In 1930, shortly after the appearance of the Budget, the eighth wonder of the world might have been observed in the neighbourhood of Victoria Station — three English people, of wholly different type, engaged in contemplating simultaneously a London statue. They had come separately, and stood a little apart from each other in the south-west corner of the open space clear of the trees, where the drifting late afternoon light of spring was not in their eyes. One of these three was a young woman of about twenty-six, one a youngish man of perhaps thirty-four, and one a man of between fifty and sixty. The young woman, slender and far from stupid-looking, had her head tilted slightly upward to one side, and a faint smile on her parted lips. The younger man, who wore a blue overcoat with a belt girt tightly round his thin middle, as if he felt the spring wind chilly, was sallow from fading sunburn; and the rather disdainful look of his mouth was being curiously contradicted by eyes fixed on the statue with real intensity of feeling. The elder man, very tall, in a brown suit and brown buckskin shoes, lounged, with his hands in his trouser pockets, and his long, weathered, good-looking face masked in a sort of shrewd scepticism.
In the meantime the statue, which was that of Marshal Foch on his horse, stood high up among those trees, stiller than any of them.
The youngish man spoke suddenly.
“He delivered us.”
The effect of this breach of form on the others was diverse; the elder man’s eyebrows went slightly up, and he moved forward as if to examine the horse’s legs. The young woman turned and looked frankly at the speaker, and instantly her face became surprised.
“Aren’t you Wilfrid Desert?”
The youngish man bowed.
“Then,” said the young woman, “we’ve met. At Fleur Mont’s wedding. You were best man, if you remember, the first I’d seen. I was only sixteen. You wouldn’t remember me — Dinny Cherrell, baptized Elizabeth. They ran me in for bridesmaid at the last minute.”
The youngish man’s mouth lost its disdain.
“I remember your hair perfectly.”
“Nobody ever remembers me by anything else.”
“Wrong! I remember thinking you’d sat to Botticelli. You’re still sitting, I see.”
Dinny was thinking: ‘His eyes were the first to flutter me. And they really are beautiful.’
The said eyes had been turned again upon the statue.
“He DID deliver us,” said Desert.
“You were there, of course.”
“Flying, and fed up to the teeth.”
“Do you like the statue?”
“Yes,” murmured Dinny, “it IS a horse, not just a prancing barrel, with teeth, nostrils and an arch.”
“The whole thing’s workmanlike, like Foch himself.”
Dinny wrinkled her brow.
“I like the way it stands up quietly among those trees.”
“How is Michael? You’re a cousin of his, if I remember.”
“Michael’s all right. Still in the House; he has a seat he simply can’t lose.”
“Flourishing. Did you know she had a daughter last year?”
“Fleur? H’m! That makes two, doesn’t it?”
“Yes; they call this one Catherine.”
“I haven’t been home since 1927. Gosh! It’s a long time since that wedding.”
“You look,” said Dinny, contemplating the sallow darkness of his face, “as if you had been in the sun.”
“When I’m not in the sun I’m not alive.”
“Michael once told me you lived in the East.”
“Well, I wander about there.” His face seemed to darken still more, and he gave a little shiver. “Beastly cold, the English spring!”
“And do you still write poetry?”
“Oh! you know of that weakness?”
“I’ve read them all. I like the last volume best.”
He grinned. “Thank you for stroking me the right way; poets, you know, like it. Who’s that tall man? I seem to know his face.”
The tall man, who had moved to the other side of the statue, was coming back.
“Somehow,” murmured Dinny, “I connect him with that wedding, too.”
The tall man came up to them.
“The hocks aren’t all that,” he said.
“I always feel so thankful I haven’t got hocks. We were just trying to decide whether we knew you. Weren’t you at Michael Mont’s wedding some years ago?”
“I was. And who are you, young lady?”
“We all met there. I’m his first cousin on his mother’s side, Dinny Cherrell. Mr. Desert was his best man.”
The tall man nodded.
“Oh! Ah! My name’s Jack Muskham, I’m a first cousin of his father’s.” He turned to Desert. “You admired Foch, it seems.”
Dinny was surprised at the morose look that had come on his face.
“Well,” said Muskham, “he was a soldier all right; and there weren’t too many about. But I came here to see the horse.”
“It is, of course, the important part,” murmured Dinny.
The tall man gave her his sceptical smile.
“One thing we have to thank Foch for, he never left us in the lurch.”
Desert suddenly faced round:
“Any particular reason for that remark?”
Muskham shrugged his shoulders, raised his hat to Dinny, and lounged away.
When he had gone there was a silence as over deep waters.
“Which way were you going?” said Dinny at last.
“Any way that you are.”
“I thank you kindly, sir. Would an aunt in Mount Street serve as a direction?”
“You must remember her, Michael’s mother; she’s a darling, the world’s perfect mistress of the ellipse — talks in stepping stones, so that you have to jump to follow her.”
They crossed the road and set out up Grosvenor Place on the Buckingham Palace side.
“I suppose you find England changed every time you come home, if you’ll forgive me for making conversation?”
“Don’t you ‘love your native land,’ as the saying is?”
“She inspires me with a sort of horror.”
“Are you by any chance one of those people who wish to be thought worse than they are?”
“Not possible. Ask Michael.”
“Michael is incapable of slander.”
“Michael and all angels are outside the count of reality.”
“No,” said Dinny, “Michael is very real, and very English.”
“That is his contradictory trouble.”
“Why do you run England down? It’s been done before.”
“I never run her down except to English people.”
“That’s something. But why to me?”
“Because you seem to be what I should like to feel that England is.”
“Flattered and fair, but neither fat nor forty.”
“What I object to is England’s belief that she is still ‘the goods.’”
“And isn’t she, really?”
“Yes,” said Desert, surprisingly, “but she has no reason to think so.”
‘You’re perverse, brother Wilfrid, the young woman said,
And your tongue is exceedingly wry;
You do not look well when you stand on your head —
Why will you continually try?’
She remarked, more simply:
“If England is still ‘the goods,’ has no reason to think so and yet does, she would seem to have intuition, anyway. Was it by intuition that you disliked Mr. Muskham?” Then, looking at his face, she thought: ‘I’m dropping a brick.’
“Why should I dislike him? He’s just the usual insensitive type of hunting, racing man who bores me stiff.”
‘That wasn’t the reason,’ thought Dinny, still regarding him. A strange face! Unhappy from deep inward disharmony, as though a good angel and a bad were for ever seeking to fire each other out; but his eyes sent the same thrill through her as when, at sixteen, with her hair still long, she had stood near him at Fleur’s wedding.
“And do you really like wandering about in the East?”
“The curse of Esau is on me.”
‘Some day,’ she thought, ‘I’ll make him tell me why. Only probably I shall never see him again.’ And a little chill ran down her back.
“I wonder if you know my Uncle Adrian. He was in the East during the war. He presides over bones at a museum. You probably know Diana Ferse, anyway. He married her last year.”
“I know nobody to speak of.”
“Our point of contact, then, is only Michael.”
“I don’t believe in contacts through other people. Where do you live, Miss Cherrell?”
“A short biographical note seems to be indicated. Since the umpteenth century, my family has been ‘seated’ at Condaford Grange in Oxfordshire. My father is a retired General; I am one of two daughters; and my only brother is a married soldier just coming back from the Soudan on leave.”
“Oh!” said Desert, and again his face had that morose look.
“I am twenty-six, unmarried but with no children as yet. My hobby seems to be attending to other people’s business. I don’t know why I have it. When in Town I stay at Lady Mont’s in Mount Street. With a simple upbringing I have expensive instincts and no means of gratifying them. I believe I can see a joke. Now you?”
Desert smiled and shook his head.
“Shall I?” said Dinny. “You are the second son of Lord Mullyon, you had too much war; you write poetry; you have nomadic instincts and are your own enemy; the last item has the only news value. Here we are in Mount Street; do come in and see Aunt Em.”
“Thank you — no. But will you lunch with me tomorrow and go to a matinée?”
“I will. Where?”
They exchanged hand-grips and parted, but as Dinny went into her aunt’s house she was tingling all over, and she stood still outside the drawing-room to smile at the sensation.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08