The drive to Richmond Park, over Ham Common and Kingston Bridge to Hampton Court, and back through Twickenham and Kew, was remarkable for alternation between silence and volubility. Dinny was, as it were, the observer, and left to Wilfrid all the piloting. Her feelings made her shy, and it was apparent that he was only able to expand if left to his free will — the last person in the world to be drawn out. They duly lost themselves in the maze at Hampton Court, where, as Dinny said,
“Only spiders who can spin threads out of themselves, or ghosts who can tails unfold, would have a chance.”
On the way back they got out at Kensington Gardens, dismissed the hired car, and walked to the tea kiosk. Over the pale beverage he asked her suddenly whether she would mind reading his new poems in manuscript.
“Mind? I should love it.”
“I want a candid opinion.”
“You will get it,” said Dinny. “When can I have them?”
“I’ll bring them round to Mount Street and drop them in your letter-box after dinner.”
“Won’t you come in this time?”
He shook his head.
When he left her at Stanhope Gate, he said abruptly:
“It’s been a simply lovely afternoon. Thank you!”
“It is for me to thank you.”
“You! You’ve got more friends than quills upon the fretful porpentine. It’s I who am the pelican.”
“Adieu, flowering wilderness!”
The words seemed musical all the way down Mount Street.
A fat unstamped envelope was brought in about half-past nine with the last post. Dinny took it from Blore, and slipping it under The Bridge of San Luis Rey, went on listening to her aunt.
“When I was a girl I squeezed my own waist, Dinny. We suffered for a principle. They say it’s comin’ in again. I shan’t do it, so hot and worryin’; but you’ll have to.”
“When the waist has settled down there’ll be a lot of squeezin’.”
“The really tight waist will never come in again, Auntie.”
“And hats. In 1900 we were like eggstands with explodin’ eggs in them. Cauliflowers and hydrangeas, and birds of a feather, enormous. They stuck out. The Parks were comparatively pure. Sea-green suits you, Dinny; you ought to be married in it.”
“I think I’ll go up, Aunt Em. I’m rather tired.”
“That’s eatin’ so little.”
“I eat enormously. Good-night, dear.”
Without undressing she sat down to the poems, nervously anxious to like them, for she knew that he would see through any falsity. To her relief they had the tone she remembered in his other volumes, but were less bitter and more concerned with beauty. When she had finished the main sheaf, she came on a much longer poem entitled ‘The Leopard,’ wrapped round in a blank sheet of paper. Was it so wrapped to keep her from reading it; why, then, had he enclosed it? She decided that he had been doubtful, and wanted her verdict. Below the title was written the line:
“Can the leopard change its spots?”
It was the story of a young monk, secretly without faith, sent on a proselytising expedition. Seized by infidels, and confronted with the choice between death or recantation, he recants and accepts the religion of his captors. The poem was seared with passages of such deep feeling that they hurt her. It had a depth and fervour which took her breath away; it was a paean in praise of contempt for convention faced with the stark reality of the joy in living, yet with a haunting moan of betrayal running through it. It swayed her this way and that; and she put it down with a feeling almost of reverence for one who could so express such a deep and tangled spiritual conflict. With that reverence were mingled a compassion for the stress he must have endured before he could have written this and a feeling, akin to that which mothers feel, of yearning to protect him from his disharmonies and violence.
They had arranged to meet the following day at the National Gallery, and she went there before time, taking the poems with her. He came on her in front of Gentile Bellini’s ‘Mathematician.’ They stood for some time looking at it without a word.
“Truth, quality, and decorative effect. Have you read my stuff?”
“Yes. Come and sit down, I’ve got them here.”
They sat down, and she gave him the envelope.
“Well?” he said; and she saw his lips quivering.
“Terribly good, I think.”
“Even truly. One, of course, is much the finest.”
Dinny’s smile said: “You ask that?”
“Yes. It hurt me, here.”
“Shall I throw it out?”
By intuition she realised that on her answer he would act, and said feebly: “You wouldn’t pay attention to what I said, would you?”
“What you say shall go.”
“Then of course you can’t throw it out. It’s the finest thing you’ve done.”
“What made you doubt?”
“It’s a naked thing.”
“Yes,” said Dinny, “naked — but beautiful. When a thing’s naked it must be beautiful.”
“Hardly the fashionable belief.”
“Surely a civilised being naturally covers deformities and sores. There’s nothing fine in being a savage that I can see, even in art.”
“You run the risk of excommunication. Ugliness is a sacred cult now.”
“Reaction from the chocolate box,” murmured Dinny.
“Ah! Whoever invented those lids sinned against the holy ghost — he offended the little ones.”
“Artists are children, you mean?”
“Well, aren’t they? or would they carry on as they do?”
“Yes, they do seem to love toys. What gave you the idea for that poem?” His face had again that look of deep waters stirred, as when Muskham had spoken to them under the Foch statue.
“Tell you some day, perhaps. Shall we go on round?”
When they parted, he said: “To-morrow’s Sunday. I shall be seeing you?”
“If you will.”
“What about the Zoo?”
“No, not the Zoo. I hate cages.”
“Quite right. The Dutch garden near Kensington Palace?”
And that made the fifth consecutive day of meeting.
For Dinny it was like a spell of good weather, when every night you go to sleep hoping it will last, and every morning wake up and rub your eyes seeing that it has.
Each day she responded to his: “Shall I see you tomorrow?” with an “If you will;” each day she concealed from everybody with care whom she was seeing, and how, and when; and it all seemed to her so unlike herself that she would think: ‘Who is this young woman who goes out stealthily like this, and meets a young man, and comes back feeling as if she had been treading on air? Is it some kind of a long dream I’m having?’ Only, in dreams one didn’t eat cold chicken and drink tea.
The moment most illuminative of her state of mind was when Hubert and Jean walked into the hall at Mount Street, where they were to stay till after Clare’s wedding. This first sight for eighteen months of her beloved brother should surely have caused her to feel tremulous. But she greeted him steady as a rock, even to the power of cool appraisement. He seemed extremely well, brown, and less thin, but more commonplace. She tried to think that was because he was now safe and married and restored to soldiering, but she knew that comparison with Wilfrid had to do with it. She seemed to know suddenly that in Hubert there had never been capacity for any deep spiritual conflict; he was of the type she knew so well, seeing the trodden path and without real question following. Besides, Jean made all the difference! One could never again be to him, or he to her, as before his marriage. Jean was brilliantly alive and glowing. They had come the whole way from Khartoum to Croydon by air with four stops. Dinny was troubled by the inattention which underlay her seeming absorption in their account of life out there, till a mention of Darfur made her prick her ears. Darfur was where something had happened to Wilfrid. There were still followers of the Mahdi there, she gathered. The personality of Jerry Corven was discussed. Hubert was enthusiastic about ‘a job of work’ he had done. Jean filled out the gap. The wife of a Deputy Commissioner had gone off her head about him. It was said that Jerry Corven had behaved badly.
“Well, well!” said Sir Lawrence, “Jerry’s a privateer, and women ought not to go off their heads about him.”
“Yes,” said Jean. “It’s silly to blame men nowadays.”
“In old days,” murmured Lady Mont, “men did the advancing and women were blamed; now women do it and the men are blamed.”
The extraordinary consecutiveness of the speech struck with a silencing effect on every tongue, until she added: “I once saw two camels, d’you remember, Lawrence, so pretty.”
Jean looked rather horrified, and Dinny smiled.
Hubert came back to the line. “I don’t know,” he said; “he’s marrying our sister.”
“Clare’ll give and take,” said Lady Mont. “It’s only when their noses are curved. The Rector,” she added to Jean, “says there’s a Tasburgh nose. You haven’t got it. It crinkles. Your brother Alan had it a little.” And she looked at Dinny. “In China, too,” she added. “I said he’d marry a purser’s daughter.”
“Good God, Aunt Em, he hasn’t!” cried Jean.
“No. Very nice girls, I’m sure. Not like clergymen’s.”
“I mean the sort you find in the Park. They call themselves that when they want company. I thought everybody knew.”
“Jean was rectory-bred, Aunt Em,” said Hubert.
“But she’s been married to you two years. Who was it said: ‘And they shall multiply exceedin’ly’?”
“Moses?” said Dinny.
“And why not?”
Her eyes rested on Jean, who flushed. Sir Lawrence remarked quickly: “I hope Hilary will be as short with Clare as he was with you and Jean, Hubert. That was a record.”
“Hilary preaches beautifully,” said Lady Mont. “At Edward’s death he preached on ‘Solomon in all his glory.’ Touchin’! And when we hung Casement, you remember — so stupid of us! — on the beam and the mote. We had it in our eye.”
“If I could love a sermon,” said Dinny, “it would be Uncle Hilary’s.”
“Yes,” said Lady Mont, “he could borrow more barley-sugar than any little boy I ever knew and look like an angel. Your Aunt Wilmet and I used to hold him upside down — like puppies, you know — hopin’, but we never got it back.”
“You must have been a lovely family, Aunt Em.”
“Tryin’. Our father that was not in Heaven took care not to see us much. Our mother couldn’t help it — poor dear! We had no sense of duty.”
“And now you all have so much; isn’t it queer?”
“Have I a sense of duty, Lawrence?”
“Emphatically not, Em.”
“I thought so.”
“But wouldn’t you say as a whole, Uncle Lawrence, that the Cherrells have too much sense of duty?”
“How can they have TOO much?” said Jean.
Sir Lawrence fixed his monocle.
“I scent heresy, Dinny.”
“Surely duty’s narrowing, Uncle? Father and Uncle Lionel and Uncle Hilary, and even Uncle Adrian, always think first of what they ought to do. They despise their own wants. Very fine, of course, but rather dull.”
Sir Lawrence dropped his eyeglass.
“Your family, Dinny,” he said, “perfectly illustrate the mandarin. They hold the Empire together. Public schools, Osborne, Sandhurst; oh! ah! and much more. From generation to generation it begins in the home. Mother’s milk with them. Service to Church and State — very interesting, very rare now, very admirable.”
“Especially when they’ve kept on top by means of it,” murmured Dinny.
“Shucks!” said Hubert: “As if anyone thought of that in the Services!”
“You don’t think of it because you don’t have to; but you would fast enough if you did have to.”
“Somewhat cryptic, Dinny,” put in Sir Lawrence; “you mean if anything threatened them, they’d think: ‘We simply mustn’t be removed, we’re It.’”
“But are they It, Uncle?”
“With whom have you been associating, my dear?”
“Oh! no one. One must think sometimes.”
“Too depressin’,” said Lady Mont. “The Russian revolution, and all that.”
Dinny was conscious that Hubert was regarding her as if thinking: ‘What’s come to Dinny?’
“If one wants to take out a linch-pin,” he said, “one always can, but the wheel comes off.”
“Well put, Hubert,” said Sir Lawrence; “it’s a mistake to think one can replace type or create it quickly. The sahib’s born, not made — that is, if you take the atmosphere of homes as part of birth. And, if you ask me, he’s dying out fast. A pity not to preserve him somehow; we might have National Parks for them, as they have for bisons.”
“No,” said Lady Mont, “I won’t.”
“What, Aunt Em?”
“Drink champagne on Wednesday, nasty bubbly stuff!”
“Must we have it at all, dear?”
“I’m afraid of Blore. He’s so used. I might tell him not, but it’d be there.”
“Have you heard of Hallorsen lately, Dinny?” asked Hubert suddenly.
“Not since Uncle Adrian came back. I believe he’s in Central America.”
“He WAS large,” said Lady Mont. “Hilary’s two girls, Sheila, Celia, and little Anne, five — I’m glad you’re not to be, Dinny. It’s superstition, of course.”
Dinny leaned back and the light fell on her throat.
“To be a bridesmaid once is quite enough, Aunt Em . . .”
When next morning she met Wilfrid at the Wallace Collection, she said:
“Would you by any chance like to be at Clare’s wedding tomorrow?”
“No hat and no black tails; I gave them to Stack.”
“I remember how you looked, perfectly. You had a grey cravat and a gardenia.”
“And you had on sea-green.”
“Eau-de-nil. I’d like you to have seen my family, though, they’ll all be there; and we could have discussed them afterwards.”
“I’ll turn up among the ‘also ran’ and keep out of sight.”
‘Not from me,’ thought Dinny. So she would not have to go a whole day without seeing him!
With every meeting he seemed less, as it were, divided against himself; and sometimes would look at her so intently that her heart would beat. When she looked at him, which was seldom, except when he wasn’t aware, she was very careful to keep her gaze limpid. How fortunate that one always had that pull over men, knew when they were looking at one, and was able to look at them without their knowing!
When they parted this time, he said: “Come down to Richmond again on Thursday. I’ll pick you up at Foch — two o’clock as before.”
And she said: “Yes.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54