Dinny was ‘seeing to’ Aunt Em. It was no mean process. With ordinary people one had question and answer and the thing was over. But with Lady Mont words were not consecutive like that. She stood with a verbena sachet in her hand, sniffing, while Dinny unpacked for her.
“This is delicious, Dinny. Clare looks rather yellow. It isn’t a baby, is it?”
“Pity! When we were in Ceylon everyone was havin’ babies. The baby elephants — so enticin’! In this room — we always played a game of feedin’ the Catholic priest with a basket from the roof. Your father used to be on the roof, and I was the priest. There was never anythin’ worth eatin’ in the basket. Your Aunt Wilmet was stationed in a tree to call ‘Cooee’ in case of Protestants.”
“‘Cooee’ was a bit premature, Aunt Em. Australia wasn’t discovered under Elizabeth.”
“No. Lawrence says the Protestants at that time were devils. So were the Catholics. So were the Mohammedans.”
Dinny winced and veiled her face with a corset belt.
“Where shall I put these undies?”
“So long as I see where. Don’t stoop too much! They were all devils then. Animals were treated terribly. Did Clare enjoy Ceylon?”
Dinny stood up with an armful of underthings.
“Why not? Liver?”
“Auntie, you won’t say anything, except to Uncle Lawrence and Michael, if I tell you? There’s been a split.”
Lady Mont buried her nose in the verbena bag.
“Oh!” she said: “His mother looked it. D’you believe in ‘like mother like son’?”
“Not too much.”
“I always thought seventeen years’ difference too much, Dinny. Lawrence says people say: ‘Oh! Jerry Corven!’ and then don’t say. So, what was it?”
Dinny bent over a drawer and arranged the things.
“I can’t go into it, but he seems to be quite a beast.”
Lady Mont tipped the bag into the drawer, murmuring: “Poor dear Clare!”
“So, Auntie, she’s just to be home for her health.”
Lady Mont put her nose into a bowl of flowers. “Boswell and Johnson call them ‘God-eat-yers.’ They don’t smell. What disease could Clare have — nerves?”
“So many Anglo-Indians go back and back, Dinny.”
“I know, but for the present. Something’s bound to happen. So not even to Fleur, please.”
“Fleur will know whether I tell her or not. She’s like that. Has Clare a young man?”
“Oh! no!” And Dinny lifted a puce-coloured wrapper, recalling the expression of the young man when he was saying good-bye.
“On board ship,” murmured her Aunt dubiously.
Dinny changed the subject.
“Is Uncle Lawrence very political just now?”
“Yes, so borin’. Things always sound so when you talk about them. Is your candidate here safe, like Michael?”
“He’s new, but he’ll get in.”
Lady Mont inclined her head slightly to one side and scrutinised her niece from under half-drooped lids.
Dinny took the last thing out of the trunk. It was a pot of antiphlogistine.
“That’s not British, Auntie.”
“For the chest. Delia puts it in. I’ve had it, years. Have you talked to your candidate in private?”
“How old is he?”
“Rather under forty, I should say.”
“Does he do anything besides?”
“He’s a K.C.”
“What’s his name?”
“There were Dornfords when I was a girl. Where was that? Ah! Algeciras! He was a Colonel at Gibraltar.”
“That would be his father, I expect.”
“Then he hasn’t any money.”
“Only what he makes at the Bar.”
“But they don’t — under forty.”
“He does, I think.”
“No, darkish. He won the Bar point-to-point this year. Now, darling, will you have a fire at once, or last till dressing time?”
“Last. I want to see the baby.”
“All right, he ought to be just in from his pram. Your bathroom’s at the foot of these stairs, and I’ll wait for you in the nursery.”
The nursery was the same mullion-windowed, low-pitched room as that wherein Dinny and Aunt Em herself had received their first impressions of that jigsaw puzzle called life; and in it the baby was practising his totter. Whether he would be a Charwell or a Tasburgh when he grew up seemed as yet uncertain. His nurse, his aunt and his great-aunt stood, in triangular admiration, for him to fall alternatively into their outstretched hands.
“He doesn’t crow,” said Dinny.
“He does in the morning, Miss.”
“Down he goes!” said Lady Mont.
“Don’t cry, darling!”
“He never cries, Miss.”
“That’s Jean. Clare and I cried a lot till we were about seven.”
“I cried till I was fifteen,” said Lady Mont, “and I began again when I was forty-five. Did you cry, Nurse?”
“We were too large a family, my lady. There wasn’t room like.”
“Nanny had a lovely mother — five sisters as good as gold.”
The nurse’s fresh cheeks grew fresher; she drooped her chin, smiling, shy as a little girl.
“Take care of bow legs!” said Lady Mont: “That’s enough totterin’.”
The nurse, retrieving the still persistent baby, placed him in his cot, whence he frowned solemnly at Dinny, who said:
“Mother’s devoted to him. She thinks he’ll be like Hubert.”
Lady Mont made the sound supposed to attract babies.
“When does Jean come home again?”
“Not till Hubert’s next long leave.”
Lady Mont’s gaze rested on her niece.
“The rector says Alan has another year on the China station.”
Dinny, dangling a bead chain over the baby, paid no attention. Never since the summer evening last year, when she came back home after Wilfrid’s flight, had she made or suffered any allusion to her feelings. No one, perhaps not even she herself, knew whether she was heart-whole once more. It was, indeed, as if she had no heart. So long, so earnestly had she resisted its aching, that it had slunk away into the shadows of her inmost being, where even she could hardly feel it beating.
“What would you like to do now, Auntie? He has to go to sleep.”
“Take me round the garden.”
They went down and out on to the terrace.
“Oh!” said Dinny, with dismay, “Glover has gone and beaten the leaves off the little mulberry. They were so lovely, shivering on the tree and coming off in a ring on the grass. Really gardeners have no sense of beauty.”
“They don’t like sweepin’. Where’s the cedar I planted when I was five?”
They came on it round the corner of an old wall, a spreading youngster of nearly sixty, with flattening boughs gilded by the level sunlight.
“I should like to be buried under it, Dinny. Only I suppose they won’t. There’ll be something stuffy.”
“I mean to be burnt and scattered. Look at them ploughing in that field. I do love horses moving slowly against a skyline of trees.”
“‘The lowin’ kine,’” said Lady Mont irrelevantly.
A faint clink came from a sheepfold to the East.
Lady Mont thrust her arm within her niece’s.
“I’ve often thought,” she said, “that I should like to be a goat.”
“Not in England, tied to a stake and grazing in a mangy little circle.”
“No, with a bell on a mountain. A he-goat, I think, so as not to be milked.”
“Come and see our new cutting bed, Auntie. There’s nothing now, of course, but dahlias, godetias, chrysanthemums, Michaelmas daisies, and a few pentstemons and cosmias.”
“Dinny,” said Lady Mont, from among the dahlias, “about Clare? They say divorce is very easy now.”
“Until you try for it, I expect.”
“There’s desertion and that.”
“But you have to BE deserted.”
“Well, you said he made her.”
“It’s not the same thing, dear.”
“Lawyers are so fussy about the law. There was that magistrate with the long nose in Hubert’s extradition.”
“Oh! but he turned out quite human.”
“How was that?”
“Telling the Home Secretary that Hubert was speaking the truth.”
“A dreadful business,” murmured Lady Mont, “but nice to remember.”
“It had a happy ending,” said Dinny quickly.
Lady Mont stood, ruefully regarding her.
And Dinny, staring at the flowers, said suddenly: “Aunt Em, somehow there must be a happy ending for Clare.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54