Dinny stayed on at Mount Street for dinner to see Sir Lawrence. She was in his study when he came in, and said at once: “Uncle Lawrence, Aunt Em knows what you and Michael know, doesn’t she?”
“She does, Dinny. Why?”
“She’s been so discreet. I’ve told Uncle Adrian; he seems to think Wilfrid has lowered English prestige in the East. Just what is this English prestige? I thought we were looked on as a race of successful hypocrites. And in India as arrogant bullies.”
Sir Lawrence wriggled.
“You’re confusing national with individual reputation. The things are totally distinct. The individual Englishman in the East is looked up to as a man who isn’t to be rattled, who keeps his word, and sticks by his own breed.”
Dinny flushed. The implication was not lost on her.
“In the East,” Sir Lawrence went on, “the Englishman, or rather the Briton, because as often as not he’s a Scot or a Welshman or a North Irishman, is generally isolated: traveller, archæologist, soldier, official, civilian, planter, doctor, engineer, or missionary, he’s almost always head man of a small separate show; he maintains himself against odds on the strength of the Englishman’s reputation. If a single Englishman is found wanting, down goes the stock of all those other isolated Englishmen. People know that and recognise its importance. That’s what you’re up against, and it’s no use underestimating. You can’t expect Orientals, to whom religion means something, to understand that to some of us it means nothing. An Englishman to them is a believing Christian, and if he recants, he’s understood as recanting his most precious belief.”
Dinny said drily: “In fact, then, Wilfrid has no case in the eyes of our world.”
“In the eyes of the world that runs the Empire, I’m afraid — none, Dinny. Could it be otherwise? Unless there were complete mutual confidence between these isolated beings that none of them will submit to dictation, take a dare, or let the others down, the thing wouldn’t work at all. Now would it?”
“I never thought about it.”
“Well, you can take it from me. Michael has explained to me how Desert’s mind worked; and from the point of view of a disbeliever like myself, there’s a lot to be said. I should intensely dislike being wiped out over such an issue. But it wasn’t the real issue; and if you say: ‘He didn’t see that,’ then I’m afraid my answer is he didn’t because he has too much spiritual pride. And that won’t help him as a defence, because spiritual pride is anathema to the Services, and indeed to the world generally. It’s the quality, you remember, that got Lucifer into trouble.”
Dinny, who had listened with her eyes fixed on her uncle’s twisting features, said:
“It’s extraordinary the things one can do without.”
Sir Lawrence screwed in a puzzled eyeglass.
“Have you caught the jumping habit from your aunt?”
“If one can’t have the world’s approval, one can do without it.”
“‘The world well lost for love,’ sounds gallant, Dinny, but it’s been tried out and found wanting. Sacrifice on one side is the worst foundation for partnership, because the other side comes to resent it.”
“I don’t expect more happiness than most people get.”
“That’s not as much as I want for you, Dinny.”
“Dinner!” said Lady Mont, in the doorway: “Have you a vacuum, Dinny? They use those cleaners,” she went on, as they went towards the dining-room, “for horses now.”
“Why not for human beings,” murmured Dinny, “and clear out their fears and superstitions? Uncle wouldn’t approve, though.”
“You’ve been talkin’, then. Blore, go away!”
When he had gone, she added: “I’m thinkin’ of your father, Dinny.”
“So am I.”
“I used to get over him. But daughters! Still, he must.”
“Em!” said Sir Lawrence, warningly, as Blore came back.
“Well,” said Lady Mont, “beliefs and that — too fatiguin’. I never liked christenin’s — so unfeelin’ to the baby; and puttin’ it upon other people; only they don’t bother, except for cups and Bibles. Why do they put fern-leaves on cups? Or is that archery? Uncle Cuffs won a cup at archery when he was a curate. They used. It’s all very agitatin’.”
“Aunt Em,” said Dinny, “all I hope and want is that no one will agitate themselves over me and my small affair. If people won’t agitate we can be happy.”
“So wise! Lawrence, tell Michael that. Blore! Give Miss Dinny some sherry.”
Dinny, putting her lips to the sherry, looked across at her aunt’s face. It was comforting — slightly raised in the eyebrows, drooped in the lids, curved in the nose, and as if powdered in the hair above the comely neck, shoulders and bust.
In the taxi for Paddington she had such a vivid vision of Wilfrid, alone, with this hanging over him, that she very nearly leaned out to say: “Cork Street.” The cab turned a corner. Praed Street? Yes, it would be! All the worry in the world came from the conflict of love against love. If only her people didn’t love her, and she them, how simple things would be!
A porter was saying: “Any luggage, Miss?”
“None, thank you.” As a little girl she had always meant to marry a porter! That was before her music master came from Oxford. He had gone off to the war when she was ten. She bought a magazine and took her seat in the train. But she was very tired and lay back in her corner of the third-class carriage; railway travelling was a severe tax on her always slender purse. With head tilted, she went to sleep.
When she alighted from the train there was a nearly full moon, and the night was blowy and sweet-smelling. She would have to walk. It was light enough to take the short cut, and she climbed the first stile into the field path. She thought of the night, nearly two years ago, when she came back by this train with the news of Hubert’s release and found her father sitting up, grey and worn, in his study, and how years had seemed to drop off him when she told him the good news. And now she had news that must grieve him. It was her father she really dreaded facing. Her mother, yes! Mother, though gentle, was stubborn; but women had not the same hard-and-fast convictions about what was not ‘done’ as men. Hubert? In old days she would have minded him most. Curious how lost he was to her! Hubert would be dreadfully upset. He was rigid in his views of what was ‘the game.’ Well! she could bear his disapproval. But Father! It seemed so unfair to him, after his forty years of hard service!
A brown owl floated from the hedge over to some stacks. These moony nights were owl-nights, and there would be the screams of captured victims, so dreadful in the night-time. Yet who could help liking owls, their blunt soft floating flight, their measured stirring calls? The next stile led her on to their own land. There was a linhay in this field where her father’s old charger sheltered at night. Was it Plutarch or Pliny who had said: ‘For my part I would not sell even an old ox who had laboured for me’? Nice man! Now that the sound of the train had died away it was very quiet: only the brushing of a little wind on young leaves, and the stamp of old Kismet’s foot in the linhay. She crossed a second field and came to the narrow tree-trunk bridge. The night’s sweetness was like the feeling always within her now. She crossed the plank and slipped in among the apple-trees. They seemed to live brightly between her and the moving, moonlit, wind-brushed sky. They seemed to breathe, almost to be singing in praise at the unfolding of their blossoms. They were lit in a thousand shapes of whitened branches, and all beautiful, as if someone had made each with a rapt and moonstruck pleasure and brightened it with starshine. And this had been done in here each spring for a hundred years and more. The whole world seemed miraculous on a night like this, but always the yearly miracle of the apple blooming was to Dinny most moving of all. The many miracles of England thronged her memory, while she stood among the old trunks inhaling the lichen-bark-dusted air. Upland grass with larks singing; the stilly drip in coverts when sun came after rain; gorse on wind-blown commons; horses turning and turning at the end of the long mole-coloured furrows; river waters now bright, now green-tinged beneath the willows; thatch and its wood smoke; swathed hay meadows, tawnied cornfields; the bluish distances beyond; and the ever-changing sky — all these were as jewels in her mind, but the chief was this white magic of the spring. She became conscious that the long grass was drenched and her shoes and stockings wet through; there was light enough to see in that grass the stars of jonquil, grape hyacinth and the pale cast-out tulips; there would be polyanthus, too, bluebells and cowslips — a few. She slipped on upward, cleared the trees, and stood a moment to look back at the whiteness of the whole. ‘It might have dropped from the moon,’ she thought: ‘My best stockings, too!’
Across the low-walled fruit garden and lawn she came to the terrace. Past eleven! Only her father’s study window lighted on the ground floor! How like that other night!
‘Shan’t tell him,’ she thought, and tapped on it.
He let her in.
“Hallo, Dinny, you didn’t stop the night at Mount Street, then?”
“No, Dad, there’s a limit to my powers of borrowing nightgowns.”
“Sit down and have some tea. I was just going to make some.”
“Darling, I came through the orchard, and I’m wet to the knees.”
“Take off your stockings; here’s an old pair of slippers.”
Dinny stripped off the stockings and sat contemplating her legs in the lamplight, while the General lit the etna. He liked to do things for himself. She watched him bending over the tea-things, and thought how trim he still was, and how quick and precise his movements. His browned hands, with little dark hairs on them, had long, clever fingers. He stood up, motionless, watching the flame.
“Want’s a new wick,” he said. “There’s going to be bad trouble in India, I’m afraid.”
“India seems to be getting almost more trouble than it’s worth to us.”
The General turned his face with its high but small cheekbones; his eyes rested on her, and his thin lips beneath the close little grey moustache smiled.
“That often happens with trusts, Dinny. You’ve got very nice legs.”
“So I ought, dear, considering you and mother.”
“Mine are all right for a boot — stringy. Did you ask Mr. Desert down?”
“No, not today.”
The General put his hands into his side-pockets. He had taken off his dinner jacket and was wearing an old snuff-coloured shooting coat; Dinny noticed that the cuffs were slightly frayed, and one leather button missing. His dark, high-shaped eyebrows contracted till there were three ridges right in the centre of his forehead; he said gently:
“I don’t understand that change of religion, you know, Dinny. Milk or lemon?”
She was thinking: ‘Now is the moment, after all. Courage!’
“Three, with lemon, Dad.”
The General took up the tongs. He dropped three lumps into the cup, then a slice of lemon, put back the tongs, and bent down to the kettle.
“Boiling,” he said, and filled up the cup; he put a covered spoonful of tea into it, withdrew the spoon and handed the cup to his daughter.
Dinny sat stirring the thin golden liquid. She took a sip, rested the cup on her lap, and turned her face up to him.
“I can explain it, Dad,” she said, and thought: ‘It will only make him understand even less.’
The General filled his own cup, and sat down. Dinny clutched her spoon.
“You see, when Wilfrid was far out in Darfur he ran into a nest of fanatical Arabs, remaining from the Mahdi times. The chief of them had him brought into his tent and offered him his life if he would embrace Islam.”
She saw her father make a little convulsive movement, so that some of the tea was spilled into his saucer. He raised the cup and poured it back. Dinny went on:
“Wilfrid is like most of us nowadays about belief, only a great deal more so. It isn’t only that he doesn’t believe in Christianity, he actually hates any set forms of religion, he thinks they divide mankind and do more harm and bring more suffering than anything else. And then, you know — or you would if you’d read his poetry, Dad — the war left him very bitter about the way lives are thrown away, simply spilled out like water at the orders of people who don’t know what they’re about.”
Again the General made that slight convulsive movement.
“Yes, Dad, but I’ve heard Hubert talk in much the same way about that. Anyway, it has left Wilfrid with a horror of wasting life, and the deepest distrust of all shibboleths and beliefs. He only had about five minutes to decide in. It wasn’t cowardice, it was just bitter scorn that men can waste each other’s lives for beliefs that to him seem equally futile. And he just shrugged and accepted. Having accepted, he had to keep his word and go through the forms. Of course, you don’t know him, so I suppose it’s useless.” She sighed and drank thirstily.
The General had put his own cup down; he rose, filled a pipe, lit it, and stood by the hearth. His face was lined and dark and grave. At last he said:
“I’m out of my depth. Is the religion of one’s fathers for hundreds of years to go for nothing, then? Is all that has made us the proudest people in the world to be chucked away at the bidding of an Arab? Have men like the Lawrences, John Nicholson, Chamberlayne, Sandeman, a thousand others, who spent and gave their lives to build up an idea of the English as brave men and true, to be knocked into a cocked hat by every Englishman who’s threatened with a pistol?”
Dinny’s cup clattered on its saucer.
“Yes, but if not by every Englishman, Dinny, why by one? Why by this one?”
Quivering all over, Dinny did not answer. Neither Adrian nor Sir Lawrence had made her feel like this — for the first time she had been reached and moved by the other side. Some agelong string had been pulled within her, or she was infected by the emotion of one whom she had always admired and loved, and whom she had hardly ever seen stirred to eloquence. She could not speak.
“I don’t know if I’m a religious man,” the General went on; “the faith of my fathers is enough for me”— and he made a gesture, as if adding, ‘I leave myself aside’—“but, Dinny, I could not take dictation of that sort; I could not, and I cannot understand how he could have.”
Dinny said, quietly: “I won’t try to make you, Dad; let’s take it that you can’t. Most people have done something in their lives that other people could not understand if it were known. The difference here is that this thing of Wilfrid’s IS known.”
“You mean the threat is known — the reason for the —?”
“A Mr. Yule brought the story back from Egypt; Uncle Lawrence thinks it can’t be scotched. I want you to know the worst.” She gathered her wet stockings and shoes in her hand. “Would you mind telling Mother and Hubert for me, Dad?” And she stood up.
The General drew deeply at his pipe, which emitted a gurgling sound.
“Your pipe wants cleaning, dear. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“He’ll be a pariah,” burst from the General, “he’ll be a pariah! Dinny, Dinny!”
No two words could have moved and disarmed her more. At one stroke they shifted his opposition from the personal to the altruistic.
She bit her lip and said:
“Dad, I shall pipe my eye if I stay down here with you. And my feet are very cold. Good-night, darling!”
She turned and went quickly to the door, whence she saw him standing like a horse that has just been harnessed.
She went up to her room and sat on her bed, rubbing her cold feet one against the other. It was done! Now she had only to confront the feeling that would henceforth surround her like a wall over which she must climb to the fulfilment of her love. And what surprised her most, while she rubbed and rubbed, was knowing that her father’s words had drawn from her a secret endorsement which had not made the slightest inroad on her feeling for Wilfrid. Was love, then, quite detached from judgment? Was the old image of a blind God true? Was it even true that defects in the loved one made him the dearer? That seemed borne out, at all events, by the dislike one had for the too good people in books; one’s revolt against the heroic figure; one’s impatience at the sight of virtue rewarded.
‘Is it that my family’s standard,’ she thought, ‘is higher than mine, or simply that I want him close to me and don’t care what he is or does so long as he comes?’ And she had a strange and sudden feeling of knowing Wilfrid to the very core, with all his faults and shortcomings, and with a something that redeemed and made up for them and would keep her love alive, for in that, in that only, was an element mysterious to her. And she thought with a rueful smile: ‘All evil I know by instinct; it’s goodness, truth, beauty that keep me guessing!’ And, almost too tired to undress, she got into bed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54