From Condaford the hot airs of election time had cleared away, and the succeeding atmosphere was crystallised in the General’s saying:
“Well, those fellows got their deserts.”
“Doesn’t it make you tremble, Dad, to think what THESE fellows’ deserts will be if they don’t succeed in putting it over now?”
The General smiled.
“‘Sufficient unto the day,’ Dinny. Has Clare settled down?”
“She’s in her diggings. Her work so far seems to have been writing letters of thanks to people who did the dirty work at the cross-roads.”
“Cars? Does she like Dornford?”
“She says he’s quite amazingly considerate.”
“His father was a good soldier. I was in his brigade in the Boer War for a bit.” He looked at his daughter keenly, and added: “Any news of Corven?”
“Yes, he’s over here.”
“Oh! I wish I wasn’t kept so in the dark. Parents have to stand on the mat nowadays, and trust to what they can hear through the keyhole.”
Dinny drew his arm within hers.
“One has to be so careful of their feelings. Sensitive plants, aren’t you, Dad?”
“Well, it seems to your mother and me an extraordinarily bad look-out. We wish to goodness the thing could be patched up.”
“Not at the expense of Clare’s happiness, surely?”
“No,” said the General, dubiously, “no; but there you are at once in all these matrimonial things. What is and will be her happiness? She doesn’t know, and you don’t, and I don’t. As a rule in trying to get out of a hole you promptly step into another.”
“Therefore don’t try? Stay in your hole? That’s rather what Labour wanted to do, isn’t it?”
“I ought to see him,” said the General, passing over the simile, “but I can’t go blundering in the dark. What do you advise, Dinny?”
“Let the sleeping dog lie until it gets up to bite you.”
“You think it will?”
“Bad!” muttered the General. “Clare’s too young.”
That was Dinny’s own perpetual thought. What at the first blush she had said to her sister: “You must get free,” remained her conviction. But how was she to get free? Knowledge of divorce had been no part of Dinny’s education. She knew that the process was by no means uncommon, and she had as little feeling against it as most of her generation. To her father and mother it would probably seem lamentable, doubly so if Clare were divorced instead of divorcing — that would be a stigma on her to be avoided at almost all cost. Since her soul-racking experience with Wilfrid, Dinny had been very little in London. Every street, and above all the park, seemed to remind her of him and the desolation he had left in her. It was now, however, obvious to her that Clare could not be left unsupported in whatever crisis was befalling.
“I think I ought to go up, Dad, and find out what’s happening.”
“I wish to God you would. If it’s at all possible to patch things up, they ought to be.”
Dinny shook her head.
“I don’t believe it is, and I don’t believe you’d wish it if Clare had told you what she told me.”
The General stared. “There it is, you see. In the dark.”
“Yes, dear, but till she tells you herself I can’t say more.”
“Then the sooner you go up the better.”
Free from the scent of horse, Melton Mews was somewhat strikingly impregnated with the odour of petrol. This bricked alley had become, indeed, the haunt of cars. To right and to left of her, entering late that afternoon, the doors of garages gaped or confronted her with more or less new paint. A cat or two stole by, and the hinder parts of an overalled chauffeur bending over a carburettor could be seen in one opening; otherwise life was at a discount, and the word ‘mews’ no longer justified by manure.
No. 2 had the peacock-green door of its former proprietress, whom, with so many other luxury traders, the slump had squeezed out of business. Dinny pulled a chased bell-handle, and a faint tinkle sounded, as from some errant sheep. There was a pause, then a spot of light showed for a moment on a level with her face, was obscured, and the door was opened. Clare, in a jade-green overall, said:
“Come in, my dear. This is the lioness in her den, ‘the Douglas in her hall!’”
Dinny entered a small, almost empty room hung with the green Japanese silk of the antique dealer and carpeted with matting. A narrow spiral staircase wormed into it at the far corner, and a subdued light radiated from a single green-paper-shaded bulb hanging in the centre. A brass electric heater diffused no heat.
“Nothing doing here so far,” said Clare. “Come upstairs.”
Dinny made the tortuous ascent, and stepped into a rather smaller sitting-room. It had two curtained windows looking over the mews, a couch with cushions, a little old bureau, three chairs, six Japanese prints, which Clare had evidently just been hanging, an old Persian rug over the matted floor, an almost empty bookcase, and some photographs of the family standing on it. The walls were distempered a pale grey, and a gas fire was burning.
“Fleur gave me the prints and the rug, and Aunt Em stumped up the bureau. I took the other things over.”
“Where do you sleep?”
“On that couch — quite comfy. I’ve got a little bath-dressing-room next door, with a geyser, and a what-d’ye-call-it, and a cupboard for clothes.”
“Mother told me to ask what you wanted.”
“I could do with our old Primus stove, some blankets and a few knives and forks and spoons, and a small tea-set, if there’s one to spare, and any spare books.”
“Right!” said Dinny. “Now, darling, how are you?”
“Bodily fine, mentally rather worried. I told you he was over.”
“Does he know of this place?”
“Not so far. You and Fleur and Aunt Em — oh! and Tony Croom — are the only people who know of it. My official address is Mount Street. But he’s bound to find out if he wants to.”
“You saw him?”
“Yes, and told him I wasn’t coming back; and I’m not, Dinny; that’s flat, to save breath. Have some tea? I can make it in a brown pot.”
“No, thank you, I had it on the train.” She was sitting on one of the taken-over chairs, in a bottle-green suit that went beautifully with her beech-leaf-coloured hair.
“How jolly you look, sitting there!” said Clare, curling up on the sofa. “Gasper?”
Dinny was thinking the same about her sister. Graceful creature, one of those people who couldn’t look ungraceful; with her dark short hair, and dark, alive eyes, and ivory pale face, and not too brightened lips holding the cigarette, she looked — well, ‘desirable.’ And, in all the circumstances, the word appeared to Dinny an awkward one. Clare had always been vivid and attractive, but without question marriage had subtly rounded, deepened, and in some sort bedevilled that attraction. She said suddenly:
“Tony Croom, you said?”
“He helped me distemper these walls; in fact, he practically did them, while I did the bathroom — these are better.”
Dinny’s eyes took in the walls with apparent interest.
“Quite neat. Mother and Father are nervous, darling.”
“They would be.”
“Naturally, don’t you think?”
Clare’s brows drew down. Dinny suddenly remembered how strenuously they had once debated the question of whether eyebrows should be plucked. Thank heaven! Clare never had yet.
“I can’t help it, Dinny. I don’t know what Jerry’s going to do.”
“I suppose he can’t stay long, without giving up his job?”
“Probably not. But I’m not going to bother. What will be will.”
“How quickly could a divorce be got? I mean against him?”
Clare shook her head, and a dark curl fell over her forehead, reminding Dinny of her as a child.
“To have him watched would be pretty revolting. And I’m not going into court to describe being brutalised. It’s only my word against his. Men are safe enough.”
Dinny got up and sat down beside her on the couch.
“I could kill him!” she said.
“He wasn’t so bad in many ways. Only I simply won’t go back. If you’ve once been skinned, you can’t.”
Dinny sat, silent, with closed eyes.
“Tell me,” she said, at last, “how you stand with Tony Croom.”
“He’s on probation. So long as he behaves I like to see him.”
“If,” said Dinny slowly, “he were known to come here, it would be all that would be wanted, wouldn’t it?”
Clare laughed again.
“Quite enough for men of the world, I should think; I believe juries can never withstand being called that. But you see, Dinny, if I begin to look at things from a jury’s point of view, I might as well be dead. And, as a matter of fact, I feel very much alive. So I’m going straight ahead. Tony knows I’ve had enough physiology to last me a long time.”
“Is he in love with you?”
Their eyes, brown and blue, met.
“Are you in love with him?”
“I like him — quite a lot. Beyond that I’ve no feeling at present.”
“Don’t you think that while Jerry is here —?”
“No. I think I’m safer while he’s here than when he goes. If I don’t go back with him he’ll probably have me watched. That’s one thing about him — he does what he says he’ll do.”
“I wonder if that’s an advantage. Come out and have some dinner.”
Clare stretched herself.
“Can’t, darling. I’m dining with Tony in a little grubby restaurant suited to our joint means. This living on next to nothing is rather fun.”
Dinny got up and began to straighten the Japanese prints. Clare’s recklessness was nothing new. To come the elder sister! To be a wet blanket! Impossible! She said:
“These are good, my dear. Fleur has very jolly things.”
“D’you mind if I change?” said Clare, and vanished into the bathroom.
Left alone with her sister’s problem, Dinny had the feeling of helplessness which comes to all but such as constitutionally ‘know better.’ She went dejectedly to the window and drew aside the curtain. All was darkish and dingy. A car had drawn out of a neighbouring garage and stood waiting for its driver.
‘Imagine trying to sell antiques here!’ she thought. She saw a man come round the corner close by and stop, looking at the numbers. He moved along the opposite side, then came back and stood still just in front of No. 2. She noted the assurance and strength in that trim over-coated figure.
‘Good heavens!’ she thought: ‘Jerry!’ She dropped the curtain and crossed quickly to the bathroom door. As she opened it she heard the desolate tinkling of the sheep-bell installed by the antique dealer.
Clare was standing in her underthings under the single bulb, examining her lips with a hand-glass. Dinny filled the remains of the four feet by two of standing room.
“Clare,” she said, “it’s HIM!”
Clare turned. The gleam of her pale arms, the shimmer of her silk garments, the startled light in her dark eyes, made her even to her sister something of a vision.
“Well, I won’t see him.” She looked at the watch on her wrist. “And I’m due at seven. Damn!”
Dinny, who had not the faintest desire that she should keep her rash appointment, said, to her own surprise:
“Shall I go? He must have seen the light.”
“Could you take him away with you, Dinny?”
“I can try.”
“Then do, darling. It’d be ever so sweet of you. I wonder how he’s found out. Hell! It’s going to be a persecution.”
Dinny stepped back into the sitting-room, turned out the light there, and went down the twisting stair. The sheep-bell tinkled again above her as she went. Crossing that little empty room to the door, she thought: ‘It opens inwards, I must pull it to behind me.’ Her heart beat fast, she took a deep breath, opened the door swiftly, stepped out and pulled it to with a slam. She was chest to chest with her brother-inlaw, and she started back with an admirably impromptu: “Who is it?”
He raised his hat, and they stood looking at each other.
“Dinny! Is Clare in?”
“Yes; but she can’t see anyone.”
“You mean she WON’T see ME?”
“If you like to put it that way.”
He stood looking intently at her with his daring eyes.
“Another day will do. Which way are you going?”
“To Mount Street.”
“I’ll come with you, if I may.”
She moved along at his side, thinking: ‘Be careful!’ For in his company she did not feel towards him quite as in his absence. As everybody said, Jerry Corven had charm!
“Clare’s been giving me bad marks, I suppose?”
“We won’t discuss it, please; whatever she feels, I do too.”
“Naturally. Your loyalty’s proverbial. But consider, Dinny, how provocative she is.” His eyes smiled round at her. That vision — of neck, and curve, and shimmer, dark hair and eyes! Sex appeal — horrible expression! “You’ve no idea how tantalising. Besides, I was always an experimentalist.”
Dinny stood still suddenly: “This is my sister, you know.”
“You’re sure, I suppose? It seems queer when one looks at you both.”
Dinny walked on, and did not answer.
“Now listen, Dinny,” began that pleasant voice. “I’m a sensualist, if you like, but what does it matter? Sex is naturally aberrational. If anyone tells you it isn’t, don’t believe them. These things work themselves out, and anyway they’re not important. If Clare comes back to me, in two years’ time she won’t even remember. She likes the sort of life, and I’m not fussy. Marriage is very much a go-as-you-please affair.”
“You mean that by that time you’ll be experimenting with someone else?”
He shrugged, looked round at her, and smiled.
“Almost embarrassing this conversation, isn’t it? What I want you to grasp is that I’m two men. One, and it’s the one that matters, has his work to do and means to do it. Clare should stick to that man, because he’ll give her a life in which she won’t rust; she’ll be in the thick of affairs and people who matter; she’ll have stir and movement — and she loves both. She’ll have a certain power, and she’s not averse from that. The other man — well, he wants his fling, he takes it, if you like; but the worst is over so far as she’s concerned — at least, it will be when we’ve settled down again. You see, I’m honest, or shameless if you like it better.”
“I don’t see, in all this,” said Dinny drily, “where love comes in.”
“Perhaps it doesn’t. Marriage is composed of mutual interest and desire. The first increases with the years, the latter fades. That ought to be exactly what she wants.”
“I can’t speak for Clare, but I don’t see it that way.”
“You haven’t tried yourself out, my dear.”
“No,” said Dinny, “and on those lines I trust I never may. I should dislike alternation between commerce and vice.”
“I like your bluntness. But seriously, Dinny, you ought to influence her. She’s making a great mistake.”
A sudden fury seized on Dinny.
“I think,” she said, between her teeth, “it was you who made the great mistake. If you do certain things to certain horses you’re never on terms with them again.”
He was silent at that.
“You don’t want a divorce in the family,” he said at last, and looked round at her steadily. “I’ve told Clare that I can’t let her divorce me. I’m sorry, but I mean that. Further, if she won’t come back to me, she can’t go as she pleases.”
“You mean,” said Dinny, between her teeth, “that if she does come back to you she can?”
“That’s what it would come to, I daresay.”
“I see. I think I’ll say good-night.”
“As you please. You think me cynical. That’s as may be. I shall do my best to get Clare back. If she won’t come she must watch out.”
They had stopped under a lamp-post and with an effort Dinny forced her eyes to his. He was as formidable, shameless, and mesmerically implacable as a cat, with that thin smile and unflinching stare. She said, quietly: “I quite understand. Goodnight!”
“Good-night, Dinny! I’m sorry, but it’s best to know where we stand. Shake hands?”
Rather to her surprise she let him take her hand, then turned the corner into Mount Street.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54