The atmosphere at Condaford into which she stepped next day was guarded. Her words, or the tone of her voice on the telephone, seemed to have seeped into the family consciousness, and she was aware at once that sprightliness would deceive no one. It was a horrible day, too, dank and cold, and she had to hold on to her courage with both hands.
She chose the drawing-room after lunch for disclosure. Taking the document from her bag, she handed it to her father with the words:
“I’ve had this, Dad.”
She heard his startled exclamation, and was conscious of Dinny and her mother going over to him.
At last he said: “Well? Tell us the truth.”
She took her foot off the fender and faced them.
“THAT isn’t the truth. We’ve done nothing.”
“Who is this man?”
“Tony Croom? I met him on the boat coming home. He’s twenty-six, was on a tea plantation out there, and is taking charge of Jack Muskham’s Arab mares at Bablock Hythe. He has no money. I told him to come here this afternoon.”
“Are you in love with him?”
“No. I like him.”
“Is he in love with you?”
“You say there’s been nothing?”
“He’s kissed my cheek twice, I think — that’s all.”
“Then what do they mean by this — that you spent the night of the third with him?”
“I went down in his car to see his place, and coming back the lights failed in a wood about five miles from Henley — pitch dark. I suggested we should stay where we were till it was light. We just slept and went on up when it was light.”
She heard her mother give a faint gasp, and a queer noise from her father’s throat.
“And on the boat? And in your rooms? You say there was nothing, though he’s in love with you?”
“Is that absolutely the truth?”
“Of course,” said Dinny, “it’s the truth.”
“Of course,” said the General. “And who’s going to believe it?”
“We didn’t know we were being watched.”
“What time will he be here?”
“Any time now.”
“You’ve seen him since you had this?”
“What does he say?”
“He says he’ll do whatever I wish.”
“That, of course. Does HE think you’ll be believed?”
The General took the document over to the window, as if the better to see into it. Lady Charwell sat down, her face very white. Dinny came over to Clare and took her arm.
“When he comes,” said the General suddenly, returning from the window, “I’ll see him alone. Nobody before me, please.”
“Witnesses out of court,” murmured Clare.
The General handed her the document. His face looked drawn and tired.
“I’m terribly sorry, Dad. I suppose we were fools. Virtue is NOT its own reward.”
“Wisdom is,” said the General. He touched her shoulder and marched off to the door, followed by Dinny.
“Does he believe me, Mother?”
“Yes, but only because you’re his daughter. He feels he oughtn’t to.”
“Do you feel like that, Mother?”
“I believe you because I know you.”
Clare bent over and kissed her cheek.
“Very pretty, Mother dear; but not cheering.”
“You say you like this young man. Did you know him out there?”
“I never saw him till the boat. And, Mother, I may as well tell you that I’ve not been in the mood for passion. I don’t know when I shall be again. Perhaps never!”
Clare shook her head. “I won’t go into my life with Jerry, not even now, when he’s been such a cad as to ask for damages. I’m really much more upset about that than I am about myself.”
“I suppose this young man would have gone away with you, at any moment?”
“Yes; but I haven’t wanted to. Besides, I gave Aunt Em a promise. I sort of swore to behave for a year. And I have — so far. It’s terribly tempting not to defend, and be free.”
Lady Charwell was silent.
“Your father is bound to think of this as it affects your name and the family’s.”
“Six of one and half-a-dozen of the other, so far as that goes. If we don’t defend, it will just go through and hardly be noticed. If we do, it will make a sensation. ‘Night in a car,’ and all that, even if we’re believed. Can’t you see the papers, Mummy? They’ll be all over it.”
“I think,” said Lady Charwell slowly, “it will come back in the end to the feeling your father has about that whip. I’ve never known him so angry as he was over that. I think he will feel you must defend.”
“I should never mention the whip in court. It’s too easily denied, for one thing; and I have some pride, Mother . . .”
Dinny had followed to the study, or barrack-room, as it was sometimes called.
“You know this young man, Dinny?” burst out the General.
“Yes, and I like him. He IS deeply in love with Clare.”
“What business has he to be?”
“Be human, dear!”
“You believe her about the car?”
“Yes. I heard her solemnly promise Aunt Em to behave for a year.”
“Queer sort of thing to have to promise!”
“A mistake, if you ask me.”
“The only thing that really matters is that Clare should get free.”
The General stood with head bent, as if he had found food for thought; a slow flush had coloured his cheek-bones.
“She told you,” he said suddenly, “what she told me, about that fellow having used a whip on her?”
“In old days I could and would have called him out for that. I agree that she must get free, but — not this way.”
“Then you DO believe her?”
“She wouldn’t tell a lie to us like that.”
“Good, Dad! But who else will believe them? Would you, on a jury?”
“I don’t know,” said the General, glumly.
Dinny shook her head. “You wouldn’t.”
“Lawyers are damned clever. I suppose Dornford wouldn’t take up a case like this?”
“He doesn’t practise in the Divorce Court. Besides, she’s his secretary.”
“I must get to hear what Kingsons say. Lawrence believes in them. Fleur’s father was a member there.”
“Then —” Dinny had begun, when the door was opened.
“Mr. Croom, sir.”
“You needn’t go, Dinny.”
Young Croom came in. After a glance at Dinny, he moved towards the General.
“Clare told me to come over, sir.”
The General nodded. His narrowed eyes were fixed steadily on his daughter’s would-be lover. The young man faced that scrutiny as if on parade, his eyes replying to the General’s without defiance.
“I won’t beat about the bush,” said the General suddenly. “You seem to have got my daughter into a mess.”
“Kindly give me your account of it.”
Young Croom put his hat down on the table, and, squaring his shoulders, said:
“Whatever she has told you is true, sir.”
Dinny saw with relief her father’s lips twitching as if with a smile.
“Very correct, Mr. Croom; but not what I want. She has told me her version; I should be glad to hear yours.”
She saw the young man moisten his lips, making a curious jerking motion of his head.
“I’m in love with her, sir: have been ever since I first saw her on the boat. We’ve been going about rather in London — cinemas, theatres, picture galleries, and that; and I’ve been to her rooms three — no, five times altogether. On February the third I drove her down to Bablock Hythe for her to see where I’m going to have my job; and coming back — I expect she told you — my lights failed, and we were hung up in a pitch-dark wood some miles short of Henley. Well — we — we thought we’d better just stay there until it was light again, instead of risking things. I’d got off the road twice. It really was pitch-dark, and I had no torch. And so — well, we waited in the car till about half-past six, and then came up, and got to her place about eight.” He paused and moistened his lips, then straightened himself again and said with a rush: “Whether you believe me or not, sir, I swear there was nothing whatever between us in the car; and — and there never has been, except — except that she’s let me kiss her cheek two or three times.”
The General, who had never dropped his eyes, said: “That’s substantially what she told us. Anything else?”
“After I had that paper, sir, I motored up to see her at once — that was yesterday. Of course I’ll do anything she wants.”
“You didn’t put your heads together as to what you would say to us?”
Dinny saw the young man stiffen.
“Of course not, sir!”
“Then I may take it that you’re ready to swear there’s been nothing, and defend the action?”
“Certainly, if you think there’s any chance of our being believed.”
The General shrugged. “What’s your financial position?”
“Four hundred a year from my job.” A faint smile curled his lips: “Otherwise none, sir.”
“Do you know my daughter’s husband?”
“Never met him?”
“When did you first meet Clare?”
“On the second day of the voyage home.”
“What were you doing out there?”
“Tea-planting; but they amalgamated my plantation with some others, for economy.”
“I see. Where were you at school?”
“Wellington, and then at Cambridge.”
“You’ve got a job with Jack Muskham?”
“Yes, sir, his Arab mares. They’re due in the spring.”
“You know about horses, then?”
“Yes. I’m terribly fond of them.”
Dinny saw the narrowed gaze withdraw from the young man’s face, and come to rest on hers.
“You know my daughter Dinny, I think?”
“I’ll leave you to her now. I want to think this over.”
The young man bowed slightly, turned to Dinny, and then, turning back, said with a certain dignity:
“I’m awfully sorry, sir, about this; but I can’t say I’m sorry that I’m in love with Clare. It wouldn’t be true. I love her terribly.”
He was moving towards the door, when the General said:
“One moment. What do you mean by love?”
Involuntarily Dinny clasped her hands: An appalling question! Young Croom turned round. His face was motionless.
“I know what you mean, sir,” he said huskily: “Desire and that, or more? Well! More, or I couldn’t have stood that night in the car.” He turned again to the door.
Dinny moved and held it open for him. She followed him into the hall, where he was frowning and taking deep breaths. She slipped her hand through his arm and moved him across to the wood fire. They stood, looking down into the flames, till she said:
“I’m afraid that was rather dreadful. But soldiers like to have things straight out, you know. Anyway — I know my father — you made what’s called a good impression.”
“I felt a ghastly kind of wooden idiot. Where is Clare? Here?”
“Can I see her, Miss Cherrell?”
“Try calling me Dinny. You can see her; but I think you’d better see my mother too. Let’s go to the drawing-room.”
He gave her hand a squeeze.
“I’ve always felt you were a brick.”
Dinny grimaced. “Even bricks yield to a certain pressure.”
“Oh! sorry! I’m always forgetting my ghastly grip. Clare dreads it. How is she?”
With a faint shrug and smile, Dinny said:
“Doing as well as can be expected.”
Tony Croom clutched his head.
“Yes, I feel exactly like that, only worse; in those cases there’s something to look forward to and — here? D’you think she’ll ever really love me?”
“I hope so.”
“Your people don’t think that I pursued her — I mean, you know what I mean, just to have a good time?”
“They won’t after today. You are what I was once called — transparent.”
“You? I never quite know what you’re thinking.”
“That was a long time ago. Come!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08