At Condaford, the telegram came just before dinner. It ran: ‘Poor F dead Fell down chalk pit here Removed to Chichester Adrian and I going with him Inquest will be there. Hilary.’
Dinny was in her room when it was brought to her, and she sat down on her bed with that feeling of constriction in the chest which comes when relief and sorrow struggle together for expression. Here was what she had prayed for, and all she could think of was the last sound she had heard him utter, and the look on his face, when he was standing in the doorway listening to Diana singing. She said to the maid who had brought in the telegram:
“Amy, find Scaramouch.”
When the Scotch terrier came with his bright eyes and his air of knowing that he was of value, she clasped him so tight that he became uneasy. With that warm and stiffly hairy body in her arms, she regained the power of feeling; relief covered the background of her being, but pity forced tears into her eyes. It was a curious state, and beyond the comprehension of her dog. He licked her nose and wriggled till she set him down. She finished dressing hurriedly and went to her mother’s room.
Lady Cherrell, dressed for dinner, was moving between open wardrobe and open chest of drawers, considering what she could best part with for the approaching jumble sale which must keep the village nursing fund going over the year’s end. Dinny put the telegram into her hand without a word. Having read it, she said quietly:
“That’s what you prayed for, dear.”
“Does it mean suicide?”
“I think so.”
“Ought I to tell Diana now, or wait till she’s had a night’s sleep?”
“Now, I think. I will, if you like.”
“No, no, darling. It’s up to me. She’ll like dinner upstairs, I expect. To-morrow, I suppose, we shall have to go to Chichester.”
“This is all very dreadful for you, Dinny.”
“It’s good for me.” She took back the telegram and went out.
Diana was with the children, who were giving as long as possible to the process of going to bed, not having reached the age when to do such a thing has become desirable. Dinny beckoned her out into her own room, and, once more without a word, handed over the telegram. Though she had been so close to Diana these last days, there were sixteen years between them, and she made no consoling gesture as she might have to one of her own age. She had, indeed, a feeling of never quite knowing how Diana would take things. She took this stonily. It might have been no news at all. Her beautiful face, fine and worn as that on a coin, expressed nothing. Her eyes fixed on Dinny’s, remained dry and clear. All she said was: “I won’t come down. To-morrow — Chichester?”
Checking all impulse, Dinny nodded and went out. Alone with her mother after dinner, she said:
“I wish I had Diana’s self-control.”
“Self-control like hers is the result of all she’s been through.”
“There’s the Vere de Vere touch about it, too.”
“That’s no bad thing, Dinny.”
“What will this inquest mean?”
“She’ll need all her self-control there, I’m afraid.”
“Mother, shall I have to give evidence?”
“You were the last person who spoke to him so far as is known, weren’t you?”
“Yes. Must I speak of his coming to the door last night?”
“I suppose you ought to tell everything you know, if you’re asked.”
A flush stained Dinny’s cheeks.
“I don’t think I will. I never even told Diana that. And I don’t see what it has to do with outsiders.”
“No, I don’t see either; but we’re not supposed to exercise our own judgments as to that.”
“Well, I shall; I’m not going to pander to people’s beastly curiosity, and give Diana pain.”
“Suppose one of the maids heard him?”
“They can’t prove that I did.”
Lady Cherrell smiled. “I wish your father were here.”
“You are not to tell Dad what I told you, Mother. I can’t have the male conscience fussing around; the female’s is bad enough, but one has it in hand.”
“I shan’t have the faintest scruple,” said Dinny, fresh from her recollection of London Police Courts, “about keeping a thing dark, if I can safely. What do they want an inquest for, anyway? He’s dead. It’s just morbidity.”
“I oughtn’t to aid and abet you, Dinny.”
“Yes, you ought, Mother. You know you agree at heart.”
Lady Cherrell said no more. She did . . . .
The General and Alan Tasburgh came down next morning by the first train, and half an hour later they all started in the open car; Alan driving, the General beside him, and in the back seat Lady Cherrell, Dinny and Diana wedged together. It was a long and gloomy drive. Leaning back with her nose just visible above her fur, Dinny pondered. It was dawning on her gradually that she was in some sort the hub of the approaching inquest. She it was to whom Ferse had opened his heart; she who had taken the children away; she who had gone down in the night to telephone; she who had heard what she did not mean to tell; and, lastly but much the most importantly, it must be she who had called in Adrian and Hilary. Only behind her, their niece, who had caused Diana to turn to them for assistance when Ferse vanished, could Adrian’s friendship for Diana be masked. Like everybody else, Dinny read, and even enjoyed, the troubles and scandals of others, retailed in the papers; like everybody else, she revolted against the papers having anything that could be made into scandal to retail about her family or her friends. If it came out crudely that her uncle had been applied to as an old and intimate friend of Diana’s, he and she would be asked all sorts of questions, leading to all sorts of suspicions in the sex-ridden minds of the Public. Her roused imagination roamed freely. If Adrian’s long and close friendship with Diana became known, what would there be to prevent the Public from suspecting even that her uncle had pushed Ferse over the edge of that chalk pit, unless, of course, Hilary were with him — for as yet they knew no details. Her mind, in fact, began running before the hounds. A lurid explanation of anything was so much more acceptable than a dull and true one! And there hardened within her an almost vicious determination to cheat the Public of the thrills it would be seeking.
Adrian met them in the hall of the hotel at Chichester, and she took her chance to say: “Uncle, can I speak to you and Uncle Hilary privately?”
“Hilary had to go back to Town, my dear, but he’ll be down the last thing this evening; we can have a talk then. The inquest’s tomorrow.”
With that she had to be content.
When he had finished his story, determined that Adrian should not take Diana to see Ferse, she said: “If you’ll tell us where to go, Uncle, I’LL go with Diana.”
Adrian nodded. He had understood.
When they reached the mortuary, Diana went in alone, and Dinny waited in a corridor which smelled of disinfectant and looked out on to a back street. A fly, disenchanted by the approach of winter, was crawling dejectedly up the pane. Gazing out into that colourless back alley, under a sky drained of all warmth and light, she felt very miserable. Life seemed exceptionally bleak, and heavy with sinister issues. This inquest, Hubert’s impending fate — no light or sweetness anywhere! Not even the thought of Alan’s palpable devotion gave her comfort.
She turned to see Diana again beside her, and, suddenly forgetting her own woe, threw an arm round her and kissed her cold cheek. They went back to the hotel without speaking, except for Diana’s: “He looked marvellously calm.”
She went early to her room after dinner, and sat there with a book, waiting for her uncles. It was ten o’clock before Hilary’s cab drew up, and a few minutes later they came. She noted how shadowy and worn they both looked; but there was something reassuring in their faces. They were the sort who ran till they dropped, anyway. They both kissed her with unexpected warmth, and sat down sideways, one on each side of her bed. Dinny stood between them at the foot and addressed Hilary.
“It’s about Uncle Adrian, Uncle. I’ve been thinking. This inquest is going to be horrid if we don’t take care.”
“It is, Dinny. I came down with a couple of journalists who didn’t suspect my connection. They’ve got hold of the mental home, and are all agog. I’ve a great respect for journalists, they do their job very thoroughly.”
Dinny addressed Adrian.
“You won’t mind my talking freely, will you, Uncle?”
Adrian smiled. “No, Dinny. You’re a loyal baggage; go ahead!”
“It seems to me, then,” she went on, plaiting her fingers on the bed-rail, “that the chief point is to keep Uncle Adrian’s friendship for Diana out of it, and I thought that the asking of you two to find him ought to be put entirely on to me. You see, I was the last person known to speak to him, when he cut the telephone wire, you know, so, when I’m called, I could get it into their minds that you were entirely my suggestion, as a couple of Uncles who were clever and good at crossword puzzles. Otherwise, why did we go to Uncle Adrian? Because he was SUCH A FRIEND, and then you’d get at once all that they may think that means, especially when they hear that Captain Ferse was away four years.”
There was silence before Hilary said:
“She’s wise, old boy. Four years’ friendship with a beautiful woman in a husband’s absence means only one thing with a jury, and many things with the Public.”
Adrian nodded. “But I don’t see how the fact that I’ve known them both so long can be concealed.”
“First impressions,” said Dinny eagerly, “will be everything. I can say that Diana suggested going to her doctor and Michael, but that I overruled her, knowing that you were marvellous at tracing things out because of your job, and could get at Uncle Hilary, who was so good at human nature. If we START them right, I don’t believe the mere fact that you knew both of them would matter. It seems to me awfully important that I should be called as early as possible.”
“It’s putting a lot on you, my dear.”
“Oh! no. If I’m not called before you and Uncle Hilary, will you both say that it was I who came and asked you, and I can rub it in afterwards?”
“After the doctor and the police, Diana will be the first witness.”
“Yes, but I can speak to her, so that we shall all be saying the same thing.”
Hilary smiled. “I don’t see why not, it’s very white lying. I can put in that I’ve known them as long as you, Adrian. We both met Diana first at that picnic Lawrence gave near the Land’s End, when she was a flapper, and we both met Ferse first at her wedding. Family friendship, um?”
“My visits to the Mental Home will come out,” said Adrian, “the Doctor’s been summoned as witness.”
“Oh! well,” said Dinny, “you went there as his friend, and specially interested in mental derangement. After all, you’re supposed to be scientific, Uncle.”
Both smiled, and Hilary said: “All right, Dinny, we’ll speak to the Sergeant, he’s a very decent chap, and get you called early, if possible.” He went to the door.
“Good-night, little serpent,” said Adrian.
“Good-night, dear Uncle; you look terribly tired. Have you got a hot water-bottle?”
Adrian shook his head. “I’ve nothing but a tooth-brush which I bought today.”
Dinny hauled her bottle out of her bed, and forced it on him. “Shall I speak to Diana, then, about what we’ve been saying?”
“If you will, Dinny.”
“After tomorrow the sun will shine.”
“Will it?” said Adrian.
As the door closed, Dinny sighed. Would it? Diana seemed as if dead to feeling. And — there was Hubert’s business!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54