At Condaford Jean went straight from the telephone to find her mother-inlaw, and repeated Sir Lawrence’s words with her usual decision. The gentle rather timid expression on Lady Cherrell’s face changed to a startled concern.
“Shall I tell the General?”
Alone again with her accounts, Lady Cherrell sat thinking. The only one of the family, except Hubert, who had never seen Wilfrid Desert, she had tried to keep an open mind, and had no definite opposition on her conscience. She felt now only a troubled sympathy. What could one do? And, as is customary in the case of another’s bereavement, she could only think of flowers.
She slipped out into the garden and went to the rose beds, which, flanked by tall yew hedges, clustered round the old sundial. She plucked a basket full of the best blossoms, took them up to Dinny’s narrow and conventual bedroom, and disposed them in bowls by the bedside and on the window-sill. Then, opening the door and mullioned window wide, she rang for the room to be dusted and the bed made. The Medici prints on the walls she carefully set exactly straight, and said:
“I’ve dusted the pictures, Annie. Keep the window and door open. I want it all to smell sweet. Can you do the room now?”
“Then I think you’d better, I don’t know what time Miss Dinny will be here.”
Back with her accounts, she could not settle to them, and, pushing them into a drawer, went to find her husband. He, too, was seated before bills and papers without sign of animation. She went up to him and pressed his head against her.
“Jean’s told you, Con?”
“Yes. It’s the only thing, of course; but I hate Dinny to be sad.”
They were silent till Lady Cherrell said:
“I’d tell Dinny about our being so hard up. It would take her mind off.”
The General ruffled his hair. “I shall be three hundred down on the year. I might get a couple of hundred for the horses, the rest must come out of trees. I don’t know which I dislike more. Do you think she could suggest something?”
“No, but she would worry, and that would prevent her troubling so much over the other thing.”
“I see. Well, Jean or you tell her, then. I don’t like to. It looks like hinting that I want to reduce her allowance. It’s a pittance as it is. Make it plain there’s no question of that. Travel would have been the thing for her, but where’s the money to come from?”
Lady Cherrell did not know, and the conversation lapsed.
Into that old house, which for so many centuries human hopes, fears, births, deaths, and all the medley of everyday emotions had stamped with a look of wary age, had come an uneasiness which showed in every word and action, even of the maids. What attitude to adopt? How to show sympathy, and yet not show it? How to welcome, and yet make it clear that welcome did not carry rejoicing? Even Jean was infected. She brushed and combed the dogs, and insisted on taking the car to meet every afternoon train.
Dinny came by the third. Leading Foch, she stepped out of the carriage almost into Jean’s arms.
“Hallo, my dear,” said Jean, “here you are! New dog?”
“Yes; a darling.”
“What have you got?”
“Only these things. It’s no use looking for a porter, they’re always trundling bicycles.”
“I’ll get them out.”
“Indeed you won’t! Hold Foch.”
When, carrying her suitcase and dressing-bag, she reached the car, Dinny said:
“Would you mind if I walk up by the fields, Jean? It’s good for Foch; and the train was stuffy; I should like a sniff of the hay.”
“Yes, there’s some down still. I’ll take these along, and have fresh tea ready.”
She left Dinny standing with a smile on her face. And all the way to the Grange she thought of that smile and swore under her breath . . . .
Entering the field path, Dinny let Foch off his lead. By the way he rushed to the hedgerow, she realised how he had missed all this. A country dog! For a moment his busy joy took up her attention; then the sore and bitter aching came back again. She called him and walked on. In the first of their own fields the hay was still lying out, and she flung herself down. When she once got home she must watch every word and look, must smile and smile, and show nothing! She wanted desperately these few minutes of abandonment. She didn’t cry, but pressed herself against the hay-covered earth, and the sun burned her neck. She turned on her back and gazed up at the blue. She framed no thoughts, dissolved in aching for what was lost and could never be found now. And the hum of summer beat drowsily above her from the wings of insects drunk on heat and honey. She crossed her arms on her chest to compress the pain within her. If she could die, there, now, in full summer with its hum and the singing of the larks; die and ache no more! So she lay motionless, until the dog came and licked her cheek. And, ashamed, she got up and stood brushing the hay-seeds and stalks from her dress and stockings.
Past old Kismet in the next field she came to the thread of stream and crossed it into the disenchanted orchard, smelling of nettles and old trees; then on, to the garden and the flagstones of the terrace. One magnolia flower was out, but she dared not stop and sniff, lest its lemon-honey scent should upset her again; and, coming to the French window, she looked in.
Her mother was sitting with the look on her face that Dinny called ‘waiting for Father.’ Her father was standing with the look on his face that she called ‘waiting for Mother.’ Jean seemed expecting her cub to come round the corner.
‘And I’m the cub,’ thought Dinny, and stepped over the threshold, saying:
“Well, Mother darling, can I have some tea? . . .”
That evening, after good-night had been said, she came down again and went to her father’s study. He was at his bureau, poring, with a pencil, over something he had written. She stole up, and read over his shoulder:
“Hunters for sale: Bay gelding, fifteen three, rising ten, sound, good-looking, plenty of bone, fine jumper. Mare: blue roan: fifteen one, rising nine, very clever, carries lady, show jumper, sound wind and limb. Apply Owner, Condaford Grange, Oxon.”
“H’m!” he muttered, and crossed out the ‘wind and limb.’
Dinny reached down and took the paper.
The General started and looked round.
“No,” she said. And tore the sheet.
“Here! You mustn’t do that. It took me —”
“No, Dad, you can’t sell the horses, you’d be lost.”
“But I MUST sell the horses, Dinny.”
“I know. Mother told me. But it isn’t necessary. I happen to have quite a lot.” She put the notes she had been carrying about so long on his bureau.
The General got up.
“Impossible!” he said. “Very good of you, Dinny, but quite impossible!”
“You mustn’t refuse me, Dad. Let me do something for Condaford. I’ve no use for it, and it happens to be just the three hundred Mother says you want.”
“No use for it? Nonsense, my dear! Why! With that you could have a good long travel.”
“I don’t want a good long travel. I want to stay at home and help you both.”
The General looked hard into her face.
“I should be ashamed to take it,” he said. “It’s my own fault that I’ve got behind.”
“Dad! You never spend anything on yourself.”
“Well, I don’t know how it is — one little thing and another, it piles up.”
“You and I will go into it. There must be things we could do without.”
“The worst is having no capital. Something comes along and I have to meet it out of income; insurance is heavy, and with rates and taxes always going up, income gets smaller all the time.”
“I know; it must be awful. Couldn’t one breed something?”
“Costs money to start. Of course we could do perfectly well in London or Cheltenham, or abroad. It’s keeping the place up, and the people dependent on it.”
“Leave Condaford! Oh! no! Besides, who would take it? In spite of all you’ve done, we’re not up to date, Dad.”
“We’re certainly not.”
“We could never put ‘this desirable residence’ without blushing. People won’t pay for other people’s ancestors.”
The General stared before him.
“I do frankly wish, Dinny, the thing wasn’t such a trust. I hate bothering about money, screwing here and screwing there, and always having to look forward to see if you can make do. But, as you say, to sell’s unthinkable. And who’d rent it? It wouldn’t make a boys’ school, or a country club, or an asylum. Those seem the only fates before country houses nowadays. Your Uncle Lionel’s the only one of us who’s got any money — I wonder if he’d like to take it on for his week-ends.”
“No, Dad! No! Let’s stick to it. I’m sure we can do it, somehow. Let me do the screwing and that. In the meantime you MUST take this. Then we shall start fair.”
“To please me, dear.”
The General drew her to him.
“That business of yours,” he muttered into her hair. “My God, I wish —!”
She shook her head.
“I’m going out for a few minutes now, just to wander round. It’s so nice and warm.”
And, winding a scarf round her neck, she was gone through the opened window.
The last dregs of the long daylight had drained down beyond the rim, but warmth abode, for no air stirred, and no dew fell — a still, dry, dark night, with swarming stars. From the moment she stepped out Dinny was lost in it. But the old house shrouded in its creepers lived for her eyes, a dim presence with four still-lighted windows. She stood under an elm tree leaning against its trunk, with her arms stretched back and her hands clasping it behind her. Night was a friend — no eye to see, no ear to listen. She stared into it, unmoving, drawing comfort from the solidity and breadth behind her. Moths flew by, almost touching her face. Insentient nature, warm, incurious, busy even in the darkness. Millions of little creatures burrowed and asleep, hundreds floating or creeping about, billions of blades of grass and flowers straightening up ever so slowly in the comparative coolness of the night. Nature! Pitiless and indifferent even to the only creatures who crowned and petted her with pretty words! Threads broke and hearts broke, or whatever really happened to the silly things — Nature twitched no lip, heaved no sigh! One twitch of Nature’s lip would have been more to her than all human sympathy. If, as in the ‘Birth of Venus,’ breezes could puff at her, waves like doves lap to her feet, bees fly round her seeking honey! If for one moment in this darkness she could feel at one with the starshine, the smell of earth, the twitter of that bat, the touch of a moth’s wing on her nose!
With her chin tilted up and all her body taut against the tree trunk she stood, breathless from the darkness and the silence and the stars. Ears of a weasel, nose of a fox to hear and scent out what was stirring! In the tree above her head a bird chirped once. The drone of the last train, still far away, began, swelled, resolved itself into the sound of wheels and the sound of steam, stopped, then began again and faded out in a far drumming. All hushed once more! Where she stood the moat had been, filled in so long that this great elm tree had grown. Slow, the lives of trees, and one long fight with the winds; slow and tenacious like the life of her family clinging to this spot.
‘I WILL not think of him,’ she thought, ‘I WILL not think of him!’ As a child that refuses to remember what has hurt it, so would she be! And, instantly, his face formed in the darkness — his eyes and his lips. She turned round to the trunk and leaned her forehead on its roughness. But his face came between. Recoiling, she walked away over the grass swiftly and without noise, invisible as a spirit. Up and down she walked, and the wheeling soothed her.
‘Well,’ she thought, ‘I have had my hour. It can’t be helped. I must go in.’
She stood for a moment looking up at the stars, so far, so many, bright and cold. And with a faint smile she thought:
‘I wonder which is my lucky star!’
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08