“What a nice lunch!” said Clare, eating the sugar at the bottom of her coffee cup: “The first meal on shore is lovely! When you get on board a ship and read the first menu, you think: ‘My goodness! What an enchanting lot of things!’ and then you come down to cold ham at nearly every meal. Do you know that stealing disappointment?”
“Don’t I?” said Fleur. “The curries used to be good, though.”
“Not on the return voyage. I never want to see a curry again. How’s the Round Table Conference going?”
“Plodding on. Is Ceylon interested in India?”
“Not very. Is Michael?”
“We both are.”
Clare’s brows went up with delightful suddenness.
“But you can’t know anything about it.”
“I WAS in India, you know, and at one time I saw a lot of Indian students.”
“Oh! yes, students. That’s the trouble. They’re so advanced and the people are so backward.”
“If Clare’s to see Kit and Kat before we start,” said Dinny, “we ought to go up, Fleur.”
The visit to the nurseries over, the sisters resumed their seats in the car.
“Fleur always strikes me,” said Clare, “as knowing so exactly what she wants.”
“She gets it, as a rule; but there’ve been exceptions. I’ve always doubted whether she really wanted Michael.”
“D’you mean a love affair went wrong?”
Dinny nodded. Clare looked out of the window.
“Well, she’s not remarkable in that.”
Her sister did not answer.
“Trains,” Dinny said, in their empty third-class compartment, “always have great open spaces now.”
“I rather dread seeing Mother and Dad, Dinny, having made such an almighty bloomer. I really must get something to do.”
“Yes, you won’t be happy at Condaford for long.”
“It isn’t that. I want to prove that I’m not the complete idiot. I wonder if I could run an hotel. English hotels are still pretty backward.”
“Good idea. It’s strenuous, and you’d see lots of people.”
“Is that caustic?”
“No, darling, just common sense; you never liked being buried.”
“How does one go to work to get such a thing?”
“You have me there. But now’s the time if ever, nobody’s going to be able to travel. But I’m afraid there’s a technical side to managing hotels that has to be learned. Your title might help.”
“I shouldn’t use his name. I should call myself Mrs. Clare.”
“I see. Are you sure it wouldn’t be wise to tell me more about things?”
Clare sat silent for a little, then said suddenly: “He’s a sadist.”
Looking at her flushed face, Dinny said: “I’ve never understood exactly what that means.”
“Seeking sensation, and getting more sensation when you hurt the person you get it from. A wife is most convenient.”
“There was a lot first, my riding whip was only the last straw.”
“You don’t mean —!” cried Dinny, horrified.
Dinny came over to her side and put her arms round her.
“But, Clare, you must get free!”
“And how? My word against his. Besides, who would make a show of beastliness? You’re the only person I could ever ever speak to of it.”
Dinny got up and let down the window. Her face was as flushed as her sister’s. She heard Clare say dully:
“I came away the first moment I could. It’s none of it fit for publication. You see, ordinary passion palls after a bit, and it’s a hot climate.”
“Oh! heaven!” said Dinny, and sat down again opposite.
“My own fault. I always knew it was thin ice, and I’ve popped through, that’s all.”
“But, darling, at twenty-four you simply can’t stay married and not married.”
“I don’t see why not; mariage manqué is very steadying to the blood. All I’m worrying about is getting a job. I’m not going to be a drag on Dad. Is his head above water, Dinny?”
“Not quite. We were breaking even, but this last taxation will just duck us. The trouble is how to get on without reducing staff. Everyone’s in the same boat. I always feel that we and the village are one. We’ve got to sink or swim together, and somehow or other we’re going to swim. Hence my bakery scheme.”
“If I haven’t got another job, could I do the delivering? I suppose we’ve still got the old car.”
“Darling, you can help any way you like. But it all has to be started. That’ll take till after Christmas. In the meantime there’s the election.”
“Who is our candidate?”
“His name is Dornford — a new man, quite decent.”
“Will he want canvassers?”
“All right. That’ll be something to do for a start. Is this National Government any use?”
“They talk of ‘completing their work’; but at present they don’t tell us how.”
“I suppose they’ll quarrel among themselves the moment a constructive scheme is put up to them. It’s all beyond me. But I can go round saying ‘Vote for Dornford.’ How’s Aunt Em?”
“She’s coming to stay tomorrow. She suddenly wrote that she hadn’t seen the baby; says she’s feeling romantic — wants to have the priest’s room, and will I see that ‘no one bothers to do her up behind, and that.’ She’s exactly the same.”
“I often thought about her,” said Clare. “Extraordinarily restful.”
After that there was a long silence, Dinny thinking about Clare and Clare thinking about herself. Presently, she grew tired of that and looked across at her sister. Had Dinny really got over that affair of hers with Wilfrid Desert of which Hubert had written with such concern when it was on, and such relief when it was off? She had asked that her affair should never be spoken of, Hubert had said, but that was over a year ago. Could one venture, or would she curl up like a hedgehog? ‘Poor Dinny!’ she thought: ‘I’m twenty-four, so she’s twenty-seven!’ And she sat very still looking at her sister’s profile. It was charming, the more so for that slight tip-tilt of the nose which gave to the face a touch of adventurousness. Her eyes were as pretty as ever — that cornflower blue wore well; and their fringing was unexpectedly dark with such chestnut hair. Still, the face was thinner, and had lost what Uncle Lawrence used to call its ‘bubble and squeak.’ ‘I should fall in love with her if I were a man,’ thought Clare, ‘she’s GOOD. But it’s rather a sad face, now, except when she’s talking.’ And Clare drooped her lids, spying through her lashes: No! one could not ask! The face she spied on had a sort of hard-won privacy that it would be unpardonable to disturb.
“Darling,” said Dinny, “would you like your old room? I’m afraid the fantails have multiplied exceedingly — they coo a lot just under it.”
“I shan’t mind that.”
“And what do you do about breakfast? Will you have it in your room?”
“My dear, don’t bother about me in any way. If anybody does, I shall feel dreadful. England again on a day like this! Grass is really lovely stuff, and the elm trees, and that blue look!”
“Just one thing, Clare. Would you like me to tell Dad and Mother, or would you rather I said nothing?”
Clare’s lips tightened.
“I suppose they’ll have to know that I’m not going back.”
“Yes; and something of the reason.”
“Just general impossibility, then.”
Dinny nodded. “I don’t want them to think you in the wrong. We’ll let other people think that you’re home for your health.”
“Aunt Em?” said Clare.
“I’ll see to her. She’ll be absorbed in the baby, anyway. Here we are, very nearly.”
Condaford Church came into view, and the little group of houses, mostly thatched, which formed the nucleus of that scattered parish. The home-farm buildings could be seen, but not the Grange, for, situate on the lowly level dear to ancestors, it was wrapped from the sight in trees.
Clare, flattening her nose against the window, said:
“It gives you a thrill. Are you as fond of home as ever, Dinny?”
“It’s funny. I love it, but I can’t live in it.”
“Very English — hence America and the Dominions. Take your dressing-case, and I’ll take the suitcase.”
The drive up through the lanes, where the elms were flecked by little golden patches of turned leaves, was short and sweet in the lowered sunlight, and ended with the usual rush of dogs from the dark hall.
“This one’s new,” said Clare, of the black spaniel sniffing at her stockings.
“Yes, Foch. Scaramouch and he have signed the Kellogg Pact, so they don’t observe it. I’m a sort of Manchuria.” And Dinny threw open the drawing-room door.
“Here she is, Mother.”
Advancing towards her mother, who stood smiling, pale and tremulous, Clare felt choky for the first time. To have to come back like this and disturb their peace!
“Well, Mother darling,” she said, “here’s your bad penny! You look just the same, bless you!”
Emerging from that warm embrace, Lady Cherrell looked at her daughter shyly and said:
“Dad’s in his study.”
“I’ll fetch him,” said Dinny.
In that barren abode, which still had its military and austere air, the General was fidgeting with a gadget he had designed to save time in the putting on of riding boots and breeches.
“Well?” he said.
“She’s all right, dear, but it IS a split, and I’m afraid complete.”
“That’s bad!” said the General, frowning.
Dinny took his lapels in her hands.
“It’s not her fault. But I wouldn’t ask her any questions, Dad. Let’s take it that she’s just on a visit; and make it as nice for her as we can.”
“What’s the fellow been doing?”
“Oh! his nature. I knew there was a streak of cruelty in him.”
“How d’you mean — knew it, Dinny?”
“The way he smiled — his lips.”
The General uttered a sound of intense discomfort.
“Come along!” he said: “Tell me later.”
With Clare he was perhaps rather elaborately genial and open, asking no questions except about the Red Sea and the scenery of Ceylon, his knowledge of which was confined to its spicy offshore scent and a stroll in the Cinnamon Gardens at Colombo. Clare, still emotional from the meeting with her mother; was grateful for his reticence. She escaped rather quickly to her room, where her bags had already been unpacked.
At its dormer window she stood listening to the coorooing of the fantails and the sudden flutter and flip-flap of their wings climbing the air from the yew-hedged garden. The sun, very low, was still shining through an elm tree. There was no wind, and her nerves sucked up repose in that pigeon-haunted stillness, scented so differently from Ceylon. Native air, deliciously sane, fresh and homespun, with a faint tang of burning leaves. She could see the threading blue smoke from where the gardeners had lighted a small bonfire in the orchard. And almost at once she lit a cigarette. The whole of Clare was in that simple action. She could never quite rest and be still, must always move on to that fuller savouring which for such natures ever recedes. A fantail on the gutter of the sloped stone roof watched her with a soft dark little eye, preening itself slightly. Beautifully white it was, and had a pride of body; so too had that small round mulberry tree which had dropped a ring of leaves, with their unders uppermost, spangling the grass. The last of the sunlight was stirring in what yellowish-green foliage was left, so that the tree had an enchanted look. Seventeen months since she had stood at this window and looked down over that mulberry tree at the fields and the rising coverts! Seventeen months of foreign skies and trees, foreign scents and sounds and waters. All new and rather exciting, tantalising, unsatisfying. No rest! Certainly none in the white house with the wide verandah she had occupied at Kandy. At first she had enjoyed, then she had wondered if she enjoyed, then she had known she was not enjoying, lastly she had hated it. And now it was all over and she was back! She flipped the ash off her cigarette and stretched herself, and the fantail rose with a fluster.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08