Wilfred Desert still maintained his chambers in Cork Street. They were, in fact, paid for by Lord Mullyon, who used them on the rare occasions when he emerged from rural retreat. It was not saying much that the secluded peer had more in common with his second than with his eldest son, who was in Parliament. It gave him, however, no particular pain to encounter Wilfrid; but as a rule the chambers were occupied only by Stack, who had been Wilfrid’s batman in the war, and had for him one of those sphinx-like habits which wear better than expressed devotions. When Wilfrid returned, at a moment or two’s notice, his rooms were ever exactly as he left them, neither more or less dusty and unaired; the same clothes hung on the same clothes-stretchers; and the same nicely cooked steak and mushrooms appeased his first appetite. The ancestral ‘junk,’ fringed and dotted by Eastern whims brought home, gave to the large sitting-room the same castled air of immutable possession. And the divan before the log fire received Wilfrid as if he had never left it. He lay there the morning after his encounter with Dinny, wondering why he could only get really good coffee when Stack made it. The East was the home of coffee, but Turkish coffee was a rite, a toy; and, like all rites and toys, served but to titillate the soul. This was his third day in London after three years; and in the last two years he had been through a good deal more than he would ever care to speak of, or even wish to remember; including one experience which still divided him against himself, however much he affected to discredit its importance. In other words, he had come back with a skeleton in his cupboard. He had brought back, too, enough poems for a fourth slender volume. He lay there, debating whether its slender bulk could not be increased by inclusion of the longest poem he had ever written, the outcome of that experience; in his view, too, the best poem he had ever written — a pity it should not be published, but —! And the ‘but’ was so considerable that he had many times been on the point of tearing the thing up, obliterating all trace of it, as he would have wished to blot remembrance from his mind. Again, but —! The poem expressed his defence for allowing what he hoped no one knew had happened to him. To tear it up would be parting with his defence. For he could never again adequately render his sensations in that past dilemma. He would be parting with his best protection from his own conscience, too; and perhaps with the only means of laying a ghost. For he sometimes thought that, unless he proclaimed to the world what had happened to him, he would never again feel quite in possession of his soul.
Reading it through, he thought: ‘It’s a damned sight better and deeper than Lyall’s confounded poem.’ And without any obvious connection he began to think of the girl he had met the day before. Curious that he had remembered her from Michael’s wedding, a transparent slip of a young thing like a Botticelli Venus, Angel, or Madonna — so little difference between them. A charming young thing, then! Yes, and a charming young woman now, of real quality, with a sense of humour and an understanding mind. Dinny Cherrell! Charwell they spelled it, he remembered. He wouldn’t mind showing her his poems; he would trust her reactions.
Partly because he was thinking of her, and partly because he took a taxi, he was late for lunch, and met Dinny on the doorstep of Dumourieux’s just as she was about to go away.
There is perhaps no better test of woman’s character than to keep her waiting for lunch in a public place. Dinny greeted him with a smile.
“I thought you’d probably forgotten.”
“It was the traffic. How can philosophers talk of time being space or space time? It’s disproved whenever two people lunch together. I allowed ten minutes for under a mile from Cork Street, and here I am ten minutes late. Terribly sorry!”
“My father says you must add ten per cent to all timing since taxis took the place of hansoms. Do you remember the hansom?”
“I never was in London till they were over.”
“If you know this place, lead on! I was told of it, but I’ve not yet been here.”
“It’s underground. The cooking’s French.”
Divested of their coats, they proceeded to an end table.
“Very little for me, please,” said Dinny. “Say cold chicken, a salad, and some coffee.”
“Anything the matter?”
“Only a spare habit.”
“I see. We both have it. No wine?”
“No, thanks. Is eating little a good sign, do you think?”
“Not if done on principle.”
“You don’t like things done on principle?”
“I distrust the people who do them — self-righteous.”
“I think that’s too sweeping. You are rather sweeping, aren’t you?”
“I was thinking of the sort of people who don’t eat because it’s sensual. That’s not your reason, is it?”
“Oh! no,” said Dinny, “I only dislike feeling full. And very little makes me feel that. I don’t know very much about them so far, but I think the senses are good things.”
“The only things, probably.”
“Is that why you write poetry?”
“I should think YOU might write verse, too.”
“The place for poetry is a desert. Ever seen one?”
“No. I should like to.” And, having said that, she sat in slight surprise, remembering her negative reaction to the American professor and his great open spaces. But no greater contrast was possible than between Hallorsen and this dark, disharmonic young man, who sat staring at her with those eyes of his till she had again that thrill down her spine. Crumbling her roll, she said: “I saw Michael and Fleur last night at dinner.”
“Oh!” His lips curled. “I made a fool of myself over Fleur once. Perfect, isn’t she — in her way?”
“Yes,” and her eyes added: ‘Don’t run her down!’
“Marvellous equipment and control.”
“I don’t think you know her,” said Dinny, “and I’m sure I don’t.”
He leaned forward. “You seem to me a loyal sort of person. Where did you pick that up?”
“Our family motto is the word ‘Leal.’ That ought to have cured me, oughtn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, abruptly, “whether I understand what loyalty is. Loyalty to what? To whom? Nothing’s fixed in this world; everything’s relative. Loyalty’s the mark of the static mind, or else just a superstition, and anyway the negation of curiosity.”
“There ARE things worth being loyal to, surely. Coffee, for instance, or one’s religion.”
He looked at her so strangely that Dinny was almost scared.
“Religion? Have you one?”
“Well, roughly, I suppose.”
“What? Can you swallow the dogmas of any religious creed? Do you believe one legend more true than another? Can you suppose one set of beliefs about the Unknowable has more value than the rest? Religion! You’ve got a sense of humour. Does it leave you at the word?”
“No; only religion, I suppose, may be just a sense of an all-pervading spirit, and the ethical creed that seems best to serve it.”
“H’m! A pretty far cry from what’s generally meant, and even then how do you know what best serves an all-pervading spirit?”
“I take that on trust.”
“There’s where we differ. Look!” he said, and it seemed to her that excitement had crept into his voice: “What’s the use of our reasoning powers, our mental faculties? I take each problem as it comes, I do the sum, I return the answer, and so I act. I act according to a reasoned estimate of what is best.”
“For myself and the world at large.”
“It’s the same thing.”
“Always? I wonder. And, anyway, that means doing so long a sum every time that I can’t think how you ever get to acting. And surely ethical rules are just the result of countless decisions on those same problems made by people in the past, so why not take them for granted?”
“None of those decisions were made by people of my temperament or in my circumstances.”
“No, I see that. You follow what they call case law, then. But how English!”
“Sorry!” said Desert, abruptly: “I’m boring you. Have a sweet?”
Dinny put her elbows on the table and, leaning her chin on her hands, looked at him earnestly.
“You weren’t boring me. On the contrary, you’re interesting me frightfully. Only I suppose that women act much more instinctively; I suppose that really means they accept themselves as more like each other than men do, and are more ready to trust their instinctive sense of general experience.”
“That HAS been women’s way; whether it will be much longer, I don’t know.”
“I think it will,” said Dinny. “I don’t believe we shall ever much care for sums. I WILL have a sweet, please. Stewed prunes, I think.”
Desert stared at her, and began to laugh.
“You’re wonderful. We’ll both have them. Is your family a very formal one?”
“Not exactly formal, but they do believe in tradition and the past.”
“And do you?”
“I don’t know. I definitely like old things, and old places, and old people. I like anything that’s stamped like a coin. I like to feel one has roots. I was always fond of history. All the same one can’t help laughing. There’s something very comic about the way we’re all tied — like a hen by a chalk mark to its beak.”
Desert stretched out his hand and she put hers into it.
“Shake hands on that saving grace.”
“Some day,” said Dinny, “you’re going to tell me something. But at the moment what play are we going to?”
“Is there anything by a man called Shakespeare?”
With some difficulty they discovered that a work by the world’s greatest dramatist was being given in a theatre beyond the pale of the river. They went to it, and, when the show was over, Desert said, hesitating: “I wonder if you would come and have tea at my rooms?”
Dinny smiled and nodded, and from that moment was conscious of a difference in his manner. It was at once more intimate yet more respectful, as if he had said to himself: ‘This is my equal.’
That hour of tea, brought by Stack, a man with strange, understanding eyes and something monk-like in his look, seemed to her quite perfect. It was like no other hour she had ever spent, and at the end of it she knew she was in love. The tiny seed planted ten years before had flowered. This was such a marvel, so peculiar to one who at twenty-six had begun to think she would never be in love, that every now and then she drew in her breath and looked wonderingly at his face. Why on earth did she feel like this? It was absurd! And it was going to be painful, because he wasn’t going to love her. Why should he? And if he wasn’t, she mustn’t show, and how was she to help showing?
“When am I going to see you again?” he said, when she stood up to go.
“Do you want to?”
“Why not? You’re the first lady I’ve spoken to for ten years. I’m not at all sure you’re not the first lady I’ve ever spoken to.”
“If we are going to see each other again, you mustn’t laugh at me.”
“Laugh at you! One couldn’t. So when?”
“Well! At present I’m sleeping in a foreign night-gown at Mount Street. By rights I ought to be at Condaford. But my sister’s going to be married in town next week, and my brother’s coming back from Egypt on Monday, so perhaps I’ll send for things and stay up. Where would you like to see me?”
“Will you come for a drive tomorrow? I haven’t been to Richmond or Hampton Court for years.”
“I’ve never been.”
“All right! I’ll pick you up in front of Foch at two o’clock, wet or fine.”
“I will be pleased to come, young sir.”
“Splendid!” And, suddenly bending, he raised her hand and put his lips to it.
“Highly courteous,” said Dinny. “Good-bye!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08