“A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature.”—BURKE.
“History seen from a distance produces the illusion that it is rational.”—SAINTE-BEUVE.
“To reflect how easily the course of things might have been different is to learn perspective and humility.”—JOHN BUCHAN.
“The random element in the Universe always increases.”—EDDINGTON.
“Curious, the way things do jump out of nothing. This affair seems to have been begun by a hat blowing off.”
To Gathergood, as he said this, sitting on his bungalow verandah at Cuava with the temperature over a hundred in the shade and his whole body perspiring with the slightest movement, there came the sudden realisation of unpopularity. He had been conscious of it, at times, before; but never quite so definitely. He wondered if the planters had been telling tales against him, but he did not trouble himself much with the possibility; it was far too hot—an hour for anything rather than unpleasant speculation. He added, stiffening his glance as he met the eyes of the man across the table-top: “Of course it’s bad enough, in the result, but I’m not so sure that as much underlies it as you think.”
“You mentioned something about a hat blowing off?”
“Yes, Morrison’s hat. He was walking down from the club after tiffin, and just there”—he pointed with a jerk of the head—“where the path curves round the cliff his hat blew into the sea. He called to a native down below on the quayside to get it for him—a young Cuavanese named Naung Lo—but the fellow didn’t hear him, apparently. Morrison then scrambled down the cliff himself and made a scene. That’s as far as we can get before the evidence begins to be conflicting.”
“A planter named Franklyn was with Morrison, I understand?”
“Yes. Of course it’s on Franklyn’s evidence that Naung Lo was arrested. He says Naung Lo pushed Morrison into the sea.”
“Well, is there any doubt of it?”
“Naung Lo says he didn’t push him. He says he didn’t hear what Morrison had shouted, that Morrison then came down and hit him, that there was a bit of a struggle on the edge of the quay, and that Morrison suddenly toppled over. He also says that Morrison was drunk.”
“And I take it you accept this version of what happened in preference to Franklyn’s?”
“No, not altogether. I daresay Naung Lo may have pushed—I don’t see how, if there was a struggle, he could have avoided it.”
“Franklyn says Naung Lo hit first.”
Gathergood was silent a moment. Then he replied, rather slowly: “It’s too hot to take you to the scene of the affair or you’d realise that Franklyn, being thirty yards away at least, may not have been in the best position for seeing exactly what did happen. Naturally he was indignant about the death of his friend.”
“You wish me to infer that his evidence is false?”
“By no means, Humphreys,” answered Gathergood sharply. “I don’t suggest anything of the kind. But Franklyn admits that he stayed on the path up above, while Morrison climbed down to the edge of the quay where the whole thing took place.”
“But he doesn’t admit that Morrison was drunk.”
“No. Drunkenness is perhaps a matter of opinion. I can only say that I should have called him drunk when he left the club—I was there and I saw him. But that, of course, was half an hour earlier. Some men quickly throw off the effects.”
A long silence followed, which Gathergood broke by adding: “I think I should point out also that Naung Lo is slight in build, while Morrison was a six-footer. It seems unlikely, on the face of it, that the smaller man would begin the attack, without weapons— and no weapons were found on or near him afterwards.... And, of course, Morrison’s death was in some sense an accident, anyhow—he certainly wouldn’t have drowned if his head hadn’t struck a stone that stunned him.”
“Franklyn went to the rescue, didn’t he?”
“Yes. And Naung Lo stood by and gave what help he could. A point in his favour, I should be inclined to think.”
“Well, now we’ve had all the points in his favour—unless there are some more—perhaps we can consider those against him. He’s been in prison, they tell me?”
“Yes, several times—for theft. I don’t claim that he’s a highly moral character in any way.”
“And he was once in the employ of Morrison, but got the sack?”
“Yes, Morrison had to sack a good many natives. So have all the planters round here, with rubber down to fourpence a pound. The biggest item of evidence against the youth—I’ll tell you to save you the trouble of finding it out for yourself—is that he’s undoubtedly been heard to utter threats against Morrison. Morrison thrashed him once, and he swore to get even with him. He probably deserved the thrashing—though, on the other hand, Morrison was rather noted for that sort of thing.”
“Well, it establishes a motive, doesn’t it?”
The two men, Gathergood the Agent and Humphreys the Vice-Consul from the mainland, faced each other again in a lengthy silence. Then Humphreys said: “Of course, Gathergood, people are rather expecting you to do something about it.”
The Agent replied quietly, scarcely moving a muscle in the almost intolerable noonday heat: “I’m doing what I can, Humphreys. I’m trying to find out if there were other witnesses of the affair.”
“Still, you know, witnesses or not, the awkward fact remains that here you have an Englishman dead and a native somehow or other responsible. These things have a way of leading to trouble if they’re not smartly dealt with. What’s the present position?”
“Naung Lo’s in jail awaiting trial, or perhaps I should rather say, awaiting sentence. Cuavanese law is primitive, but quite brisk on these occasions. As soon as the Sultan decides that he’s guilty, he gets his head chopped off right away.”
Humphreys raised his eyebrows with a certain blandness. “And may I enquire if you have seen fit to offer His Highness any advice in the matter?”
Gathergood answered, still without movement: “The Sultan asked me if I thought the youth should be put to death and I said not yet, at any rate, because it seemed to me there were doubts.”
“Well, I suppose you know your own business best—or should do. But in these days, with all these political crimes everywhere— India, Burma—”
“Yes, quite, but I don’t think this has anything to do with it.”
“You’re by nature an optimist, perhaps?”
Gathergood half-smiled. “No, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist, either. I just think one ought to preserve one’s sense of proportion, that’s all....”
Humphreys stayed on for a few days and then took the coastal boat back to the mainland.
Gathergood was forty-nine, and had spent a quarter of a century in various parts of the East. He had never married, nor had rumour ever associated him with a woman, white or coloured. He was aware that women did not particularly care for him, and he had never found their indifference hard to endure. With men, individual men, he had sometimes wished he could become more intimate, but even the wish for this had rarely been enough to make for keen disappointment. He knew, as indeed it was impossible not to know, that his intrusion into Cuavanese society had scarcely been a social success. He was neither gallant enough for the planters’ wives nor sufficiently alcoholic to be considered a good fellow by the planters themselves; whilst among the natives a reputation for fair dealing was outweighed by an unwillingness to give a dollar tip when half a dollar was ample. Moreover, all these negations were much emphasised by his having come to Cuava in 1927, after Bullenger, whose reputation for hard drinking and hard wenching had fitted easily into the spacious prosperity of the rubber boom, so that those golden years were still remembered in some such phrase as: “Ah, that was in poor old Bullenger’s time.” A tribute, wistfully inaccurate, since the man had been neither poor nor old, but had died wealthy and prematurely of cirrhosis of the liver; and a censure, by implication, on the stiff, more difficult fellow whose succeeding regime had coincided with Cuava’s decline from affluence to penury.
In appearance Gathergood was tall, spare, and nearly as brown- complexioned as some of the Malays; he had fine teeth and a strong chin, but was not otherwise good-looking; his chill blue eyes repelled more often than they attracted. In speech he was decisive, but rather slow; indeed, his eyes more often commanded than his voice.
After the departure of Humphreys he went on with his job, which was not normally very onerous, and was decidedly not among the plums of the service; apart from acting as go-between for British merchants doing trade with Cuava, giving occasional advice to the Sultan, and attending to such matters as quarantine and the immigration of British Chinese from Hong-Kong, there was not a great deal to do. His bungalow, which included an office, stood on a spit of land just above the water-front, and was chiefly built of reed and thatch after the local fashion. A few of the planters had been able to afford Europeanised bungalows out of the profits of the boom years, but on the whole Cuava was still primitive in these matters—owing chiefly, no doubt, to the fact that it remained a native state, under a Sultan who enjoyed a more than technical independence of the authorities at Singapore and Batavia, though faintly compelling eyes were often cast upon him from those quarters.
Cuava, capital of the island and state of the same name, was the only white settlement, and its white population, due to the slump in rubber, was rather rapidly decreasing. Perhaps forty or fifty survivors of a once prosperous community lived on the two hills that lay behind and above the native kampong; a few of them had their wives, but most were considerate enough to make do with the resources of the locality. There was a Welsh doctor who shared his activities between Cuava and another island a day’s journey distant; and there had once been an American missionary who had been converted from missionary work by the superior opportunities of buying up rubber estates. Occasionally a European sea-captain came ashore and spent a few days drinking and yarning at the club. This latter institution, inevitable where two or three Englishmen are gathered together, was the centre of Cuavanese society, the fount of its corporate wisdom, the source of its rumours, and the sounding- board of its various opinions. It stood on the hill nearest the estuary, adjacent also to the plantations, and surrounded by billowy land which enthusiastic new-comers always dreamed of turning into a golf-course until they had their first experience of the sweltering Cuavanese summer.
Down in the native kampong on the water-front there was reckoned to be a mixed population of some ten thousand Malays, Chinese, and Sikhs. Many of them had been attracted from overseas when work and pay on the plantations were both plentiful; now, with these conditions at an end, an existence not far above the starvation line was somehow contrived. They lived in ramshackle huts on the edge of the river-mud, and except when they caught cholera or smuggled gin authority was glad enough to leave them alone.
Authority, indeed, resided five miles inland, well removed from the commercial and maritime atmosphere. There, enclosed by primeval jungle, was situated the Sultan’s palace, with its private apartments, its imperial harem, and its government offices, council chamber, prison, and military arsenal; a mysterious and legendary place to the white planter who rarely or never visited it.
Gathergood had acted for four years as a species of liaison officer in this complicated and peculiarly balanced society, and that he had not achieved the personal popularity of his predecessor did not by any means signify his failure at the job. On the contrary, he had comfortably surmounted all the various minor difficulties that had arisen from time to time; his relations with the Sultan were good, and his periodic reports to Singapore models of humdrum neatness. His job was not the kind that all men would have envied, but he himself had no particular complaint to make of it. The Sultan’s government was strong and fairly free from corruption; his own health was excellent; he was used to loneliness; and, perhaps most fortunately of all, he had no investments in the local estates and his salary did not depend on the price of rubber. Yet, during the days that followed the departure of Humphreys, he was aware of a changed note, a feeling of tension in the air, not lessened, he guessed, by talks which Humphreys had had with the leading planters during his visit. As he dictated business letters to his one Eurasian clerk he did not fail to observe the look of feverish enquiry in the violet-brown eyes that stared above the typewriter-roller. Recent events had provided sensation for bungalow and kampong alike; already the dead Englishman was beginning to acquire among the planters the legendary habiliments of martyrdom. And among the natives, too, there were hints, rather than evidences, of trouble; wage reductions on the estates had prepared a soil well suited to the flowering of unrest. All this Gathergood sensed with an involuntary stirring of distaste; he lacked sympathy with the jingo impulsiveness of the planters nearly as much as with the Bolshevist nonsense that was beginning to permeate the mob.
With relief, when he had discharged his daily routine of duties, he turned as a rule to his botanical specimens, of which during his years in Cuava he had made a large and varied collection. It was probably, he sometimes thought, the most complete of its kind in the world, since the island seemed to have been just as unaccountably neglected by naturalists as by explorers. That range of mountains, for instance, barely visible on a very clear day from the rubber estates—curious, he thought, that none of the planters ever desired to climb or investigate them. Gathergood had done so several times, struggling through difficult miles of mangrove swamp and jungle. “Was it worth while?” he was once asked on his return. “Did you strike any gold reefs, buried treasure, tin deposits?” He had answered, with a simplicity so odd that it was misread as a pose: “Hardly that, but I did find two quite remarkable things on the summit—a small lake that always had ice on it in the early mornings, and little blue forget-me-nots, growing just as they do in England.” Which was a type of remark that proceeded rather eccentrically from the mouth of a British Agent in a club-room of rubber-growers.
One morning, while his enquiries into details of the Morrison case were still pending, one of the younger planters, not long out from home, called on him and remarked with candid indiscretion that the planters were not at all satisfied with the way matters were developing. “And neither was that fellow Humphreys,” continued the youth, even more indiscreetly.
“And neither am I,” added Gathergood.
The youth went on: “Not of course that Morrison was a saint, by any means, but, still, the poor beggar’s dead, and we’ll have the whole pack on top of us if we let ’em get away with a thing like that. It’s the example to the rest that’s so damned dangerous.”
“I hope not, if we all keep our heads.”
“That won’t help things much, with the tappers already talking revolution. Perhaps you heard of the strike of coolies this morning?”
“Some small trouble over a shipment. It’s settled now. There’s trouble all over the world, for that matter. We mustn’t get excited.”
“You keep on saying that, sir, while all the time things are heading for a crisis.”
Gathergood smiled, more charmed than displeased by the frankness of the outburst. He guessed a little of the resentment smouldering behind the youth’s words, that dream of being lordly and prosperous that had wilted during a few months’ experience of dragooning natives on a nearly bankrupt plantation. Gathergood felt sorry for him. He touched his arm—a rare thing for him to do to anyone—and answered: “Don’t worry. When I next see the Sultan I’ll indicate to him, if I can, the desirability of keeping his kampong hotheads under control. He doesn’t want trouble, remember, any more than we do.”
“He’ll get it, though, if he’s not mighty careful, sir. It’s pretty obvious he’s shielding Morrison’s murderer. It can’t go on. Everyone knows these native states are ana—ana”—he stumbled over the half-known word and added, more confidently—“out-of-date.”
There was a certain pathos, to the Agent, in the triteness of all that. It was rather like saying “I do think flowers are lovely” at a horticultural show. On the club verandah it was the everlasting small change of minor grousing; while in Singapore civil servants had grown grey in turning it into Blue Book prose. Gathergood did not conceive it his duty either to have or to express an opinion on the subject. Cuava was Cuava; he was content to accommodate himself to the system as it existed. He took little interest in politics, and had no passionate conviction that direct control from Singapore would be an improvement. He said, comfortingly: “All the same, I shouldn’t worry, if I were you.”
But the youth’s remarks had made him feel that he might, perhaps, expedite his visit to the Sultan. He went that evening.
Gathergood had no car; the lack of roads in Cuava made one an unnecessary expense. There was, it is true, a track of sorts leading steeply up to the Sultan’s palace, but the Agent preferred the more tranquil if slower method of having his native boys paddle him upstream to a point from which the palace lay but half an hour’s walk uphill. He had travelled thus on many occasions, and had perfected a pleasurable technique in sparing his boys as much expenditure of energy as possible. He first let the canoe drift across the estuary with the incoming tide; then he steered his way amongst the slow channels of the mangrove swamps, thus escaping the force of the current in midstream. It was possible, except at the height of the dry season, to traverse almost the entire distance in this manner; the journey took time, but there was rarely any particular reason for hurry. Nor did Gathergood find the scenery tedious as others might have done; the swamps were certainly desolate, but he could find plenty of interest in them, the more so as their tangles of rotting foliage had often yielded important additions to his naturalist’s collection. He liked the play of light, especially towards sunset, on the pale, sword-like nippa leaves; and the swish of the wind through them amused him sometimes by its likeness to human whispering.
That night he arrived at the Sultan’s private landing-place amid the warm scents of twilight. He climbed the wooden stairs, crossed the jetties of split palm-trunks, and took the ascending path to the palace. When at last he reached it, the widespread litter of buildings, with lights here and there, was shrouded in mystery, but it did not affect him; he knew it well enough, and after a few words to a turbanned sentry was admitted through familiar entrances into familiar rooms. Most of them were of the same type, though larger than the ordinary Cuavanese but; and only the throne-room, into which he was finally ushered, presented any original features. It was a lofty wooden apartment, lit with oil-lamps and hung with mats and strips of red cotton sheeting; it also exhibited, apparently as an objet d’art, a three-year-old business calendar advertising a San Francisco insurance company.
Gathergood, thin and ghost-like in his white ducks, waited for several moments without impatience. He was a man who did not object to waiting, and to whom the mere saving of seconds seemed of little value without some definite use for the time saved. It was this attitude of mind which, though he had never thought out the question, gave him ease in dealing with Orientals and made him often appear stiff and dilatory before the quick-dealing Westerner.
At length a door opened and Gathergood made a profound bow. An old, an almost incredibly old man was tottering forward. His body, which had once been very tall, now stooped to a mere five feet above the ground; his head, wrinkled and shaven, was partly covered by a turban of green silk; while the rest of his attire revealed itself, to all outward conjecture, as the badly-fitting uniform of a liner-steward.
Yet, with every inelegance and incongruity, there was a quality in the old man that made Gathergood’s bow a fitting gesture. Pathetic dignity reposed in the slowly raised head and in the grim, toothless smile; the nose and lips, strong and sensual at one time, had been thinned by age to a sharpness which, with the small, gleaming eyes, reminded Gathergood of newspaper pictures of Philip Snowden.
Meanwhile the Sultan of Cuava held out his hand with a brave imitation of the western salutation. Gathergood offered his own hand, and the old man held it limply for a moment. “Your Highness is well?” queried Gathergood, and a cracked, scarcely audible voice replied: “Very well, Tuan.”
But it was rather obvious that he was not. He was wheezy, asthmatic, and unsteady on his legs; only with assistance from Gathergood and two personal attendants did he finally seat himself on the royal throne, which was a shabby wooden affair, decorated with strips of coloured cloth. He was, indeed, immensely old—some said over a hundred, though that was probably an exaggeration. It was well established, however, that he had feasted on human flesh during his earlier manhood, and that he had begotten several children since becoming a great-grandfather; nor was it impossible, as legend asserted, that he had once slaughtered with his own hands two hundred prisoners captured in battle. One could imagine sometimes that the memory of such exploits gleamed in his brilliant eyes; and, in fact, most white visitors (such as government officials from Singapore) were so apt to imagine things of this sort that they scarcely ever managed to treat him as a human being. Gathergood, however, was not a man of imagination, nor, in his relations with the Sultan, was he troubled by reflections sinister or abstruse. It did not occur to him that His Highness’s nondescript clothing and enormously developed stomach made him comic, or, at least, any more comic than his own notorious chastity must seem to the Sultan. The two of them, one so old and the other no longer young, respected each other. Sometimes they talked about plants, birds, and insects; the Sultan was interested in Gathergood’s expeditions to the interior and had always used his influence to further them. His eyes forgot their years during such interviews, and the Agent, shouting the lilting Cuavanese dialect into the old man’s ear, chatted with no more difficulty than with some deaf old crony in an English bar-parlour.
That evening their talk was protracted longer than usual. Bright-turbaned attendants brought the Agent a long ceremonial cigarette, and lit beside him two large, beeswax candles. The first question, raised by the Sultan himself, concerned a letter he had recently received from an American university, offering to confer on him the degree of Doctor of Literature in return for a registration fee of a hundred dollars. The Sultan, sincerely proud of the distinctions that civilised countries had already granted him, asked Gathergood’s advice; and the latter returned a simple negative. It was thus that they had dealt with many problems during the past four years.
Then they touched upon the future of Naung Lo, still in the Sultan’s prison in connection with the Morrison affair. The Sultan had been deeply perturbed by the tragedy, and was willing, indeed eager, to behead somebody. Gathergood described his continuing investigations, adding: “It still doesn’t seem to me that the case has been proved.”
The Sultan inclined his head. “Very well, Tuan. He shall wait.”
Then Gathergood outlined, as well as he could, the difficulties that might arise out of unrest in the kampong. He suggested that the Sultan should increase the native police force, put an extra tax on the sale of gin, and issue an official edict denouncing the doctrines of Russian and Chinese communism. The Sultan, who had been very pro-British during the War, and whose habit of mind was inclined to be fixed, could not entirely escape the conviction that he ought at once to arrest and behead the crew of a German sailing-ship loading cutch in the estuary; but at the end of Gathergood’s explanation he signified an earnest and cordial agreement with all the main points.
After that, as the old man was obviously fatigued, Gathergood made to depart. But there was one other matter which the Sultan broached with almost a child’s shyness. “Tuan,” he croaked, holding Gathergood’s hand again, “I have some pictures for you.” He took out of his jacket pocket a small Kodak, from which, with a smile, the Agent removed the used film. It was the Sultan’s principal hobby, and though many of his snapshots tended to be either obscure or obscene was always ready to oblige by developing them in his little improvised dark-room at the bungalow. “I will bring them to you next week,” he answered, and the Sultan responded, with conventional courtesy: “Good night, Tuan Bezar. Your visit has made me very glad.”
Events, however, prevented Gathergood from keeping his promise. That very night, while he was asleep under his mosquito-net, a score or more planters, fully armed, marched on the Sultan’s palace, forced an entrance, kidnapped Naung Lo from his prison-cell, and hanged him from a tree in the jungle less than a mile away.
Gathergood did not hear of this till the morning, when his house-boy brought him the sensational news. He was, for him, immensely disconcerted. He was even, when he had begun to consider it, appalled. In all that the Morrison case had so far meant to him, there had been simply the question of the accused man’s probable guilt or innocence. Of the tangled interplay of motive, racial and political, that might lie beyond that straightforward issue, he had been remotely aware, but he had shrunk from it; he lacked intricacy of vision, and his instinct was always to ignore the intangible. Now, at a stroke, the merely judicial question had been transformed into a matter of vaster significance which he took some time to comprehend. He sat for over an hour before his office-desk, thinking things out with an entire absence of personal passion that concealed, nevertheless, a growing inward uneasiness. The day was warming up; clammy and so far sunless, it sent hardly a ripple of sea moving over the sandbars of the estuary, and the tops of the rubber-planted foothills soared into a creamy haze. Towards midday he sent a boy with written messages to all the planters, asking them to meet him in the club-house during the afternoon. That done, he deliberately wrote business letters as usual and gave the daily orders to his Chinese cook; after which, having taken a drink and a sandwich, he walked up the hill to the club-house.
The planters awaited him there in a mood of sultry, half-shamed truculence. It was possible that already, in the light of day, their exploit seemed less wholly estimable. But this reaction was itself counterbalanced by an intensifying of their feeling towards the Agent; sprawling over the chairs and tables, they faced him as if whatever might be unstable in an unstable world, their hatred of him was sure. They clung to it, for defence, for companionship, for very love of one another; and seeing them, Gathergood suddenly felt himself a scapegoat for all the trouble that had visited Cuava since his predecessor left it—for untapped trees and rebellious labourers and bankrupt companies, for dread movements on distant stock exchanges, for doom that could sweep as swiftly as pestilence. He, the Jonah, had come to Cuava as a human symbol of unluck, so that upon him, it seemed, the rage of men against events must now be concentrated.
He was not a good talker in public, but he had prepared what to say, and it was, as he said it, very simple. The night’s escapade, he began, without preamble, was as dangerously mistaken as it was utterly unjustifiable. At this there was much dissent, and he waited quietly for silence. It was typical of him that the arguments he developed had an almost legal precision; Cuava, he reminded them, was the Sultan’s territory, and the attack on his palace could only be regarded as equivalent to an act of war. Neither the home government nor that at Singapore could or would defend them in such a matter. Here a shout of “We can defend ourselves” stung him to a retort which, being impromptu, was more humanly pungent: “Perhaps, then, you’ll tell me how a few dozen whites can hold out against twenty thousand natives if the latter make a concerted attack?”
He talked for some time, dealing with interruptions and questions as they arose; he was calm throughout, and perhaps this calmness, as much as anything, became eventually impressive. He stirred misgiving in their minds, then doubt, then a touch of panic, and, last of all, a chastened mood in which one of them could ask, almost humbly: “Well, Gathergood, granted that there may be something in what you say, what would you recommend us to do about it?”
The Agent had his reply ready. “Choose one of yourselves as a representative, and let him come with me to the palace immediately— we’ll smooth things down as best we can.”
At this, as Gathergood had expected, there was a further uproar of dissent and defiance; he stood watching and hearing it emotionlessly, his eyes remote and implacable. All he said when the shouting subsided was: “Well, gentlemen, it’s for you to decide. You asked my advice and I gave it. I know the Sultan is reasonable; if he can be convinced that no personal insult was intended, and that you were merely carried away by your feeling about Morrison, a good deal of the harm may yet be undone. Think it over.” Suddenly, at that, he turned and left them, walked out of the club, and back through the oven-heat to his bungalow.
Till evening he rested; then a deputation of planters came to see him. He received them on his verandah, offering drinks, which they declined. They announced without courtesy, their decision to take his advice, and Franklyn, who had been Morrison’s particular friend, was the representative they had chosen. He was a tall, sallow-faced man of about fifty; he lived with his wife in the largest bungalow on the hill, and had never troubled to disguise his dislike of Gathergood. The latter now glanced at him and replied: “Very well. If you’re ready, Franklyn, we’d better go up now, without delay.”
Franklyn laughed with forced cynicism. “All right, if it’s got to be done. You guarantee a safe return, I suppose, Gathergood? No doubt you’re in a position to—the old boy’s rather a pal of yours by all accounts? So long as I don’t get pushed overboard, like Morrison, or stuck by a kris.... If I do, you’ll be responsible. Personally, it seems to me a damsilly thing to go bootlicking to a nigger.”
Gathergood did not reply. He was calling his house-boy and giving orders about the journey.
They went, not by canoe, but in Franklyn’s Ford, driven by the planter himself up the winding, rutted track amongst the hills. Little was spoken; the fact that Franklyn’s apology would be completely insincere did not, of course, matter much, but it made for Gathergood an extra discord between them. As the journey progressed the Agent became conscious of the hairline precariousness of the entire situation, and of the alarming extent to which he had personally become involved in it. He tried to think if at any point he had taken an incautious step, or had come to an unwise decision; but everything he had decided seemed preferable to the likely results of doing otherwise. He even in a certain sense looked forward to meeting the Sultan; it might be comforting to talk things over quietly with that serene old patriarch. A reasonable man, Gathergood stressed to himself; whatever else, a REASONABLE man....
But once again the march of events had tragically forestalled. What happened is best described in Gathergood’s own phrases, as he had to compose them for a later audience. When he and Franklyn arrived at the Sultan’s palace they were admitted, not to the Sultan, but to a congress of sons and grandsons, by whose orders they were promptly arrested and flung into prison, without any chance of explaining their mission. The aged Sultan, it appeared, had died of an apoplectic fit caused by the excitement of the previous night’s attack on his domain.
The two prisoners were without weapons; they tried the walls in vain for any means of escape, and at length lay down on the mud floor in sheer weariness. Towards midnight by Gathergood’s watch Franklyn was led out by armed guards, with whom the Agent expostulated and struggled in vain. The planter’s subsequent fate was never definitely established—the exact manner of his death, that is to say. Gathergood, however, was released later on during the night—apparently on account of his friendship with the late Sultan. To his enquiries, entreaties, and protests about Franklyn, he could obtain nothing but evasive replies.
Driving back to his bungalow as fast as the Ford would take him, Gathergood might well have wished that no such distinguishing clemency had been shown him. That he did not, that he steered unhesitatingly down the craggy hillsides, was clue to the curious singleness of mind that permitted him only one purpose at a time. He felt the seriousness of the situation rising round him like a gale, but he had no conception of the force of the wind or of the general direction in which it was blowing. Turned now, by logical process, into a man of action, he drove through the dark jungle tunnels with one thought new and foremost in his mind—the deliverance of Franklyn. He did not then know or suspect that the planter was dead, but the fact of his being held a prisoner was serious enough. And he began, thinking clearly during that summer dawn, to make plans for contriving or enforcing a release. He perceived that the entire English colony in Cuava must now be mobilised for defence, that help would have to be summoned from the mainland, and that in these matters there was not a moment to be lost.
When he reached the water-front not far from his bungalow he found that hostilities had already broken out between the whites and the natives. His first instinct, even amidst so many greater urgencies, was for the suppression of disorder nearby, and when he could no longer drive the car, he jumped out amongst the mob of drink-inflamed coolies and knocked down one man whom he saw looting a store. He was himself hit and badly battered, and might have suffered more severely had not the crowd been scattered by a volley of rifle-shots from the surrounding hills, where the planters had already improvised a firing-line. Several natives were killed and wounded, and Gathergood was unlucky enough to get a bullet through his leg.
So began one of those apparently spontaneous outbreaks which from time to time acquaint the British taxpayer with the extent and variety of his responsibilities. The trouble at Cuava, resulting in the death of one Englishman (Franklyn) and fifteen Chinese and Cuavanese, made a sufficiently startling headline for the London breakfast-table, whither it was served along with the tactful information as to where and what Cuava was. A question was later asked in the House of Commons, in reply to which the Under Secretary for the Colonies announced that a cruiser and two gunboats had already arrived at Cuava from Singapore, that order in the affected districts had been completely restored, and that a full and exhaustive enquiry would be held as soon as possible.
At that enquiry Gathergood was, of course, a principal witness.
He had been ill of a fever following his wound, and as if that were not enough, a dose of malaria had pushed further the attack on his normally robust health. During the days before the cruiser could take him on board he had been looked after by his Chinese cook— the only person who, in that emergency, had seemed to care what happened to him. Afterwards, at Singapore, he had spent a month in the government hospital—until nearly the time of the enquiry. He then engaged a room at the Adelphi. He found the bustling and expensive life of the place a strange and soon a tiresome contrast from Cuava. He had never cared much for cities or for the gaieties they offered, and Singapore, during the hot season, with its gaunt-chested rickshaw- men sweating along the tarred, sticky roads, made him long for the enquiry to begin and end so that he might get away. He was lonely, too—a condition he had never known in Cuava, but which the crowded public rooms of the hotel induced unfailingly. He knew nobody, though he was uncomfortably aware that he was known to many by sight—the trouble on the island having been featured so prominently in all the local newspapers. He had read them in hospital, of course, and knew by now that Franklyn’s death must be presumed. It had been a tragic blow, not so much on account of the man personally, as of the revelation it gave of a world in which folly led to folly and violence begat violence. If there were anyone whose death he did personally mourn, it was the aged Sultan. All would have ended happily had he been alive, and the Agent thought with sympathy of the old, wrinkled potentate whose life- interests had so pleasantly progressed from cannibalism to photography.
The enquiry, held in one of the government buildings, began on the hottest day of the year; the stifling atmosphere, impregnated with the smells of dust and leather and teak panelling, affected everyone with fatigue or peevishness, and even the chairman seemed once or twice on the point of falling asleep over his opening oration. He was a pale and elderly civil servant, rather obviously timid in the presence of his colleagues, one of whom, a red- faced, bristling, stiff-backed major, had an air of challenging even the temperature to a trial of endurance. The rest of the committee comprised two members of the local legislature and a naval commander, a lithe, careless- looking Irishman with a nearly bald head and impudent eyes. In attendance on the five were a mixed bevy of white and Eurasian shorthand-writers and newspaper-men; while a small gallery at the rear was occupied by such members of the public as had been fortunate enough to secure cards of admission. There had been a keen demand for these among the friends of the committee, and the result was a quite fashionable audience, mainly of women eager for drama. Conspicuous in the front row, a single touch of black amongst the prevalently brighter colours, sat Franklyn’s widow.
The chairman spoke long and tediously, and it was not till the second day, during which a heavy thunderstorm broke, that the gallery occupants could feel their patience rewarded. Late in the afternoon Gathergood was called. He had not been permitted to attend the earlier sessions, but newspaper reports had already given him some idea what to expect. Yet though he had thus prepared himself for the small insolences of cross-examination, it had certainly never struck him that he would be treated less like a witness than a prisoner on trial. Grimly, after his first hour of questioning, he perceived that things were to be even worse than had seemed possible. His words were being misquoted, his actions misdescribed, and his motives misinterpreted. With all his awareness of unpopularity, he had never guessed that even the bitterest dislike could frame such a conspiracy, or that, if framed, it could prevail with reasonable persons. But perhaps the men and women facing him were not reasonable. They represented him, for instance, as having condoned the murder of a white man by a native, and of having interceded with authority on the latter’s behalf. It was implied that he had definitely taken the part of the native Cuavanese in a matter affecting white prestige. His mission of pacification to the Sultan was held up as an act of humiliating unwisdom equivalent to handing a hostage to the enemy. He had, it was to be inferred, deliberately led Franklyn to his death. At this point in the proceedings Mrs. Franklyn broke down and sobbed audibly for several moments, while the chairman stuttered out a few sentences of sympathy. When the cross-examination was continued, Gathergood was uncomfortable as well as grim, and created a definitely bad impression on listeners already predisposed to receive one; his very carefulness in choosing words, which was normal to him, was taken for over- subtlety—as when, for instance, he answered: “No, it wasn’t that I thought Naung Lo innocent; I only thought that he might not be guilty.” This, spoken in slow, deliberate tones, sent a hot draught of exasperation across the room.
He was asked, of course, about that final tragic pilgrimage to the Sultan’s palace with Franklyn, and he described it with an exactness that made no glimmer of appeal for sympathy. The truth was, his anger, always slow to rise, was now engulfing him in the blackest bitterness of soul. He would not, by a word or by a movement of a muscle, plead with these people who were so obviously bent on vilifying him. He sat rigid in the straight-backed seat, his blue eyes fixed in a stare that only occasionally quickened, and only at one spectacle—the clock that ticked away his ordeal. Once or twice, faint with the heat, he found his attention wandering, and generally it was some outdoor scene that flashed momentarily before him, some remembered spot on one of his jungle expeditions, the place where he had found the sciuropterus or that Polypodium carnosum. And then, breaking in upon such ill-timed tranquillities, would come the chairman’s rasping monotone: “Are we to understand, Mr. Gathergood... So, Mr. Gathergood, it amounts to this, that you... Now, Mr. Gathergood, let’s be quite clear about it—you say you ... ” And so on.
Yet the Agent was never near breaking down under the strain. He was upheld by his bitterness; relentlessly he gave reasons why he had done this or had omitted to do that, and even the major’s querulous: “But surely, man, you must have realised ... ” only drew from him a quiet: “I didn’t realise it, anyway.” Once the naval commander interjected, apparently to the assembly in general: “Of course we must all remember how easy it is to be wise after the event”; and Gathergood gave him a swift glance in which just more was visible than mere assent. But on the whole he preserved an outward emotionlessness that antagonised his hearers as much as it disappointed them. The commander tried sometimes to counter this by skilfully leading questions; he remarked, for instance, at one juncture: “I should think, Gathergood, you must be feeling yourself rather an unlucky fellow. Things seem to have gone persistently wrong in all your calculations—a sort of chapter of accidents, eh?”
Gathergood began to respond: “Yes, and as a matter of fact...” and then checked himself sharply; whereat the major, pouncing to the occasion, barked out: “Continue with what you were going to say, Mr. Gathergood.”
“Nothing of any consequence—a mere reflection of my own that can hardly matter.”
“Never mind, let’s have it,” snapped the major, enjoying himself; and the chairman nodded emphatically.
“I was only thinking that the whole thing began with an accident— quite a trifling one—Morrison’s hat blowing into the sea—”
Again the wave of exasperation passed across the faces. But the end was near. On the afternoon of the fifth day Gathergood was suddenly informed that he need not stay further or attend again. He bowed to the chairman and walked, briskly limping, from the room. He felt that the manner of his dismissal was that of a conviction and sentence all in one. Even the Eurasian attendant with whom he had left his hat treated him with barely concealed superciliousness.
That evening, while he was taking coffee in a corner of the hotel lounge, he was surprised to be accosted by the naval officer who had been a member of the committee. His name was Holroyd, and after a few perfunctory remarks he planked himself down at the same table. Gathergood, though not especially anxious for company, offered a drink, and they chatted together for some time, but without mentioning the enquiry; then Holroyd suggested that the Agent should stroll over with him to his hotel, the De la Paix, for another drink. Gathergood agreed and they finally sat up in Holroyd’s private room till nearly midnight. The commander, in this more intimate atmosphere, was breezily candid. “I daresay you’ve guessed by this time, Gathergood, that you’re going to get all the blame—which I don’t suppose you deserve—nobody does deserve what he gets in this world, whether of blame or anything else.”
Gathergood said very little in reply; he had explained himself exhaustively and in public for four days, and had no desire to go all over the ground again. He merely sipped his whisky and let Holroyd go on talking.
“The question is,” continued the commander, “what are you going to do now that the show’s over?”
That was the question, undoubtedly; and from the moment of his dismissal from the enquiry-room Gathergood had seen it confronting him. He answered, a trifle curtly: “Well, I don’t want to stay here.”
“I should jolly well think not.... How’re you feeling now, by the way? Pretty rotten, I expect, after your leg-smash and all the strain of the talky-talky.”
“My leg’s healed well and I feel all right.”
“How about putting in for a spell of sick leave, anyhow?”
“I don’t consider myself really ill.”
Holroyd grunted. “Well, Gathergood, if you won’t take the hint, it’s no use beating about the bush. I’m here, speaking quite frankly, to make a definite suggestion to you—put in for leave and get away back home. Not necessarily to England—in fact, on the whole, I’d say not England, for the time being. Take a long foreign holiday somewhere—nice little places in France or Italy... anyway, clear off pretty quick out of this rotten hole. There’s going to be a hell of a rumpus when the report comes out, and if you take my tip, you won’t wait for it.”
“I’m due to retire next year, you know.”
“Then it fits in rather well, doesn’t it?”
“I’d rather have served out my full time. Not in Cuava, of course, but—”
Holroyd shook his head. “I’m damned sorry, Gathergood, but you can wash out all idea of that. Absolutely no point in mincing matters, is there? But if I were you, I wouldn’t fret about it. ’Be damned to you’—that’s the feeling to have when fate gives you a knock in the eye.”
“I see,” replied the Agent quietly. For the first time then he showed signs of emotion, though only for a few seconds. His mind received the full impact of the future, recoiled a little, and then steadied itself. “Yes,” he added, in control again, “I think that’s just about my own attitude too.”
That midnight, as soon as he was back in his own bedroom, he wrote out a formal application for leave, received an affirmative reply by return of post, booked his passage on a French liner bound for Marseilles, and sent his former Chinese cook two hundred dollars and instructions for the packing and transhipment of his belongings from Cuava to a furniture depository in London.
“Oh, dear, now it all begins again,” thought Miss Faulkner, scampering along the platform with her usual smile of sprightly welcome. She had a mixed collection of books and papers under her arm. She nearly always had. And she was nearly always smiling, or scampering, or both. The clanking carriages drew slowly in, pulled by an electric engine that stood at the far end ticking like an enormous clock. Faces appeared at windows—windows that bore the labels of an English travel organisation, and Miss Faulkner, still scampering, shouted out: “Hello, everybody—is the train early, or am I late?” which was the kind of remark which, in her estimation, put people at their ease immediately and helped them to begin a holiday in the right spirit.
The train was from Calais; its passengers had been travelling all night and the day before. The women looked heavy-eyed and bedraggled, the men were blue-chinned after two days without a shave. They came from the vague hinterlands of suburb and provinces, urged across eight hundred miles of land and water by an enterprise which was not their own, but that of a limited liability company working for profit and earning (in normal years) some fifteen per cent. This organisation, after the manner of its age, manufactured the demand which it afterwards proceeded to supply. Its brochures were superb examples of art-printing and chromo-lithography, and its well-known advertisement of a pretty girl smiling over the rail of a Channel steamer in excessively calm and sunny weather had been painted by a R. A. At the other end of the business, however, expenditure was less lavish. The usual practice was to charter a second-rate hotel for the season at such a price that its proprietors, to make any profit at all, had to supply inferior food. Another economical plan was to employ, instead of full-time guides and couriers, a semi- amateur staff of part-time workers, most of them school-teachers, who were willing to work during their summer holidays for very little more than pocket- money.
Miss Faulkner was one of these people. She was small-built, pert-faced, bright-eyed, and aged thirty-seven. Just the person for the job, most people said: by which they meant that her London Matriculation French was understood by foreign railway-porters who knew English, that she possessed a sheepdog aptitude for yapping (though pleasantly) at people’s heels till they had all climbed into the right vehicles, and that her smile was of the kind usually described as “infectious.”
“Ah, well, it’s a nice day, that’s something,” thought Miss Faulkner, marshalling the arrivals and seeing them installed in a couple of late-Victorian horse-omnibuses. “Yes, aren’t they sweet?” she said cheerfully. “I believe there’s some talk of putting them in the local museum.” People always laughed at that. She darted about, answering questions, giving orders, ticking names on a list, already memorising faces; really an exceptionally capable woman. And smiling all the time. A rather wide smile, showing good teeth, but (if one bothered to notice such things) a smile that did not cause much to happen to the rest of her face. “Yes, Mrs. Walsh, your bag will be all right—all the luggage is coming along afterwards,” she sang out; and Mrs. Walsh, a granitic matron who might otherwise have given trouble, was instantly captivated.
“We’ve been having it quite hot here lately,” continued Miss Faulkner, in the omnibus, launching the regulation chitchat about the weather. “And I see from the papers it’s been cold and rainy in England.... Yes, we get all the English papers here a day late.... There, that’s the Jungfrau—that big one over there. Rather fine, isn’t it?” And privately to herself she reflected: “I must write to George immediately after lunch, or I shall never get a chance.”...
Just as the horses turned out of Interlaken’s main thoroughfare into the side-street leading to the hotel, a man stepped off the kerb and would have been run down had not a shaft caught his arm and jerked him back. One of the horses half-stumbled, and the driver pulled up and began to shout angrily in German. There seemed here the makings of an awkward little scene, and it was in just such an emergency that Miss Faulkner was at her best. Climbing down from the omnibus she first commanded silence from the driver and then approached the pedestrian. He was well-dressed, she noticed, and she was relieved to find that he was English. “It was entirely my own fault,” he admitted, calmly. “I wasn’t looking where I was going at all. Fortunately I’m not hurt.”
“Oh, well, if that’s the case, there’s really nothing more to be said, is there?” replied Miss Faulkner, flashing her smile. “I’m glad you’re all right. Good morning.”
The man raised his hat and walked off, and Miss Faulkner, continuing her smile to her people in the omnibus, climbed in again. “Really,” she said, as the journey was resumed, “if people WILL do these things—” Somebody cried: “Day-dreamin’, that’s what he must have been doin’,” and Miss Faulkner echoed: “Yes, that’s just it!” with an air of finding the remark a perfect and wished-for expression of her own feelings. There was thus a second person captivated.
When the hotel was reached, Miss Faulkner presided briskly over the usual commotion about rooms; then came lunch, during which, from the head of the long table, she made the speech she always made at first meals. It was one of carefully mingled exhortation and facetiousness—all about being punctual, making the best of things, keeping together on party expeditions, and taking warm clothing on the mountain trips. “Oh, yes, and there’s just one other thing— some of you may already have discovered that foreign hotels don’t supply soap. If you haven’t brought any with you, there’s a chemist’s shop just round the corner where they speak English.” Somebody cheered. Miss Faulkner smiled. And then: “Perhaps we’d better not plan anything for this afternoon, as I daresay many of you feel tired after the journey and would like to rest.” She gazed round the tables with a look of slightly intimidating enquiry, and the response came easily to her bidding, in the form of mumbled assent. “All right. Then we’ll meet again at seven-thirty for dinner.”
Thank goodness, she thought, escaping through the crowd—that left her free for the afternoon. She went up to her bedroom and dragged a wicker chair to the window. The view was not of the Jungfrau, as all the advertisements would have led one to assume, but of a row of similar windows overlooking a small well-like courtyard in between. Free for the afternoon, Miss Faulkner echoed to herself, as she got out pen and paper and began to write. The letter was to her brother, who worked in a stockbroker’s office in Old Broad Street. She wrote:
“Thanks for sending on my correspondence. The weather here has been hot, which I don’t mind, except that it makes people dawdle, and I have to keep on chivvying them to catch their trains. They’ve been a rather dull crowd so far, and this week’s new arrivals don’t seem much different. Still, I suppose it’s all to the good that they should come out here instead of going to Margate or Blackpool or places like that. I’m sorry you didn’t like the Virginia Woolf—I thought it quite marvellous. Mrs. Ripley writes that she’d like to borrow my notes on Silesian minorities to use in a paper she’s getting up, so if she calls, they’re in the third drawer of my bureau desk, but please don’t mix up the other papers in it. I expect I shall be returning to-day fortnight. I hope you’re managing all right in the flat, and don’t forget to leave the cats their milk when you go out in the mornings. This is in haste, as I simply haven’t a moment to spare.
“Your affectionate sister,
That done, and the envelope sealed and addressed, Miss Faulkner wrote half a dozen other letters, after which she packed them under her arm with her usual mixed collection of books and papers, and went downstairs to the post.
There was a box inside the hotel lobby, but she preferred the short walk to the little blue letter-box fixed to the lamp-post down the road. She scampered out, through the swing-doors, into the warm glare of the pavement. The sun was shining out of a sky that really was the blue of the picture- postcards, and even the Jungfrau looked somewhat like the advertised Jungfrau. Miss Faulkner, however, was not normally a person to rhapsodise over such matters. She walked straight to the lamp-post, inserted the letters, and walked back. Just as she climbed the hotel steps she noticed a man sitting on the terrace outside the Hôtel Oberland, the bigger and much more aristocratic hotel immediately opposite her own, which was the Hôtel Magnifique de l’Univers. She felt sure he was the man whom the omnibus had nearly driven down, and in seeking to verify the recognition she stared so hard that when he chanced to glance up she felt that the only thing possible to do was to smile. And having smiled, and having received in return a slight but courteous bow, she felt she must at least say something to excuse the smile. So she ran across the road and began: “I’m so sorry about the omnibus dashing into you like that—I do hope you weren’t really hurt. And I must say, even though it may be true that you weren’t looking, that man does drive round corners rather recklessly. It was very kind of you, anyhow, to take it as you did. I mean, it saved a lot of delay and argument.”
The man seemed surprised to be accosted thus and with such volubility. “I assure you I haven’t even a bruise to show for it,” he answered, looking her down with very blue eyes.
“I’m so glad.... It’s marvellous weather, isn’t it?”
“Yes, great,” he replied.
Miss Faulkner, smiling again, recrossed the road to her own hotel. Obviously a gentleman, she had confirmed; his clothes, his accent, his manner, all were satisfactory. For she had belonged to the Left Wing of the English Labour Movement long enough to know that though you might attack gentlemen, as a class, and even, as a measure of social reform, seek to abolish them, they yet remained, as individuals, most charming and agreeable people.
For the rest of the time before dinner she busied herself with the findings of a commission whose bulky minority report she had been somewhat pointlessly carrying about all day.
Miss Faulkner was the headmistress of a council-school in Bermondsey. She was clever, successful, and possessed an abundance of energy as well as that immense capacity for taking pains which, whatever else it is, certainly is not genius. But, genius apart, she was a talented woman; she could speak fluently at meetings, serve effectively on committees, and bully a school-inspector into overlooking the fact that her children, though skilled at clay-modelling and pastel-drawing, were unfortunately less able to read and write. Her ambition was some clay to become an M.P., and to this end she was already associated with many of the movements and campaigns of advanced Socialism. Not that she was by any means insincere. A passion almost flame-like in its intensity sustained her in her many activities; she really did possess a love for humanity, and the further removed humanity was, both in space and time, the more she loved it. Her favourite school lesson, for instance, was one in which she described the sufferings of the little boy chimney-sweeps in the early nineteenth century; and in modern times a Chinese famine, especially when documented by Blue Book or White Paper statistics, could move her to genuine tears of compassion. With the local unemployed she would probably have sympathised almost as warmly had not so many of them approached her for personal help. “My good man, I can’t give to everybody,” she would say; which was true enough, for four hundred a year did not go far when one had a half-share of a flat in West Kensington, and when even the telephone- bill often came to ten shillings a week. She was, anyhow, continually giving money away, more often in guineas than coppers, and her chief reason for spending August as she did was to obtain a healthful holiday of a kind and duration that she could not otherwise have afforded.
Besides, as she often remarked to friends in England, it was a means of doing good to others as well as to herself. “I don’t see why the loveliest places in the world should only be visited by the rich,” she would say, with that clear-voiced truculence especially designed by nature for the painless extraction of “hear-hear’s” from an audience. “We get the middle classes as a rule, you know, and though they may be a little tiresome at times, one does feel that one is helping them to enjoy experiences they ought to have. Sometimes we even get actual working- men—we had a most intelligent engine-driver only the other week. I think that sort of thing is just splendid.” Miss Faulkner always spoke of working-men as of some astonishing natural phenomenon which she had studied for a university doctorate.
That evening she saw the man at the “Oberland” again. He was taking coffee on the terrace after dinner, and from the crowded lobby of the “Magnifique” she could observe him whenever anyone pushed open the swing-doors to go out or come in. He was reading a paper and smoking a cigar, and in the light of the orange-shaded lamp at his elbow she could see that his hair was greyish. Elderly, therefore. And by himself. On business? But no; she had not thought he looked a business man. And suddenly, perhaps because the report she had lately been reading was connected with it, she imagined him as having something to do with the League of Nations. Its headquarters were at Geneva; what more likely than that its personnel should take trips to Interlaken? But that, of course, raised a possible doubt as to his nationality; his accent might be perfect, but might not a League official have a perfect English accent without being necessarily English? He must be Nordic, on account of his blue eyes; and she therefore imagined him a German, because she had an emotional pity for Germans and because at one moment, when she glanced at him, she thought he looked rather sombre. Pondering, perhaps, on the iniquities of the Treaty of Versailles or on the problem of the Polish Corridor.
Later that evening, after he had left the terrace, she went out for a short stroll and, on the way back, stopped to chat a while with the uniformed porter of the “Oberland,” whom she knew quite familiarly, and who graciously permitted the exercise of her French. After discussing the chances of the next day’s weather she said, abruptly: “Oh, by the way, who is that man who was taking coffee on the terrace just now—sitting by himself at the table near the lamp?”
“An Englishman,” replied the porter, with half a wink. “A Mr. Brown, of London.”
Miss Faulkner was disappointed. Her pitying thoughts of a derelict schloss in the Rhineland and of a family starved to death in the blockade subsided painfully; as a Mr. Brown, of London, he was clearly less remarkable. And then, entering the hotel on the other side of the road, she added, what was quite obvious, that it was of absolutely no consequence who or what he was, and that he would probably be gone to-morrow, anyway.
But he had not gone on the morrow. He was seen (by Miss Faulkner) having breakfast on the terrace while she shepherded her party to catch the train for the Schynige Platte. She smiled and he nodded. It was another lovely day, pleasantly cool on the mountain-top, though hot down below. She functioned with her usual sprightliness, smiling at least a hundred times as she gave advice as to the purchase of drinks and picture-postcards. On the way back she could not help wondering if Mr. Brown, of London, had yet left the “Oberland.”
He had not. She saw him that evening on the terrace, but he was engrossed in a book and did not look her way.
The next morning there was no sign of him, and she was surprised in the afternoon to discover, from a casual question to the porter, that he was still staying. It did not matter, of course. She smiled hard throughout dinner and gave a pithy little lecture, in her best schoolmistress manner, about the Gorges of the Aar that were to be visited on the following day.
She saw nothing of him then, either. But on the day after that, the Wednesday, by sheer chance they met on the train to the Jungfraujoch. It was an expensive excursion, costing over two pounds extra, and for that reason she had only half a dozen of the party under her charge. They had already entered the train and she had climbed in after them and found a vacant seat before noticing that he was opposite her. “Good morning,” she said, with brisk eagerness.
“Good morning,” he answered.
He had a book open on his knee, and she obeyed a natural impulse to decipher the title upside down. It was Shaw’s “Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism.” Her eyes glinted; surely it was a good sign when a man was found reading Shaw in a train. She meant (for she was already aware that he interested her) that it was so much the more likely that they would have tastes in common. And she slightly revised her picture of him as a German delegate to the League of Nations; perhaps, if the Shaw were any evidence, he was in the International Labour Office. “A fascinating book,” she commented, keenly.
He looked up and answered, after a pause: “Personally, I’m finding it rather dull.”
“Really?” She yet contrived to smile. She knew there were lots of people nowadays who thought Shaw a back number, and she remembered once hearing a pert Communist at a committee meeting say that Shaw’s book would have been much more interesting had it been an Intelligent Socialist’s Guide to Woman.
“Of course Shaw’s getting very old,” she said, with a hint of unutterable drawbacks.
“Yes, he must be.”
And then she remarked in the casual way she had so often found effective: “I can’t say I was ever impressed with him myself. He talks at you rather than to you, and it gets on one’s nerves after a time. At least it did on mine.”
Here, of course, his obvious cue was to express surprise that she had actually met Shaw, and the fact that he didn’t only disappointed her until she realised that he was probably so used to meeting famous people himself that it had hardly struck him as remarkable. She became quite certain, at that moment, that he was “somebody.”
All he said was the one word “Indeed?”
She was just a little discouraged by this, and did not speak again until they had to change trains at Lauterbrunnen. Then, amidst the warming sunshine, she thought, with sudden boldness: “I’m interested in him and would rather like to get to know him; why shouldn’t I, then, deliberately enter the same carriage and sit next to him in the new train?” After all, nobody would ever blame a man for doing that, if he were interested in a girl.... That final argument, with all that it implied in connection with the equality of the sexes, clinched the matter. Miss Faulkner waited till the man had chosen a seat in the train that goes up to Wengen and Scheidegg, and then led her small party in after him. “Here again,” she exclaimed brightly, banging the window down. He smiled— a rather slow, cautious smile, as if for the first time he were taking real notice of her. “You are going up to the Joch?” he queried.
“Yes. Are you?”
“It’s a long journey, but well worth it. Is this your first visit?”
She felt rather glad of that. “You’ll be impressed, on a day like this. I was, tremendously, when I first came. In fact, I always am.”
“You come pretty often, I suppose?”
“Once a week during August.”
“You see, I’m only here for the month. This is really my holiday....” And in a quarter of an hour—before the train reached the green slopes and red-roofed chalets of Wengen—she had told him all about her job, her school in Bermondsey, and her friendship with Bertrand Russell. He listened politely, without saying very much. At Scheidegg, where there was another change of trains, she kept the conversation going so incessantly that it would have been nearly impossible for them not to re-seat themselves together. All this time she had been somewhat neglectful of her party, but as soon as the train set off she rose and delivered, in her very best style, a short account of the building of the Jungfrau Railway, its cost, difficulties, and the number of lives lost during its construction. When she had finished she smiled at everybody, and then, sitting down, bestowed a little private smile upon the man next her. “I hope you weren’t startled by my sudden burst into professional activity,” she began.
“Not at all,” he answered. “On the contrary, it was most interesting—all that you said. A marvellous piece of engineering... And another thing interested me too.”
“The way—if you’ll excuse my being personal—the way you managed to make yourself heard above the noise of the train without shouting. I—I could never manage to do that.”
She laughed. “Have you tried?”
“Not exactly in trains. But I’ve had other experience. I suppose it’s partly knack and partly the voice one’s born with.”
“Surely not THAT,” she answered. “Babies can always make themselves heard anywhere. At least, my babies can.”
This time it was he who laughed. “Yes, of course.”
A moment later it occurred to her to add: “I meant my official babies, you know—the children of four and five at my school. I haven’t any other kind of babies.”
Accepting the information, he seemed a little pensive afterwards, and by the arrival of the train at the terminus Miss Faulkner thought she had progressed distinctly well, though she was forced to confess that she knew scarcely anything more about him. And yet to have led the conversation to babies! She smiled with extra emphasis as she gave her people the usual cautions about wearing sun-spectacles and not over-exerting themselves at the unaccustomed altitude. Babies, indeed! For she had a sense of humour, no less acute because it sometimes and for long intervals deserted her completely.
Few places could have been more helpful to the ripening of acquaintance than the Jungfraujoch. In the restricted area round the station and hotel there was little to do except send off picture-postcards, peer through the telescopes at distant skiers, and enjoy the novel combination of blazing sunshine and deep snow. Miss Faulkner found renewed opportunities of talking to Mr. Brown, and Mr. Brown no opportunities at all of escape. It was typical of her that, however much she might let her imagination soar as to his possible identity, she perceived quite clearly that he was not—not yet, at any rate—attracted by her. Probably, she decided, he was not a man who cared for women at all. But she was far from being daunted. If you wanted to get anything in this world, she had discovered, you usually had to set out in pursuit of it—quite shamelessly, if need be. This certainly applied to such things as headships of schools, presidencies of societies, and political candidatures; no doubt also to friendship. She had once read somewhere that liking other people was half the battle towards making them like you, and the theory gave her confidence to go “all out” in getting to know this man. Why not, if she wanted to?
She certainly made the most of her time during that long, hot afternoon two miles high. Not only were the topographical but also the meteorological circumstances favourable; there was something exquisite in that hard, dry, sunlit brilliance, some sense of being suspended above and beyond the normal earth. She basked with him on the edge of a rock and gazed over the ten—or was it twenty?— miles of snowy wilderness; then they turned their tinted glasses on the knife-edge of the Jungfrau summit, its outline crystal-yellow against a storm-green sky. Mr. Brown talked about mountains and said he would like to do some climbing in the Alps; he had had a little experience elsewhere, though not where there was snow. Some young climbers at his hotel, he said, had asked him to join their expeditions, but he had so far declined because he felt it might be too strenuous for him; after this, however, he thought he might perhaps give himself a trial if he were invited again. Which gave her the chance of asking: “Are you staying long, then?” And he answered: “I don’t really know. I—at the moment, that is—I haven’t decided.”
She could not resist a further probe. “Of course, if you’re taking a rest-cure, or recovering from an illness, or anything like that, I daresay you oughtn’t to climb.”
“No, there’s no reason of that kind.”
“Perhaps you’re one of those lucky people who’re never ill?”
“But for occasional bouts of malaria, I keep pretty well, I must say.”
“Malaria’s bad, isn’t it? I suppose you picked it up out East?”
“During the War? I know several men who did.”
He said that almost rudely. But she did not mind. They travelled back to Interlaken together, and all the way she kept the conversation going, somewhat to the continued neglect of her people. She did not mind that, either. She felt she had badgered the man quite enough about his private affairs, and must now set herself out to make up for it by being interesting and amusing. She more than partially succeeded, for she was well-informed, and had a good command of words as well as a retentive memory for the bright sayings of others. Her account of Soviet Russia, for instance, which she had visited for ten days on a lightning tour of co-operative societies, made him laugh several times. At the end, when they separated for their respective hotels, she said, with an air of suddenly realising it: “I say, I do hope I haven’t bored you. I’m afraid I sometimes get rather carried away by these big topics.”
“Not at all,” he answered, gravely, and added, with a ready smile: “At least you’ve given me plenty to think about.... Good night.”
“Perhaps we shall meet again if you’re staying on here?”
“Perhaps so. Yes, certainly we may.”
She hastily changed for dinner and faced at the dining-table a group of faces that eyed her none too cordially. The story that she had spent most of the day talking to a man from the hotel opposite had evidently spread. She decided to be particularly charming; indeed, she was—she was almost radiant. Then, if not before, her case could have been definitely diagnosed.
Miss Faulkner was by no means ignorant of love. She had been in love, and she had also read about it, not only in novels, but in physiological and psychological text-books. She had skimmed through the better-known works of Freud, Jung, Adler, Krafft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, Malinowski, and Stopes; she knew all about the Trobriand Islanders, and she was aware that the perception of beauty in moonlight or Mozart was largely an affair of the glandular secretions. Like most women possessed of her type of ambition, she fully realised the likelihood that she would never marry; nor did the prospect worry her much. Apart from the fact that she could not do so and keep her job, the ordinary routine of married life—shopping, babies, and cinema matinées—gave her no thrills of anticipated bliss. If she were ever to accept a man, he would have to be of an exceptional kind, and as that kind was not very likely to come her way, she was quite reconciled to remaining single. She liked children, but in mass rather than individually; and though she was certainly not undersexed, a good deal of what might have been sexual went out of her in other forms of energy. Sublimation, of course; that was another of the things she knew all about. And besides, in these days (1930) one need not be a prude. She did not object to an occasional flirtation, and she had, in her late twenties, adventured rather more than tentatively with a certain university extension lecturer who was now a Labour M.P. It had been her one practical experiment in a subject which she knew well enough in theory, and she had been hit pretty hard when he left her for a fat-legged Jewess who had written a banned novel. For a few days afterwards she had been unconsolable, weeping a good deal, and explaining to her teaching staff that she was on the verge of a breakdown from overwork. By the following week, however, she had salvaged most of her serenity at the cost of a rather greater urge to sublimation than ever. It worked well, indeed, this doing without men; and its very success reinforced her determination to make no surrender but to the most superior applicant.
Miss Faulkner’s attitude towards Mr. Brown was governed, therefore, by conditions perfectly well known to herself. She was attracted, and she was aware that the attraction was to a large extent physical; she liked the man’s tallness, his distinguished, if not exactly handsome, features, his quiet voice, his rare but satisfying smile. The fastidious and slightly snobbish part of her was also attracted; she liked his well-dressed dignity, his accent, his courtesy, his old-fashioned readiness to treat her as a lady for no other reason than that she was a woman. Thinking the matter over in bed that night, she was very candid with herself. She was smitten; yes, most decidedly; indeed, she couldn’t get the man’s image out of her head. The way he had sat with her at the Jungfraujoch; no doubt it would give her a pang whenever she saw the place again. On the other hand, facing facts quite squarely, she came to the rather depressing conclusion that he probably wasn’t very clever. His finding Shaw’s book dull, for instance— not that that by itself proved much, but it linked itself with other things—notably the fact that he hadn’t made one really intelligent remark to her during the whole of their talks. He had listened; he had often made some “suitable” comment; he had certainly never said anything stupid; but of wit, of originality, of anything subtle or scintillating, there had been nothing. Miss Faulkner was disappointed, but she knew it could not be helped. After all, she met charming people far less often than clever ones, and how devastating for her if Mr. Brown had chanced to be both! She turned out the light, deciding that the really satisfactory conclusion would be for him to invite her to spend a week in Paris with him; she would accept, and they would thus live happily ever afterwards—without each other.
Unfortunately for this pleasant possibility, Mr. Brown had so far shown no sign of desiring even friendship, much less amorous adventure. Miss Faulkner admitted this, but without despair. She had, in her time, surmounted barriers that had at first seemed just as forbidding; and she surmised, too, that, in most men as in most women, love was largely a question of having the idea put into their heads when they had nothing else to do. Besides, it was fun trying to get what she wanted, particularly when it didn’t matter a great deal if she were unsuccessful. It was even fun to try and imagine things about him, though she gave up her vision of a high Genevan official and substituted that of a retired bank manager whom his wife had left because she found him too much of a bore.
And then, the very next morning, she made her great discovery.
She had received by the first post a further batch of correspondence forwarded from England, and among its items was a monthly paper issued by some society to which she belonged—one of those organisations for the protection, abolition, or propagation of something or other. The paper was a meagre product in its own particular class of journalism, badly printed and on poor quality paper, but its centre page did contain a sufficiently recognisable photograph of Mr. Brown. And underneath was the caption: “Mr. Charles Gathergood, late British Agent at Cuava, Broken on the Wheel of Capitalist Imperialism.”
Miss Faulkner knew, of course, all about Gathergood. She had followed the whole business in the daily Press; she had even proposed in public a resolution of protest against the shooting down of defenceless Cuavanese by British sailors. Her sympathy with the Cuavanese was naturally intense, since she had never seen them, and since all her respected sources of information assured her that they were the persecuted victims of sadistic rubber-planters in league with a cynical white bureaucracy. Gathergood, according to the unanimous and almost automatic decision of left-wing authority, had stood up, one solitary man against a system, to champion a stricken and exploited subject-race. He had refused consent to Prussianised methods (only, of course, one must not say “Prussianised” any more), and had in consequence been put to the cruel farce of an enquiry at which the real villains had sat in the judgment- seat and condemned him. Quite a vociferous section of English opinion held these views, and for some time after the issue of the report working-men hecklers at their opponents’ meetings had been in the habit of shouting: “What erbaht Gathergood of Kewarver?”—just as they might similarly ask about the Zinovieff Letter, Amritsar, or any other disputed phenomenon.
Upon Miss Faulkner, therefore, the unmasking of that heroic name behind the prosaic pseudonym came like a spark to dry tinder. She sat for a long time in her wicker chair under the bedroom window, holding the revealing photograph in her hand. Yes, she was sure it was he; the nose, mouth, and forehead were unmistakable, and even the eyes and hair were as confirmatory as could be expected from a newspaper print. And then, too, it fitted in with his own queer vagueness and reticences, with his mention of malaria, with the sombre look that she had noted in his eyes sometimes, with—yes, yes, of course it did—even with the very thing that had caused her misgiving. For how could he be expected to respond to stimulating conversation if his mind were still clouded with the memory of undeserved censure? And how could he feel in any mood for a display of mental agility after such storms as had lately broken over his head? Besides, however clever he might or mightn’t be, he was principally a man of action, a hero. Normally Miss Faulkner was not very keen on heroes (she had always thought there was something a little vulgar about winning the V.C.); but Gathergood’s heroism was clearly different; he had championed the oppressed, which was to say, the non-British; indeed, since the stand taken by the conscientious objectors during the War, Miss Faulkner could not call to mind anything more inspiring.
She came down to breakfast with eyes ablaze, and when, in fear lest he were gone, she looked through the hotel doorway across the road, there he was, taking his coffee and rolls as usual, but, oh, how much more to her now—this Gathergood of Cuava, man of such magnificent sorrow, already more than canonised in her heart.
She had to escort her party to Brienz that day, but before setting out she scribbled a hasty note to her brother.
“I wonder if you would mind looking out and sending me back-numbers of the ‘Record’ dealing with the Gathergood case—you know, the man who refused to shoot the native rubber-workers in Cuava. I think Miss Totham gave me some cuttings about it as well—they’re probably in the cupboard under the gramophone. You might send them along with the papers and also the report of the Singapore Enquiry which was held recently. I daresay you can get it at the Stationery Office for a few shillings. It’s a shame to bother you with all these things, but I know you won’t mind. I’d tell you why I want them, but it’s rather a long story and I must dash away to collect my people for a train that leaves almost immediately. In great haste therefore,
“Your affectionate sister,
All the time she was piloting her party round the wood-carving shops at Brienz, Miss Faulkner was exulting over her discovery. Now, more than ever, she craved the friendship of the lonely, blue-eyed man at the “Oberland”; but now her desire was tinged with the thrill of a secret shared between them, with the pursuit of all her cherished ideals, with—yes, with love. Indeed, for a moment there in the main street of Brienz she became quite dazed with her new vision and could only stare stupidly when she heard one of her party addressing her. “Yes, they are rather sweet, aren’t they?” she managed to answer at last, and to show a belated interest in her surroundings she picked up something haphazardly from the wood-carver’s counter and pretended to examine it. She put it hastily back, however, on perceiving it to be a musical-box disguised as a toilet-roll.
There was, of course, the question of immediate tactics to be settled; should she, or should she not, declare her knowledge? The fact that he was staying at the hotel under an assumed name seemed to indicate a wish not to be identified, which was quite understandable in the circumstances; on the other hand, might he not be glad of the sympathy that could be given him by one, such as herself, who understood and admired the real man? Still, Miss Faulkner felt a little doubtful about it. He did not look to be a person who would like anyone to find out something he had taken special precautions to conceal. Besides, might there not be a species of heaven-sent tact in knowing and yet pretending not to know? Might there not come a moment when Mr. Brown-Gathergood would think: “What a marvellous woman—she guesses, yet she respects my desire for privacy; I will therefore tell her everything.” ... At the thought of that, Miss Faulkner decided quite definitely that she would adopt the more cautious policy. It certainly would be wonderful if he eventually told her himself, and she imagined a conversation which would end by her exclaiming: “But, my dear, why should you have been afraid to tell me? Did you think I didn’t guess it all the time?”
At sunset that evening occurred the phenomenon known as the Alpine glow—a momentary transfiguration of the mountains that turned their snow-slopes into the appearance of pink blancmange. All Miss Faulkner’s party rushed out of the hotel into the middle of the roadway to stare hard, Miss Faulkner with them. And there, on the terrace opposite, the man—her man—was staring hard like everyone else. Miss Faulkner’s heart experienced a sudden Alpine glow of its own; she knew, at that moment, that the world was full of beauty, that Switzerland was marvellous, that the Jungfrau was superb, that even the orchestrola tinkling away from the neighbouring bar was in tune with her own emotions at the sight of that saffron summit. Never had she experienced such a sensation of being at one with everything, part of the tumultuous earth; her eyes filled up as she edged her way through the crowd to the line of shrubs that fringed the “Oberland” terrace. “Wonderful, isn’t it?” she breathed.
The man looked down at her. “Oh, good evening. ... Yes, it’s great. I wouldn’t mind being up there now.”
“Yes... yes.... Oh yes....” Trite remark and trite reply, yet how impossible it seemed for either of them to have said anything more, less, or different.
A moment later the glow had faded into the cool grey distance, and the crowd was filtering back into the hotel. But Miss Faulkner stayed talking—talking less fluently than usual, for she was struggling for mastery with forces that seemed to split her sentences in two just as she had them nicely shaped. It was queer; there was something now that made the barrier higher and more difficult than ever, and her emotion was a pain as well as a pleasure. The mountain-spectacle had made her feel that she must, at any cost, secure a repetition of that magic day with him—not at the Joch again (which would doubtless be impossible to contrive), but somewhere, anywhere that would give them time and opportunity to talk. “Have you made any plans for to-morrow?” she asked.
“I rather thought of going for a long walk somewhere beyond Lauterbrunnen.”
“Splendid idea! There are some lovely paths along the valley.”
It was a few minutes later, re-entering her hotel, that she began to lose her sense of humour. She had already arranged a trip to Kandersteg for the following day, but she suddenly came to a new decision and announced there and then, to those of her party who were in the hotel lobby, that Kandersteg was “off.”
“It’s rather a long trip, you see, and as most of you are leaving for England by the evening train I thought that a shorter one might be more suitable—the Trummelbach Waterfall; we could leave comfortably during the morning and be back for tea.” She felt quite victorious when they all agreed. For the waterfall was just beyond Lauterbrunnen, and there was only one road along the valley, so that if he were to be taking his long walk....
But the next morning it was raining hard. She took her people to the fall and they all got soaked to the skin and there was no sign of the pedestrian hero. When she returned in the late afternoon she found that, like a sensible person, he had stayed indoors all day. It was the friendly porter of the “Oberland” who told her that. And he added: “He was asking me about you this morning, miss.”
Miss Faulkner could not repress a start of joy. “He WAS? Was he REALLY? I hope—I do hope you gave me a good character.”
The porter grinned. “Oh, yes, miss. I said you were very clever— could speak French, German, Italian, Spanish—”
“What nonsense!” she interrupted, with gay indignation. But she was not without hope that the porter’s account of her might have been nearly as impressive.
The party went back to England that evening, having presented Miss Faulkner with an embroidered handbag and received in return her customary speech of thanks and farewell. She saw them off on the Calais train at the station. The next morning she met the incoming train with its load of new arrivals, “Oh, dear, now it all begins again,” she thought, scampering along the platform with her usual smile of sprightly welcome. She had a mixed collection of books under her arm. The clanking carriages drew slowly in, pulled by an electric engine that stood at the far end ticking like an enormous clock. Everything outwardly was the same as a week ago—the labels on the carriage windows, the unshaven faces of the men, the two horse-omnibuses waiting in the station yard, the sky and the mountains and the level-crossing gate like a barber’s pole that seemed so ridiculously confident of being able to hold up a Simplon express. All was the same, except Miss Faulkner, and she was different. She was in love.
There could be no doubt of that. The affair with the university extension lecturer had been nothing to it. It caught up the urge of physical attraction and the drive of ambition and the devouring flame of her love for abstract humanity, and fused them all together into one transcendent and compulsive entirety. It turned Interlaken into the New Jerusalem and the Hôtel Oberland into the ark of all Miss Faulkner’s covenants. “Yes, we’ve been having it quite hot here lately,” she said in the omnibus. “There—that’s the Jungfrau—the one that has all the snow. ...” But she felt she was dreaming, and talking in a dream.
Sunday; she did not see him. The porter told her he had gone out early with some young men for a long walk and climb. As she returned with her people in the afternoon from Grindelwald, the church bell at Lauterbrunnen was tolling for a funeral, and she wondered if it were for some intrepid climber killed on the mountains. There was a wait of three-quarters of an hour at the station, and she left her party and hurried to the churchyard, feeling curiously warm and sentimental as she passed all the English names on the tombstones. She wanted to find some simple outlet for all her emotions, and she was quite disappointed when she reached the open grave and saw from the coffin-lid that the dead person was one Johanna Zimmermeister, aged eighty-seven.
That evening she felt that she could not keep her secret any longer; she must tell somebody, anybody. So she wrote to her brother:
“The reason I asked for the papers about Gathergood is because Gathergood is here, staying at the hotel across the road under an assumed name. I recognised him from a photograph. He is a very quiet man and naturally not anxious to mix up with people. But I have already got to know him, though of course he doesn’t know I know who he is. We had a wonderful day together last week at the Jungfraujoch. I hope I may be able to help him eventually, because he’s bound to feel very deeply all that has happened—you have only to look at him to see that. I am sure you would like him; he is tall and rather slim, and has very blue eyes. I don’t think I have ever seen a man who gives such an impression of brooding power, if you know what I mean. One would rather expect that, from the attitude he took up. I don’t, of course, even hint at the subject of Cuava with him, but he did confide in me that he had been in the East. I want to read up the case so that when does feel inclined to tell me everything (as I think he will) I shall be able to show him how completely I understand. Perhaps the papers and things will arrive by to-morrow morning’s post—I do hope so....”
They did, and she spent the whole of breakfast-time perusing them, forgetting her smiles, forgetting her small talk at table, and— most serious of all—forgetting that the train for the Schynige Platte left at a quarter past ten. It was the first time she had ever made such a blunder, and she was compelled to fix up the impromptu alternative of a trip by lake steamer to Isseltwald and Giesbach. Her people sensed that she had mismanaged things, and were scarcely mollified when they observed her poring over a bulky paper-backed volume at every available moment. But Miss Faulkner was past caring for things like that. Her mind was roaming like molten metal into the vast ramifying moulds of human injustice, and the very loveliness of lake and mountain only served to throw her visions into more dazzling focus. It was terrible, and lovely, and nearly unendurable. Her body and spirit felt like a single raw nerve; she was in pain with pity, with an aching tenderness, with this love of hers. All over the earth the endless panorama of suffering humanity called her, and she yearned towards it, and in yearning saw the face of a man. Her man; the only man who was “yes” to all her eagerness and “no” to all her fears. If only she could make him respond a little! Had he not already, however unsusceptible at first, begun to interest himself in her? His questioning the porter about her seemed a good sign. And it was really unlikely that they could have progressed much faster, he with his natural shyness and she with that dawdling cavalcade always at her heels. But they had had that day together at the Jungfraujoch and he must have realised then how much they shared in common. Miss Faulkner’s heart beat more hopefully when she reckoned up all this; no, it was not at all impossible; indeed, if fate but yielded an opportunity of overcoming the first impediments, the rest might almost be considered probable. Nor, quite honestly, could she imagine a more satisfactory match for either of them. He probably had money—not very much, but enough to let her give up her job and devote herself wholeheartedly to “the cause”; in fact, as the wife of Gathergood ("You know, my dear, the man who—“) her chances and prospects would be greatly enhanced. And he too, reinforced by her capabilities, might go very far. She pictured the two of them, working together in perfect community of ideas and ideals, sitting perhaps for adjacent constituencies (she for Chester-le-Street, say, and he for Houghton-le-Spring), and living in some mellow Georgian house in Chelsea, with a big workroom full of white-painted bookshelves and a tradition of Sunday tea-parties for the intelligentsia. A sort of Sidney and Beatrice Webb business, but with moments during which even the Fabian bloodstream might race. And at this, the mere possibility of it, Miss Faulkner felt herself deliciously flushing. Absurd, of course, to let herself dream in such a way. And yet... and yet... there WAS the chance, the minute, incalculable chance that she had to seize if she could.... “Oh yes, the tickets—I have them, of course,” she stammered, in confusion as the collector approached. But there was another hitch about that; she had thirty-three in her party and had bought tickets for only thirty-one. After complicated countings and reckonings she paid the difference; but it was another thing that had never happened before.
That evening she watched the terrace at intervals from eight o’clock till eleven; then she went across, trembling with almost physical apprehension, and began to chat with the porter. Mr. Brown had gone away that afternoon, he said, and at that she had a queer sensation as though she were on a Channel steamer and about to be sick. Before leaving, the porter continued, Mr. Brown had asked him for the name of a good hotel in Mürren, and he had recommended the “Edelweiss.”
“You see, miss, Mürren is a better centre for climbing. Mr. Brown seemed to get very keen on it these last few days—I think his trip to the Jungfraujoch impressed him.”
“Did he say so?”
“Yes, miss. He said he would always remember it as one of the most marvellous days of his life.”
“He DID? REALLY?”
Miss Faulkner spent an excited and nearly sleepless night, and came down in the morning to the perfect sunshine and blue sky that she had dreaded. For, if the weather were thus fine, she had to take some of her people for that same Jungfraujoch excursion. She felt suddenly that she could not bear to go there again, to make her little speech about the construction of the railway, to watch the skiers through the telescopes, to see that ledge of rock overlooking the snow. She felt, indeed, as she faced her people at breakfast, that she could not endure anything, even a continuation of life itself, without relaxing the strain that held her passionately taut. And it was then, during breakfast, that the last vestige of a sense of humour deserted her.
She left the table abruptly, dashed upstairs to her room, packed a small handbag with a few necessities, ran out of the Hôtel Magnifique de l’Univers without saying a word to anyone, scampered to the station, and booked a single ticket to Mürren.
In the funicular that climbs up the mountain from Lauterbrunnen, Miss Faulkner became calm enough to face certain obvious realities of the situation. She had, she perceived, most comprehensively burned her boats. Even after the greatest ingenuity of explanation, she could scarcely hope to escape condemnation for leaving her people in the lurch. Poor things, some arrangements would be made for them, no doubt; but they would certainly complain to the travel agency, and she would never be offered a cheap August holiday again. It didn’t matter, of course. Nor did it matter that she owed the hotel a few small sums for tips and extras, while they, on the other hand, had possession of most of her clothes. Details of that sort could all be ignored for the time being, since far more urgent was the problem of what to do when she arrived at Mürren.
One thing was clear enough: having burned her boats, she must make the burning worth while by risking everything, if necessary. It was no time for half-measures. She would have the great advantage of being free, at any rate—no longer tied to a routine of times and places. And her programme was, in a sense, quite simple. She would go to the “Edelweiss” like an ordinary private visitor, book accommodation, and then—well, she would meet him. She was bound to, staying at the same hotel in a small place like Mürren. She would have to compose some plausible story to account for her being there—lies, of course, but again that didn’t matter. (Afterwards, in that sublime imagined afterwards which her efforts were to make real, how good it would be to confess all these subterfuges—to say: “My dear, you’ve no notion how utterly unscrupulous I was—I lied right and left—I was absolutely conscienceless about you. Do you forgive me?” And he, perhaps, would make a return confession that he had gone to Mürren to forget, if he could, an attraction by which, at that early stage, he had been unwilling to be enslaved.... Oh dear, oh dear, how wonderful it would all be then!)
She arrived at Mürren before noon, and walked from the station to the hotel. In that midday glory of sunlight the mountains across the valley dazzled and were monstrous. She had seen them from Mürren before, but never on such a day and with such eagerness to yield to rapture. She put on her sun-glasses and found them wet immediately with tears that had sprung to her eyes; oh, this beauty, this beauty everywhere and in everything—did it really exist, apart from her sensing it?—was it all no more than Freud or Havelock Ellis could explain in half a page? And this pity she felt for every suffering being, for soldiers in trenches and work-girls in asbestos- factories and the pigeons at Monte Carlo and the hunted stag on Exmoor—was all this, too, conditioned by no more than secretions and ductless glands? She was passing a shop and went inside to buy a two- day’s-old English newspaper—anything to break the spell of such intolerable sensitiveness; but the spell took hold of the printed words and flaunted them like banners— Famine in China; Heavy Selling on Wall Street; Nottingham Tram-Driver Inherits Fortune; Lover Shoots Sweetheart, Then Himself; Rioting in Bombay; New Prima Donna Creates Furore; Plight of Alabama Flood Victims; Dance-Hall Proprietress Wins Action Against Commercial Traveller; New York Gangster’s £20,000 Coffin... the whole world’s crashing symphony, to which, with one’s own heart-cry, one added but the faintest demi-semiquaver.
In such a mood she came in sight of the Hôtel Edelweiss, and just then, as she approached, he came out of it. He was in heavy climbing boots and thick tweeds, and puffed at a pipe. She began to run towards him involuntarily, like a silly, excited child, though she hasn’t yet thought of any story to tell, or any initial plan of conversation to adopt. It seemed enough, just then, to face him breathlessly, with her bright, terrible smile.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hullo, hullo...” he answered, halting with a clank of his iron-tipped boots on the road.
“Good morning.... I—I—I’ve just arrived.”
“So I see.”
And then there came a curious silence, during which they both stared hard at each other. He KNOWS, her heart whispered; he knows I know; and he is angry for the moment, but that will pass. She went on: “I’m—I’m staying here—in Mürren—for several days. On business, you know. It’s—it’s odd that we should meet again... isn’t it?”
“Yes, very odd .... Well, if you’ll excuse me, I must get along—I’m meeting some people at another hotel.”
“May I—may I walk with you to it?”
“I suppose you may.”
He set off at a good swinging pace, without continuing the talk. It occurred to her then that it might be her last chance, that she had bungled the encounter so far, and could do little worse by plunging straight into the depths. At least she would secure the advantage of surprise—unless, of course, he HAD already guessed that she knew, in which case it might be a relief to him to learn how safe his secret was in her hands. She went on, in a low, desperate voice: “You must think it strange of me to approach you like this, but I feel I can’t keep silence any longer. To you, I mean. Others needn’t know, of course.”
“WHAT?” he said.
“I’ve known the—the truth for some time. And believe me, I—I honour—and—and admire you—for it—”
“WHAT? What are you talking about?”
“You... YOU... you see, I know who you really are. I’ve known for quite a long time.”
“You say you know who I really am?”
“Yes... Mr. Gathergood... of Cuava... .” She felt herself almost fainting as she uttered the words.
He suddenly stopped and towered above her. “Good God, woman, this is becoming preposterous! I don’t know what sort of microbe has bitten you, but if you take my advice you’ll catch the tram over there and get back to your proper business. Where are all your tourist people—haven’t you got THEM to look after?”
“I left them—to come here and tell you. I felt I had to let you know what I knew. It was terrible for me, waiting. And I don’t care how angry you are with me—so long as you DO know. You can’t deny it—not to me.”
“That you ARE him—really. Gathergood—British Agent at Cuava—”
He struck his heel sharply on the ground. “Gathergood? GATHERGOOD? Why should I be him, whoever he is?”
“But you ARE. I know you want to keep it secret—I can understand and sympathise—but to me, now that I know—oh, you must tell me the truth!”
“But, my good woman, that’s just what I AM doing! I’m sorry to disappoint you if this Gathergood man was someone you wanted to meet, but you must pull yourself together and be sensible. And if it’s really any concern of yours, my name is Stuart Brown, I live in England, and on my passport I’m put down as a company-director. Perhaps you’d like to see it? No? Well, there you are, anyhow. This sort of thing won’t do, you know, following men about and pestering them....”
With a quiet little cry of dreadfulness she put her hand to her head and scampered away. But when she was a few dozen yards off she swung round, flashed him her ever-bright smile, and called out: “It’s all right. All my mistake....” Then she broke into a shrill peal of laughter that echoed faintly across the valley to the green-blue glaciers. A few heads looked out of windows, saw the puzzled man and the laughing woman, and wondered what kind of joke, private or public, lay between them. But it all seemed of small consequence, on that blazing August noontide in Mürren. And a moment later Miss Faulkner turned the corner by the tramway-station and was gone.
In the restaurant-car between Belfort and Paris, Stuart Brown got into conversation with a dark-haired and very good-looking young man sitting opposite. To Brown, who liked young men and who had lost an only son, there was always pleasure in these encounters, the more so as their transience minimised the risk of boredom. And at this particular moment Brown was bored enough with his own company and with the world in general to welcome any such attractive diversion. The deplorable issue of a recent business visit to Italy, plus that annoying incident in Switzerland, had induced what was for him an unwontedly darkened humour.
The two chance travellers began to exchange commonplaces during the soup; by the coffee stage the youth had proffered a visiting-card which declared him to be a M. Palescu, of Bukarest. Brown did not reciprocate the intimacy, but he put the card away in his pocket-book and congratulated Palescu on his excellent English. “You speak so well,” he said, “that I wasn’t at all sure you weren’t one of my countrymen.”
“Ah, well, you see, my mother was English, and I have always had many contacts with English people. I have had jobs in India, Malta, and Egypt.”
“You must have travelled a good deal.”
The youth smiled. “That is one of the things I have been—a traveller. What you call in England a ‘commercial’. Until recently I worked for my uncle, who was the head of a big firm in Bukarest. Then, early this year, owing to the crise mondiale, the firm went smash and he killed himself. My parents are both dead and my sisters—”
Brown toyed with his cigar, sympathetic but a little disappointed. He had heard so many “hard luck” stories, and though he was by no means cynical about them, he could not but prefer a conversation that did not so soon and so inevitably drift into one. To his surprise and relief, however, Palescu went on quite cheerfully: “My sisters have a little money, which is lucky for them, and I— well, I never wanted to settle at one thing for long. There’s so much I want to do, and at present I’m my own master, at any rate, though I’m not yet making a fortune.”
Brown found this optimism in adversity rather refreshing, and his own spirits willingly responded to it. He had always been a naturally optimistic person himself; even during the darkest days of the War he had not despaired, and throughout the post-War years of disappointments and disillusionments he had found comfort in a steadfast if rather vague belief that things were bound to take a turn for the better when they had finished taking turns for the worse. Even so, however, the events of the first half of 1930 had given his nerves one or two severe jolts, and in Italy he had just had a singularly unpleasant experience.
Still, he could exclaim, only those few weeks afterwards to his casual acquaintance in the Paris train: “Splendid! It’s good to hear a fellow of your age talking so hopefully. Most of the young chaps in England nowadays ...” He was about to enter upon his usual remarks about demoralisation caused by the dole, but reflected that a Roumanian, even an intelligent one with an English mother, might not comprehend them very fully. Besides which, the youth had just mentioned the word “engineering,” and at this Brown instinctively recoiled again, since he was in the engineering line himself, and sufficiently well-known in it for pushful young men to buttonhole him sometimes, in trains and hotels, and ask for jobs. Which, of course, was always very awkward and uncomfortable. He therefore remarked, rather cautiously across the table: “If that’s your profession, I don’t altogether envy you.”
“Yes, it’s pretty hard just now. But there’s always room for new ideas—especially in my branch of the trade.”
Brown was not so sure, despite the fact that he had often echoed the platitude at meetings and public dinners. But Palescu’s charming manner and almost sensational good looks were potent enough to overcome such a very minor misgiving, the more so as Brown was quite satisfied that the youth had no notion who he was. “Provided you realise that an idea isn’t necessarily good because it’s new,” he countered.
“Oh, of course. But a really GOOD new idea. ... For instance, has it ever occurred to you, sir, why air-travel isn’t yet really popular with the general public?”
“I should say one of the reasons most people have is a rooted objection to being roasted alive.”
“Ah, no—not that—not nowadays!” Palescu laughed with a most attractive heartiness. “What I mean is rather this—suppose an aeroplane holds thirty people, all bound from London to Paris, yet you yourself don’t want Paris at all—you’re going to Chantilly, say, for the races. The aeroplane, of course, won’t come down at Chantilly just for you alone, out of the thirty. So what do you have to do?”
“My dear boy, don’t ask me—I never fly, I never go to races, and nothing would induce me to do either.”
Palescu smiled slowly. “I must explain then. The trouble about flying is that very often it doesn’t save much time—because it dumps you where you don’t want to go. People talk of flying from London to Paris in so many hours, but unless you happen to live at Croydon and have business at Le Bourget, you often find that your total hours from place to place are not much less than by train and boat. And what if your business happens to be in some town that you actually fly over on the way—wouldn’t you feel: ’Ah, if I could only get down to it’?”
“I daresay, but the same might happen on an express train that dashes through a place you really want to get to and takes you on to a big station miles beyond.”
“Except that on railways you can have what is called in England, I think, a slip-carriage.”
“Yes, that’s sometimes done. Of course I quite see that there’s no possible parallel to that in the air.”
“But that isn’t what I want you to see at all.” The youth’s dark, eager eyes expressed a certain merry ecstasy in the revelation he was approaching. “As a matter of fact, there could be something like an aerial slip-carriage—that’s not a bad description of it. And—and it happens to be a particular invention of mine that I’m busy with just now.”
For the third time Brown’s pleasure was momentarily retarded. Inventors were a tribe that had bothered him a good deal in the past; he counted them, on the whole, an even bigger nuisance than job-seekers. He remembered one fellow, during the 1928 boomlet, who had tried to get him interested in some new idea for burglar-proof bicycle-pumps.... But Palescu was talking on, with insurgent enthusiasm: “My invention is a sort of aluminium cigar, not much bigger than a man, and quite light in construction, so that a large aeroplane could easily carry half-a-dozen of them. Each one would contain a very small petrol-driven motor at one end, quite as small and compact as a motor-cycle two-stroke, together with a system of gyroscopic controls embodying certain new ideas of my own. All the alighting passenger need do would be to get into one of these things at any point he found convenient, have himself launched from the tail of the machine in full flight, and come to earth. The ‘gyrector,’ which is the name I have given to it, would descend in gradual spirals, and, when sufficiently near the ground, could be steered and brought to rest in any desired spot—even, if need be, in a square or street in the middle of a town, or on the roof of a building. The cost—”
His fluency suggested that the specifications had grown familiar to him by repetition, and Brown smilingly interrupted: “What I should like to know is the degree of skill required in the person doing this steering job?”
“No more than in driving a car.”
“Some of us prefer a chauffeur, even for that.”
Palescu shrugged his shoulders. “Ah, but the modern man—”
“You think he’s likely to take kindly to your aluminium cigar, eh? I doubt it. Personally, I’d rather lose half an hour and get carried on to Le Bourget, or wherever it is—assuming I were compelled to go up in the air at all.”
“Nevertheless, sir, I believe it would revolutionise air-travel. I estimate that if a gyrector were released from an aeroplane over Croydon, it could land on any fairly large London roof within ten minutes.”
“Really?” Brown proffered his gold cigarette-case and then a match. He was, in a sort of way, enjoying himself. How infinitely charming was this spectacle of youthful ambition, and what a tender cruelty there was in deflating it! “How would the poor fellow inside be spending his time during those ten minutes?” he continued, banteringly. “Would he be sitting or standing or what? Kneeling, of course, would be most appropriate.”
“He would be lying comfortably face forwards—”
“On his stomach? I wouldn’t call that comfortable. Besides, it would crease all his clothes. You can’t seriously expect any man over fifty to want to do gymnastic exercises in mid-air. Would he be able to see anything?”
“Oh, yes. He’d have to see in order to steer.”
“Ah, I’d forgotten those gyroscopic controls you mentioned. And also the little two-stroke engine puffing away at his heels. He couldn’t smoke, I suppose?”
“I’m afraid not. Though no doubt—”
“You might add a special smoking compartment later on, perhaps?” Brown began to chuckle, and was pleased when Palescu joined in the laugh against himself. “I don’t think you’re taking me very seriously, sir,” said the latter.
“Well, well, my dear boy, you mustn’t mind if I concentrate on a few flaws in your otherwise brilliant idea. And this estimate of yours, about landing on a roof in ten minutes—what’s it based on? Tangents and decimals and what not, I suppose, all worked out on paper. There haven’t yet been any practical demonstrations, have there?”
“No, because I can’t find the money. But the plans are all complete—I have them in my pocket now—”
“Then there’s always this consolation—Providence, by keeping you hard up, is probably sparing your life.”
“Maybe, sir, but I hope I shall soon find someone who holds a different opinion. My uncle’s firm would have financed me, if times hadn’t been so difficult. I’m now trying to interest a French aeronautical firm—that’s why I’m on my way to Paris.”
“Good! I wish you luck—joking apart, I do sincerely. And even if this idea of yours doesn’t come to anything, don’t despair—you’re young and you’ll have many more chances.” Brown paid his bill, adding an adequate but not extravagant tip, and then stared through the window. “Chaumont, wasn’t that? We ought to be in Paris by five. ... Well, good-bye—it’s been pleasant to have a talk.”
Palescu shook hands, and Brown responded very cordially. Charming youth, he reflected, as he made his way back along the swaying corridors to his own first-class compartment, and he further reflected, almost with amazement, that his own boy, had he lived, would now be in his middle thirties.
Brown stayed in Paris overnight and continued the journey to London the following day. He took a room at his club in Piccadilly. There was no particular hurry to go on to his home in Cheshire, for his wife and daughter were away, the household staff were not expecting him yet, and the house would probably be in the hands of decorators.
At the club he met Mathers, one of his co-directors. They shook hands and took coffee together in the lounge. “Yes, I’m not sorry to be back in some ways,” Brown said, “though I do rather wish it hadn’t been my first visit to Italy. I’m bound to have collected a few unfortunate impressions.”
Mathers nodded sympathetically. He was a shrewd man-about-city and a great friend of Sir George Parceval, the chairman of the company; so that he knew that Brown had been to Italy after some money which, for all the likelihood there was of extracting it, might as well have been down the throat of Vesuvius. “Any chance of salvage from the wreck?” Mathers queried.
Brown shook his head. “I’m afraid not. Looks as if Parceval will have to wipe the whole thing off as a bad debt.”
“How much does it amount to—roughly?”
“Between fifty and sixty thousand pounds.”
“I say... he won’t like that. Why can’t they pay?”
“The slump has hit them. They’re old customers of ours—quite honest. People give you the same answer everywhere—the crisis; it seems to be the universal reason for everything.”
Brown felt irritable as he discussed the matter; it was as if there were in the very atmosphere, of Mayfair no less than of Turin, some noxious element which he could not dispel, combat, or even identify. Changing the subject, he went on: “I took a short holiday in Switzerland on my way back.”
“Ah, that must have been more cheerful. Where did you stay?”
“Interlaken, to begin with. My first experience of really high mountains. Of course, when I was in India I often saw the Himalayas, but somehow they don’t really count—they might be a theatre back- cloth for all the use they are to the ordinary person. But Switzerland has tamed everything so magnificently—railways and funiculars to take you everywhere and hotels to give you whatever you want in most unlikely places—yes, I found it all very enjoyable. I should have stayed there longer, only a rather odd business happened that spoilt things just a bit towards the end, and made me leave suddenly.”
“You’ll laugh when I tell you. Some woman—a guide to one of those tourist-parties they have—apparently mistook me for somebody else and fairly pestered the life out of me. My hotel happened to be opposite hers, and I simply daren’t show myself without her dashing out to talk. One awful day she got into the same train with me going to the Jungfrau mountain—that’s a wonderful trip, by the way—and never stopped chattering for seven hours. Really, I’m not exaggerating. In the end, I left Interlaken and went up to Mürren, chiefly to get away from her, and bless me if she didn’t follow me there. Then it turned out she’d thought I was someone else—or so she said—somebody named Gathergood, who’d been a British Agent somewhere or other—I think she was probably a little off her head, if you ask me.”
“You don’t mean the Gathergood who got into trouble over the Cuava outbreak a few months ago?”
“I don’t know. I don’t always see things in the papers. What about him?”
“There was some bother with the natives, and he funked pretty badly and caused the death of a white planter—that’s roughly what I seem to remember, though I wasn’t very interested in the case.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem much of a compliment to be mistaken for him, then. Anyhow, I could see there’d be no holiday worth while if I stopped anywhere within reach of the woman, so I packed up and came away before my time. Odd sort of thing to have happened.”
“Not so odd as you might think. The world is full of queer women. Did I ever tell you about the one who accosted me once in—”
Mather’s stories were long and strictly conformable to type. They invariably depicted him as the object of perfervid passion on the part of some female, a passion whose fruits he had somewhat nonchalantly gathered, but only after a most fastidious scrutiny as to ripeness. There was a ripeness, indeed, about Mathers himself. Short in stature, with chubby cheeks, a completely bald head, and a rather quick-firing smile, his nickname amongst his business associates was unprintable, but implied a certain popularity. He was the type that rotary clubs offer to the world as ambassadors of goodwill towards men, and the fact that he made, on the whole, more friends than enemies may perhaps be held to justify the choice. Brown liked him well enough.
Mathers said, finishing his yarn a quarter of an hour later: “So, you see, Brown, that kind of woman is fairly common everywhere. If she’d been pretty it might have been rather fun for you.”
“She wasn’t pretty.”
“Well, anyhow, she gave you a memorable experience—that’s something to have happened on a holiday. I don’t suppose you met anyone else who’ll stick in your mind as well, eh?”
“Probably not. There were some fellows at Interlaken whom I got to know, but I didn’t find them very interesting. Quite the pleasantest person I did meet was a young Roumanian on the train to Paris—a really delightful youth who was on his way to try and sell an invention to a French aeroplane firm. Had an English mother, he said, so he spoke English perfectly. And he was full of that same cheeky sort of optimism that—that my own boy used to have. You never met him, did you? He was just like that—had the most amazing ideas that weren’t of any practical use, yet he always believed quite firmly that they were going to make his fortune and turn the world upside down.”
“What was this Roumanian’s bright idea?”
“Oh, what he called a ‘gyrector’ to land passengers from aeroplanes.” Brown gave a sketchy and slightly satirical exposition. “Perfectly mad, of course. I should think the Frenchmen will have a pretty good laugh over it, though they won’t be able to help being charmed by the fellow personally.”
“He didn’t try to get you to take it up, I suppose?”
“Naturally, I was careful not to let him guess who I was.”
They both laughed and then went on talking about other matters.
Not that Brown was anyone of any special importance. He was merely the head of the firm of Brown and Company, recently absorbed in Amalgamated Engineers, Limited. Brown and Company was quite an ancient concern of its kind, having been founded by an ancestral Brown at the beginning of the nineteenth century; its detailed history, indeed, would provide a useful epitome of the Industrial Age itself. Brown the First had begun as a workman in the famous firm of Boulton and Watt; with initiative to launch out independently and the luck to do so at the right moment and on a rising market, he had ended as a fairly rich proprietor of a small but prosperous business. Throughout the Victorian era that prosperity had developed, not by leaps and bounds, but with an intermittent progress that made the privately-held shares a more acceptably gilt-edged investment year by year. After 1900, when the firm became a public company, profits had fallen off a little, but during the War years munitions contracts had made Brown little less than half a millionaire. Then had come the slump, the long years of deepening depression, until in 1928 he had met Sir George Parceval and been induced to join up with a group of similar companies to form the merger-combine, Amalgamated Engineers, Limited. That promises of a quick and automatic return to prosperity had not been fulfilled was due, no doubt, to the world-crisis, against which even a Parceval could not contend.
This Stuart Brown, great-great-grandson of the founder, was not much like that fiercely individualist pioneer. By the time it reaches a fifth generation, a dynasty usually manages to produce some divergence from original type, and Brown the Fifth was certainly divergent. In appearance he was tall, slim, clean- shaven and blue-eyed; a flatterer might even have added, distinguished-looking. But a detractor could equally have specified a forehead that was not quite decisive, and a general air of casualness that just escaped the excuse of elegance. Born a Northerner, well educated in the usual public-school tradition, and of intellect sufficient not to have absorbed that tradition too thoroughly, Brown was a likeable and even interesting personality, but he wore an almost constant air of observing life rather than participating in it, and his frequent pose of being the hard-headed business man was merely amusing to his friends. His tastes were quiet; he liked his garden, and music, and certain kinds of books; he did not care for sport, and was bored by much of the ordinary routine of pleasure-seeking. He was, in fact, too lazy to be fashionable in these matters. But he had a discriminating affection for good clothes, good food, good wine, good farming, good gramophone records, a good cigar, and, amongst men, good company. Women bored him as a rule, though he was devoted to his wife. She was an American of an old and quite poor Virginian family; he had somewhat spoilt her, and their one surviving child, though pretty, was both snobbish and extravagant. Both wife and daughter usually spent the summer months across the Atlantic, and during such periods Brown could always fall back into club-life and bachelorhood with a scarcely perceptible bump.
It was since their departure in June that everything had seemed to go wrong. Even now, after his return from Italy, he was only slowly beginning to discover how wrong they were, and when he took his seat at the long mahogany table for the September board-meeting, his face expressed no greater concern than a general peevishness at the continuing malaise of the world. He felt rather tired and uncomfortable, but then he always did at those board-meetings. The sleek panelled room in the palatial offices in Finsbury Square struck such a different note from the one he had been used to in pre-amalgamation days, when he and a few friends had settled Brown and Company’s affairs by means of a weekly gossip in the works-office at Stockport. Those cosier and more intimate scenes were linked in his mind with prosperity, while this cold, Persian-carpeted magnificence was a background to constantly expanding trouble. In some ways he wished he had never joined the combine; it seemed pointless, anyhow, to attend the meetings, for he rarely spoke or made suggestions. Between a dozen and a score other directors sat with him, and he scarcely knew all of them yet by sight, much less personally. They had all been brought in like himself; heads of individual firms, they had yielded to the blandishments of Parceval’s talk about rationalisation, with the perhaps appropriate result that their only function nowadays seemed to be to listen to Parceval and vote as he told them.
Not that Brown distrusted Parceval. On the contrary, he felt towards him an admiration that positively throve on their private antipathies. Sir George was most things that Brown was not. He was brisk, intense, and possessive; always immaculately turned out, he presided at board-meetings like the high- priest of some excessively stately ritual. He knew more about finance than engineering, and his arrangements of the combine’s balance-sheet had certainly put it beyond the comprehension of most people except accountants. Brown was hopelessly fogged; he had long since ceased to wonder how much he himself was worth, except that he knew he had exchanged Government securities for shares in the combine—a bad bargain, as revealed by 1930 stock- market valuations. But if he ever expressed misgiving, Parceval would say, in that boomingly bland way of his: “My dear Brown, the combine has saved you already. If you’d stayed out of it, it would have undercut and bankrupted you by now.” Which seemed to Brown a rather depressing argument.
During that first board-meeting after his return, Brown had as much of a tiff with Parceval as was possible between two persons of such differing temperaments. It arose out of the Italian debts which Brown had failed to collect. Brown asserted that the debtors, though unable to pay, were perfectly honest; Furnival appeared doubtful.
“But damme, man,” Brown exclaimed, heatedly, “they’ve been clients of ours for thirty years, and their fathers before them!”
To which Parceval responded: “They owe us fifty-six thousand pounds, and it was on your recommendation that we allowed them credit to such an amount. I don’t think I need say any more.”
And Brown, after that, both looked and felt like a rebuked schoolboy.
Parceval, however, had one more thing to say that was of importance; an announcement that the current year’s preference dividend would have to be passed. Brown, hardly calm after his previous outburst, was again indignant. “Surely—” he began, and then found that he could think of nothing to express his feelings but another reference to history. “For half a century Brown’s have paid the dividends on their six per cent preferences. Never have they defaulted once! And the shareholders were induced to exchange into the combine’s seven per cents by being assured that their dividends were going to be even safer! It’s scandalous!”
“The money cannot be paid,” answered Parceval coldly, and a few of the other directors, whose companies could not boast of such a record as Brown’s, supported him. “With large sums of money owing to us, we are bound to protect ourselves, and we shall do so in future, I hope, by greater care in the extension of credits to customers overseas.”
Brown subsided again. “Oh, have it your own way, then,” he muttered, under his breath. Parceval always did have his own way, anyhow.
After the meeting, however, the great man seemed anxious to make any necessary amends. He accompanied Brown in the lift and to a taxi, chatting affably meanwhile. “I was glad to hear you had a good time in Switzerland,” boomed the voice that had squashed so many awkward interruptions at shareholders’ meetings. “Mathers was telling me. He also said you met a young Roumanian on the way home—chap with some kind of aeroplane gadget he wanted to sell— wasn’t that it?”
Brown forced himself to explain the matter briefly.
“Well,” answered Parceval, “I’m connected with a company that manufactures aeroplanes, you know, and I don’t want to miss anything good.”
“I don’t think his idea was at all good. Quite impracticable, it seemed to me.”
“MIGHT have something in it, though—you never can be sure with these inventor fellows. I don’t know if you could get in touch with him easily, but if he cared to call at my office in London I wouldn’t mind hearing him talk.”
“I’ve only got his address in Bukarest. He’s probably back there by now.” Brown searched a moment in his pocket-book and found the visiting-card, “Here you are, if it’s any use to you.”
“Thanks. When I write, if I do, I’ll mention your name and your meeting with him, if you don’t mind.”
“The devil you will,” thought Brown, gloomily, but he lacked the energy to dissent, nor was there really much reason why he should. It had, however, suddenly occurred to him that he and his wife were the joint holders of forty-eight thousand preference shares in Amalgamated Engineers, Limited, and that the passing of the dividend would reduce their income during the current year from about six thousand to a little over four.
That evening, at the club, he wrote a long letter to her, emphasising the poor state of trade, but avoiding the mention of any particular item of bad news. Time enough for her to learn the truth when she got home, he thought. After he had posted the letter he went to the second house of a music-hall, drank plenty of whisky, and went to bed. It was an unsatisfactory world, he decided, trying to sleep. He thought of his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather, all living their lives quite comfortably in a more ordered age—buying raw material and labour, selling the finished product, and pocketing the difference as neatly and as regularly as clockwork. All plain sailing in those days. You just made some useful article, charged a fair price for it, and there you were—with a steady income for life. And, what was more, you could go on making and selling without worry. Golden days! But now, with passed dividends and bad debts abroad and currency losses and income- tax.... Good God, what were things coming to? And he thought, for one supremely mournful moment: “Perhaps it’s as well my boy didn’t survive to carry on the firm, since the firm may not survive to be carried on.”
What troubled him most were the family and household economies that would have to be made. His own personal wants were simple, but his wife and daughter spent a good deal; he would have to be unpleasantly frank with them when they came home. Perhaps one of the three cars could be dispensed with; his wife might use the big Daimler in future and he himself could make do with a season- ticket on the railway... But by this time his natural tendency to look on the brighter side of things had begun to reassert itself, and he fell asleep tranquilly, hopefully, and a little drunk.
About a fortnight later Brown was still in London and Parceval rang him up at the club one morning. “Oh, hello, Brown. I’ve just arrived in town again after a flying visit to Paris. Literally a flying visit. I had to meet the steel cartel... . By the way, I took the chance of looking up your Roumanian friend. Nice fellow, as you said.”
“He was still in Paris?”
“Yes, and very glad to see me. It seems the French firm had just told him there was nothing doing, so he was pleased enough to try his luck somewhere else.”
“Well, what did you think of his idea?”
“Oh... interesting, you know. And probably no good. Most interesting ideas are like that. But I told him he could make a model of his tin-can arrangement down at my works at Chelmsford, if he cared to come over, so I expect he’s quite happily packing now.”
“But you surely don’t think there’s anything in it, do you?”
“Well, we shall know more about that when he shows us how it works, shan’t we?”
“D’you mean to say he’s going to let himself be thrown out of an aeroplane in the thing?”
“I suppose he is. He won’t find anyone else in a hurry to volunteer.”
“I—I don’t much like it. He’ll kill himself.”
“I wouldn’t say that. He needn’t take a very big risk—he can make his trial descents over some lake, with boats to bring him in if anything goes wrong.”
“I should hope so.”
“Of course—oh, of course. I like him very much, I may say. A delightful personality. ...”
But Brown had little time to think of the charming Roumanian during the next few weeks. Further cuts into his already straitened income seemed quite likely; added to which there came a rather peremptory request from his bankers to reduce a loan secured on shares of the combine. They had evidently got wind of the Italian and other losses, and were playing for safety. He couldn’t blame them, but he thought it was damned bad luck for everything to come crowding on top of him all at once. Of course he must meet them somehow—offer them some more shares or give them a mortgage on his Cheshire establishment, or something. He interviewed various high bank officials and found them sympathetic but definitely unwilling to accept any but gilt-edged securities as further cover for the loan, while his stockbrokers were even pessimistic about being able to dispose of some of his other shares at all. As for the house, the utmost he could raise on it was four thousand, and the bank people were asking for fifteen thousand immediately. Like most men who do not habitually worry, the sensation, being unfamiliar, turned quickly to panic. He tried to borrow from Mathers and several other friends, but either they didn’t possess the money or wouldn’t take the risk of lending. Finally, in complete desperation, he went to Furnival. But Sir George, though rich enough, did not by any means whip out a cheque-book and scribble with the alacrity of the copybook friend in need. He asked many questions with great minuteness and merely said, at the end: “I shall have to think it over, Brown, and let you know. It’s rather a big thing to ask, in these days... though of course I’d like to help you, naturally. By the way, your Roumanian friend is nearly ready. Could you possibly manage to come over to Chelmsford on Friday? There might be something to show you.”
Brown promised to go. He spent most of the intervening days in a state of persistent and devitalising worry over his money affairs. It was not like him to fear the worst, but he could not subdue the waves of occasional despair that passed over him. His wife and daughter had already left Virginia on their way home, and the imminence of his meeting with them and of subsequent confessions reduced him to even deeper depression. For years he had had the habit of smiling cheerfully whenever his fellow business men were doleful; now he wondered if his cheerfulness had been based on a privately sheltered financial position which he had been lucky enough to occupy, and whether he would be any less doleful than the rest as soon as the tide of his personal ruin began to lap at his own doors. The newspapers, with their chatter of rationalisation and improved selling methods, made him feel sick. How the devil could he COMPEL customers to buy oil-pumps and water-tube boilers and reciprocating engines and all the other things that the firm manufactured? And how could he, as an ordinary man, be expected to pick his way amidst such pitfalls as frozen credits, depreciated exchanges, high tariffs, and defaulting clients?
“Really, Parceval,” he exclaimed, in the car to Chelmsford, “it’s not enough to be a mere business man in these days. You’ve damned well got to be a Svengali and a Sherlock Holmes in addition.”
Parceval laughed. “Quite true. Anyone can make things, but it often requires genius to sell them.”
“Well, I’m not a genius, and I can’t help wishing I’d been born fifty years ago, when one could do a decent day’s work and draw a decent day’s pay for it without any worries.”
“Come now, Brown, you know you’ve never done a decent day’s work in your life, for all your talk.” Parceval laughed again; such frankness, but slightly insolent, was a favourite manner of his with those whom he need be at no particular pains to conciliate. He went on, enjoying himself still more: “What you’re sighing for is a comfortable income without working for it at all, and you’re cross because the world’s beginning to wonder why you should have it. You’ve got to face facts, my dear chap—the easy-going days are all over. And that celebrated ancestor of yours would have said ‘Hooray’ to that, I fancy.”
“I often wonder what he would have done in times like these.”
“I can tell you. He’d have done now what he did then—adapted himself to the circumstances of the age and made a fortune.... Well, here we are—this is the spot I’ve chosen for our young friend to make his hit or miss. And, by the way, I haven’t arranged it as a public spectacle. There’s only you here, myself, Mathers, and a few workmen pledged to secrecy. Time enough for the flourish of trumpets, if any, later on.”
The car pulled into the side of a narrow lane in rather pleasantly rural country. Parceval led the way across a few fields to a prettily situated sheet of water fringed with tall reeds. Amidst the sudden tranquillity of the scene, and under that cloudless October sky, Brown felt happier than he had been for days. Perhaps money did not matter so much, after all, so long as there were still such things as fields and sunshine. He wondered how much of England there was, secret and lovely like this, within a few hundred yards of the roads along which he so often motored. He sniffed the warm, hay-scented air and felt all his worries relax in almost muscular contentment.
Presently Mathers joined them and Parceval explained his plans for the afternoon’s experiment. “The plane’s taking off from a field several miles away; I said we’d all be here by three o’clock. I don’t think the fellow will want to waste time. He’s very keen and plucky. Of course it’s a chancy business, but if he keeps over the water I think he can’t hurt himself much. The thing’s airtight enough to come to the surface.”
To Brown the waiting, the shimmer of sunlight on the lake, and the spaciousness of that unknown countryside, seemed all a part of some very strange dream. He could hardly believe he was about to witness an actual and perhaps exciting event, and he missed even the approaching aeroplane till his attention was drawn to it by Parceval. Then, as he heard it zooming overhead, he felt a tense agitation rising in him. Twice the machine made a circuit of the lake, while the three principal spectators stared upwards.
“He’ll do it soon,” said Parceval.
Brown’s heart began to beat more quickly still, and then all at once to ache with a peculiar and almost intolerable apprehension. His own son had been killed like that—pioneering in the air in the early days of flying. He called to mind that dreadful day before the War; and then he called to mind the eager, smiling face across the table in the French train—he saw it continually, that smile of such undaunted belief in things that Brown was more than a little doubtful about. He thought as he stood: “We are old men, Parceval, Mathers, and I; and we stay here, safe and contemplative, watching that youngster risk his life.”
Just then something that looked like an elongated drop of quicksilver detached itself from the tail of the aeroplane and began to slew round in a wide circle. It moved at first too fast for Brown to see anything but its shape and colour; but after a few seconds it swooped nearer to the water-level and exhibited details of whirring propellers and fins that glistened in the sunlight. “Like a baby Zepp, by Jove!” exclaimed Mathers, trying to focus it in his binoculars. Then, in the midst of seemingly effortless cruising, it checked its horizontal motion and all at once plunged headlong. It was perhaps thirty or forty feet high when that happened, and the dive took it just beyond the lake into a swamp at the water’s edge, where it buried itself nose-foremost with only the tail-propeller visible above the reeds.
“Come on, let’s get him out!” yelled Brown, and began to run towards the scene, the others hastening after him. Striding up to his knees in mud and water, he kept thinking: “He’s there, he’s in that thing—it’s all my fault—it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t met him on that train—I MUST get him out—what CAN be happening to him all this time?”...
He and the workmen tore and tugged at the metal monstrosity for nearly a quarter of an hour before they finally succeeded in dragging it to firm ground. Then they prised open the small entrance door, which had jammed, and pulled out a limp and huddled occupant. He was pale and unconscious, though not visibly injured.
“Where’s an ambulance?” Brown cried to Parceval. “Didn’t you think of having one ready? Damnation, man, tell me where I can send to for one....”
But there was no need, after all, with the two cars at hand; and in less than half an hour the youthful experimenter was being treated quite satisfactorily in a nearby hospital.
That evening Brown, Parceval, and Mathers motored to London and dined at Parceval’s town house in Belgrave Square. They had already received a telephone message from the hospital to the effect that Palescu was suffering from no more than shock and very slight concussion, and would doubtless be quite well again in a week or so. Brown was mollified and relieved, but still rather retrospectively indignant. The good news made room again, too, for his own personal anxieties, the more so as Parceval hadn’t yet given him any answer about the loan.
“Well, Parceval,” he said, when the servants had gone out and they could talk freely, “I’m sure we’re all glad that the boy’s all right. He’s had a lucky escape, and we’re lucky too, I should say, in not being partly responsible for a tragedy. As for the precious invention he risked his life over, it seems to be exactly what I said—not of the least practical use.”
“No?” Parceval queried. “I thought myself it wasn’t too bad for a pioneer attempt. After all, it didn’t drop like a stone.”
“Small consolation HOW a man drops if he DOES drop. Personally, I don’t see how you could ever expect people to trust themselves to such a terrifying contraption, even if it were made to work properly.”
Parceval filled up Brown’s glass. “Well, I certainly admit that Palescu’s gyrector doesn’t look like having many commercial possibilities.”
“Then for heaven’s sake don’t let’s encourage the fellow to run any more risks with it.”
Parceval turned to Mathers. “What do you say?”
Mathers agreed with Brown that there should be no more experiments if there were definitely nothing practical to hope for from them, which he feared was the case. “Unless, of course, the idea should be adapted to some other sort of use.”
“Such as?” Parceval said quickly.
“Well... perhaps the landing of mails, for instance.”
“I see. I was wondering if by any chance you and I had been struck by the same notion.”
“Come on, Sir George, let’s have it. Your notions are usually sound ones.”
“This may not be a sound one at all. It’s completely up in the air—in more senses than one.” Parceval half-smiled, and then continued, speaking to Mathers, though it was on Brown that his beady, heavy-lidded eyes were turned more frequently. “Briefly this. There may be, as you hint, other uses besides the one our Roumanian friend seems to have thought of. There may even be uses outside the world of commerce altogether. Just let me put a hypothetical question. What would have happened if that gyrector, as he calls it, had been filled with explosives, and instead of coming clown into some soft mud in the middle of Essex had dropped from three or four miles high on to the roof of the Bank of England?”
Mathers and Brown spoke instantly and together. Mathers said: “I don’t see anything very new in that—the Germans used aerial torpedoes in the War, didn’t they?”
Brown exclaimed: “You mean if—if it had been filled with explosives instead—of—of having a man inside it?”
Parceval shook his head to each of them separately and then jointly to them both. “No. Not at all. I mean explosives and the man. The man to steer, of course—that’s the whole point of the invention. You see? You see, Mathers? Hardly something that even the Germans thought of, eh? I think you’ll admit that it is a rather—novel—sort of idea.”
After a long pause Mathers responded thoughtfully: “Yes, it’s an idea, Sir George. By Jove, yes, it is an idea.”
Brown said: “Good God, what an appalling notion!”
Later, in arm-chairs in the long leathery room which Parceval called the library, and with coffee and liqueurs before them, they discussed the matter further. Parceval argued that it would be, on the whole, a very humane weapon, since it would remove all necessity for promiscuous bombing of defenceless cities. The gyrectors would be aimed unerringly at the objects they were intended to destroy—docks, railways, government buildings, and so on—not houses, hospitals, or crowded streets.
“And though, as you say, Brown, it means certain death for the— er—the operator, in what way does that introduce any new or especially dreadful element into warfare? Isn’t it common enough for soldiers to face certain death? And it would be instantaneous, remember. No suffering, no mutilations, no lingering for days on barbed wire. A clean death, you may call it.” He paused impressively and lit a cigar. And there was, he said, another thing in its favour. It had always seemed to him that one of the most terrible features about war was the way it took toll of the strongest and most virile among the world’s manhood. Wasn’t it curiously obtuse that the survival of the fittest, nature’s harsh but salutary law, should be reversed by civilised nations whenever they fought in battle? “This development I’ve been trying to sketch out would make for the redressing of that unfortunate balance.” He spoke suavely, as to a company of invisible shareholders. “It would give the physically second- rate man a chance to serve his country and display heroism no less than the first-rate.”
It was at this point that certain troubled emotions in Brown, combined with the undoubted fact that he had drunk too much, became articulate in the guise of a rather macabre whimsicality. “Hear, hear,” he cried, banging his liqueur-glass on the table-top in mock applause. “You make a damn fine speech, Parceval. Call up the C3s in the next war! And then we’ll have all the old ladies writing to The Times to complain of the number of UN-fit men they see in mufti! But perhaps you’d organise your suicide club on a voluntary basis? Let ’em all register in peace-time and draw a dole and wear an armlet or something.”
“Well, if you MUST joke about a serious matter—”
Brown’s fingers suddenly snapped the stem of the empty glass he was holding, and there was a pause while he muttered an apology and bound his thumb, which had been cut slightly. Then he went on, more steadily: “D’you really think, Parceval, and you too, Mathers, that a fellow boxed up in a tin coffin is going to spend his last moments caring whether what he hits is the right roof or the wrong one?”
“Why not? Is it any harder than going over the top? Or than a gun- crew trying to register hits even though they know the enemy cruiser is bound to blow them to atoms within the next half-hour?”
“Maybe you’re right.” Brown’s voice sank to a whisper, then sharply rose as he added: “But, anyhow, I know what I’D do if you were a brass-hat and I was a Tommy inside one of the damned things. I’d steer it miles and miles behind the lines till I found you and then chase you with it!”
Parceval smiled quite tranquilly. “You’re a humourist, Brown, I can see. But the fact remains—and in this I’m quite serious, even if you aren’t—that we have here something that may have possibilities. MAY—I won’t say more than that. What we saw this afternoon was, of course, little better than a fiasco, yet—”
“You’re not going to have that fellow risking his neck again, surely?”
Parceval’s voice cut suddenly icy. “Not HIM, Brown, I promise you that. Perhaps somebody else whom you’ve never met and aren’t likely to worry about. You’re only a sentimentalist, you know.”
“WHAT?” It was certainly the last accusation Brown would ever have levelled against himself.
“A sentimentalist, I said. You’re also quite drunk, and your thumb’s still bleeding, by the way.... Now listen to me. This invention may or may not be capable of the adaptation I have outlined. The chance, however, seems to me worth taking. What I propose is that we—the three of us—should form ourselves into a small syndicate for its development. You, Mathers, with your motor-factory, would be a great help—that is, of course, if the venture appeals to you.”
“It does, Sir George. Decidedly, it does.”
“Good! But it isn’t all quite plain sailing yet. First of all, we must buy out Palescu’s rights. We want to be absolutely fair to the young man, but at the same time we must protect ourselves, and it will be equitable, I take it, if we bid for what he has offered us—namely, the rights of his invention as a means of landing passengers from aeroplanes. Any other value it may subsequently acquire as a result of OUR efforts will clearly have nothing to do with him at all—which is why we must negotiate cautiously. I know what inventors are like—I’ve had experience of them before now. Once our charming young friend suspects that the War Departments of the world may be interested in him, he’ll begin to fancy himself a Hiram Maxim right away. Nevertheless, as I said, we must be scrupulously fair. What would you suggest, Brown, as a rough estimate of the COMMERCIAL value of the invention?”
“I’ll see you damned before I have anything to do with the business at all.”
Parceval’s lips tightened. “Very well. Then it rests between me and Mathers. I’m sorry you feel inclined to miss the boat in this affair, Brown. I should have thought you’d have been rather glad of a chance to make a little spare cash just now. However—” He paused meaningfully, and then continued: “I really don’t see why you need be so cantankerous about it, anyway. There’s no particular reason why you should join us if you don’t want to—I merely offered you the chance because it was through you that I got into touch with Palescu, and also because I wanted to put something good in your way. I can’t think why you should be so bad-tempered about it.”
Neither could Brown. He could not have explained, at that moment, exactly what was causing his mood of quite hellish exasperation. Was it the cumulative effect of losing money, of becoming steadily poorer and poorer for ten years? Was it the combine’s recently issued balance-sheet, which had seemed more puzzling the oftener he sought to interpret it? Was it Parceval, whom he had never liked, but who had never before stirred him to such a pitch of mental and temperamental soreness? It was hardly likely to be any scruples as to the ethics of manufacturing war material, since Brown and Company had been doing this for years whenever they got the chance. Nor could it be the prospect of a sharp deal with Palescu, for Brown had learned by sufficient experience that if you did not outwit inventors they would joyfully outwit you. None of these reasons separately could account for his feeling, and yet all of them together might have induced it, plus something else that was vaguer and hardly analysable—just a general awareness that the world was rotten, hopeless, something to hold one’s nose over while one made a business of scrabbling in the muck in search of... well, what? Money?
And at that point Brown found himself yielding a bemused attention to Parceval’s eloquence as he described the possible success of the new enterprise. Profits—fabulous and unbogus, mystic entities that had become almost as rare in the business world as strawberries in January—dividends by the hundred per cent, orders that would reopen workshops, concessions that would entice a trickle of gold from all the corners of the earth. Rottenness festering in the sun and producing, for a few who were lucky enough, this precious yellow flower. A world that could refuse to buy such things as water-tube boilers and articulated compounds, yet could not, because it dare not, decline the purchase of a new weapon of self-destruction. The supreme, the Midas lure—something for which no government would ever hesitate to tax, to starve, and to pawn. Helpless, hopeless... and yet, what could one do?
His mood, as transient as it was instinctive, had moved him to an effort of imagination which his natural indolence soon began to repel; after all, he reflected, a moment or two later, perhaps he HAD been rather foolishly snappish with a man who had only been trying to help him.
“I’ll come in with you,” he said quietly, “if you’ll give Palescu five thousand.”
“Five thousand? My dear Brown, I’m delighted that you’ve changed your mind, but really—five thousand! Remember what it is we’re paying for—merely the commercial value of something that hasn’t really a commercial value at all!”
Brown retorted, with a last despairing petulance: “I don’t care about that. You’ve been talking about possible hundreds of thousands for us. Surely five isn’t too much for him. He’s young—he can do with it.”
“We can all do with it, for that matter. But the chief objection is that any such large offer would immediately put the fellow on his guard—don’t you see? Still, though it’s a risk, I’ll double the sum I had originally in mind and say a thousand. I call that generous, and so, I think, will Palescu. And we must have our interview with him as soon as possible. You’ll join us then, and you agree to a thousand as an outside offer?”
“Oh, all right, have it your own way,” answered Brown, as he had answered once before. He was suddenly tired, and with his tiredness there came a faint renewal of optimism, the drug to which he was accustomed.
By the time the three negotiators met the Roumanian a few days later, Brown was once again in a mood to see most things cheerfully. Parceval had definitely promised him the loan as soon as the Palescu business was settled; the bank had agreed to a short delay in repayment; and Parceval, too, had been assiduous in kindling hopes for the future. “I don’t mind admitting, Brown, that you can be a great help to me in my negotiations with the fellow.” (It was already “me” and “my”, but that, after all, was only to have been expected.) “In fact, if you hadn’t joined in with us, I fear he would have thought it so peculiar that we might have had trouble in coming to terms at all. I’ll do the talking, of course, but you’ll be there as a—a—”
“As a guarantee of good faith?” suggested Brown, not very tactfully, and Parceval laughed and replied: “Well, if you put it that way, perhaps yes. You see, he likes you—more than he does me or Mathers.”
“He LIKES me?” echoed Brown, with sudden shyness.
“Yes—seems to have taken quite a fancy to you.”
Brown blushed with happiness. To be liked by this youth seemed somehow more satisfying than to have won the favour of any woman.
They all met Palescu at an hotel in Bloomsbury where he was staying, and the youth’s welcoming smile made Brown feel that the interview was probably going to be a very pleasant one for everybody. He hoped so; he would enjoy it if it were; and, in fact, mightn’t it actually represent the beginning of a new era of prosperity for himself, for his wife and daughter, for the workpeople at his factory, for the firm’s shareholders, and, of course, for Palescu too? A thousand pounds, as Parceval had said, wasn’t so bad. “You all right now?” he began, admiring, as he had done first of all in the train, the boy’s extraordinary good looks. “Feeling quite fit again? That’s good. We’re all going to go out and dine somewhere, I think.”
Parceval and Mathers subjoined their enquiries and felicitations; then they hustled into a taxi and drove to the Café Royal. Parceval’s choice; and it reminded Brown of the old days, when he and his son had enjoyed themselves in London together; the Café was the place they had gone to, often enough—no, not really often enough—that was the point. That flying smash had happened so abruptly, cutting into the life of the father no less than of the son—making everything ever afterwards a little vague and unfinished. ... He had the queer feeling now that a part of him was living over again in that twenty-year-old past, and that Palescu, smiling and chattering, was something more to him than a foreign stranger met for only the second time.
During the meal conversation, at Parceval’s previous suggestion, was kept on general topics; and Brown felt that Palescu was avoiding no less carefully the subject which must be uppermost in his mind, as in theirs too. The youth talked quite amusingly, though, and kept appealing particularly to Brown, as if he, among them all, were an especial friend. Brown warmed to such an attitude, and was in a pleasantly flattered mood when at last he lit Palescu’s cigarette and then his own cigar.
“Well,” Parceval said at length, “we’re all delighted to find you none the worse for what happened last week. And now, as perhaps you’ve already guessed, we’re ready for a chat about one or two matters arising out of that little adventure.”
Palescu nodded, smiling at them all, but especially at Brown.
“Of course,” Parceval resumed, “we realise, as you must do also, that the demonstration you gave was hardly a complete success. We were naturally a little disappointed....”
And so it went on. Parceval was at his suavest, mellifluously and deprecatingly reasonable. But somehow, Brown sensed, Palescu was seeing through the reasonableness—not, of course, to any accurate perception of what lay behind it, but with a sufficient clairvoyance of the need for wariness. The smile faded a little from his face; he became alert, tense, unmoving. He kept nodding, saying “Yes” and “No,” and waiting for Parceval to go on speaking— perhaps hoping he would give himself away. Parceval was naturally in no danger of doing that. But the youth’s attitude could not but disconcert him a little; he had thought it would be fairly easy to come to terms. Several times, like two chess-players gradually becoming conscious of each other’s ability, they fell into a mutually baffled silence, and during one of these intervals Brown interjected, not very sensibly, he was aware, but with some idea of relieving his own private tension: “Jolly plucky to try out the thing at all, anyway. Damned uncomfortable to be stuck in the mud like that, I should think.”
“Yes, damned uncomfortable,” answered the youth, with a mocking but somehow friendly smile. Then he turned to Parceval and the contest of wits was continued.
At last Parceval got as far as saying: “Still, you mustn’t feel that we regret having interested ourselves in you. What are your plans for the future?”
“I don’t know. It depends on several things.”
“Do you propose to carry on with your invention—I mean, do you intend to try to bring it to some degree of success?”
Palescu answered: “I consider I have already done THAT.”
There was something cold and a little contemptuous in the retort that gave Brown a tiny thrill of admiration. How tepid and occasional, he reflected, was his own impatience of Parceval in comparison! He said: “Quite right, my boy, you haven’t done so badly”—and felt marvellously indifferent to the cautionary glare with which Parceval favoured him.
Parceval, however, made haste to agree. “That’s true, of course, as Brown says. Please don’t misunderstand me. You’ve hit on an interesting idea—interesting, certainly—I don’t think anyone could deny that. And you’ve also put a good deal of work into it, and even if it hasn’t done all that we hoped, it might—sometime— give someone else an inspiration that might possibly be of use. To be quite frank, I and my friends here are prepared to—well, in a sense, to gamble on that slender chance. To the extent of a small sum, I mean. We wouldn’t object to paying you—oh, say five hundred pounds—for the full rights.”
“If you wish to buy,” answered Palescu very calmly, “my price is ten thousand.”
Parceval leaned back in his chair with an elaborately forced smile. “Utterly ridiculous! We’re wasting our time, then, if you really mean that. I’m sorry, personally, for it would have given me pleasure to think that you were making a little profit, but of course—”
Mathers gave Palescu a shrewd and not unkindly glance. “Take my tip and don’t overreach yourself,” he remarked. “If you really don’t want to sell, all right, but if you’re merely in a bargaining mood you might as well bid for the moon as try to put it over a business man like Sir George here, or myself.” He added, by way of polite afterthought: “Or Brown.”
Palescu smiled. “You Englishmen are no doubt the cleverest men in the world.” He glanced at Parceval and then at Brown, and Brown knew suddenly, with a further thrill, that the youth not only disliked Parceval but knew that he, Brown, disliked him too.
Finally, over an hour later, a compromise was reached at six thousand five hundred. While Parceval was writing the cheque, Brown occupied the silence by chattering: “When my son was your age—he’s dead now—he was rather like you in some ways—having bright ideas and risking his life over them. In the end he lost his life. Flying, yes—twenty years ago, in the pioneer days. ...” But Palescu was hardly listening; he was prudently reading through the document that Parceval had handed him to sign.
With the transaction complete, the general tension dissolved into a more festive atmosphere. Brown called for a celebratory bottle of champagne, and there was much more drinking and chattering before the party separated. Brown was the liveliest of the four. He was quite boyishly elated, and when he bade goodbye to the Roumanian on the pavement outside, he shook hands with much fervour. “Well, if you’re ever in England again you must let me know,” he said. He could not, at that stupid moment of farewell, think of anything warmer to say, though he felt it; and with a fussy little gesture he searched in his pocket and reciprocated Palescu’s first intimacy—a visiting-card.
A few days later, as he motored to Liverpool through the pleasant Cheshire countryside, he was still free from all misgiving. Parceval had lent him the necessary money, and he had had quite a cheery interview at the bank on the previous day. Moreover, his wife and daughter were due to arrive on the Berengaria during the late afternoon, and he was warmly looking forward to meeting them.
A lovely blue-golden day, with the fields and villages shining with autumn. Just the time for welcome and home-coming.
When, towards sunset, he stood on the landing-stage smoking a cigar and watching the liner curve importantly into the estuary, his heart pulsed happily within him. Wife, girl, money, the future— everything looked all right again. He found it easy to think so, and that the world, after his recent bad dreams about it, wasn’t really so bad. Even Parceval wasn’t. He didn’t care for the man a great deal, but he had to admit he was a smart fellow.
The club-house at Santa Katerina followed the Amerind tradition of pink adobe; it stood on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the milk-blue Pacific, and from the long, round-arched sun-balcony the millionaires’ yachts and speed-boats could be observed in all their toy-like diversions. On the landward side a path led along a steep arroyo through eucalyptus woods to a Greek temple and a so-called natarium, both of white marble and designed in the classic Ionic style. The whole estate, which included an eighteen-hole golf-course and a bathing beach by the sea and tennis-courts and a landing-ground for aeroplanes, belonged to an exclusive and expensive country club which in the spring of 1929 had exuded dollars, both corporately and individually; and the result, after commissioning an architect of genius, was principally the club- house. It rose up like some fantastic dream-palace amidst the white yucca blossom, at sunset rosy-red and rather unbelievable against the background of sky and hills. That, of course, was if one approached it from the sea. From the land, however, it displayed a peculiarity; part of the central block, to some extent obscured by trees, was still unfinished, so that a gap of naked steelwork intervened between the two ten-storey wings. This gap was a legacy of the Wall Street crash in the autumn of 1929, and the consequent discovery that even the purses of film-magnates and realtors were not quite bottomless.
But, even so, the club-house at Santa Katerina stood for the peak achievement of a civilisation; or perhaps for a ripeness which by the summer of 1931 had turned to over-ripeness. There had been rumblings and mutterings from afar, recorded on that seismograph of calamity, the ticker-tape; for instance, Sylvia Seydel, the movie-actress, was supposed to have dropped a million dollars in General Motors stock. So much was probably no more than she had earned during the past two years, but she was over thirty now; salaries were being cut; younger rivals were coming along; the future was less reckonable than had seemed likely. Still, as she walked from the club-house to the natarium on a perfect June afternoon, an observer would not have sensed her misgivings. That little procession—the film-star with her retinue of friends, secretaries, and miscellaneous hangers-on—approached the swimming-pool through the heavily scented woods, splitting the sunshine as it fell in slabs across the path, and stirring the green dusk with their talk and laughter. But there was another sound, a murmur that swelled into a roar as they reached the sun-drenched colonnade; voices threaded into pattern by the ribbon-melody of jazz; Santa Katerina en fête for a water-party. Sylvia had seen such spectacles many times before—far too often for her to be impressed particularly on this occasion; yet it was, in fact, a scene of almost breath-taking loveliness. The architect who had chosen just that spot for a swimming-pool, and had made his employers pay for white Carrara marble, had shown mystic insight; there was a pagan rapture in the poise of the slim columns reflected lambently in the water; to be alone there, at midnight under a high moon, would have put one amid the ghosts of dead Hellas. Yet to be there in the throng that afternoon was more—it was perhaps to see Hellas come to life again.
Never, it might be, for two and a quarter millenniums, since the days of Pericles and Plato, had there been such efflorescence of form and colour. Less than a thousand persons, men and women, but hardly any children, were clustered around the blue-green pool. Most were in brilliant-hued swimming-suits; some of the girls wore coloured frocks and wide-brimmed hats; a few of the men were robed in silk gowns of exotic design; but all, when the screen-star stepped into view, seemed to hold, for that extra moment, a position they had reached in some magical and impromptu ballet. There was a burst of cheering. Two men in immaculate cream flannels made some little purring speech that was lost in the general chatter; the saxophones blared; Sylvia was led to a basket-chair on the marble dais. She smiled—her well-advertised, million-dollar smile. An enormous pink and blue umbrella, like the roof of a pagoda, was hoisted over her; she threw out more individual smiles here and there, as she caught sight of friends; she laughed and gossiped to her neighbours on either side, while the programme was volleyed out by massed microphones. Swimming, trick-diving, water-polo, etc....
Throughout the long slow-dying afternoon it continued, a golden pantomime reigned over by the sun. It was the sun that gave prismatic harmony to the crudely mingled colours; its strong slanting blaze filled the air, absorbed the rhythms of the jazz band into a single pattern of sight and sound; kindled the splashes made by the divers till the air was full of trembling rainbows. One had the feeling that the sun, as on ancient Attic hills, was ripening its children as they lay there, half naked under its rays.
Perhaps, indeed, even Ancient Greece could not have shown such profusion of physical beauty. That group of living humanity might have been a eugenist’s dream of what all mankind could achieve, were it to allow itself to be bred for half a dozen centuries as rigidly as horseflesh. The women with their laughing oval faces and gleaming teeth, the men of massive thigh and torso, the young girls with their bud-like breasts and exquisite apricot legs—had there ever in all history been such a triumphant assembling of the body? For the world had been ransacked for these people; or, rather, they had drained into this paradise by every trickle of human migration. Tall blondes from Sweden and Finland, brunettes from Spain and the Argentine, dago litheness and Siegfried magnificence—all were merged here by the common desire to capitalise their excellences into earnings. They stared at one another with frankly physical appraisement, displaying their own personal charms as shamelessly as an applewoman displays ripe apples. Even the water-contests were valued less for their own sake than as an excuse for physical exhibitionism; it was the ritual of gaily-coloured silks, scented ointments, and sprawling sun-baskings that mattered most. Certainly none of the various diving competitions and polo-matches stirred as much excitement as the item that came last of all—the fin fleur of this Henry Ford Hellenism—a beauty show for men.
Sylvia Seydel was cast for the role of adjudicator in this culminating affair. The competitors, most of them fresh from their water-games, paraded before her, smiling with that touch of harlotry that is in all athletic prowess; sun-bronzed and superb, they posed like kings—kings under a matriarchy. Not all were film-actors, by any means; some were camera-men, servants, job-seekers, nondescript vivandieres in Hollywood’s international army. In this inverted world it was the man, as often as the woman, whose looks could break down social barriers and unlock the doors to innumerable pleasaunces; and that he knew this was in every posturing, from the stiff games-master slouch of the public-school Britisher to the strutting pertness of the Italian chauffeur.
Sylvia, three times married and twice divorced, would have been sufficiently equipped for the task in any case; but after ten years of film- work, five of which had been a rough-and-tumble fight for any job that came along, she was something of an expert; she knew a man’s points as a trainer knows those of racehorses. She had, moreover, the skilled camera eye; she saw that this face, though handsome enough, would photograph badly from a side-position, or that those well-muscled flanks, though finely virile, were too short for elegance in evening clothes. She scrutinised with dispassionate intentness—the whole thing was only a sort of “rag,” no doubt, but she did not see why, since she had to pick a winner, her choice should not be justifiable. But when two-thirds of the procession had passed, there came a competitor who left her in no remaining doubt at all; whatever else the rest might show, he was her man.
He was very young, and offered no impressively masculine display of sinew; his arms and legs suggested Pan-like grace rather than strength; and his glance, as she appraised him, had in it a touch of mockery. She had not noticed him in any of the water-games, but he wore a cerise-coloured swimming-suit that contrasted quaintly with his brown limbs. His eyes were almost violet in their depths, and his lips and straight nose might have been copied from the Greek statues that adorned the garden temple. She guessed him to be Spanish or Italian, and she was surprised when, as she placed the chaplet of laurel on his head amidst thunderous applause, he made her a pretty little speech in English that had a rather English accent. Who was he? she wondered idly; but she did not trouble to enquire. She was a busy woman; she met so many men whose names and identities were of no consequence to her; she was more than a little worried, too, about other matters. Indeed, during most of that blazing afternoon at the water-party, she had been turning over in mind the problem of whether to accept her broker’s advice and sell for twenty-three dollars the Montgomery Ward stock that she had bought originally for a hundred and thirty-seven.
But the next morning she found out who he was, for on the front page of the newspaper she read, in huge block-letter headlines: “Lois Palmer’s Secretary Judged Handsomest Man. Laurels for Roumanian Prince. Sylvia Seydel’s Choice at Santa Katerina.”
Sylvia was furious. The Palmer woman was, of course, only one of a hundred professional rivals, but her age and the rapidity of her recent rise to fame had made her, to Sylvia, a symbol of all the vaguely menacing future. Lois was twenty-two; her contract with Vox’s had already been renewed at some fantastically increased figure; her fan-mail was reckoned to be bounding up by hundreds a week. It was exasperating to Sylvia to think that her own unwitting action should have presented Lois with free publicity in every newspaper in America. Two years ago, Sylvia could have laughed at such a thing, could even have congratulated the scorer of such an amusing point. But the Sylvia of 1931 was less inclined to laugh. Her world had changed; she could feel it, without altogether understanding how or why. It was as if she were on a throne that might topple at any moment; and her arrogance before the big film-magnates became more and more consciously an effort as each time she wondered if they might suddenly decide to call her bluff. That last picture, “Her Husband’s Wife,” had done well enough, yet somehow not quite as well as had been hoped, and for the moment she was not engaged on any picture at all, though there was talk of another. Moreover, her high-figure contract expired six weeks hence.
She called up her publicity agent immediately after breakfast. He was a shrewd little Scotsman with bright ideas that were never above anybody’s head. “Yes, she’s put it over you all right,” he sang out quite cheerfully over the wire from Los Angeles. “But of course she couldn’t have counted on you picking out the fellow. All she did was to seize the chance that you gave her yourself—you can’t blame her.”
“I’m not blaming her,” Sylvia retorted, “but that doesn’t mend matters. Look here, I want you to find out about this Roumanian prince—find out all you can about him, will you?”
He said he would.
A fortnight later Sylvia was taking tea in her private suite on the tenth floor of the Santa Katerina clubhouse. She owned a fabulous palace at Beverley Hills, but she usually preferred Santa Katerina when she was not working on a picture. It was another of those flaming days of the Californian June, and through the open windows across the balcony rail the Pacific shone a deep turquoise blue. She had just signed over a hundred postcard photographs that were to be sent off by her secretary to admirers all over the world, when her maid entered with a card on which was inscribed “Prince Nicholas Petcheni,” with an address in Los Angeles. “Yes, I’ll see him,” she said.
He entered, and watching him from her chair, she observed that his walk and clothes were fittingly exquisite. She did not trouble, then, to study his face, for she had already done that; but when he stooped to touch her fingers with his lips she noticed his dark, slightly curling hair and the absolute symmetry of his head. “This is indeed a charming sequel to our last meeting, Miss Seydel,” he began, smiling.
Yes, she thought, he was damned good-looking enough for anything; almost absurd, really, the way everything was RIGHT about him.... “Do sit down, won’t you?” she said. “You’ll take tea?”
He thanked her, and during the course of that dainty little ceremony he talked of the weather, of how much he liked America, of his interest in the film-industry, and his desire to study it at close quarters by actually working at Hollywood, and of his admiration for Santa Katerina above all other places. With a quick-witted tact which Sylvia could not help but admire, he did not mention the name of his employer. His chatter was amusing, and he knew English so perfectly that it was natural for her to compliment him on it. “But then, I have been in England a good deal,” he answered.
“Yet you still have your home in Roumania?”
“Oh, yes.” He sighed slightly. “Things are not what they were, though. The—the—crise mondiale—what do you call it?—the world-crisis?—has hit my country very hard. My family have lost much money. We of the younger generation must look to the future, not to the past. That is why I have come here, where everything points so surely ahead.”
Sylvia was by no means certain that everything in her own life was pointing surely ahead, but she nodded. “I suppose your family is a very old one?” she remarked.
“Not so old as some in my country, though my ancestors were ruling their provinces when America was still undiscovered. But what does all that matter now?” He shrugged his shoulders expressively. “In America it is of to-morrow that one thinks, not of yesterday. And, for myself, I must say that I prefer the attitude. It is more hopeful, more democratic.”
“All the same, as a prince, you must have been rather surprised to receive an invitation from a mere commoner like myself to call and see her? Didn’t you think that was a little TOO democratic?”
He smiled pleasantly. “Not at all. I was surprised, it is true, but I was also delighted. What prince would not be honoured by a command from a queen?”
“You turn your compliments very prettily, but I think it’s time to put an end to the farce. I’ve caused enquiries to be made about you, and I known perfectly well that you aren’t a prince at all. Your name is Palescu, and you were in Paris last year trying to sell an invention. We aren’t all such fools over here as you seem to think, monsieur, or mein Herr, or whatever it ought to be.”
He suddenly laughed, and she felt a pang of almost fearful admiration when she noticed that he showed not a trace of embarrassment. Indeed, his attitude, if anything, was even easier when he replied: “I perceive, at least, that you are not a fool, Miss Seydel. But, since you wish to call me by my real name, shall I not return the compliment and call you Mrs. Schmidt?”
“You’ll perhaps be in time to do so if you hurry,” she retorted. “I’m expecting my divorce at any moment.”
He laughed again. “I think you are really a very clever woman.”
“Cleverer than Lois Palmer, I suppose you mean?”
“Yes,” he replied, with meaning in his eyes. “Yes, far cleverer.”
“Then what if I tell her the truth? What if I tell everybody?”
“Nothing, except that I shall laugh. I don’t mind. It’s all been pretty good fun.”
“Look here,” she said, intently. “I work it out like this. If I give you away, the laugh is against Lois, for being taken in, and against you, for being found out. But if you were to leave her employment and come to me, the laugh would only be against her.”
“And you want the laugh to be against her, Miss Seydel?”
“I shouldn’t object.”
“Then will you pay me two hundred dollars a week? Miss Palmer gives me one-seventy-five.”
“No, I can’t afford nearly so much. Besides, as a bogus article, you aren’t worth it. Come to me for a hundred and twenty, or be exposed. Those are my terms.”
“A hard bargain.”
“Yes, I’m a hard bargainer. As a matter of fact, I don’t know that I’m not being too generous. What can you do, anyway?”
“Anything you wish. Sing, dance, play the piano, entertain your friends, invent publicity for you, answer your letters, create an impression on people who matter; also, I can swim, drive a car, fly an aeroplane, play most games tolerably well—”
“Only tolerably? That’s disappointing of you, surely? Nevertheless, I’m willing to take you on at the figure I said. And if you’ve any sort of contract with Miss Palmer, see my lawyer and he’ll get you out of it. Can you move over at once?”
Within a few days the newspapers were featuring the story of the princely Apollo’s change of employment. Their reporters interviewed him; he gave them drinks, an amusing half-hour, and— what was most of all—perfectly good copy which they did not need to embellish for themselves. His most quoted remark was that at last, in his new job, he had made contact with all that was most promising in the art of the cinema, and Miss Seydel was naturally pleased. Not only was the publicity good, but Nicky, as she called him, proved an immediate success in many other ways. At her parties his immaculate clothes and accent, as well as his extraordinary facility in saying things that were considered clever (sometimes they really were clever), made her, she felt, the envy of every other actress in the film- world. He was such a brilliant improviser on any given theme, and quite the most consummate liar she had ever met. He had to lie, doubtless, to sustain his reputation as a person of rank and pedigree; but his technique in doing so was a little awe-inspiring as well as unnecessary at times; he invented, for instance, a whole family for himself— father, mother, brothers, uncles, all of them fantastically titled; and the strange thing was that even Sylvia, who knew them to be spoof, found herself accepting them at least as readily as the characters in some rather well-written novel. Once, in the midst of a very amusing family saga with which he was enthralling her guests, she interjected suddenly: “Of course, Nicky, I don’t really believe you’re a prince at all. You’re much too good a talker.” Which everyone seemed to think a very daring sally.
It was at the same party that a very gushing lady asked him: “Oh, yer Highness, would you ever be willing to marry morganatically?” Instantly, with a little bow across the table to her, he replied: “Certainly, madam—and Pierpont Morganatically too, if I could.”
Afterwards, when the guests had gone, Sylvia congratulated him on a witticism which would doubtless go the usual rounds. He smiled and answered: “But what on earth made you say that you didn’t believe I was a prince at all?”
“Merely an insurance premium, Nicky. If anyone finds you out, or if you leave me and I have to get my own back, I shall then be able to call witnesses that I suspected you all along.”
“Clever of you, Sylvia.”
“Not so very—only just a bit wise. Fetch me a drink. I’m tired.”
He could, in addition to his numerous other accomplishments, invent and mix the most satisfying potions. She looked at him over the rim of the glass a moment later and was rather startled to reflect how well they were getting on together. She had so few illusions about him, or about anyone, for that matter. She knew that sooner or later some inquisitive person would look up the Almanach de Gotha or something and find out the fiction of his ancestry; indeed, she was a little surprised that such a thing hadn’t happened already. Still, it was being good publicity while it lasted, and it would do her no harm, provided she wouldn’t be left to look a fool. And apart from his status, he was no doubt worth his wages. His company was amusing and his talents were useful; and her own experience of three husbands had disposed her to think that that was higher praise than could be accorded most men.
Once, sitting at her feet in the bright starshine of her balcony, with the beat of the Pacific surf a murmur far below, he gave her a long account of the circumstances that had led to his coming to America. “You see, I was in Russia doing business for my uncle, who was head of a firm of engineers in Bukarest. In Moscow I met a young engineer who was dying; he gave me plans of an aeroplane invention of his; he wanted me to take them out of the country, because otherwise the Soviet people would get hold of them and pay nothing at all. I said I would, and I took them first of all to Germany, where I actually studied aeronautics to make myself understand the business. It was a method of landing from an aeroplane in flight—a sort of torpedo that you climbed into and steered down to the ground. Mighty risky, I thought, but I was hard up, and it looked as if there were just a chance of making some money out of it.”
“But of course,” she interrupted, “nobody was such a fool as to give you any.”
He laughed. “That’s just where you’re wrong, Sylvia. A good many weren’t, but in the end I sold it to three Englishmen. I met the first of them, rather a nice chap, in a train in France, and when he got to England he must have told two of his friends. One was quite a big gun—knight or baronet or some kind of title. He was a keen business man all right—his keenness nearly killed me, in fact. He had me make a model of the thing and try it out myself from an aeroplane. It came down head- foremost into some mud, and that was nearly the end of me.”
“But, my dear Nicky, why ever did you let yourself do it? Surely it wasn’t worth risking your life for?”
“No, I suppose not, but, to tell you the truth, I got so interested in it I almost believed in it myself by that time. You see, I’d posed as the inventor, and in the end I think I must have come to feel as an inventor does feel—rather proud, you know, and confident.... Do you understand?”
“It would be too much of an effort to try. But go on. What did the Englishmen say when you were nearly killed?”
“They took me out to dinner and said quite a lot—too much, indeed, if they’d only known. For I could see that although they talked of the thing as a failure, they were really quite keen on having it. Heaven knows why, but, naturally, I wasn’t going to object. They offered me five hundred pounds, after a lot of chatter—if there hadn’t been that, I might have accepted it. As it was, I bluffed hard and asked for ten thousand. We came to terms at last just a little bit more than half-way. Then I packed up and came over here.”
“On the proceeds of selling a dud invention to three keen business men? You’re a genius, Nicky. Have you still got the money?”
“I lost half of it right away on Wall Street.”
“Not such a genius, then, after all. No cleverer than the rest of us, in fact.”
“Oh, but it won’t happen again like that. One can do anything once—there’s no blame in a first time. But if one does anything more than once, then in my opinion it ought to be the devil of a fine thing to do.”
“How old are you, Nicky?”
“Of course I don’t believe you.” She began to laugh. “I don’t really believe anything you’ve been saying. Well, perhaps not more than half, anyhow. You’re such an extraordinary liar.”
“Do you mind?”
“Not a bit. So long as you continue to be so much more agreeable than most people who tell the truth, I don’t care.”
“What DO you care about?”
“Not very much.”
“I thought not,” he answered meditatively. “Very sensible, no doubt, but I wonder if it’s altogether the right attitude for you? I went to see your last picture the other day and I wondered what it was that just missed fire. Now I know.... Sylvia Seydel with the million-dollar smile and the don’t-care eyes.”
“If you’re suggesting that for a publicity slogan, I’ll consider it. And what is caring, anyway?”
“I should say it’s a sort of general excitement that helps one to see and hear, not only with the eyes and ears, but with the solar plexus as well. This view—the sea down there—the eucalyptus woods—those yellow cactus flowers in the moonlight—don’t you feel it just a little bit in your tummy? I do.”
“Funny creature you are, Nicky!” she cried, laughing at him; and then added, with a sudden change of voice: “As a matter of fact, I’m tired of it all—it is wonderful, I know, but I’ve seen it for years and years, and it’s done nothing but just go on being wonderful. You forget that I’m thirty, not twenty—I want more than views and moonlight.” She checked herself and went on, forcing herself to laugh again: “At present, for instance, I want a drink. Do go and get me one, or I shall howl.”
The truth was, she had begun to be really worried about her future. In a sense, of course, she had nothing much to worry about; she was one of the half- dozen best-known stars in the world; her name was almost a household word; and she was worth at least a million dollars, even after all possible losses on stocks. She could retire in six weeks’ time, when her contract expired, and spend the rest of her life in luxurious comfort at Palm Beach or on the French Riviera; nor, if she did, would her name fade completely from the public memory. She was on the edge of history; she would never cease to be—“Sylvia Seydel—don’t you remember?—the girl who was in ‘Home from the Sea’ and ’Fidelity’.” From the difficult peak of her profession she could look back upon twelve years of such protracted girlhood—ever since, in her late teens, she had run away from a department store in Philadelphia. She had fought her early battles in that rough-and-tumble age before the cinema began to give itself airs and a Chaplin première became an international event; she had known Hollywood as a small colony less than a quarter its present size; she remembered when cultured people still felt they had to excuse themselves for being seen at the movies. How people would laugh now, if “Fidelity” were to be revived—the picture which, in its day, had broken every record and had made Sylvia’s the second best-known smile in the world! And compare the crude obviousness of “Home from the Sea” with the sophisticated wit and polished intricacy of “Her Husband’s Wife”! Marvellous advance in less than a decade; and yet, looking back, she could not but feel a halcyon, garden- of-Eden quality in those pioneer days. Silent films, then, of course; which, by an odd paradox, gave her memories principally of noise—of producers yelling through megaphones, of creaking floors and clattering scenery; you could laugh, whistle, sneeze, or cough without anyone bothering; there seemed, in retrospect, a gloriously impromptu freshness about it all. And then those mornings setting out at dawn on location work, the whole company in open cars like an enormous picnic party; driving forty or fifty miles into the San Jacinto mountains; grape-fruit and coffee under the trees in some lonely sunburnt valley; then the job of the day, which usually involved sheriffs, horses, revolver-shooting, and kisses in almost equal proportions. And lastly the drive home in the evening, under the big Californian moon, tired and hungry, with everyone laughing and telling yarns. ...
But now the skyscraper offices of the film companies soared upwards to tell the world that the cinema was no longer an amusement for children. Aesthetic Germans and Russians swarmed everywhere with their chatter of “montage” and “values”; camera-men no longer had Bowery accents and chewed cigars; the vast studios, with their time-clocks and their silence rules, were the churches of a new and colder ritual. Not that Sylvia particularly disliked the talkies. Her voice and accent were acceptable, and she had accommodated herself well enough to the change-over. Her feeling was vaguer than dislike, but also less conquerable—a regret for times that were gone, for triumphs hardly to be repeated.
She felt sometimes, too, that she had had her day and might better abdicate with dignity than be pushed eventually from the throne. The younger stars, brought up in the talky tradition, already counted her a back number; and the more famous producers evidently did not consider her worth their attention. That was partly the trouble with her last picture; nobody had really believed in it, neither the Vox people nor herself. It has been made because she was under contract, and because the name “Sylvia Seydel” still had immense drawing power, not because anyone had been terribly interested in the job itself. It piqued her a little to find that Nicky had diagnosed the deficiency so promptly.
Well, should she yield her position while the manoeuvre could still be performed with grace? Twelve years was a long span; she had done her lifework, or served her life-sentence, whichever way one chose to look at it. She could leave the future to those who were better equipped to deal with it—a future, incidentally, which she need hardly envy them. She did not particularly study affairs, but she was dimly aware that she had sailed to fortune on the crest of a wave, and that her successors must make what they could out of the slough. In her private mind she felt quite certain that when she met the Vox people after the expiry of her present contract they would agree to a renewal only at a very much lower figure. She knew it, and was in a way reconciled; yet she knew also that the blow, when it fell, would come crushingly and with a revelation of failure. Yet it could be forestalled, if she chose, by an announcement of her impending retirement. Then there would be farewell parties, speeches in her honour, a last blaze of publicity throughout the world, and for ever afterwards—not quite oblivion.
All this was in her mind one evening when she and Nicky went to a Chinese party at the Statlers. Statler owned an oil-field and was married to a pretty Chicagoan who had but recently been a student at Berkeley; there was something odd, but not wholly unattractive, in the relationship between the rough, almost illiterate man of fifty and the cultured girl in her very early twenties. She had sold herself to him, no doubt; but then, too, there was a sense in which he had also sold himself to her. He was childishly devoted, rather like a fierce wolf-hound that she had tamed; it was amusing to watch him going round saying “Howdy” to all her exquisite friends. Sylvia rather liked him, and was by no means put out by his occasionally Rabelaisian humours.
The Statler home had a fantastically lovely garden-roof overlooking the sea, and here, since the night was warm and there was a bright moon, the party took place. Sylvia was a Manchu princess, Nicky a mandarin—not especially original of either of them, but their costumes and looks made them conspicuous even in a gathering where wealth and beauty were flaunted rather than displayed. Statler had been a “bear” operator on Wall Street since the autumn of 1929, and was reputed to have made himself a multimillionaire out of the slump; certainly when his wife gave a party his cheque-book was always opened wide beforehand. All the servants were genuine Chinese, and padded round, as dusk fell, lighting real Chinese lanterns; there was an authentic Chinese musician with his yueh-chin, or moon guitar, plucking notes that seemed to dissolve into the air as they were sounded; and another marvellously-gowned fellow with a drum on which the painted dragons looked actually writhing, so strange was the compulsion of movement and rhythm. Heaven knew where all these persons and properties had been obtained—or, rather, Statler’s bankers knew. And there was, to Sylvia, a curious feeling of unreality and impermanence about it all, symbolised by that roof-top islanded above the sea and shore. As the lanterns swayed in the breeze, and the surf-smell rose to mingle with that of sandalwood incense, she felt suddenly that the whole artifice of the scene, with all its beauty, was but a flower of catastrophe; that Statler, standing a little apart from his guests, was the chance beneficiary of some vast and nearly universal doom. She saw behind the flickering coloured globes and the laughing couples the darker pageant of headline news—ruined homes and bankrupt farms, closed factories, bread lines, apple-sellers on the Fifth Avenue kerb. The vision was partly born of her own big losses. Two million dollars altogether, she reckoned; it had all gone somewhere, perhaps into an abyss from which Statler and his kind had had the magic knack of rescue. It half-amused her to think of him as the man who had somehow taken her money. He was standing near the guitar-player, slightly absurd in a presumably military uniform, and gazing down at the musician with a simplicity nearly as inscrutable as the Oriental’s. She went over to him and chatted for a time; he had a rather pathetic air of being honoured by her attention, and she felt comfortingly that at least he belonged to the generation for whom Sylvia Seydel was still the greatest name on the screen.
She knew him well enough to ask, at length: “Tell me, Mr. Statler, d’you think Steel Common are going down any more?”
“Surely,” he answered, with dove-like gentleness.
“You think I ought to sell, then? I bought mine at a hundred and forty.”
“Yeah, you sure oughter sell.”
“You seriously mean that?”
“Yeah, I surriously do.” After a little pause he went on: “I dunno your Chinese friend, Miss Seydel. He came up to me a moment ago but I guess he don’t understand our lingo very well.”
She began to laugh. “Oh, you mean Nicky—he must have been up to one of his games! Prince Nicholas Petcheni’s his full name, and he speaks quite perfect English.”
“You mean to tell me that guy isn’t Chink at all?”
“Why, of course not. He’s a Roumanian.”
“Acts for the movies, I suppose?”
“No, he’s my secretary.”
“Well, Miss Seydel, all I can say is, you’ve gotten a durned fine actor as a sekertary. Look at him now....”
They both looked. Nicky was dancing with a tall, pale girl who was convulsed with laughter, apparently by something he had just said or done. But his antics were more than merely laughable. He had, in some extraordinary fashion, converted himself into the almost real thing; his chinoiserie was more than improvised, it was stylised. From the little tippling movements of his feet to the slightly bent shoulders and slanted head, he WAS the Celestial; he had even managed to alter the contour of his features, while from his lips there came a sharp bubbling treble that was in itself a perfect caricature.
“Yes,” said Sylvia slowly, “he’s rather good, isn’t he?”
She liked to add her own careful and discriminating praise of him to the keener enthusiasm of others. In her troubled reckonings and assessments of herself and her future, he at least must be counted a triumph; it was something, anyhow, to have snatched him away from the Palmer woman and to have installed him amongst her own entourage. He was well-known now all round the film-colony; he went everywhere, sometimes with her, often with others; the women were wild about him, and even among the men he was rather surprisingly popular. Probably, she reflected, people were saying that she and he were living together. She hardly minded; it was the kind of rumour that did a film- star no harm, provided she hadn’t always to be put to the trouble of substantiating it.
Sylvia’s experience of men had been both considerable and, on the whole, unfortunate. Her first husband, whom she had married at seventeen, was a production manager in one of the old and now defunct film companies; they had had an idyllic honeymoon and a fairly happy year, after which he had capriciously thrown up his job to become a realtor in Kansas City. She declined to accompany him there, so he left her and found some other woman eventually; thus she got her first divorce. This experience made her decide that if ever she married again it would be for money, not for love. Three years passed, and then one day an exceedingly rich corset-manufacturer from New Jersey visited Hollywood, met her, became preposterously amorous, and found that her terms were marriage and the continuance of her professional work. He agreed, and built a house on Millionaire Drive at Pasadena in token of complete submission. He was an Italian of between forty and fifty, with a swarm of children accumulated from vaguely complicated previous alliances; there were still a houseful of them even after three had been killed in a motor-smash. Sylvia disliked most of them intensely and soon came to dislike their father too, especially when he insisted on her providing them with additional half-brothers and sisters. At last, after many squabblings and turbulences, the crisis was reached; she left him, and in due course he discovered a state that was willing to give him a divorce for mental cruelty. But though matrimonially a failure, she did not count her year with the corset-manufacturer a wholly wasted effort. Its results were manifest, even if not in the semblance he would himself have preferred; it was his money that helped her to establish a social status in the film-world, to say nothing of its fruition in the form of the house at Pasadena, and a new corset-factory Los Angeles.
Her next marriage came after her big success, when she was a world-famous personage and had a growing fortune of her own. She decided this time that she would marry into her own class—i.e. a film-actor; and she chose Jeremy Baxter (né Schmidt), who was almost as world-famous as herself. She did not exactly fall in love with him; rather it might be said that she manoeuvred herself, with a little strain, into that condition. She had a hazy idea that they might set up a ménage of slightly notorious domesticity—something, perhaps, after the Pickford-Fairbanks model. Unfortunately Jeremy was not the ideal husband even if she had been the ideal wife. Her synthetic affection for him did not survive the first night, nor her tolerance the first week; she was hardly straitlaced, but after he had been involved in a court case over some girl whom he had stripped naked and tarred and feathered on a speedway, she thought her lawyers might as well do the rest.
Her third set of divorce papers arrived during those weeks at Santa Katerina, those weeks of indecision about her future. “There you are, Nicky,” she said, tossing him the lawyer’s letter. “I’m through with men now, thank God.” He laughed and stooped to her bare shoulder with his lips. The relationship between them was peculiar—so peculiar that she decided it must be a part of him, not of her, and therefore, like so much else that was his, completely incomprehensible. She liked him, and assumed that he must like her too; he flirted with her occasionally, and she did not object. She permitted him many intimacies which with other men might have been impossible, except at a price; their bedrooms were on the same floor, and he wandered in and out at all times of the day and night. It wasn’t that she had any particular faith in his honourable intentions; indeed, she was never quite certain what he would do next, or to what fantastic gallantry he might eventually be impelled. There was a childlike quality in him which made nonsense of all the usual gradations of amorous dalliance; yet she was aware that this quality might well be just as bogus as his princeliness. She was not exactly on her guard against him, but she was determined never to expect too much or to be prepared for too little. Meanwhile, so long as it lasted, she could enjoy his company and take whatever he offered that she found acceptable.
Then, quite suddenly, there was a development. They had gone for a long week-end’s motor-trip to Monterey, and there, on that extraordinary bleak promontory, the languorous south seemed to end up with a shudder; there was a hint of foreboding in the darkly waving cypresses and the wind that was nearly a gale. Nicky stood for a long time on the cliff-edge, gazing far out over the ocean; and it was then, all at once, that the idea approached her in the guise of a problem—could he really be accused of always posing when it was so natural for him to pose? For, in that changed scene, his whole attitude was changed; she could see his face in profile against the wind, and it was full of a majestic seriousness; his forehead seemed almost to slope back more nobly; certainly his lips and nostrils were quivering in new contours. “Nicky,” she cried, astonished, “what ARE you doing? Come and help me unpack the food.”
He turned and walked towards her with slow, deliberate steps. “If you really want to know what I was doing, Sylvia, I was imagining myself an Indian, chased westward by the white man, and coming at last over the mountains to this terrific end of the world.”
“But, Nicky, that’s amazing—you LOOKED like an Indian—you’re still looking like one! If only you had some feathers and a blanket...”
Thus the idea was born. They talked about it all the rest of that day, and throughout the next, fanning each other’s enthusiasm till they both returned to Santa Katerina considerably on fire.
Sylvia had always been fascinated by Indians. Racial problems of all kinds interested her; she had had many friendships with Japanese and Chinese, and even to negroes she felt much less than the physical repugnance she found it politic to assume. But of all the ethnic types in America, the native red man attracted her most and stirred her to the largest measure of sympathy; often, seeing them from the train-windows at Albuquerque, Espanola, and other stations on the Santa Fé railroad, she had sensed the tragedy of their survival into a machine-ridden age, and had wondered why the subject had not attracted more attention from writers. In the early days of her career she had once gone to New Mexico to make a cowboy film with real Indians in it, but they had been rather degenerate specimens, hard drinkers and bad actors. That was part of their fate; they were a dumb, stricken race, perishing by the bounty of the conqueror no less than formerly by his sword. As Sylvia pondered on the theme, it seemed to her that here she had something she had never had before—the seed of a possibly gigantic picture, one that would transcend the usual distinctions between lowbrow and highbrow in an appeal that might be universally American. Such a picture must present the whole pageant of conquest and subjection, not with any bitterness against the conquerors, but in the new spirit of national self-questioning that had been so rapidly engendered since 1929. She felt, intuitively, what she could not thoroughly expound—that the God’s-own-country type of American had withered under the shock of crumbling markets; and that the 1931 model was a charier being, more darkly sceptical and less eager to accept statistics of car- loadings as the final touchstone of civilisation.
It gave Sylvia a keen pleasure to work out details of the picture. She decided it must be based on a simple framework—the story of an Indian family through several generations, beginning with warfare against the covered-waggoners and ending with the ignominious semi-captivity of the present. Nicky, of course, would take the part of a modern Indian youth, proud of his Chinookan or Seminole ancestry, yet toying with the civilisation of the invader, going to college, acquiring culture, falling in love with a city girl, and finally, to complete the cycle, returning to his own people unfitted for happiness in either their state or any other. For that last scene she had in mind a constant recollection of an Indian she had once seen at Silver City, waiting forlornly at the depot as her train halted—a tall, lonely figure with blue-black hair and hot, restless eyes, tragi-comic in a black suit, linen collar, and patent shoes. But behind the personal picture there must always be the background of the ever-westward thrust of skyscraper and railroad, the growth of little one-street townships into great cities, the absorption stage by stage of the last outposts of the Amerind.
Nicky was no less taken with the idea than she was, but enthusiasm alone would not get them far; and as soon as they had settled the preliminary details they left Santa Katerina for Beverley Hills, to be nearer the scene of action. Sylvia in all this was a new woman, lovelier than ever in her eagerness, and she was really very lovely; there was no thought in her mind of retirement now; she would stage a magnificent “come-back” with by far the best thing she had ever done; the world would be at her feet again. She was sure that, as the American girl in love with the Indian, she could act as she had never acted before, quickened emotionally by the interest she felt in the problem behind the story. Nor did she now fear the day when her contract with Vox’s was due to expire. On the contrary, a week beforehand she drove up arrogantly in her ten-thousand-dollar Pierce-Arrow and interviewed Vox himself. He was a cultured Jew, clever, coldly polite, and rather deprecatory on principle. As soon as she had sketched out her idea he told her quite definitely that it would never do. Nor did her claim to have discovered a new male star rouse him to any degree of rapture. Good ideas and good actors, he indicated, were nearly at giving-away prices; what a film had to have, in the first place, was a reasonable chance of securing the dollar-support of the public. And hers hadn’t. The public, he declared, took no interest whatever in the Indian problem. It was true that Sylvia herself still had a name, but she would certainly sacrifice it all if she allowed herself to be featured as an American woman mixed up with a coloured man. People simply wouldn’t stand it; in fact, it might even lead to race-riots and be prohibited.
“Didn’t Pocohontas marry a white man?” she interrupted.
“Yes, and ‘Othello’s’ a story about a nigger and a white girl,” he retorted, “but you daren’t talk about it in the Carolinas.”
“But that’s an entirely different matter. The Indian is as white as the Italian or the Spaniard. He’s as white as the Californian will be in a few more generations.”
“I don’t dispute it, Miss Seydel,” answered Vox, with a shrug of the shoulders. “But I still tell you, quite candidly, that to appear in public in such a picture as you suggest is simply professional suicide for you.”
“I don’t see that it need be. After all, why shouldn’t we be proud of the Indian traditions? They’re part of our country. And even by white standards, a great many Indians are fine-looking, don’t you think? As for sex-appeal, if the public wants something new in that direction, I can promise it from the young Roumanian I’ve got in mind to take the chief part.”
“My dear Miss Seydel, if it were all a matter of only that, I could produce at least a dozen niggers that have more of it than any white man I know. And there are plenty of women who’d be thrilled by ’em easily enough in the safety of a dollar-seat at the movies. The trouble is that we don’t want certain things to happen in real life, and that’s why we have to keep them off the stage and screen.”
“But you’re still talking about niggers. ...”
It was no use arguing, however. She left quite convinced that she could expect no support from any of the well-known producing companies. She was too scornful of their attitude to feel defeat; indeed, her scorn fed fuel to her keenness. Yet, if what Vox had said were true, the outlook did not appear very hopeful. Only gradually did she accept the notion that she must undertake the task herself. At first, this would have seemed preposterous, for she, of all persons, knew the immense technical difficulties of picture-making on a large scale. The cost, too, and the big risk of financial failure, made the project seem particularly mad; it was too huge a stake to play for, after all her Wall Street losses. And yet, when she continued to think about it, it was those Wall Street losses that finally urged her on; so much of her money had melted away into nothing, surely she could adventure a fraction of the residue in something, in something that was both big and real? Almost without awareness that she had already made the decision, she began to look about for possible colleagues in the enterprise; and her final misgivings disappeared when, to her great surprise, she found Statler sympathetic. Not only that; he offered to join her financially in the venture on a fifty-fifty basis. The fact that the film-companies wouldn’t touch it didn’t disturb him in the least. “I’ve made my pile by doing just what the other guy doesn’t do,” he said. “And I’ve found out another thing, too—that there ain’t no fools like those that think they know their own business best.”
As for Nicky, he was sheerly delighted with the prospect of such new and exciting activities. He read books about the Indians, took flying visits into Arizona and New Mexico in search of good locations, and absorbed all the colour and tradition he could get hold of. He also practised before the camera and microphone, and was successful enough to enjoy himself very thoroughly. Sylvia was equally busy, engaging camera-men, production-managers, art-directors, dialogue-writers, and all the hordes of miscellaneous camp-followers required for such a job. These preparations were complete by the end of August, and the actual filming began a fortnight later at Sabinal, New Mexico.
“Amerind,” as Sylvia decided to call the picture, was in many ways a unique production. Not wholly original in treatment (it owed obvious debts to the great Griffiths canvases and also to the more recent all-negro “Hallelujah"), it nevertheless broke as much new ground as could be expected from a single work. It cost money, and there was no stinting, but for size and scope it was probably one of the cheapest films ever made. Sylvia and Nicky drew salaries which, by Hollywood standards, were quite small, and the producer was a young Russian of genius, but not yet of reputation, who was glad enough to take his chance for less than the pay of a swell gangster. Except for Sylvia, nobody had a name already well-known to the world. There was about the entire enterprise, indeed, a prevalent atmosphere of youth and eager ambition; the whole company were aware, intuitively even if they did not think it out, that they were engaged in a pioneer adventure, something different in character from the conventional Hollywood job.
But “Amerind’s” greatest triumph, of course, was Nicky. As soon as the first few scenes had been shot, Sylvia was aware that he would prove to be all that she had hoped, and more. Not only was his acting superb, but he had an extraordinary success with the real Indians of the locality. He seemed to make them realise that the picture was intended to dignify and not travesty their race; he conquered their shyness, induced them to share in the general zest and excitement, and made a few of them into quite excellent actors. None of the big scenes—the fight with the settlers, the Indian dance, the trek to the reserved territory—would have been half so effective without his guidances and persuasions. It was noticeable that the Indians accepted him as one of themselves as they did no other; in the native village he strolled in and out of the small adobe huts as unceremoniously as (Sylvia reflected) he was liable to stroll in and out of her own and doubtless anyone else’s bedroom. He was like that. She felt it was probably his most successful pose, that of having no pose at all.
She was surpassingly happy during those crowded, hard-working weeks at Sabinal. They were something like a miracle to her, bringing back what she had believed entirely lost, the glamour of her early film-days. There were the same cries and shoutings, the same smells of dust and horses and camp-fire cooking, the same flaunted landscape-colours. Impossible to capture these directly for the film, but they were somehow imposed, she hoped, on every cadence and movement of those who were there amongst them the flaming ocotillo and lemon- yellow cactus, the ash-grey sage-brush against that background of pale mauve desert and violet horizon. Those September dawns when they all set out early, in cars as far as the road took them, then on horseback trails into the mountains, cast a spell over memory; made vivid all that she had ever had of happiness or excitement, and blacked out every qualm and trouble of more recent years. At that mile-high altitude, under the copper sky as the sun rose, one could sniff the future, one felt alive in the morning of the world. This was America, she felt, in a sense that might mean more to Americans if ever some day their skyscraper civilisation should fall away. She herself throve in it; her body freshened and grew taut with new ardours. Once, when Nicky kissed her, she returned his caress with a passion that overwhelmed them both, but him only with a curious wayward ecstasy. She had never met anyone the least like him before, and was sure she never would again. She was by no means confident that he was entirely sane. Certainly he was the only man she had ever known whose genius took in everything that he WAS as well as a few things that he HAD. The warm and sombre dignity of his Indian characterisation touched her as she felt sure millions of others would be touched; and it was perhaps natural that after his sublimities before the camera he should fly to the quaintest extremes when off duty. But on duty or off, he seemed alive to her in a sense in which most other people were dead; even his created self, the Indian of the film, lived more than all her far-away acquaintances of club-house and studio.
She had very few acting scenes at Sabinal; most of hers were interiors to be shot later on in Hollywood. In these she was to take the part of the modern New York girl enamoured of the Indian, meeting him in drawing-rooms, yet seeing behind his tamed elegance the splendour of the untameable. It was a part that she looked forward to throughout those long, burning days in the desert; yet when at last the camp broke up and she waved farewell to the Indians from the window of the Los Angeles express there came over her a feeling of simple misery, as for a child’s party that was over.
The month that followed of studio-work, cutting, and final arrangement, might have been anti-climax but for her growing consciousness of success. Her acting surprised herself; when she compared it with that in her last film, it was as though she had grown into someone else. The love-scenes with Nicky were quite perfect, and his brooding tenderness set the key for what she felt sure would sound a new motif in screen-passion. Scores of men had made love to her, both before the camera and otherwise, but not one had impressed with such flawlessness of technique. Yet she found herself entirely incapable of judging whether this flawlessness in Nicky were due mainly to instinct or to experience. As a critic of love, she was puzzled; but as an exhibitionist she could not but admire the virtuosity of a performance which gave her own talents such full and confident scope. Never, indeed, had celluloid recorded her in better form.
When the last shot had been taken (one morning in October) she had everyone she could think of called up on the telephone and invited to an impromptu party at her house that same evening. She felt recklessly triumphant, and took vast delight in the excitements and complications of such large-scale planning at short notice—the servants clearing the big rooms for dancing, hired waiters unpacking crockery, the armies of electricians festooning coloured lights from the eucalyptus trees in the garden. She gave her bootlegger the largest private order he had had for months, and told the leader of a jazz-band over the San Francisco telephone that he could fly his men across at any expense; she wanted the best saxophones on the Pacific slope that night and was prepared to pay for them. All this kind of thing was reminiscent of more profligate days, but there was an intention in her mind that made profligacy appear worth while: it was a gesture to announce that Sylvia Seydel was still rich, just as later her picture could do its own announcing that she was not only still great but greater than ever.
Between two and three hundred persons arrived, few of them personal friends, most mere acquaintances, some scarcely even that. She stirred to an inward contempt as she regally shook hands and accepted their chattering congratulations; but the contempt was in some sense a luxury to which she was treating herself as reward. She knew the mood of these people and the thoughts they had been exchanging about her ever since the disappointment (she could allow the word now) of her last picture. She knew that most of them thought that she had lost her head and was about to lose what was left of her money also; she knew that they had been laughing at her, reckoning her losses, scandalising her relationship with Nicky, whom they probably regarded as just the usual gigolo foreigner trading on his title and good looks—a queen’s favourite even if not already a prince-consort. Such knowledge gave her a cool and calculating arrogance; she would show these people the kind she really was and the kind Nicky really was. That he was attractive, witty, and clever, had been demonstrated often enough; but how much more was there that they would soon have to concede? She felt a stormy, half-proprietary pride in him as she caught over his shoulder fleeting stares of other dancers—their inquisitive, envious, slightly ill-wishing eyes. “They’d enjoy themselves like this at my funeral,” she whispered to Statler, during an interval, and he answered, in his softly cooing voice: “I guess they think this is your funeral, Miss Seydel.”
Supper was taken in the huge panelled dining-room which had been cleared of all furniture except long buffet-tables. For over an hour the roar of conversation and popping of corks gathered impetus; there were torrents of champagne, and a few of the guests soon began to get noisily tipsy. The bootlegger supplying the wines had sent also, as a friendly tribute to the movie-queen, the equipment of a new game of his own invention; it consisted of life-size rubber heads of gloomily-featured persons labelled “Depression,” “Unemployment,” “Stocks Slump,” and so on, and the game was to shy balls at these figures till they toppled over and rang a bell. But there were not enough balls to go round, and some of the crowd pelted the figures with apples, empty bottles, and ice out of the champagne buckets, till the floor and walls at that end of the room were splashed and littered with debris. Whenever the bell did ring pandemonium raged for minutes on end, amidst which the tipsier among the throwers aimed their missiles wildly. Minor casualties resulted from these commotions, and a man’s arm was badly gashed with broken glass; there also developed a noisy fight on the lawns between two hastily organised gangs, ending by the pushing of a garden-roller into an ornamental pond. Some rather valuable plants were destroyed and miscellaneous other items of damage done before the warriors of both sexes selected their partners, filled up their hip-flasks, and retired to amorous seclusion in the cars parked in the avenue. Indeed, there could be no doubt that the party was proving a thorough success.
Towards midnight the surviving merrymakers called for a speech from Sylvia, who was still dancing with Nicky, and the cry was taken up so boisterously that guests came rushing in from their various preoccupations in other parts of the house and gardens. Sylvia, with her arm through Nicky’s, mounted the dais amongst the jazz-players and skimmed a few sentences serenely above the hubbub. She said very little about the new film, except that it was finished, and that she was sure it was going to be a success. But she praised Nicky and insisted that all the credit was due to him rather than to her. At this there was some slightly mocking applause, to which she responded by adding: “Well, anyhow, you’ll all be seeing the picture, so you’ll soon have a chance of judging the kind of person he really is.”
To her surprise, Nicky flushed and appeared put out by the remark. “I don’t know that I particularly want all these people to know the kind of person I really am,” he answered, in a tone that began with lazy insolence and ended in a note of shrill rage. Then, in the excited hush that followed, he gave a sudden laugh, shook himself free from Sylvia, and pushed his way out of the room.
Four hours later Sylvia slowly undressed amidst the perfumed and unguented luxury which had been photographed for so many art magazines and beauty-cream advertisements. She had not seen Nicky since his abrupt departure from the dance-room, and she was trying hard to feel that he had not meant to snub her publicly, but had only been a little more capricious than usual after too much champagne. Harder still, she tried to feel that it did not really matter what his reason had been, since he had behaved rudely to her, and must be left either to realise it for himself or not at all. It was by no means the first squabble they had had, but it was the first time they had ever given a public exhibition. She felt hurt, cross, and achingly tired after the stress of the evening and the sharp deflation of her triumph. The house and gardens were still full of sounds of the servants clearing things away, and one always wondered at such a time if it had all been worth while. On the whole she thought it had—at any rate, up to the scene with Nicky. Fortunately, everybody had been more or less tight when that had happened. Perhaps Nicky too, poor boy. She had better make up her mind, she reflected, whether she was chiefly sorry or angry.
She got into bed and soon found physical languors too comforting to resist; she was nearly asleep when suddenly the door opened and Nicky entered. He wore one of his brightly futurist dressing-gowns over green silk pyjamas, and smoked a cigarette that drooped obliquely from the corner of his mouth. There was nothing of his usual elegance about him; his face, on the contrary, was flushed and unquiet, and his hair tumbled over his forehead in picturesque confusion. After switching on the light he closed the door noisily and, without looking towards the bed, strode over to the dressing-table and began to use one of her hair-brushes. He did not speak, though of course that might be because he thought she was asleep; in which case, she considered, it had been rather bad-mannered of him to switch on lights and make such a racket. “Well, Nicky,” she said quietly, “where have you been?”
He swung round and answered in a clipped and rather peevish voice: “I couldn’t stand that infernal crowd, so I went out, got drunk on my own, and then had a bathe in the pool.”
“Rather silly of you, really. Just the way to take a chill and die of pneumonia.”
She was surprised, but able to keep quite unperturbed. She had been prepared for his meeting her with bland forgetfulness, or even with some sort of an apology; that he might continue the flare-up had hardly suggested itself. But then he always did what one least expected, she thought, calmly watching him.
He went on, rather loudly; “Look here, Sylvia, all this—the sort of thing that happened to-night—has got to stop. Don’t say you don’t know what I mean. You DO know. You were patronising me. You had me on a bit of string and kept trailing me round to be shown off to all your confounded friends. I won’t have it. I belong to myself, and I won’t be made a tame monkey of. I tell you I won’t have it. And don’t imagine I shall be restrained by any feelings of—of gratitude—or chivalry—or—”
“My dear Nicky, those are the last motives I should ever suspect in you. I’m afraid you’re still rather drunk or you wouldn’t be talking such nonsense.”
“It isn’t nonsense. You know perfectly well that all this evening you’ve been doing nothing but parade me!”
“And that’s all you can give as a reason for making a scene in public? Just because I said something quite harmless and not very important that didn’t happen to take your fancy? Do you ever care a damn whether I always like the things you say?”
“That’s different. You went round acting the proud mamma with the infant prodigy!”
“Oh, Nicky, you’re too funny! Even if I was acting, which I don’t feel inclined to admit, haven’t I as much right to an occasional pose as you have? Don’t you ever act? Aren’t you acting just a little bit now? Why, you’re just lashing yourself into a temper to enjoy the result, that’s all. I’ll allow you’re managing it rather well, but I’m doing my share too, remember—your smart dialogue wouldn’t come out so pat if I didn’t hand you the right cues. And, by the way, I don’t think the hairbrush gestures are quite in keeping—put it down and try something else.”
He suddenly collapsed on to the bed and began to shout and shake with laughter. “Oh, Sylvia, whatever makes you so adorably acute?” Every cadence in his voice was changed, and as he went on laughing he stooped and buried his lips and nose in the gentle hollow of her throat. “Do I smell of champagne, darling, or doesn’t it matter? Oh, what a lovely and clever woman you are! Lovely, yet you’ve got a mind like a surgical knife.... I like the mixture, I must say.” His lips roamed to her mouth, and he added, in between deep kisses: “Yes, I do... DO... like... it....”
She flung her arm round his neck and stroked his face, instantly forgetting the ridiculous little tiff, and submitting to his fondling with rich contentment. Her sensuality was of a kind of which she felt no shame and which she saw no need to suppress. “Nicky, I’m—I’m glad you like me.” That sounded silly. She had only said it to hear herself say it; her real answer was with her body. And her body felt, if it were possible, amused. It occurred to her all at once that here they were, the two of them, engaged in these rather abrupt and intimate diversions, without ever having exchanged a word of love. That was modern, surely. In the old days, to judge from novels, love was largely a matter of protestation, and an author had to work his characters up to a fantastic pitch of verbose sentimentality before he could close the final chapter with a chaste embrace. Rather unhealthy, she thought; she remembered going through the phase in her teens— perhaps most girls did at that age. Anyhow, the mere idea of talking love with Nicky made her feel quite comically gigglish. It was all right for the films, but they would be too well aware of each other’s technique to take themselves seriously in private. In the midst of her cool, roving thoughts she passed from mere amusement to sharp, quicksilver delight. Marvellous boy! And how wonderful those days had been at Sabinal—long, brick-red days in the sun, Nicky hallooing the Indians, sausages frying over picnic-fires, the rusty-rose of the sky when they all returned to camp in the evenings. And the scarlet ocotillo that was like a spurt of flame, and the big blots of lilac and lemon on the hillsides. ... She was never quite certain whether colours made her happy, or whether she always noticed them most when she was happy. For she liked Nicky tremendously—as much as she had ever liked any man, if you could call him a man.... But to LOVE him... well, anyway, he didn’t ask you to. If he wanted to kiss, he did, and if you felt in a similar mood, all right; he didn’t insist on adding a huge significance to it. And what WAS love, for that matter? Only a word to mean anything you liked; drinking too much champagne, sleeping with somebody, dying on the battle-field, going to church— you did it all for what could be called by the name. An unprecise term, therefore, to use in an argument.... But she was at Sabinal again, its colours before her eyes and its warmth lapping her like a tide; and she knew at last that whether she loved Nicky or not (an absurd problem), his coming had made a difference beyond her power to calculate, and that without him now she would be struggling amongst the elbows of the world. She had had her day, there was no real doubt of it; but his profound and lovely foolery could give her the illusion of a second chance.
“I don’t want to stay here long,” said Nicky, driving his two-seater on Fifth Avenue; and Sylvia, sitting next to him, purred comfortably: “Sure, Nicky—after the next picture we’ll go to Europe for a season, or Japan, or just anywhere you like.”
He pulled up sharply and the surrounding items of the traffic-block seemed to stoop over him in menace. It was an extravagantly low-built car, the last word in silver-gadgeted opulence, and a recent gift from Sylvia; there had been photographs of it and of them throughout the Press, and the makers, for publicity, had let it go at half-price. But Nicky already felt that he had given away several thousand dollars’ worth of advertisement in return for nothing but the sensation of being a large baby who must not only travel in a bassinette but propel himself in one. Just now, for instance, the occupants of adjacent cars immediately noticed him, and there was a concerted craning of necks and muttering of comments until, with a jerk, the traffic moved on.
Nicky had come to New York with Sylvia after the successful première of ‘Red Desert.’ The fact was, at the trade-show the film’s obvious merits had caused several distributing companies to bid for it, and Sylvia, after much haggling and consultation with Statler, had disposed of half her rights for a hundred thousand dollars. As this was nearly as much as the whole film had cost to produce, and as the services of nation- wide distributors were bound to result in larger profits, she felt she had driven a good bargain. True, the distributors insisted on making a few slight alterations in the film as it stood. Besides the change of title, it was also decided to add a few supplementary studio scenes revealing the fact that the Indian was not really an Indian after all, but a bank-president’s son whom his parents believed to have been drowned as a baby, but who had actually been rescued by Indians and brought up as one of themselves. The timely discovery of his true ancestry made possible a new and happier ending for the picture, and the final scene showed Nicky and Sylvia bringing paternal tears to the eyes of an old man in a bath-chair. Apart, however, from these additions, and the shortening of a kiss by two seconds in the interests of public morality, ‘Red Desert’ was substantially the same work as the projected ‘Amerind.’
The revised version represented, it might be said, a victory for reasonableness and common sense on all sides. Sylvia had been at first reluctant to consent to any changes at all, but the unmistakable enthusiasm of the film-magnates for the production as a whole convinced her that it would be merely quixotic to stand out, particularly as Statler favoured agreement and Nicky offered no objections. Only the Russian producer proved thoroughly intransigeant, but since he had no direct financial interest in the film’s success it was easy to discount his attitude. Nor could it be denied that the cautious editing imposed by the distributors seemed amply justified in the reception given to “Red Desert” by the cinema- going public. The dish had been well salted by preliminary publicity, and the story of how Raphael Rassova, the new Roumanian film-star, had originally masqueraded in Hollywood as a Roumanian prince, and how Sylvia Seydel had found him out but had refused to give him away, evoked delighted comments from the gossip-paragraphists. “A wonder film,” quoted the blurb compiled from assorted newspaper criticisms. “Something new in cinematography.... Raphael Rassova is marvellous, and Sylvia Seydel is lovelier than ever.... At one bound the Roumanian Romeo steps into the front rank of heart-throbbers.... Miss Seydel has surpassed herself.... To take a single glance at Rassova is to know instantly why girls leave home.... Rassova is a revelation. Not since Valentino has there risen such a star in the firmament...” The film’s triumph was definitely clinched when a Baptist minister in Athens (Arkansas) described it in a sermon as “a shameless aphrodisiac, fit only for a nation of birth-controllers and evolutionists.”
On Sylvia, at least, the effect of such rather stupendous success was completely tonic. She had always (until the Wall Street slump) considered herself a good business-woman, and she was in her element now with the shoals of offers that began to pour in on her, not only for film-work, but for such remunerative side-issues as newspaper-articles, recommendations of face-cream, magazine-interviews, etc. All her depressions had lifted at last; she had “rung the bell”; her “come-back” had been practically all that she had ever hoped—practically, yes—and the impractical residue had been fairly easy to forget. She was still a queen in her own right and on a safe throne; besides which, she had had the genius to marry Nicky. That, in the opinion of Hollywood’s coolest critics, was a prudent fortification of the dynasty.
“You see, Nicky,” she was saying, that afternoon on Fifth Avenue, when the next traffic-block gave her the chance, “we’ve made such a wonderful hit that it’s terribly important to follow up quickly with another. Terribly important for you too. So many people won’t take you seriously till you’ve done a thing twice—they’re always afraid the first time may be only a fluke.”
“Well, so it may be. And, anyhow, who wants to be taken seriously?”
“Yes, I know, but when people begin handing you dollars by the hundred thousand you can’t treat the matter entirely as a joke. That offer of Vox’s this morning was pretty good, and I think he’ll give more if we hold out. I cabled him that we’d accept two-fifty, but I expect it’ll end by splitting the difference.”
Nicky assented rather vaguely. He took little interest in the complicated financial problems that had arisen since his ascent into fame; beyond the knowledge that he was now rich enough to buy anything he wanted in shops, he was glad to leave all that side of the business in Sylvia’s hands. It was not that he couldn’t bargain shrewdly himself; he could, when he wanted to—which was to say, when he felt that the issue could possibly matter to him. He had, for instance, enjoyed the haggling with those Englishmen about the aeroplane invention, and with Sylvia about his original salary as secretary, because in those days he had needed money and could bother about it. But now he found it difficult to raise any keen excitement about the exact digits that were to precede the row of noughts in his new contract.
When they reached their suite at the Plaza a cabled reply from Vox awaited them. Sylvia’s eyes, as she tore it open, conveyed the news. “Nicky!” she cried. “He’s accepted! He’s not even arguing about it! We’re signing for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!”
He smiled, and tried to think, as a mere essay in the whimsical, what the sum of a quarter of a million dollars might do. It might buy a scrap of frontage on Broadway, the whole Ziegfeld chorus for an experiment in companionate marriage in Honolulu, a large-sized howitzer, or a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; it could endow a professorship of ventriloquism at Harvard, equip a scientific expedition to Mongolia, or pay the interest on the world’s debts for about ten minutes. What was quite certain, however, was that the quarter-million handed over by Vox would be employed in none of these thought-provoking pursuits. He said, after his reverie: “Yes, it’s not too bad, is it? But it’s got to be earned yet, remember. How many pictures are we promising?”
Three, was it? Thirty-three would have appeared to concern him no more—and no less. For he knew then, quite definitely, that he didn’t want to make another film at all. He was bored, with a boredom like a hot chafing that would soon break into a sore. “I think I’ll go out for a walk,” he said, desperately seeking relief.
“But, Nicky, dear, if you wouldn’t mind, there are just a few things that you simply must do. ...”
This time it was autograph-books that had to be signed. There was a whole heap of them awaiting the scribbled “Raphael Rassova” which, since it would inevitably convert the mere admirer into the devotee, was considered well worth the trouble both by Sylvia, with her experience, and by Nicky’s new private secretary, with his. This latter person was a hearty, hand-shaking New Yorker, specially recommended by Vox for the education of rising stars in the way they should twinkle.
Nicky filled his fountain-pen and set dismally to work. Just before he had finished the secretary admitted a girl journalist who wanted to know his life-story, how it felt to be famous, and his opinion of American womanhood. A few of her questions he answered frivolously, and afterwards Sylvia warned him against this; for it appeared that journalists were dangerous people, with immense power to injure him if they conceived themselves slighted. He was, he realised, a much more vulnerable person now than ever before—an idol, it would seem, only so long as he skilfully avoided becoming a target. He grumbled for a time, but there was soon the need to dress for a dinner and reception that were being held that evening in his honour. He went in a state of grudging resignation induced by several cocktails, shook hands with between four and five hundred people, made a short speech, signed menu-cards by the dozen, and drank some rather bad brandy. As he crossed the pavement afterwards with Sylvia to reach their car, a crowd of girls who had apparently been waiting in the rain for some hours rushed forward. His coat was torn slightly and one girl put her arms round his neck and pulled his hat off. He rode back to the hotel ruffled, sombre, and hardly soothed by the sight of a monster sky- sign spelling out his pseudonym in letters of vivid scarlet. Sylvia, of course, had been marvellous throughout the entire evening—marvellous herself, and marvellous in the way she had tried to spare him the kind of things he disliked. It was the one axiom he forced himself to admit on every possible occasion—the marvellousness of Sylvia. That she was beautiful, clever, and immensely capable of running their married life as a going concern, were facts so indisputable that he could not easily decide what else there was that she could have been. Perhaps not very much. And yet... his mood of growing dissatisfaction seemed just to touch her, as it were, while his back was turned, and to recoil swiftly whenever he caught himself at it.
That night, in their bedroom, she remarked that he had talked very little during the evening, and asked if he had been tired. The question, coming then, focused all his complicated discomforts into a single pinpoint of misery, so that he answered, rather amazed at the extent of his own suffering: “Yes, I was tired. The people didn’t interest me, and I didn’t want to bother with them. Why should I bother with people if I don’t feel like it?”
“Only that you always used to be so amusing in company, Nicky—”
He flared up suddenly at that. “Oh, God, must I always be what I always used to be? That’s the fault of everything—to have to go on doing the same thing, being the same thing—it’s like that with films—because of one, you’ve got to go on making two, three, four, five, six!”
“Nicky, my dear, I don’t know why you should let yourself get in such a rage. Just because your success has been wonderful—”
“Yes, I know it’s because of that. It’s only the happy failures who have freedom to swop grooves. If you’re unlucky enough to be a success, you’re expected to stay where you’re put so that mass- hysteria knows where to find you.... Oh yes, it’s wonderful all right. But I remember I once said that the Californian scenery was wonderful, and you told me that you were tired of it because it just went on being wonderful. A wise remark, that, Sylvia.”
“I was despondent in those days, if that’s what you mean. I remember how I envied you your eagerness for things—you had plenty of it then.”
“Well, I don’t envy you yours now. I could stand you enjoying all this success if you were only a little privately amused by it. But I don’t think you are. I think you really believe that ’Red Desert’s’ a masterpiece.”
“I certainly haven’t reached the point of despising it, as you apparently have.”
“I don’t despise it—I just think it’s ridiculous. The idea of the Indians was all right to begin with, but the ending you let them stick on was utterly fatuous. Of course if it was merely money you wanted, that’s a sound reason, I admit. But why go on pretending that the thing’s still any real good?”
“You agreed to the change of ending yourself.”
“Oh, yes, I’d have agreed to anything. To tell the truth, I was so damnably bored by the whole business by that time that—”
Even the squabble, he reflected heavily, was proceeding with the orderliness of routine. They had had many such, during their four months of married life, and all had left their sincere affection for each other entirely unimpaired. But now he felt only saddened instead of slightly exhilarated by the quick-fire exchange, because he could sense behind it the pull of so many tenuous threads of emotion. He felt uneasy, exacerbated, aware of a host of irritating tendernesses. He said, pacifying himself: “Oh, what’s the good of all this wrangling, Sylvia? I’m in a filthy temper. I think I’d better work it off on some of those signatures. There are still about a million of them to be done.”
“Oh, don’t bother, darling, if you feel tired. They can wait.”
“No, no, I couldn’t sleep if I tried—I may as well get on with them.”
He put on a dressing-gown and passed through the adjoining rooms into the one that had been fitted out as a temporary office. Here, on a large table, lay his job—mysterious and cabalistic, the writing of two curious words, with his own hand, on pieces of paper— the last lip-service to personality demanded by a rubber-stamp world—and even then the personality was bogus. The trouble with modern fame, he decided, wielding his fountain-pen, was that it so soon became humourless. It had been fun, at first, being fêted by celebrities and having money enough to buy fur-overcoats and Cadillacs; just as it had been fun at first, in fact rather a lark, to go picture-making in the mountain-deserts of New Mexico. New sensations were always interesting up to a point, but the point was so fatally often that at which they ceased to be new. He swung round to the window—it was on the thirtieth floor or so—and watched the glittering panorama which represented the strange world that he had conquered. But had he conquered it, or had it only conquered him? On a desk near by lay an enormous heap of unopened letters, forwarded from the film company’s headquarters in Los Angeles and all addressed to him by unknown admirers. It was his secretary’s job to deal with them, of course; the usual procedure was to send a polite reply enclosing one of the signed postcard photographs. But he opened half a dozen himself, in mere curiosity, and glanced through their contents—ill-spelt appeals for money, hard-luck stories from out-of- works, maudlin sentimentality from schoolgirls, passionate unburdenings from bourgeois wives in big cities... . He threw them back into the heap after a few moments, in a mood of utter nausea. And these letters, he realised, came by every post, all the year round, and not only to him, but to Sylvia and every other screen-idol. They were his fan-mail, individually of no importance, but to be carefully counted and classified as an index-figure of his rise or fall in the public esteem. He took up his pen and scribbled ‘Raphael Rassova’ once more, but the name, facing him now so absurdly on all sides, transfixed him into panic as he thought of the three more films that he was promising to make. He couldn’t do it; he knew now that he couldn’t and wouldn’t. To have to stereotype himself like that, with the same theme always repeated da capo al fine—was it not all a sort of harlotry, standardised harlotry for those standardised brothels of the machine-mind—the cinemas? The phrase, pleasing him intellectually, converted his momentary cowardice into rebellion. He suddenly felt a vast grudge against those who were offering him, under the guise of success, this rigid and dingy slavery. He was to become a part of the huge mass-production plant of Fordised emotions, a rare and expensive raw material surrendered to the machine. It made him think of a paragraph he had seen in a woman’s journal a few days before, suggesting that Raphael Rassova would soon be second only to the Prince of Wales as an object of feminine adoration; and the recollection gave him a quickening sympathy with that enigmatic figure across the ocean, a man nearly old enough to be his father, yet condemned to everlasting Peter-Panhood by a country haunted by the spectre of its own old age. But he, anyhow, had been born to it, had had half a lifetime in which to get used to seeing his photograph, like that of a rather forlorn head-prefect, on magazine-covers and chocolate-boxes. It was harder to accept such bondage voluntarily, and for no visible reward except the power to spend money with as little genuine freedom as one had been permitted to earn it.
The spectacle of that future, dimly menacing as it had been for weeks, revealed itself more monstrously as he sat pondering alone. He saw its tentacles closing in on him with every moment; already the giant machine was being prepared for his bodily insertion. He felt as if it were about to pulp him into nothing but a phallic symbol to be held up before the stiffening glare of the mass-mind. That phrase pleased him too; he felt protected, somehow, by his own power of mental invective. A little cheered, he turned more tranquilly to thoughts of Sylvia. He liked her, and would have liked her nearly as much if she had been a man. The little difference, never important to him, had grown less so with familiarity. Perhaps in that sense it was a mistake for him to have become anybody’s husband, even a fourth one. A sudden consciousness of his own personal tragedy came over him at that moment. He was rootless, like so many of that war-spoilt generation; without parentage, nationality, or religion, he had developed a sacred petulance of spirit which was all he could confidently call his own. But it was too fragile to bear the imposition of outside ties. The thought of himself as a father, or as an old man, made him fret uneasily; he had no reserves of stability, his only happiness lay in movement, though whether, in the long run, he was chiefly pursuing or escaping, he could never be quite sure. Just now, at any rate, he wanted definitely to escape—from New York and America altogether; yet, if he did, he wondered if Sylvia could possibly understand that he was no more tired of her than an explorer is tired when he moves on. All he hoped was doubtless the impossible, that she could let him go as joyfully as he, if she were but joyful at all, could leave her.
He went to bed, slept badly, and rose in the morning restless as from a series of nightmares; after breakfast he left Sylvia busy with maids and secretaries and took a brisk walk along the pavements, wearing his hat and overcoat as disguisingly as he could. Even that, for instance, had been an exciting sensation at first—the continual expectation of being recognised by strangers; but by now it had become nothing but a fierce unpleasantness. He walked fast, eyeing shop-windows furtively, and managed to remain unnoticed for a time; but along Broadway some girls coming out of a department-store identified him. There were shrill cries of “Rassova,” and before he could gather his wits he was hurrying along with a shouting and cheering mob at his heels. He turned into a side- street, increasing his pace and throwing a smile to his pursuers; a woman seized his hand and shook it vehemently; then, with the smile still streaked across his face, he saw an open doorway and swerved into it, blindly pushing open the inner doors to which it gave access. To his surprise he found himself in a church. It was too dark to see clearly, but he caught a distant glimpse of another occupant and hurried towards him. “Excuse me,” he began, rather breathlessly, “but is there a different exit out of here? I want to get away from a crowd that’s following me—you see, I’m Raphael Rassova.”
Despite the urgency of the matter, he could not restrain a thrill of pleasure when he found that the man had clearly never heard of the name. “Rassova, the movie-actor,” Nicky explained, and the man answered, in a quite unimpressed voice: “Oh, I see.... I’m afraid you’ll have to go out by the way you came in, but there’s a room where you could wait for a time. I’ll tell the crowd to clear off, if you like.”
“Thanks,” said Nicky. “I’m terribly obliged to you.”
Only then, as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom of the interior, did he perceive that his rescuer wore clerical costume, and a few minutes later, sitting by the fire in a comfortably furnished vestry, he realised from pictures on the wall that the church was Roman. After an interval the priest rejoined him and began to chat casually and still without the slightest inquisitiveness. When Nicky out of courtesy volunteered further information about himself, he merely said: “Oh, yes, I understand— some of the people in the crowd told me about you.” He spoke in a way that rather charmingly avoided both contempt and any excessive interest.
“Perhaps you didn’t believe me till then?” Nicky suggested.
“Well, it did just enter my mind that you might be an escaped gunman.”
“And even so, you’d have asked me in here to wait?”
“Why not?” He laughed, and Nicky laughed, and they were instinctively aware of liking each other. He was about thirty, Nicky supposed; a sandy-haired, rather stockily-built man with very bright grey-blue eyes and a pale, pleasantly absent-minded face. An Irishman named Byrne, he said, and not attached to that particular church—merely a friend of the priest in charge. He himself was shortly going out to a parish, if it could be called such, in South America—a tract of swamp and jungle that he could not cross in less than a fortnight, so he would have plenty of work. He was sailing at the end of the week, on the Megantic. After he had talked for some time about his own affairs, he seemed to recollect that Nicky had his too, and remarked that it must be annoying to be so famous that one daren’t walk about the streets— “Though, of course,” he added, shrewdly, “it’s good advertisement for you, I suppose, so you can’t really object to it.”
“I loathe it,” answered Nicky, and began to say a great many things that were in his mind. Gradually, however, as he talked, there came upon him a curious and entirely novel sensation—the sensation that somebody else was not overwhelmingly interested in him. It was not that the priest was inattentive, or showed any signs of boredom or displeasure; it was merely his very gentle air of having had, all along, more pressing matters to think about, and of still, despite Nicky, contriving to have them. Nicky was puzzled. All his life he had been used to occupying the centre of the stage; his good looks and wits had won it for him, equally from men and women, and though he was always prepared for hostility, the one thing he never expected was indifference. Yet this man did seem, in a sort of way, indifferent. It was agreeable to find him unmoved by the name of Raphael Rassova, but less so to find him equally unmoved by the bitterest unmasking of that personage. All he said, in reply to a particularly eloquent fulmination, was: “Yes, you must find it very tiresome. But of course it’s in your power to give it up just as soon as you like.”
They chatted for some time longer and exchanged cordial good wishes before Nicky took a cab back to the hotel.
That night he told Sylvia that he must go. But the strange thing was that, in the very telling, he was aware of a sense in which he would have to leave something behind, in which he would be linked to her always; indeed, he felt a touch of excitement in the romantic possibility that he might even some day come back. And what had seemed likely to be a grand emotional climax turned out, after all, a mere businesslike discussion of holiday plans. She said she had noticed his need of a change—a complete change; and though it would necessarily upset a good many arrangements, Vox and those other people would have to put up with it. “It’s no use you staying here and having a breakdown, is it?” Then, almost unimportantly, she added: “Do you want me to come with you? I don’t suppose you do—you like having adventures on your own, I know. And I shall be very busy—probably Vox will have work for me to do.”
He gazed at her as at some miracle being enacted before his eyes. “I’m glad you don’t mind,” he said at length. “You’re really enjoying yourself here, aren’t you, amongst all this fame?”
“Pretty well,” she replied. “But you’re evidently not, so you’re quite right to take a rest from it. Where, by the way, do you think of going?”
“I thought of Buenos Aires, to begin with. I’ve never been to South America.”
“I have. You’ll like it.”
He had two more days in New York—amply filled by the joyous preparations for departure. No public announcement was issued, and careful attempts were made for at least a partial incognito on board. Sylvia, who had had much experience of these matters, was full of useful help and suggestions; she bought him books for the voyage, and superintended all the details of tickets, passport, and luggage. On the last night before the Megantic was due to sail they went out to dine at a fashionable dancing-restaurant, and some of his lost enthusiasm returned to him as he gazed across the table at his wife. HIS WIFE. He thought her very adorable, and the joke of their being married was perhaps, after all, as good as most. His humour rose into exultation as the night proceeded; he did not even object when the spotlight was turned on them and, in response to calls from the other diners, he had to get up and make a little speech. At that very moment, he was thinking, the cabin-trunks were on board, and his valet might be laying out his day-clothes for the last time.
Later, at the hotel, she said: “You know, Nicky, you were wrong when you said I’m not privately amused by this success of yours. I AM. I DO think it’s funny. And I think you are, too.”
He laughed, and answered, to a question she hadn’t asked: “Yes, it’s queer—the way I always get tired, and want to change, and do something else. I feel rather sick with most things, after a time. I can’t settle myself. Not that I particularly want to, of course.”
“What DO you want? Do you know?”
“Not in the least. Except that, in a general sort of way, I want to be ME.”
“You’re YOU all right. You needn’t have any fears about that.”
“Well, YOU’RE another YOU. We’re quits at the rather silly game.... Which is all talking nonsense, of course.”
“Yes, all nonsense. Good night, Nicky.”
“Good night, Sylvia.”
The next day, on board, he renewed his acquaintance with the priest, and as the voyage progressed they became good friends. Byrne, however, was still far from showing signs of being impressed by Nicky, and Nicky was still rather delightedly puzzled over the phenomenon. And yet the Irishman by no means discouraged the youth’s more impulsive companionship. He had an air of slightly detached tolerance that was a little less than chilly, though not quite warm; and Nicky felt again that the root of the attitude was the simple fact that he himself was not, and never could be, a salient feature of this man’s life. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of it, he was the more tempted to be frank, and he did not disguise, but rather even paraded, the fact that his brief past had contained many incidents of which the stricter moralist might disapprove. During those lengthening days in southern waters, with the coast of Brazil looking sometimes no more than a stone’s throw away, the two talked a good deal between adjacent deck-chairs; or more accurately, Nicky confided, and Byrne listened. It was a new and somewhat difficult experience for Nicky to tell the exact truth; yet his life-story, even without the embellishments he usually added to it, was quite a vivid chronicle. Born after his father’s death, he had lost his mother at the age of five; she had died during the flight of refugees when the Germans invaded Roumania in 1916. The family had originally had money, but it was all lost; and a tragic childhood had merged inevitably into disturbed and fitful youth. He was luckier than most in having had two thief-proof assets—brains and good looks; and during his boyhood he had sensed that his only chance of survival, let alone of happiness, lay in the exploitation of these for what they would fetch. In a world of paupers and profiteers he had contrived a technique of living, and that this technique was not too squeamish in what it permitted itself must, he argued, be laid to the charge of a society that offered him nothing he wanted on any other terms. “I don’t grumble at the tricks fate has played on me; but I do say that I’ve never been able to discern in them any moral code obliging me to abide by its rules in return.” He gave Byrne various examples of unregretted misdeeds and seemed surprised when the priest was neither shocked nor condemnatory. “As for personal lies about oneself, I almost hold that one is entitled to them— they’re a protective covering in the choice of which one may show good or bad taste just as in clothes. I happen to be telling the truth now, to you, but that’s merely for the novel sensation of nakedness.”
“Well, well,” said Byrne quietly, “I think I find your experiences rather more interesting than your philosophy. Tell me, if you like, about where you’ve been.”
“WHAT I’ve been might surprise you more. I’ve had jobs as a waiter, a ship’s steward, an air-mechanic, a translator of English books into Russian for the Soviet Government, and a commercial traveller. Oh, and an inventor. I MUST tell you about that. It’s rather funny, and—incidentally—it explains how I ever managed to arrive in Hollywood.”
Byrne seemed amused by the story, especially by the description of the gyrector experiment in England. “I give you good marks for pluck, anyhow,” he commented, and then, with a suddenness that was characteristic of him, took up a book and would talk no more.
They had many such conversations and arguments, which Nicky enjoyed the more completely because Byrne’s replies were rarely of a kind that interrupted the copious torrent of his own confessions. Once, after he had been chattering for some time, and had paused at a point that invited some remark from the other, Byrne looked up quietly and exclaimed: “I’m sorry, but I was thinking of something else for the moment—you’ll have to go over that again, I’m afraid, if you want me to grasp it.”
“But I really don’t think I could possibly remember it all.”
“Perhaps it doesn’t matter then.”
Nicky laughed. “Of course it doesn’t. Nothing matters that I say— sparks from fused wires, that’s all. Much more interesting is what you were thinking about that monopolised all your attention.”
Byrne answered, as almost from a dream: “I was thinking of some work that awaits me. When I get to Buenos Aires I have a three-weeks’ journey up-river to the frayed edges of civilisation and beyond. Yet only two centuries ago, in that same region, my predecessors were carrying out what was perhaps, all things considered, the most successful social experiment in history. In those days cathedral bells rang out over rich provinces, the native Indians lived in cosy homesteads and their children went to school and were taught Spanish—a whole nation enjoyed peace and good-humour under the rule of a few wise and elderly men in black uniforms—the same, by the way, that I wear at this moment. History tells us, too, that the art of music throve especially, and that violins were brought over from Europe to be played in the churches instead of organs. I often try to think what that must have meant. Mid-eighteenth century, remember—too early for Mozart, but there would be Bach and Corelli. Entrancing picture, isn’t it? Most people think of civilisation as something that goes on spreading inevitably—but it’s really much more like a tide that can ebb as well as flow. That land where once there were Calderon plays and Bach sonatas is now a fever-ridden waste inhabited by a few half-barbarous tribes, while the old cathedrals, stripped of their bells and ornaments, are almost hidden away. More terribly than Debussy’s, too, because their sea is a green one.”
“And that’s where you’re going?”
“Yes. I understand that the grand tradition still partly lingers, mixed up with the older and younger traditions of poisoned arrows and gin. A friend of mine, a brother-priest, was there a few years ago and found the natives very glad to have their baptisms and marriages and burials re- solemnised by him. He couldn’t stay, unfortunately.”
“But YOU’LL stay?”
“I hope so.”
That was the day before the Megantic turned into the grey estuary of the Plate. The next morning, with Buenos Aires in sight, Nicky sought out Byrne for what must necessarily be their last talk on board. “Where do you go when you get on shore?” he asked.
“To Rosario by train, and then by river-boat to Asuncion. It leaves to-morrow.”
“I have still another thousand miles or so after that.”
“Can I—may I come with you?”
“Good heavens, no—it would be the poorest sort of rest- cure imaginable.”
“I don’t want a rest-cure, except from crowds and women and cities.” With sudden emotion in his voice, Nicky added: “I shall be unhappy when you’ve gone. I’d like to see those lost cathedrals. And if you won’t have me, I can’t think of anything else to do. Buenos Aires is just another place where I’d be found out and fêted within a week.... You don’t really mind if I come with you, do you?”
Byrne answered, after a long pause: “I suppose I can’t physically prevent you, but I strongly advise you not to come. You’ll find it a tedious, hot, and probably unpleasant journey leading in the end to nowhere that you may think at all thrilling.”
“But I want to come.”
“You’ll certainly want to go back as soon as you get there.”
“Well, even so, I’d still want to come.”
“Then there’s no stopping you, evidently.” He smiled and added: “For my part, of course, I shall be pleased to have your company.”
They went ashore together and spent the rest of the day in necessary preparations. Most of Nicky’s luggage was unsuitable for such a trip, and he had to make many purchases, among them being a revolver.
Next day they began the journey upstream in the small white-funnelled steamer of the Argentine Navigation Company. Nicky was possessed by a deep tranquillity of mind that he could hardly account for; there was nothing much to see, and still less to do, yet the slowly unwinding panorama of grey water and green shore gave him a sense of having found at last some fragment of what, without knowing it, he had all along been seeking. Byrne was happy also, but with a more definite eagerness for the future; they talked a good deal during the warm, lazy hours, uneventful save for an occasional passing of villages and tobacco-plantations, or the glimpse of alligators basking in the shallows. The nights were less pleasant, with swarms of flies and mosquitoes that clustered about the electric globes; but the mornings, misty and delicate, were lovely preludes to the long, leisurely days. As the miles unfolded northward changes, imperceptible at first, became definitely noticeable; the narrowing of the river till it no longer seemed an endless lake, and the gradual merge of climate and scenery from temperate to sub-tropical. But there was something else less easy to define—an atmosphere of deepening mystery suggested sometimes by a high tree visible in the distance, or a curving sun- hazy tributary wandering in from left or right. The sky at midday was more brazen; the vegetation thickened and paddled its roots more confidently into the stream; and the hot winds from the north came freighted with a curious flavour, subtle and even pleasing, yet less so if one were alone or had too much of it—a hint of the vast crepuscular decay of the forests. Nor was it nature only that supplied the faintly sinister undertone, for soon the ship entered Paraguayan waters, and there could be seen the scarcely inhabited levels of that inland republic, with here and there, even after sixty years, reminders of a tragedy to which the history of no European nation affords a parallel—a madman’s war that killed more than half the entire population. The sun-blistered ruin of the church at Humaìta seemed a fitting symbol of bloodshed almost pathologically hideous.
Soon, however, such darker memories were quenched in the idle charm of Asunçion. Here it was necessary to change vessels, and as the one proceeding farther upstream did not depart for a couple of days, Nicky and Byrne had a chance to explore the tree-shaded avenues and lounge in the open- air cafés. Nicky enjoyed this last taste of elegance; there was little that was ugly or blatant in the colourful, indolent civilisation. Even amongst shops and electric trams, there was a feeling of immensities near by, and at evening, in the cool patios, a certain wistfulness was imaginable, as of a city that remembered the Conquistadores.
Seventeen days later, amidst the dusk of a thunderstorm that refused to break, Nicky and Byrne stepped off the launch that had brought them to Maramba.
This Maramba, far from any railhead, and the end of river-navigability for anything larger than a canoe, was the point at which they must take to the land. It was scarcely a pleasant place. It represented, as Byrne had said, the frayed edges of civilisation, and also the equally frayed edges of barbarism; but the meeting was disappointingly unpicturesque. The town looked, as indeed it was, an outpost of an army that had partly given up the fight. A few clustered buildings rose up from the river-bank, and beyond them, on the higher levels, various constructions of timber and corrugated iron littered the scene as far as the dark semi-circle of jungle. The entire settlement could hardly have been posed more effectively as a symbol of defeat. Grass pushed between the cobbles of the quays; the stucco peeled off the houses in ochreous strips; and, to clinch the impression, a clearing beyond the town was heaped with rusting machinery, festooned already by undergrowth—excavators and tip-waggons and a crane that upheaved above the jungle grass like some menacingly poised snake.
But most evident of all to the few arrivals by the launch that afternoon was the heat. It was not ordinary heat. Nicky had been in India and the Red Sea without an experience of anything approaching it. It was a heat that seemed to have size and weight, to lean on the air like something actual and fleshly. The sky billowed with thunder-clouds, but the heat poured through them and met a deeper, angrier heat that rose like an emanation out of the earth itself.
Even the proprietor of the single scorched hotel admitted that the weather was exceptional. He was a chocolate-eyed, dark-skinned Brazilian, who served them with beer on a sizzling verandah and showed amazement at their projected journey. Apparently the route had not been traversed for some years, and they must expect stretches of practically unexplored jungle, as well as casual encounters with jaguars, anacondas, and hostile Indians. All of which might have been perfectly well known to Byrne, judging by the way he received the information. After the man had gone, he said to Nicky: “Well, I didn’t exaggerate the unpleasantness of the trip, did I?”
But Nicky only smiled, and the smile returned him by the older man was a complete settlement of the matter. Throughout the long and less comfortable journey from Asunçion, their intimacy had ripened; they had talked less, but had reached deeper and more silent stages of friendship. Nicky’s happiness had grown to be of a kind that discomfort hardly affected; he who in New York had been at the mercy of trivial annoyances, found that here, in this dark-hearted country, physical irritations, such as heat and mosquito-bites, were endurable by the body without clamouring to the brain for rage. And this, in some strange and hidden way, was due to Byrne. The man tranquillised his mind as women had sometimes tranquillised his body—lent him deep reserves of security from some secret store. They never talked religion, nor did Byrne’s attitude ever exceed the supposition that Nicky was a mere adventuring tourist, seeking new thrills which he must take the risk of not finding. Yet they found much in common, even on such a basis. Both had courage, Nicky of a sharp, excitable kind, and Byrne more implacably; they had shown this on an occasion during the river journey, when a piranha, freshly caught, had flapped about on deck. Nicky, with no experience of the small but madly voracious freshwater-fish, had not troubled to keep out of its way, and the tearing teeth had closed into his arm as he stooped over it. Byrne, ordering him to keep perfectly still, had then, with calm dexterity, pulled the jaws apart at the risk of having fingers bitten off. Afterwards they had laughed over the incident, but it had revealed to both of them a quality in each other which reassured.
Nicky even contrived to be happy during that first sweltering evening at Maramba. It was likely to take a few days to make arrangements for continuing the journey on land, and the prospect of waiting in such a place was not outwardly pleasing. The hotel was dirty; the bedrooms reeked of stale, oily distillations; the food was bad; the mosquitoes proved to be of some new and fiercer variety; and over it all, scarcely less oppressive when night had fallen, was the heat. Yet the storm did not break. Mutterings could sometimes be heard in the distance, and the trees stirred fitfully in gusts of wind that were hotter than the stillness; there was a heavy smell in the air, that smell of rotting vegetation with which Nicky had already grown familiar, but here stiffened and coagulated. Another smell pervaded it intermittently, that of some faintly aromatic furnace; Nicky thought of forest-fires, but Byrne said that the forests were uncombustible—that, in fact, being the great obstacle to colonisation. Suddenly, while they were talking in the hotel lobby, an extra whiff lent identity to the odour—it was like burning coffee, Nicky decided. Later the proprietor told them that that was exactly what it was—coffee being destroyed on the plantations because there was no market for it. He gave them also a long account of other local calamities—of the English concessionaires who had hoped to obtain manganese and had left all their machinery behind after a year of fruitless operations, of tobacco-plantations abandoned by Jap settlers—and that, he indicated, with an expressive shrug, was anywhere the last stigma of hopelessness. No, there was nothing in Maramba in these days. It had been different during the rubber boom, which he could remember as a boy—those golden years when the trickle of wealth had poured over the Matto Grasso from the Xingu and the Tapajoz. But now there was nothing, except the declining river-trade and the small activities dependent upon the frontier garrison. As for this cursed weather, he had been in Maramba for twenty-five years, and did not think he could remember anything to equal it.
Before turning in, Nicky strolled with Byrne about the streets, deserted and eerily brilliant in the almost continuous sheet-lightning. They stood on the quays by the shabby-magnificent customs-house and stared at the low line of jungle across the river— sinister even in the theatrical glare of the flashes. Once they saw a tarantula scampering, if that were the word, over some timber-stacks, its dark, leathery body compact of evil liveliness. Nicky was excited and wanted to approach the monster, but Byrne would not let him. “There are some things best kept out of one’s mind as long as possible,” he said, with a close arm-grip. The thrill had set them both sweating heavily, and just at that moment, over the flat roofs, came the sound of a woman’s shriek. Instantly, a rain of other sounds scattered after it—cries of birds, voices in the distance, the bang of a sharply closed door. Then silence again. “This is really a rather dreadful place,” said Nicky, a little hysterically. “Everything feels as if it’s waiting for something to happen.”
“It will be better after the storm,” Byrne answered.
After a short saunter they reached the hotel again. They slept badly; the mosquitoes were troublesome, and Nicky imagined tarantulas in the room—perhaps it had been wise, after all, to have missed seeing the brute at closer quarters. The hours crawled through to morning, but the usual chill before dawn did not come, nor was the storm any nearer breaking. Indeed, the clouds seemed to have dissolved in readiness for the daylight, leaving behind them a thick steamy haze through which the sun shone as through soiled muslin. Even at breakfast it was far hotter than at any time during the previous day.
As they lingered over cups of maté, they were visited by the customs-officer, a heavy-jowled, slouching fellow in a sweat-sodden uniform. He knew no English, and Byrne and he conversed in a stilted mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. There was a hitch at first owing to the fact that Nicky had grown a beard that did not appear in his passport photograph, but this was eventually explained, and with many bowings and clinkings of glasses the man became quite cordial. Byrne questioned him about porterage, and received, after expressions of astonishment at the proposed journey, a promise to have ready a few likely applicants, if he would call at the customs-house later in the morning. Byrne said he would, which was the signal for further civilities and bottles of lukewarm beer. As the officer left, he said something with great vehemence which Byrne afterwards, with a smile, translated as: “He says he thinks it’s going to be a rather hot day.”
They wilted back into chairs in the shuttered hotel parlour and tried to ignore the glare that burst through the slats. It was easier not to move; the mere exchange of words and sentences evoked fresh streams of perspiration from every pore; and the thought of the customs-officer crossing those blazing pavements to the quay-side was oppressive even to the inward eye that pictured the scene. There were no sounds of life in the hotel, or in the street outside, or in the whole town, for that matter. Yet, beneath the still and utterly silent surface, there was a sense of brooding, of life that was not extinct, but drugged into unconsciousness between the answering heats of earth and sky. Byrne read a book, but Nicky preferred to sit motionlessly pondering. How curious, it might be thought, that anyone in his right mind should deliberately leave civilised luxury for a place like this! It was madness, perhaps, and if so, it must be a greater madness for him to be eager, as he was, to push on, deeper and farther into this merciless country, with Byrne. He was puzzled to decide what it was that chiefly attracted him in the man—it must be more, he thought, than his half-reluctant friendliness and calm intelligence. A kind of sureness, perhaps, that he had—sureness of background, of being in a tradition, something that made Nicky feel that he himself was not so much sharing an adventure with a man as marching with an army on a crusade.
Towards midday Byrne said he must go over and see the customs-officer, as he had promised; but he insisted on going alone. Nicky was by no means anxious to face the heat, yet as soon as Byrne had gone he wished desperately that he had gone with him. He felt suddenly afraid, with a renewal of perception that all was not lifeless as it seemed. He sat for a few moments, found he could no longer endure the waiting, and then strolled into the hotel lobby. He was shivering slightly, and wondered if he were falling ill; the hall-floor, as well as his legs, appeared to quiver as he approached the street. Seen from inside, the doorway was a slab of yellow, sickly to the eye; but as soon as he entered the glare he felt a new and more fearful nausea, for the sky above the opposite roofs was no longer even white, but an angry, opaque carnelian.
He stood there, increasingly spellbound by dread, while the whole world seemed poised for some uniquely terrible reckoning. Then all at once there began a distant growling that came rapidly nearer like the roar of a train crossing a metal bridge at full speed. He was so puzzled by it that he was scarcely able to be astonished when he saw, a few yards away across the street, a length of parapet toppling from a first-floor balcony. It fell with such disarming grace, and so soundlessly amidst the greater noise, that the dust- cloud spraying upwards from the smashed stucco seemed no more than necessary proof that the thing had really happened. Not even yet could he think of a reason for both the roar and the fallen parapet, and his perplexity held him aloof from fear until, with a shudder of foreboding, the truth rushed at him, and with it also a sight incredibly grotesque—that of the houses opposite waving like banners, and a hole widening in the roadway as if it were being munched by some enormous and invisible mouth. Then he was struck between the eyes, and staggered back....
... When he recovered consciousness he began to cough and vomit. Behind the clouds of blinding, acrid smoke that swirled about him, patches of copper- hot sky could be seen; the time, from the look of it, was mid-afternoon. Timber and masonry surrounded him in a soaring jumble, but though he felt dazed and ill, he did not think that he had been seriously hurt, if at all. His arms were movable; he could feel his cigarettes and revolver still in his pocket. He stirred his legs carefully from under a beam that had fallen miraculously short of crushing them; they were stiff, but after a few moments he could drag himself upright and climb a heap of debris to survey a little more of the catastrophe. “Well,” he kept thinking, as he strove to regain his numbed senses, “now you know what an earthquake is like.”...
Then he thought of Byrne and began to clamber amongst the litter in impulsive search for his friend. But of course, as he soon reflected, the priest wouldn’t be anywhere near the hotel; he had gone down to the quay- side to visit the customs-officer. Nicky scrambled a few yards over a pyramid of brickwork and caught sight of what looked to be a large red-violet flower growing amidst the rubble. As he approached, the violet spurted out in all directions, leaving the red by itself, and he saw then what it really was—the shambled body of a man, with flies above it, waiting to re- settle. He felt sick again, and shook his head vaguely as the cries of wounded came to him from left and right. As fast as he could he hastened over the ruins Co the river-front. He must look for Byrne first. He saw a few uninjured or slightly injured persons on the way, but they stared at him with half-crazed eyes as he passed them by. He reached the customs-house at last—a mountain of rubbish enclosed by jagged sections of wall. There were several bodies near by, but nowhere that of Byrne. Then he discovered that his hair was clotted with blood, and that blood was also streaming from his left arm. Queer, that was; he hadn’t felt any pain. He sank down to rest for a moment, but the sun flared before his eyes and he felt the world re-vanishing....
... When he recovered consciousness a second time it was night, and there was a full moon in the crimsoned sky. He heard the river lapping near him; he felt thirsty, and dragged himself a few yards forward to scoop the water into his hands. Refreshed after that, he stood up, breathing the hot, smoky air, and saw that sporadic fires had broken out over the ravaged town. Again, in the face of this new peril, his thought was of Byrne. But his choked lungs and smarting eyes led hint instinctively away from the vortex to the outer ring of the inferno. Byrne, alive or dead, might be anywhere here. He clambered over some wreckage, and as he did so there came a curious tinkling sound from his feet. “Good God, what’s that?” he whispered, aloud, and was no less amazed when a cackling laugh answered him and a voice followed it with: “You play tune, betcherlife, heh?” Then he saw that his feet had touched the keys of a half-smashed piano, and that a few yards away a face regarded him with a wide and glittering smile. It was an ugly face, sagging and pewter-coloured in the moonlight, but at that moment Nicky was glad to see it. “Hullo, John,” he said, grinning back. “You one of the lucky ones, too?”
But the Chinese, though possessing a smattering of English, did not appear to comprehend. He merely continued to smile, jerking his thumb in the direction of the town, and chattering: “Betcherlife, all velly dead there, heh?”
Nicky nodded, and was about to pass on when the man strode towards him and gripped his arm. “You want drink, heh?” He produced a flask and offered it, with his smile still broadening.
“Thanks.” Nicky swallowed the raw spirit without a second invitation. It was good, and he felt grateful. “You’re a sportsman, John,” he said.
But the Chinese would not let him go at that. He hovered about, muttering and grinning; his English was insufficient to explain the extent of his own share in the general tragedy, but Nicky guessed that, like himself, he might be searching the ruins for someone he had known. Nicky felt a keen desire to show sympathy and friendliness, or at least appreciation of the drink, but all he could think of was to perform the comic pantomime of smacking his lips and rubbing his stomach. The Chinese cackled delightedly. There was a sense in which the very enormity of the catastrophe all around them imposed this infantile good humour upon the survivors. The springs of the mind were numbed, and behind the numbness one could be companionable, even jocular. The Chinese was evidently in such a mood, and Nicky found it easy and pleasant to respond. He had nothing to offer in return for the drink except a few cigarettes that had been badly crumpled in his pocket, but the gift proved highly acceptable. The Chinese produced matches, and they leaned together amicably over the flame. “Now we go looksee together, heh, betcherlife!” he gabbled, puffing ecstatically.
They entered thus upon a sort of half-comprehended partnership in the search of the locality. If either of them found a body he would call the other’s attention to it, and even in waning moonlight it was easy for Nicky to decide that none of them could possibly be that of the priest. The task of the Chinese was naturally more difficult, for there had been many of his compatriots in Maramba and precise identification could not always be easy. In several instances he had to examine articles in pockets before he could pass on with his quest still unfulfilled. During those hours of probings and ransackings Nicky came quite to like his companion; the man was so unfailingly jolly, despite the grimness of their joint occupation. Sometimes they paused to light fresh cigarettes, and once the Chinese offered another swig of the harsh, but exceedingly heartening, spirit. Nicky wished they could talk, but he had discovered that the other knew even less English than had appeared at first—his phrases being more expletive than meaningful. Still, it was company to have the fellow so near, humming and muttering as he paddled up to his knees in crumbled stucco. The glow over the higher parts of the town was fiercer now....
Suddenly there sounded a sharp cry, and a man in uniform, hatless, but carrying a revolver, came lunging towards them, apparently from nowhere. Nicky could not comprehend a word of his voluble shouts, but felt instinctively that the advance was both frenzied and hostile. The man approached to within a few yards, continuing to shout; while Nicky waited for him, unable to decide whether it would be worth while to shout back in any of the languages that he knew. A sense of the growing absurdity of the situation overspread him, together with regret that he had not learned a few simple phrases in whatever tongue was spoken by uniformed ruffians in Maramba after an earthquake. There were times, and this was one, when his mind seemed to stand a little way off from his body and stare quizzically at a spectacle for which it did not care to accept responsibility.
Abruptly the oncomer swung round and transferred his shouts to the Chinese, who—with tact rather than courage, Nicky thought—was slinking away. Soon the Chinese broke into a scamper, and at that the other raised his revolver and fired after him instantly.
This had an extraordinary effect on Nicky. He heard the Chinese yelp as he was hit, and saw him stagger on with a hand held to his thigh. He saw the man in uniform raise his weapon to fire again, and at that moment the clench of his own fingers in his pocket reminded him that he was armed himself. And he was swept with a raw, overpowering indignation. As if there had not been enough killing. As if there were not enough agony and mutilation amongst these blood- drenched ruins. All the horrors he had seen during the past night and day were seen again, far more vividly, in that glimpse of a Chinaman’s pain; because it was something so needless, heaped so maddeningly on what had had to happen. He found it unendurable, this comprehension of the lust and wantonness of things; he yelled as the man was about to fire again; then, in sheer illogical rage, he drew his own revolver and pointed it.
The man’s eyes and hand swerved together; and two further shots, nearly simultaneous, rang out over the moon-grey desolation.
They lay there, the three of them, Nicky and the uniformed man quite close together, and the Chinese about a dozen yards away, where he had fallen. Nicky had shot his assailant dead, and the latter, who had fired only a second earlier, had struck the youth in the groin. He felt little actual pain, merely a hot, numbing weariness as he drew breath. He did not fear that his injury was serious, but he knew, without making the effort, that he could not move away unaided. Something confusing had been done to his inside by that bullet, he reckoned. He would have to wait till somebody found him, and the curious thing was that he had full confidence that somebody would. Probably already there were armies of rescuers on the way—wasn’t that what always happened after these big disasters? President Hoover would send a warship, and the League of Nations would vote condolences. Police, doctors, nurses, Y.M.C.A., all sorts of people would soon begin to arrive. Also soldiers, firemen, ambulance-men, insurance-assessors, journalists, photographers, government officials, seismologists—the whole crowd would be here shortly....
He turned to the dead man near him. Quite dead. A very small patch of blood stained the tunic over his left breast, that was all. People would call that a mighty good shot, by Jove, yes. It was the first man he had ever killed, though once before, in Russia, he had aimed at someone and missed. And the joke of it was that in this case he hadn’t aimed at all; he hadn’t really meant to fire even; everything had happened so damned quickly.
He wondered who the man was. He could not see clearly; the moon had gone down. But the first smear of dawn was in the eastern sky, like a child’s breath on a window-pane; he would be able to see everything soon. There was still that smell of smoke and burning coffee in the air, and the Chinese was howling softly, like a dog outside a closed door. “Hello, John,” Nicky cried, and was surprised to hear his own voice diminished to a whisper.
What a piece of work was man, indeed! And what a still greater piece of work was a bullet! No marvel of physical excellence, no superbity of brain or character, could stand against that exquisite fragment of metal. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Galileo, Mohammed, Goethe, Mozart, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, the whole who’s-who parade of history, could all be mown down with a machine- gun in a few minutes.
He wondered what had happened to Byrne. Dead, probably. He had liked that man. There had been some point in knowing him. That was the drawback to most intimacies; you came to like people, you got wildly keen about them, and then suddenly realised that you had wasted a lot of energy over emotions that didn’t matter. But knowing Byrne hadn’t been like that. Indeed, it was as if, in knowing him, one had been on the brink of knowing something else....
It was lighter now, and he could see the Chinese quite clearly against the rosy-tinted sky. The man was lying on his face, and his pockets had emptied—there were coins and purses and a watch and chain. Queer fellows, Chinamen; but this one had been all right. Nicky wished there were still enough in the flask for another drink for both of them.
He kept remembering things he thought he had almost forgotten—that scene, for instance, in the Odessa restaurant that might just as well have ended in his being shot there and then as here and now. And if he had been, if that Soviet Commissar had killed him, in what strange ways the world would have been minutely different—no gyrector experiments in England, no “Red Desert” at Sabinal, no “Raphael Rassova” anywhere. And so also, supposing he were now to die, a thousand other remote and unreckonable things would be withdrawn from possibility. What clue was there, or wasn’t there any, to this mystic template of men and bullets?
He looked at the dead man, clear-outlined now in the growing daylight; a big fellow, with terrific moustaches, and revealed, by a glance at his uniform, as just a simple soldier—probably one of the local frontier garrison. On guard? Patrolling? Watching for smugglers across the border? Then suddenly the idea came.... Good God, it wasn’t contraband the fellow had suspected, but looting! He had seen the two of them poking about the wreckage in the middle of the night, and had taken them for thieves! Why, certainly, it was a likely theory, the likeliest of all, for it explained why he had fired so promptly when the Chinese made to run away.
As Nicky digested the revelation he was filled with a bemused tenderness that included now both the Chinese and the dead soldier. So it had all, then, been a mistake, a pardonable misunderstanding, nobody’s fault but that of the bullets for boring so fast and so far? If he and the soldier had had only sticks in their hands, they would now be apologising to each other for bruises instead of draining their blood into the dust. And the thought came to him that if ever, some day, mankind should invent a machine big and powerful enough to destroy the whole world, it would probably be touched off in just such casual error. He wished he could bring the dead man back to life, if only to talk to him about it, and he would have liked to shout, if his voice had been strong enough: “I say, John, this fellow thought we were a couple of looters—that’s why he was so ready with his gun!”
And then another thought occurred, of such benign simplicity that he accepted it with astonishment that it had come only so late. The Chinaman was a looter. Why, of course, he must be. The way he had been searching the pockets of the victims, and that fine collection of swag that lay beside him now, spilled from his pockets. Nicky found himself wanting to smile. “John, you old rogue,” he cried to himself, “you took me in all right. Reckon I was dazed with that knock on the head, or I’d have spotted your game!” Then he looked at the Chinese, who had ceased to yelp and was lying quite still; and he suddenly knew that he was dead.
The sun rose, comforting at first, but soon too hot to the throat and lips; a drink was all that he really wanted now. In the sunlight he saw what he had missed before—a stream of his own blood, seeping away from his side across a large flat stone. The stream moved slowly, replenished from the wound, but the stone was warm and the blood readily congealed. He thought, watching it: “If it gets to the edge, I shall die; if it doesn’t, I shall live.” That made everything so much easier to understand. It was a faith, anyhow, a philosophy, a theory of the universe, cause and effect linked together no more illogically than in the long, invisible chain of human destiny. He went on watching: a slight stir of his body lent a swell to the viscous tide; it rolled faster for a while, a red, advancing caterpillar. And he thought, with certitude: “I am dying by inches... literally by those inches.” ...
Then his brain, that had always been poised hawk-like over words, swooped down and gave him the answer: “Yes, but I have lived by miles.” ...
The phrase pleased him and made him able to absorb more calmly the gusts and cyclones of pain as they now assaulted. He closed his eyes and wondered if he could sleep. The stream must nearly have reached the edge by now, but he wouldn’t bother to look.
Then, at the last, he suddenly remembered Sylvia.
Leon Mirsky rode into Maramba on a white horse five days after the second earthquake had completed the ruin of the town. He was a tall, thin, and ascetic- looking person, with a face remarkable for two things—its smoke- grey, deep-set eyes, and a fair, girlish skin that even the climate of tropical South America had not yet impaired. High-cheekboned and slender-nostriled, he had an air of rather unsure aloofness, as if he did not quite know what to make of anything; and he certainly did not know what to make of the Maramba earthquake.
The only son of pre-Revolution aristocrats, he had reached the New World from Russia in 1919, after typical experiences. A little money saved from the wreck had enabled him to settle down and acquire American citizenship; and for ten fairly comfortable years, darkened only by memories, he had lived in a quiet part of New York and established a minor reputation as a poet and writer of highbrow art criticism. He had been for a time engaged to an heiress, but she had broken it off, with no greater effect than to make him write a rather foolish novel, satirising women in general, which no one had wanted to publish. His art criticism, however, was good, and he had written a pleasant little book on El Greco. Then in 1929 had come his second revolution—and perhaps quite as unsettling as the first, for he was twelve years older, and more deeply grooved. It was a financial one; his small income, derived from investments in apparently cast-iron stocks, dwindled rapidly to less than half, forcing him to face the immediate necessity of earning a living. Journalism naturally occurred to him, and at first he had nourished a secret confidence that any of the great American dailies would snap him up with eagerness. A few months had taught him differently, and at length, through friendship with a proprietor and a slight knowledge of Portuguese, he had obtained the post of newspaper-correspondent in Rio. He had been in Rio a week, without finding anything to write about except the development of baroque design in Brazilian architecture, when news came of the earthquake and he had almost simultaneously received a cable from New York to proceed to Maramba at once and send reports.
Hence his somewhat anxious look as he came upon the scene of ruin after a fantastically unpleasant journey. “What our average reader wants,” the newspaper-owner had told him, with impressive warning, “is news that he can digest between stops in a crowded subway-car, while he holds the paper in one hand, strap-hangs with the other, and uses up eighty per cent of his limited intelligence in sub-consciously thinking of something else. Remember that his mental age is about twelve, so that he can’t understand anything difficult, doesn’t like long words or sentences, and simply won’t have highbrow stuff at any price. So for God’s sake don’t be too clever. Write things that are just clever enough for him to think how clever he is for managing to see the point of them. And, above all, go for the human note. People aren’t naturally interested in cathedral stained-glass, for instance, but if a window-cleaner were to fall through some and cut his head off, then I reckon they might be—for about a couple of days. You see what I mean?”
Mirsky was not quite sure, and his anxieties quickened as he engaged accommodation in a corrugated-iron shelter that had been hastily improvised as a sort of residential press-club. He was not, of course, the only journalist in Maramba. On the contrary, the place seemed full of them—dark-skinned Brazilians and Argentines, a few Americans, and one very gnarled Scotsman from Reuter’s. A few had come by air, but most, like himself, had made the trip from Rio on train and horseback. They were all rather noisily companionable, but though he tried to fraternise, he was aware that he was not their type, and that they knew it as well as he did.
Well, what could he cable his paper about the earthquake, anyway? The hurrying subway-crowds knew already that there had been one, that Maramba was somewhere in South America, and that therefore, in a sense, the whole thing was pure nonsense and didn’t matter. Their interest, accordingly, would be strictly regulated by the degree to which he could awaken their humanitarian impulses. He could imagine his friend the proprietor saying: “Sob- stories, my boy—that’s what we want. Talk to the survivors. Get them to tell you what happened to THEM. Some little yarn about the faithful dog still howling above the ruins, or prisoners from the local jail who did heroic rescue-work.” ...
Unfortunately, to detail but one of the many negations that awaited, Maramba didn’t appear to have possessed a jail. Nor, when he began to interview survivors, did he obtain anything that seemed worth cabling to New York at so many cents a word. (Incidentally, he couldn’t cable from Maramba; the lines were down, and the nearest accepting-office was at Harama, two days’ horseback-journey away.) Perhaps the trouble was partly his Portuguese, which proved slighter than ever now that he had left Rio; but doubtless also it was in his manner, which was too academic to adjust itself readily to such tragic intimacies.
Still, he must cable something—that was obvious. He was, indeed, quite apprehensively keen to justify himself, since if he failed to do so he could expect to be recalled pretty quickly, and it would be hard to find another job of any kind. He had a sister living in France who earned just enough money as a music-teacher to keep herself; but he had no other near relatives, and no distant ones that were not in as tough a position as himself. So he must, it was clear, discover the exact angle from which earthquake-news would catch the eye of Manhattan.
On his second day at Maramba he interviewed the chief of the militarised police that had been sent to maintain order in the afflicted area. Already Mirsky had discovered that here, as in Russia, officials were not above being paid for their information, and in this case a fairly large tip purchased the usual garrulous but almost entirely unprofitable conversation. Keeping the human factor well in mind, he asked how many persons were believed to have perished in the catastrophe, and the chief replied that the bodies already found numbered between two and three thousand, most of them probably victims of the second quake, which had been much more severe than the first. Mirsky continued to cross-examine, but when he asked (perhaps not so tactfully) if the death-roll had included any important personages, the chief of police threw up his arms with a gesture of irritation and answered: “My God, yes, the King of England and Jack Dempsey, naturally! Whom did you expect to find in Maramba during the hot season? Three thousand bodies, man—do you think we have had time to carve all their names on tombstones yet? But yes, you shall certainly see things for yourself. It is not a pretty sight, but you shall see it, since you are so interested. This permit will admit you to the mortuaries.”
It is not always easy to detect the note of irony in a foreign language, which was no doubt the reason why, a few moments later, Mirsky allowed himself to be ushered into an adjoining shed well-guarded by soldiers. Bodies were still being carried in, while numerous officials were hard at work on their various gruesome tasks. The disaster had been so complete that whole families had perished, and there were comparatively few uninjured survivors to assist in identifying the victims. It was a memorably unpleasant sight, that long, gloomy shed, and after a few seconds inside it Mirsky suspected the rather macabre trick that had been played on him. He had seen horrors in Russia, but nothing quite so concentrated as this. His fastidiousness was revolted, and he was just about to leave as quickly as possible when his attention was drawn to one of the bodies by reason of its more than averagely elegant clothing. Even beneath blood and dust, the shimmer of silk was noticeable, and silk shirts were doubtless rare in Maramba.
The body was that of a youngish man with a dark, stubbly beard. The feet and the lower part of the trunk had been badly crushed, but the head was unhurt. Near by, in a neat pile, lay the contents of the pockets, ready for subsequent identification; they included cigarettes, a wallet, and a smashed compass-watch of obviously expensive make. Not quite the possessions of an average Maramban. Mirsky picked up the wallet; the maker’s stamp gave an address in Los Angeles. An American victim, then? Was it possible that he had discovered something to cable about at last? Without further hesitation he looked at what was inside the wallet and found a Roumanian passport issued to one Nicholas Palescu. He raised his eyebrows over that, for the name conveyed something to him, though he could not immediately think how or what.
Then he recollected that a friend of his in California, a Russian film- producer, had written to him recently about a young Roumanian whose real name was Palescu, and who had achieved sudden success in the cinema-world as “Raphael Rassova.” Raphael Rassova! Mirsky rather prided himself on film-ignorance, but even he had heard of that meteor-ascent into fame. Rassova! Was it possible? Though why on earth should the fellow have grown a beard and been visiting Maramba?
Anyhow, if it were so, if Rassova really had been killed in the earthquake, it would assuredly be a tremendous piece of news to cable exclusively to the paper—a heaven-sent journalistic scoop, indeed. But WAS it true?
By the time he left the mortuary-shed, Mirsky had almost satisfied himself that it was. Apart from the passport, which was fairly conclusive evidence in itself, there were papers in the wallet showing that their owner had lately sailed from New York. There was also a gold-tipped cigarette-holder monogrammed “R. R.” So many pure coincidences were nearly unthinkable, and complete finality seemed established when, at a later meeting with the Scotsman from Reuter’s, Mirsky led the talk to films and remarked: “By the way, I wonder what that fellow Rassova will do next? He made a great hit recently with that Indian picture.”
The Scotsman was delighted to prove himself better-informed. “The last I heard was that he’d gone off to the Argentine. He soon had enough of the Seydel woman. Funny thing, that woman can’t keep husbands—or else, maybe she don’t want to. Rassova was her fourth.”
But Mirsky was not interested in these glimpses into Rassova’s life; all he was concerned with was his death, which he now deemed himself to have settled. It had been an amazing piece of luck, and it was up to him now to exploit it to the full. He must, then, set out for Harama immediately and despatch the cable. Unfortunately, just as he was about to begin the arduous journey, news came of the bursting of the Orica dam. This further disaster, resulting from the earthquake stresses, had the effect of cutting all communications between Harama and the east; and there was likely to be a week’s delay before the telegraph-line could be restored. Learning this, a few of the journalists flew back to Rio, but Mirsky, though he made several offers, could not negotiate for the air-trip with them.
Not being by nature a man of action, he was the more impetuous now that he had decided on doing something. He felt that his whole future depended on getting his message through to New York, and that fate, having put the chance of a lifetime in his way, was being particularly malign in depriving him of it by means of a dam-burst. For delay was dangerous, since at any time the identity of the dead youth might be discovered and the whole story become common property. Mirsky felt irritated to desperation as he sat drinking beer in a shanty which was all that Maramba now possessed in the way of an hotel. The weather was hot, food and lodging were unpleasant, everything was fabulously expensive, nor was it by any means certain that the earthquakes had finished their activities. He stared disconsolately at his pocket-map, on which Maramba wanted a good deal of finding. Harama, being at railhead, appeared more conspicuously, and the Orica dam, presumably, was in the hills a few miles to the north. Whichever way one looked at it, Maramba was awkwardly placed. Then suddenly, from the map, the notion came to him that there must surely be other ways of egress to civilisation. After all, it didn’t matter whence he sent his cable, provided he sent it. Could he not engage someone to transport him downstream to the nearest river-settlement that had a telegraph-office?
He spent an hour in fruitless enquiries on the debris-littered water- front, and only gave up the idea when he found that no place on the river nearer than Asunçion possessed a telegraph-line that did not pass through Harama.
Then he looked at the map again, and the final but very obvious alternative came to him. Why, in all these plans for getting the news through, should he only have thought of the country to the EAST of the river? Wouldn’t a western journey do equally well? With a thrill of satisfaction, and in some amazement that he had not thought of it before, he found on the map a place called San Cristobal that was scarcely further in the one direction than Harama was in the other. And San Cristobal, moreover, was the terminus of a railway leading to the Andean uplands, so that it was sure to have the telegraph.
It looked about eighty miles or so, measured roughly with the finger, and he reckoned on three or four days for that—perhaps less if the country proved easy going.
Leon Mirsky would have been called a man of imagination, but he had omitted to imagine South America. Till a fortnight before, he had never set eyes on it, and his journey up from Rio had not impressed him with much more than the extreme tiresomeness of the country. Actually, when he had crossed the river from Maramba, he thought himself lucky in that the path immediately plunged into the forest.
He had told no one of his plan to reach San Cristobal, thinking that if he did he might be delayed by enforced companions. He had taken, of course, all obvious precautions—he carried a revolver and a shot-gun, as well as food and tobacco sufficient for several days. He had also, amongst other articles, a pocket-compass, a map which merely gave the names of the two places, with no hint of the kind of country between; and a small edition of Theocritus. With this equipment, and a water-bottle to fill from wayside streams, he thought he had remembered everything.
He must have looked a rather striking figure as he cantered those first pleasant miles. No doubt some of the Jesuit fathers, trekking along that same forest-path two centuries before, had worn a similar aspect, that of the scholar-adventurer; but the Jesuits did not travel alone. Mirsky, however, was inclined to be especially happy for that very reason. He had always lived a rather solitary life, and he could always thoroughly enjoy his own thoughts and introspections. As he pushed his way on through the suave green tunnel, with the gathering sunlight scarcely visible above the tree-tops, he felt quite entranced with the prospect before him. He was not much of a nature-worshipper, but he perceived that nature here was certainly at her best and liveliest. He gave her, as it were, full marks and a nod of approval, feeling that she would do very nicely as a background to his satisfying emotions during the next few days. And perhaps when he DID get his sensational message through to New York it would still further add to his credit that he had performed this journey as a romantic prelude. Yes, he felt particularly serene as he appraised this shaded loveliness after the hot, dust-blown ruins of Maramba, and his own silences after the friendly but foolish conversation of his fellow- journalists.
And his scoop would be a memorable one. He pictured the placards: “Raphael Rassova Killed in Earthquake. ... Sensational Discovery at Maramba.... Our Special Correspondent’s Graphic Cable....” Yes, this business would certainly establish his reputation, and it mattered to him tremendously that it should. Yet there was another sense in which he was quite certain it did not matter at all. Cinemas and cheap journalism and all that stuff—it wasn’t art—a single square millimetre from a canvas by Ribuera or Morales was worth all the celluloid in Hollywood. He was, indeed, in the position of a man desperately trying to score a goal in a game he rather despised. But there was no doubt of the desperation. It was nourished by a private conceit that made him anxious to show how easily a man of higher intelligence could succeed at a job that was really beneath him. This chasing of news, this seeing of everything from the “human” standpoint, this persistent titivation of the mental palate of the multitude—it was all confusing at first to any man of culture, because he couldn’t bring himself down to its level; but when and if he did, why, it became child’s play.
Mirsky was a highbrow by disposition. Born amidst a society that had since collapsed, he was sincerely convinced that the inroads of democracy upon the aristocratic principle had been the inroads of the new barbarism upon civilisation. The world of 1931 seemed to him full of proofs of this—so full, indeed, that he had long given up contemplating them. The most resounding proof, to himself, was naturally the personal one—that here he was, forced to do quite ridiculous things to earn a living, when all the time there was in him the capacity to write a great book on Spanish painting, or perhaps a few sonnets. His demands, surely, were not excessive—a roof over his head, food, clothing, a few cultured luxuries—in dollars equal to perhaps a hundredth part of the earnings of this Rassova fellow, whose death was to plunge so many millions in despair. Yet the world, to whom Spanish painting and sonnets were much less important than a film-star’s eyelashes, would not yield him even that minimum tribute. In an aristocratic society, of course, all that would have been different; he would either have had money himself, or would have found a patron. An excellent system, he considered, under which the arts had flourished as perhaps never under any other. His own family had themselves been patrons of such a kind during pre-Revolution days; which seemed to indicate a double loss to the world as a result of their downfall.
But Mirsky, though a highbrow and an artist, was by no means devoid of robuster qualities. It was merely that, unless he were compelled, he did not bring them into use. He was a good shot, for instance, but he did not care for the more murderous forms of sport; and though his body was strong and in good condition, this was through careful living rather than any attention to athletics. Perhaps also he had a little more than the average man’s personal courage.
He needed it, even during that first morning in the forest. Suddenly, in the midst of his comfortably meandering thoughts, his horse started violently beneath him, stopped dead, and began to quake with fear. He patted the animal reassuringly, but without effect; the shivering continued, though, so far as he could take in at a rapid survey, there was no reason for it. The vista of dark green thickets festooned with trailing lianes was quite unchanged from similar scenes that he had been traversing for some hours. There was certainly, now that movement of man and beast had stopped, a curious tenseness in the air, and a hint, more than a statement, of the terrific heat that was pouring on the tree-tops a few dozen feet above. And a hum of insects filled the silence, as of a million small instruments tuning up for a symphony. But otherwise everything seemed to Mirsky quite unremarkable.
All at once, however, there came from somewhere in front a faint, slithering rustle, and his heart gave an immediate jump, for not more than a score yards away, in outline scarcely to be seen against the background of undergrowth, there appeared an enormous snake. Its flat, spoon-like head swayed with nonchalant grace about a man’s height above the ground, while its body, thickening and thinning as it drew itself forward, showed yet no visible ending.
The tremors of the horse were verging now on pitiful collapse. Mirsky tried to coax the animal to turn tail and run, but it would not stir; it was almost hypnotised. The blood was pulsing in his own veins quite as disturbingly, and as he stared at the advancing monster, with its glittering eyes and wide, drooling jaws, he felt a swift sympathy with the beast beneath him as well as a spasm of personal panic. He knew very little about reptiles, except that not all were poisonous, and that most were more timid than they looked. He knew, too, that the South American anaconda, or boa-constrictor, killed its prey by crushing; and from its size he thought it likely that the creature facing him was of this species.
But there was no time for speculation in the matter. With scarcely any plan of action in mind, except that it was probably better to do anything rather than nothing, he dismounted, drew his revolver, and took a few paces forward. The long procession of curves halted, like a chain of vehicles held up suddenly by a policeman. For a fraction of a moment the ill-matched adversaries faced each other as if in mutual uncertainty; then Mirsky fired, aiming for the head. Owing to nervousness, he missed, but the sound of the shot evidently frightened the anaconda, if it were one, for with a sort of disdainful hurry it swerved sideways and disappeared into the undergrowth.
After pacifying his horse, Mirsky continued the journey. The incident had broken into the serenity of his thoughts, and though he felt he had acquitted himself well enough, he was left with a small sub-current of uneasiness. He kept glancing about him, determined not to be taken unawares again, but the effort was physically as well as mentally fatiguing, though he was rewarded with many gay glimpses of parakeets and macaws, and superbly marked orchids trailing from branches overhead. The track was often hard to trace, and nowhere did he come across any sign of human visitation, much less a fellow traveller. He was somewhat surprised not to reach some native village, for he had expected the country to be fairly well populated with Indians. At an absurdly high figure he had bought from a Maramba woman a string of coloured beads, with which he had some idea of mollifying a hostile tribe if he should encounter them. It was the sort of thing he had read of in travel-books, and he thought it rather enterprising of him to have remembered it.
But there were no Indians, or, at any rate, he did not see any. Far more troublesome were the myriads of small stingless bees that buzzed around his head as he rode, and tried to fly into his mouth when he ate; and there were ticks that got under his skin and caused intense itchings; and once, when he paused to give his horse a rest, he noticed a giant spider halted on the ground beside him, its attitude one of obscene curiosity. When he rode on, it moved also, waddling alongside at an equal rate, and this, after a time, got on his nerves so much that he used his revolver again. This time his aim was good and the monster seemed to cave in like a pricked blister, its hairy tentacles waving in impotent malice as he passed out of sight.
He was satisfied that he was covering the miles, however, and as evening came and he was able to fill his water-bottle at a stream, he felt that he could easily endure a couple more days of it. An hour later, in the sudden twilight, he halted at a convenient-looking spot and pitched his camp. For a short time, then, his satisfaction recurred; the flame of the sky had quenched itself quickly, and night would be cool under trees that were themselves under the stars. He set about to make a fire, for he had always read that fires keep off wild animals; but he soon found that much of the wood lying to hand was completely unburnable, and the search for the right kinds used up a good deal of his spare enthusiasm. At length the fire was lit, and he made coffee and cooked some rice, those being the only human foods it had been possible to buy in Maramba. He ate, drank, smoked a pipe, looked after his horse, and then rigged up the mosquito-net, under which he crawled with his sleeping-bag. Then he made the disagreeable discovery that mosquito-netting did not keep out the smallest and most troublesome insects. He kept waking up with the buzz of wings in his ears, to find new bodily irritations as he waved the intruders away. At such moments he was impressed with a peculiar quality of awe in the silence that surrounded him; beyond the light of his small, flickering fire the trees began their sable mystery; he felt that the whole forest, though silent, was not asleep, but watching. The moments on his radium-pointed watch crawled more slowly than he had ever known, and long before midnight he was eager for the dawn— eager to push on and cover more miles. Probably, he thought, he had already traversed the worst section of the journey; for San Cristobal, being railhead, was likely to be the centre of more developed country. At any rate, he had done twenty miles or so in the right direction. When he woke up after short spells of sleep he found himself so badly bitten and stung that he decided it was worth while to stay awake and protect himself, and he tried to kill time by reciting verses in Russian, French, and English; after which he set himself various mental tasks, such as the enumeration of a certain number of places in various countries. ...
When dawn at last appeared, he made more coffee, packed his gear, and rode away with much relief. But it was soon noticeable that his horse was jumpy and unable to maintain such a good pace as on the previous day. The track, too showed a tendency to curve northward; yet it was so clearly a track that he was reluctant to leave it. But after it had taken him for at least a mile due north, he came to the conclusion that the parting must be made, and plunged accordingly into the more difficult terrain to the left. Here the path, such as it existed at all, was encumbered with rotting tree-trunks and masses of dense undergrowth, while the foliage above was often so thick that he had to dismount. It was pretty hard work to traverse even a few yards in this sort of country, and he was uneasily conscious that he was not ticking off the miles as he had hoped and planned. Moreover, the air was quiveringly hot, with a moist and sickly-scented heaviness; yet, despite the moisture, there was a scarcity of water. Both he and his horse were suffering from thirst by the time they eventually reached a pool whose water was cold but very brackish. It was a rather lovely, tree-fringed pool, and he longed to take off his clothes and bathe in it; yet something prevented him, a curious inward warning as he saw his reflection in its ebony depths. He passed on without discovering why or even whether he had been wise to do so.
By the second nightfall he was definitely unhappy behind a mask of peevishness. The forest, so far from giving any hint of approaching civilisation, seemed to grow denser and less hospitable with every yard. He was utterly tired out, and though he estimated the day’s mileage as ten or so, he had a private misgiving that it might in reality be very much less. He was also worried about his horse, which seemed rather more than fatigued. He suspected that insect-bites, which the beast had rubbed into open sores, had set up some kind of fever. He doctored the sores with salt and water before preparing his small and not very appetising meal. There was no pleasant excitement now as he gathered wood for a fire and rigged up the mosquito-net. The preliminaries to the long vigil of darkness had lost all their picnic flavour, and he was deeply depressed as he saw the forest, changeless all around him, merge swiftly from grey into black. He was dreading the night, and, with even greater fear, he knew that he was dreading it. Perhaps, after all, it would have been better to have made some enquiries at Maramba about the sort of country this was—better even, it might be, to have invited a companion. And he was already beginning to be aware of certain deficiencies in his equipment. He could have felt easier in mind, for instance, with a few extra boxes of matches, for the firelighting had not been so simple as he had counted on. And some good ointment for sores and bites would have been another boon.
He was so tired that he fell asleep rather quickly, despite the stinging ticks; but some time later he woke up suddenly to hear his horse whimpering. The fire had gone out, and when he looked at his watch he saw that it was still hours from dawn. He felt instinctively, from the note of the cry, that something quite terrible was happening. After a few seconds of indecision he got up, took his revolver, and felt his way through the darkness. He struck a match, but the blackness after it went out made everything more impenetrable than before, and he dared not empty the box by striking others. Clammy fronds brushed his face as he stumbled through the foliage, guided by the continual whimpering; the unseen vegetation touched and recoiled as if it were alive in almost an animal sense. He was alone on the stage of a vast, pitch-black theatre, acting a pitiful little play before an audience that could see in the dark and was just beginning to be attentively hostile. That was how it felt. At last he reached his horse and patted its flanks; it was trembling, and he was thoroughly alarmed when his hand came away wet and sticky. Then, with a sinister commotion of wings, something cold and leathery struck him in the face and disappeared into the branches overhead.
He could not guess what it had been until the morning, when, after hours of partly conquered horror, he went to the horse again and saw, in the first light of dawn, an appalling transformation. The beast stood forlornly where he had tethered it the night before, but its sides and hindquarters were ribboned with blood, and its whole carcass was shrunken like a deflated bladder. There was no interest or vitality in its wandering, hot-lidded eyes. He tried to think what could have happened; at first he pictured an attack by some marauding jaguar, but there was no sign of serious flesh- wounding—merely an immense loss of blood and that look of deathly exhaustion. Then he remembered the scramble of wings in the night, and the thing that had touched him as it fled. Was there no limit of hideousness in these forest secrecies? He was not particularly squeamish, and he had few physical compunctions, but the idea of this vampire creature gorging itself on blood throughout the long black hours, stirred him to an icy shiver.
Grimly he tended the suffering animal, relit the fire to boil water, and packed for the day’s journey. But there was no zest in what he did, despite his anxiety to be off; he felt that part of himself was still too numb to take in the full unpleasantness of the situation. A further shock awaited him when he mounted to ride away; the horse half-turned to him beforehand, as if in warning of the inevitable, and then, since he persisted, collapsed gently where it stood. He was torn between sympathy and a sudden cold lunge of personal fear. He made the horse get up, but did not attempt to mount again. Since it could not carry him, it must carry the baggage and be led; and if the forest ended soon, perhaps all would be well. Or perhaps there was a native village not far ahead, where he could buy another animal. Surely he must be near some exit from this appalling country. He dragged the horse for a little distance before remembering to take compass bearings; then he found that he had been heading south-east instead of west. That small loss of time, space, and energy sent him into a passion of rage; he doubled back on his tracks and returned to the spot where lay the remains of his burnt-out fire. To be there again, seeing his own recent footprints, lifted him to panic; he swerved blindly into the new direction, crashing through the thickets, and so keen to thrust the yards behind him that he did not even brush away the always hovering insects. He grew quieter after a while, and halted at the first stream to fill up his water-bottle. The horse browsed placidly while he stooped over the pool; it was so weak that he did not trouble to tie it up. He was right in thinking the precaution unnecessary, for when he turned round he saw that it had slid to the ground and that flies already clustered over it in evil-looking rosettes.
The horse died and he was alone. There by the pool amidst the heat of noonday, he forced himself to be very calm and think things out. New reserves of power came to him at such urgent summoning; he perceived now, even if he had refused to accept the fact before, that he was matched against a very considerable adversary. He sorted out his baggage and made various careful decisions. There were still left a few handfuls of rice and coffee and a score or more matches. The shot-gun and revolver were absolute necessities. But the mosquito-net had proved of little use, and as it was cumbersome to carry, it had better go. He also at this point abandoned the pocket Theocritus, which so far he had not even opened.
Then he pushed on. He was drenched with sweat, and soon his clothes hung in shreds, so that the countless stinging insects had access to all parts of his body. He was thirsty, yet he did not dare to empty his water-bottle with the deep swigs that he craved. Watching the compass-needle almost continuously, he staggered forward, bruising his shins against fallen logs, sinking knee-high into decaying leafage, thrusting aside the straggling pulpy lianes. If he stopped for a moment he could hear the forest in its full, drowsing chorus, with his own heart beating time to that whirr of insect-life and that faint whisper of tree-tops under the scorching sun. The whole green world lay hushed and trance-like, awaiting the mysterious liveliness of night.
By afternoon he was aware that his chief preoccupation was thirst. It mattered more now than any ticks, snakes, tarantulas, or vampire-bats; it lay over him in raw, enveloping desire, nourished by every step. His water-bottle was empty; he had sipped its last drops with exquisite niggardliness, and now his throat and lips were beginning to be like flame. Yet there was such ripe greenness everywhere that it seemed impossible that he could go far without finding some pleasant oozing mud with a stream trickling through the middle of it. Pictures such as that began to obsess his mind till he could almost believe them real, and could think that he heard the sound of a bubbling rivulet beyond the next limit of sight. He wondered if there were leaves or stems from which he could suck the juices; he wondered also what a death from thirst would be like. Then his mind began to play over the past and present in hot, roving confusion, and he thought of his horse, and that shed at Maramba full of shattered bodies, and the lights of Rio, and New York, and a glass of beer at a restaurant.... His brain swung dizzily at that last summit of bliss, and he felt something give way under him; he staggered and fell on his knees, staring at the tangled, rich-hued greenery through which small shafts of sunlight made lace-like patterns. The load on his back weighed him down, and the shot-gun, slung over his shoulder, rifle-fashion, had made a long ridge of sores which the flies constantly attacked. He thought abruptly: “I am going to die of thirst. Extraordinary! I, Leon Mirsky, formerly of Rostov-on-Don, sometime lieutenant in the Fifteenth Imperial Hussars, and lately correspondent in Rio of the ‘New York Mail,’ am about to die of thirst at a point somewhere between Maramba and San Cristobal, South America....”
He had his revolver, anyhow, for the last extremity. But surely, surely he was a long way from that. He had heard of persons going waterless for several days, and he himself had had less than twelve hours. He upbraided himself for giving way so soon; at least he must stick it out till the next day. Then, looking round and upwards, he saw a large bird swooping low overhead, and his first thought was of the astonishing prescience of vultures. But the bird passed, and after a moment the same or a similar bird flew back again. Could it be that there was water near by, some pool to which the bird had flown to drink? He had noted the direction; it was downhill. With the idea once in his mind he could almost sniff the water, and all at once he sprang to his feet, flung his pack and weapons on the ground, and raced forward with arms outstretched. There was water, and he would find it.
He did. Less than fifty yards away he ran into a sun-caked gully that had been a stream during the rainy season, but was now a series of slimy puddles. He lay belly downwards on the edge of one of these and paddled his lips and face. He lay for many minutes, caring for nothing but the relief of liquid coursing in the dried canals of his body. Birds came near him to drink, too thirsty to have fear, or to wait for him to go. Then it grew dark and was night. He fell asleep, and thousands of ticks and flies had their will of him. Sometimes, in the midst of wild dreams, he woke suddenly, startled by the movement of some bird or beast in the pool. He was in pain now, as if fire was in his stomach; and in the morning he could move only with great difficulty. His first thought was of the guns and pack which he had left a short way off in the forest; he must find them, fill up his water-bottle, and then press onward. He stumbled a few yards into the undergrowth before realising, with a sort of numbed panic, that he had not the slightest idea where to look, and that a search of the whole possible radius was far beyond the limit of his bodily strength.
He slid back into the gully and watched without resentment the flies that preyed on every inch of his exposed skin. An insect new to him, rather like a scorpion, approached to within a little space of his arm, and then scurried away when he made to touch it. His brain felt perfectly clear, clearer than at any time since that first day after leaving Maramba. He even philosophised over the flies and insects, reflecting how the health of their small bodies depended on his own sores and illness, and wondering whether life itself might not be nourished similarly on some greater, unknown matter in a state of unhealth. As ticks and microbes were to men, so were men to what? No answer; just as, perhaps, a bacillus in the cancerous throat of a prima-donna could have small conception of an aria by Mozart. A universe, then, in which life was a symptom of pain and breakdown in some larger structure?
He felt quite calmly reconciled to the fact of death, provided only that it were not to be death of thirst. But then it seemed as if a last malignant miracle were performed before his eyes, for he looked down at the pool and saw that it had dried. Somehow he had never thought of that, though it was really as likely as that puddles dry on city pavements. The last of the green scum had oozed away during the night, and now the sun was scorching up the final moisture. A bird swooped down, pecked at the caking mud, and seemed to share his discomfiture so comically that he burst into a loud laugh and scared it away. He went on laughing, as at some monstrous Rabelaisian humour, his finger- nails scrabbling in the cocoa-brown earth. And the cream of the jest was that his revolver lay somewhere a few yards away—yards that might as well have been miles. Suddenly, thinking about it, he waved his fists at the green encircling wall and began to shriek and shriek....
The Oetzler House in New York represented a last-minute triumph of good taste over wealth. Aged sixty-eight, Oetzler was a sallow, bald-headed, small- statured German Jew who had sold newspapers as a small boy, and still, it might be said, sold newspapers. His fortune was reckoned to be in the seven-figure category, much of it invested in real estate; and he had the reputation of having forecast the stock-market slump long, perhaps too long, before it had happened. He was shrewd, acid, a fancier of men rather than books, and as good a judge of wine as of either. He had gathered a typical crowd around his dining- table that March evening—Wolfe-Sutton the banker, Mrs. Drinan the actress, Lanberger the latest lion among the novelists, Russell just back from the Andes, Lady Celia Rivers on her way to Hollywood, and so on. Twelve in all, including himself. His cousin had come up from Long Island to act as hostess; she was rather “out of things” intellectually, but she made up for it by a few mundaner talents which the great ones often lacked. Oetzler was just conventional enough himself to appreciate the fact that introducing people without getting their names mixed up required brains of a kind, even if one did prefer the Ziegfeld Chorus to “Strange Interlude.” His attitude towards his guests was pleasantly cynical; he liked to hear them talk, and took care never to believe much of anything they said. It was, as he reckoned it, a shop-window world, in which it would have been a breach of etiquette to attempt to purchase the goods displayed. The real stuff of the mind was housed in cellars, where one need not advertise it.
He recognised a familiar scene as he glanced down the table at the alternating array of creamy neck and white shirt-front. Like most celebrities, they seemed to him ruthlessly self-centred; their talk spurted into the air like fireworks, and he was always fascinated to notice how little real connection the brightest salvos had with anything that had gone before, yet how cunningly the skilled conversational practitioner could devise an apparent sequence. And there were several skilled practitioners at work to-night, he noted. Indeed, he thought it very possible that no more brilliant talk was being manufactured anywhere in New York at that moment. The participants were all so cold and experienced; they shot their service so unerringly over the net; though one did get a little fatigued, as at tournament tennis, by the constant swivel of attention. Extraordinary fruit of civilisation, these tricks of verbal jugglery, played for a couple of hours over the silver and cut glass of a dining-table. To eat and talk—who had first thought of elaborating the simultaneous technique? Oetzler was indifferently aware that he himself was but a poor hand at the game; his words had a distressful habit of meaning something, which was why, rather than spoil the play, he usually preferred to be a listener. He liked, for example, to listen to Lanberger talking of the world-slump, envisaging the breakdown of civilisation as casually as he might announce the discovery of a new Czecho-Slovakian ballerina. He liked nearly as well to hear Wolfe-Sutton jauntily seconding a remark which, if true, must necessarily spell doom for them all; was there something fine, or else merely fatuous, in the way these people daintily improvised while so many Romes were burning? The ball of chatter kept on flip- flopping backwards and forwards, never missing a score, yet just as reliably never getting anywhere; once it seemed in danger of stopping, but Wolfe-Sutton rescued it at the last moment by interjecting: “Curious, isn’t it, the growing gulf between what we can all say, privately like this, and what we dare write and speak in public? We dope the millions with stuff that doesn’t even win from us a cynical smile.”
Lanberger, red-haired and bronze-eyed, nodded. “Yes, and our host, if he won’t mind our being personal, is an example. In his newspapers he organises optimism like a drill-sergeant, but one of the few people he can’t influence is himself. Do we count him a hypocrite? Not at all. As a matter of fact, we hardly notice the discrepancy. We accept the fact that cheerfulness has to be dished out to the multitude just as we know that a boxer before a fight daren’t express the least doubt about winning.”
Russell’s turn now. “Don’t be too sure, though, that the multitude is really taken in.”
“You think they see through it?” queried Mrs. Drinan, in her brittle voice. “You really think they don’t believe all that they read in Mr. Oetzler’s newspapers?”
Oetzler answered her mockery with an amused: “Good God, I hope they don’t.”
Russell turned to him with a smile. “Probably people everywhere are developing resistance to mass-suggestion—after all, even the stupidest of us don’t rush to do all that the advertisements command us to. And I rather suspect that this matter of organised optimism is a case in point.... You know, perhaps, that I’ve just come back from the wilds—after twelve months away. Last night I went to a restaurant where there was a band playing optimistic songs. All about shouting for happiness and putting your troubles on the shelf—that sort of stuff. There was a pathos about it in 1930, when people took it with a sort of half- prayerful boisterousness—rather like a lot of drunks singing in a thunder-storm to keep their courage up. By last year the pathos had turned to obvious derision. But last night, mouthed by whispering baritones and crooning tenors—”
“The Neo-Bantu castrati,” interjected Lanberger.
“—it all struck me as different again. The folks weren’t cheered by it, they weren’t depressed by it, they weren’t even cynical about it. They just carried on with their ordinary business, which was eating and drinking and flirting, with no more attention than if the words had been a funeral lament.”
Russell then resigned the ball to be tossed about by others. He was a man of nearer sixty than fifty; grey-haired, short-bearded, and inclined to mellow after a grim middle age and a somewhat riotous youth. He was fairly well off, unmarried, and good company— circumstances which had enabled Oetzler and himself to enjoy for years an acquaintanceship which, though it hardly warmed into friendship, was yet unhampered by all the more fruitful causes of estrangement. And, in a sense, one could not easily be a FRIEND of Odo Russell. A wanderer, a woman-hater, a writer of unconventional travel-books, and a man of intense physical courage, he had progressed beyond mere disillusionment to a state at which he might have been called unillusioned. It was magnificent, doubtless, but it was not lovable.
Oetzler leaned forward and spoke to him across Mrs. Drinan, who was arguing vividly with someone at the other end of the table. “By the way, Russell,” he said quietly, “while you were out there, did you happen to hear anything of that fellow I wrote you about?”
Russell looked up. “The Russian youth? Yes. I found him.”
“Oh, he’s alive all right.”
“Then he certainly ought to write to his sister in Paris—she’s worried to death. I don’t particularly blame him for letting me down if he found something better to do out there—we’ve all got to look after ourselves—”
Russell interrupted: “It’s not quite so simple as all that, unfortunately. In fact, it’s rather a long story, so that perhaps—”
“Yes, you must tell me about it afterwards.”
The general conversation continued, and Oetzler pondered. So that Russian fellow was alive? Oetzler was glad; he had quite liked him, though he had never thought much of his art journalism. He remembered once, in a whimsical mood, offering him a salary of a hundred dollars a week if he could explain, simply and convincingly to the ordinary reader, just why a Botticelli was better art than a magazine-advertisement of a Marmon straight-eight ... and he would have been worth the money, too, if he’d been able to do it.
Oetzler had no further chance of speaking to Russell until later in the evening, when all the others had gone except Lanberger, who was staying the night. Then, as the three sat over the library fire with drinks and cigars, he said, recollecting the matter: “So you found Mirsky, then, did you?”
Russell gave a half-glance at Lanberger. “I did, but it’s a complicated story, and—”
“So you said before, but that doesn’t matter. We can put you up for the night, if you get too tired for the journey to your hotel.”
“It’s also—in a way—rather confidential. I don’t know if—”
Lanberger took the hint and rose at once, but Oetzler checked him. “I think we can accept a pledge of secrecy, eh, Russell? That is, of course, if you think it’s the sort of story that would interest a novelist?”
“Well, go ahead.”
Russell took a sip of his drink, glanced for a moment at his two listeners, and began. His voice was pleasant, he spoke with easy fluency, and in conversation he had the same flair for words that had made his travel-books very readable. “I got your letter addressed to San Cristobal, Oetzler. And I must confess I was amused by your saying in it that perhaps I could make enquiries because you’d looked up San Cristobal on the map and had found that it was quite near Maramba. Well, I suppose it is quite near, judged by your standards, which are doubtless those of a private saloon-coach on the New York Central. As a matter of fact, the distance is about a hundred and twenty miles. There’s no road between the two places, no river, and not even a direct track. The trip has been done, at various times, but it’s about as rare as a crossing of Arabia or Tibet. That’s the sort of thing people don’t easily realise. Those hundred and twenty miles are more of a separation than any mountain range or ocean. They’re covered with forest, much of it dense and waterless in the dry season, and they’re the haunt of a dreadful little pest called the ihenna—a minute fly that can get through any mosquito-net and through most sorts of clothing. There are also such minor inconveniences as snakes, tigers, and native tribes who still use poisoned arrows. Finally there’s no particular reason why anybody should ever want to get from Maramba to San Cristobal. Maramba does all its trade with the south and east, San Cristobal with the north and west— they’re in different spheres altogether. That’s what puzzled me so much when you wrote that the authorities in Maramba believed that Mirsky had crossed the river. I couldn’t think what his reason might have been. It was the maddest thing to do, and anyone in Maramba would have told him so. Two Canadians, by the way, attempted the journey last year and were never heard of again. Their bones are whitening somewhere in the forest, I suppose.”
“Probably, after the earthquake, the Maramba people weren’t much interested in giving warnings,” put in Oetzler.
“Maybe that was it. Anyhow, as soon as I got your letter, I made a few enquiries here and there—not really expecting to be told of anything. I talked to innkeepers, traders and people who might have heard any tales that were about. My own theory was that Mirsky had probably crossed the river out of mere curiosity, and perhaps ridden a little way into the forest and been killed somehow or other—there are a hundred ways of getting killed in that sort of country, particularly for that sort of youth. You didn’t give me much of a description of him, but he hardly seemed to me the pioneering type.”
“Certainly not that, but he wasn’t a ninny, by any means, you know. He was in the Russian Revolution—I think he fought in one or two battles.... But go on—don’t let me interrupt.”
Russell drank again. “I may as well get to the point of the story quickly. To my surprise, when I began to ask questions, I did hear, quite soon, of a rumour circulated by some Indians who had been in the town lately. They had mentioned a strange white man who was living in the middle of the forest in a native hut, and I gathered that the affair had been discussed by them as a sensation of some piquancy. That was just the vague impression I got, mind you, hearing the story third-hand like that. Naturally I asked for more details, but I only received doubtful replies, and it began to seem unlikely that I could trace the thing any further. Then, altogether by accident, I ran into a young fellow prospecting for the Standard Oil Company. He was one of those keen, eager youths that represent the very best that America has to offer the world—I don’t know how the company finds them all—”
“Because it looks for them,” interposed Oetzler. “Because it finds the men who can do a job and then gives them a job to do. If the whole country were run half as well, we should be a good deal better off.”
Russell nodded. “Yes, I daresay you’re right. I heard someone once say that Standard Oil was one of the three most wonderful institutions the world had ever known—the other two being the Papacy and the pre-War German army. They also, by the way, are well represented in San Cristobal. In fact, you won’t find any spot in the world where the hardships are too much for that extraordinary trio—the Roman missionary, the oil man, and the German ex-officer in search of a job. They’re cells of faith, hope, and efficiency in places where everybody else is sinking into a sort of sulky fatalism. Indeed, if our civilisation does crash, as we were all talking about at dinner, I’ll even back the triumvirate to build up another one.... However, that’s rather wandering from the point. What I was about to say was that this youth, Dyson by name, told me not only that he also had heard the rumour about the mystery man, but that the chap was supposed to be camped out fairly close to where the oil-men had lately been prospecting.”
“They hadn’t seen him?” queried Oetzler.
“They’d had something more important to do than look for him, I should imagine. But the name of their place was Yacaiba, and that’s where I set out for a few days afterwards.”
“I hope it didn’t upset your plans a lot?”
“I was interested. I didn’t mind. Yacaiba was a two day’s journey away, travelling on mule-back. There’d been heavy rains that had swollen the rivers, and what ought to have taken two days took eleven. You’ll find the place marked on the Government large-scale maps as if it were about the size of Denver, or Salt Lake City, but in reality it’s a collection of adobe huts inhabited by less than a hundred scrofulous Chiriqui Indians. Rather an extraordinary tribe, the Chiriquis, as I’ll tell you later. I’m giving you these details so that you’ll feel some meaning in those hundred and twenty miles between San Cristobal and Maramba. Yacaiba is less than half-way and a little bit off the straight line. Well, I got there and was hospitably entertained by some more young fellows of the same type as Dyson—they were terribly busy, and hadn’t come across the oil they were looking for, so I didn’t bother them much with my questions. All they could say was that the Indians talked of a gringo living somewhere in the jungle with one of their own women.”
“Good God!” exclaimed Oetzler.
Russell smiled. “Yes, that’s where you home-bred Americans prick up your ears. You’ve all got an anti-miscegenation complex. Six months in parts of South America would do you good—you’d find that the mating of white and native races isn’t thought of everywhere as it is in Tennessee and Alabama. Whole nations south of the Canal have been reared out of the first intermixtures of Spaniard and native Indian, and in Bolivia the half-breeds, the cholos, are in some respects the most promising stocks. So don’t think that the mere notion of a white man and an Indian woman was likely to shock anybody in Yacaiba.”
“We’re too squeamish, I admit,” said Lanberger. “I wonder if we oughn’t to look to complete world-freedom in intermarriage as an ideal? It will probably come, when the European stocks have been overthrown from their quite temporary domination. After all, modern transport is making the world so small that this rigid and continuous in- breeding of the white races is almost beginning to look incestuous.”
Oetzler said curtly: “I don’t like half-breeds.”
“My dear fellow, I don’t myself particularly care for Poles and Lithuanians and Greeks, but I’m bound to confess that the whole gigantic mix-up of Teuton, Latin, Slav and Semite has given America its new note of vitality in the world. Why, then, must we suppose that a further admixture of Chink and Jap, or even pure nigger, wouldn’t add to the newness and the vitality?... But I don’t want to hold up the story.”
“I’d got to Yacaiba, hadn’t I?” Russell continued. “Well, there was an Indian there who thought he knew where we could find the happy couple, so I engaged him as a guide and we set out into the forests. He said we’d be riding for a day, but once again calculations went all wrong; it took four days. And I’ll say this, having had three nights in it, that I consider that forest one of the most hellish things I’ve ever struck. Let me compare my own situation then with what must have been Mirsky’s when he entered from the other end. He was alone; I had an Indian who was supposed to know the place. He had no experience of pioneer hardships; I’ve had forty years of them. He was setting out to do over a hundred miles; my trip was less than thirty. He had a horse (so the Maramba people said, didn’t they?); I was on a mule, which is a much more reliable animal in such conditions. Also, he was new blood to all the insects; I’ve been so well inoculated that I’ve sometimes imagined that the brutes see me coming and deliberately keep off. On the whole, I’m glad I had those days and nights in the forest. They helped me to understand the sort of thing that he must have gone through before he was found.”
“Ah,” said Oetzler. “He was found, then.”
“Yes, but I seem to be getting a bit ahead with my story. On the fourth day we came to a few native huts by the side of a stream. The village, or whatever it deserves to be called, was completely empty, and the reason was obvious—the stream had recently overflowed and washed out the inhabitants. But about a mile away, on higher ground, surrounded by a small clearing which was in turn surrounded by the forest, there was this interesting ménage in full swing.”
Russell paused, relishing his own technique of narrative. He went on, eventually: “There was a rough timber hut with no windows, a large opening for a door, and a roof made of some kind of palm-leaf. The floor was just the earth, which chickens had scratched into inches of filth and dust. A very small maize field rose on sloping ground at the back—right up to the edge of the forest. There were a few rather scraggy cattle in a stockaded corral. It was dull and raining when I saw the place first, and the impression of the forest all around, a complete wall of black, was that of some huge, crouching animal waiting to pounce. Probably, had it been a fine day, I’d have thought it all looked very cheerful and homy. Anyway, there it was, and your friend Mirsky, dressed native-fashion in slip-slop trousers and nothing else, was chopping wood in the doorway.
“Of course, I couldn’t be certain, then, that he was Mirsky. He had a beard and a moustache, his hair was long, he was very dirty— he didn’t look a bit like the man your letter had described. There was nothing for it but the ‘Doctor-Livingstone-I- presume’ gambit, so I went up to him, held out my hand, and said: ’Is your name Mirsky?’ He didn’t take my hand, he didn’t answer, and he gave me a look that I can’t really portray, but it showed me this much instantly—he was off his head.
“We stood there for a minute or so, facing each other without words. Then suddenly a woman came out of the hut and looked at us. That gave me my second shock. You know, Oetzler, I’m probably the last man in the world who could he called sentimental, especially about women, and you can imagine that I hadn’t been picturing any romantic affair between a stranded white man and a lovely sepia princess. I was prepared for the average Indian female, who generally isn’t good-looking to begin with, ages very rapidly, and has several diseases. But this creature wasn’t even that. She was the most incredibly ugly human creature I think I ever saw in my life. She had the usual flat nose and broken teeth and barrel-shaped body. She may have been old or young—one simply couldn’t guess. But the whole effect was made much worse by her being an out-size. She was big even by our standards—to the Indians, who are rather a stunted race, she must have seemed a regular giantess. She made Mirsky look puny, and he certainly wasn’t under average. Of course I could understand as soon as I saw her why the Indians at Yacaiba had all seemed rather lewdly amused at the situation— there’s always something a bit comic about the amours of a hefty woman.... Well, there you are—there’s your picture. I ought to add that she was quite as dirty as she was ugly, and that when she came up close she had a queer, ammoniacal smell that happens to be one of the few unpleasantnesses that I’ve never managed to get used to.”
Lanberger reached for more whisky. “As you say, Russell, you could hardly call yourself a sentimentalist.”
Russell went on. “Well, she looked me up and down, and I smiled politely, and then Mirsky said something to her in the native lingo, and I gathered it was by way of general introduction. I’d already given him my own name, of course. When I said he was off his head, I don’t mean that he was a raving lunatic. Far from it. His first instincts were quite naturally hospitable, and he motioned me to enter the hut out of the pouring rain. I did so, with him following me, and the woman following after him. My Indian guide stayed outside, watching events with much curiosity. The inside of that hut was pretty dreadful. It had about twenty smells, among them being those of chickens, drying pemmican, peppery cooking, and filth. There was a sort of wooden bench on which Mirsky invited me to sit. The woman went into a corner and squatted on some straw; I couldn’t see her properly, but I could feel that her eyes were still on me, and I had an additional feeling that she didn’t altogether like me or approve of my visit. Meanwhile I was rather waiting for Mirsky to say something, or at least to confirm the fact that he was Mirsky. He didn’t; but he asked me what he could do for me, if I had lost my way, did I wish for food, or anything. Quite courteous, indeed. I said: ’No. I came deliberately to see you. I was told you were here. I should like to talk to you.’ He smiled at that and said he didn’t know that we could find much to talk about. I didn’t fence around any longer then, but said outright that his friends were greatly concerned about him, and that I’d been sent by them to bring him back. To which he replied, equally outright: ’You’ll spare yourself a lot of trouble if you take my word once and for all that I’m not coming.’ Quietly just like that. There was nothing precisely in his tone, or words, or manner, to suggest that he wasn’t perfectly sane. But when I looked at him I saw his eyes again. They were the danger-signal. They were—I can only think of one adjective—they were HOT.
“Naturally, I didn’t launch into arguments right away. To begin with, I wasn’t ready with any. It hadn’t really occurred to me that the fellow wouldn’t jump at the chance of quitting such a life. I just said: ‘Oh, that’s how you feel, is it?’ and let the matter drop for the time being. He was instantly courteous again, and offered me food and drink, which I decided to accept. I’m not particularly fastidious—I haven’t had to be in my life—but I confess that I heaved a bit over that meal. Just to see that woman eating was enough to turn one’s stomach. We drank chicha, which is made from maize, and is pretty alcoholic if you have too much of it. Afterwards both Mirsky and the woman chewed coca, but I declined to join in—not from any scruples, but because I don’t much care for the drug. We talked a little, just the two of us. Sometimes Mirsky said a word or so to the woman, but I gathered that he didn’t understand her language very completely. My attitude, which I thought was the best possible in the circumstances, was to pretend that the whole situation was the most natural in the world. From a good deal of our talk we might have been lunching at the Ritz-Carlton. Except that whenever I mentioned anything about the outside world he shut me up instantly—telling me he wasn’t interested. Nor would he talk about the recent past. He seemed to be living in a sort of ‘here- now’ world, as if he either couldn’t or wouldn’t exercise his brain over space and time. I’m not a psychologist, still less an alienist, and I don’t really profess to understand the man’s mental condition. But it did seem to me that his mind was somehow twisted. I’ll give you an instance of it later on.... I hope, by the way, you don’t think I’m spinning this out too much? There isn’t a great deal more to tell, anyhow.”
“Go on,” Oetzler said. “It’s a most extraordinary story.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve known men go native before, but as a rule it’s drink or women that lead them to it, and they’d most of them give their eyes to get back, if anyone offered to help them. Mirsky, however, was a rather studious type, wasn’t he, not much given to the pleasures of the flesh?”
Oetzler nodded. “He certainly didn’t drink heavily, and as for women, I should have reckoned him under rather than oversexed. Finnicky, in fact.”
“Yes, you’re thinking of that woman,” Russell answered. “There was nothing undersexed about her, I can assure you. She was almost, if you take my meaning, a caricature of the thing. What’s the name of that English Jew who does queer sculptures that get his name in the pictures? Yes, Epstein, that’s it. She was Sex as Epstein might have personified it. I don’t say that, of course, merely because she was ugly. There was something else—something powerful and elemental and rather, to me, horrific in her. One somehow expected to see her surrounded by an enormous litter of children. Yet, so far as I could judge, she hadn’t any. Afterwards, when I got back to Yacaiba, I discovered that this was by no means remarkable, since the Chiriqui women vastly outnumber the men—sometimes by as big a ratio as ten to one. Nobody quite knows why, but it is so. The only theory I can advance is that just as during a War the will to survive produces an excess of males, a corresponding excess of females must represent a subconscious will to die. As a matter of fact, some of the tribes are dying—very rapidly.”
“It must make the men rather proud of themselves,” said Oetzler.
“Yes, I daresay. But most of them are only weedy little runts that sit around all day doing nothing, while the women work. Contrary to what you might expect, the men are by no means objects of worship by the women. The disproportion is so great that the women seem rather to despise them. There’s polygamy, of course, if you like to call it that, but it’s really more like promiscuity. Few of the children know their own fathers. The men’s function is just ‘service,’ in the stud-book sense, and I can’t say it adds to their dignity, even if it does to their importance.”
“And the women?” queried Lanberger. “Do they play fair—share and share alike? Or do the good-looking ones, if there are any, elbow the others out of the way?”
“So far as I could judge from very casual observation in Yacaiba, the women seemed to be pretty sensible about it. Perhaps they’d arrived at the soundest possible basis for a sexual relationship— that of not expecting faithfulness. Still, the bad-lookers do get left out—that’s natural enough.” He took a fresh cigar, paused while he lit it, and then added: “Which brings me back to the point—that woman. I should guess that SHE’D been left out, until she met Mirsky. Or, rather, she didn’t exactly meet him—she must have found him, probably when he was half-dead and half- mad of thirst in the forest. He didn’t deny that that was what had happened, when I put it to him the following day. Oh, yes, I stayed the night there. I’m afraid I’m telling this story rather badly. I stayed the night because I had to—the heavy rains had swollen the river so much that it was quite impossible to make the crossing. Mirsky walked down with me to look at it and then invited me to return with him and wait till the morning. I can’t say I was pleased, because we’d already had a long and exhausting argument and I could see that persuasion was useless.
“Yes, quite useless. When a man says the sort of things that Mirsky said, and with that queer sort of danger look in his eyes, you can’t feel very optimistic about changing his mind. When I told him about his sister in Paris and how worried she was about him, all he said was: ‘She needn’t be. I’m well enough here.’ ‘But do you mean to say she’s never going to see you again?’ I asked, and he answered: ’She can see me here, if she comes. There’s room enough for her.’ After that it didn’t seem worth while to say much more. He talked a lot of wild nonsense about hating civilisation. Even art, too. He was in a mood to have put his foot through the canvas of the Monna Lisa if it had been anywhere near. He pointed to a rather repulsive looking beetle we saw crawling over the mud and said to me: ’You see that beetle? What is it? It’s a beetle, that’s all. What is it doing? Nothing particular that we know of. It’s just being a beetle. Well, that’s how I want to be a man.’ All that sort of talk.”
“Not especially original,” commented Lanberger. “I begin to suspect that Mirsky must have had a complete set of the works of D. H. Lawrence somewhere in that hut.”
Russell laughed. “I haven’t read much of Lawrence, so I can’t say, but of course the whole thing was absurd. Civilised man can’t go back to savagery all at once—he’s too self- conscious. The very last thing a savage ever does is to explain himself introspectively, as Mirsky was doing then. But he wasn’t altogether sane, remember. Those days and nights in the forest— exactly how many before the woman found him, I couldn’t quite gather—they’d done that much for him. As we came in sight of his hut on the way back he said something else that stuck in my mind. ‘I’ve got everything a man needs,’ he said, ’food, drink, a roof over my head, and a woman.’”
“Well,” said Lanberger, reflectively, “it’s a point of view, at any rate. I can imagine many people who’re by no means mad agreeing with him.”
“Oh, I’m not offering it as a proof of his madness,” Russell retorted. “And I could give you far better ones than that, in any case. ... But I must tell you now how we spent the night. Mirsky and the woman slept together at one end of the hut, my Indian guide was in the middle, and I was at the other end near the doorway. As it wasn’t a large hut we were all fairly closely huddled. There was no artificial light, so we turned in as soon as it got dark. Of course I didn’t undress—I didn’t even take my boots off. There was only straw to lie on, full of fleas and insects. Usually I don’t get bitten much, but Mirsky must have been breeding an especially ferocious type. They and other things kept me awake, though there was every reason for me to be as tired as the guide, who began snoring almost instantly. I smoked a pipe or two and thought what a confoundedly queer world it was—to have sent a Russian aristocrat turned Yankee art-critic to sleep on straw in the middle of a tropical swamp with that monstrous female. As a matter of fact, it rather got on my nerves—the thought of them there, like that, only a few feet away. Of course I’m quite aware that I ought to allow for my own personal kink in such a matter. Frankly, I don’t care for women. I don’t even think that their naked bodies are beautiful—all those rather foolish curves and cushions. Now a man’s body, on the other hand... but I mustn’t digress. I want to tell you about that night. It was not quite pitch-dark—there was a small moon when the clouds let it be seen. I suppose, despite the fleas and the smells and the general uncomfortableness of things, I must have dropped off to sleep before midnight, because when I woke I had a distinct middle-of-the-night, as opposed to nearly-time-to-get-up feeling. I’m rather good at that sort of instinct; I also have an instinct for danger— it’s saved my life several times. In fact—which is what I’ve come to at last—I think it did so that night.
“I woke up with a queer sensation that something was happening or about to happen—I felt it even before I remembered my whereabouts. And then, when I looked up, I saw, very faintly against the slightly pale oblong of the open doorway, a sight more terrifying to me than snakes or panthers.”
Lanberger tittered. “Do we have to guess what it was? I suggest it was Mirsky being a beetle... . Sorry, Russell, I’m not really poking fun—it’s just that your quite frightful story begins to make me feel hysterical. I can’t help it. But do go on.”
Russell continued: “The woman was standing over me. I could feel and smell, more than I could see her. And if, by the way, I had happened to be an admirer of women, I think that might have been enough to cure me for ever. I can get now, when I think of it, some of the fearfulness of that presence near me—once again, in the darkness, I had an impression of something elemental, and in a rather dreadful way, obscene. I won’t elaborate it, though. Perhaps more to the point is the fact that she was carrying something in her hand—something which, dimly outlined, looked to me very much like the axe that Mirsky had been using to chop wood.
“I rather pride myself, you know, on keeping my head at these awkward junctures. After my first spasm of terror, I felt quite calm. The woman, I could see, was watching me, but I doubted whether she knew I had wakened. My revolver was touching my hand— if she intended murder I could forestall her by the merest pressure of a finger. I don’t know that I’d have felt much compunction about it, either—I’ve killed men for less, and I certainly didn’t feel in a chivalrous mood just then, even if I ever did. Anyhow, to cut the story shorter, I gave her the chance and she took it. I staged a noisy yawn, and saw her slink back, axe and all, into the shadows at the other end of the hut.
“As you can guess, I didn’t go to sleep again that night. I lay awake thinking things over, and the best plan, in the circumstances, seemed a pretty quick exit in the morning. I just didn’t like the idea of that woman. The Indian tribes, you know, aren’t particularly intelligent, but they’re reputed to employ several highly original methods of slaughter, and I wasn’t sure that I knew them all. So at dawn I got up, waked my guide, and ordered him to prepare for the return journey. Mirsky and the woman heard me, and also got up. Mirsky protested against my going so soon, and wanted me to take a meal first, but I declined—to tell the truth, though it may sound ridiculous—I had a fear of poison. You see, I’d figured it out that the woman knew, whether he’d told her so or not, that I was scheming to take him away from her. It’s the sort of motive that grows with thinking about, and I reckoned on her feeling more murderous than ever after that middle-of-the-night fiasco. I didn’t hint anything of this to Mirsky, of course. I merely said that as it hadn’t rained during the night, I was anxious to take the chance of crossing the river. Mirsky said it would still be impossible to cross, but I said I would go down and try, anyway. So he went with me. My good-bye to the woman was somewhat frigidly polite.
“It’s about a mile downhill from the hut to the fording- place, and Mirsky and I carried on a rather one-sided conversation most of the way. It was then that I said I supposed the woman had found him half-dead in the forest, and he just looked at me sardonically and shrugged his shoulders. I also said: ’I don’t know what sort of report I can make about you when I get back.’ He said: ’Why not tell the truth?’ I answered: ‘It’s too ghastly.’ He then said: ‘I suppose it’s the woman that makes you say that.’ I admitted as much, and he laughed in a sort of crackling way and answered: ’That’s just the trouble. You shouldn’t think about her. You shouldn’t think about women at all. They’re not made for it.’ I said they were generally considered to be of some importance in a man’s life. He said: ’Important, yes. So are the colon and the pylorus. But you only think about them when they’re not functioning properly. Thought is Mishap. That’s a decent sort of Proudhon definition anyway. Look at your world when you return to it—compare it with the almost thoughtless world of the amoeba, or with the totally thoughtless orbit of Betelgeuse.’ ’All very well,’ I retorted, ’but the fact remains that what you’re saying now is very much the product of thought. You seem to have the disease as badly as anyone else.’ He laughed again at that, and we went on talking till we reached the river. I can’t remember a lot that he said. As you remarked just now, Lanberger, it probably wasn’t anything really original. But it would no doubt pass for originality if Mirsky were to come back here on a lecture tour, grizzled beard and Indian squaw complete. I can see the women’s clubs in Cincinnati and Akron, Ohio, going wild about him.”
“He’d certainly make a bigger hit than he did as a highbrow art-critic,” agreed Oetzler. “But unfortunately you weren’t able to persuade him to such an interestingly new career, I gather?”
“No, but he nearly persuaded me to go back with him to the hut. He said the river was very deep and had dangerous cross-currents, so that I’d probably lose all my tackle if not my life. The Indian guide was rather doubtful about it, too—the stream certainly was running pretty high. I was half-preparing myself to accept the inevitable—after all, I thought, I’ve got a revolver and know how to use it—when I happened to give another glance at Mirsky, and all at once my guardian instinct stepped in again. I can’t really describe the look that was in his face. It was just—if the oxymoron conveys anything—pure evil. I was aware then, as clearly as if I’d been told so outright, that he knew all about the woman’s planned attack on me, that he’d been a party to it, and that he wanted to get me back to the hut for a second and more successful effort. Of course, you can say if you like that I couldn’t possibly deduce all these things from a mere look, but I say I could and DID. And it made me settle quite finally that I’d got to cross that stream somehow or other. I told him so. He laughed and said he supposed I had a right to drown myself if I chose. Then he suddenly cried out, excitedly: ’You’re not going! You’re coming back with me!’ I answered, as calmly as I could: ’My dear Mirsky, nothing on earth would induce me to do that. If I can’t get across now, I’ll camp out here on the bank until the water lowers.’ He said: ‘You don’t like my establishment, then?’ I answered rather recklessly—perhaps you know how sometimes an idea comes to you which, if you thought about it twice, you’d reject, but it just captures you before you have time for the second thought. That’s what was happening to me then, as I said: ’Oh, I don’t mind your establishment at all, but I do object to being murdered in my sleep.’ I guessed that would bring things to a climax, but the precise climax it did lead to wasn’t among those I was prepared for. A rather curious change came over him. He just nodded his head, very slowly; and, believe me, Oetzler, it was as if, for a moment, the curtain lifted and he became as sane as you or me. ‘She’s a devil, that woman is, Russell,’ he said, in quite a calm voice.
“D’you know, it rather got me, moved me in a sense—his saying that, and the way he said it—and I’m not a very easy person to move. Perhaps it was partly his calling me by my name, for the first time. I put my hand on his dirty, sun-browned shoulder and said: ’Mirsky, don’t be a fool—come with me now—this instant— let’s both of us cross this damned river and get away. Come on— don’t think of her again—just come with me.’ I kept on talking, urging, waiting for him to say something in reply, and what he said at length was just the one word—’Clothes’—in a half-dazed voice. ‘Oh, that’s all right,’ I replied. ’I can lend you things, and we’ll get you a full rig-out in San Cristobal.’ ‘San Cristobal?’ he echoed, as if the name reminded him of something. And then he made a remark which made me think, as I told you before, that his mind and memory must have undergone some peculiar twist. He said: ’I must send a cable when I get to San Cristobal. Raphael Rassova is dead. Did you know that?’ Well, of course I knew it, as everybody else does. I just made some vague answer, not wishing to begin any irrelevant argument. What I was most anxious for was to have him on the other side of that river. And I honestly think I should have succeeded but for one of those appalling mischances that change the entire pattern of fate. Hearing a sound in the distance, we both looked to see what it was, and there, waddling down the forest-track as fast as she could come, was that woman.”
Russell leaned forward a little and took another drink; talking so much had made him a trifle husky. “I assure you solemnly, Oetzler, that I very nearly killed her at that moment. And I suppose, by every civil and moral law, it would have been plain murder if I had done. Yet she seemed to me, as she approached, much more than someone who had tried to take my life. As a matter of fact, I almost forgot about that. She seemed more than any merely human personality—rather the incarnation of all that keeps men enslaved, chained down. Do you know what I mean when I say she was too FEMALE?”
Lanberger nodded. “Your kink again, Russell. But I do know what you mean. I wonder if women ever think a man is too MALE? Perhaps those chaps are that you see photographs of in the physical culture papers. ... But I’m too interested in your yarn to want to interrupt it again. Do continue.”
“Well, there’s very little left. Of course her coming made everything hopeless. The curtain re-descended on Mirsky—he began to rant and shout, and though I tried to pacify him, it was clearly going to be no use. Then the woman said something, and instantly he went on again about the dangers of the water-crossing and how much better it would be if I were to return with him to the hut and wait a while. That sudden change of attitude, at the woman’s bidding, struck me so sinisterly that I gave an immediate order to the guide, jumped on my mule, and plunged into the river. As a final proof that I had done wisely, the crossing turned out to be perfectly simple. There were no treacherous currents at all, and the water wasn’t nearly as deep as Mirsky had made out. When I reached the other side I took what I guessed was a last look at him and shouted good-bye. But he was talking to the woman and didn’t answer. Then I headed my beast into the forest and began the return journey to Yacaiba. That’s all.”
He sighed gently as he prepared to let the other men talk. But for several minutes neither of them did so, and Oetzler merely pushed across the whisky and cigar-box. It was Lanberger who finally broke the silence. “Well, at any rate,” he said, “I think any reasonable person will agree that you couldn’t have done more. Not many would have done as much.”
Oetzler nodded. “I second that. It’s a business I shouldn’t myself have cared to face at all. A strange experience for you, Russell. I hope you feel that the mere uniqueness of it is some reward for its unpleasantness while it lasted.”
“Oh, yes,” answered Russell, smiling. “It will fit very nicely into my autobiography, I admit.”
“Meanwhile,” Oetzler went on, “there’s one awkward problem left over from it. What am I going to write to the girl in Paris?”
“His sister? H’m... that is a problem. What sort of person is she?”
“I haven’t much idea, but I gather she’s the widow of a Frenchman, has no money, and supports herself by some rather paltry job. The usual emigré tragedy. She and her brother are all of the family that have survived. She seems to be very much attached to him—for the last few months she’s been writing to me constantly, asking where he is and why she hasn’t heard from him. I don’t suppose, but for her, I’d really have bothered you to make any enquiries.”
“Does she know he went to Maramba?” Lanberger asked.
“Oh, yes, I told her all that. And his last letter to her was from Rio, saying he was just about to set out for the earthquake zone.”
“Well, I don’t suppose you’ll feel inclined to tell her the exact truth.”
“Good God, no! She probably wouldn’t believe me, and even if she did, she’d only want to go out there right away and discover things for herself. But I shall be compelled to tell her something, after my promise to have enquiries made.”
They discussed the matter for some time, but Russell did not join in; he seemed fatigued after his narration, and at length rose to go. Oetzler went down with him to the front door, leaving Lanberger in the library. They chatted a moment till the arrival of a cab, and then shook hands. Probably Russell would have visited a good many other outlandish places before they met again, Oetzler reflected.
As he climbed again the short flight of stairs to rejoin his guest, he rather wished that Lanberger were not staying with him. The man had been amusing enough at dinner, but he was too tiresomely decorative for a conversation à deux. No doubt at that very moment he was thinking of something clever to say. Oetzler felt he would rather have been alone. The evening had left him with a curious feeling of depression—curious because he could not, as so often, whisk it away by a merely cynical twist of thought. The talk at dinner and Russell’s long story somehow balanced each other in his mind—two pictures of a world that made him glad he was an old man.
When he entered the library Lanberger had lit a fresh cigar and was evidently ready for an eager resumption of the conversation.
“An extraordinary yarn, Oetzler,” he began, puffing excitedly. “Most good of you to let me in for it. As a novelist, I found it horribly fascinating. But, you know, the character in the story that interested me most of all was not Mirsky, nor even the woman, but Russell himself. What a man! It’s rare that you get a real self-revelation like that. His kink about the woman... most remarkable. He admitted himself that we must make allowance for it. On the whole, I think it’s a pity he didn’t bring back a few photographs.”
“Because she mightn’t have looked, to us, quite so awful as he made out. I’m not suggesting that she was a beauty, of course—merely that the peculiar quality of horror that Russell managed to convey to us may not have been so much in the woman’s body as in his own mind.”
“Maybe,” said Oetzler. He walked to the window, pulled back the curtains, and gazed upwards to a string of lights crowning the dark oblong of a neighbouring skyscraper. He felt very restless. What a bore these brilliant talkers were apt to be, when you had them all to yourself! He felt, as he sometimes did when he spent too much time in the atmosphere of his own newspaper office, the astonishing futility of words. There was a spate of them now, as never before in history—newspapers, books, the radio—yet in the whole lot was there as much eternal truth as in, say, the single statement of the Binomial Theorem? Which, by the way, was as far as he had ever got in mathematics. He sighed as he thought of his own giant presses at that moment preparing the word-stream which, in a few short hours, would suffuse the mentalities of millions of breakfasters and travellers to business. Never had there been more skilled manipulators of the thousands of items in the vocabulary; indeed, the game of everlasting permutation and combination and repetition had reached the dimensions of a giant industry. Yet was there more truth in the world, or a keener perception of the meaning of things, than if mankind had been created deaf and dumb?
“Not that that spoils the tale,” Lanberger added, pendantly to his previous remark. “On the contrary, it’s the interplay of the first-personal with the third-personal that makes the ‘I’ technique so interesting. I know that well enough, as a novelist. I wonder if Russell really intends to use the story?”
“I should think he does,” answered Oetzler, with a smile. “He’s a word-hound like yourself, you know. Well, perhaps not quite like yourself. He’s one of those writer-men-of-action who go rooting about the world so that we can all sit in arm-chairs at home and enjoy their discomforts. Schadenfreude—isn’t that what we Germans call it?”
“He’s a talented writer, I should imagine.”
“You say that disparagingly?”
“Not in respect of Russell personally, I assure you.”
“Of writers in general, then?”
Oetzler laughed. “Perhaps a little. As a matter of fact, such an evening as we’ve just spent puts me in mind of Huxley’s little illustration about the monkey and the typewriter—do you remember it? He said that if one were to allow a monkey to fool about with a typewriter for long enough, sooner or later, according to the laws of probability, the creature would type out all the books that have ever been written.”
“By pure chance?”
“Yes. That’s mathematically quite sound, I understand. And, so far as I can see, it seems just as true that, sooner or later, the monkey in the same way would type out, not only all the stuff that has been written, but also some equally wonderful stuff that hasn’t. Limiting ourselves a little, shall we say a sonnet fit for the best highbrow monthly with thick paper and wide margins?”
“What an amusing idea!”
“Yes, and it’s even more amusing when you reflect that by the laws of chance this sonnet-phenomenon is just as likely to take place immediately as a million or a trillion years hence. So that if we were to set our monkey at work to-night, it’s just possible that we might come down to-morrow morning to find a genuine addition to literature all complete.”
“Well, what does it prove?”
“Nothing at all, my dear Lanberger, except that genius, talent, and all that sort of thing is a little quicker in its results than a chance- impelled monkey. Quicker, I admit; but I don’t think we can say surer. And who knows if mere quickness is any particular virtue in a universe where there seems to be time as well as space enough for everything?”
“I change my mind about your theory being amusing. I think it’s infinitely depressing.”
“Perhaps. But please don’t call it MY theory—I’m not nearly mathematician enough. As a matter of fact, I first heard it advanced—not very seriously—by an Englishman named Elliott who was over here for the War Debts negotiations in ’twenty-three. He came here one night and thawed out wonderfully after dinner, as Englishmen very often do. Interesting fellow—I see, by the way, that he’s just been given a post in the British Cabinet... Well, well, Lanberger, after all that I really think we ought to go to bed. Not quite the hour to turn to metaphysics....”
A few moments later, as they were both on their way to their respective rooms, Oetzler suddenly decided what he had better write to the girl in Paris.
All day Paula had been very busy, for the delegations were due to arrive that evening, and they had engaged the whole of the first and second floors.
The Hôtel Corona occupied a well-chosen position at the fashionable end of the city. From its green-uniformed porters who waited at the railway- station to its lions couchant on either side of the main portico, it radiated a faint flavour of the pre-War Baedeker. Almost one expected to find its halls crowded with moustached Englishmen in tweed ulsters enquiring the times of diligences. It had five storeys, between three and four hundred apartments, and a dining-room that had at one time or another ministered to the wants of most Europeans over fifty and possessed of a yearly income exceeding a hundred thousand francs. Since the War its original air of quite Britannic majesty had been tinged from a more distant source, and there was now a cocktail-bar of immense sophistication as well as iced water for the asking.
Looking at the Hôtel Corona in the spring of 1932, one could not but feel a tide in the affairs of men that was lapping round it in a new direction, preparatory, maybe, to leaving it altogether. It still faced the lake like a starched shirt-front, living to all outward appearances that life of perpetual evening-dress for which it had been designed. But inside, the atmosphere was changed. For eighteen months the third and fourth floors had been closed entirely, and for a year the grand dining-room had been used only for occasional festivities. The grey-bearded head-porter stood in the lobby with a forlorn air of waiting for grand-dukes that might arrive at any moment. But the grand-dukes no longer arrived. The most that were now to be expected were diplomatists with leather satchels, hustling journalists who asked for beer at dinner, and that new post-War phenomenon—the typist cocotte.
Still, the “Corona” survived if it did not flourish, and its suave proprietor, M. Capel, was by no means disposed to object to the new- fashioned invasion. On the contrary, he had reopened the dining-room, engaged extra waiters and chambermaids, arranged special rooms for meetings, and laid in copious stocks of hotel notepaper. Nor had he shown much agitation when the president of the Polish delegation had rung him up from Warsaw and threatened to cancel bookings if the Soviet delegation were to be housed on the same premises. M. Capel knew that at an international conference such preliminary roulades were to be expected; and, what was more to the point he knew that the Polish delegation comprised only thirty odd, while the Russians numbered over eighty. Hence he had accepted the ultimatum resignedly and had straightway communicated with the Germans in Berlin and undercut the quotation of his rival, the Grand Hotel Moderne, along the road.
It was all fixed up, therefore, that the Germans and Russians were to have the whole of the first and second floors, and Paula Courvier, who was one of the extra chambermaids, had thus been kept busy from very early morning on that sunny day in May.
Not only the hotel, and all the other hotels, but the whole city and district were in a similar froth of excitement. International conferences were no novelties, but this one promised to be a record both for size and duration. Which meant that everything and everyone was prepared and expectant—shops, theatres, newspapers, railways, taxicabs, the post office—not a trade in the city, from laundries to lung-specialists, but looked for an augmentation of prosperity. Already during the fourteen years of the new era a considerable vested interest in peace had arisen, not dissimilar to that of Essen or Creusot in war; the municipality, indeed, might well have changed its motto to “Ex Pace Lucellum.” For some days before the official conference-opening, the advance-guard had been arriving by every schnell-zug and train de luxe—secretaries, publicists, interpreters, experts representing various interests, social hangers-on, and bevies of demi-mondaines from Berlin and Paris who were prepared to intersperse their pleasantries with trifles of eavesdropping and minor espionage. Peace had its victories a little less than war, and though the decorativeness of old- style diplomacy might be lacking, these morning-coated Metternichs and tweed- suited Talleyrands had their raffish moments— often of a kind to shock the respectable bourgeois inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Was it really possible that the celebrated authors of memoranda and draft-protocols were THAT sort of person? Alas, it was possible; but if one sold malmaisons or had shares in the local brewery, it was also possible to be tolerant.
So, from the ends of the earth, during those spring days, there gathered together the hirelings and the subordinates, followed in due course by the principals themselves. It was a General Council of the new and so far unestablished Faith—a Faith that had not yet had its Nicæa, much less its Trent. The streets were brilliant with flags and banners, and noisy with chatter in many languages; a stroll of ten minutes’ duration had much of the interest and few of the inconveniences of a world-tour. Here an immaculate Japanese was buying a picture-postcard at a kiosk; there a group of German journalists, elaborately shabby, sat clinking glasses at a café table. Finally, towards sunset on the day before the conference-opening, a train of teak-brown coaches arrived from the east and disgorged on to the station platform a last consignment of hierarchy. Debonair even after their long journeys, they spilled into taxicabs and tipped according to the degree of lavishness with which their governments had endowed them.
By a different train, about an hour earlier, there had arrived the usual day-mail from Marseilles, and most evenings, towards seven o’clock, it was Paula’s habit to slip out, if she could manage it, across the road to the post office and enquire if there were anything “poste restante” for her. She did so on this occasion, and with the usual result. When she re- entered the Hôtel Corona by a side-door, the delegations were just arriving by the front, and all was in commotion. She went up immediately to attend to her duties on the second floor.
These duties were arduous, but simple. Over her head, as she sat in an alcove at one end of the long corridor, were eighteen numbered bells, representing the eighteen rooms under her charge. If there was a ring, she had to hasten to the corresponding room; but during the often long intervals of waiting she could read or sew if she cared. In the evenings, however, the corridor light was so poor that she usually did nothing at all, except fall into a doze. Her hours were from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. and from 2 p.m. until midnight, on alternate days, and with only short pauses for meals. M. Capel had known how to drive a hard bargain.
She had been at the “Corona” for just a week, and it was her first experience of such work. Before that, there had been nightmarish months of slowly encroaching poverty, as her income as a music-teacher had felt the full blast of the world-slump. Before that, she had had for a time the post of governess to an epileptic child; and before even that, she had been the wife of a casino-croupier, who had finally left her with nothing of any commercial value except French nationality. And in the days before wifehood there had been the gradual, bitterly reluctant acceptance of changed times and facts—the bartering of jewels in back-parlours of shops, the signing of “Paula Mirsky” with less and less of a flourish as one came to realise how little it counted. Farthest of all, came those ancient days before 1917, and still more anciently before 1914—one dreamed of them sometimes, but one tried not to remember.
Paula was now thirty-three—tall, dark-haired, sombre-eyed, slender-nosed, always rather pale. Her husband, a swaggering Provençal, had been consistently unfaithful, but that had not mattered much, because she had married only in the first panic of finding herself without money. After two years of him she had had enough of men, and the enoughness was written genuinely in her face.
As she took her post at the end of the corridor that evening she felt, in the same genuine way, that she had probably had enough of life as well. Still no letter from Leon. Still no information about him from anyone. She sat down on the small, cane-bottomed chair and faced the now familiar vista of doors and carpet. There was a murmurous stir from below—sounds of voices, of luggage being moved, of lift-doors clanging, the whine of the ascending compartments. Soon the noise invaded her own corridor, but it did not concern her yet; she sat motionlessly, while porters passed her with heavy trunks, page- boys skipped ahead of men in large travelling overcoats who sauntered along with their hands searching for small change. The delegations, she thought, in a kind of daze. Then, inevitably, the bells above her head began to ring.
For an hour or more after that she was continually busy. There was no running water in the second-floor bedrooms, and as most of the arrivals wanted to wash, she had to fill cans of hot water from the tap adjoining the bathrooms. Some of the men were obvious Germans and looked pleased when she replied to them in that language, which she spoke fairly well; but her accommodation had been automatic. She had little interest in personal identities; they were all no more to her than the occupants of certain rooms. She felt fatigued and listless; her legs took her backwards and forwards, but her mind all the time was clogged with wondering about Leon and why he had not written. In one of the rooms, Number Two-five-seven, a man began some long story about his luggage having gone astray; he spoke in school-book French, and had a deep, rather husky voice which somehow did not match his face, which was very round and red and shining. He went on with his story, which finally led to a request for some soap. “Soap?” she echoed, picking up the trail of a speech to which she had not really been listening. But then he suddenly said: “Pardon, m’mselle, you look ill. Don’t bother about the soap—I can do without it for the time being.”
“But no, I can get you some.”
When she brought it to his room he was talking in German with a group of other men; he just said “Thanks,” and she left it on the wash-hand basin. Then she went back to her chair in the alcove. Most of the arrivals had already gone down to dinner; it would be a slack time now until about ten o’clock. She closed her eyes, and the feeling came to her once more that life was just no good at all unless she were soon to hear from Leon.
She had not seen him since 1927, when he had been over on a short holiday from New York, but he had always (until of late) written to her regularly, and had sometimes helped her by small remittances. She had cherished all along the most confident belief in his genius, and had read and re-read the art-critiques which he sent her from time to time. Her feeling for him was somehow deeper than that of sister for brother, deeper even than that of one survivor of a family for the only other. He represented, to her, the bare chance of rising, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of disaster; he was the only living link between the past and any sort of a future. The very fact that, but for his one short visit, she had not seen him since the darkest days of all, gave emphasis to this symbolism; for he alone, it seemed, had acquired a second status after events had robbed him of his first. To become a famous New York art-critic instead of a wealthy landowner near Rostov-on-Don was not too bad an exchange; it was possible, anyhow, to think of it hopefully. And she had been thinking of it hopefully for ten years. It stood for all that was “not quite” in the totality of ruin.
The long evening began; the man who had asked for the soap passed with his friends on the way to the lift, still talking animatedly. She did not often notice faces, but she could not help looking at his—it was so cheerful and pink, like a grown-up choir-boy’s, she thought.... Then, after the clang of the lift-gate, she was alone in the muffled silence. It was at such moments that, though she tried to forbid them, the memories came—of Yalta, in the Crimea, where her parents had had a villa when she and Leon were children; of Eastertide in St. Petersburg; of hotels like the “Corona” at which she had stayed as a girl. For her father had been extremely rich, and she and Leon had already seen a good deal of Europe before 1914. She had many memories of Switzerland, the Rhine, Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, and Rome; of her father, tall and fur-coated, losing his temper with railway- porters, and of her mother dutifully pacifying him; and of Leon in his cultured voice instructing them during their perambulations of Italian picture- galleries. But her most poignant memory was of Leon in the tight-fitting, gold- laced uniform of his crack regiment. Only the fact that he didn’t sympathise with it had prevented him from fighting heroically in the war against the Germans; she was sure of that, and sure also that his attitude had been thoroughly right. For had not that war, after all, led directly to the Revolution? Oh, if only... if only...
It always came to that, in the end. Pictures raced through her mind, like a worn and flickering cinema-film, meaningless except for that single torturing motif—if only.... So much of all that had happened could have been avoided; so much of it very nearly hadn’t happened. If, for instance, the English had burst through the Dardanelles and taken Constantinople in 1915? Or if Denikin had had just a featherweight of better luck in 1919? If only these, to take but two of the vividest near-happenings, had eventuated, then she would not be listening for bells in a hotel corridor in 1932, nor Leon have been sent to the edge of the world to report an earthquake.
She fell into a doze and did not waken till one of the bells began to tinkle. It was after ten; she would be busy from now on, carrying more hot water. Just before midnight, when her duty ended, the man with the choir-boy face passed her alone, going to his room. “Good night,” he called out. “I hope you’re feeling better now.”
“Yes, thank you,” she answered. “Good night, sir.”
He had a pleasant smile, she thought, as she undressed a few minutes later in the drab attic which she shared with another hotel servant.
In the morning it was her turn to begin work at six. Two hours later she tapped on the door of Number Two-five-seven and received a deep-voiced, cheerful reply. She filled a can of hot water and placed it on the mat outside the door. Next the boots brought along a pair of brown brogue shoes. Then the waiter arrived with coffee and croissants. Finally came the porter bringing a trunk and suit-cases—evidently the luggage that had gone astray the previous evening. She felt what she so rarely felt—a tinge of personal curiosity, in return, as it were, for the man’s previous enquiry about her. She glanced casually, in passing, at the labels on the luggage; they bore the name “Tribourov” and the emblematic seals of the U.S.S.R.
That gave her a shock. She had assumed, without ever wondering much, that the man was German. And then the labels on the bags, names of Russian cities printed in Russian characters... they brought her face to face with something she was hardly prepared for. She had known, of course, as all the staff knew, that the Russian delegation were coming to the hotel, and she had known, too, if she had ever considered the matter, that they would all be Reds (what else could they be, indeed?), yet somehow she had not expected their identities to concern her any more than those of other hotel visitors.
This man Tribourov was, incidentally, the first Soviet personage of any consequence whom she had ever seen. Before 1919, when she had escaped from Russia, her contacts had all been with soldiers, minor officials, and miscellaneous ruffiandom; such men as Lenin, Trotsky, Kameneff, Radek and the rest, were mere names to her as to the rest of the world, though she felt for them a fierce, blistering detestation that was shared by most of her companions in exile. The so-called hatreds of the actually warring nations were mild beside it, and proved their mildness by collapsing like pricked balloons after the Armistice, leaving no greater soreness than between ally and ally. But the loathing of White for Red, of the dispossessed for the aggrandisers, was a darker, more searing thing, a poison in the blood, which ten years of banishment had sharpened rather than assuaged. There were men in Paris, in Berlin, and along the coastline of the Riviera, whom a chance-seen photograph of Lenin could suddenly intoxicate with rage; they hated that dome-like Mongol face with a hate that came less from their heads than from their bowels. And in their waking dreams they saw themselves warriors recrossing frontiers of time as well as space, wading back through rivers of blood to the gilded salons of 1914. The least thing could quicken the ferment of such anticipations—a glass of Clicquot stood them by a friend, a glimpse of glittering epaulettes, the sound of a band playing Tchaikovsky.
And if this were true of men, it was doubly so of the women, whose dispossessions had often been more humiliating. There came a day in their lives when they had sold the last jewel to the last Jew, when they found that the tale of gentle birth merely bored where it did not antagonise; then, taking the plunge, they became French, German, Swiss, burying the past in its own black memories. Sometimes, like Paula Mirsky, they married foreigners and acquired a new nationality in law. By their neighbours, employers, and new-found companions the past was not only unknown, but unsuspected; and even in their own souls it might seem to die. Then, abruptly, something would set the old fires re-flickering.
This happened to Paula when she saw the labels on Tribourov’s luggage. There were similar labels on other men’s luggage, but only Tribourov’s affected her, because only Tribourov had made her aware of him personally. The rest were mere embodiments of room-numbers; he alone was a man, and as a man he invaded her life. He was, she had thought at first, like a grown-up choir-boy, and the rather impressionist description still stood when she noticed him further. And it was perhaps appropriate that his first contact with her had been in connection with a demand for soap. For his face looked always as if it had just been scrubbed; there was that ripe, schoolboyish freshness about his skin. It was in his manner, too; he was always cheerful, brisk, jauntily good-humoured. He had a deep laugh, and seemed very popular, not only with his fellow-delegates, but with Germans and visitors of other nationalities. Usually, as he came striding along the corridor, he wore a black felt hat that was pushed a little too far back on his head, and smoked a cheap Maryland cigarette which, as often as not, he threw away half-finished into the plant-pot near the lift. There was nothing really striking about him; he was average in height and figure for the middle-aged man that he was, and it seemed somehow irrelevant as well as impossible to decide whether his looks were good or otherwise. He was certainly not handsome in any conventional sense.
She felt, in observing him, a sensation that was partly one of horror, and she had the same feeling when she was attending to his room. Cheerfully he strode, as it seemed to her, over the ruined lives of such as herself; and with that same jaunty briskness he held control of the blood-guilty machine. She avoided his eyes when they met, and never answered his occasional remarks with more than the minimum of words. Even contact with his possessions stirred her inwardly; there was a photograph of a woman which he had put on his dressing- table, and she felt a contempt for both the pictured face and for the sentimentality of the man who carried such a reminder about with him. His wife, she presumed, if men such as he had any use for the term; and she imagined them living in absurd magnificence in some mansion that had belonged to a pre- Revolution aristocrat. Probably the silver frame of the photograph had a similar history.
Once, when she brought him hot water before dinner, he said suddenly: “I heard you talking in German this morning to the man across the corridor. You speak it very well.”
She smiled slightly without replying.
“Better talk in German to me in future,” he added. “My French isn’t very good.”
“If you prefer, certainly, sir.”
He then continued, in fluent and well-accented German: “They work you long hours in this place.”
“I’ve nothing to complain about.”
“No? Do you get decently fed?”
He threw his half smoked cigarette into the empty fire-grate— where, she reflected, she would later on have to clear it up. “Look here, I’m not talking to you as a superior to an inferior. If you find my questions impertinent, you can say so—and, on the other hand, if you don’t find them so, you can answer them with more than ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir.’ I’m interested in the wages and conditions of hotel-workers, because a little while ago I carried out a reorganisation of the hotel industry in Moscow and other big cities in the Union.”
Still she made no reply, and after a pause he went on, abruptly:
“Well, thank you for bringing me the water.”
She had snubbed him, she told herself as she left his room; and her heart glowed with a nearer approach to ecstasy than she had felt for a long time.
Meanwhile the Conference was in full swing, providing daily columns for hundreds of newspapers throughout the world. Paula, however, did not often read newspapers. That core of inward bitterness left her little feeling of concern with the strange hazards and groupings of the post-War nations, and it was quite by chance that she saw Tribourov’s name and photograph in a local journal, together with a report of a speech he had made. She read it scornfully, finding in it all kinds of unlikeable qualities, from hypocrisy to errors of style. Yet the odd thing was that while she was reading she could both see and hear the man—could hear his deep voice uttering certain words as she knew he would utter them, and could see his round, glistening cheeks bulging with excitement as she knew they would.
One afternoon he met her in the post office, where she had just received the usual reply that no letters had arrived for her. He raised his hat and passed some comment on the weather, after which she saw him walk over to the telephones. Two heavily-built men accompanied him across the crowded floor and stood outside the door of the box.
That evening, when she made her usual visit to his room, he said cheerfully: “Oh, did you notice my bodyguard this afternoon? The Government insists on it—for my safety.”
“Indeed?” She had betrayed interest before she could check herself.
“Yes, I understand they’ve discovered a plot to kill me. But I’m not worrying, though it’s a nuisance to have those two hefty fellows at my heels wherever I go. They’re downstairs now, smoking long cigars and trying not to look like the most obvious plain-clothes detectives you ever set eyes on. It makes a man feel such a child.”
She thought that he LOOKED like a child, too—at that moment a child just slightly cross over a trifle.
“Well,” he added, “as I said, I’m not worrying. If they want to get me and try hard enough, I suppose they will. But they won’t achieve anything much by it. There are plenty of others to carry on my work.”
“But it would be a gesture,” she said quietly.
He showed surprise at her remark—the first one of any individuality that she had yet made. “Oh, yes, I suppose you could call it that,” he admitted. “But the world is tired of gestures. It cries out for acts that have a meaning in themselves. This Conference—” He stopped, laughed suddenly, and added: “I’m afraid I should soon bore you if I were to begin talking about it. As you say, my assassination would be a gesture. And perhaps it couldn’t happen more appropriately than here—in this city of gestures.”
As she arranged the towels on his wash-hand stand he went on: “It’s lucky, anyhow, that I have no personal dependents.” Her eyes strayed for an instant and he was quick to see and interpret the glance. “Oh, you’ve noticed the photograph? That’s my mother. She died ten years ago, in one of the influenza epidemics.”
It had been little use snubbing him after all, she reflected later, during the long hours of waiting in the corridor. But his talk of assassination had curiously impressed her; and when, on the following morning, she looked out of one of the second-floor windows and saw him drive off in his car to the Conference, she had half-thoughts that she would never see him again. And, rather oddly, just about the middle of the morning there was great excitement among a group of waiters and chambermaids on one of the landings, and when she approached them she was sure they were going to tell her that the occupant of Number Two-five-seven had been killed. But it was only some business about a Spanish lottery in which one of the waiters thought he held a winning ticket.
In the evening when she entered Tribourov’s room he was writing at the small table under the window.
She performed her various duties as quietly and quickly as possible and was about to go away when he swung round and called out: “Hi, just a minute!”
She stopped, with her hand on the door-knob.
“Don’t be in such a hurry to go. I want to ask you something. Close the door again.”
She did so, and moved a few paces across the room towards him. He lit a cigarette and grinned that rather chubby, babyish smile. “Look here... when you came in just now, I caught sight of your face in the mirror, and your look said: ‘Oh, so he’s still alive.’ Yet you didn’t say anything. Don’t you ever speak your mind?”
She said, after a pause: “I didn’t wish to interrupt you in your work.”
“Or to be interrupted in yours, either, no doubt. You’re not very encouraging. By the way, we must introduce ourselves. My name’s Tribourov, as perhaps you already know.”
“Courvier is mine,” she answered, reluctantly but inevitably.
“Courvier? That’s French?”
“Yet you speak German perfectly? You’ll forgive my remarking that you aren’t quite the usual type of person in this kind of job.”
“I—I don’t know.”
He laughed his deep, booming laugh. “Well, I do know. And I should say, too, that you’ve had a good education.... All this is leading somewhere, I assure you—it isn’t just inquisitiveness on my part. The fact is, I was talking to our local trade representative this morning—he wants someone in his office with a thorough knowledge of German. So you see... it just occurred to me that the job might suit you better than this.”
She stared at him in half-stupefied astonishment; it was the last thing she had ever expected, and the irony probed till she hardly knew whether she were feeling pleasure or pain, or being merely goaded to hysteria.
“It’s very kind of you,” she managed to say at length. Just for a wild second she had the idea of telling him who she was, of making some kind of scene which would mean her leaving the hotel immediately. That she, of all persons, should be offered a post under the Soviets! That she should draw, as wages, a paltry fraction of the money that had been stolen from her! And yet, so complicated was life, here was this man contriving such a bitter jest out of what could only be pure kindliness of heart. She was angry, touched, and out of her depth in a sea of unfamiliar emotions; so that suddenly, standing there before him, she began to cry. She had rather thought that nothing more could ever make her do that. He sprang out of his chair at once and put his arm about her comfortingly, which made her cry all the more. “Now, now,” he kept saying, gruffly. “Don’t do that, don’t do that.” And again he performed that characteristic movement of throwing away the half-smoked cigarette.
“I’m sorry,” she said, as soon as she could speak.
“Sorry? Oh, no, no, don’t say that. It’s all right. You mustn’t upset yourself. As for the job, just think it over and let me know by the end of the week. No—don’t talk about it now—there’ll be plenty of time later on. Sit here a moment and let me show you something. These have just arrived from Moscow. They’re photographs of a huge technical college that’s nearly finished. Tell me, have you ever seen anything like it anywhere else?”
He was talking with a new eagerness, partly, she guessed, to fix her attention while she regained control of herself; but also with a personal enthusiasm that was obviously real. And here she was, again in this world of irony, admiring the vistas of class-rooms, and the palatial open-air terraces, as he described them to her in such exultant detail. “This is going to be the finest technical college in the world. It’s built on a site that used to be crowded with slums, and its entire yearly upkeep won’t be as much as the rents that used to be paid to the slum-landlords. Perhaps you are interested in housing, by the way? I have some rather wonderful pictures of the new workmen’s flats we’re building—let me show you—”
But at that moment she heard the distant tinkle of one of her bells. “I must go,” she cried, getting up. “Someone has rung for me. Thank you—”
“Not at all. We must have another talk.”
But as soon as she was outside in the corridor she vowed that there should never be another talk. She was disturbed in mind as she had not been for years; all the emotions that she had buried deeply were raw and uncovered by such an encounter. She could not sleep that night, and the next day, when it came near her time for going on duty in the afternoon, she found herself in positive fear of that likely meeting with him again. Panic-stricken, she sought M. Capel and asked if she could be transferred to another floor. He was furious and refused to consider such a change; in that case, she said, she would have to leave, because the work was too hard in the rooms that had no running water. She had to think of some reason to give him. At this, however, he offered her a job in the hotel laundry, at a lower wage; which she accepted, on condition that she could go to it immediately.
She felt out of a great danger when she had moved over. It was harder work, if anything, but at least it protected her from Tribourov. That, indeed, was the pitch to which she had been driven. She was fast becoming completely obsessed with the man. She seemed to find his name in every newspaper; that eager, apple-red face haunted her as soon as she closed her eyes. He represented, in her mind, all that she most passionately hated; yet the torture was in thinking of him also in a different way, as someone who had been kind to her. It upset all the neatly docketed past, the almost comfortable loathings and detestations that had held up the fabric of a decade’s exile. But the worst was over now, she felt; and if she did not see him again, the fire would doubtless die down after a while and leave her as before.
Then one morning, several days after she had begun her new work, Capel sent her a message that “M. Tribourov, the gentleman in Number Two- fiveseven,” would like to speak to her, and would she call on him in his room shortly before dinner that evening? She returned no answer, but registered a firm decision not to go. Yet throughout the day a storm of uncertainty raged behind the outward mind that she had made up; there was a wavering of the body that had no connection with head or brain. At six, when the day’s work ended, she went to her attic bedroom and changed, as usual, into off-duty clothes. All the time she was doing this, she knew subconsciously that she was going to see Tribourov, though she still urged herself otherwise. At a quarter to seven she went to his room and knocked at the door. “Entrez,” she heard him call out, in his shamelessly bad accent.
She went in. He was reading a newspaper and, as he saw her, flung the sheets aside with that familiar wave of the arm and rose to his feet. His voice, his movements, his round and smiling face—how well-known they appeared, after such small acquaintance with them; her heart ticked them off, as it were, while she sank into the instant comfort of his presence. Recognising in that a new sensation, she was amazed to think what it proved—that she had actually been wanting and longing to see him.
“So you’ve come...” he began, striding towards her. “What on earth possessed you to... run away... like that...?” His words slowed down as if they had been braked by something in her eyes; for the first time she was returning his glance with a full one of her own. Then they moved to each other, in a curious, stumbling way. He asked her name. “Your first name, I mean. WHAT? PAULA?”
“I don’t know yours,” she whispered, losing the last ache of mind and body in his caresses.
“PAUL.” He shouted the word as if it were a command to an army. “That’s funny, isn’t it?... But, Paula, why on earth... Capel, you know, told me about it....”
“I didn’t want to see you again—that was why.”
“THAT was why, eh?” He began to laugh. “Well, why THAT?”
“Why anything? Why did you ask me here just now? Why did I come? Why did you ever talk to me, take any interest in me at all? Why couldn’t we leave each other alone?”
He answered, more seriously: “Perhaps because we’re flesh and blood in this city of desiccated lawgivers. For my part, after I’ve heard my speeches translated three times—first into French, then into English, then into German—I feel... but no, don’t let me talk about it. It’s extraordinary, Paula—this—you, I mean. I was attracted from the beginning, but I had no idea... and I didn’t care to...”
She interrupted, half-hysterically: “I know. You mean that you’re not the type that goes about seducing chambermaids in hotels. You’re a good man. A good Bolshevik.” She laughed. “But is it such a laughing matter, I wonder?”
He kissed her again, more gently, soothingly, as if aware that she was on the verge of complete emotional collapse. “Let’s go out,” he said, abruptly. “We’ll drive somewhere. Will you come with me? PLEASE, Paula....”
She nodded, every nerve endorsing the decision.
She met him by arrangement half an hour later, at a spot nearer the outskirts of the city; he was alone, muffled up, in a big open Mercedes touring- car. “Jump in,” he cried, with the excitement of a boy setting out for a picnic. “I had a job to persuade my bodyguard not to follow, but I guess they’ll have a fine chase if they try to.” She clambered in and sat beside him.
Her whole being responded to that drive in the starlight. It was as if for years certain of her nerves and muscles had been tightly clenched, and were now moving with painful, exquisite stiffness into freedom. The sensation of speed, of roadway and bright lights slipping past, the softness of the fur rug drawn up over her knees, the blue-black dimness of hill and mountain—all were as candles lighting up the various caverns of memory. Yet memory was endurable because, for the first time in all her womanhood, it was balanced by anticipation; they would go somewhere inland to dine, he had suggested, and those few minutes and hours of the future were enough to turn the scale.
He drove very fast, without talking much; and she sensed, as he sat close and silent, the deep personal power of the man. He was dynamic; he forged ahead, as he was making the car forge ahead now; he drove with zest, but had never less than complete control. His eyes, slate-blue and gentle, scattered a swift, ruthless benignity over the world. She felt that he could look at death, his own or another’s, without a qualm; that he could order an execution, perhaps, with no more emotion than he would soon be ordering dinner. It was something to have wrung from such a man the confession that he had been attracted. Only of course, she hadn’t wrung it; he had given it freely, almost casually. She felt that though he had been concerned enough to worry Capel about her, there were strict limits beyond which he would not advance an inch unless she were there to meet him. How enviable to be so calm, so assured, so blandly economical of one’s desires! And with what mountainous simplicity he had indicated, in not quite so many words, that he hadn’t realised she was the kind of woman who would let herself be petted! The recollection of it made her feel at once ashamed and passionately shameless....
She had no idea where they were driving, and did not recognise the quaintly-built upland village at which they stopped. Some kind of fair or festival was in progress, and the hotel was crowded with revellers drinking and celebrating. Not the Conference, however; it was a relief to have escaped from the atmosphere of that. A youth with a mandolin was playing and singing one of those shrill, lilting tunes that had innumerable verses known to his audience; through occasional gaps in the din a loud-speaker shouted from Radio-Toulouse. The proprietor, even amidst the press of business, was not disposed to turn away two chance visitors in such an opulent-looking car. He rose to the situation gallantly and supplied an excellent dinner on a first-floor terrace that was a bower of pink geraniums tinted more deeply in the matching shade of the table-lamp.
Tribourov waved aside the proprietor’s apologies for the noise downstairs. “I like it,” he exclaimed, with deep gusto, and went on to explain further; but as the man quite obviously could not understand his stilted French, he turned to Paula and cried: “Tell him I like it because I like real people—tell him that after a week at the Conference—no, no, better not mention that—but tell him why I like it—you know what I mean.”
Afterwards he went on: “These people shouting and singing make me feel as I do when I’m in Russia—living a life, not just acting in some rather bad charades. People—just ordinary people all the world over—always make me feel like that. How fine they are compared with the humbugs that govern them! Paula, to be here, with you, and amongst all this noise, is like returning to some sort of sanity. All week I’ve felt like a rude boy in front of a lot of weary schoolmasters. So weary, they are—so wearily scornful of what they haven’t the faith to believe in or the energy to hate. They haven’t even the energy to hate me.”
“There are some who seem to have,” she said quietly.
“Those who are supposed to be plotting to kill you.”
He laughed. “Oh, a few half-crazed survivors of the old régime— yes, I grant you them. But theirs is only a sort of private feud.”
“You despise it for that reason?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s big enough to matter—taking the long view, of course.”
“Don’t you think it’s a big thing to have to begin life afresh in a foreign country? Don’t you ever fear the hate of those who’ve been driven to it?”
“If they begin life afresh, they have no time for hate. And if they hate, it shows they aren’t beginning afresh. They’re merely wasting time, letting memories turn sour inside them.”
“Yes, I know what you mean,” she answered, and gazed across the table with new and darker perception. She was aware that she loved and hated him simultaneously, with passion that clamoured equally for satisfaction of either emotion. She felt him, more than ever, part of the architecture of all her private and personal misery; yet as someone also who held the power of magic cancellation. Until that moment she had looked forward to the denouement, some time, of telling him who she was; but now, she realised, there would be no point in it; he had diagnosed her position, without knowing it was hers. She had let memories turn sour—it was a true indictment. But what else, after all? Was every injustice to be forgotten and forgiven in the cold radiance of this man’s benevolence? Or must one always, like nations, be wearied by debts owed and owing?
Yet behind the stir of her thoughts her body was in many ecstasies. The food, the Liebfraumilch ’21, the velvet glow of the lamplight on the flowers, the murmur of voices and the brittle flan-flan of the mandolin—all touched her with sheerly physical reminders. Life was short; twelve years of exile, and then this night—how could one balance them, or need they balance at all? Something he had once said recurred to her: “The world is tired of gestures; it cries out for acts that have a meaning in themselves.” She felt again a strange power in him, reaching out in conquest that was partly rescue; and at that moment, from below, came the slur of a tango, wistful, gently insinuating. It made her lean forward across the coffee-cups and lay her hand over his wrist. “I can’t stand much more,” she whispered.
“You’ve had enough of the music, Paula? If so, I’ll—”
“No, no, it isn’t that.”
“Perhaps you’ve had enough of me and my continual chatter?”
“No, nor that either.” She told him of his victory with her eyes. “On the contrary, Paul.”
“That’s good news. And a good dinner, too.... What would you like to do next?”
Her fingers tightened over his hand as she replied, in a slow, deliberate whisper: “What would you like to do, Paul?”
A few hours later he said, almost crossly: “So you still won’t tell me anything about yourself?”
“No,” she answered, with tender finality. He had been questioning her relentlessly for some time. “No, Paul, no. Not even in exchange for your own life-history. Let’s both do without confessions.”
They were in the small first-floor bedroom whose pine furniture and flowered window-boxes distilled a pleasant mixture of perfumes. All revelry below had long since ended, leaving only the church-bell to sprinkle the quarters over roofs that seemed to echo them almost metallically in the silence. Those chimes had marked the seconds in the short moment of ecstasy.
“And you won’t come back with me to Russia?”
“Good heavens, no!”
“I’m not joking, if that’s what you think.”
“My dear Paul, I don’t think and I don’t care.”
“And I suppose you don’t love, either?”
“If this is love, then I do, for the time being. But don’t you feel, Paul, that some things are only just to be touched? If you grasp them, they either break or escape.”
“And that’s how it’s to be with you and me? Only the touch?”
“Yes, if we’re wise. You don’t really care for women. I don’t really care for men either. You have so many other interests—so have I. It would be a great mistake for either of us to—to exaggerate—this.”
“I see. You want me to regard you as if you were just any ordinary woman who might have come along?”
“Much more sensible, Paul, if you did.”
“Except that any ordinary woman wouldn’t have even begun to attract me. You’re quite right—I’m not particularly keen on women, as rule. But YOU... well, I find I want more of you.”
“Perhaps if you are ever here at another of these big conferences—”
“I said MORE, not again.”
“More? What makes you suppose there is any more?”
“I believe there is, and I intend to make sure. By knowing you, I mean. I think we might find a fair amount of happiness in each other.”
“You think so?” she cried, mockingly. “You think I could?” Suddenly she broke into hysterical sobbing. “Oh, no, no, no—I couldn’t possibly stand you like that! Already you’ve made nothing else matter to me for days and days—you’ve made me forget everything—why, I even forgot to-night—last night—something that was always on my mind before I met you—”
She told him then about her brother in America, and his confident, dominating manner changed at once to a pacifying tenderness. He took her into his arms and comforted her with intimacies that were childlike in their simplicity. “But, my dear Paula, why on earth didn’t you mention it? I had no idea you were so worried. We could easily have called at the post office on our way. But we’ll go there first thing in the morning, anyhow.”
He was so kind, and she hated him for it almost as much as she loved him. “But I FORGOT—don’t you see?” she cried, with sombre emotion.
In the morning they drove back through spring sunshine and showers. He put her down at the post office and then drove himself on to the Conference. She had promised a further meeting, but had declined to fix any definite arrangements.
When she asked if there were any letters and the clerk handed her one, she went very pale. It had the New York postmark.
She opened and read it. Then she went out into the street and walked along past the shop-windows.
An hour later she was still walking, vaguely from street to street. Her mind gave her questions that were like hammer-blows. Why had he ever gone to Maramba? Why had he gone to Rio, to America at all? What had driven him so far from his own home, to these fantastic places? Oh, if only... if only...
She came to the post office again and went to the counter with the envelope. “Can you tell me when this arrived?” she asked.
“Yesterday afternoon,” replied the clerk, glancing at it. He knew her by sight and added: “It was here at the time you usually call.”
She went out, trembling in a way that attracted attention from several persons who saw her.
All that night the letter had been there waiting for her... all that night.
A half-crazed survivor... and Leon dead....
When Elliott came downstairs on the morning of his sixtieth birthday, he felt glad to have been born at the right side of the year. It was all very well when you were young, having birthdays in late summer or autumn; but when you entered the seventh decade you wanted the leaves to be fresh on the trees and no sign of decay to greet you. There was enough of that in your own body, even if you were what was called a “well-preserved” man. Elliott, taking a mirrored glimpse of himself as he crossed the hall to the breakfast-room, could certainly congratulate himself on being that. He was tall, with not even the beginnings of a stoop, and no trace of a paunch either; and his hair was even more of an adornment than before it had turned grey. “I ought to be good for another ten years,” he reflected, blinking in the sunlight that poured through the mullioned windows. After all, Disraeli was premier at seventy-four, Gladstone at eighty-four... and Pitt at twenty-four, for that matter. Good heavens, think of it. It all proved, if it proved anything at all, that age didn’t matter.
As he entered the breakfast-room the Sealyhams scrambled around him, and his host’s children, John and Rose and Elizabeth, got up rather shyly; the two girls smiled, but John, who was eleven and the eldest, spoke up: “Good morning, Mr. Elliott. Many happy returns of the day.”
“Thank you, John, thank you,” he answered, in his rich, mellow voice; and then he bowed to his hostess, a tall, fair, beautiful woman of scarcely middle age, and said, with the quietness of old friendship: “Good morning, Fanny.”
“Morning, Harry. I say the same as John, you know.”
He smiled and thanked her, and saw that the children were still shyly standing. “Do please sit down,” he added, and then, with a laugh: “No, no, Fanny—I’ll serve myself—I’m not an old crock yet.”
Thank goodness, he thought, as he gave himself an egg and some bacon, he could still eat like everybody else—no fads about orange juice and rye-biscuits and that sort of thing. He carried the plate to the table and then saw that the cloth nearabouts was heaped with parcels tied up in coloured ribbon and each with a little label on it. He was surprised, scarcely realising what it all meant, at first; it hadn’t somehow occurred to him that this would happen. “To Mr. Elliott, with love from John.”
“To Harry, from Fanny, with best love.”
“To Harry, from Bill....”
He knew that the children’s eyes were intent on him. “I’m not going to open a single one till your father comes down,” he said, “and then we’ll all look together.”
“Father’s in his bath,” said John, with pluck.
“I know he is. He wished me many happy returns before any of you.” And he laughed again. He was happy, and a little sad, because of all this birthday business.
The Kennersleys—Lord and Lady Kennersley—were among his oldest friends. The family had helped him as a boy; it was in this same house, in the library, that he had received his first big encouragement. He had been a junior clerk in the company office then, at twenty-four—the same age that Pitt was premier. “I hear you’re working for a scholarship to Oxford, Elliott. I hope you do well. And if it would help, you can take time off from now till the examination—with pay, of course.” That had been the old man, whom everyone had supposed to be so ferocious. Elliott had been very nervous of HIM, and nervous, too, of the big rooms and the fine furniture. And now, he reflected, the old man’s grandchildren were actually nervous of him. They kept looking at him over the rim of their cups, and looking away when he caught them at it.
Lord Kennersley entered, crisp, jovial, plus-foured for the day’s activities. “Hullo, kids. Undone the parcels yet, Harry?”
“I’m waiting for all of you to help me,” Elliott answered.
Kennersley was five years his junior; they had been friends at Oxford, and during Elliott’s early career had shared bachelor rooms in London. Not until ten years after succeeding to the title had Kennersley married, and then, rather surprisingly to his friends, he had chosen a musical comedy actress, very much younger than himself, of no family, small education, but immense vivacity and charm. She had (it was currently reported) been his mistress first of all, and then, a eugenist malgré lui, he had very sensibly made her the mother of his heirs. The marriage had proved a quite astounding success. She had fitted herself to aristocratic domesticity as easily as to a new part in a play that was going to run for ever, she made an excellent wife and mother, and she had become delightfully popular amongst all Kennersley’s intimates. Since his own wife’s death, Elliott could certainly count her his greatest woman friend.
Breakfast was held up indefinitely by the opening of the parcels. There was a gold cigarette-case from Bill, a leather wallet from Fanny, a tie-press from John, Blake’s poems from Rose, and a leather-bound address-book from Elizabeth. Elliott thanked them all. How nice they were to him, but he wished the children weren’t so shy. John blushed when Fanny said: “He WOULD buy you a tie-press, Harry. He said you needed one.”
“There seem to be about a million other things for you in the hall,” said Kennersley, grinning. “You’ll have to get Jevons to help you through with them afterwards. I had them all shoved on one side, so that you wouldn’t be detained on the way clown. After all, we think we ought to come first.”
“You do,” said Elliott sincerely.
Then they all went on with their food, excited and happy after the little scene. Kennersley helped himself to enormous quantities of eggs and bacon and kidneys and sausages. “Well, what’s the programme to-day?” he asked, at length.
“I’ve got the meeting at Sibleys at eleven. Then the executive at half-past five. To-night, of course, there’s the big dinner.”
“Not much of a birthday for you.”
“Never mind. It’s begun well.”
He saw the cyclist newsboy pedalling up the drive with the morning papers, and a minute later the butler brought them in. Kennersley gave him his choice; he took The Times, but only glanced at the middle page. Kennersley took the Mail. “Anything fresh?” called out Fanny, as she poured more coffee. “No, doesn’t seem to be anything,” muttered her husband, chewing hard.
Elliott smiled to himself. War in China; Revolution in Salvador; Conference Hitch.... No, doesn’t seem to be anything. Staring out of the window again, he could understand. It really did look as if Chilver were in the middle of a world in which nothing happened. The lawns sloped down to a belt of trees beyond which, at a mysteriously unreckonable distance, a line of wavy green-brown hills met the blue. There was no sound except the distant clank of a horse-drawn roller. Exquisite world! For centuries there had been no war at Chilver, no revolution, no hitch of any kind; but could one be sure that none was now threatening? Elliott felt suddenly oppressed with all the knowledge that these people did not share. This fine, friendly fellow, not much more than an overgrown boy, with his income of many thousands a year derived largely from coal-mining royalties, which he spent profusely on running model farms that did not pay and on giving employment to grooms, harness-makers, and jockeys; this charming girl-woman, daughter of a Notting Hill tobacconist, whose chief interest in life, next to her three lovely children and her husband, was the breeding of Sealyhams—how casual and planless their lives were, and how unsure of survival in a world that might decide to take itself with scientific seriousness! Perhaps that sort of a world was coming. And then, whimsically, it occurred to him that even if it did come, England might, as usual, contrive some queer compromise, some amazing non sequitur like the British Commonwealth or the Thirty-Nine Articles.
So Elliott’s thoughts ran on, as he glanced through the newspaper, half-seeing the printed words, but half-watching the children watch him. He was very fond of children. He took up the volume of Blake’s poems and smiled at Rose, who had given it him. “This is a good book,” he said. Then Fanny looked up and began to talk about poetry. She was really much more at home with dogs, but it was a weakness of hers to pretend that she was passionately interested in all “cultured” things. Bill made no such pretence, but he had a wholesome respect for what he believed to be his wife’s superior enlightenments, and Elliott would have done anything rather than disabuse him. Charming and delightful Fanny—and never more charming than when she was talking nonsense about literature. Elliott listened to her with an amused affection that made him want to ruffle her sunlit hair and ask her where she had learned it all. “Yes, it’s fine stuff’,” he agreed, when she made a pause.
“I wonder, Harry, if you would read the children something—that marvellous poem—you know the one I mean—I’m sure they’d never forget it if you did—”
Elliott wondered if he dare wink, very slightly, at John. He was sure they would never be allowed to forget it. It was another of Fanny’s pleasant weaknesses—like the visitors’ book in which everybody had to write something “original.” (Elliott had once rather shocked her, after a week-end, by writing: “Thoroughly satisfied. At Cooking and Everything Tip-Top. Can cordially recommend Chilver to anyone who likes a real Home from Home.”) He knew that years hence she would be saying at her dinner-parties: “Do you remember, Rose, that morning when Mr. Elliott—you know, THE Mr. Elliott—read us that poem of Blake’s out of the book you gave him for his sixtieth birthday?”
“Certainly,” he replied, and turned to the well-known lines which he guessed were probably all of Blake that Fanny had ever read. He began in a mood of gentle raillery, thinking of her, and wondering if the children were principally awed or bored, and noticing how the dogs half-asleep in front of the fire looked up curiously as they heard the different intonation. He had a beautiful voice, and he knew it, quite simply and without conceit. But when he came to the lines: “I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,” he was caught up by something both in himself and in the words. He was the fighter still, at sixty. He would not cease from mental fight, nor would his sword sleep in his hand, till he had built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.... He finished, a little moved by the beauty of the words, but more by the beauty of the scene out-of- doors and by Rose’s face turned to him.
During the recital Jevons, his secretary, had quietly entered the room and now made his salutations. He was a slim, handsome, and extremely clever youth of thirty or so, with a well-bred cynicism that disguised emotion and opinion alike.
“That’s a grand poem,” said Kennersley, to whom anything was poetry that had rhymes and was read in an odd sort of voice.
“Yes, it’s good, Kennersley,” said Jevons, dexterously slicing an egg on to his plate. “But I always catch myself boggling at the word ‘Jerusalem.’ It gives the poem a faintly Zionist flavour. And, anyhow, when you’ve seen Jerusalem, you wouldn’t want to build it anywhere.”
Elliott laughed. “My point, if it comes to that, is that I wouldn’t want to build any city—there are far too many already. I’d leave the green and pleasant land alone.”
And so they went on rather frivolously chatting, until Kennersley’s big Daimler, garlanded with pink rosettes, drove up to the front entrance. “Well,” Kennersley said, seeing them off, “you’ll have an enjoyable drive—for the first twenty miles, at any rate. I hope everything goes along all right. We’ll all be listening in to you at eight-thirty, and I’ll be up when you get back. Goo’bye. Goo’bye, Jevons.”
Elliott was thinking, as he swished through the lanes and villages: “This is my constituency.” ... He found it rather hard to realise. Those labourers in the field over there, and the man lowering the sun-blind outside that shop, were, by the inexorable casualness of English politics, installed for a moment as high instruments of fate. It had happened peculiarly. In a recent general election Elliott had won an industrial seat by a small margin. Then, several weeks later, when he had got well to work at his new Cabinet post, somebody had discovered certain technical irregularities that rendered the contest invalid. There had been no suggestion of moral culpability, and an Act of Indemnity had been rushed through Parliament to save him from the quite crippling fines to which he was liable; but no Act could spare him the trouble and expense of re-election. Nor was it beyond doubt that, with such a small majority, he would be re-elected. In this emergency, the machine of English politics had been swung to another angle, with the apparently inconsequent result that an elderly member for an exceptionally safe seat had applied for the Chiltern Hundreds. It had been hoped that Elliott would be elected without a fight, but at the last moment the local opposition party had put up a candidate.
Thus Elliott found himself motoring on this May morning of his sixtieth birthday through the constituency of East Northsex. Occasionally, on small boards and in windows, he noticed the familiar command “Vote for Elliott.” He was certain to get in, for the Kennersley influence was still strong in the almost feudal countryside. There was only one place, Sibleys, in which he might expect opposition; it was on the edge of a mining area, and had a few factories, at one of which he had arranged to address a lunchtime meeting of workpeople.
A freakish arrangement, when one came to think about it, he reflected. Fate might make of him the pivot on which the wheel revolved through Paris, Rome, Washington, Geneva; but England, parochial to the last, insisted on this geographical attachment to its own hills and vales. Whatever he was, history- maker or world-spokesman, he must remain the member for East Northsex, and in all his plans for the regeneration of mankind he dare not forget that Sibleys wanted power to run omnibuses or that Chilver was disappointed with its sewage arrangements. Perhaps it was not a bad method, in the way it worked out. But he despaired of explaining or justifying it to any highly intelligent foreigner.
The sky was clouding over and drops of rain already speckled the car- windows. He looked out upon the changing scene, talked a little to Jevons, slit open envelopes and glanced through letters, turned to the newspaper again. The rich fields and unspoilt villages merged into a more urbanised area; tram-lines began; a horizon of coal-tips and chimneys lifted up. He had never been in this part of the country before, yet he was going to represent it— what a haphazard business! He said to Jevons, pointing ahead: “Surely I don’t take in all that?”
Jevons laughed. “Lucky for you you don’t, sir. That’s Loamington. Sibleys, which is where you end, is this side of it—a sort of suburb.”
The traffic thickened in narrowing, mud-splashed streets; rows of industrial cottages straddled a nearby hill like flying buttresses, and in the trough below it the flat roof of a factory gleamed pewter-coloured in the rain. “Sibleys,” said Jevons. Elliott looked out with interest, commenting: “I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
“No? But I thought you were a native of this county, sir?”
“So I am. I was born at Creeksend, about twenty miles the other side of Chilver. But I never came here in those days—so far as I can recollect. Nor during any of my visits to Chilver since.”
“Well, it’s hardly a spot they’d take you to for a picnic, I admit. But don’t tell the crowd it’s your first visit. You see, we’ve made a lot of your being a local man. A Northsex man for Northsex— you know the tag.”
Elliott laughed. “Dear me, Jevons, couldn’t you think of anything more original?”
“I could; but I was very careful not to. Originality has lost many an election-contest.”
“What a game it is... WHAT a game....”
He felt a little weary, as he usually did, on the eve of a meeting. Not, of course, that he had any doubts or apprehensions about it. He had probably addressed some thousands of political gatherings during his career, and no amount of hostility or heckling ever bothered him. He had a good platform manner, a strong voice, and a quick brain that could turn a point against an interrupter without making a lifelong enemy of him. He was what was called “popular.” The cartoonists liked his hair, which they always converted into a sort of halo; thousands of people all over the country referred to him as “Harry.” He had no personal enemies that he knew of and all his privacies were public—that his father had been a country schoolmaster, that his married life had been idyllic, that his two sons had been killed in the War, and that he enjoyed a good cigar.
The car was threading a steep street in between rows of huddled, meanly- built dwellings, in some of whose windows he could see the display of his own name and photograph. Men and women stood at their doors, a few of them giving a cheer as he went by. The factory at the foot of the hill loomed suddenly close. “Is this the place?” he asked Jevons.
“Yes. You’ll find them a pretty easy lot—there WAS a time when they’d have been FOR you to a man, but lately they’ve come under the Loamington influence a little. Loamington’s a hotbed, of course.”
“This place looks bad enough. Is there anything special I ought to know about it—local unemployment, or anything?”
Jevons had been working in the constituency for some days and was, in this as in all other connections, a complete encyclopædia with the unencyclopædic knack of giving only as much information as was really wanted. “Sibleys,” he answered, “depends on the factory, which makes machine-tools, and is on halftime at present. You’ll probably hear a lot of complaints about housing. The trouble is, all this property is nearly a hundred years old and the landlords nowadays can’t afford to do repairs. It’s mostly leasehold. The Kennersleys own the ground rents.... Oh, and there’s one other thing you might make a note of—there’s a fellow named Collins in the Loamington football team—he comes from Sibleys and the folks are very proud of him.... That’s all, I think.”
Elliott nodded. Invaluable fellow, Jevons. The car swung through wide open gates into an ugly courtyard and pulled up outside a block of offices. A fat man in morning coat and spats, looking rather ridiculous as he stood in the rain, seized the door-handle and gave Elliott an effusive welcome. Elliott, who was dressed in an ordinary and, if anything, rather shabby lounge-suit, remembered him as Sir Compton Turnpenny, one of the New Year’s knights. They had met before; Elliott had trained himself to have a good memory for faces. He offered congratulations, introduced Jevons, and then passed into the offices, where there were introductions of various other men, whom he similarly and quite automatically memorised for the future. He chatted about the weather and declined a drink. Fortunately, just before the time arranged for the meeting, the rain stopped, and he walked out, with Turnpenny, Jevons, and the rest, to an improvised platform in an inner yard with a littered horizon of bricks and slates. England’s green and pleasant land... he could not help thinking, not with irony, but with deep compassion for anyone compelled to live amidst such scenes who hated them as much as he did. The employés began to swarm out of the surrounding buildings, men, women, and girls; they had all been allowed time off with pay, so there was a guaranteed audience. Elliott climbed up and gave them that good-tempered smile without which his entire career would probably have been undistinguished. Some of the girls began to cheer noisily and shout “Good old Harry.” He gave them an especial smile.
Turnpenny introduced him in a fulsome speech that jarred as many another speech had jarred during Elliott’s quarter-century of political life, but he had cultivated as tough a hide for compliments as for abuse, and neither could get him rattled. Most of the time he let his thoughts wander, while he distantly contemplated what he was going to say. He never prepared much beforehand, except on very important occasions in the House. He had the gift of smooth, extempore speech on any subject; the words came easily, yet not prosily. Turnpenny, on the other hand, was thumping his fists like a stage orator, and nothing, perhaps, but his position as managing director of the firm prevented the crowd from openly jeering. Elliott almost wished they would. He felt in a curiously wilful mood—as if he wanted to do something unusual, a little shocking. Turnpenny’s emphatic assurances that a vote for Elliott was a vote for the abolition of unemployment, cheaper food, higher wages, British world-supremacy, and various other items, made him feel wistfully sympathetic with the half-listening crowd. He looked at their faces and tried to catch the glance he wanted to see—that of alertness, independence, the sublime you-be-damnedness of free-souled men. Instead, he saw cynicism here and there, vapid approval in a few places, but for the most part only apathy and weariness. They too, perhaps, knew what a game it all was. Then suddenly the vagrant idea came to him—suppose he were to give them, instead of the usual meaningless stuff, the simple truth, so far as he knew it? Suppose he were to begin: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid I haven’t very much good news for you, and I can’t make you any exciting promises. Frankly, I’m a little pessimistic about things in general. The world’s in a pretty bad way, and perhaps it isn’t quite so much a matter of supremacy as of survival. One man can do little in the face of events, but of course I shall try, as I’ve tried all along. Owing to the rather absurd machinery of the English electoral system I have to ask you for your votes; and I must confess I don’t know why on earth you should give them to me—certainly not, I should hope, because I’m a Northsex man. Of course, if you agree with my policy, that’s a reason; but then my opponent’s policy isn’t so bad, either, and I’m sure his intentions are just as honest as mine. And then I’m afraid in a lot of ways you don’t know my policy, and wouldn’t understand it if I told you—all this business about foreign affairs and the gold standard and so on. Also, there’s the disquieting possibility that my policy may be wrong after all. Frankly, I can’t think why you should give me such a big blank cheque, except that somebody has to have one, and if it weren’t me, it might be someone even less reliable. But remember, I can’t honestly promise anything. I can’t even promise not to make awful mistakes. Some little thing I do, with the best will in the world, may start a war long after I’m dead—a war that may perhaps claim the lives of your children. Remember that, when you’re shouting ‘Good old Harry.’ And remember, too, that I shan’t have much time to be bothered about you once you’ve elected me....”
What a sensation, he thought, impishly, if he were to address them like that? He could imagine Turnpenny’s horror, the gasps of a million newspaper-readers the next morning, the outraged eyes of the Prime Minister when he heard about it.... It would doubtless be the end of him, politically. Well, well, he wasn’t exactly anxious for that. He smiled to himself and wondered what had come over him that he should even think such things. Perhaps it was a sixtieth birthday feeling.
Of course, when the time came, he made a vastly different speech. He did not hold out too many promises, but he sounded a note of cautious optimism, and remembered to bring in Collins, the Sibleys footballer. He sensed familiarly the crowd’s change of mood from sulky hostility to tolerant good-humour. Most of them would go away and say he seemed “a good sort.” Probably no one would support him who had already decided not to, but he might secure a few dozen votes that would otherwise not have been given at all.
During the latter half of his speech a clerk from the offices approached the platform and whispered something to Jevons, who immediately climbed down and disappeared with him. A few moments later Jevons returned, touched Elliott on the elbow, and passed him a slip of paper. Elliott stared at it, automatically continuing a sentence meanwhile. In Jevons’s neat scribble he read: “Important message from London. Should end up soon if I were you.” With the very slightest inclination of the head, Elliott handed back the slip. He went on talking for three or four minutes, finishing with a brisk peroration that earned the first gust of enthusiasm that had yet been born upon that dreary scene. It was typical of him that even an acute observer or listener could hardly have suspected any curtailment, so smoothly did the words and sentences succeed each other. During the quite lively cheering that followed, Jevons leaned across anxiously and whispered in his ear: “Trunk call from the F.O., passed on through Chilver. Rather bad news about the Conference. Tribourov’s been shot and everything’s in a hell of an upset ... yes, SHOT. The P.M. wants you in town at once.”
“Good God!” exclaimed Elliott, under his breath, and went a little pale.
“I took the liberty, sir, of ringing up the aerodrome people.”
“Quite right... quite right. We’ll get away.”
He signalled to Turnpenny and murmured a few words that set the latter on his feet to announce pompously that their future member had to dash away on important business, but that before he left they would all wish to give him three rousing cheers, etc., etc.
Five minutes later, as the big car slewed through the factory gates, Elliott said: “Now you can tell me all about it.”
“There’s not much to tell as yet, sir. It’s only just come through—just the bare message without details. It seems he was fired at during the Conference session this morning. A woman did it, and shot herself immediately afterwards.”
“Yes, yes, but Tribourov—is he dead?”
“He wasn’t killed outright. Neither of them were. That’s all the information there is, so far.”
“Who ’phoned you?”
“Tommy Luttrell. He seemed to think it might have serious repercussions.”
Elliott nodded. “Yes, of course, there are all sorts of things it might lead to.”
Then for a long time he was silent. Through the car-windows now the words “Vote for Elliott” on hoardings conveyed a touch of mockery in their insistence. Soon, however, he had passed the limits of his constituency and was in Loamington. How innocent everyone looked to him—the policeman on point-duty, the streams of hurrying passers-by, the tram-conductor exchanging badinage with a lorry-driver—innocent as had been the crowds in London and Berlin on that morning of Sarajevo. And he, threading through their midst, was their appointed leader. At that moment he felt more like a blind engine-driver in charge of a train for whose journey the points had been set by lunatic signalmen.
“I don’t think I ever met him,” he said at length. “He must be one of their new men—capable, I should say, from his speeches. Poor chap.... You know, Jevons, it makes one realise what a chancy thing history is. A mere quarter-inch in the track of a maniac’s bullet can alter everything.”
“Yes—and also when the pistol refuses to work, like Clive’s. I often wonder exactly how different things would be to-day if he HAD done himself in. No Ind. Imp. And no Amritsar. Perhaps even no Gandhi.... Though I suppose the really big things in history would mostly have happened anyhow.”
“Would they? Or does blind chance play a bigger part in affairs than we can easily reckon?”
“Still, sir, even if Columbus HADN’T discovered America, somebody else would certainly have committed the indiscretion sooner or later. That’s what I mean. And the war with Germany—I should say that was fairly inevitable, too.”
Elliott paused to light a cigar. “I might grant you your first example, but definitely not your second. We were just as near war with France over Fashoda or with Turkey over Chanak as we were with Germany at the end of July ’fourteen. A few hair’s breadths might have steered us clear of that as they did of the other two.”
“But don’t you think it had to happen some day?”
“No, I can’t see why. Frankly, I’m chary of believing in these big inevitabilities, except in the sense that if you play cards often enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll some time get a hand with four aces in it. Looking on history as a mathematician rather than as a historian, it seems to me that the most trivial things have led up to the most colossal... for instance, just to take one example out of many, I could easily demonstrate that the War was really won on the 10th of August, 1911, by the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
“I’ll buy it,” answered Jevons, laughing.
“I remember that day as one of record heat for this country—ninety-seven in the shade, or something like that. The House of Lords were taking the vote on the Parliament Bill, and the Archbishop, whose attitude till then had been doubtful, decided to vote in favour, and took eleven bishops with him. As the FOR majority was only seventeen, he may be said to have turned the scale. Well, now, consider—merely as an essay in the pluperfect subjunctive— what would have happened had he voted AGAINST. The Bill would have been thrown out. We know now that in such an event the King would have created four hundred new peers—all Liberals, of course. And a Liberal House of Lords would certainly have passed the Irish Home Rule Bill without delay. Which, in turn, might very well have led to the coercion of Ulster and such disaffection in the army that we could not have entered the War against Germany as promptly as we did, even if at all. And if the British Expeditionary Force had not been in France just when and where it was would the miracle of the Marne have taken place? And if Germany had won that battle, isn’t it arguable that she would have taken Paris and been able to dictate a victorious peace?... So, you see, in this particular sense, an Archbishop voting on a hot day in the English House of Lords held in his hands the future destiny of the world.”
“Ingenious, sir. Yet you could hardly say he caused the defeat of Germany.”
“Oh no, that would be an obvious misinterpretation. We really want a word for something that leads quite logically to something else, yet in a way that both moralists and historians decide to ignore. Of course, the example I gave you seems remarkable, because we can trace it and see it, but there must be millions of similar threads which we can’t trace at all, even though our entire lives are woven out of them.”
Jevons laughed again. “All of which seems to show that History, as Henry Ford said, is bunk.”
“No, I don’t go as far as that, but I’d perhaps agree that history professors should take a short course in the mathematics of chance and probability.”
“Or would it be less bother, sir, to teach history to insurance actuaries? Still, it’s an impressive idea, though I’m not quite certain where it leads to, unless straight back to Calvinism and predestination.”
“Oh, good heavens, no—not by any means! If only Calvin had been a bridge-player he’d have known better, because life is as much like a card-game as anything else—if you can imagine a game in which the cards are unlimited and the players can’t agree on having any rules.... But you’re encouraging me to be platitudinous, Jevons. Did the aerodrome people say they could have a machine ready?”
“Yes. And it’s fine weather down south, they told me, so we ought to have a quick and pleasant journey.”
Shortly after noon they pulled up on the concrete arena in front of the hangars. An R.A.F. machine stood near by, slowly ticking over. Elliott chatted to the pilot while the latter helped him on with his flying kit. He knew Captain Hartill well, having been piloted by him many times before, and he climbed with Jevons into the small cabin with some eagerness for the familiar sensations. He liked flying, and liked also the type of man that the new profession was breeding. If he had been younger he would certainly have learned to fly himself. One reason he favoured air-travel was because it seemed a return to smallness and individuality after a century’s trend towards bigger and bigger units; compared with the train and the ocean liner, it suggested independence, the sturdy freedom of solitary man. In that sense he had accepted Lindbergh’s as a more epic achievement than Columbus’s, though it had also occurred to him that this very independence might some day make for the breakdown of society. It did not require a great deal of imagination to picture a world in which power had passed into the hands of Al Capones with their private bombing squadrons. An appalling possibility, but it undoubtedly existed. To Elliott, as he watched the fields diminishing till his view was like that of a fly on a ceiling looking down on a patchwork quilt, it did seem that everywhere the forces of lawlessness and disintegration were gaining ground; but that in England, though a strong attack was in progress, the social fabric was holding out with a toughness that proved its quality. His thoughts ran on, and set him wondering whether that toughness lay somehow rooted in the million absurdities that belonged, not to a Five Years’ Plan, but to five centuries’ planlessness. This very by-election, for instance, forced on him by technicalities over which even he, a lawyer, had unwittingly stumbled; and the vast paradox of an empire, in population chiefly non-white and non-Christian, governed by a minority whose peculiar gift to the world had been the principles of democracy. No Home Rule for India, yet an Indian might sit in the English Parliament for a constituency within a tram-ride of the House itself! But England was like that, and like so many other things as well; just when, in mind, one had fixed her with what seemed an adequate generalisation, she suddenly sprang some terrific freakishness that shook any logical scheme to bits. And throughout history this same freakishness had abounded, from the time she had allowed a king’s debaucheries to decide her religion, to the fourth decade of the twentieth century, when her people could still wonder whether an Act of 1781 ought to prevent them from seeing a cinema-show on Sunday.
Suddenly, rising above the thin vapours, the plane plunged into sunlight as into a warm, golden bath. Elliott, in the midst of a sandwich-lunch, smiled exultantly at Jevons; the roar of the engines was too loud for conversation. He felt lifted, at that moment, to an extraordinary pitch of serenity; flying always made him feel like that, as if, in leaving the physical world, he had literally left its troubles behind. Tribourov, the Conference, the by- election—how easily, if spuriously, one could purchase the sensation of escape from it all!
The flight had lasted over an hour when he noticed an occasional spluttering amidst the steady thrum-thrum of the engines. Once Hartill stared round and gave a jerky shrug of the shoulders that might have meant anything. Elliott was not alarmed, but he was surprised when he realised from the return to mistiness that the plane must be losing height. The spluttering continued, and soon, as through a window abruptly uncurtained, he saw land below—that same patchwork of greens and browns, with the shadow of the plane crawling across them like some strange insect. “We’re descending,” he shouted in Jevon’s ear, and Jevon shouted back: “Yes, I think something’s gone wrong with one of the engines.” “Well,” thought Elliott, munching his last sandwich, “if we’re killed, we’re killed—it’s as good a way as Tribourov’s, anyhow.” He felt beatifically calm. The machine continued to swoop, till the landscape was almost scampering underneath—fortunately it was open country—fields, hedges, a few trees, a lane, more fields and hedges—all swimming in misty sunlight. “I think he’s trying to land,” Jevons shouted; and Elliott nodded, still without much feeling of concern. It occurred to him, with a flash of perception, that he was at that moment trusting Hartill just as all over the country millions of people, Hartill included, were having to trust HIM. He thought: “Yes, ‘Vote for Elliott’s’ all right, but just now Hartill’s my man—good old Hartill. Vote for Hartill....”
A few seconds later the pilot made a perfect landing in a field of barley. After he had shut off the engines and clambered out, he helped his two passenger to alight also. He apologised profusely for having had to come down, and gave some technical reason which Elliott did not understand. “It’s nothing serious, but I couldn’t carry on without making the repair. I hope you weren’t alarmed, sir.”
“Not at all,” Elliott replied, smiling. “I think I ought to congratulate you on such a fine impromptu landing.” Then he looked about him. He could see nothing but a field, hedges, and that milk-blue sky. “I’m only slightly worried about the delay. Do you think it would be quicker for me to hire a car and get to the nearest big railway station?”
Hartill considered. “On the whole, sir, I think if I were you I’d take a chance of finishing the trip this way. If the trouble is only what I think it is, I ought to be able to put it right quite soon—especially if Mr. Jevons can give me a hand. And this is a good place for taking off.”
“Of course I’ll help,” said Jevons. “But where are we, anyhow?”
Hartill shook his head. “Couldn’t say, exactly. I’ve been flying mostly by the compass, and in this misty kind of weather it’s difficult to get one’s bearings. I should say somewhere about the middle of England.”
Elliott said he would wait. He took off his flying-kit, lit a cigar, and watched the preliminary activities of the others. After the roar of the engines his ears were conscious of a peculiar, deep silence, a silence that seemed alive in the earth. He walked round the machine in a wide circle, scanning the horizon not very intently and filling the still air with the aroma of his smoke. Probably, he reflected, someone had seen the descent, and a farmer or farm-servant would be along soon. He would have to pay something for the damage to the crops.... A rabbit loped across the corner of the field, and he felt glad that he had decided not to look for a railway station—much pleasanter to stay where he was and take the chance, as Hartill had advised. The chance, yes—it was chance again. What incalculable millions in odds, for instance, had lain against his ever seeing this field and that rabbit. He went to the hedge and looked over, but the view was only of another field and another hedge. He walked along by the side of the barley till he came to a gate that had a smooth and gnarled top-bar, as if it had served for decades of anonymous musings. He climbed up and joined the invisible company, smoking in deep contentment. The silence and sunshine and scents had all the vivid rapture of a dream-memory of boyhood, so that when he asked the question “Where am I?” an answer seemed necessary in time as well as space. But where, after all, WAS he? Hartill had said “Somewhere about the middle of England,” but that scarcely conveyed very much. He called out across the field: “I’m going for a stroll to see if I can find out where we are,” and Jevons looked up and shouted back: “All right, but don’t be too long—Hartill says we’ll be ready in half an hour.”
Waving cheerfully to them both, Elliott clambered over into the next field, walked across it, and then another field, till he came to a copse of beech-trees bordering a lane. He wondered which way led to the nearest house. It was a narrow lane, with cart-ruts marked here and there by motor-tyres, and in both directions it curved to give no horizon but of hedges. But the hedges were full of pink may-blossom, and Elliott thought it one of the loveliest views he had ever seen. He turned to the right, half-facing the sun, and began to walk on; after a few hundred yards the lane twisted again, and he saw a signpost ahead. Ah, he thought, that would tell him everything; and besides, someone would certainly pass by if he waited a few moments at a cross-roads. He quickened his steps and soon perceived that it was a very old sign-post, tipsily aslant, and with lettering so weather-worn that no passing motorist could possibly have read it. Nor did it mark a cross-roads, but only a junction of another lane that looked neither more nor less important. And one of its arms had fallen off, while the remaining two pointed so vaguely that their intentions were far from clear. Elliott could just decipher, on one arm, “To Upeasy 1/2 m.,” and on the other, “To Beachings Over 2 m.”
Of course he had never heard of either place. He could not even guess at their county. But if Upeasy were only half a mile away, he wondered if he might have time to walk there, make enquiries, and return. He stood on tiptoe and looked over the hedge. A little way off he saw a round green rise, hardly to be called a hill, with a tiny spire pricking gently into the blue. Upeasy, that must be. It looked a long half-mile, even if the lane were not as meandering as it promised to be; so perhaps he had better not set out to walk there, after all.
A little girl with very bright golden hair came into view and gazed at him timidly as she approached. He smiled and asked her several questions about the locality, hoping to elicit the name of some neighbouring place that might be known to him; but she was shy, or perhaps too young to understand; and all he could obtain were repeated mentions of Upeasy, whither it appeared she was on her way to school. Then he reflected that it would be quite simple to look the matter up in some book of reference when he reached London, so he need not bother any more. He smiled at the child again and gave her sixpence, which she accepted very doubtfully, and then held tightly in her hand as she scampered off along the lane. When she was nearly out of sight behind the curve of the hedge she looked back, and Elliott waved his hand, but she took no notice.
Suddenly, alone again, he was stirred by echoes of the words he had read out at breakfast that morning, and as he glanced again at the names on the signpost, he felt that all the glory of England lay in them, far more than in palm and pine and the rest of the showy Kiplingerie of empire. And if, he thought, England should some day perish, other countries might grow to be stronger, wiser, or richer, but none would ever have the absurd and exquisite tenderness of English villages, linked by the hedge-bordered lanes.
He looked at his watch—five to two. Perhaps he ought to be strolling back. He put out his hand and touched the old wood of the signpost as if to receive some mystic blessing in farewell; and the whimsical remembrance came to him that his political opponents had sometimes called him “a little Englander.” What a phrase—and how like England to use her own name thus derisively! He spoke the words softly to himself as he walked back along the lane—little England—LITTLE England.... Then, in a mood of strange enchantment, he vowed that he would never probe the secret; the atlas should keep its trivial knowledge, while he himself clung to Upeasy and Beachings Over as symbols of things not to be expressed in any other words.
When he reached the field Jevons had been looking for him. “Oh, there you are, sir. We wondered if you’d got lost. Everything’s all right now. Did you find out where we are?”
“No,” answered Elliott. “I still haven’t the slightest idea.”
“We haven’t seen a soul either. Dead-and-alive sort of place, wherever it is.”
“Yes, it’s quiet enough,” Elliott said, happily regarbing himself for the journey.
Just over an hour later, after a fast flight, the plane landed at Hendon. He motored with Jevons to the Foreign Office immediately, buying on the way the afternoon papers that were just on sale. They gave no news except what he already knew, though they spun it out with an account of Tribourov’s career and of similar outrages in the past.
Tommy Luttrell, one of the parliamentary undersecretaries, was waiting for him in his private room. “Glad you could manage it, Elliott—the Chief thought you ought to be on the spot. Rotten thing to have happened just when the Conference looked like doing something.”
“It’s often the way,” said Elliott calmly. “Any more news?”
“The woman’s dead, but there’s no further information about Tribourov. The Russians are threatening to leave the Conference.”
“Yes, one rather expected that.”
Luttrell nodded. “Little as I like them, I’m bound to admit they have a case. It seems the dead woman was a Russian emigrée— belonged to an aristocratic family in Tsarist days—and she’d got herself into a job of chambermaid at the very hotel where Tribourov was staying. Pretty slack on the part of the authorities, you know. You’d have thought they’d have taken a few obvious precautions, especially as they knew that threats had already been made against the fellow.”
“But she didn’t shoot him in the hotel, did she?”
“No. Might have done, I suppose, but probably she wanted publicity—that kind of maniac is like that. It was in the corridors of the Conference building, with scores of people looking on. Incidentally, she was a French subject by marriage, which might have complicated matters if she hadn’t had the tactfulness to die. There ought to be a message from Walton soon about Tribourov—I should guess they’re probably waiting for some report from the hospital—maybe after an operation.”
“It’s a damnable sort of business, Luttrell.”
Luttrell answered, as befitted a younger man, in the younger idiom. “Yes, perfectly bloody. Did you know him?”
“Not personally.... Of course, if the Russians do leave, everything goes to pot.”
“Yes, looks like it.”
“I’d better see Lindley. Where is he?”
“Over the road, waiting for you.”
“Right, I’ll go along. You might stay here, Jevons, and telephone Barrowby I shan’t be able to get to the dinner to-night. Smooth him down if you can—he’ll be pretty sick about it. Tell the broadcasting people too, and then wire Kennersley that I can’t be back at Chilver for a few days. He’ll probably guess what’s happened.”
“Very good, sir.”
An hour later Elliott left the house in Downing Street. He would have liked a walk in the Park, but at that time of day there would be too many there who recognised him, and he didn’t care for ostentatious shadowing by detectives. He hailed a taxi and asked to be driven slowly round Hyde Park, by the inner road; he wanted an hour or so alone to think over what the P. M. had said. It had been disquieting, though not absolutely unexpected, to learn of important forces in England opposed to the Conference, and ready to welcome the Russian withdrawal, if it took place, as an excuse for British withdrawal too. Lindley had mentioned the names of certain newspapers and big industrialists. The position was complicated by the fact that at the moment Elliott was technically a nobody; until East Northsex actually made him its member he could neither speak in the House nor take part officially in Cabinet councils. For six more days he would be thus muzzled, and during such an interval much—too much—might happen.
Anyone who chanced to look into the cab as it skimmed past the crowds on the sidewalks, would have seen an old man, white-haired and hatless, leaning in a corner with his chin resting in the palm of one hand. A thoughtful, perhaps slightly troubled attitude, and one that emphasised the years. Sixty—spent in a struggle that was not yet over.... At fifteen, after a grammar-school education, he had begun in the office of the Creeksend Colliery; at twenty-five, Oxford, attained by means of mathematical scholarships; at thirty, admittance to the Bar; from thirty to forty, lawyering and political work; M.P., after five unsuccessful tries, at a by-election in 1912; the War; the peace; but the struggle continued. There had been nothing absolutely sensational in such a career—no Limehouse or Sidney Street to tie a label on it. He doubted whether he could feel sure of being mentioned in any history exam-paper of the year 2032. He was not particularly modest, but he was far too self-critical to be conceited. On the whole, he did not think his life could be counted a failure; he was certainly not a Lloyd George or a Disraeli, but he was perhaps near the front of the second rank. He had worked hard and had usually managed to do the jobs he had tackled. He had kept himself free in thought, cautious in speech, and practical in action. He had altered his opinions, not once, but constantly; he had changed parties; he had been illogical and inconsistent, and had grown used to being called, from right and left respectively, a woolly-headed visionary and a hard-boiled legalist. Sincerely hating war, he got on rather better with soldiers and sailors than, as a rule, with professional pacifists; privately something of a sceptic, he nevertheless disliked blasphemy and would always defend religion. In these and other ways he had for three decades offered discrepancies of belief and behaviour which hostile critics could and did denounce as hypocrisy, but which he himself knew to be nothing of the sort. The fact was (as he often joked) he was English, and therefore handicapped by race for the task of governing England—a remark which he would amplify by claiming to be the only member of the Cabinet who wasn’t wholly or partly Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or Jew.
But this Conference fretted him a little. It was, in a sense, the fruition of the policy of reasonableness which he had always championed; it was an attempt to find a common denominator in European politics that would attract, not the visionary and the diehard, who must be left to cancel each other out, but the vast body of experienced practical opinion in every country. And to see it all jeopardised, at the last moment, by a bullet! He wished he had gone out to the Conference himself, instead of Walton; Walton was a good fellow, but not perhaps over-supple in an emergency. After a third circuit of the Park he gave the driver the name of his club in Pall Mall, and on arrival rang up the Office and spoke to Jevons. But there had been no more news. “I’m dining here and will look in later on,” he said.
Petrie, who had the Colonies, was at the next table, and asked him how the by-election was going. Then they discussed the Tribourov affair and politics generally. Petrie said that any revolutionary government that had used the weapon of assassination before its rise to power must expect the same weapon to be turned against it afterwards; and Elliott agreed, but added that he thought assassination all the more terrible because it was really so logical. “If you believe quite passionately that a certain person is a social menace, what more meritorious than to risk your life in ridding the world of him? Perhaps the chief reason why we in England aren’t much given to that sort of thing is that we don’t believe passionately enough. After nearly a thousand years of nationhood, we’re sure enough of ourselves to admit our own private doubts.”
“Yes, I think that’s rather true. Which reminds me, Elliott, talking of passion and the lack of it, I had a visit from that fellow Gathergood the other day. You remember the case?”
“GATHERGOOD? I do seem to have heard of the name, but—”
“He was the Agent at Cuava and mishandled some native trouble that cropped up. The Court of Enquiry sat on him pretty heavily.”
“Ah, yes, that was it. And as a result of the Enquiry, we’ve more or less annexed Cuava, haven’t we?”
“‘Annexed’ is a pre-War word, Elliott. Say rather we’ve accepted a mandate to look after the place, though it isn’t, I’m afraid, going to be the brightest jewel in the British Crown; on the contrary, there’s already a deficit of a hundred thousand or so in the local budget. We’re building roads and bridges as if the Pax Britannica were going to last for ever, and the natives are taking all we give them and hating us for it. Lord knows why we do these things... but I was mentioning this chap Gathergood. A queer fellow.”
“It seemed to me at the time, I remember, that he’d been unfortunate rather than blameworthy.”
“That’s more or less what he told me himself. Very chilly, strong-jawed type—absolutely without emotion—a. Frenchman or an Italian or a Russian would probably have been in tears or shaking their fists over the business.”
“Yes, I should have guessed him to be cool-headed. What did you do for him?”
“What could I? Nothing fails like failure, and there are still a few messrooms where, if you say ‘Gathergood,’ you’ll get an immediate explosion. Even a first-rate civil service has to have its occasional scapegoats—Pontius Pilate, for instance.... D’you feel equal to a liqueur brandy upstairs, by the way?”
“Thanks, I don’t mind. But I must look in at the Office again soon. Perhaps Walton will have ’phoned through.”
“What’s your opinion of Walton? Do you think it was a wise choice to send him out?”
“He’s a sound fellow.”
“But don’t you think a somewhat younger man—?”
Then, for the first time, Elliott’s voice was raised a tone. “Good God, Petrie, he’s only sixty-four—a man’s not on the shelf at that age. Why, I’m sixty myself—sixty to- day.”
Petrie laughed. “Congratulations. I’m glad you mentioned it.” Then, summoning the waiter, he added: “Wash out that order I gave, and bring Napoleon brandy—in the big glasses.”
“Extravagance!” said Elliott, smiling.
Towards ten o’clock he walked across Horse Guard’s Parade. There was a full moon, and all was very still and peaceful; the traffic along the Mall was only a glittering, murmuring horizon. He noticed a young man embracing a girl in the shadow between two lamp-posts, and for a moment he envied them their ecstasy, but more so their ease of mind and unconsciousness of time. He knew, from such envy, that he was doing what he rarely did: he was worrying. This Conference business ... if it all broke down, nothing very dreadful was to be expected immediately, or even soon; but years hence, probably long after he was put to earth, something MIGHT happen... or mightn’t. Then why bother? One made all these efforts, one ached over these hopes and anxieties, and all the time one grew older—forty, fifty, sixty—while the world went on with an apparent heedlessness of whether one cared about it or not. Life was too short for an ordinary man of affairs (which was all he reckoned himself) to touch the wheel of destiny with more than a finger-tip; while even a Napoleon or a Mussolini could get no more than half a hand-grip—for half a second.
Just as he climbed the steps to enter the Office Jevons ran down almost into his arms. “Hullo, sir, I ’phoned the club and they told me you were walking over. I was coming to meet you. There’s just been a message from Walton....”
“Tell me,” said Elliott, leading him towards the silver emptiness of the Parade.
“It’s good news, sir. Tribourov’s only slightly hurt.”
“Oh.... Oh.... Thank God....”
“And apparently he’s using his influence to calm things down. Walton’s seen him. Walton thinks the situation will be smoothed over.”
And so on... Elliott was suddenly, in the midst of his relief, aware that the day had been strenuous, and that he was rather tired. Jevons continued to talk, but Elliott was only half-listening; he would have to get him to go over everything again later on—perhaps in the morning. But he felt, beyond his relief and his tiredness, something more fugitive—a certain communion of spirit with a man hundreds of miles away whom he had never seen, and whose language he could not speak—something that made him exclaim, as he took Devon’s arm: “Tribourov sounds a good fellow.”
“He’s certainly not monkeying, anyway, sir.”
“Perhaps I shall meet him some day. I hope so. I can’t tell how you relieved I feel.”
“I know. I could see you were bothered. But you always take things pretty calmly—more than I often can. I had a terrific wind-up this afternoon, for instance, when that plane began to come down.”
“I was picturing both our obituaries in the papers—two columns for you and an inch paragraph for me.... I say, that’s love’s young dream, if you like, isn’t it—just over there?”
“Very much so. I noticed them as I came along just now. Charming, Jevons—quite charming. Laugh if you want, but you’ll feel more like crying when you’re my age.”
He had been young with Petrie, but Jevons made him feel grandfatherly. They passed into Birdcage Walk and across Victoria Street to Elliott’s house. All the way Jevons talked, and Elliott was nearly silent; he felt too tired to know anything but that his birthday had been, on the whole, a success. In his arm-chair over a final cigar, after Jevons had said good-night, he reviewed the hours and how variedly they had progressed—breakfast at Chilver, the meeting at Sibleys, sandwiches in mid-air, that winding lane to Upeasy, tea with the P. M., the club dinner, and now this last good news... so much could happen in a day, and so little in a lifetime. Sixty years of doing and being, of threading blindly into the pattern, yet with eyes that never lost their hope of sight. And sometimes, as just now, one felt a touch in the darkness beyond the everlasting criss-cross of chance—a touch that, in an earlier and more faithful age, would have sent one to one’s knees.
Elliott did not kneel. But when he went to bed a little later, he fell asleep as quickly and as peacefully as a child.