Wilfred sat in his rooms with two letters before him, one that he had just written to Dinny, and one that he had just received from her. He stared at the snapshots and tried to think clearly, and since he had been trying to think clearly ever since Michael’s visit of the previous evening, he was the less successful. Why had he chosen this particular moment to fall really in love, to feel that he had found the one person with whom he could bear to think of permanent companionship? He had never intended to marry, he had never supposed he would feel towards women anything but a transient urge that soon died in satisfaction. Even at the height of his infatuation with Fleur he had never supposed it would last. On the whole he was as profoundly sceptical about women as about religion, patriotism, or the qualities popularly attributed to the Englishman. He had thought himself armoured in scepticism, but in his armour was a joint so weak that he had received a fatal thrust. With bitter amusement he perceived that the profound loneliness left by that experience in Darfur had started in him an involuntary craving for spiritual companionship of which Dinny had, as involuntarily, availed herself. The thing that should have kept them apart had brought them together.
After Michael had left he had spent half the night going over and over it, and always coming back to the crude thought that, when all was said and done, he would be set down as a coward. And yet, but for Dinny, would even that matter? What did he care for society and its opinion? What did he care for England and the English? Even if they had prestige, was it deserved, any more than the prestige of any other country? The war had shown all countries and their inhabitants to be pretty much alike, capable of the same heroisms, basenesses, endurance, and absurdities. The war had shown mob feeling in every country to be equally narrow, void of discrimination, and generally contemptible. He was a wanderer by nature, and even if England and the nearer East were closed to him, the world was wide, the sun shone in many places, the stars wheeled over one, books could be read, women had beauty, flowers scent, tobacco its flavour, music its moving power, coffee its fragrance, horses and dogs and birds were the same seductive creatures, and thought and feeling brought an urge to rhythmic expression, almost wherever one went. Save for Dinny he could strike his tent and move out, and let tongues wag behind him! And now he couldn’t! Or could he? Was he not, indeed, in honour bound to? How could he saddle her with a mate at whom fingers were pointed? If she had inspired him with flaming desire, it would have been much simpler; they could have had their fling and parted, and no one the worse. But he had a very different feeling for her. She was like a well of sweet water met with in a desert; a flower with a scent coming up among the dry vegetation of the wilderness. She gave him the reverent longing that some tunes and pictures inspire; roused the same ache of pleasure as the scent of new-mown grass. She was a cool refreshment to a spirit sun-dried, wind-dried, and dark. Was he to give her up because of this damned business?
In the morning when he woke the same confused struggle of feeling had gone on. He had spent the afternoon writing her a letter, and had barely finished it when her first love-letter came. And he sat now with the two before him.
‘I can’t send this,’ he thought suddenly; ‘it goes over and over and gets nowhere. Rotten!’ He tore it up, and read her letter a third time.
‘Impossible!’ he thought; ‘to go down there! God and the King and the rest of it. Impossible!’ And seizing a piece of paper, he wrote:
“Cork Street: Saturday.
“Bless you for your letter. Come up here to lunch Monday. We must talk. — WILFRID.”
Having sent Stack out with this missive, he felt a little more at peace . . . .
Dinny did not receive this note till Monday morning, and was the more relieved to get it. The last two days had been spent by her in avoiding any mention of Wilfrid, listening to Hubert and Jean’s account of their life in the Soudan, walking and inspecting the state of trees with her father, copying his income-tax return, and going to church with him and her mother. The tacit silence about her engagement was very characteristic of a family whose members were mutually devoted and accustomed to spare each other’s feelings; it was all the more ominous.
After reading Wilfrid’s note she said to herself blankly: ‘For a love-letter it’s not a love-letter.’ And she said to her mother:
“Wilfrid’s shy of coming, dear. I must go up and talk to him. If I can, I will bring him down with me. If I can’t, I’ll try and arrange for you to see him at Mount Street. He’s lived alone so much that seeing people is a real strain.”
Lady Cherrell’s answer was a sigh, but it meant more to Dinny than words; she took her mother’s hand and said: “Cheer up, Mother dear. It’s something that I’m happy, isn’t it?”
“That would be everything, Dinny.”
Dinny was too conscious of implications in the ‘would be’ to answer.
She walked to the station, reached London at noon, and set out for Cork Street across the Park. The day was fine, the sun shone; spring was established to the full, with lilac and with tulips, young green of plane-tree leaves, songs of birds, and the freshness of the grass. But though she looked in tune, she suffered from presentiment. Why she should feel so, going to a private lunch with her lover, she could not have explained. There could be but few people in all the great town at such an hour of day with prospect before them so closely joyful; but Dinny was not deceived: all was not well — she knew it. Being before her time, she stopped at Mount Street to titivate. According to Blore, Sir Lawrence was out, but his lady in. Dinny left the message that she might be in to tea.
Passing the pleasant smell at the corner of Burlington Street, she had that peculiar feeling, experienced by all at times, of having once been someone else which accounts for so much belief in the transmigration of souls.
‘It only means,’ she thought, ‘something I’ve forgotten. Oh! here’s the turning!’ And her heart began to beat.
She was nearly breathless when Stack opened the door to her. “Lunch will be ready in five minutes, miss.” His eyes, dark, prominent above his jutting nose, and yet reflective, and the curly benevolence of his lips always gave her the impression that he was confessing her before she had anything to confess. He opened the inner door, shut it behind her, and she was in Wilfrid’s arms. That was a complete refutation of presentiment; the longest and most satisfactory moment of the sort she had yet experienced. So long that she was afraid he would not let her go in time. At last she said gently:
“Lunch has already been in a minute, darling, according to Stack.”
“Stack has tact.”
Not until after lunch, when they were alone once more with coffee, did discomfiture come with the suddenness of a thunderclap in a clear sky.
“That business has come out, Dinny.”
What! That? THAT! She mastered the rush of her dismay.
“A man called Telfourd Yule has brought the story back with him. They talk of it among the tribes. It’ll be in the bazaars by now, in the London clubs tomorrow. I shall be in Coventry in a few weeks’ time. Nothing can stop a thing like that.”
Without a word Dinny got up, pressed his head against her shoulder, then sat down beside him on the divan.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” he said gently.
“That this makes any difference? No, I don’t. The only difference could have been when you told me yourself. That made none. How can this, then?”
“How can I marry you?”
“That sort of thing is only in books, Wilfrid. WE won’t have linkéd misery long drawn out.”
“False heroics are not in my line either; but I don’t think you see yet.”
“I do. Now you can stand up straight again, and those who can’t understand — well, they don’t matter.”
“Then don’t your people matter?”
“Yes, they matter.”
“But you don’t suppose for a minute that they’ll understand?”
“I shall make them.”
“My poor dear!”
It struck her, ominously, how quiet and gentle he was being. He went on:
“I don’t know your people, but if they’re the sort you’ve described — charm ye never so wisely, they won’t rise. They can’t, it’s against their root convictions.”
“They’re fond of me.”
“That will make it all the more impossible for them to see you tied to me.”
Dinny drew away a little and sat with her chin on her hands. Then, without looking at him, she said:
“Do you want to get rid of me, Wilfrid?”
“Yes, but do you?”
He drew her into his arms. Presently she said:
“I see. Then if you don’t, you must leave this to me. And anyway it’s no good going to meet trouble. It isn’t known yet in London. We’ll wait until it is. I know you won’t marry me till then, so I MUST wait. After that it will be a clear issue, but you mustn’t be heroic then, Wilfrid, because it’ll hurt me too much — too much.” She clutched him suddenly; and he stayed silent.
With her cheek to his she said quietly:
“Do you want me to be everything to you before you marry me? If so, I can.”
“Very forward, isn’t it?”
“No! But we’ll wait. You make me feel too reverent.”
She sighed. “Perhaps it’s best.”
Presently she said: “Will you leave it to me to tell my people everything or not?”
“I will leave anything to you.”
“And if I want you to meet any one of them, will you?”
“I won’t ask you to come to Condaford — yet. That’s all settled, then. Now tell me exactly how you heard about this.”
When he had finished, she said reflectively:
“Michael and Uncle Lawrence. That will make it easier. Now, darling, I’m going. It’ll be good for Stack, and I want to think. I can only think when I’m insulated from you.”
She took his head between her hands. “Don’t be tragic, and I won’t either. Could we go joy-riding on Thursday? Good! Foch at noon! I’m far from an angel, I’m your love.”
She went dizzily down the stairs, now that she was alone, terribly conscious of the ordeal before them. She turned suddenly towards Oxford Street. ‘I’ll go and see Uncle Adrian,’ she thought.
Adrian’s thoughts at his Museum had been troubled of late by the claim of the Gobi desert to be the cradle of Homo Sapiens. The idea had been patented and put on the market, and it bid fair to have its day. He was reflecting on the changeability of anthropological fashions, when Dinny was announced.
“Ah! Dinny! I’ve been in the Gobi desert all the afternoon, and was just thinking of a nice cup of ‘hot’ tea. What do you say?”
“China tea always gives me an ‘ick feeling, Uncle.”
“We don’t go in for so-called luxuries. My duenna here makes good old Dover tea with leaves in it, and we have the homely bun.”
“Perfect! I came to tell you that I’ve given my young heart.”
“It’s really rather a terrible tale, so can I take off my hat?”
“My dear,” said Adrian, “take off anything. Have tea first. Here it is.”
While she was having tea Adrian regarded her with a rueful smile, caught, as it were, between his moustache and goatee. Since the tragic Ferse affair she had been more than ever his idea of a niece; and he perceived that she was really troubled.
Lying back in the only easy chair, with her knees crossed and the tips of her fingers pressed together, she looked, he thought, ethereal, as if she might suddenly float, and his eyes rested with comfort on the cap of her chestnut hair. But his face grew perceptibly longer while she was telling him her tale, leaving nothing out. She stopped at last and added:
“Uncle, please don’t look like that!”
“Well, Dinny, is it surprising?”
“I want your ‘reaction,’ as they call it, to what he did.” And she looked straight into his eyes.
“My personal reaction? Without knowing him — judgment reserved.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, you SHALL know him.”
Adrian nodded, and she said:
“Tell me the worst. What will the others who don’t know him think and do?”
“What was your own reaction, Dinny?”
“I knew him.”
“Only a week.”
“And ten years.”
“Oh! don’t tell me that a glimpse and three words at a wedding —”
“The grain of mustard-seed, dear. Besides, I’d read the poem, and knew from that all his feelings. He isn’t a believer; it must have seemed to him like some monstrous practical joke.”
“Yes, yes, I’ve read his verse — scepticism and love of beauty. His type blooms after long national efforts, when the individual’s been at a discount, and the State has exacted everything. Ego crops out and wants to kick the State and all its shibboleths. I understand all that. But — You’ve never been out of England, Dinny.”
“Only Italy, Paris, and the Pyrenees.”
“They don’t count. You’ve never been where England has to have a certain prestige. For Englishmen in such parts of the world it’s all for one and one for all.”
“I don’t think he realised that at the time, Uncle.”
Adrian looked at her, and shook his head.
“I still don’t,” said Dinny. “And thank God he didn’t, or I should never have known him. Ought one to sacrifice oneself for false values?”
“That’s not the point, my dear. In the East, where religion still means everything, you can’t exaggerate the importance attached to a change of faith. Nothing could so damage the Oriental’s idea of the Englishman as a recantation at the pistol’s point. The question before him was: Do I care enough for what is thought of my country and my people to die sooner than lower that conception? Forgive me, Dinny, but that was, brutally, the issue.”
She was silent for a minute and then said:
“I’m perfectly sure Wilfrid would have died sooner than do lots of things that would have lowered that conception; but he simply couldn’t admit that the Eastern conception of an Englishman ought to rest on whether he’s a Christian or not.”
“That’s special pleading; he not only renounced Christianity, he accepted Islam — one set of superstitions for another.”
“But, can’t you see, Uncle, the whole thing was a monstrous jest to him?”
“No, my dear, I don’t think I can.”
Dinny leaned back, and he thought how exhausted she looked.
“Well, if YOU can’t, no one else will. I mean no one of our sort, and that’s what I wanted to know.”
A bad ache started in Adrian’s midriff. “Dinny, there’s a fortnight of this behind you, and the rest of your life before you; you told me he’d give you up — for which I respect him. Now, doesn’t it need a wrench, if not for your sake — for his?”
“Uncle, you’re so renowned for dropping your best pals when they’re in a mess. And you know so little about love! You only waited eighteen years. Aren’t you rather funny?”
“Admitted,” said Adrian. “I suppose the word ‘Uncle’ came over me. If I knew that Desert was likely to be as faithful as you, I should say: ‘Go to it and be damned in your own ways, bless you!’”
“Then you simply MUST see him.”
“Yes; but I’ve seen people seem so unalterably in love that they were divorced within the year. I knew a man so completely satisfied by his honeymoon that he took a mistress two months later.”
“We,” murmured Dinny, “are not of that devouring breed. Seeing so many people on the screen examining each other’s teeth has spiritualised me, I know.”
“Who has heard of this development?”
“Michael and Uncle Lawrence, possibly Aunt Em. I don’t know whether to tell them at Condaford.”
“Let me talk to Hilary. He’ll have another point of view; and it won’t be orthodox.”
“Oh! Yes, I don’t mind Uncle Hilary.” And she rose. “May I bring Wilfrid to see you, then?”
Adrian nodded, and, when she had gone, stood again in front of a map of Mongolia, where the Gobi desert seemed to bloom like the rose in comparison with the wilderness across which his favourite niece was moving.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08