Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 4

The custom known as canvassing, more peculiar even than its name, was in full blast round Condaford. Every villager had been invited to observe how appropriate it would be if they voted for Dornford, and how equally appropriate it would be if they voted for Stringer. They had been exhorted publicly and vociferously, by ladies in cars, by ladies out of cars, and in the privacy of their homes by voices speaking out of trumpets. By newspaper and by leaflet they had been urged to perceive that they alone could save the country. They had been asked to vote early, and only just not asked to vote often. To their attention had been brought the startling dilemma that whichever way they voted the country would be saved. They had been exhorted by people who knew everything, it seemed, except how it would be saved. Neither the candidates nor their ladies, neither the mysterious disembodied voices, nor the still more incorporeal print, had made the faintest attempt to tell them that. It was better not; for, in the first place, no one knew. And, in the second place, why mention the particular when the general would serve? Why draw attention, even, to the fact that the general is made up of the particular; or to the political certainty that promise is never performance? Better, far better, to make large loose assertion, abuse the other side, and call the electors the sanest and soundest body of people in the world.

Dinny was not canvassing. She was ‘no good at it,’ she said; and, perhaps, secretly she perceived the peculiarity of the custom. Clare, if she noticed any irony about the business, was too anxious to be doing something to abstain. She was greatly helped by the way everybody took it. They had always been ‘canvassed,’ and they always would be. It was a harmless enough diversion to their ears, rather like the buzzing of gnats that did not bite. As to their votes, they would record them for quite other reasons — because their fathers had voted this or that before them, because of something connected with their occupation, because of their landlords, their churches, or their trades unions; because they wanted a change, while not expecting anything much from it; and not a few because of their common sense.

Clare, dreading questions, pattered as little as possible and came quickly to their babies or their health. She generally ended by asking what time they would like to be fetched. Noting the hour in a little book, she would come out not much the wiser. Being a Charwell — that is to say, no ‘foreigner’— she was taken as a matter of course; and though not, like Dinny, personally known to them all, she was part of an institution, Condaford without Charwells being still almost inconceivable.

She was driving back from this dutiful pastime towards the Grange about four o’clock on the Saturday before the election, when a voice from an overtaking two-seater called her name, and she saw young Tony Croom.

“What on earth are you doing here, Tony?”

“I couldn’t go any longer without a glimpse of you.”

“But, my dear boy, to come down here is too terribly pointed.”

“I know, but I’ve seen you.”

“You weren’t going to call, were you?”

“If I didn’t see you otherwise. Clare, you look so lovely!”

“That, if true, is not a reason for queering my pitch at home.”

“The last thing I want to do; but I’ve got to see you now and then, otherwise I shall go batty.”

His face was so earnest and his voice so moved, that Clare felt for the first time stirred in that hackneyed region, the heart.

“That’s bad,” she said; “because I’ve got to find my feet, and I can’t have complications.”

“Let me kiss you just once. Then I should go back happy.”

Still more stirred, Clare thrust forward her cheek.

“Well, quick!” she said.

He glued his lips to her cheek, but when he tried to reach her lips she drew back.

“No. Now Tony, you must go. If you’re to see me, it must be in Town. But what is the good of seeing me? It’ll only make us unhappy.”

“Bless you for that ‘us.’”

Clare’s brown eyes smiled; their colour was like that of a glass of Malaga wine held up to the light.

“Have you found a job?”

“There are none.”

“It’ll be better when the election’s over. I’M thinking of trying to get with a milliner.”

“You!”

“I must do something. My people here are as hard pressed as everybody else. Now, Tony, you said you’d go.”

“Promise to let me know the first day you come up.”

Clare nodded, and re-started her engine. As the car slid forward gently, she turned her face and gave him another smile.

He continued to stand with his hands to his head till the car rounded a bend and she was gone.

Turning the car into the stable yard, she was thinking ‘Poor boy!’ and feeling the better for it. Whatever her position in the eyes of the law, or according to morality, a young and pretty woman breathes more easily when inhaling the incense of devotion. She may have strict intentions, but she has also a sense of what is due to her, and a dislike of waste. Clare looked the prettier and felt the happier all that evening. But the night was ridden by the moon; nearly full, it soared up in front of her window, discouraging sleep. She got up and parted the curtains. Huddling into her fur coat, she stood at the window. There was evidently a frost, and a ground mist stretched like fleece over the fields. The tall elms, ragged-edged, seemed to be sailing slowly along over the white vapour. The earth out there was unknown by her, as if it had dropped from that moon. She shivered. It might be beautiful, but it was cold, uncanny; a frozen glamour. She thought of the nights in the Red Sea, when she lay with bedclothes thrown off, and the very moon seemed hot. On board that ship people had ‘talked’ about her and Tony — she had seen many signs of it, and hadn’t cared. Why should she? He had not even kissed her all those days. Not even the evening he came to her state-room and she had shown him photographs, and they had talked. A nice boy, modest and a gentleman! And if he was in love, now, she couldn’t help it — she hadn’t tried to ‘vamp’ him. As to what would happen, life always tripped one up, it seemed, whatever one did! Things must take care of themselves. To make resolutions, plans, lay down what was called ‘a line of conduct,’ was not the slightest use! She had tried that with Jerry. She shivered, then laughed, then went rigid with a sort of fury. No! If Tony expected her to rush into his arms he was very much mistaken. Sensual love! She knew it inside out. No, thank you! As that moonlight, now, she was cold! Impossible to speak of it even to her Mother, whatever she and Dad might be thinking.

Dinny must have told them something, for they had been most awfully decent. But even Dinny didn’t know. Nobody should ever know! If only she had money it wouldn’t matter. ‘Ruined life,’ of course, and all that, was just old-fashioned tosh. Life could always be amusing if one made it so. She was not going to skulk and mope. Far from that! But money she must somehow make. She shivered even in her fur coat. The moonlight seemed to creep into one’s bones. These old houses — no central heating, because they couldn’t afford to put it in! The moment the election was over she would go up to London and scout round. Fleur might know of something. If there was no future in hats, one might get a political secretaryship. She could type, she knew French well, people could read her handwriting. She could drive a car with anybody, or school a horse. She knew all about country house life, manners, and precedence. There must be lots of Members who wanted somebody like her, who could tell them how to dress, and how to decline this and that without anybody minding, and generally do their crossword puzzles for them. She’d had quite a lot of experience with dogs, and some with flowers, especially the arrangement of them in bowls and vases. And if it were a question of knowing anything about politics, she could soon mug that up. So, in that illusory cold moonshine, Clare could not see how they could fail to need her. With a salary and her own two hundred a year she could get along quite well! The moon, behind an elm tree now, no longer had its devastating impersonality, but rather an air of bright intrigue, peeping through those still thick boughs with a conspiring eye. She hugged herself, danced a few steps to warm her feet, and slipped back into her bed . . . .

Young Croom, in his borrowed two-seater, had returned to Town at an unobtrusive sixty miles an hour. His first kiss on Clare’s cold but glowing cheek had given him slight delirium. It was an immense step forward. He was not a vicious young man. That Clare was married was to him no advantage. But whether, if she had not been married, his feelings towards her would have been of quite the same brand, was a question he left unexamined. The subtle difference which creeps into the charm of a woman who has known physical love, and the sting which the knowledge of that implants in a man’s senses — such is food for a psychologist rather than for a straightforward young man really in love for the first time. He wanted her, as his wife if possible; if that were not possible, in any other way that was. He had been in Ceylon three years, hard-worked, seeing few white women, and none that he had cared for. His passion had, hitherto, been for polo, and his meeting with Clare had come just as he had lost both job and polo. Clare filled for him a yawning gap. As with Clare, so with him in the matter of money, only more so.

He had some two hundred pounds saved, and would then be ‘bang up against it’ unless he got a job. Having returned the two-seater to his friend’s garage, he considered where he could dine most cheaply, and decided on his club. He was practically living there, except for a bedroom in Ryder Street, where he slept and breakfasted on tea and boiled eggs. A simple room it was, on the ground floor, with a bed and a dress cupboard, looking out on the tall back of another building, the sort of room that his father, coming on the Town in the ‘nineties, had slept and breakfasted in for half the money.

On Saturday nights the Coffee House was deserted, save for a certain number of ‘old buffers’ accustomed to week-ending in St. James’s Street. Young Croom ordered the three-course dinner and ate it to the last crumb. He drank Bass, and went down to the smoking-room for a pipe. About to sink into an armchair, he noticed standing before the fire a tallish thin man with twisting dark eyebrows and a little white moustache, who was examining him through a tortoiseshell-rimmed monocle. Acting on the impulse of a lover craving connection with his lady, he said:

“Excuse me, sir, but aren’t you Sir Lawrence Mont?”

“That has been my lifelong conviction.”

Young Croom smiled.

“Then, sir, I met your niece, Lady Corven, coming home from Ceylon. She said you were a member here. My name’s Croom.”

“Ah!” said Sir Lawrence, dropping his eyeglass: “I probably knew your father — he was always here, before the war.”

“Yes, he put me down at birth. I believe I’m about the youngest in the Club.”

Sir Lawrence nodded. “So you met Clare. How was she?”

“All right, I think, sir.”

“Let’s sit down and talk about Ceylon. Cigar?”

“Thank you, sir, I have my pipe.”

“Coffee, anyway? Waiter, two coffees. My wife is down at Condaford staying with Clare’s people. An attractive young woman.”

Noting those dark eyes, rather like a snipe’s, fixed on him, young Croom regretted his impulse. He had gone red, but he said bravely:

“Yes, sir, I thought her delightful.”

“Do you know Corven?”

“No,” said young Croom shortly.

“Clever fellow. Did you like Ceylon?”

“Oh! yes. But it’s given me up.”

“Not going back?”

“Afraid not.”

“It’s a long time since I was there. India has rather smothered it. Been in India?”

“No, sir.”

“Difficult to know how far the people of India really want to cut the painter. Seventy per cent peasants! Peasants want stable conditions and a quiet life. I remember in Egypt before the war there was a strong nationalist agitation, but the fellaheen were all for Kitchener and stable British rule. We took Kitchener away and gave them unstable conditions in the war, and so they went on the other tack. What were you doing in Ceylon?”

“Running a tea plantation. But they took up economy, amalgamated three plantations, and I wasn’t wanted any more. Do you think there’s going to be a recovery, sir? I can’t understand economics.”

“Nobody can. There are dozens of causes of the present state of things, and people are always trying to tie it to one. Take England: There’s the knock-out of Russian trade, the comparative independence of European countries, the great shrinkage of Indian and Chinese trade; the higher standard of British living since the war; the increase of national expenditure from two hundred-odd millions to eight hundred millions, which means nearly six hundred millions a year less to employ labour with. When they talk of over-production being the cause, it certainly doesn’t apply to us. We haven’t produced so little for a long time past. Then there’s dumping, and shocking bad organisation, and bad marketing of what little food we produce. And there’s our habit of thinking it’ll be ‘all right on the night,’ and general spoiled-child attitude. Well, those are all special English causes, except that the too high standard of living and the spoiled-child attitude are American too.”

“And the other American causes, sir?”

“The Americans certainly have over-produced and over-speculated. And they’ve been living so high that they’ve mortgaged their future — instalment system and all that. Then they’re sitting on gold, and gold doesn’t hatch out. And, more than all, they don’t realise yet that the money they lent to Europe during the war was practically money they’d made out of the war. When they agree to general cancellation of debts they’ll be agreeing to general recovery, including their own.”

“But will they ever agree?”

“You never know what the Americans will do, they’re looser-jointed than we of the old world. They’re capable of the big thing, even in their own interests. Are you out of a job?”

“Very much so.”

“What’s your record?”

“I was at Wellington and at Cambridge for two years. Then this tea thing came along, and I took it like a bird.”

“What age are you?”

“Twenty-six.”

“Any notion of what you want to do?”

Young Croom sat forward.

“Really, sir, I’d have a shot at anything. But I’m pretty good with horses. I thought possibly I might get into a training stable; or with a breeder; or get a riding mastership.”

“Quite an idea. It’s queer about the horse — he’s coming in as he goes out. I’ll talk to my cousin Jack Muskham — he breeds bloodstock. And he’s got a bee in his bonnet about the re-introduction of Arab blood into the English thoroughbred. In fact he’s got some Arab mares coming over. Just possibly he might want someone.”

Young Croom flushed and smiled.

“That would be frightfully kind of you, sir. It sounds ideal. I’ve had Arab polo ponies.”

“Well,” murmured Sir Lawrence thoughtfully, “I don’t know that anything excites my sympathy more than a man who really wants a job and can’t find one. We must get this election over first, though. Unless the socialists are routed horse-breeders will have to turn their stock into potted meat. Imagine having the dam of a Derby winner between brown bread and butter for your tea — real ‘Gentleman’s Relish!’”

He got up.

“I’ll say good-night, now. My cigar will just last me home.”

Young Croom rose too, and remained standing till that spare and active figure had vanished.

‘Frightfully nice old boy!’ he thought, and in the depths of his armchair he resigned himself to hope and to Clare’s face wreathed by the fumes of his pipe.

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