While Dinny dressed and skimmed along the nearly empty streets, she had been thinking hard. That letter brought last night by hand surely meant that Muskham was the cause of Wilfrid’s early sortie. Since he had slipped like a needle into a bundle of hay, her only chance was to work from the other end. No need to wait for her uncle to see Jack Muskham. She could see him alone just as well as, perhaps better. It was eight o’clock when she reached Cork Street, and she at once said: “Has Mr. Desert a revolver, Stack?”
“Has he taken it?”
“I ask because he had a quarrel yesterday.”
Stack passed his hand over his unshaven chin. “Don’t know where you’re going, miss, but would you like me to come with you?”
“I think it would be better if you’d go and make sure he isn’t taking a boat train.”
“Certainly, miss. I’ll take the dog, and do that.”
“Is that car outside for me?”
“Yes, miss. Would you like it opened?”
“I would; the more air, the better.”
The henchman nodded, his eyes and nose seeming to Dinny unusually large and intelligent.
“If I run across Mr. Desert first, where shall I get in touch with you, miss?”
“I’ll call at Royston post-office for any telegram. I’m going to see a Mr. Muskham there. The quarrel was with him.”
“Have you had anything to eat, miss? Let me get you a cup of tea.”
“I’ve had one, thank you.” It saved time to say what was not true.
That drive, on an unknown road, seemed interminable to her, haunted by her uncle’s words: “If Jack didn’t date so, I shouldn’t worry . . . He’s a survival.” Suppose that, even now, in some enclosure — Richmond Park, Ken Wood, where not — they were playing the old-fashioned pranks, of honour! She conjured up the scene — Jack Muskham, tall, deliberate; Wilfrid, girt-in, defiant, trees around them, wood-pigeons calling, their hands slowly rising to the level —! Yes, but who would give the word? And pistols! People did not go about with duelling pistols nowadays. If that had been suggested, Wilfrid would surely have taken his revolver! What should she say if, indeed, she found Muskham at home? “Please don’t mind being called a cad and coward! They are really almost terms of endearment.” Wilfrid must never know that she had tried to mediate. It would but wound his pride still further. Wounded pride! Was there any older, deeper, more obstinate cause of human trouble, or any more natural and excusable! The consciousness of having failed oneself! Overmastered by the attraction that knows neither reason nor law, she loved Wilfrid none the less for having failed himself; but she was not blind to that failure. Ever since her father’s words “by any Englishman who’s threatened with a pistol” had touched some nerve in the background of her being, she had realised that she was divided by her love from her instinctive sense of what was due from Englishmen.
The driver stopped to examine a back tyre. From the hedge a drift of elder-flower scent made her close her eyes. Those flat white scented blossoms! The driver remounted and started the car with a jerk. Was life always going to jerk her away from love? Was she never to rest drugged and happy in its arms?
‘Morbid!’ she thought. ‘I ought to be keying my pitch to the Jockey Club.’
Royston began, and she said: “Stop at the post-office, please.”
There was no telegram for her, and she asked for Muskham’s house. The post-mistress looked at the clock.
“Nearly opposite, miss; but if you want Mr. Muskham, I saw him pass riding just now. He’ll be going to his stud farm — that’ll be through the town and off to the right.”
Dinny resumed her seat, and they drove slowly on.
Afterwards she did not know whether her instinct or the driver’s stopped the car. For when he turned round and said: “Appears like a bit of a mix-up, miss,” she was already standing, to see over the heads of that ring of people in the road. She saw only too well the stained, blood-streaked faces, the rain of blows, the breathless, swaying struggle. She had opened the door, but with the sudden thought: ‘He’d never forgive me!’ banged it to again, and stood, with one hand shading her eyes, the other covering her lips, conscious that the driver, too, was standing.
“Something like a scrap!” she heard him say admiringly.
How strange and wild Wilfrid looked! But with only fists they could not kill each other! And mixed with her alarm was a sort of exultation. He had come down to seek battle! Yet every blow seemed falling on her flesh, each clutch and struggling movement seemed her own.
“Not a blasted bobby!” said her driver, carried away. “Go it! I back the young ’un.”
Dinny saw them fall apart, then Wilfrid rushing with outstretched hands; she heard the thump of Muskham’s fist on his chest, saw them clinch, stagger, and fall; then rise and stand gasping, glaring. She saw Muskham catch sight of her, then Wilfrid; saw them turn away; and all was over. The driver said: “Now, that’s a pity!” Dinny sank down on the car seat, and said quietly:
“Drive on, please.”
Away! Just away! Enough that they had seen her — more than enough, perhaps!
“Drive on a little, then turn and go back to Town.” They wouldn’t begin again!
“Neither of ’em much good with is ‘ands, miss, but a proper spirit.”
Dinny nodded. Her hand was still over her mouth, for her lips were trembling. The driver looked at her.
“You’re a bit pale, miss — too much blood! Why not stop somewhere and ‘ave a drop o’ brandy?”
“Not here,” said Dinny, “the next village.”
“Baldock. Right-o!” And he put the car to speed.
The crowd had disappeared as they repassed the hotel. Two dogs, a man cleaning windows, and a policeman were the only signs of life.
At Baldock she had some breakfast. Conscious that she ought to feel relieved, now that the explosion had occurred, she was surprised by the foreboding which oppressed her. Would he not resent her having come as if to shield him? Her accidental presence had stopped the fight, and she had seen them disfigured, blood-stained, devoid of their dignities. She decided to tell no one where she had been, or what she had seen — not even Stack or her uncle.
Such precautions are of small avail in a country so civilised. An able, if not too accurate, description of the “Encounter at Royston between that well-known breeder of bloodstock, Mr. John Muskham — cousin to Sir Charles Muskham, Bart — and the Hon. Wilfrid Desert, second son of Lord Mullyon, author of The Leopard, which has recently caused such a sensation,” appeared in that day’s last edition of the Evening Sun, under the heading, “Fisticuffs in High Quarters.” It was written with spirit and imagination, and ended thus: “It is believed that the origin of the quarrel may be sought in the action which it is whispered was taken by Mr. Muskham over Mr. Desert’s membership of a certain Club. It seems that Mr. Muskham took exception to Mr. Desert continuing a member after his public acknowledgment that The Leopard was founded on his own experience. The affair, no doubt, was very high-spirited, if not likely to improve the plain man’s conception of a dignified aristocracy.”
This was laid before Dinny at dinner-time by her uncle without comment. It caused her to sit rigid, till his voice said: “Were you there, Dinny?”
‘Uncanny, as usual,’ she thought; but, though by now habituated to the manipulation of truth, she was not yet capable of the lie direct, and she nodded.
“What’s that?” said Lady Mont.
Dinny pushed the paper over to her aunt, who read, screwing up her eyes, for she had long sight.
“Which won, Dinny?”
“Neither. They just stopped.”
“Where is Royston?”
Neither Dinny nor Sir Lawrence knew.
“He didn’t take you on a pillion, Dinny?”
“No, dear. I just happened to drive up.”
“Religion is very inflamin’,” murmured Lady Mont.
“It is,” said Dinny bitterly.
“Did the sight of you stop them?” said Sir Lawrence.
“I don’t like that. It would have been better if a bobby or a knock-out blow —”
“I didn’t want them to see me.”
“Have you seen him since?”
Dinny shook her head.
“Men are vain,” said her aunt.
That closed the conversation.
Stack telephoned after dinner that Wilfrid had returned; but instinct told her to make no attempt to see him.
After a restless night she took the morning train to Condaford. It was Sunday, and they were all at church. She seemed strangely divided from her family. Condaford smelled the same, looked the same, and the same people did the same things; yet all was different! Even the Scottish terrier and the spaniels sniffed her with doubting nostrils, as if uncertain whether she belonged to them any more.
‘And do I?’ she thought. ‘The scent is not there when the heart is away!’
Jean was the first to appear, Lady Cherrell having stayed to Communion, the General to count the offertory and Hubert to inspect the village cricket pitch. She found Dinny sitting by an old sundial in front of a bed of delphiniums. Having kissed her sister-inlaw, she stood and looked at her for quite a minute, before saying: “Take a pull, my dear, or you’ll be going into a decline, whatever that is.”
“I only want my lunch,” said Dinny.
“Same here. I thought my dad’s sermons were a trial even after I’d censored them; but your man here!”
“Yes, one CAN ‘put him down.’”
Again Jean paused, and her eyes searched Dinny’s face.
“Dinny, I’m all for you. Get married at once, and go off with him.”
“There are two parties to every marriage.”
“Is that paragraph in this morning’s paper correct, about a fight at Royston?”
“I mean was there one?”
“Who began it?”
“I did. There’s no other woman in the case.”
“Dinny, you’re very changed.”
“No longer sweet and disinterested.”
“Very well!” said Jean. “If you want to play the love-lorn female, play it!”
Dinny caught her skirt. Jean knelt down and put her arms round her.
“You were a brick to me when I was up against it.”
“What are my father and Hubert saying now?”
“Your father says nothing and looks glum. Hubert either says: ‘Something must be done,’ or ‘It’s the limit.’”
“Not that it matters,” said Dinny suddenly; “I’m past all that.”
“You mean you’re not sure what HE’LL do? But, of course, he must do what you want.”
Again Dinny laughed.
“You’re afraid,” said Jean, with startling comprehension, “that he might run off and leave you?” And she subsided on to her hams the better to look up into Dinny’s face. “Of course he might. You know I went to see him?”
“Yes; he got over me. I couldn’t say a word. Great charm Dinny.”
“Did Hubert send you?”
“No. On my own. I was going to let him know what would be thought of him if he married you, but I couldn’t. I should have imagined he’d have told you about it. But I suppose he knew it would worry you.”
“I don’t know,” said Dinny; and did not. It seemed to her at that moment that she knew very little.
Jean sat silently pulling an early dandelion to pieces.
“If I were you,” she said at last, “I’d vamp him. If you’d once belonged to him, he couldn’t leave you.”
Dinny got up. “Let’s go round the gardens and see what’s out.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08