When Compson Grice telephoned to Michael, or rather to Fleur, for Michael was not in, he sounded embarrassed.
“Is there any message I can give him, Mr. Grice?”
“Your husband asked me to find out Desert’s movements. Well, Desert’s just been in to see me, and practically said he was off again; but — er — I didn’t like his looks, and his hand was like a man’s in fever.”
“He’s been having malaria.”
“Oh! Ah! By the way, I’m sending you a book I’m sure you’ll like; it’s by that French Canadian.”
“Thank you, very much. I’ll tell Michael when he comes in.”
And Fleur stood thinking. Ought she to pass this on to Dinny? Without consulting Michael she did not like to, and he, tied tightly to the House just now, might not even be in to dinner. How like Wilfrid to keep one on tenterhooks! She always felt that she knew him better than either Dinny or Michael. They were convinced of a vein of pure gold in him. She, for whom he had once had such a pressing passion, could only assess that vein at nine carat. ‘That, I suppose,’ she thought, rather bitterly, ‘is because my nature is lower than theirs.’ People assessed others according to their own natures, didn’t they? Still, it was difficult to give high value to one whose mistress she had not become, and who had then fled into the blue. There was always extravagance in Michael’s likings; in Dinny — well, Dinny she did not really understand.
And so she went back to the letters she was writing. They were important, for she was rallying the best and brightest people to meet some high-caste Indian ladies who were over for the Conference. She had nearly finished when she was called to the telephone by Michael, asking if there were any message from Compson Grice. Having given him what news there was, she went on:
“Are you coming in to dinner? . . . Good! I dread dining alone with Dinny; she’s so marvellously cheerful, it gives me the creeps. Not worry other people and all that, of course; but if she showed her feelings more it would worry us less . . . Uncle Con! . . . That’s rather funny, the whole family seems to want now the exact opposite of what they wanted at first. I suppose it’s the result of watching her suffer . . . Yes, she went in the car to sail Kit’s boat on the Round Pond; they sent Dandy and the boat back in the car, and are walking home . . . All right dear boy. Eight o’clock; don’t be late if you can help it . . . Oh! here ARE Kit and Dinny. Good-bye!”
Kit had come into the room. His face was brown, his eyes blue, his sweater the same colour as his eyes, his shorts darker blue; his green stockings were gartered below his bare knees, and his brown shoes had brogues; he wore no cap on his bright head.
“Auntie Dinny has gone to lie down. She had to sit on the grass. She says she’ll be all right soon. D’you think she’s going to have measles? I’ve had them, Mummy, so when she’s isulated I can still see her. We saw a man who frightened her.”
“What sort of man?”
“He didn’t come near; a tall sort of man; he had his hat in his hand, and when he saw us, he almost ran.”
“How do you know he saw you?”
“Oh! he went like that, and scooted.”
“Was that in the Park?”
“The Green Park.”
“Was he thin, and dark in the face?”
“Yes; do you know him too?”
“Why ‘too,’ Kit? Did Auntie Dinny know him?”
“I think so; she said: ‘Oh!’ like that, and put her hand here. And then she looked after him; and then she sat down on the grass. I fanned her with her scarf. I love Auntie Dinny. Has she a husband?”
When he had gone up, Fleur debated. Dinny must have realised that Kit would describe everything. She decided only to send up a message and some sal volatile.
The answer came back: “I shall be all right by dinner.”
But at dinner-time a further message came to say she still felt rather faint: might she just go to bed and have a long night?
Thus it was that Michael and Fleur sat down alone.
“It was Wilfrid, of course.”
“I wish to God he’d go. It’s so wretched — the whole thing! D’you remember that passage in Turgenev, where Litvinov watches the train smoke curling away over the fields?”
“All Dinny’s tissue going up in smoke.”
“Yes,” said Fleur between tight lips. “But the fire will burn out.”
“And leave —?”
“Oh! She’ll be recognisable.”
Michael looked hard at the partner of his board. She was regarding the morsel of fish on her fork. With a little set smile on her lips she raised it to her mouth and began champing, as if chewing the cud of experience. Recognisable! Yes, SHE was as pretty as ever, though more firmly moulded, as if in tune with the revival of shape. He turned his eyes away, for he still squirmed when he thought of that business four years ago, of which he had known so little, suspected so much, and talked not at all. Smoke! Did all human passion burn away and drift in a blue film over the fields, obscure for a moment the sight of the sun and the shapes of the crops and the trees, then fade into air and leave the clear hard day; and no difference anywhere? Not quite! For smoke was burnt tissue, and where fire had raged there was alteration. Of the Dinny he had known from a small child up, the outline would be changed — hardened, sharpened, refined, withered? And he said:
“I must be back at the House by nine, the Chancellor’s speaking. Why one should listen to him, I don’t know, but one does.”
“Why you should listen to anyone will always be a mystery. Did you ever know any speaker in the House change anyone’s opinions?”
“No,” said Michael with a wry smile, “but one lives in hopes. We sit day after day talking of some blessed measure, and then take a vote, with the same result as if we’d taken it at the end of the first two speeches. And that’s gone on for hundreds of years.”
“So filial!” said Fleur. “Kit thinks Dinny is going to have measles. He’s asking, too, if she has a husband . . . Coaker, bring the coffee, please. Mr. Mont has to go.”
When he had kissed her and gone, Fleur went up to the nurseries. Catherine was the soundest of sleepers, and it was pleasant to watch her, a pretty child with hair that would probably be like her own and eyes so hesitating between grey and hazel that they gave promise of becoming ice-green. One small hand was crumpled against her cheek, and she breathed lightly as a flower. Nodding to the nurse, Fleur pushed open the door into the other nursery. To wake Kit was dangerous. He would demand biscuits, and, very likely, milk, want light conversation, and ask her to read to him. But in spite of the door’s faint creaking he did not wake. His bright head was thrust determinedly into the pillow from under which the butt of a pistol protruded. It was hot, and he had thrown back the clothes, so that, by the glimmer of the night-light his blue-pyjama’d figure was disclosed to the knees. His skin was brown and healthy, and he had a Forsyte’s chin. Fleur moved up and stood quite close. He looked ‘such a duck,’ thus determinedly asleep in face of the opposition put up by his quickening imagination. With feathered finger-tips she gripped the sheet, pulled it up, and gingerly let it down over him; then stood back with her hands on her hips, and one eyebrow raised. He was at the best age in life, and would be for another two years until he went to school. No sex to bother him as yet! Everybody kind to him; everything an adventure out of books. Books! Michael’s old books, her own, the few written since fit for children. He was at the wonderful age! She looked swiftly round the twilit room. His gun and sword lay ready on a chair! One supported disarmament, and armed children to the teeth! His other toys, mostly mechanised, would be in the schoolroom. No; there on the window-sill was the boat he had sailed with Dinny, its sails still set; and there on a cushion in the corner was ‘the silver dog,’ aware of her but too lazy to get up. She could see the slim feather of his tail cocked and waving gently at her. And, afraid lest she might disturb this admirable peace, she blew a kiss to both of them and stole back through the door. Nodding again to the nurse, she inspected Catherine’s eyelashes and went out. Down the stairs she tip-toed to the floor on which was Dinny’s room, above her own. Was it unfeeling not to look in and ask if there were anything she wanted? She moved closer to the door. Only half-past nine! She could not be asleep. Probably she would not sleep at all. It was hateful to think of her lying there silent and unhappy. Perhaps to talk would be a comfort, would take her mind off! She was raising her hand to knock when a sound came forth, smothered, yet unmistakable — the gasping sobs of one crying into her pillow. Fleur stood as if turned to stone. A noise she had not heard since she herself had made it nearly four years ago! It turned her sick with the force of memory — a horrible, but a sacred sound. Not for worlds would she go in! She covered her ears, drew back, and fled downstairs. For further protection from that searing sound she turned on the portable wireless. It gave forth from the second act of Madame Butterfly. She turned it off and sat down again at her bureau. She wrote rapidly a kind of formula: “Such a pleasure if, etc. — meet those very charming Indian ladies who, etc. — Yours, etc., Fleur Mont.” Over and over and over, and the sound of that sobbing in her ears! It was stuffy to-night! She drew the curtains aside and threw the window wider to let in what air there was. A hostile thing, life, full of silent menace and small annoyances. If you went towards and grasped life with both hands, it yielded, perhaps, then drew back to deal some ugly stroke. Half-past ten! What were they jabbering about now in Parliament? Some twopenny-ha’penny tax! She closed the window and drew the curtains again, stamped her letters, and stood looking round the room before turning out and going up. And, suddenly, came a memory — of Wilfrid’s face outside close to the glass of the window, on the night he fled from her to the East. If it were there now; if, for a second time in his strange life, he came like a disembodied spirit to that window, seeking now not her but Dinny? She switched off the light and groped her way to the window, cautiously drew the curtains apart a very little, and peered out. Nothing but the last of the artificially delayed daylight! Impatiently she dropped the curtain and went upstairs. Standing before her long mirror, she listened a moment, and then carefully did not. How like life, that! One shut eyes and ears to all that was painful — if one could. And who could blame one? Plenty, to which one could shut neither eyes nor ears, seeped-in even through closed lids and cotton-wool. She was just getting into bed when Michael came. She told him of the sobbing, and he in turn stood listening; but nothing penetrated the room’s solid roofing. He went into his dressing-room and came back presently in a dressing-gown she had given him, blue, with embroidered cuffs and collar, and began to walk up and down.
“Come to bed,” said Fleur; “you can’t help by doing that.”
They talked a little in bed. It was Michael who fell asleep. Fleur lay wakeful. Big Ben struck twelve. The town murmured on, but the house was very still. A little crack now and then, as though some board were settling down after the day’s pressure of feet; the snuffle, not loud, of Michael’s breathing — such, and the whispering, as it were, of her own thoughts, were its only noises. From the room above not a sound. She began to think of where they should go in the long vacation. Scotland had been spoken of, and Cornwall; she herself wanted the Riviera for a month at least. To come back brown all over; she had never been properly sun-browned yet! With Mademoiselle and Nanny the children would be safe! What was that? A door closing. Surely the creaking of stairs! She touched Michael.
Again that faint creaking.
“It began above,” whispered Fleur; “I think you ought to see.”
He got out of bed, put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and, opening the door quietly, looked out. Nothing on the landing, but the sound of someone moving in the hall! He slipped down the stairs.
There was a dim figure by the front door, and he said gently:
“Is that you, Dinny?”
Michael moved forward. Her figure left the door, and he came on her sitting on the coat ‘sarcophagus.’ He could just see that her hand was raised, holding a scarf over her head and face.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“No. I wanted some air.”
Michael checked his impulse to turn the light up. He moved forward, and in the darkness stroked her arm.
“I didn’t think you’d hear,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Dared he speak of her trouble? Would she hate him for it or be grateful?
“My dear,” he said, “anything that’ll do you good.”
“It’s silly. I’ll go up again.”
Michael put his arm round her; he could feel that she was fully dressed. After a moment she relaxed against him, still holding the scarf so that it veiled her face and head. He rocked her gently — the least little movement side to side. Her body slipped till her head rested against his shoulder. Michael ceased to rock, ceased almost to breathe. As long as she would, let her rest there!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54