The smile faded off her lips under the fire of noises coming through the closed door.
‘My goodness!’ she thought: ‘Aunt Em’s birthday “pawty,” and I’d forgotten.’
Someone playing the piano stopped, there was a rush, a scuffle, the scraping of chairs on the floor, two or three squeals, silence, and the piano-playing began again.
‘Musical chairs!’ she thought, and opened the door quietly. She who had been Diana Ferse was sitting at the piano. To eight assorted chairs, facing alternatively east and west, were clinging one large and eight small beings in bright paper hats, of whom seven were just rising to their feet and two still sitting on one chair. Dinny saw from left to right: Ronald Ferse; a small Chinese boy; Aunt Alison’s youngest, little Anne; Uncle Hilary’s youngest, Tony; Celia and Dingo (children of Michael’s married sister Celia Moriston); Sheila Ferse; and on the single chair Uncle Adrian and Kit Mont. She was further conscious of Aunt Em panting slightly against the fireplace in a large headpiece of purple paper, and of Fleur pulling a chair from Ronald’s end of the row.
“Kit, get up! You were out.”
Kit sat firm and Adrian rose.
“All right, old man, you’re up against your equals now. Fire away!”
“Keep your hands off the backs,” cried Fleur. “Wu Fing, you mustn’t sit till the music stops. Dingo, don’t stick at the end chair like that.”
The music stopped. Scurry, hustle, squeals, and the smallest figure, little Anne, was left standing.
“All right, darling,” said Dinny, “come here and beat this drum. Stop when the music stops, that’s right. Now again. Watch Auntie Di!”
Again, and again, and again, till Sheila and Dingo and Kit only were left.
‘I back Kit,’ thought Dinny.
Sheila out! Off with a chair! Dingo, so Scotch-looking, and Kit, so bright-haired, having lost his paper cap, were left padding round and round the last chair. Both were down; both up and on again, Diana carefully averting her eyes, Fleur standing back now with a little smile; Aunt Em’s face very pink. The music stopped, Dingo was down again; and Kit left standing, his face flushed and frowning.
“Kit,” said Fleur’s voice, “play the game!”
Kit’s head was thrown up and he rammed his hands into his pockets.
‘Good for Fleur!’ thought Dinny.
A voice behind her said:
“Your aunt’s purple passion for the young, Dinny, leads us into strange riots. What about a spot of quiet in my study?”
Dinny looked round at Sir Lawrence Mont’s thin, dry, twisting face, whose little moustache had gone quite white, while his hair was still only sprinkled.
“I haven’t done my bit, Uncle Lawrence.”
“Time you learned not to. Let the heathen rage. Come down and have a quiet Christian talk.”
Subduing her instinct for service with the thought: ‘I SHOULD like to talk about Wilfrid Desert!’ Dinny went.
“What are you working on now, Uncle?”
“Resting for the minute and reading the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson — a remarkable young woman, Dinny. In the days of the Regency there were no reputations in high life to destroy; but she did her best. If you don’t know about her, I may tell you that she believed in love and had a great many lovers, only one of whom she loved.”
“And yet she believed in love?”
“Well, she was a kind-hearted baggage, and the others loved her. All the difference in the world between her and Ninon de l’Enclos, who loved them all; both vivid creatures. A duologue between those two on ‘virtue’? It’s to be thought of. Sit down!”
“While I was looking at Foch’s statue this afternoon, Uncle Lawrence, I met a cousin of yours, Mr. Muskham.”
“Last of the dandies. All the difference in the world, Dinny, between the ‘buck,’ the ‘dandy,’ the ‘swell,’ the ‘masher,’ the ‘blood,’ the ‘knut,’ and what’s the last variety called? — I never know. There’s been a steady decrescendo. By his age Jack belongs to the ‘masher’ period, but his cut was always pure dandy — a dyed-inthe-wool Whyte Melville type. How did he strike you?”
“Horses, piquet and imperturbability.”
“Take your hat off, my dear. I like to see your hair.”
Dinny removed her hat.
“I met someone else there, too; Michael’s best man.”
“What! Young Desert? He back again?” And Sir Lawrence’s loose-eyebrow mounted.
A slight colour had stained Dinny’s cheeks.
“Yes,” she said.
“Queer bird, Dinny.”
Within her rose a feeling rather different from any she had ever experienced. She could not have described it, but it reminded her of a piece of porcelain she had given to her father on his birthday, two weeks ago; a little china group, beautifully modelled, of a vixen and four fox cubs tucked in under her. The look on the vixen’s face, soft yet watchful, so completely expressed her own feeling at this moment.
“Tales out of school, Dinny. Still, to YOU— There’s no doubt in my mind that that young man made up to Fleur a year or two after her marriage. That’s what started him as a rolling stone.”
Was that, then, what he had meant when he mentioned Esau? No! By the look of his face when he spoke of Fleur, she did not think so.
“But that was ages ago,” she said.
“Oh, yes! Ancient story; but one’s heard other things. Clubs are the mother of all uncharitableness.”
The softness of Dinny’s feeling diminished, the watchfulness increased.
“What other things?”
Sir Lawrence shook his head.
“I rather like the young man; and not even to you, Dinny, do I repeat what I really know nothing of. Let a man live an unusual life, and there’s no limit to what people invent about him. He looked at her rather suddenly; but Dinny’s eyes were limpid.
“Who’s the little Chinese boy upstairs?”
“Son of a former Mandarin, who left his family here because of the ructions out there — quaint little image. A likeable people, the Chinese. When does Hubert arrive?”
“Next week. They’re flying from Italy. Jean flies a lot, you know.”
“What’s become of her brother?” And again he looked at Dinny.
“Alan? He’s out on the China station.”
“Your aunt never ceases to bemoan your not clicking there.”
“Dear Uncle, almost anything to oblige Aunt Em; but, feeling like a sister to him, the prayer-book was against me.”
“I don’t want you to marry,” said Sir Lawrence, “and go out to some Barbary or other.”
Through Dinny flashed the thought: ‘Uncle Lawrence is uncanny,’ and her eyes became more limpid than ever.
“This confounded officialism,” he continued, “seems to absorb all our kith and kin. My two daughters, Celia in China, Flora in India; your brother Hubert in the Soudan; your sister Clare off as soon as she’s spliced — Jerry Corven’s been given a post in Ceylon. I hear Charlie Muskham’s got attached to Government House, Cape Town; Hilary’s eldest boy’s going into the Indian Civil, and his youngest into the Navy. Dash it all, Dinny, you and Jack Muskham seem to be the only pelicans in my wilderness. Of course there’s Michael.”
“Do you see much of Mr. Muskham, then, Uncle?”
“Quite a lot at ‘Burton’s,’ and he comes to me at ‘The Coffee House’; we play piquet — we’re the only two left. That’s in the illegitimate season — from now on I shall hardly see him till after the Cambridgeshire.”
“Is he a terribly good judge of a horse?”
“Yes. Of anything else, Dinny — no. They seldom are. The horse is an animal that seems to close the pores of the spirit. He makes you too watchful. You don’t only have to watch him, but everybody connected with him. How was young Desert looking?”
“Oh!” said Dinny, almost taken aback: “a sort of dark yellow.”
“That’s the glare of the sand. He’s a kind of Bedouin, you know. His father’s a recluse, so it’s a bit in his blood. The best thing I know about him is that Michael likes him, in spite of that business.”
“His poetry?” said Dinny.
“Disharmonic stuff, he destroys with one hand what he gives with the other.”
“Perhaps he’s never found his home. His eyes are rather beautiful, don’t you think?”
“It’s his mouth I remember best, sensitive and bitter.”
“One’s eyes are what one is, one’s mouth what one becomes.”
“That and the stomach.”
“He hasn’t any,” said Dinny. “I noticed.”
“The handful of dates and cup of coffee habit. Not that the Arabs drink coffee — green tea is their weakness, with mint in it. My God! Here’s your aunt. When I said ‘My God!’ I was referring to the tea with mint.”
Lady Mont had removed her paper headdress and recovered her breath.
“Darling,” said Dinny, “I DID forget your birthday, and I haven’t got anything for you.”
“Then give me a kiss, Dinny. I always say your kisses are the best. Where have you sprung from?”
“I came up to shop for Clare at the Stores.”
“Have you got your night things with you?”
“That doesn’t matter. You can have one of mine. Do you still wear nightdresses?”
“Yes,” said Dinny.
“Good girl! I don’t like pyjamas for women — your uncle doesn’t either. It’s below the waist, you know. You can’t get over it — you try to, but you can’t. Michael and Fleur will be stayin’ on to dinner.”
“Thank you, Aunt Em; I do want to stay up. I couldn’t get half the things Clare needs today.”
“I don’t like Clare marryin’ before you, Dinny.”
“But she naturally would, Auntie.”
“Fiddle! Clare’s brilliant — they don’t as a rule. I married at twenty-one.”
“You see, dear!”
“You’re laughin’ at me. I was only brilliant once. You remember, Lawrence — about that elephant — I wanted it to sit, and it would kneel. All their legs bend one way, Dinny. And I said it WOULD follow its bent.”
“Aunt Em! Except for that one occasion you’re easily the most brilliant woman I know. Women are so much too consecutive.”
“Your nose is a comfort, Dinny, I get so tired of beaks, your Aunt Wilmet’s, and Hen Bentworth’s, and my own.”
“Yours is only faintly aquiline, darling.”
“I was terrified of its gettin’ worse, as a child. I used to stand with the tip pressed up against a wardrobe.”
“I’ve tried that too, Auntie, only the other way.”
“Once while I was doin’ it your father was lyin’ concealed on the top, like a leopard, you know, and he hopped over me and bit through his lip. He bled all down my neck.”
“Yes. Lawrence, what are you thinking about?”
“I was thinking that Dinny has probably had no lunch. Have you, Dinny?”
“I was going to have it tomorrow, Uncle.”
“There you are!” said Lady Mont. “Ring for Blore. You’ll never have enough body until you’re married.”
“Let’s get Clare over first, Aunt Em.”
“St. George’s. I suppose Hilary’s doin’ them?”
“I shall cry.”
“Why, exactly, do you cry at weddings, Auntie?”
“She’ll look like an angel; and the man’ll be in black tails and a toothbrush moustache, and not feelin’ what she thinks he is. Saddenin’!”
“But perhaps he’s feeling more. I’m sure Michael was about Fleur, or Uncle Adrian when he married Diana.”
“Adrian’s fifty-three and he’s got a beard. Besides, he’s Adrian.”
“I admit that makes a difference. But I think we ought rather to cry over the man. The woman’s having the hour of her life and the man’s waistcoat is almost certain to be too tight.”
“Lawrence’s wasn’t. He was always a thread-paper, and I was as slim as you, Dinny.”
“You must have looked lovely in a veil, Aunt Em. Didn’t she, Uncle?” The whimsically wistful look on both those mature faces stopped her, and she added: “Where did you first meet?”
“Out huntin’, Dinny. I was in a ditch, and your uncle didn’t like it, he came and pulled me out.”
“I think that’s ideal.”
“Too much mud. We didn’t speak to each other all the rest of the day.”
“Then what brought you together?”
“One thing and another. I was stayin’ with Hen’s people, the Corderoys, and your uncle called to see some puppies. What are you catechisin’ me for?”
“I only just wanted to know how it was done in those days.”
“Go and find out for yourself how it’s done in these days.”
“Uncle Lawrence doesn’t want to get rid of me.”
“All men are selfish, except Michael and Adrian.”
“Besides, I should hate to make you cry.”
“Blore, a cocktail and a sandwich for Miss Dinny, she’s had no lunch. And, Blore, Mr. and Mrs. Adrian and Mr. and Mrs. Michael to dinner. And, Blore, tell Laura to put one of my nightdresses and the other things in the blue spare room. Miss Dinny’ll stay the night. Those children!” And, swaying slightly, Lady Mont preceded her butler through the doorway.
“What a darling, Uncle!”
“I’ve never denied it, Dinny.”
“I always feel better after her. Was she ever out of temper?”
“She can begin to be, but she always goes on to something else before she’s finished.”
“What saving grace . . .!”
At dinner that evening, Dinny listened for any allusion by her uncle to Wilfred Desert’s return. There was none.
After dinner, she seated herself by Fleur in her habitual, slightly mystified admiration of this cousin by marriage, whose pretty poise was so assured, whose face and figure so beautifully turned out, whose clear eyes were so seeing, whose knowledge of self was so disillusioned, and whose attitude to Michael seemed at once that of one looking up and looking down.
‘If I ever married,’ thought Dinny, ‘I could never be like that to him. I would have to look him straight in the face as one sinner to another.’
“Do you remember your wedding, Fleur?” she said.
“I do, my dear. A distressing ceremony!”
“I saw your best man today.”
The clear white round Fleur’s eyes widened.
“Wilfrid? How did you remember him?”
“I was only sixteen, and he fluttered my young nerves.”
“That is, of course, the function of a best man. Well, and how was he?”
“Very dark and dissolvent.”
Fleur laughed. “He always was.”
Looking at her, Dinny decided to press on.
“Yes. Uncle Lawrence told me he tried to carry dissolution rather far.”
Fleur looked surprised. “I didn’t know Bart ever noticed that.”
“Uncle Lawrence,” said Dinny, “is a bit uncanny.”
“Wilfrid,” murmured Fleur, with a little reminiscent smile, “really behaved quite well. He went East like a lamb.”
“But surely that hasn’t kept him East ever since?”
“No more than measles keep you permanently to your room. Oh! no, he likes it. He’s probably got a harem.”
“No,” said Dinny, “he’s fastidious, or I should be surprised.”
“Quite right, my dear; and one for my cheap cynicism. Wilfrid’s the queerest sort of person, and rather a dear. Michael loved him. But,” she said, suddenly looking at Dinny, “he’s impossible to be in love with — disharmony personified. I studied him pretty closely at one time — had to, you know. He’s elusive. Passionate, and a bundle of nerves. Soft-hearted and bitter. And search me for anything he believes in.”
“Except,” queried Dinny, “beauty, perhaps; and truth if he could find it?”
Fleur made the unexpected answer, “Well, my dear, we all believe in those, when they’re about. The trouble is they aren’t, unless — unless they lie in oneself, perhaps. And if you happen to be disharmonic, what chance have you? Where did you see him?”
“Staring at Foch.”
“Ah! I seem to remember he rather idolised Foch. Poor Wilfrid, he hasn’t much chance. Shell-shock, poetry, and his breeding — a father who’s turned his back on life; a mother who was half an Italian, and ran off with another. Not restful. His eyes were his best point, they made you sorry for him; and they’re beautiful — rather a fatal combination. Did the young nerves flutter again?” She looked rather more broadly into Dinny’s face.
“No, but I wondered if yours would still if I mentioned him.”
“Mine? My child, I’m nearly thirty. I have two children, and”— her face darkened —“I have been inoculated. If I ever told anyone about THAT, Dinny, I might tell you, but there are things one doesn’t tell.”
Up in her room, somewhat incommoded by the amplitude of Aunt Em’s nightgown, Dinny stared into a fire lighted against protest. She felt that what she was feeling was absurd — a queer eagerness, at once shy and bold, the sensations, as it were, of direct action impending. And why? She had seen again a man who ten years before had made her feel silly; from all accounts a most unsatisfactory man. Taking a looking-glass, she scrutinised her face above the embroidery on the too ample gown. She saw what might have satisfied but did not.
‘One gets tired of it,’ she thought —‘always the same Botticellian artifact,
‘The nose that’s snub,
The eyes of blue!
‘Ware self, you red-haired nymph,
And shun the image that is you!’
HE was so accustomed to the East, to dark eyes through veils, languishing; to curves enticingly disguised; to sex, mystery, teeth like pearls — vide houri! Dinny showed her own teeth to the glass. There she was on safe ground — the best teeth in her family. Nor was her hair really red — more what Miss Braddon used to call auburn. Nice word! Pity it had gone out. With all that embroidery it was no good examining herself below the Victorian washing line. Remember that tomorrow before her bath! For what she was about to examine might the Lord make her truly thankful! Putting down the glass with a little sigh, she got into bed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54