

“Damn!” she muttered, feeling for the switch.

A low laugh startled her. Clare, in her pyjamas, was perched on the window-seat, smoking a cigarette.

“Don’t turn up, Dinny; come and sit here with me, and let’s puff out of the window together.”

Three wide-opened casements laid bare the night under a teazle-blue heaven trembling with stars. Dinny, looking out at it, said:

“Where have you been ever since lunch? I didn’t even know you were back.”

“Have a gasper? You seem to want soothing.”

Dinny expelled a puff of smoke.

“I do. I’m sick of myself.”

“So was I,” murmured Clare, “but I feel better.”

“What have you been doing, then?”

Again Clare laughed, and in the sound was something that made Dinny say:

“Seeing Tony Croom?”

Clare leaned back and her throat showed pale.

“Yes, my dear. The Ford and I went over. Dinny, we’ve justified the law. Tony no longer looks like a bereaved orphan.”

“Oh!” said Dinny, and again: “Oh!”

Her sister’s voice, warm and languid, and satisfied, made her cheeks go hot and her breath come quickly.

“Yes, I prefer him as lover to a friend. How sane is the law — it knew what we ought to have been! And I like his converted cottages. Only there’s a fireplace upstairs that still wants opening up.”

“Are you going to get married, then?”

“My dear, how can we? No, we shall live in sin. Later, I suppose, we shall see. I think this ‘nisi’ period is very thoughtful. Tony will come up in the middle of the week, and I shall go down at the week-end. And all so legal.”

Dinny laughed. Clare sat up, suddenly, clasping her knees.

“I’m happier than I’ve been for ever so long. It doesn’t do to make other people wretched. Also, women ought to be loved, it suits them somehow. Men, too.”

Dinny leaned out of the window, and the night slowly cooled her cheeks. Beautiful and deep it was, out there, the shapes unstirring, dark and as if brooding. Through the tense stillness came a far drone, swelling to the rightful sound of a passing car, and, between the trees, she could see its travelling light burnish up the hedgerows for flying moments, and die beyond the angle of vision. Then the drone grew faint and fainter, and stillness recommenced. A moth flew by, and a little white feather from a fantail on the roof floated down, turning over in the quiet air. She felt Clare’s arm come round her waist.

“Good-night, old thing! Rub noses.”

Withdrawing from the night, Dinny clasped that slim pyjamaed body. Their cheeks touched, and to each the warmth of the other’s skin was moving — to Clare a blessing, to Dinny an infection, as though the lingered glow from many kisses was passing into her.

When her sister had gone, she moved restlessly up and down her dark room.

“It doesn’t do to make people wretched! . . . Women ought to be loved. . . . Men, too.” Quite a minor prophet! Converted by lightning, like Paul on his way to wherever it was. Up and down, up and down, till at last, quite tired, she turned on the light, threw off her clothes, and sat down in a wrapper to brush her hair. Brushing away at it, she stared at her image in the glass with fascination, as if she had not seen herself for a long time. The fever with which she had been infected seemed still in her cheeks and eyes and hair, she looked unnaturally vivid to herself; or was it that the sun, while she and Dornford were sitting in that punt, had left her with this hot feeling in the veins? She finished brushing, shook back her hair, and got into bed. She had left the casements open, the curtains undrawn; and the starry night confronted her lying on her back in the darkness of her narrow room. The hall clock struck midnight faintly — only three hours or so before it would be light! She thought of Clare sunk in beauty sleep close by. She thought of Tony Croom, deep-drugged with happiness, in his converted cottages, and the old tag from The Beggars’ Opera ran in her mind: ‘With blisses her kisses dissolve us in pleasure and soft respose.’ But she! She could not sleep! She felt, as sometimes when a little girl, that she must roam about, explore the strangeness of the dead of night, sit on the stairs, peep into rooms, curl up in some armchair. And, getting up, she put on her dressing-gown and slippers and stole out. She sat on the top stair, clasping her knees and listening. Not a sound in the old dark house, except a little scraping noise, where some mouse was at work. She rose, clutched the banister, and crept downstairs. The hall smelled musty already, too much old wood and furniture to stand enclosure by the night. She groped across to the drawing-room door and opened it. Here flowers and last year’s pot-pourri and stale cigarette smoke scented the air with a heavy reek. She made her way to one of the French windows, drew the curtains back, and opened it. She stood there a minute taking deep breaths. Very dark, very still, very warm. By starlight she could just see the sheen on the magnolia leaves. Leaving the window open, she sought her favourite old armchair, and curled up in it with her feet tucked under her. There, hugging herself, she tried to recapture the feeling that she was a child again. The night air came in, the clock ticked, and the hot feeling in her veins seemed to cool away in measure with its rhythm. She shut her eyes fast, and the sort of cosiness she used to feel in that old chair, as if she were all clasped and protected, stole upon her; but still she did not sleep. Behind her from the window with the rising of the moon a presence had stolen in, a sort of fingering uncanny light, slowly lifting each familiar object into ghostly semblance of itself. It was as if the room had come awake to keep her company; and the feeling she had sometimes had, that the old house had a life of its own, felt, saw, knew its spells of wakefulness and of slumber, tingled once more within her. Suddenly, she heard footsteps on the terrace and sat up startled.

Someone said: “Who is that? Is anyone there?”

A figure stood in the open window; by the voice she knew that it was Dornford, and said:

“Only me.”

“ONLY you!”

She saw him come in and stand beside the chair, looking down. He was still in his evening clothes, and, with his back to the faint light, she could hardly see his face at all.

“Anything the matter, Dinny?”

“Just couldn’t sleep. And you?”

“I’ve been finishing a bit of work in the library. I went out on the terrace for a breath, and saw this window open.”

“Which of us is going to say: ‘How marvellous’?”

Neither of them said anything. But Dinny unclasped herself and let her feet seek the ground.

Suddenly, Dornford put his hands to his head and turned his back on her.

“Forgive my being like this,” she murmured, “I naturally didn’t expect —”

He turned round again, and dropped on his knees beside her. “Dinny, it’s the end of the world, unless —”

She put her hands on his hair and said quietly: “— it’s the beginning.”

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