Two days later the Cherrell family met in conclave because of a sudden summons received by Hubert to rejoin his regiment in the Soudan. He wished to have something decided about Dinny before he left. The four Cherrell brothers, Sir Lawrence, Michael, and himself, gathered, therefore, in Adrian’s room at the Museum after Mr. Justice Charwell’s Court had risen. They all knew that the meeting might be futile, because, as even Governments find, to decide is useless if decision cannot be carried out.
Michael, Adrian, and the General, who had been in personal touch with Wilfrid, were the least vocal, Sir Lawrence and the Judge the most vocal; Hubert and Hilary were now vocal and now dumb.
Starting from the premise, which nobody denied, that the thing was a bad business, two schools of thought declared themselves — Adrian, Michael, and to some extent Hilary believed there was nothing to be done but wait and see; the rest thought there was much to be done, but what — they could not say.
Michael, who had never seen his four uncles so close together before, was struck by the resemblance in the shape and colouring of their faces, except that the eyes of Hilary and Lionel were blue and grey, and of the General and Adrian brown and hazel. They all, notably, lacked gesture, and had a lean activity of figure. In Hubert these characteristics were accentuated by youth, and his hazel eyes at times looked almost grey.
“If only,” Michael heard his father say, “you could injunct her, Lionel?” and Adrian’s impatient:
“We must let Dinny alone; trying to control her is absurd. She’s got a warm heart, an unselfish nature, and plenty of sense.” Then Hubert’s retort:
“We know all that, Uncle, but the thing will be such a disaster for her, we must do what we can.”
“Well, what CAN you do?”
‘Exactly!’ thought Michael, and said: “Just now she doesn’t know how she stands.”
“You couldn’t get her to go out with you to the Soudan, Hubert?” said the Judge.
“I’ve lost all touch with her.”
“If someone wanted her badly —” began the General, and did not finish.
“Even then,” murmured Adrian, “only if she were quite sure Desert didn’t want her more.”
Hilary took out his pipe. “Has anyone tried Desert?”
“I have,” said the General.
“And I, twice,” muttered Michael.
“Suppose,” said Hubert gloomily, “I had a shot.”
“Not, my dear fellow,” put in Sir Lawrence, “unless you can be quite certain of keeping your temper.”
“I never can be certain of that.”
“Would YOU go, Dad?” asked Michael.
“He used to respect you.”
“Not even a blood relation!”
“You might take a chance, Lawrence,” said Hilary.
“None of the rest of us can, for one reason or another.”
“Why shouldn’t YOU?”
“In a way I agree with Adrian; it’s best to leave it all alone.”
“What exactly is the objection to Dinny’s marrying him?” asked Adrian. The General turned to him abruptly.
“She’d be marked out for life.”
“So was that fellow who stuck to his wife when she was convicted. Everybody respected him the more.”
“There’s no such sharp hell,” said the Judge, “as seeing fingers pointed at your life’s partner.”
“Dinny would learn not to notice them.”
“Forgive me, but you’re missing the point,” muttered Michael. “The point is Wilfrid’s own feeling. If he remains bitter about himself and marries her — that’ll be hell for her, if you like. And the fonder she is of him, the worse it’ll be.”
“You’re right, Michael,” said Sir Lawrence unexpectedly. “I’d think it well worth while to go if I could make him see that.”
“Whichever way it goes, it’s hell for poor Dinny.”
“‘Joy cometh in the morning,’” murmured Hilary through a cloud of smoke.
“Do you believe that, Uncle Hilary?”
“Not too much.”
“Dinny’s twenty-six. This is her first love. If it goes wrong — what then?”
“With somebody else?”
“Life is lively.”
“Well, Lawrence?” asked the General, sharply: “You’ll go?”
Sir Lawrence studied him for a moment, and then replied: “Yes.”
It was not clear to any of them what purpose would be served, but it was a decision of sorts, and at least could be carried out . . . .
Wilfrid had lost most of his bruise and discarded the plaster on his chin when Sir Lawrence, encountering him on the stairs at Cork Street that same late afternoon, said:
“D’you mind if I walk a little way with you?”
“Not at all, sir.”
“Any particular direction?”
Wilfrid shrugged, and they walked side by side, till at last Sir Lawrence said:
“Nothing’s worse than not knowing where you’re going!”
“Then why go, especially if in doing it you take someone with you? Forgive my putting things crudely, but, except for Dinny, would you be caring a hang about all this business? What other ties have you got here?”
“None. I don’t want to discuss things. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll branch off.”
Sir Lawrence stopped. “Just one moment, and then I’ll do the branching. Have you realised that a man who has a quarrel with himself is not fit to live with until he’s got over it? That’s all I wanted to say; but it’s a good deal. Think it over!” And, raising his hat, Sir Lawrence turned on his heel. By George! He was well out of that! What an uncomfortable young man! And, after all, one had said all one had come to say! He walked towards Mount Street, reflecting on the limitations imposed by tradition. But for tradition, would Wilfrid mind being thought ‘yellow’? Would Dinny’s family care? Would Lyall have written his confounded poem? Would not the Corporal in the Buffs have kowtowed? Was a single one of the Cherrells, met in conclave, a real believing Christian? Not even Hilary — he would bet his boots! Yet not one of them could stomach this recantation. Not religion, but the refusal to take the ‘dare’! That was the rub to them. The imputation of cowardice, or at least of not caring for the good name of one’s country. Well! About a million British had died for that good name in the war; had they all died for a futility? Desert himself had nearly died for it, and got the M.C., or D.S.O., or something! All very contradictory! People cared for their country in a crowd, it seemed, but not in a desert; in France, but not in Darfur.
He heard hurrying footsteps, and, turning round, saw Desert behind him. Sir Lawrence had almost a shock looking at his face, dry, dark, with quivering lips and deep suffering eyes.
“You were quite right,” he said; “I thought I’d let you know. You can tell her family I’m going away.”
At this complete success of his mission Sir Lawrence experienced dismay.
“Be careful!” he said: “You might do her a great injury.”
“I shall do her that, anyway. Thank you for speaking to me. You’ve made me see. Good-bye!” He turned and was gone.
Sir Lawrence stood looking after him, impressed by his look of suffering. He turned in at his front door doubtful whether he had not made bad worse. While he was putting down his hat and stick, Lady Mont came down the stairs.
“I’m so bored, Lawrence. What have you been doin’?”
“Seeing young Desert; and, it seems, I’ve made him feel that until he can live on good terms with himself he won’t be fit to live with at all.”
“He’ll go away. I always knew he’d go away. You must tell Dinny at once what you’ve done.” And she went to the telephone.
“Is that you, Fleur? . . . Oh! Dinny . . . This is Aunt Em! . . . Yes . . . Can you come round here? . . . Why not? . . . That’s not a reason . . . But you must! Lawrence wants to speak to you . . . At once? Yes. He’s done a very stupid thing . . . What? . . . No! . . . He wants to explain. In ten minutes . . . very well.”
‘My God!’ thought Sir Lawrence. He had suddenly realised that to deaden feeling on any subject one only needed to sit in conclave. Whenever the Government got into trouble, they appointed a Commission. Whenever a man did something wrong, he went into consultation with solicitor and counsel. If he himself hadn’t been sitting in conclave, would he ever have gone to see Desert and put the fat into the fire like this? The conclave had dulled his feelings. He had gone to Wilfrid as some juryman comes in to return his verdict after sitting in conclave on a case for days. And now he had to put himself right with Dinny, and how the deuce would he do that? He went into his study, conscious that his wife was following.
“Lawrence, you must tell her exactly what you’ve done, and how he took it. Otherwise it may be too late. And I shall stay until you’ve done it.”
“Considering, Em, that you don’t know what I said, or what he said, that seems superfluous.”
“No,” said Lady Mont, “nothing is, when a man’s done wrong.”
“I was charged to go and see him by your family.”
“You ought to have had more sense. If you treat poets like innkeepers, they blow up.”
“On the contrary, he thanked me.”
“That’s worse. I shall have Dinny’s taxi kept at the door.”
“Em,” said Sir Lawrence, “when you want to make your will, let me know.”
“Because of getting you consecutive before you start.”
“Anything I have,” said Lady Mont, “is to go to Michael, to be kept for Catherine. And if I’m dead when Kit goes to Harrow, he’s to have my grandfather’s ‘stirrup-cup’ that’s in the armoire in my sitting-room at Lippin’hall. But he’s not to take it to school with him, or they’ll melt it, or drink boiled peppermints out of it, or something. Is that clear?”
“Then,” said Lady Mont, “get ready and begin at once when Dinny comes.”
“Quite!” said Sir Lawrence meekly. “But how the deuce am I to put it to Dinny?”
“Just put it, and don’t invent as you go along.”
Sir Lawrence played a tune with his fingers on the window-pane. His wife stared at the ceiling. They were like that when Dinny came.
“Keep Miss Dinny’s taxi, Blore.”
At the sight of his niece Sir Lawrence perceived that he had indeed lost touch with feeling. Her face, under its chestnut-coloured hair, was sharpened and blanched, and there was a look in her eyes that he did not like.
“Begin,” said Lady Mont.
Sir Lawrence raised one high thin shoulder as if in protection.
“My dear, your brother has been recalled, and I was asked whether I would go and see young Desert. I went. I told him that if he had a quarrel with himself he would not be fit to live with till he’d made it up. He said nothing and turned off. Afterwards he came up behind me in this street, and said that I was right. Would I tell your family that he was going away. He looked very queer and troubled. I said: ‘Be careful! You might do her a great injury.’ ‘I shall do her that, anyway,’ he said. And he went off. That was about twenty minutes ago.”
Dinny looked from one to the other, covered her lips with her hand, and went out.
A moment later they heard her cab move off.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54