Some time after lunch, for which Dinny and her aunt were late, Adrian and the four younger ladies, armed with such shooting sticks as had been left by the ‘guns,’ proceeded down a farm lane towards where the main ‘drive’ of the afternoon would debouch. Adrian walked with Diana and Cicely Muskham, and ahead of them Dinny walked with Fleur. These cousins by marriage had not met for nearly a year, and had in any case but slender knowledge of each other. Dinny studied the head which her aunt had recommended to her. It was round and firm and well carried under a small hat. The pretty face wore a rather hard but, she decided, very capable expression. The trim figure was as beautifully tailored as if it had belonged to an American.
Dinny felt that she would at least get common-sense from a source so neat.
“I heard your testimonial read in the Police Court, Fleur.”
“Oh! that. It was what Hilary wanted, of course. I really don’t know anything about those girls. They simply don’t let one. Some people, of course, can worm themselves into anybody’s confidence. I can’t; and I certainly don’t want to. Do you find the country girls about you any easier?”
“Round us they’ve all had to do with our family so long that one knows pretty well all there is to know before they do themselves.”
Fleur scrutinised her.
“Yes, I daresay you’ve got the knack, Dinny. You’ll make a wonderful ancestress; but I don’t quite know who ought to paint you. It’s time someone came along with the Early Italian touch. The pre-Raphaelites hadn’t got it a bit; their pictures lacked music and humour. YOU’LL have to be done with both.”
“Do tell me,” said Dinny, disconcerted, “was Michael in the House when those questions were asked about Hubert?”
“Yes; he came home very angry.”
“He thought of bringing the thing up again, but it was the day but one before they rose. Besides, what does the House matter? It’s about the last thing people pay attention to nowadays.”
“My father, I’m afraid, paid terrific attention to those questions.”
“Yes, the last generation. But the only thing Parliament does that really gets the Public now, is the Budget. And no wonder; it all comes back to money.”
“Do you say that to Michael?”
“I don’t have to. Parliament now is just a taxing machine.”
“Surely it still makes laws?”
“Yes, my dear; but always after the event; it consolidates what has become public practice, or at least public feeling. It never initiates. How can it? That’s not a democratic function. If you want proof, look at the state of the country! It’s the last thing Parliament bothers about.”
“Who does initiate, then?”
“Whence doth the wind blow? Well, the draughts begin in the coulisses. Great places, the coulisses! Whom do you want to stand with when we get to the guns?”
Fleur gazed at her: “Not for his beaux jeux, and not for his beau titre. Why, then?”
“Because I’ve got to get at him about Hubert, and I haven’t much time.”
“I see. Well, I’ll give you a warning, my dear. Don’t take Saxenden at his face value. He’s an astute old fox, and not so old either. And if there is one thing he enjoys more than another, it’s his quid pro quo. Have you got a quid for him? He’ll want cash down.”
“I shall do what I can. Uncle Lawrence has already given me some pointers.”
“‘Have a care; she’s fooling thee,’” hummed Fleur. “Well, I shall go to Michael; it makes him shoot better, and he wants it, poor dear. The Squire and Bart will be glad to do without us. Cicely, of course, will go to Charles; she’s still honey-moonish. That leaves Diana for the American.”
“And I hope,” said Dinny, “she’ll put him off his shots.”
“I should say nothing would. I forgot Adrian; he’ll have to sit on his stick and think about bones and Diana. Here we are. See? Through this gate. There’s Saxenden, they’ve given him the warm corner. Go round by that stile and come on him from behind. Michael will be jammed away at the end, he always gets the worst stand.”
She parted from Dinny and went on down the lane. Conscious that she had not asked Fleur what she had wanted to, Dinny crossed to the stile, and climbing over, stalked Lord Saxenden warily from the other side. The peer was moving from one hedge to the other in the corner of the field to which he had been assigned. Beside a tall stick, to a cleft in which was attached a white card with a number on it, stood a young keeper holding two guns, and at his feet a retriever dog was lying with his tongue out. The fields of roots and stubble on the far side of the lane rose rather steeply, and it was evident to Dinny — something of an expert — that birds driven off them would come high and fast. ‘Unless,’ she thought, ‘there’s fresh cover just behind,’ and she turned to look. There was not. She was in a very large grass field and the nearest roots were three hundred yards away at least. ‘I wonder,’ she thought, ‘if he shoots better or worse with a woman watching. Shouldn’t think he had any nerves.’ Turning again, she saw that he had noticed her.
“Do you mind me, Lord Saxenden? I’ll be very quiet.”
The peer plucked at his cap, which had special peaks before and behind.
“Well, well!” he said. “H’m!”
“That sounds as if you did. Shall I go?”
“No, no! That’s all right. Can’t touch a feather today, anyway. You’ll bring me luck.”
Dinny seated herself on her stick alongside the retriever, and began playing with its ears.
“That American chap has wiped my eye three times.”
“What bad taste!”
“He shoots at the most impossible birds, but, dash it, he hits ’em. All the birds I miss he gets on the horizon. Got the style of a poacher; lets everything go by, then gets a right and left about seventy yards behind him. Says he can’t see them when they sit on his foresight.”
“That’s funny,” said Dinny, with a little burst of justice.
“Don’t believe he’s missed today,” added Lord Saxenden, resentfully. “I asked him why he shot so darned well, and he said: ‘Why! I’m used to shoot for the pot, where I can’t afford to miss.’”
“The ‘beat’s’ beginning, my lord,” said the young keeper’s voice.
The retriever began to pant slightly. Lord Saxenden grasped a gun; the keeper held the other ready.
“Covey to the left, my lord,” Dinny heard a creaky whirring, and saw eight birds stringing towards the lane. Bang-bang . . . bang — bang!
“God bless my soul!” said Lord Saxenden: “What the deuce —!”
Dinny saw the same eight birds swoop over the hedge at the other end of the grass field.
The retriever uttered a little choked sound, panting horribly.
“The light,” she said, “must be terribly puzzling!”
“It’s not the light,” said Lord Saxenden, “it’s the liver!”
“Three birds coming straight, my lord.”
Bang! . . . Bang — bang! A bird jerked, crumpled, turned over and pitched four yards behind her. Something caught Dinny by the throat. That anything so alive should be so dead! Often as she had seen birds shot, she had never before had that feeling. The other two birds were crossing the far hedge; she watched them vanish, with a faint sigh. The retriever, with the dead bird in his mouth, came up to the keeper, who took it from him. Sitting on his haunches, the dog continued to gaze at the bird, with his tongue out. Dinny saw the tongue drip, and closed her eyes.
Lord Saxenden said something inaudibly.
Lord Saxenden said the same word more inaudibly, and, opening her eyes, Dinny saw him put up his gun.
“Hen pheasant, my lord!” warned the young keeper.
A hen pheasant passed over at a most reasonable height, as if aware that her time was not yet.
“H’m!” said Lord Saxenden, resting the butt on his bent knee.
“Covey to the right; too far, my lord!”
Several shots rang out, and beyond the hedge Dinny saw two birds only flying on, one of which was dropping feathers.
“That’s a dead bird,” said the keeper, and Dinny saw him shade his eyes, watching its flight. “Down!” he said; the dog panted, and looked up at him.
Shots rang out to the left.
“Damn!” said Lord Saxenden, “nothing comes my way.”
“Hare, my lord!” said the keeper, sharply. “Along the hedge!”
Lord Saxenden wheeled and raised his gun.
“Oh, no!” said Dinny, but her words were drowned by the report. The hare, struck behind, stopped short, then wriggled forward, crying pitifully.
“Fetch it, boy!” said the keeper.
Dinny put her hands over her ears and shut her eyes.
“Blast!” muttered Lord Saxenden. “Tailored!” Through her eyelids Dinny felt his frosty stare. When she opened her eyes the hare was lying dead beside the bird. It looked incredibly soft. Suddenly she rose, meaning to go, but sat down again. Until the beat was over she could go nowhere without interfering with the range of the shots. She closed her eyes again; and the shooting went on.
“That’s the lot, my lord.”
Lord Saxenden was handing over his gun, and three more birds lay beside the hare.
Rather ashamed of her new sensations, she rose, closed her shooting stick, and moved towards the stile. Regardless of the old convention, she crossed it and waited for him.
“Sorry I tailored that hare,” he said. “But I’ve been seeing spots all day. Do you ever see spots?”
“No. Stars once in a way. A hare’s crying is dreadful, isn’t it?”
“I agree — never liked it.”
“Once when we were having a picnic I saw a hare sitting up behind us like a dog — and the sun through its ears all pink. I’ve always liked hares since.”
“They’re not a sporting shot,” admitted Lord Saxenden; “personally I prefer ’em roast to jugged.”
Dinny stole a glance at him. He looked red and fairly satisfied.
‘Now’s my chance,’ she thought.
“Do you ever tell Americans that they won the war, Lord Saxenden?”
He stared frostily.
“Why should I?”
“But they did, didn’t they?”
“Does that Professor chap say so?”
“I’ve never heard him, but I feel sure he thinks so.”
Again Dinny saw that sharp look come on his face. “What do you know about him?”
“My brother went on his expedition.”
“Your brother? Ah!” It was just as if he had said to himself out loud: ‘This young woman wants something out of me.’
Dinny felt suddenly that she was on very thin ice.
“If you read Professor Hallorsen’s book,” she said, “I hope you will also read my brother’s diary.”
“I never read anything,” said Lord Saxenden; “haven’t time. But I remember now. Bolivia — he shot a man, didn’t he, and lost the transport?”
“He had to shoot the man to save his own life, and he had to flog two for continual cruelty to the mules; then all but three men deserted, stampeding the mules. He was the only white man there, with a lot of Indian half-castes.”
And to his frosty shrewd eyes she raised her own suddenly, remembering Sir Lawrence’s: ‘Give him the Botticellian eye, Dinny!’
“Might I read you a little of his diary?”
“Well, if there’s time.”
“To-night? I have to go up after shooting tomorrow.”
“Any time that suits you,” she said, hardily.
“There won’t be a chance before dinner. I’ve got some letters that must go.”
“I can stay up till any hour.” She saw him give her a quick, all-over glance.
“We’ll see,” he said, abruptly. And at this minute they were joined by the others.
Escaping the last drive, Dinny walked home by herself. Her sense of humour was tickled, but she was in a quandary. She judged shrewdly that the diary would not produce the desired effect unless Lord Saxenden felt that he was going to get something out of listening to it; and she was perceiving more clearly than ever before how difficult it was to give anything without parting from it. A fluster of wood-pigeons rose from some stooks on her left and crossed over to the wood by the river; the light was growing level, and evening sounds fluttered in the crisper air. The gold of sinking sunlight lay on the stubbles; the leaves, hardly turned as yet, were just promising colour, and away down there the blue line of the river glinted through its bordering trees. In the air was the damp, slightly pungent scent of early autumn with wood smoke drifting already from cottage chimneys. A lovely hour, a lovely evening!
What passages from the diary should she read? Her mind faltered. She could see Saxenden’s face again when he said: “Your brother? Ah!” Could see the hard direct calculating insensitive character behind it. She remembered Sir Lawrence’s words: “Were there not, my dear? . . . Most valuable fellows!” She had just been reading the memoirs of a man, who, all through the war, had thought in moves and numbers, and, after one preliminary gasp, had given up thinking of the sufferings behind those movements and those numbers: in his will to win the war, he seemed to have made it his business never to think of its human side, and, she was sure, could never have visualised that side if he HAD thought of it. Valuable fellow! She had heard Hubert talk, with a curling lip, of ‘armchair strategists’— who had enjoyed the war, excited by the interest of combining movements and numbers and of knowing this and that before someone else did, and by the importance they had gained therefrom. Valuable fellows! In another book she had lately read, she remembered a passage about the kind of men who directed what was called progress: sat in Banks, City offices, Governmental departments, combining movements and numbers, not bothered by flesh and blood, except their own; men who started this enterprise and that, drawing them up on sheets of paper, and saying to these and those: ‘Do this, and see you dam’ well do it properly.’ Men, silk-hatted or plus-foured, who guided the machine of tropic enterprise, of mineral getting, of great shops, of railway building, of concessions here and there and everywhere. Valuable fellows! Cheery, healthy, well-fed, indomitable fellows with frosty eyes. Always dining, always in the know, careless of the cost in human feelings and human life. ‘And yet,’ she thought, ‘they really must be valuable, or how should we have rubber or coal, or pearls or railways or the Stock Exchange, or wars and win them!’ She thought of Hallorsen; he at least worked and suffered for his ideas, led his own charges; did not sit at home, knowing things, eating ham, tailoring hares, and ordering the movements of others. She turned into the Manor grounds and paused on the croquet lawn. Aunt Wilmet and Lady Henrietta appeared to be agreeing to differ. They appealed to her:
“Is that right, Dinny?”
“No. When the balls touch you just go on playing, but you mustn’t move Lady Henrietta’s ball, Auntie, in hitting your own.”
“I said so,” said Lady Henrietta.
“Of course you said so, Hen. Nice position I’m in. Well, I shall just agree to differ and go on,” and Aunt Wilmet hit her ball through a hoop, moving her opponent’s several inches in so doing.
“Isn’t she an unscrupulous woman?” murmured Lady Henrietta, plaintively, and Dinny saw at once the great practical advantages inherent in ‘agreeing to differ.’
“You’re like the Iron Duke, Auntie,” she said, “except that you don’t use the word ‘damn’ quite so often.”
“She does,” said Lady Henrietta; “her language is appalling.”
“Go on, Hen!” said Aunt Wilmet in a flattered voice.
Dinny left them and retired towards the house.
When she was dressed she went to Fleur’s room.
Her aunt’s maid was passing a minute mowing-machine over the back of Fleur’s neck, while Michael, in the doorway of his dressing-room, had his fingers on the tips of his white tie.
“Hallo, Dinny! Come in, and sit down. That’ll do, thank you, Powers. Now, Michael.”
The maid faded out and Michael advanced to have a twist given to the ends of his tie.
“There!” said Fleur; and, looking at Dinny, added: “Have you come about Saxenden?”
“Yes. I’m to read him bits of Hubert’s diary to-night. The question is: Where will be suitable to my youth and —”
“Not innocence, Dinny; you’ll never be innocent, will she, Michael?”
Michael grinned. “Never innocent but always virtuous. You were a most sophisticated little angel as a kid, Dinny; looked as if you were wondering why you hadn’t wings. Wistful is the word.”
“I expect I was wondering why you’d pulled them off.”
“You ought to have worn trouserettes and chased butterflies, like the two little Gainsborough girls in the National Gallery.”
“Cease these amenities,” said Fleur; “the gong’s gone. You can have my little sitting-room next door, and, if you knock, Michael can come round with a boot, as if it were rats.”
“Perfect,” said Dinny; “but I expect he’ll behave like a lamb, really.”
“You never can tell,” said Michael; “he’s a bit of a goat.”
“That’s the room,” said Fleur, as they passed out. “Cabinet particulier. Good luck! . . .”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08