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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?’
“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.
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.”
The custom known as canvassing, more peculiar even than its name, was in full blast round Condaford. Every villager had been invited to observe how appropriate it would be if they voted for Dornford, and how equally appropriate it would be if they voted for Stringer. They had been exhorted publicly and vociferously, by ladies in cars, by ladies out of cars, and in the privacy of their homes by voices speaking out of trumpets. By newspaper and by leaflet they had been urged to perceive that they alone could save the country. They had been asked to vote early, and only just not asked to vote often. To their attention had been brought the startling dilemma that whichever way they voted the country would be saved. They had been exhorted by people who knew everything, it seemed, except how it would be saved. Neither the candidates nor their ladies, neither the mysterious disembodied voices, nor the still more incorporeal print, had made the faintest attempt to tell them that. It was better not; for, in the first place, no one knew. And, in the second place, why mention the particular when the general would serve? Why draw attention, even, to the fact that the general is made up of the particular; or to the political certainty that promise is never performance? Better, far better, to make large loose assertion, abuse the other side, and call the electors the sanest and soundest body of people in the world.
Dinny was not canvassing. She was ‘no good at it,’ she said; and, perhaps, secretly she perceived the peculiarity of the custom. Clare, if she noticed any irony about the business, was too anxious to be doing something to abstain. She was greatly helped by the way everybody took it. They had always been ‘canvassed,’ and they always would be. It was a harmless enough diversion to their ears, rather like the buzzing of gnats that did not bite. As to their votes, they would record them for quite other reasons — because their fathers had voted this or that before them, because of something connected with their occupation, because of their landlords, their churches, or their trades unions; because they wanted a change, while not expecting anything much from it; and not a few because of their common sense.
Clare, dreading questions, pattered as little as possible and came quickly to their babies or their health. She generally ended by asking what time they would like to be fetched. Noting the hour in a little book, she would come out not much the wiser. Being a Charwell — that is to say, no ‘foreigner’— she was taken as a matter of course; and though not, like Dinny, personally known to them all, she was part of an institution, Condaford without Charwells being still almost inconceivable.
She was driving back from this dutiful pastime towards the Grange about four o’clock on the Saturday before the election, when a voice from an overtaking two-seater called her name, and she saw young Tony Croom.
“What on earth are you doing here, Tony?”
“I couldn’t go any longer without a glimpse of you.”
“But, my dear boy, to come down here is too terribly pointed.”
“I know, but I’ve seen you.”
“You weren’t going to call, were you?”
“If I didn’t see you otherwise. Clare, you look so lovely!”
“That, if true, is not a reason for queering my pitch at home.”
“The last thing I want to do; but I’ve got to see you now and then, otherwise I shall go batty.”
His face was so earnest and his voice so moved, that Clare felt for the first time stirred in that hackneyed region, the heart.
“That’s bad,” she said; “because I’ve got to find my feet, and I can’t have complications.”
“Let me kiss you just once. Then I should go back happy.”
Still more stirred, Clare thrust forward her cheek.
“Well, quick!” she said.
He glued his lips to her cheek, but when he tried to reach her lips she drew back.
“No. Now Tony, you must go. If you’re to see me, it must be in Town. But what is the good of seeing me? It’ll only make us unhappy.”
“Bless you for that ‘us.’”
Clare’s brown eyes smiled; their colour was like that of a glass of Malaga wine held up to the light.
“Have you found a job?”
“There are none.”
“It’ll be better when the election’s over. I’M thinking of trying to get with a milliner.”
“I must do something. My people here are as hard pressed as everybody else. Now, Tony, you said you’d go.”
“Promise to let me know the first day you come up.”
Clare nodded, and re-started her engine. As the car slid forward gently, she turned her face and gave him another smile.
He continued to stand with his hands to his head till the car rounded a bend and she was gone.
Turning the car into the stable yard, she was thinking ‘Poor boy!’ and feeling the better for it. Whatever her position in the eyes of the law, or according to morality, a young and pretty woman breathes more easily when inhaling the incense of devotion. She may have strict intentions, but she has also a sense of what is due to her, and a dislike of waste. Clare looked the prettier and felt the happier all that evening. But the night was ridden by the moon; nearly full, it soared up in front of her window, discouraging sleep. She got up and parted the curtains. Huddling into her fur coat, she stood at the window. There was evidently a frost, and a ground mist stretched like fleece over the fields. The tall elms, ragged-edged, seemed to be sailing slowly along over the white vapour. The earth out there was unknown by her, as if it had dropped from that moon. She shivered. It might be beautiful, but it was cold, uncanny; a frozen glamour. She thought of the nights in the Red Sea, when she lay with bedclothes thrown off, and the very moon seemed hot. On board that ship people had ‘talked’ about her and Tony — she had seen many signs of it, and hadn’t cared. Why should she? He had not even kissed her all those days. Not even the evening he came to her state-room and she had shown him photographs, and they had talked. A nice boy, modest and a gentleman! And if he was in love, now, she couldn’t help it — she hadn’t tried to ‘vamp’ him. As to what would happen, life always tripped one up, it seemed, whatever one did! Things must take care of themselves. To make resolutions, plans, lay down what was called ‘a line of conduct,’ was not the slightest use! She had tried that with Jerry. She shivered, then laughed, then went rigid with a sort of fury. No! If Tony expected her to rush into his arms he was very much mistaken. Sensual love! She knew it inside out. No, thank you! As that moonlight, now, she was cold! Impossible to speak of it even to her Mother, whatever she and Dad might be thinking.
Dinny must have told them something, for they had been most awfully decent. But even Dinny didn’t know. Nobody should ever know! If only she had money it wouldn’t matter. ‘Ruined life,’ of course, and all that, was just old-fashioned tosh. Life could always be amusing if one made it so. She was not going to skulk and mope. Far from that! But money she must somehow make. She shivered even in her fur coat. The moonlight seemed to creep into one’s bones. These old houses — no central heating, because they couldn’t afford to put it in! The moment the election was over she would go up to London and scout round. Fleur might know of something. If there was no future in hats, one might get a political secretaryship. She could type, she knew French well, people could read her handwriting. She could drive a car with anybody, or school a horse. She knew all about country house life, manners, and precedence. There must be lots of Members who wanted somebody like her, who could tell them how to dress, and how to decline this and that without anybody minding, and generally do their crossword puzzles for them. She’d had quite a lot of experience with dogs, and some with flowers, especially the arrangement of them in bowls and vases. And if it were a question of knowing anything about politics, she could soon mug that up. So, in that illusory cold moonshine, Clare could not see how they could fail to need her. With a salary and her own two hundred a year she could get along quite well! The moon, behind an elm tree now, no longer had its devastating impersonality, but rather an air of bright intrigue, peeping through those still thick boughs with a conspiring eye. She hugged herself, danced a few steps to warm her feet, and slipped back into her bed . . . .
Young Croom, in his borrowed two-seater, had returned to Town at an unobtrusive sixty miles an hour. His first kiss on Clare’s cold but glowing cheek had given him slight delirium. It was an immense step forward. He was not a vicious young man. That Clare was married was to him no advantage. But whether, if she had not been married, his feelings towards her would have been of quite the same brand, was a question he left unexamined. The subtle difference which creeps into the charm of a woman who has known physical love, and the sting which the knowledge of that implants in a man’s senses — such is food for a psychologist rather than for a straightforward young man really in love for the first time. He wanted her, as his wife if possible; if that were not possible, in any other way that was. He had been in Ceylon three years, hard-worked, seeing few white women, and none that he had cared for. His passion had, hitherto, been for polo, and his meeting with Clare had come just as he had lost both job and polo. Clare filled for him a yawning gap. As with Clare, so with him in the matter of money, only more so.
He had some two hundred pounds saved, and would then be ‘bang up against it’ unless he got a job. Having returned the two-seater to his friend’s garage, he considered where he could dine most cheaply, and decided on his club. He was practically living there, except for a bedroom in Ryder Street, where he slept and breakfasted on tea and boiled eggs. A simple room it was, on the ground floor, with a bed and a dress cupboard, looking out on the tall back of another building, the sort of room that his father, coming on the Town in the ‘nineties, had slept and breakfasted in for half the money.
On Saturday nights the Coffee House was deserted, save for a certain number of ‘old buffers’ accustomed to week-ending in St. James’s Street. Young Croom ordered the three-course dinner and ate it to the last crumb. He drank Bass, and went down to the smoking-room for a pipe. About to sink into an armchair, he noticed standing before the fire a tallish thin man with twisting dark eyebrows and a little white moustache, who was examining him through a tortoiseshell-rimmed monocle. Acting on the impulse of a lover craving connection with his lady, he said:
“Excuse me, sir, but aren’t you Sir Lawrence Mont?”
“That has been my lifelong conviction.”
Young Croom smiled.
“Then, sir, I met your niece, Lady Corven, coming home from Ceylon. She said you were a member here. My name’s Croom.”
“Ah!” said Sir Lawrence, dropping his eyeglass: “I probably knew your father — he was always here, before the war.”
“Yes, he put me down at birth. I believe I’m about the youngest in the Club.”
Sir Lawrence nodded. “So you met Clare. How was she?”
“All right, I think, sir.”
“Let’s sit down and talk about Ceylon. Cigar?”
“Thank you, sir, I have my pipe.”
“Coffee, anyway? Waiter, two coffees. My wife is down at Condaford staying with Clare’s people. An attractive young woman.”
Noting those dark eyes, rather like a snipe’s, fixed on him, young Croom regretted his impulse. He had gone red, but he said bravely:
“Yes, sir, I thought her delightful.”
“Do you know Corven?”
“No,” said young Croom shortly.
“Clever fellow. Did you like Ceylon?”
“Oh! yes. But it’s given me up.”
“Not going back?”
“It’s a long time since I was there. India has rather smothered it. Been in India?”
“Difficult to know how far the people of India really want to cut the painter. Seventy per cent peasants! Peasants want stable conditions and a quiet life. I remember in Egypt before the war there was a strong nationalist agitation, but the fellaheen were all for Kitchener and stable British rule. We took Kitchener away and gave them unstable conditions in the war, and so they went on the other tack. What were you doing in Ceylon?”
“Running a tea plantation. But they took up economy, amalgamated three plantations, and I wasn’t wanted any more. Do you think there’s going to be a recovery, sir? I can’t understand economics.”
“Nobody can. There are dozens of causes of the present state of things, and people are always trying to tie it to one. Take England: There’s the knock-out of Russian trade, the comparative independence of European countries, the great shrinkage of Indian and Chinese trade; the higher standard of British living since the war; the increase of national expenditure from two hundred-odd millions to eight hundred millions, which means nearly six hundred millions a year less to employ labour with. When they talk of over-production being the cause, it certainly doesn’t apply to us. We haven’t produced so little for a long time past. Then there’s dumping, and shocking bad organisation, and bad marketing of what little food we produce. And there’s our habit of thinking it’ll be ‘all right on the night,’ and general spoiled-child attitude. Well, those are all special English causes, except that the too high standard of living and the spoiled-child attitude are American too.”
“And the other American causes, sir?”
“The Americans certainly have over-produced and over-speculated. And they’ve been living so high that they’ve mortgaged their future — instalment system and all that. Then they’re sitting on gold, and gold doesn’t hatch out. And, more than all, they don’t realise yet that the money they lent to Europe during the war was practically money they’d made out of the war. When they agree to general cancellation of debts they’ll be agreeing to general recovery, including their own.”
“But will they ever agree?”
“You never know what the Americans will do, they’re looser-jointed than we of the old world. They’re capable of the big thing, even in their own interests. Are you out of a job?”
“Very much so.”
“What’s your record?”
“I was at Wellington and at Cambridge for two years. Then this tea thing came along, and I took it like a bird.”
“What age are you?”
“Any notion of what you want to do?”
Young Croom sat forward.
“Really, sir, I’d have a shot at anything. But I’m pretty good with horses. I thought possibly I might get into a training stable; or with a breeder; or get a riding mastership.”
“Quite an idea. It’s queer about the horse — he’s coming in as he goes out. I’ll talk to my cousin Jack Muskham — he breeds bloodstock. And he’s got a bee in his bonnet about the re-introduction of Arab blood into the English thoroughbred. In fact he’s got some Arab mares coming over. Just possibly he might want someone.”
Young Croom flushed and smiled.
“That would be frightfully kind of you, sir. It sounds ideal. I’ve had Arab polo ponies.”
“Well,” murmured Sir Lawrence thoughtfully, “I don’t know that anything excites my sympathy more than a man who really wants a job and can’t find one. We must get this election over first, though. Unless the socialists are routed horse-breeders will have to turn their stock into potted meat. Imagine having the dam of a Derby winner between brown bread and butter for your tea — real ‘Gentleman’s Relish!’”
He got up.
“I’ll say good-night, now. My cigar will just last me home.”
Young Croom rose too, and remained standing till that spare and active figure had vanished.
‘Frightfully nice old boy!’ he thought, and in the depths of his armchair he resigned himself to hope and to Clare’s face wreathed by the fumes of his pipe.
On that cold and misty evening, which all the newspapers had agreed was to ‘make history,’ the Charwells sat in the drawing-room at Condaford round the portable wireless, a present from Fleur. Would the voice breathe o’er Eden, or would it be the striking of Fate’s clock? Not one of those five but was solemnly convinced that the future of Great Britain hung in the balance; convinced, too, that their conviction was detached from class or party. Patriotism divorced from thought of vested interest governed, as they supposed, their mood. And if they made a mistake in so thinking, quite a number of other Britons were making it too. Across Dinny’s mind, indeed, did flit the thought: ‘Does anyone know what will save the country and what won’t?’ But, even by her, time and tide, incalculably rolling, swaying and moulding the lives of nations, was ungauged. Newspapers and politicians had done their work and stamped the moment for her as a turning point. In a sea-green dress, she sat, close to the ‘present from Fleur,’ waiting to turn it on at ten o’clock, and regulate its stridency. Aunt Em was working at a new piece of French tapestry, her slight aquilinity emphasised by tortoise-shell spectacles. The General nervously turned and re-turned The Times and kept taking out his watch. Lady Charwell sat still and a little forward, like a child in Sunday School before she has become convinced that she is going to be bored. And Clare lay on the sofa, with the dog Foch on her feet.
“Time, Dinny,” said the General; “turn the thing on.”
Dinny fingered a screw, and ‘the thing’ burst into music. “‘Rings on our fingers and bells on our toes,’” she murmured, “‘We have got music wherever we goes.’”
The music stopped, and the voice spoke:
“This is the first election result: Hornsey . . . Conservative, no change.”
The General added: “H’m!” and the music began again.
Aunt Em, looking at the portable, said: “Coax it, Dinny. That burrin’!”
“It always has that, Auntie.”
“Blore does something to ours with a penny. Where is Hornsey — Isle of Wight?”
“Oh! yes! I was thinkin’ of Southsea. There he goes again.”
“These are some more election results. . . . Conservative, gain from Labour. . . . Conservative, no change . . . . Conservative, gain from Labour.”
The General added: “Ha!” and the music began again.
“What nice large majorities!” said Lady Mont: “Gratifyin’!”
Clare got off the sofa and squatted on a footstool against her mother’s knees. The General had dropped The Times. The ‘voice’ spoke again:
“ . . . Liberal National, gain from Labour. . . . Conservative, no change. . . . Conservative, gain from Labour.”
Again and again the music spurted up and died away; and the voice spoke.