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How Else Would Sailing Ships Ever Have Navigated?

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As it happened, there was hardly a girl left in the better houses of England (and quite a few of the not-so-good) who hadn’t been engaged to Bertie Wooster at one time or another.  He was passed around dinner tables like a salad for each to help herself.  So it was not surprising that Madeline Bassett and Honoria Glossop, two such former paramours, both quite far from lovelorn, found themselves in temporary residence at the country house of Bertie’s Aunt Agatha.

Madeline seemed so far out of Agatha’s line that Honoria assumed she had been invited in error as, in fact, she had been; Agatha had confused Madeline Bassett with Madeleine Basset, a mistake anyone could have made.  Honoria had played tennis with Madeleine Basset, who was a cheerful girl with apple cheeks and a fondness for punctuating her opinions with a hearty “do you know what I mean?”  She had a jolly managerial attitude to her that would have whipped Agatha Gregson’s cream quite admirably.

Madeline had nothing of the sort.  Consequently, Agatha had been calling her a ninny every morning at breakfast, unable to admit to having made a mistake in summoning her in the first place.  Madeline bore all this with more equanimity than Honoria would have thought, perhaps by virtue of not actually paying attention to it, but she was still such a delicate little thing that Honoria felt called upon to rescue her, as, she told herself, she would have rescued any of Bertie’s erstwhile loves.  She had an excess of fellow-feeling.

She invited Madeline to come with her on a tromp through the hills.

To her slight surprise, Madeline had been delighted.  “But no one ever asks me to go out into nature, even though I always have a book of Wordsworth with me and could quote all of the rest of him by heart!  And I adore looking for dryads among the trees.”

Honoria refrained from mentioning that if she saw any dryads among the trees, she would most likely shoot them and bag them as trophies, and was thankful she hadn’t said it when the next morning brought her the sight of Madeline Bassett looking quite dryad-like herself.  She was wearing something diaphanous that looked as though it should have been utterly impractical but, up close, was only somewhat impractical, even though it had clearly been chosen for its naturalistic green-and-rose coloring and not for any other reason.  Madeline had topped the ensemble with a canteen and a wicker picnic basket made to be carried by a strap across her shoulders.

“You’ll topple!”

“No, no, I shan’t.  The ground is always in sympathy with me, you see.  Also I’m wearing special shoes.”

The shoes were indeed impressive, but Honoria still felt like a scoundrel letting her carry all that.  “Only let me know when you’re getting tired and I’ll lug it anywhere you like.  Muscles on top of muscles might as well be good for something.”

“I think it’s marvelous,” Madeline said.  “You look like something out of a legend.  The kind of woman who would perform daring rescues of innocents from pirates, if only we were at sea.”

Honoria cleared her throat one or two times.  She had a scrupulous memory but all the same wasn’t sure she had ever been flattered on her looks before.

“Do you think,” Madeline said to Honoria as the more impressive parts of nature gradually crept up upon them, “that all daffodils are the daughters of sunlight?”

“I hadn’t thought about it before,” Honoria said.  “But I suppose they might be.  In a Greek myth kind of way, I suppose?”

“Oh, I don’t subscribe to any single theory.  We all must have our hands out to turn the wheel of truth, I believe.”  Madeline knelt and plucked one.  Honoria might have told her something clever about the Punnett square and recessive genes as they concerned the shape of petals, or of the history of daffodil-gathering in Britain, or of other splendid hikes she’d been on where the damned things grew in such abundance it looked as if the hills had been buttered, but she knew all that and did not know, yet, what Madeline would say.  That intrigued her most of all.

“Do you have a pin?”

What an unusually prosaic topic.  “I have.”  She produced it.

Madeline skewered the daffodil stem close to its bloom and then broke off the bit below with a hand that, though delicate and with the cultivated pallor of Grecian marble, had a sudden and appealing utter ruthlessness to it.  She then pinned the flower to Honoria’s jacket.  It looked incongruous against the tweed but not unlovely.

“There,” Madeline said with great satisfaction.  “Now you’ll have sunlight with you always, and won’t that be nice?”

Honoria looked down at it.  Madeline had pinned it perfectly, so there was not the slightest bit of droop.  “It will.  But you should have one yourself.”

“Only if you’ve an extra pin.”

She hadn’t.

“Then,” and Madeline’s voice took on a certain appealing coyness, “you will have to walk with me again tomorrow after breakfast, and you’ll pin it on me.  It won’t wilt between now and then.  Daffodils never do.”  She spoke with the hard-earned experience of one who has made many, many flowers into transferrable bits of sunshine and in the cold light of day been displeased with them.

Honoria spoke briskly, to counteract a certain squashiness about her middle.  “How do you know Mrs. Gregson?”  She wanted to satisfy her own internal wager re: Bassets and Bassetts.

“Not at all on this plane of things, but you know I was briefly engaged to her nephew Bertie Wooster.  It’s a frightful case.  He pines.”

“For you?”

“Oh yes.  I’m to marry him if I’m not engaged to anyone else.”

“Are you engaged to anyone else right now?”

Madeline gave the question serious consideration, as if a suitor might have slipped her mind.  “No,” she said finally.  “But I haven’t seen Bertie yet to tell him so.”

“You know,” Honoria said, thinking it a rather delicate topic to broach, and one best handled quickly, like a vaccine against jealousy, “I was engaged to him at one time myself, only it never quite took off.  By one time, I suppose I mean several times.”

Considering Bertie, this was, of course, not unusual, but the embarrassment never entirely went away.

“But you aren’t his one true love,” Madeline said, “and I am.  It’s a great trial.  He’s a perfect Adonis and kinder than Saint Stephen, of course, but it’s wearisome to never be able to not be engaged to anyone at all.  Though I do like engagements better than marriages.”

“Who doesn’t?” said Honoria with great feeling.  “Though, you know—and not to give away secrets of the trade—”

“I’m sure I would die before I confessed something shared in confidence.”

“—if you are very sure you don’t want him, you might try saying you’d like him to send off his valet.”

Madeline sighed, looking out at the garden as if mourning its fall from Eden.  “I cannot contemplate being so preoccupied with the brushing-off of the shoulders of a dinner jacket.  It’s such an earthly concern.  I asked Bertie once what he thought of the stars and he gave the dullest answer imaginable.”

“That they’re distant suns, you mean?”

“Distant suns, no!  What a lovely way of putting it.”

“Lovely and accurate, I’m sure.”

“I never care about accuracy,” Madeline said.  “Conversation is hardly surgery and beauty is a truth all its own, as Keats would say.”

“Since I imagine Keats wasn’t around the dinner table with you, or on the walk with you, or—”  She paused for breath, heaving herself up a bit of uneven ground and then turning around to give Madeline a hand up herself.  “—wherever you were, what did Bertie say that bored you?”

“He said,” Madeline whispered, her voice dropping low with horror, “that he never thought of the stars at all.”

Despite her best intentions to be unflappable, Honoria was suitably horrified.  “But everyone from Copernicus on down has thought of the stars!  How else would sailing ships ever have navigated?  I’ll wager he never even considered that.”

“I daresay he didn’t.”  Madeline shielded her eyes against the sun and smiled so brightly Honoria was tempted to put her own hand up as well.  “It’s such a scrumptious day.  You can feel the wind thanking you just for being here.  I’m eternally grateful you invited me.”

“She was bullying you,” Honoria said.

“She was, wasn’t she?  She’s not like Bertie very much at all.  His soul may be utterly devoid of poetry but he’s an absolute lamb.”

He was, but Honoria found that quality more fetching in some than in others.  Madeline, she thought, was an absolute lamb, very soft and very silly, and very surprisingly skilled at rambling over hillsides.  An absolute lamb and a portable bit of sunshine and a minx who was unwittingly turning Honoria’s considerable brain to candy floss.

“Never mind Bertie,” she said stiffly.  “I don’t like people running roughshod.  You shouldn’t let them.”

“It just surprised me, that’s all,” Madeline said, blinking gorgeous blue eyes at her, as innocent as a doll.  “People are always trying to do that but in the end they nearly always feel the weight of their misdeeds.”

“In my experience, people are absolute dross at feeling the weight of their misdeeds.  They are fatheads who need the point brought home with a sledgehammer and a Beethoven symphony, you know, something really thunderous.”

Madeline hmm-ed.  “It must help that I look the way I do.”  She knelt without warning to examine a bush and when she looked up again, Honoria knew—because she had just said so herself—that Madeline was fully conscious of the picture she made, down on her knees on the summer grass, soiling her dress without thought, turning her face upwards until the white sun turned her face into a porcelain cameo.  Suitable, Honoria thought, to wear around the throat.

“Good heavens,” Honoria said, feeling clumsy because she was so seldom seduced, but also wanting to make it clear that, as a woman of the world, she certainly understood what was taking place.  “You’re very forward.”

Madeline lowered her eyelashes and Honoria laughed.

“I imagine you think you’ll wrap me around your little finger.”

“I imagine you think you’ll make me sensible,” Madeline said, “though of course it’s far too soon to think we’ll make anything out of each other at all.  Will you help me up, please?”

“Rather.”  Honoria did so, appreciating the tension of their two hands locked together, the surprising strength of Madeline’s grip.

In a voice as practical as her shoes, Madeline said, “I did bring a bottle of champagne in the picnic basket, you know, and a very nice blanket to spread out.”

Honoria did not surrender her hand, but rather moved one finger up to feel the delicate skin on the inside of her wrist, to feel the pulse beat rabbit-quick there.  She didn’t think she could have borne it if Madeline had been as calm as she seemed.  The rapidity was some reassurance.  She supposed she could have loved a naïf or an adventuress, but what she liked best was the union of the two.  Dryad dresses and satyr shoes.

With no further discussion, they began to walk again, their path leisurely but sure.  They kept on holding hands until it began to seem awkward and overfamiliar.

Honoria had a native kind of hi-ho chumminess in her voice that she tried very hard to eradicate, or, if it couldn’t be gotten rid of entirely, subdue into a kind of come-hither tone.  “I think I’m very glad Agatha mistook you for Madeleine Basset—you know, the other Madeline Bassett.”

“Is that what she did!  I might have guessed it, that’s always happening.  Gussie once forgot his glasses, mistook her for me, and very nearly compromised himself at a party.”

“Gussie?”

“I was for a time,” Madeline said, as though it had all happened in a distant century, “engaged to Augustus Fink-Nottle, as well as to Bertie Wooster.  Oh, and also to Roderick Spode, though not at all simultaneously.  Only in quick succession.”

“That’s a great many fiancés,” Honoria said, impressed when a more reasonable part of her thought she might have been a least a little taken aback.

“It’s very nice to publically get your heart broken,” Madeline said matter-of-factly.  “Or, rather, it’s dreadful, but then you do have the loveliest excuse for contenting yourself with poetry.”

Honoria touched the petals of her daffodil.  “Will you recite a poem to me?”

“We don’t know each other well enough yet for that.”

“We’ve been here a fortnight already,” Honoria pointed out.  “You’re acting as thought you intend to—kiss me.”

“Poetry,” said Madeline Basset, “is representative of the union of the soul, not of the body.”

It was a line she kept to quite firmly, but when she did at last, some months later, yield, she did so with a smile that said she’d chosen the verse long ago:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Honoria thought it was really very nice indeed.  Full of the spirit of reciprocity, she told Madeline about the Punnett square, which Madeline took in avidly as representing something along the lines of the geometry of the large family in which we are all one.  Between the two of them, Honoria reflected as Madeline lay back against her, her head on Honoria’s shoulder, they could navigate a sailing ship very passably.

She accordingly hoped for an excellent match for Madeleine Basset, who was at that time engaged to Bertie Wooster, but was not likely to be for long.