Clare, who for seventeen months had been the wife of Sir Gerald Corven of the Colonial Service, stood on the boat deck of an Orient liner in the River Thames, waiting for it to dock. It was ten o’clock of a mild day in October, but she wore a thick tweed coat, for the voyage had been hot. She looked pale — indeed, a little sallow — but her clear brown eyes were fixed eagerly on the land and her slightly touched-up lips were parted, so that her face had the vividness to which it was accustomed. She stood alone, until a voice said:
“Oh! HERE you are!” and a young man, appearing from behind a boat, stood beside her. Without turning, she said:
“Absolutely perfect day! It ought to be lovely at home.”
“I thought you’d be staying in Town for a night at least; and we could have had a dinner and theatre. Won’t you?”
“My dear young man, I shall be met.”
“Perfectly damnable, things coming to an end!”
“Often more damnable, things beginning.”
He gave her a long look, and said suddenly:
“Clare, you realise, of course, that I love you?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“But you don’t love me?”
“Wholly without prejudice.”
“I wish — I wish you could catch fire for a moment.”
“I am a respectable married woman, Tony.”
“Coming back to England because —”
“Of the climate of Ceylon.”
He kicked at the rail. “Just as it’s getting perfect. I’ve not said anything, but I know that your — that Corven —”
Clare lifted her eyebrows, and he was silent; then both looked at the shore, becoming momentarily more and more a consideration.
When two young people have been nearly three weeks together on board a ship, they do not know each other half so well as they think they do. In the abiding inanity of a life when everything has stopped except the engines, the water slipping along the ship’s sides, and the curving of the sun in the sky, their daily chair-to-chair intimacy gathers a queer momentum and a sort of lazy warmth. They know that they are getting talked about, and do not care. After all, they cannot get off the ship, and there is nothing else to do. They dance together, and the sway of the ship, however slight, favours the closeness of their contacts. After ten days or so they settle down to a life together, more continuous than that of marriage, except that they still spend their nights apart. And then, all of a sudden, the ship stops, and they stop, and there is a feeling, at least on one side, perhaps on both, that stocktaking has been left till too late. A hurried vexed excitement, not unpleasurable, because suspended animation is at an end, invades their faculties; they are faced with the real equation of land animals who have been at sea.
Clare broke the silence.
“You’ve never told me why you’re called Tony when your name is James.”
“That IS why. I WISH you’d be serious, Clare; we haven’t much time before the darned ship docks. I simply can’t bear the thought of not seeing you every day.”
Clare gave him a swift look, and withdrew her eyes to the shore again. ‘How clean!’ she was thinking. He had, indeed, a clean oval-shaped brown face, determined, but liable to good humour, with dark grey eyes inclined to narrow with his thoughts, and darkish hair; and he was thin and active.
He took hold of a button of her coat.
“You haven’t said a word about yourself out there, but you aren’t happy, I know.”
“I dislike people who talk about their private lives.”
“Look!” he put a card into her hand: “That club always finds me.”
MR. JAMES BERNARD CROOM,
The Coffee House,
St. James’ Street.
“Isn’t the Coffee House very out of date?”
“Yes, but it’s still rather ‘the thing.’ My Dad put me down when I was born.”
“I have an uncle by marriage who belongs — Sir Lawrence Mont, tall and twisty and thin; you’ll know him by a tortoiseshell-rimmed eyeglass.”
“I’ll look out for him.”
“What are you going to do with yourself in England?”
“Hunt a job. That’s more than one man’s work, it seems.”
“What sort of job?”
“Anything except schoolmastering and selling things on commission.”
“But does anybody ever get anything else nowadays?’
“No. It’s a bad look-out. What I’d like would be an estate agency, or something to do with horses.”
“Estates and horses are both dying out.”
“I know one or two racing men rather well. But I expect I shall end as a chauffeur. Where are you going to stay?”
“With my people. At first, anyway. If you still want to see me when you’ve been home a week, Condaford Grange, Oxfordshire, will find me.”
“Why did I ever meet you?” said the young man, with sudden gloom.
“Oh! you know what I mean. God! she’s casting anchor. Here’s the tender! Oh! Clare!”
“Hasn’t it meant anything to you?”
Clare looked at him steadily before answering.
“Yes. But I don’t know if it will ever mean any more. If it doesn’t, thank you for helping me over a bad three weeks.”
The young man stood silent, as only those can be silent whose feelings are raging for expression . . . .
The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy: the building of a house, the writing of a novel, the demolition of a bridge, and, eminently, the finish of a voyage. Clare landed from the tender in the usual hurly-burly, and, still attended by young Croom, came to rest in the arms of her sister.
“Dinny! How sweet of you to face this bally-hooley! My sister, Dinny Cherrell — Tony Croom. I shall be all right now, Tony. Go and look after your own things.”
“I’ve got Fleur’s car,” said Dinny. “What about your trunks?”
“They’re booked through to Condaford.”
“Then we can go straight off.”
The young man, going with them to the car, said ‘Good-bye’ with a jauntiness which deceived no one; and the car slid away from the dock.
Side by side the sisters looked at each other, a long and affectionate scrutiny; and their hands lay, squeezed together, on the rug.
“Well, ducky!” said Dinny, at last. “Lovely to see you! Am I wrong to read between the lines?”
“No. I’m not going back to him, Dinny.”
“No, never, non?”
“No, never, non!”
“Oh! dear! Poor darling!”
“I won’t go into it, but it became impossible.” Clare was silent, then added suddenly, with a toss back of her head: “Quite impossible!”
“Did he consent to your coming?”
Clare shook her head. “I slipped off. He was away. I wirelessed him, and wrote from Suez.”
There was another silence. Then Dinny squeezed her hand and said:
“I was always afraid of it.”
“The worst of it is I haven’t a penny. Is there anything in hats now, Dinny?”
“‘All British’ hats — I wonder.”
“Or, perhaps, I could breed dogs — bull terriers; what d’you think?”
“I don’t at present. We’ll enquire.”
“How are things at Condaford?”
“We rub on. Jean has gone out to Hubert again, but the baby’s there — just a year old now. Cuthbert Conway Cherrell. I suppose we shall call him ‘Cuffs.’ He’s rather a duck.”
“Thank God I haven’t that complication! Certain things have their advantages.” Her face had the hardness of a face on a coin.
“Have you had any word from him?”
“No, but I shall, when he realises that I mean it.”
“Was there another woman?”
Again Dinny’s hand closed on hers.
“I’m not going to make a song of my affairs, Dinny.”
“Is he likely to come home about it?”
“I don’t know. I won’t see him if he does.”
“But, darling, you’ll be hopelessly hung up.”
“Oh! don’t let’s bother about me. How have you been?” And she looked critically at her sister: “You look more Botticellian than ever.”
“I’ve become an adept at skimping. Also, I’ve gone in for bees.”
“Do they pay?”
“Not at present. But on a ton of honey we could make about seventy pounds.”
“How much honey did you have this year?”
“About two hundredweight.”
“Are there any horses still?”
“Yes, we’ve saved the horses, so far. I’ve got a scheme for a Condaford Grange bakery. The home farm is growing wheat at double what we sell it at. I want to mill and bake our own and supply the neighbourhood. The old mill could be set going for a few pounds, and there’s a building for the bakery. It wants about three hundred to start it. We’ve nearly decided to cut enough timber.”
“The local traders will rage furiously.”
“Can it really pay?”
“At a ton of wheat to the acre — vide Whitaker — we reckon thirty acres of our wheat, plus as much Canadian to make good light bread, would bring us in more than eight hundred and fifty pounds, less, say, five hundred, cost of milling and baking. It would mean baking one hundred and sixty two-pound loaves a day and selling about 56,000 loaves a year. We should need to supply eighty households, but that’s only the village, more or less. And we’d make the best and brightest bread.”
“Three hundred and fifty a year profit,” said Clare. “I wonder.”
“So do I,” said Dinny. “Experience doesn’t tell me that every estimate of profit should be halved, because I haven’t had any, but I suspect it. But even half would just tip the beam the right way for us, and we could extend operations gradually. We could plough a lot of grass in time.”
“It’s a scheme,” said Clare, “but would the village back you?”
“So far as I’ve sounded them — yes.”
“You’d want somebody to run it.”
“M’yes. It would have to be someone who didn’t mind what he did. Of course he’d have the future, if it went.”
“I wonder,” said Clare, again, and wrinkled her brows.
“Who,” asked Dinny suddenly, “was that young man?”
“Tony Croom? Oh! He was on a tea plantation, but they closed down.” And she looked her sister full in the face.
“Yes, rather a dear. HE wants a job, by the way.”
“So do about three million others.”
“You haven’t come back to a very cheery England, darling.”
“I gather we fell off the gold standard or something while I was in the Red Sea. What is the gold standard?”
“It’s what you want to be on when you’re off, and to be off when you’re on.”
“The trouble, apparently, is that our exports and carrying-trade profits and interests from investments abroad don’t any longer pay for our imports; so we’re living beyond our income. Michael says anybody could have seen that coming; but we thought ‘it would be all right on the night.’ And it isn’t. Hence the National Government and the election.”
“Can they do anything if they remain in?”
“Michael says ‘yes’; but he’s notably hopeful. Uncle Lawrence says they can put a drag on panic, prevent money going out of the country, keep the pound fairly steady, and stop profiteering; but that nothing under a wide and definite reconstruction that will take twenty years will do the trick; and during that time we shall all be poorer. Unfortunately no Government, he says, can prevent us liking play better than work, hoarding to pay these awful taxes, or preferring the present to the future. He also says that if we think people will work as they did in the war to save the country, we’re wrong; because, instead of being one people against an outside enemy, we’re two peoples against the inside enemy of ourselves, with quite opposite views as to how our salvation is to come.”
“Does he think the socialists have a cure?”
“No; he says they’ve forgotten that no one will give them food if they can neither produce it nor pay for it. He says that communism or free trade socialism only has a chance in a country which feeds itself. You see, I’ve been learning it up. They all use the word Nemesis a good deal.”
“Phew! Where are we going now, Dinny?”
“I thought you’d like lunch at Fleur’s; afterwards we can take the three-fifty to Condaford.”
Then there was silence, during which each thought seriously about the other, and neither was happy. For Clare was feeling in her elder sister the subtle change which follows in one whose springs have been broken and mended to go on with. And Dinny was thinking: ‘Poor child! Now we’ve both been in the wars. What will she do? And how can I help her?’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54