Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 6

Three days after their meeting at the Coffee House, young Croom received a letter from Sir Lawrence Mont, saying that his cousin Muskham was not expecting the Arab mares till the spring. In the meantime he would make a note of Mr. Croom and a point of seeing him soon. Did Mr. Croom know any vernacular Arabic?

‘No,’ thought young Croom, ‘but I know Stapylton.’

Stapylton, of the Lancers, who had been his senior at Wellington, was home from India on leave. A noted polo player, he would be sure to know the horse jargon of the East; but, having broken his thigh-bone schooling a steeplechaser, he would keep; the business of finding an immediate ‘job of work’ would not. Young Croom continued his researches. Everyone said: ‘Wait till the election’s over!’

On the morning after the election, therefore, he issued from Ryder Street with the greater expectation, and, on the evening after, returned to the Coffee House, with the less, thinking: ‘I might just as well have gone to Newmarket and seen the Cambridgeshire.’

The porter handed him a note, and his heart began to thump. Seeking a corner, he read:

“DEAR TONY—

“I have got the job of secretary to our new member, Eustace Dornford, who’s a K.C. in the Temple. So I’ve come up to Town. Till I find a tent of my own, I shall be at my Aunt Lady Mont’s in Mount Street. I hope you’ve been as lucky. I promised to let you know when I came up; but I adjure you to sense and not sensibility, and to due regard for pride and prejudice.

“Your shipmate and well-wisher,

“CLARE CORVEN.”

‘The darling!’ he thought. ‘What luck!’ He read the note again, placed it beneath the cigarette case in his left-hand waistcoat pocket, and went into the smoking-room. There, on a sheet of paper stamped with the Club’s immemorial design, he poured out an ingenuous heart:

“DARLING CLARE —

“Your note has perked me up no end. That you will be in Town is magnificent news. Your uncle has been very kind to me, and I shall simply have to call and thank him. So do look out for me about six o’clock tomorrow. I spend all my time hunting a job, and am beginning to realise what it means to poor devils to be turned down day after day. When my pouch is empty, and that’s not far away, it’ll be even worse for me. No dole for this child, unfortunately. I hope the pundit you’re going to take in hand is a decent sort. I always think of M.P.‘s as a bit on the wooden side. And somehow I can’t see you among Bills and petitions and letters about public-house licences and so forth. However, I think you’re splendid to want to be independent. What a thumping majority! If they can’t do things with that behind them, they can’t do things at all. It’s quite impossible for me not to be in love with you, you know, and to long to be with you all day and all night, too. But I’m going to be as good as I can, because the very last thing I want is to cause you uneasiness of any sort. I think of you all the time, even when I’m searching the marble countenance of some fish-faced blighter to see if my piteous tale is weakening his judgment. The fact is I love you terribly. To-morrow, Thursday, about six! “Good-night, dear and lovely one,

“YOUR TONY.”

Having looked up Sir Lawrence’s number in Mount Street, he addressed the note, licked the envelope with passion, and went out to post it himself. Then, suddenly, he did not feel inclined to return to the Coffee House. The place had a grudge against his state of mind. Clubs were so damned male, and their whole attitude to women so after-dinnerish — half contempt, half lechery! Funk-holes they were, anyway, full of comfort, secured against women, immune from writs; and men all had the same armchair look once they got inside. The Coffee House, too, about the oldest of all clubs, was stuffed with regular buffers, men you couldn’t imagine outside a club. ‘No!’ he thought. ‘I’ll have a chop somewhere, and go to that thing at Drury Lane.’

He got a seat rather far back in the upper boxes, but, his sight being very good, he saw quite well. He was soon absorbed. He had been out of England long enough to have some sentiment about her. This pictorial pageant of her history for the last thirty years moved him more than he would have confessed to anyone sitting beside him. Boer war, death of the Queen, sinking of the Titanic, Great War, Armistice, health to 1931 — if anyone asked him afterwards, he would probably say: ‘Marvellous! but gave me the pip rather!’ While sitting there it seemed more than the ‘pip’; the heartache of a lover, who wants happiness with his mistress and cannot reach it; the feeling of one who tries to stand upright and firm and is for ever being swayed this way and that. The last words rang in his ears as he went out: ‘Greatness and dignity and peace.’ Moving and damned ironical! He took a cigarette from his case and lighted it. The night was dry and he walked, threading his way through the streams of traffic, with the melancholy howling of street-singers in his ears. Sky-signs and garbage! People rolling home in their cars, and homeless night-birds! ‘Greatness and dignity and peace!’

‘I must absolutely have a drink,’ he thought. The Club seemed possible again now, even inviting, and he made towards it. ‘“Farewell, Piccadilly! Good-bye, Leicester Square!”’ Marvellous that scene, where those Tommies marched up in a spiral through the dark mist, whistling; while in the lighted front of the stage three painted girls rattled out: ‘“We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.”’ And from the boxes on the stage at the sides people looked down and clapped! The whole thing there! The gaiety on those girls’ painted faces getting more and more put-on and heart-breaking! He must go again with Clare! Would it move her? And suddenly he perceived that he didn’t know. What did one know about anyone, even the woman one loved? His cigarette was scorching his lip, and he spat out the butt. That scene with the honeymooning couple leaning over the side of the Titantic, everything before them, and nothing before them but the cold deep sea! Did that couple know anything except that they desired each other? Life was damned queer, when you thought about it! He turned up the Coffee House steps, feeling as if he had lived long since he went down them . . . .

It was just six o’clock when he rang the bell at Mount Street on the following day.

A butler, with slightly raised eyebrows, opened the door.

“Is Sir Lawrence Mont at home?”

“No, sir. Lady Mont is in, sir.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know Lady Mont. I wonder if I could see Lady Corven for a moment?”

One of the butler’s eyebrows rose still higher. ‘Ah!’ he seemed to be thinking.

“If you’ll give me your name, sir.”

Young Croom produced a card.

“‘Mr. James Bernard Croom,’” chanted the butler.

“Mr. Tony Croom, tell her, please.”

“Quite! If you’ll wait in here a moment. Oh! here is Lady Corven.”

A voice from the stairs said:

“Tony? What punctuality! Come up and meet my Aunt.”

She was leaning over the stair-rail, and the butler had disappeared.

“Put your hat down. How can you go about without a coat? I shiver all the time.”

Young Croom came close below her.

“Darling!” he murmured.

She placed one finger to her lips, then stretched it down to him, so that he could just reach it with his own.

“Come along!” She had opened a door when he reached the top, and was saying: “This is a shipmate, Aunt Em. He’s come to see Uncle Lawrence. Mr. Croom, my Aunt, Lady Mont.”

Young Croom was aware of a presence slightly swaying towards him. A voice said: “Ah! Ships! Of course! How d’you do?”

Young Croom, aware that he had been ‘placed,’ saw Clare regarding him with a slightly mocking smile. If only they could be alone five minutes, he would kiss that smile off her face! He would —!

“Tell me about Ceylon, Mr. Craven.”

“Croom, Auntie. Tony Croom. Better call him Tony. It isn’t his name, but everybody does.”

“Tony! Always heroes. I don’t know why.”

“This Tony is quite ordinary.”

“Ceylon. Did you know her there, Mr. — Tony?”

“No. We only met on the ship.”

“Ah! Lawrence and I used to sleep on deck. That was in the ‘naughty nineties.’ The river here used to be full of punts, I remember.”

“It still is, Aunt Em.”

Young Croom had a sudden vision of Clare and himself in a punt up a quiet backwater. He roused himself and said:

“I went to Cavalcade last night. Great!”

“Ah!” said Lady Mont. “That reminds me.” She left the room.

Young Croom sprang up.

“Tony! Behave!”

“But surely that’s what she went for!”

“Aunt Em is extraordinarily kind, and I’m not going to abuse her kindness.”

“But, Clare, you don’t know what —”

“Yes, I do. Sit down again.”

Young Croom obeyed.

“Now listen, Tony! I’ve had enough physiology to last me a long time. If you and I are going to be pals, it’s got to be platonic.”

“Oh, God!” said young Croom.

“But it’s got to; or else — we simply aren’t going to see each other.”

Young Croom sat very still with his eyes fixed on hers, and there passed through her the thought: ‘It’s going to torture him. He looks too nice for that. I don’t believe we ought to see each other.’

“Look!” she said, gently, “you want to help me, don’t you? There’s lots of time, you know. Some day — perhaps.”

Young Croom grasped the arms of his chair. His eyes had a look of pain.

“Very well,” he said slowly, “anything so long as I can see you. I’ll wait till it means something more than physiology to you.”

Clare sat examining the glacé toe of her slowly wiggling shoe; suddenly she looked straight into his brooding eyes.

“If,” she said, “I had not been married, you would wait cheerfully and it wouldn’t hurt you. Think of me like that.”

“Unfortunately I can’t. Who could?”

“I see. I am fruit, not blossom — tainted by physiology.”

“Don’t! Oh! Clare, I will be anything you want to you. And if I’m not always as cheery as a bird, forgive me.”

She looked at him through her eyelashes and said: “Good!”

Then came silence, during which she was conscious that he was fixing her in his mind from her shingled dark head to her glacé kid toe. She had not lived with Jerry Corven without having been made conscious of every detail of her body. She could not help its grace or its provocation. She did not want to torture him, but she could not find it unpleasant that she did. Queer how one could be sorry and yet pleased, and, withal, sceptical and a little bitter. Give yourself, and after a few months how much would he want you! She said abruptly:

“Well, I’ve found rooms — a quaint little hole — used to be an antique shop, in a disused mews.”

He said eagerly: “Sounds jolly. When are you going in?”

“Next week.”

“Can I help?”

“If you can distemper walls.”

“Rather! I did all my bungalow in Ceylon, two or three times over.”

“We should have to work in the evenings, because of my job.”

“What about your boss? Is he decent?”

“Very, and in love with my sister. At least, I think so.”

“Oh!” said young Croom dubiously.

Clare smiled. He was so obviously thinking: ‘Could a man be that when he sees YOU every day?’

“When can I come first?”

“To-morrow evening, if you like. It’s 2, Melton Mews, off Malmesbury Square. I’ll get the stuff in the morning, and we’ll begin upstairs. Say six-thirty.”

“Splendid!”

“Only, Tony — no importunities. ‘Life is real, life is earnest.’”

Grinning ruefully, he put his hand on his heart.

“And you must go now. I’ll take you down and see if my Uncle’s come in.”

Young Croom stood up.

“What is happening about Ceylon?” he said, abruptly. “Are you being worried?”

Clare shrugged. “Nothing is happening so far.”

“That can’t possibly last. Have you thought things out?”

“Thinking won’t help me. It’s quite likely he’ll do nothing.”

“I can’t bear your being —” he stopped.

“Come along,” said Clare, and led the way downstairs.

“I don’t think I’ll try to see your Uncle,” said young Croom. “To-morrow at half-past six, then.” He raised her hand to his lips, and marched to the door. There he turned. She was standing with her head a little on one side, smiling. He went out, distracted.

A young man, suddenly awakened amid the doves of Cytherea, conscious for the first time of the mysterious magnetism which radiates from what the vulgar call ‘a grass widow,’ and withheld from her by scruples or convention, is to be pitied. He has not sought his fate. It comes on him by stealth, bereaving him ruthlessly of all other interest in life. It is an obsession replacing normal tastes with a rapturous aching. Maxims such as ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife,’ ‘Blessed are the pure in heart,’ become singularly academic. Young Croom had been brought up to the tinkling of the school bell: ‘Play the game!’ He now perceived its strange inadequacy. What WAS the game? Here was she, young and lovely, fleeing from a partner seventeen years older than herself, because he was a brute; she hadn’t said so, but of course he must be! Here was himself, desperately in love with her, and liked by her — not in the same way, but still as much as could be expected! And nothing to come of it but tea together! There was a kind of sacrilege in such waste.

Thus preoccupied he passed a man of middle height and alert bearing, whose rather cat-like eyes and thin lips were set into a brown face with the claws of many little wrinkles, and who turned to look after him with a slight contraction of the mouth which might have been a smile.

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