At South Square The Daily Phase was among those journals which politicians take lest they should miss reading correctly the temperature of Fleet Street. Michael pushed it over to Fleur at breakfast.
During the six days since Dinny’s arrival neither of them had said a word to her on the subject of Wilfrid; and it was Dinny who now said: “May I see that?”
Fleur handed her the paper. She read, gave a little shudder, and went on with her breakfast. Kit broke the ensuing hush by stating Hobbs’ average. Did Aunt Dinny think he was as great as W. G. Grace?
“I never saw either of them, Kit.”
“Didn’t you see W. G.?”
“I think he died before I was born.”
Kit scrutinised her doubtfully.
“He died in 1915,” said Michael: “You’d have been eleven.”
“But haven’t you really seen Hobbs, Auntie?”
“I’VE seen him three times. I’m practising his hook to leg. The Daily Phase says Bradman is the best batsman in the world now. Do you think he’s better than Hobbs?”
“Better news than Hobbs.”
“What is ‘news’?”
“What newspapers are for.”
“Do they make it up?”
“What news were you reading just now?”
“Nothing that would interest you.”
“How do you know?”
“Kit, don’t worry!” said Fleur.
“May I have an egg?”
The hush began again, till Kit stopped his eggspoon in midair and isolated a finger:
“Look! The nail’s blacker than it was yesterday. Will it come off, Auntie?”
“How did you do that?”
“Pinched it in a drawer. I didn’t cry.”
“Don’t boast, Kit.”
Kit gave his mother a clear upward look and resumed his egg.
Half an hour later, when Michael was just settling down to his correspondence, Dinny came into his study.
“No, my dear.”
“That paper! Why can’t they leave him alone?”
“You see The Leopard is selling like hot cakes. Dinny, how do things stand now?”
“I know he’s been having malaria, but I don’t even know where or how he is.”
Michael looked at her face, masked in its desperate little smile, and said, hesitatingly:
“Would you like me to find out?”
“If he wants me, he knows where I am.”
“I’ll see Compson Grice. I’m not lucky with Wilfrid himself.”
When she was gone he sat staring at the letters he had not begun to answer, half dismayed, half angered. Poor dear Dinny! What a shame! Pushing the letters aside, he went out.
Compson Grice’s office was near Covent Garden, which, for some reason still to be discovered, attracts literature. When Michael reached it, about noon, that young publisher was sitting in the only well-furnished room in the building, with a newspaper cutting in his hand and a smile on his lips. He rose and said: “Hallo, Mont! Seen this in The Phase?”
“I sent it round to Desert, and he wrote that at the top and sent it back. Neat, eh!”
Michael read in Wilfrid’s writing:
“Whene’er the lord who rules his roosts
Says: ‘Bite!’ he bites, says: ‘Boost!’ he boosts.”
“He’s in town, then?”
“Was half an hour ago.”
“Have you seen him at all?”
“Not since the book came out.”
Michael looked shrewdly at that comely fattish face. “Satisfied with the sales?”
“We’re in the forty-first thousand, and going strong.”
“I suppose you don’t know whether Wilfrid is returning to the East?”
“Haven’t the least little idea.”
“He must be pretty sick with the whole thing.”
Compson Grice shrugged.
“How many poets have ever made a thousand pounds out of a hundred pages of verse?”
“Small price for a soul, Grice.”
“It’ll be two thousand before we’ve done.”
“I always thought it a mistake to print The Leopard. Since he did it I’ve defended it, but it was a fatal thing to do.”
“I don’t agree.”
“Obviously. It’s done you proud.”
“You can sneer,” said Grice, with some feeling, “but he wouldn’t have sent it to me if he hadn’t wished it to come out. I am not my brother’s keeper. The mere fact that it turns out a scoop is nothing to the point.”
“I suppose not; but this is no joke for him. It’s his whole life.”
“Again, I don’t agree. That happened when he recanted to save himself being shot. This is expiation, and damned good business into the bargain. His name is known to thousands who’d never heard of it.”
“Yes,” said Michael, brooding, “there is that, certainly. Nothing like persecution to keep a name alive. Grice, will you do something for me? Make an excuse to find out what Wilfrid’s intentions are. I’ve put my foot into it with him and can’t go myself, but I specially want to know.”
“H’m!” said Grice. “He bites.”
Michael grinned. “He won’t bite his benefactor. I’m serious. Will you?”
“I’ll try. By the way, there’s a book by that French Canadian I’ve just published. Top-hole! I’ll send you a copy — your wife will like it.” ‘And,’ he added to himself, ‘talk about it.’ He smoothed back his sleek dark hair and extended his hand. Michael shook it with a little more warmth than he really felt and went away.
‘After all,’ he thought, ‘what is it to Grice except business? Wilfrid’s nothing to him! In these days we have to take what the gods send.’ And he fell to considering what was really making the public buy a book not concerned with sex, memoirs, or murders. The Empire! The prestige of the English! He did not believe it. No! What was making them buy it was that fundamental interest which attached to the question how far a person might go to save his life without losing what was called his soul. In other words, the book was being sold by that little thing — believed in some quarters to be dead — called Conscience. A problem posed to each reader’s conscience, that he could not answer easily; and the fact that it had actually happened to the author brought it home to the reader that some awful alternative might at any moment be presented to himself. And what would he do then, poor thing? And Michael felt one of those sudden bursts of consideration and even respect for the public which often came over him and so affected his more intelligent friends that they alluded to him as ‘Poor Michael!’
So meditating, he reached his room at the House of Commons, and had settled down to the consideration of a private bill to preserve certain natural beauties when a card was brought to him:
General Sir Conway Cherrell
“Can you see me?”
Pencilling: “Delighted, sir!” he handed the card back to the attendant and got up. Of all his uncles he knew Dinny’s father least, and he waited with some trepidation.
The General came in, saying:
“Regular rabbit-warren this, Michael.”
He had the confirmed neatness of his profession, but his face looked worn and worried.
“Luckily we don’t breed here, Uncle Con.”
The General emitted a short laugh.
“No, there’s that. I hope I’m not interrupting you. It’s about Dinny. She still with you?”
The General hesitated, and then, crossing his hands on his stick, said firmly:
“You’re Desert’s best friend, aren’t you?”
“Was. What I am now, I really don’t know.”
“Is he still in town?”
“Yes; he’s been having a bout of malaria, I believe.”
“Dinny still seeing him?”
Again the General hesitated, and again seemed to firm himself by gripping his stick.
“Her mother and I, you know, only want what’s best for her. We want her happiness; the rest doesn’t matter. What do you think?”
“I really don’t believe it matters what any of us think.”
The General frowned.
“How do you mean?”
“It’s just between those two.”
“I understood that he was going away.”
“He said so to my father, but he hasn’t gone. His publisher told me just now that he was still at his rooms this morning.”
“How is Dinny?”
“Very low in her mind. But she keeps her end up.”
“He ought to do something.”
“It’s not fair to Dinny. He ought either to marry her or go right away.”
“Would you find it easy, in his place, to make up your mind?”
Michael made a restless tour of his little room.
“I think the whole thing is way below any question of just yes or no. It’s a case of wounded pride, and when you’ve got that, the other emotions don’t run straight. You ought to know that, sir. You must have had similar cases, when fellows have been court-martialled.”
The word seemed to strike the General with the force of a revelation. He stared at his nephew and did not answer.
“Wilfrid,” said Michael, “is being court-martialled, and it isn’t a short sharp business like a real court-martial — it’s a desperate long-drawn-out affair, with no end to it that I can grasp.”
“I see,” said the General, quietly: “But he should never have let Dinny in for it.”
Michael smiled. “Does love ever do what’s correct?”
“That’s the modern view, anyway.”
“According to report, the ancient one, too.”
The General went to the window and stood looking out.
“I don’t like to go and see Dinny,” he said, without turning round; “it seems like worrying her. Her mother feels the same. And there’s nothing we can do.”
His voice, troubled not for himself, touched Michael.
“I believe,” he said, “that in some way it’ll all be over very soon. And whichever way will be better for them and all of us than this.”
The General turned round.
“Let’s hope so. I wanted to ask you to keep in touch with us, and not let Dinny do anything without letting us know. It’s very hard waiting down there. I won’t keep you now; and thank you, it’s been a relief. Good-bye, Michael!”
He grasped his nephew’s hand, squeezed it firmly, and was gone.
Michael thought: ‘Hanging in the wind! There’s nothing worse. Poor old boy!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54