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Such slow degrees

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Mutually unintelligible in their native language, they try French, which has changed less over the centuries. But neither man speaks it as well aloud as he does in his head, and they find themselves both almost as incomprehensible as they are in English. They eventually settle on Latin, though even there…

‘—elucescebat! Oh, please don’t martyr the poor dear tongue like that. It actually hurts. Right along the old scars—’ P. Walter Esq., of Pudding Lane and Roxbury, Massachusetts, lifts one incorporeal but still somehow substantial buttock from his throne, ‘—the old scoundrel used to chalk the cane. Happy days! Eluceo, if you please, and anyway, you know you can’t shine, or show forth. It’s not permitted. I doubt it’s possible.’

His twelve-times-great-uncle (‘uncle’ is a euphemism, but the dispute over Counting the Bastards is vivid enough in both their minds for them to accept it without demur) curls his lip. ‘Typical. You find time to pick—’

Mr Walter scratches intently behind his ear, knocking his wig slightly askew.

‘—nits out of my Latin, but that mummery, that mockery down there—’

‘We can’t do anything about it, uncle. We’ve got to work with what’s in his head already.’

‘A pottle of piss and wind, then,’ sniffs the Yorkshireman, gesturing impatiently for the nectar-jug. ‘Look at that. A smock and scythe? It should be obvious to the meanest intelligence how—Christ’s holy bodkin, it’s his own name. He’s not called Churl Walter, is he? Peasant Walter? Villein Walter?’

‘Oh, be fair. Walters have been falling for that Bayeux Tapestry nonsense since, well, since my aunt made it up. Very lively imagination, Aunt Caecilia. Even I didn’t find out you were the original Prior Walter until I got here. No wonder Number Thirty—Thirty-Odd is muddled.’

‘You’re a proper chip off the old battleaxe, too. Mayflower, my arse.’

‘That was really more of a mistake—you know how young people do think one a very Methuselah once one turns forty or so—oh, maybe you don’t.' Mr Walter cringes for his faux pas, but he has misjudged the fourteenth-century sense of humour. His kinsman barks laughter. Encouraged, he continues, 'And I know, to you and me, it does seem very singular that a scion of ours should barely know how to say his prayers, but the newer ones are full of fascinating information, believe me. If only you could talk to them. Aviation is superb. Imagine being able to fly.’

‘We can fly.’

‘No, but when we were—never mind. It’s probably not a very good example, considering the condition that poor dear Emily Pryor arrived in, bless her brave little heart. But isn’t it nice to know that God didn’t, God—it wasn’t for our sins? I think it’s very reassuring. I could never reconcile a God of love with—’

‘God still made fleas, though, didn’t he? And whatever it was yours was.’

Vibrio cholerae. Invisible beasts with scourge-like tails. No, not really. Not as such. It’s actually a bit difficult to say what God did do. Were I the Deity, I'd be embarrassed, not to have set humanity straight, but passeth all understanding. Maybe that was what the abrupt Departure was all about, embarrassment... No matter! I’ll get Huxley Prior to explain evolution again, if you like. It makes so much more sense when he says it.’

But the Prior of Kirkham has found something else to be outraged about.

Twelve! Twelve!’ he splutters, pointing down through the misty limina. ‘Libel! Libel! False witness!’

‘I wonder where he picked that up from,’ muses his descendant. ‘Because there was that chronicle, wasn’t there?’

The Prior turns a thunderous face on him. ‘Heresy!’ he roars, ‘that rocks the foundation of Holy Mother Church by slandering her faithful servants! Lollardy!’ His hand shakes with rage; Mr Walter gently offers to take the cup from it.

The Prior draws back, shaking his head and looking at his white-cassocked knees. He takes a deep breath and sips his nectar. ‘Forgive me. There was an—indiscretion. But he was well provided for. As for the other one, well, the wench was not honest. It could have been any one of a score, but she had her annuity too. Definitely not twelve children.’

Mr Walter, a little abashed, but touched, at his ancestor’s admission, bites his lower lip. ‘And, if I may ask, from which am I descended?’

‘I don’t know, do I? They were both called Walter. One for my penance, and one because the bitch was trying to put one over.’

Mr Walter blushes at the unchivalry. 'Oh, I see. Well, perhaps I’ll catch up with them some time.’

A bell rings then, rescuing him, and they depart for duties and dinner. A period—we cannot, exactly, speak of time—elapses before they both get a chance to return to the observation gallery over the limina, a period that Prior Walter of Kirkham, in any case, has used to imbibe several more quarts of nectar. Neither has Mr Walter of Pudding Lane and Roxbury, Massachusetts, been entirely temperate, for why should spirits practise total abstinence?

‘Oh look,’ says the cleric, ‘he’s got a friend. Isn’t that nice? Reminds me of dear Jocelyn—my chaplain, you know. Ran off, of course, when the pestilence came, can’t blame him, but still—handsome. Very handsome man. Glad he’s, he’s got a—friend.’

‘I don’t call that dancing, exactly,’ says Mr Walter, dubiously, ‘but of course masculine friendship is the most noble manifestation—’

His eleven-times great- (let us not be trimmers) grandfather lets out a sound that can only be described as a shriek. He leaps to his feet, upsetting a small table of ambrosia and sherbet into a rainbow rivulet.

‘I—look at that mouldy showing forth—that thing called him—what? I—’ he thumps his fist against his palm, with a sound like hickory staves splitting. ‘I would never.’ He sinks back on his throne, his chest heaving, his face damp. Mr Walter notices the fine contour of his neck, with its throbbing Adam’s apple, the infinitely sensible curve of his lower lip, the pathos of his clumped black eyelashes. There really is, he thinks, a distinct family resemblance. He extends a helpless hand.

‘Uncle—’

The Prior pays him no mind. ‘After what that beastly Lollard wrote about me—no matter about me, I was dead within the year. About Jocelyn. My dear sweeting, best of men. That he could think—that I would use—that word of any son of mine. Simply for having a friend.’

Mr Walter clears his throat. ‘Well, you know, Father,’ he swallows audibly, thinking frantically that the title is merely a courtesy, neither a capitulation to Papistry nor an admission of the true bond of blood between them, ‘Father—they do, they are—’

The Prior turns to him in passion of righteous anger, his pale eyes blazing and bloodshot. ‘Shut up. I know what they do. I did it, and so did you—'

'—at—at school—'

'And the rest. When it’s men you like, or find useful, or God’s bones, who can get you a motion passed in chapter, it’s all amabilis super amorem mulierum, but if you hate them, or they can’t do anything for you, or stand in your way, it’s, it’s—sodomite.’ He coughs, chokes, claps his hand to his mouth. ‘The priory went to the dogs under my watch. But it wasn’t sodomy. It was lack of funds, it was labour at an impossible premium after two goes round of pestilence, it was summers getting wetter and winters colder—it was your brutal and tyrannical age coming on—go to hell, Prior Walter, go to hell.’ He stumbles to his feet in a cyclone of white habit. ‘I don’t like it here. I’m blowing off.’

Mr Walter doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting in silence when Miss Prior-Walter drops in. She’s their latest arrival: Call-Me-Harriet, he’s never quite sure how to address her, but she actually knew the Current Subject when he was a little boy and used to visit her and her companion—friend—wife—in their apartments on Revere Street.

‘Good evening, Mr Walter.’

He rises. 'Hello, Miss—’

She settles comfortably into a throne—it creaks like wicker—and pats her pockets. She retrieves matches and relights a plump cigar. ‘Oh, sit down. I saw our Original Parent exit in what our Scotch maid used to call a poodie. Care to elaborate?’

‘My dear Miss—’

‘Call me Harriet.’ She hooks her left thumb in the armhole of her waistcoat. ‘Did he find out? About Louis?’

‘Yes. Yes, he did.’

Harriet utters the kind of oath, scatalogical rather than blasphemous, that he can’t see much harm in, but that before his death his nephews and nieces had started to consider indelicacy unbecoming a gentleman. Miss Harriet Prior-Walter is not a gentleman. She blows three delicate, pearl-grey smoke rings and looks down through the liminal mists. The Current Subject is dancing with nothing, his heart full of outlawry and his arms full of air.

‘Damn vulgar prejudice, I’m afraid,’ she continues. ‘Daresay I didn’t quite escape it myself, but at least I tried. Prior’s mama is awful to him. To Louis, I mean. Well, she’s awful to Prior too, but that’s a mother’s prerogative. She’s quite kind-hearted, under all the gin martinis. But one needs a diving bell to get down there.’

Mr Walter doesn’t follow. ‘I had the impression she was tolerant of his pecadillos, at least.’

Harriet stubs her cigar on the Sèvres saucer that has materialised on the arm of the throne.

‘Oh, she’s fine with homosexuals, if that's what you mean. Married one, after all. Actually, I think she may have married two. It’s just Jews she hates.’

‘Ah. So Louis is—then, um, no. I mistook you, madam. That wasn’t what the Prior was angry about. Anyway, I think they’ve parted. Louis and Prior, I mean.’

‘Wouldn’t be so sure,’ she remarks, offering a plain, scratched cigarette case. 'Louis is a master vacillator. He's got futility honed to a rare pitch. The stodgy, respectable types always have.'

He takes a cigarette (excellent invention, exquisitely unsatisfying, far superior to the fragile, sump-like pipes of his own day) and accepts a light. ‘Shall we not tell him? The Original Parent, that is. He might not share the biases and antipathies of his age, but—’

‘Don't want to risk it? He’ll find out soon enough. When the Messenger descends, and all is revealed.’

Mr Walter gulps and nods, blowing smoke from his nose. 'Yes. It will all seem very insignificant then.'

Without her usual commanding air, indeed, almost tentatively, Harriet clasps and squeezes his hand. They share a sidelong smile.