Uneasy and silent, the two girls drove towards St. Augustine’s-inthe-Meads.
“I don’t know which I’m most sorry for,” said Dinny, suddenly: “I never thought about insanity before. People either make a joke of it or hide it away. But it seems to me more pitiful than anything in the world; especially when it’s partial like this.”
Jean turned on her a surprised look — Dinny with the mask of humour off was new.
“Which way now?”
“Up here; we have to cross the Euston Road. Personally, I don’t believe Aunt May can put us up. She’s sure to have people learning to slum. Well, if she can’t, we’ll telephone to Fleur. I wish I’d thought of that before.”
Her prediction was verified — the Vicarage was full, her aunt out, her uncle at home.
“While we’re here, we’d better find out whether Uncle Hilary will do you in,” whispered Dinny.
Hilary was spending the first free hour of three days in his shirt sleeves, carving the model of a Viking ship. For the production of obsolete ships in miniature was the favourite recreation now of one who had no longer leisure or muscle for mountain climbing. The fact that they took more time to complete than anything else, and that he had perhaps less time than anybody else to give to their completion, had not yet weighed with him. After shaking hands with Jean, he excused himself for proceeding with his job.
“Uncle Hilary,” began Dinny, abruptly, “Jean is going to marry Hubert, and they want it to be by special licence; so we’ve come to ask if you would marry them.”
Hilary halted his gouging instrument, narrowed his eyes till they were just shrewd slits, and said:
“Afraid of changing your minds?”
“Not at all,” said Jean.
Hilary regarded her attentively. In three words and one look she had made it clear to him that she was a young woman of character.
“I’ve met your father,” he said, “he always takes plenty of time.”
“Dad is perfectly docile about this.”
“That’s true,” said Dinny; “I’ve seen him.”
“And YOUR father, my dear?”
“He WILL be.”
“If he is,” said Hilary, again gouging at the stern of his ship, “I’ll do it. No point in delay if you really know your minds.” He turned to Jean. “You ought to be good at mountains; the season’s over, or I’d recommend that to you for your honeymoon. But why not a trawler in the North Sea?”
“Uncle Hilary,” said Dinny, “refused a Deanship. He is noted for his asceticism.”
“The hat ropes did it, Dinny, and let me tell you that the grapes have been sour ever since. I cannot think why I declined a life of some ease with time to model all the ships in the world, the run of the newspapers, and the charms of an increasing stomach. Your Aunt never ceases to throw them in my teeth. When I think of what Uncle Cuffs did with his dignity, and how he looked when he came to the end, I see my wasted life roll out behind me, and visions of falling down when they take me out of the shafts. How strenuous is your father, Miss Tasburgh?”
“Oh, he just marks time,” said Jean; “but that’s the country.”
“Not entirely! To mark time and to think you’re not — there never was a more universal title than ‘The Man who was.’”
“Unless,” said Dinny, “it’s ‘The Man who never was’. Oh! Uncle, Captain Ferse suddenly turned up today at Diana’s.”
Hilary’s face became very grave.
“Ferse! That’s either most terrible, or most merciful. Does your Uncle Adrian know?”
“Yes; I fetched him. He’s there now with Captain Ferse. Diana wasn’t in.”
“Did you see Ferse?”
“I went in and had a talk with him,” said Jean; “he seemed perfectly sane except that he locked me in.”
Hilary continued to stand very still.
“We’ll say good-bye now, Uncle; we’re going to Michael’s.”
“Good-bye; and thank you very much, Mr. Cherrell.”
“Yes,” said Hilary, absently, “we must hope for the best.”
The two girls, mounting the car, set out for Westminster.
“He evidently expects the worst,” said Jean.
“Not difficult, when both alternatives are so horrible.”
“No, no!” murmured Dinny: “I wasn’t thinking of you.” And she thought how remarkably Jean could keep to a track when she was on it!
Outside Michael’s house in Westminster they encountered Adrian, who had telephoned to Hilary and been informed of their changed destination. Having ascertained that Fleur could put the girls up, he left them; but Dinny, smitten by the look on his face, ran after him. He was walking towards the river, and she joined him at the corner of the Square.
“Would you rather be alone, Uncle?”
“I’m glad of YOU, Dinny. Come along.”
They went at a good pace westward along the Embankment, Dinny slipping her hand within his arm. She did not talk, however, leaving him to begin if he wished.
“You know I’ve been down to that Home several times,” he said, presently, “to see how things were with Ferse, and make sure they were treating him properly. It serves me right for not having been these last months. But I always dreaded it. I’ve been talking to them now on the ‘phone. They wanted to come up, but I’ve told them not to. What good can it do? They admit he’s been quite normal for the last two weeks. In such cases it seems they wait a month at least before reporting. Ferse himself says he’s been normal for three months.”
“What sort of place is it?”
“A largish country house — only about ten patients; each has his own rooms and his own attendant. It’s as good a place, I suppose, as you could find. But it always gave me the horrors with its spikey wall round the grounds and general air of something hidden away. Either I’m over-sensitive, Dinny, or this particular affliction does seem to me too dreadful.”
Dinny squeezed his arm. “So it does to me. How did he get away?”
“He’d been so normal that they weren’t at all on their guard — he seems to have said he was going to lie down, and slipped out during lunch time. He must have noticed that some tradesman came at a certain time every day, for he slid out when the lodge-keeper was taking in parcels; he walked to the station and took the first train. It’s only twenty miles. He’ll have been in town before they found out he was gone. I’m going down there tomorrow.”
“Poor Uncle!” said Dinny, softly.
“Well, my dear, so things go in this life. But to be torn between two horrors is not my dream.”
“Was it in his family?”
Adrian nodded. “His grandfather died raving. But for the war it might never have developed in Ferse, but you can’t tell. Hereditary madness? Is it fair? No, Dinny, I’m not a believer in divine mercy in any form that we humans can understand, or in any way that we would exercise it ourselves. An all-embracing creativity and power of design without beginning and without end — obviously. But — tie it to our apron-strings we can’t. Think of a mad-house! One simply daren’t. And see what the fact that one daren’t means for those poor creatures. The sensitive recoil and that leaves them mainly to the insensitive, and God help them!”
“According to you, God won’t.”
“God is the helping of man by man, somebody once said; at all events that’s all the working version we can make of Him.”
“And the Devil?”
“The harming of man by man, only I’d throw in animals.”
“Pure Shelley, Uncle.”
“Might be a lot worse. But I become a wicked Uncle, corrupting the orthodoxy of Youth.”
“You can’t corrupt what is not, dear. Here’s Oakley Street. Would you like me to go and ask Diana if she wants anything?”
“Wouldn’t I? I’ll wait for you at this corner, Dinny; and thank you ever so.”
Dinny walked swiftly, looking neither to right nor left, and rang the bell. The same maid answered it.
“I don’t want to come in, but could you find out for me quietly from Mrs. Ferse whether she’s all right, or whether she wants anything. And will you tell her that I’m at Mrs. Michael Mont’s, and am ready to come at any moment, and to stay if she’d like me.”
While the maid was gone upstairs she strained her ears, but no sound reached them till the maid came back.
“Mrs. Ferse says, Miss, to thank you very heartily, and to say she won’t fail to send for you if she needs you. She’s all right at present, Miss; but, oh dear! we ARE put about, hoping for the best. And she sends her love, Miss; and Mr. Cherrell’s not to worry.”
“Thank you,” said Dinny: “Give her our love and say there we are — all ready.”
Then, swiftly, looking neither to left nor right, she returned to Adrian. The message repeated, they walked on.
“Hanging in the wind,” said Adrian, “is there anything more dreadful? And how long — oh, Lord! How long? But as she says, we mustn’t worry,” and he uttered an unhappy little laugh. It began to grow dusk, and in that comfortless light, neither day nor night, the ragged ends of the streets and bridges seemed bleak and unmeaning. Twilight passed, and with the lamps form began again and contours softened.
“Dinny, my dear,” said Adrian, “I’m not fit to walk with; we’d better get back.”
“Come and dine at Michael’s then, Uncle — do!”
Adrian shook his head.
“Skeletons should not be at feasts. I don’t know how to abide myself, as your Nurse used to say, I’m sure.”
“She did not; she was Scotch. Is Ferse a Scottish name?”
“May have been originally. But Ferse came from West Sussex, somewhere in the Downs — an old family.”
“Do you think old families are queer?”
“I don’t see why. When there’s a case of queerness in an old family, it’s conspicuous of course, instead of just passing without notice. Old families are not inbred like village folk.” By instinct for what might distract him, Dinny went on:
“Do you think age in families has any points to it at all, Uncle?”
“What is age? All families are equally old, in one sense. But if you’re thinking of quality due to mating for generations within a certain caste, well, I don’t know — there’s certainly ‘good breeding’ in the sense that you’d apply it to dogs or horses, but you can get that in any favourable physical circumstances — in the dales, by the sea; wherever conditions are good. Sound stock breeds sound stock — that’s obvious. I know villages in the very North of Italy where there isn’t a person of rank, and yet not one without beauty and a look of breeding. But when you come to breeding from people with genius or those exceptional qualities which bring men to the front, I’m very doubtful whether you don’t get distortion rather than symmetry. Families with military or naval origin and tradition have the best chance, perhaps — good physique and not too much brain; but Science and the Law and Business are very distorting. No! where I think ‘old’ families may have a pull is in the more definite sense of direction their children get in growing up, a set tradition, a set objective; also perhaps to a better chance in the marriage market; and in most cases to more country life, and more encouragement to taking their own line and more practice in taking it. What’s talked of as ‘breeding’ in humans is an attribute of mind rather than of body. What one thinks and feels is mainly due to tradition, habit and education. But I’m boring you, my dear.”
“No, no, Uncle; I’m terribly interested. You believe then in the passing on of an attitude to life rather than in blood.”
“Yes, but the two are very mixed.”
“And do you think ‘oldness’ is going out and soon nothing will be handed on?”
“I wonder. Tradition is extraordinarily strong, and in this country there’s a lot of machinery to keep it alive. You see, there are such a tremendous lot of directive jobs to be done; and the people most fit for such jobs are those who, as children, have had most practice in taking their own line, been taught not to gas about themselves, and to do things because it’s their duty. It’s they, for instance, who run the Services, and they’ll go on running them, I expect. But privilege is only justified nowadays by running till you drop.”
“A good many,” said Dinny, “seem to drop first, and then do the running. Well, here we are again, at Fleur’s. Now do come in, Uncle! If Diana did want anything you’d be on the spot.”
“Very well, my dear, and bless you — you got me on a subject I often think about. Serpent!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08