Chapter 1: Prologue
It’s World War II and the narrator, Captain Castiel Novak of the British army, along with the rest of the troops, is leaving his camp of three months and moving to a new location. It’s just becoming spring.
When I reached C-Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning. We were leaving that day. When we marched in, three months before, the place was under snow; now the first leaves of spring were unfolding. I had reflected then that, whatever scenes of desolation lay ahead of us, I never feared one more brutal than this, and I reflected now that it had no single happy memory for me.
Here love had died between me and the army.
Here the tram lines ended, so that men returning fuddled from Glasgow could doze in their seats until roused by the conductress at their journey's end. There was some way to go from the tram-stop to the camp gates; a quarter of a mile in which they could button their blouses and straighten their caps before passing the guard-room, a quarter of a mile in which concrete gave place to grass at the road's edge. This was the extreme limit of the city, a fringe of drift-wood above high-water mark. Here the close, homogeneous territory of housing estates and cinemas ended and the hinterland began.
The camp stood where, until quite lately, had been pasture and ploughland; the farm-house still stood in a fold of the hill and had served us for battalion offices; ivy still supported part of what had once been the walls of a fruit garden; half an acre of mutilated old trees behind the wash-houses survived of an orchard. The place had been marked for destruction before the army came to it. Had there been another year of peace, there would have been no farmhouse, no wall, no apple trees. Already half a mile of concrete road lay between bare clay banks, and on either side a chequer of open ditches showed where the municipal contractors had designed a system of drainage. Another year of peace would have made the place part of the neighbouring suburb. Now the huts where we had wintered waited their turn for destruction.
Over the way, the subject of much ironical comment, half hidden even in winter by its embosoming trees, lay the municipal lunatic asylum, whose cast-iron railings and noble gates put our rough wire to shame. We could watch the madmen, on clement days, sauntering and skipping among the trim gravel walks and pleasantly planted lawns; happy collaborationists who had given up the unequal struggle, all doubts resolved, all duty done, the undisputed heirs-at-law of a century of progress, enjoying the heritage at their ease. As we marched past the men used to shout greetings to them through the railings -- "Keep a bed warm for me, chum. I shan't be long" -- but Hael, my newest-joined platoon commander, grudged them their life of privilege: "Hitler would put them in a gas chamber," he said; "I reckon we can learn a thing or two from him."
Here, when we marched in at midwinter, I brought a company of strong and hopeful men; word had gone round among them, as we moved from the moors to this dockland area, that we were at last in transit for the Middle East. As the days passed and we began clearing the snow and levelling a parade ground, I saw their disappointment change to resignation. They snuffed the smell of the fried-fish shops and cocked their ears to familiar, peace-time sounds of the works' siren and the dance-hall band. On off-days they slouched now at street corners and sidled away at the approach of an officer for fear that, by saluting, they would lose face with their new mistresses. In the company office there was a crop of minor charges and requests for compassionate leave; while it was still half-light, day began with the whine of the malingerer and the glum face and fixed eye of the man with a grievance.
And I, who by every precept should have put heart into them-- how could I help them, who could so little help myself? Here the colonel under whom we had formed was promoted out of our sight and succeeded by a younger and less lovable man, cross-posted from another regiment. There were few left in the mess now of the batch of voSamandrieleers who trained together at the outbreak of war; one way and another they were nearly all gone -- some had been invalided out, some promoted to other battalions, some posted to staff jobs, some had voSamandrieleered for special service, one had got himself killed on the field firing range, one had been court-martialled -- and their places were taken by conscripts; the wireless played incessantly in the ante-room nowadays, and much beer was drunk before dinner; it was not as it had been.
Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers; I regularly drank three glasses of gin before dinner, never more or less, and went to bed immediately after the nine o'clock news. I was always awake and fretful an hour before reveille.
Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day -- had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hael to take the candidates class out map-reading? -- as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognized the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and mechanism of her charm, her jealousy and self-seeking, and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.
So, on this morning of our move, I was entirely indifferent as to our destination. I would go on with my job, but I could bring to it nothing more than acquiescence. Our orders were to entrain at 0915 hours at a near-by siding, taking in the haversack the unexpired portion of the day's ration; that was all I needed to know. The company second-in-command had gone on with a small advance party. Company stores had been packed the .day before. Hael had been detailed to inspect the lines. The company was parading at 0730 hours with their kit-bags piled before the huts. There had been many such moves since the wildly exhilarating morning in 1940 when we had erroneously believed ourselves destined for the defence of Calais. Three or four times a year since then we had changed our location; this time our new commanding officer was making an unusual display of "security" and had even put us to the trouble of removing all distinguishing badges from our uniforms and transport. It was "valuable training in active service conditions," he said, "If I find any of these female camp followers waiting for us the other end, I'll know there's been a leakage."
The smoke from the cook-houses drifted away in the mist and the camp lay revealed as a planless maze of short-cuts, superimposed on the unfinished housing-scheme, as though disinterred at a much later date by a party of archaeologists.
The Pollock diggings provide a valuable link between the citizen-slave communities of the twentieth century and the tribal anarchy, which succeeded them. Here you see a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system, and the construction of permanent highways, overrun by a race of the lowest type. The measure of the newcomers may be taken by the facts that their women were devoid of all personal adornment and that the dead were removed to burying places a great distance from the settlement -- a sure sign of primitive taboo. ... Thus, I thought, the pundits of the future might write; and, turning away, I greeted the company sergeant-major: "Has Mr. Hael been round?"
"Haven't seen him at all this morning, sir." We went to the dismantled company office, where I found a window newly broken since the barrack-damages book was completed. "Wind-in-the-night, sir," said the sergeant-major. (All breakages were thus attributable, or to "Sappers'-demonstration, sir.")
Hael appeared; he was a sallow youth with dark hair combed back, without parting, from his forehead, and a flat, Midland accent; he had been in the company two months.
The troops did not like Hael because he knew too little about his work and would sometimes address them individually as "George" at stand-easies, but I had a feeling which almost amounted to affection for him, largely by reason of an incident on his first evening in mess. The new colonel had been with us less than a week at the time and we had not yet taken his measure. He had been standing rounds of gin in the ante-room and was slightly boisterous when he first took notice of Hael.
"That young officer is one of yours, isn't he, Novak?" he said to me. "His hair wants cutting."
"It does, sir," I said. It did. "I'll see that it's done."
The colonel drank more gin and began to stare at Hael, saying audibly, "My God, the officers they send us now!"
Hael seemed to obsess the colonel that evening. After dinner he suddenly said very loudly: "In my late regiment if a young officer turned up like that, the other subalterns would bloody well have cut his hair for him."
No one showed any enthusiasm for this sport, and our lack of response seemed to inflame the colonel. "You," he said, turning to a decent boy in A Company, "go and get a pair of scissors and cut that young officer's hair for him."
"Is that an order, sir?"
"It's your commanding officer's wish and that's the best kind of order I know."
"Very good, sir."
And so, in an atmosphere of chilly embarrassment, Hael sat in a chair while a few snips were made at the back of his head. At the beginning of the operation I left the ante-room, and later apologized to Hael for his reception. "It's not the sort of thing that usually happens in this regiment," I said.
"Oh, no hard feelings," said Hael. "I can take a bit of sport."
Hael had no illusions about the army--or rather no special illusions distinguishable from the general, enveloping fog from which he observed the universe. He had come to it reluctantly, under compulsion, after he had made every feeble effort in his power to obtain deferment. He accepted it, he said, "like the measles." Hael was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert's horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry -- that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man -- Hael had wept often, but never for Henry's speech on St. Crispin's Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon -- these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hael.
He seldom complained. Though himself a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty, he had an overmastering regard for efficiency and, drawing on his modest commercial experience, he would sometimes say of the ways of the army in pay and supply and the use of man-hours: "They couldn't get away with that in business."
He slept sound while I lay awake fretting.
In the weeks that we were together Hael became a symbol to me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting "Hael" and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: "Hael Rallies," "Hael Hostels," "International Hael Co-operation" and "the Religion of Hael." He was the acid test of all these alloys.
So far as he had changed at all, he was less soldierly now than when he arrived from his OCTU. This morning, laden with full equipment, he looked scarcely human. He came to attention with a kind of shuffling dance-step and spread a wool-gloved palm across his forehead.
"I want to speak to Mr. Hael, sergeant-major . . . well, where the devil have you been? I told you to inspect the lines."
" 'M I late ? Sorry. Had a rush getting my gear together."
"That's what you have a servant for."
"Well I suppose it is, strictly speaking. But you know how it is. He had his own stuff to do. If you get on the wrong side of these fellows they take it out of you other ways."
"Well, go and inspect the lines now."
"And for Christ's sake don't say 'rightyoh.'"
"Sorry. I do try to remember. It just slips out."
When Hael left the sergeant-major returned. "C.O. just coming up the path, sir," he said.
I went out to meet him.
There were beads of moisture on the hog-bristles of his little red moustache.
"Well, everything squared up here?"
"Yes, I think so, sir."
"Think so? You ought to know."
His eyes fell on the broken window. "Has that been entered in the barrack-damages?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Not yet? I wonder when it would have been if I hadn't seen it."
He was not at ease with me, and much of his bluster rose from timidity, but I thought none the better of it for that.
He led me behind the huts to a wire fence which divided my area from the carrier-platoon's, skipped briskly over and made for an overgrown ditch and bank which had once been a field boundary on the farm. Here he began grubbing with his walking-stick like a truffling pig and presently gave a cry of triumph. He had disclosed one of those deposits of rubbish which are dear to the private soldier's sense of order: the head of a broom, the lid of a stove, a bucket rusted through, a sock, a loaf of bread, lay under the dock and nettle among cigarette packets and empty tins.
"Look at that," said the commanding officer. "Fine impression that gives to the regiment taking over from us."
"That's bad," I said.
"It's a disgrace. See everything there is burned before you leave camp."
"Very good, sir. Sergeant-major, send over to the carrier-platoon and tell Captain Schneider that the C.O. wants this ditch cleared up."
I wondered whether the colonel would take this rebuff; so did he. He stood a moment irresolutely prodding the muck in the ditch, then he turned on his heel and strode away.
"You shouldn't do it, sir," said the sergeant-major, who had been my guide and prop since I joined the company. "You shouldn't really."
"That wasn't our rubbish."
"Maybe not, sir, but you know how it is. If you get on the wrong side of senior officers they take it out of you other ways."
As we marched past the madhouse two or three elderly inmates gibbered and mouthed politely behind the railings.
"Cheeroh, chum, we'll be seeing you"; "We shan't be long now"; "Keep smiling till we meet again," the men called to them.
I was marching with Hael at the head of the leading platoon.
"I say, any idea where we're off to?"
"D'you think it's the real thing?"
"Just a flap?"
"Everyone's been saying we're for it. I don't know what to think really. Seems so silly somehow, all this drill and training if we never go into action."
"I shouldn't worry. There'll be plenty for everyone in time."
"Oh, I don't want much you know. Just enough to say I've been in it."
A train of antiquated coaches were waiting for us at the siding; an R.T.O, was in charge; a fatigue party was loading the last of the kit-bags from the trucks to the luggage vans. In half an hour we were ready to start and in an hour we started.
My three platoon commanders and myself had a carriage to ourselves. They ate sandwiches and chocolate, smoked and slept. None of them had a book. For the first three or four hours they noted the names of the towns and leaned out of the windows when, as often happened, we stopped between stations. Later they lost interest. At midday and again at dark some tepid cocoa was ladled from a container into our mugs. The train moved slowly South through flat, drab main-line scenery.
The chief incident in the day was the C.O.'s "Order Group." We assembled in his carriage, at the summons of an orderly, and found him and the adjutant wearing their steel helmets and equipment. The first thing he said was: "This is an Order Group. I expect you to attend properly dressed. The fact that we happen to be in a train is immaterial." I thought he was going to send us back but, after glaring at us, he said: "Sit down. . . ."
"The camp was left in a disgraceful condition. Wherever I went I found evidence that officers are not doing their duty. The state in which a camp is left is the best possible test of the efficiency of regimental officers. It is on such matters that the reputation of a battalion and its commander rests. And"--Did he in fact say this or am I finding words for the resentment in his voice and eye? I think he left it unsaid--"I do not intend to have my professional reputation compromised by the slackness of a few temporary officers."
We sat with our note-books and pencils waiting to take down the details of our next jobs. A more sensitive man would have seen that he had failed to be impressive; perhaps he saw, for he added in a petulant schoolmasterish way: "All I ask is loyal co-operation."
Then he referred to his notes and read: --
"Information. The battalion is now in transit between location A and location B. This is a major L of C and is liable to bombing and gas attack from the enemy.
"Intention. I intend to arrive at location B.
"Method. Train will arrive at destination at approximately 2315 hours . . ." and so on.
The sting came at the end under the heading, "Administration." C Company, less one platoon, was to unload the train on arrival at the siding where three three-tonners would be available for moving all stores to a battalion dump in the new camp; work to continue until completed; the remaining platoon was to find a guard on the dump and perimeter sentries for the camp area.
"Can we have an issue of cocoa for the working party?"
"No. Any more questions?"
When I told the sergeant-major of these orders he said: "Poor old C Company struck unlucky again"; and I knew this to be a reproach for any having antagonized the commanding officer. I told the platoon commanders.
"I say," said Hael, "it makes it awfully awkward with the chaps. They'll be fairly browned-off. He always seems to pick on us for the dirty work."
"You'll do guard."
"Okydoke. But I say, how am I to find the perimeter in the dark?"
Shortly after blackout we were disturbed by an orderly making his way lugubriously down the length of the train with a rattle. One of the more sophisticated sergeants called out "Deuxieme service."
"We are being sprayed with liquid mustard-gas," I said. "See that the windows are shut." I then wrote a neat little situation-report to say that there were no casualties and nothing had been contaminated; that men had been detained to decontaminate the outside of the coach before detraining. This seemed to satisfy the commanding officer, for we heard no more from him. After dark we all slept.
At last, very late, we came to our siding. It was part of our training in security and active service conditions that we should eschew stations and platforms. The drop from the running board to the cinder track made for disorder and breakages in the darkness:
"Fall in on the road below the embankment. C Company seem to be taking their time as usual, Captain Novak."
"Yes sir. We're having a little difficulty with the bleach."
"For decontaminating the outside of the coaches, sir."
"Oh, very conscientious, I'm sure. Skip it and get a move on."
By now my half-awake and sulky men were clattering into shape on the road. Soon Hael's platoon had marched off into the darkness; I found the lorries, organized lines of men to pass the stores from hand to hand down the steep bank, and, presently, as they found themselves doing something with an apparent purpose in it, they got more cheerful. I handled stores ; with them for the first half-hour; then broke off to meet the company second-in-command who came down with the first returning truck.
"It's not a bad camp," he reported; "big private house with two or three lakes! Looks as if we might get some duck if we're lucky. Village with one pub and a post office. No town within miles. I've managed to get a hut between the two of us."
By four in the morning the work was done. I drove in the last lorry, through tortuous lanes where the overhanging boughs whipped the wind screen; somewhere we left the lane and turned into a drive; somewhere we reached an open space where two drives converged and a ring of storm lanterns marked the heap of stores. Here we unloaded the truck and, at long last, followed the guides to our quarters, under a starless sky, with a fine drizzle of rain beginning now to fall.
I slept until my servant called me, rose wearily, dressed and shaved in silence. It was not till I reached the door that I asked the second-in-command, "What's this place called?"
He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds -- for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.
Outside the hut I stood awed and bemused between two realities and two dreams. The rain had ceased but the clouds hung low and heavy overhead. It was a still morning and the smoke from the cookhouse rose straight to the leaden sky. A cart-track, once metalled, then overgrown, now rutted and churned to mud, followed the contour of the hillside and dipped out of sight below a knoll, and on either side of it lay the haphazard litter of corrugated iron, from which rose the rattle and chatter and whistling and catcalls, all the zoo-noises of the battalion beginning a new day. Beyond and about us, more familiar still, lay an exquisite man-made landscape. It was a sequestered place, enclosed and embraced in a single, winding valley. Our camp lay along one gentle slope; opposite us the ground led, still unravished, to the neighbourly horizon, and between us flowed a stream -- it was named the Bunker and rose not two miles away at a farm called Lawrence Springs, where we used sometimes to walk to tea; it became a considerable river lower down before it joined the Avon -- which had been dammed here to form three lakes, one no more than a wet slate among the reeds, but the others more spacious, reflecting the clouds and the mighty beeches at their margin. The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green by the breaking buds; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide green spaces -- Did the fallow deer graze here still? -- and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water's edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs. All this had been planned and planted a century and a half ago so that, at about this date, it might be seen in its maturity. From where I stood the house was hidden by a green spur, but I knew well how and where it lay, couched among the lime trees like a hind in the bracken. Which was the mirage, which the palpable earth?
Hael came sidling up and greeted me with his much imitated but inimitable salute. His face was grey from his night's vigil and he had not yet shaved.
"B Company relieved us. I've sent the chaps off to get cleaned up."
"The house is up there, round the corner."
"Yes," I said.
"Brigade Headquarters are coming there next week. Great barrack of a place. I've just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I'd call it. And a queer thing, there's a sort of R.C. church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on -- just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine." Perhaps I seemed not to hear; in a final effort to excite my interest he said: "There's a frightful great fountain, too, in front of the steps, all rocks and sort of carved animals. You never saw such a thing."
"Yes, Hael, I did. I've been here before."
The words seemed to ring back to me enriched from the vaults of my dungeon.
"Oh well, you know all about it. I'll go and get cleaned up."
I had been there before; I knew all about it.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
The first time Castiel went to Lawrence was twenty years before, in June, with Dean. Flashback, here we come.
"I have been here before," I said; I had been there before; first with Dean more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool's-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once, or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest. That day, too, I had come not knowing my destination. It was Eights Week. Oxford -- submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in --Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days -- such as that day when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft vapours of a thousand years of learning. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour. Here, discordantly, in Eights Week, came a rabble of womankind, some hundreds strong, twittering and fluttering over the cobbles and up the steps, sight-seeing and pleasure-seeking, drinking claret cup, eating cucumber sandwiches; pushed in punts about the river, herded in droves to the college barges; greeted in the Isis and in the Union by a sudden display of peculiar, facetious, wholly distressing Gilbert-and-Sullivan badinage, and by peculiar choral effects in the college chapels. Echoes of the intruders penetrated every corner, and in my own college was no echo, but an original fount of the grossest disturbance. We were giving a ball. The front quad, where I lived, was floored and tented; palms and azaleas were banked round the porter's lodge; worst of all, the don who lived above me, a mouse of a man connected with the Natural Sciences, had lent his rooms for a Ladies' Cloakroom, and a printed notice proclaiming this outrage hung not six inches from my oak.
No one felt more strongly about it than my scout.
"Gentlemen who haven't got ladies are asked as far as possible to take their meals out in the next few days," he announced despondently. "Will you be lunching in?"
"So as to give the servants a chance, they say. What a chance! I've got to buy a pin-cushion for the Ladies' Cloakroom. What do they want with dancing? I don't see the reason in it. There never was dancing before in Eights Week. Commemoration now is another matter being in the vacation, but not in Eights Week as if teas and the river wasn't enough. If you ask me, sir, it's all on account of the war. It couldn't have happened but for that." For this was 1923 and for Samandriel, as for thousands of others, things could never be the same as they had been in 1914. "Now wine in the evening," he continued, as was his habit, half in and half out of the door, "or one or two gentlemen to luncheon, there's reason in. But not dancing. It all came in with the men back from the war. They were too old and they didn't know and they wouldn't learn. That's the truth. And there's sorne even goes dancing with the town at the Masonic – but the proctors will get them, you see. . . . Well, here's Lord Winchester. I mustn't stand here talking when there's pin-cushions to get."
Dean entered -- dove-grey flannel, white crepe-de-chine, a Charvet tie, my tie as it happened, a pattern of postage stamps-- "Castiel, what in the world's happening at your college? Is there a circus? I've seen everything except elephants. I must say the whole of Oxford has become most peculiar suddenly. Last night it was pullulating with women. You're to come away at once, out of danger. I've got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey – which isn't a wine you've ever tasted, so don't pretend. It's heaven with strawberries."
"Where are we going?"
"To see a friend."
"Name of Hawkins. Bring some money in case we see anything we want to buy. The motor-car is the property of a man called Ash. Return the bits to him if I kill myself; I'm not very good at driving."
Beyond the gate, beyond the winter garden that was once the lodge, stood an open, black and chrome Morris-Cowley. Dean's Teddy-bear sat at the wheel. We put him between us --"Take care he's not sick" – and drove off. The bells of St. Mary's were chiming nine; we escaped collision with a clergyman, black-straw-hatted, white-bearded, pedalling quietly down the
wrong side of the High Street, crossed Carfax, passed the station, and were soon in open country on the Botley Road; open country was easily reached in those days.
"Isn't it early?" said Dean. "The women are still doing whatever women do to themselves before they come downstairs. Sloth has undone them. We're away. God bless Ash."
"Whoever he may be."
"He thought he was coming with us. Sloth undid him too. Well, I did tell him ten. He's a very gloomy man in my college. He leads a double life. At least I assume he does. He couldn't go on being Ash, day and night, always, could he? Or he'd die of it. He says he knows my father,
which is impossible."
"No one knows Papa. He's a social leper. Hadn't you heard?"
"It's a pity neither of us can sing," I said.
At Swindon we turned off the main road and, as the sun mounted high, we were among dry-stone walls and ashlar houses. It was about eleven when Dean, without warning, turned the car into a cart track and stopped. It was hot enough now to make us seek the shade. On a sheep-cropped knoll under a I clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine -- as Dean promised, they were delicious together -- and we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Dean's green eyes on the matching leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger's breadth above the turf and hold us
"Just the place to bury a crock of gold," said Dean. "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."
This was my third term since matriculation, but I date my Oxford life from my first meeting with Dean, which had happened, by chance, in the middle of the term before. We were in different colleges and came from different schools; I might well have spent my three or four years in the University and never have met him, but for the chance of his getting drunk
one evening in my college and of my having ground-floor rooms in the front
I had been warned against the dangers of these rooms by my cousin Uriel, who alone, when I first came up, thought me a suitable subject for detailed guidance. My father, Mr. Raphael Novak, offered me none. Then, as always, he eschewed serious conversation with me. It was not until I was within a fortnight of going up that he mentioned the subject at all; then he said, shyly and rather slyly: "I've been talking about you. I met your future Warden at the Athenaeum. I wanted to talk about Etruscan notions of immortality; he wanted to talk about extension lectures for the working-class; so we compromised and talked about you. I asked him what your allowance should be. He said, 'Three hundred a year; on no account give him more; that's all most men have.' I thought that a deplorable answer. I had more than most men when I was up, and my recollection is that nowhere else in the world and at no other time, do a few hundred pounds, one way or the other, make so much difference to one's importance and popularity. I toyed with the idea of giving you six hundred," said my father, snuffling a little, as he did when he was amused, "but I reflected that, should the Warden come to hear of it, it might sound deliberately impolite. So I shall give you five hundred and fifty."
I thanked him.
"Yes, it's indulgent of me, but it all comes out of capital, you know. ... I suppose this is the time I should give you advice. I never had any myself except once from your cousin Azrael. Do you know in the summer before I was going up, your cousin Azrael rode over to Boughton especially to give me a piece of advice? And do you know what that advice was? 'Raphael,' he said, 'there's one thing I must beg of you. Always wear a tall hat on Sundays
during term. It is by that, more than anything, that a man is judged.' And do you know," continued my father, snuffling deeply, "I always did? Some men did, some didn't. I never saw any difference between them or heard it commented on, but I always wore mine. It only shows what effect judicious advice can have, properly delivered at the right moment. I wish I had some for you, but I haven't."
My cousin Uriel made good the loss; he was the son of my father's elder brother, to whom he referred more than once, only half facetiously, as "the Head of the Family"; he was in his fourth year and, the term before, had come within appreciable distance of getting his rowing blue; he was secretary of the Canning and president of the J.C.R. -- a considerable person in college. He called on me formally during my first week and stayed to tea; he ate a very heavy meal of honey-buns, anchovy toast-and Puller's walnut cake, then he lit his pipe and, lying back in the basket-chair, laid down the rules of conduct which I should follow; he covered most subjects; even to-day I could repeat much of what he said, word for word. "... You're reading History? A perfectly respectable school. The very worst is English Literature and the next worst is Modern Greats. You want either a first or a fourth. There is no value in anything between. Time spent on a good second is time thrown away. You should go to the best lectures -- Arkwright on Demosthenes for instance -- irrespective of whether they are in your school or not.....Clothes. Dress as you do in a country house. Never wear a tweed coat and flannel trousers -- always a suit. And go to a London tailor; you get better cut and longer credit. . . . Clubs. Join the Carlton now and the Grid at the beginning of your second year. If you want to run for the Union -- and it's not a bad thing to do -- make your reputation outside first, at the Canning or the Chatham, and begin by speaking on the paper. . . . Keep clear of Boar's Hill . . ." The sky over the opposing gables glowed and then darkened; I put more coal on the fire and turned on the light, revealing in their respectability his London-made plus fours and his Leander tie. . . . "Don't treat dons like schoolmasters; treat them as you would the vicar at home. . . . You'll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first. . . . Beware of the Anglo-Catholics -- they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents. In fact, steer clear of all the religious groups; they do nothing but harm. . . ."
Finally, just as he was going, he said, "One last point. Change your rooms." They were large, with deeply recessed windows and painted, eighteenth-century panelling; I was lucky as a freshman to get them. "I've seen many a man ruined through having ground-floor rooms in the front quad," said my cousin with deep gravity. "People start dropping in. They leave their gowns here and come and collect them before hall; you start giving them sherry. Before you know where you are, you've opened a free bar for all the undesirables of the college."
I do not know that I ever, consciously, followed any of this advice. I certainly never changed my rooms; there were gillyflowers growing below the windows which on summer evenings filled them with fragrance.
It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one's stature on the edge of the door. I should like to think -- indeed I sometimes do think -- that I decorated those rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints and that my shelves were filled with seventeenth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered-silk. But this was not the truth. On my first afternoon I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provencal landscape, which I had bought inexpensively when the Omega workshops were sold up. I displayed also a poster by McKnight Kauffer and Rhyme Sheets from the Poetry Bookshop, and, most painful to recall, a porcelain figure of Polly Peachum which stood between black tapers on the chimney-piece. My books were meagre and commonplace -- Roger Fry's Vision and Design; the Medici Press edition of A
Shropshire Lad; Eminent Victorians; some volumes of Georgian Poetry; Sinister Street; and South Wind -- and my earliest friends fitted well into this background; they were Inias, a Wykehamist, an embryo don, a man of solid reading and childlike humour, and a small circle of college intellectuals, who maintained a middle course of culture between the flamboyant "aesthetes" and the proletarian scholars who scrambled fiercely for facts in the lodging houses of the Iffley -Road and Wellington Square. It was by this circle that I found myself adopted during my first term; they provided the kind of company I had enjoyed in the sixth form at school, for which the sixth form had prepared me; but even in the earliest days, when
the whole business of living at Oxford, with rooms of my own and my own cheque book, was a source of excitement, I felt at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer.
At Dean's approach these grey figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish, like highland sheep in the misty heather. Inias had exposed the fallacy of modern aesthetics to me: "... The whole argument' from Significant Form stands or falls by volume. If you allow Cezanne to represent a third dimension on his two-dimensional canvas, then you must allow Landseer his gleam of loyalty in the spaniel's eye"-- but it was not until Dean, idly turning the page of Clive Bell's Art, read: " 'Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?' Yes. I do," that my eyes were opened.
I knew Dean by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour which seemed to know no bounds. My first sight of him was as we passed in the door of Germer's, and, on that occasion, I was struck less by his looks than by the fact that he was carrying a large Teddy-bear.
"That," said the barber, as I took his chair, "was Lord Dean Winchester. A most amusing young gentleman."
"Apparently," I said coldly.
"The Marquis of Winchester's second boy. His brother, Michael the Earl of Lawrence, went down last term. Now he was very different, a very quiet gentleman, quite like an old man. What do you suppose Lord Dean wanted? A hair brush for his Teddy-bear; it had to have very stiff bristles, not, Lord Dean said, to brush him with, but to threaten him with a spanking
when he was sulky. He bought a very nice one with an ivory back and he's having 'Baby' engraved on it -- that's the bear's name." The man, who, in his time, had had ample chance to tire of undergraduate fantasy, was plainly captivated by him. I, however, remained censorious and subsequent glimpses of Dean, driving in a hansom cab and dining at the George in false whiskers, did not soften me, although Inias, who was reading Freud, had a number of technical terms to cover everything.
Nor, when at last we met, were the circumstances propitious. It was shortly before midnight in early March; I had been entertaining the college intellectuals to mulled claret; the fire was roaring, the air of my room heavy with smoke and spice, and my mind weary with metaphysics. I threw open my windows and from the quad outside came the not uncommon sounds of bibulous laughter and unsteady steps. A voice said: "Hold up"; another, "Come on"; another, "Plenty of time . . . House . . . till Tom stops ringing"; and another, clearer than the rest, "D'you know I feel most unaccountably unwell. I must leave you a minute," and there appeared at my window the face I knew to be Dean's -- but not as I had formerly seen
it, alive and alight with gaiety; he looked at me for a moment with unseeing eyes and then, leaning forward well into the room, he was sick.
It was not unusual for dinner parties to end in that way; there was in fact a recognized tariff on such occasions for the comfort of the scout; we were all learning, by trial and error, to carry our wine. There was also a kind of insane and endearing orderliness about Dean's choice, in his extremity, of an open window. But, when all is said, it remained an unpropitious meeting.
His friends bore him to the gate and, in a few minutes, his host, an amiable Etonian of my year, returned to apologize. He, too, was tipsy and his explanations were repetitive and, towards the end, tearful. "The wines were too various," he said; "it was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all."
"Yes," I said, but it was with a sense of grievance that I faced Samandriel's reproaches next morning.
"A couple of jugs of mulled claret between the five of you," Samandriel said, "and this had to happen. Couldn't even get to the window. Those that can't keep it down are better without it."
"It wasn't one of my party. It was someone from out of college."
"Well, it's just as nasty clearing it up, whoever it was."
"There's five shillings on the sideboard."
"So I saw and thank you, but I'd rather not have the money and not have the mess, any morning."
I took my gown and left him to his task. I still frequented the lecture room in those days, and it was after eleven when I returned to college. I found my room full of flowers; what looked like, and, in fact, was, the entire day's stock of a market-stall stood in every conceivable vessel in every part of the room. Samandriel was secreting the last of them in brown paper preparatory to taking them home.
"Samandriel, what is all this?"
"The gentleman from last night, sir, he left a note for you."
The note was written in conte crayon on a whole sheet of my choice Whatman H.P. drawing paper: I am very contrite. Baby won't speak to me until he sees I am forgiven, so please come to luncheon to-day. Dean Winchester. It was typical of him, I reflected, to assume I knew where he lived; but then, I did know.
"A most amusing gentleman, I'm sure it's quite a pleasure to clean up after him. I take it you're lunching out, sir. I told Mr. Inias and Mr. Ephraim so--they wanted to have their commons in here with you."
"Yes, Samandriel, lunching out."
That luncheon party -- for party it proved to be -- was the beginning of a new epoch in my life, but its details are dimmed for me and confused by so many others, almost identical with it, that succeeded one another that term and the next, like romping cupids in a Renaissance frieze.
I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Inias told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I
knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.
Dean lived at Christ Church, high in Meadow Buildings. He was alone when I came, peeling a plover's egg taken from the large nest of moss in the centre of the table.
"I've just counted them," he said. "There were five each and two over, so I'm having the two. I'm unaccountably hungry to-day. I put myself unreservedly in the hands of Dolbear and Goodall, and feel so drugged that I've begun to believe that the whole of yesterday evening was a dream. Please don't wake me up."
He was magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.
His room was filled with a strange jumble of objects -- a harmonium in a gothic case, an elephant's-foot waste-paper basket, a dome of wax fruit, two disproportionately large Sevres vases, framed drawings by Daumier -- made all the more incongruous by the austere college furniture and the large luncheon table. His chimney-piece was covered with cards of invitation from London hostesses.
"That beast Rufus has put Baby in the bedder," he said. "Perhaps it's as well as there wouldn't have been any plovers' eggs for him. D'you know, Rufus hates Baby? I wish I had a scout like yours. He was sweet to me this morning where some people might have been quite strict."
The party assembled. There were three Etonian freshmen, mild, elegant, detached young men who had all been to a dance in London the night before, and spoke of it as though it had been the funeral of a near but unloved kinsman. Each as he came into the room made first for the plovers' eggs, then noticed Dean and then myself with a polite lack of curiosity which
seemed to say: "We should not dream of being so offensive as to suggest that you never met us before."
"The first this year," they said. "Where do you get them?"
"Mummy sends them from Lawrence. They always lay early for her."
When the eggs were gone and we were eating the lobster Newburg, the last guest arrived.
"My dear," he said, "I couldn't get away before. I was lunching with my p-p-preposterous tutor. He thought it very odd my leaving when I did. I told him I had to change for F-f-footer."
From the moment he arrived the newcomer took charge, talking in a luxurious, self-taught stammer; teasing; caricaturing the guests at his previous luncheon; telling lubricious anecdotes of Paris and Berlin; and doing more than entertain -- transfiguring the party, shedding a vivid, false light of eccentricity upon everyone so that the three prosaic Etonians
seemed suddenly to become creatures of his fantasy.
This, I did not need telling, was Balthazar Blanche, the "aesthete" par excellence, a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville, a young man who seemed to me, then, fresh from the sombre company of the College Essay Society, ageless as a lizard, as foreign as a Martian. He had been pointed out to me often in the streets, as he moved with his own peculiar stateliness, as though he had not fully accustomed himself to coat and trousers and was more at his ease in heavy, embroidered robes; I had heard his voice in the George challenging the conventions; and now meeting him, under the spell of Dean, I found myself enjoying him voraciously, like the fine piece of cookery he was.
After luncheon he stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-a-brac of Dean's room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river.
" 'I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all,'" he sobbed to them from theVenetian arches --
"Enacted on this same d-divan or b-bed,
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the l-l-lowest of the dead. . . ."
And then, stepping lightly into the room, "How I have surprised them! All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me."
We sat on sipping Cointreau while the mildest and most detached of the Etonians sang "Home they brought her warrior dead" to his own accompaniment on the harmonium.
It was four o'clock before we broke up.
Balthazar Blanche was the first to go. He took formal and complimentary leave of each of us in turn. To Dean he said: "My dear, I should like to stick you full of barbed arrows like a p-p-pin-cushion," and to me: "I think it's perfectly brilliant of Dean to have discovered you. Where do you lurk? I shall come down your burrow and ch-chivvy you out like an old
The others left soon after him. I rose to go with them, but Dean said: "Have some more Cointreau," so I stayed and later he said, "I must'go to the Botanical Gardens."
"To see the ivy."
It seemed a good enough reason, and I went with him. He took my arm as we walked under the walls of Merton.
"I've never been to the Botanical Gardens," I said.
"Oh, Castiel, what a lot you have to learn! There's a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed. I don't know where I should be without the Botanical Gardens."
When at length I returned to my rooms and found them exactly as I had left them that morning, I detected a jejune air that had not irked me before. What was wrong? Nothing except the golden daffodils seemed to be real. Was it the screen? I turned it face to the wall. That was better.
It was the end of the screen. Samandriel never liked it, and after a few days he took it away, to an obscure refuge he had under the stairs, full of mops and buckets.
That day was the beginning of my friendship with Dean, and thus it came about, that morning in June, that I was lying beside him in the shade of the high elms, watching the smoke from his full lips drift up into the branches.
Presently we drove on and in another hour were hungry. We stopped at an inn, which was half farm also, and ate eggs and bacon, pickled walnuts and cheese, and drank our beer in a sunless parlour where an old clock ticked in the shadows and a cat slept by the empty grate.
We drove on and in the early afternoon came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened before us. We ' were at the head of a valley and below us, half a mile distant, prone in the sunlight, grey and gold amid a screen of boskage, shone the dome and columns of an old house.
"Well?" said Dean, stopping the car. Beyond the dome lay receding steps of water and round it, guarding and hiding it, stood the soft hills.
"What a place to live in!" I said.
"You must see the garden front and the fountain." He leaned forward and put the car into gear. "It's where my family live." And even then, rapt in the vision, I felt, momentarily, like a wind stirring the tapestry, an ominous chill at the words he used -- not "That is my home," but "It's where my family live."
"Don't worry," he continued, "they're all away. You won't have to meet them."
"But I should like to."
"Well, you can't. They're in London, dancing."
We drove round the front into a side court -- "Everything's shut up. We'd better go in this way"--and entered through the fortress-like, stone-flagged, stone-vaulted passages of the servants' quarters -- "I want you to meet Nanny Gertrude. That's what we've come for" -- and climbed uncarpeted, scrubbed elm stairs, followed more passages of wide boards covered in the centre by a thin strip of drugget, through passages covered by linoleum, passing the wells of many minor staircases and many rows of crimson and gold fire buckets, up a final staircase, gated at the head, where at last we reached the nurseries, high in the dome in the centre of the main block.
Dean's Nanny was seated at the open window; the fountain lay before her, the lakes, the temple, and, far away on the last spur, a glittering obelisk; her hands lay open in her lap and, loosely between them, a rosary; she was fast asleep. Long hours of work in her youth, authority in middle life, repose and security in her age, had set their stamp on her lined and serene face. "Well," she said, waking; "this is a surprise."
Dean kissed her.
"Who's this?" she said, looking at me. "I don't think I know him."
Dean introduced us.
"You've come just the right time. Samantha's here for the day. She was up with me nearly all the morning telling me about London. Such a time they're all having. It's dull without them. Just Mrs. Chandler and two of the girls and old Bert. And then they're all going on holidays and the boiler's being done out in August and you going, to see his Lordship in Italy, and the rest on visits, it'll be October before we're settled down again. Still, I suppose Samantha must have her enjoyment the same as other young ladies, though what they always want to go to London for in the best of the summer and the gardens all out, I never have understood. Father Jim was here on Thursday and I said exactly the same to him," she added as though she had thus acquired sacerdotal authority for her opinion.
"D'you say Samantha's here?"
"Yes, dear, you must have just missed her. It's the Conservative Women. Her Ladyship was to have done them, but she's poorly. Samantha won't be long; she's leaving immediately after her speech, before the tea."
"I'm afraid we may miss her again."
"Don't do that, dear, it'll be such a surprise to her seeing you, though she ought to wait for the tea, I told her, it's what the Conservative Women come for. Now what's the news? Are you studying hard at your books?"
"Not very, I'm afraid, Nanny."
"Ah, cricketing all day long I expect, like your brother. He found time to study, too, though. He's not been here since Christmas, but he'll be here for the Agricultural I expect. Did you see this piece about Samantha in the paper? She brought it down for me. Not that it's nearly good enough of her, but what it says is very nice. 'The lovely daughter whom Lady Joan Winchester is bringing out this season . . . witty as well as ornamental . . . the most popular debutante,' well that's no more than the truth, though it was a shame to cut her hair; such a lovely head of hair she had just like her Ladyship's. I said to Father Jim it's not natural He said, 'Nuns do it,' and I said, 'Well, surely, Father, you aren't going to make a nun out of
Lady Samantha? The very idea!'"
Dean and the old woman talked on. It was a charming room, oddly shaped to conform with the curve of the dome. The walls were papered in a pattern of ribbon and roses. There was a rocking horse in the corner and an oleograph of the Sacred Heart over the mantelpiece; the empty grate was hidden by a bunch of pampas grass and bulrushes; laid out on the top of the
chest of drawers and carefully dusted were the collection of small presents which had been brought home to her at various times by her children, carved shell and lava, stamped leather, painted wood, china, bog oak, damascened silver, blue-John, alabaster, coral, the souvenirs of many holidays. Presently Nanny said: "Ring the bell, dear, and we'll have some tea. I usually go down to Mrs. Chandler, but we'll have it up here to-day. My usual girl has gone to London with the others. The new one is just up from the village. She didn't know anything at first, but she's coming along nicely. Ring the bell."
But Dean said we had to go.
"And Miss Samantha? She will be upset when she hears. It would have been such a surprise for her."
"Poor Nanny," said Dean when we left the nursery. "She does have such a dull life. I've a good mind to bring her to Oxford to live with me, only she'd always be trying to send me to church. We must go quickly before my sister gets back."
"Which are you ashamed of, her or me?"
"I'm ashamed of myself," said Dean gravely. "I'm not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They're so madly charming. All my life they've been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they'd make you their friend, not mine, and I won't let them."
"All right," I said. "I'm perfectly content. But am I not going to be allowed to see any more of the house?"
"It's all shut up. We came to see Nanny. On Queen Alexandra's Day it's all open for a shilling. Well, come and look if you want to. ..."
He led me through a baize door into a dark corridor; I could dimly see a gilt cornice and vaulted plaster above; then, opening a heavy, smooth-swinging, mahogany door, he led me into a darkened hall. Light streamed through the cracks in the shutters. Dean unbarred one, and folded it back; the mellow afternoon sun flooded in, over the bare floor, the vast, twin fireplaces o sculptured marble, the coved ceiling frescoed with classic deities and heroes, the gilt mirrors and scagliola pilasters, the islands of sheeted furniture. It was a glimpse only, such as might be had from the top of an omnibus into a lighted ballroom; then Dean quickly shut out the sun.
"You see," he said; "it's like this."
His mood had changed since we had drunk our wine under the elm trees, since we had turned the corner of the drive and he had said: "Well?"
"You see, there's nothing to see. A few pretty things I'd like to show you one day -- not now. But there's the chapel. You must see that. It's a monument of art nouveau."
The last architect to work at Lawrence had sought to unify its growth with a-colonnade and flanking pavilions. One of these was the chapel. We entered it by the public porch (another door led direct to the house); Dean dipped his fingers in the water stoup, crossed himself and
genuflected; I copied him. "Why do you do that?" he asked crossly.
"Just good manners."
"Well, you needn't on my account. You wanted to do sightseeing; how about this?" The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts-and-crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the walls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colours. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give it the peculiar property of seeming to have been moulded in plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of a pockmarked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green, strewn with white and gold daisies.
"Golly," I said.
"It was Papa's wedding present to Mamma. Now, if you've seen enough, we'll go."
On the drive we passed a closed Rolls-Royce driven by a chauffeur; in the back was a vague, girlish figure who looked round at us through the window.
"Samantha," said Dean. "We only just got away in time." We stopped to speak to a man with a bicycle -- "That was old Bat," said Dean – and then were away, past the wrought-iron gates, past the lodges and out on the road heading back to Oxford.
"I'm sorry," said Dean after a time. "I'm afraid I wasn't very nice this afternoon. Lawrence often has that effect on me. But I had to take you to see Nanny."
Why? I wondered; but said nothing (Dean's life was governed by a code of such imperatives. "I must have pillar-box red pyjamas," "I have to stay in bed until the sun works round to the windows," "I've absolutely got to drink champagne to-night!") except, "It had quite the reverse effect on me."
After a long pause he said petulantly, "I don't keep asking you questions about your family."
"Neither do I about yours."
"But you look inquisitive."
"Well, you're so mysterious about them."
"I hoped I was mysterious about everything."
"Perhaps I am rather curious about people's families -- you see, it's not a thing I know about. There is only my father and myself. An aunt kept an eye on me for a time but my father drove her abroad. My mother was killed in the war."
"Oh . . . how very unusual."
"She went to Serbia with the Red Cross. My father has been rather odd in the head ever since. He just lives alone in London with no friends, and footles about collecting things."
Dean said, "You don't know what you've been saved. There are lots of us. Look them up in Debrett."
His mood was lightening now. The further we drove from Lawrence the more he seemed to cast off his uneasiness -- the almost furtive restlessness and irritability that had possessed him. The sun was behind us as we drove, so that we seemed to be in pursuit of our own shadows.
"It's half-past five. We'll get to Godstow in time for dinner, drink at the Trout, leave Ash's motor car and walk back by the river. Wouldn't that be best?"
That is the full account of my first brief visit to Lawrence; could I have known then that so small a thing, in other days, would be remembered with tears by a middle-aged captain of infantry?
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
At the end of the summer term, Castiel gets another visit from Uriel. Later, Balthazar asks him to dinner, alone, where he drunkenly regales the dark, dramatic past of the Winchesters.
("Throw him in mercury" - refers to throwing someone in the pool in the courtyard containing a statue of Mercury of Greek mythology.)
Towards the end of that summer term I received the last visit and Grand Remonstrance of my cousin Uriel. I was just free of the schools, having taken the last paper of History Previous on the afternoon before; Uriel's subfusc suit and white tie proclaimed him still in the thick of it; he had, too, the exhausted but resentful air of one who fears he has failed to do himself full justice on the subject of Pindar's Orphism. Duty alone had brought him to my rooms that afternoon, at great inconvenience to himself and, as it happened, to me, who, when he caught me in the door, was on my way to make final arrangements about a dinner I was giving that evening. It was one of several parties designed to comfort Ash -- one of the tasks that had lately fallen to Dean and me since, by leaving his car out, we had got him into grave trouble with the proctors.
Uriel would not sit down; this was to be no cosy chat; he stood with his back to the fireplace and, in his own phrase, talked to me "like an uncle."
". . . I've tried to get in touch with you several times in the last week or two. In fact, I have the impression you are avoiding me. If that is so, Castiel, I can't say I'm surprised.
"You may think it none of my business, but I feel a sense of responsibility. You know as well as I do that since your -- well, since the war, your father has not been really in touch with things -- lives in his own world. I don't want to sit back and see you making mistakes which a word in season might save you from.
"I expected you to make mistakes your first year. We all do. I got in with some thoroughly objectionable O.S.C.U. men who ran a mission to hop-pickers during the long vac. But you, my dear Castiel, whether you realize it or not, have gone straight, hook, line and sinker, into the very worst set in the University. You may think that, living in digs, I don't know what goes on in college; but I hear things. In fact, I hear all too much. I find that I've become a figure of mockery on your account at the Dining Club. There's that chap Dean Winchester you seem inseparable from. He may be all right, I don't know. His brother Michael, the Earl, was a very sound fellow. But this friend of yours looks odd to me, and he gets himself talked
about. Of course, they're an odd family. The Winchesters have lived apart since the war, you know. An extraordinary thing; everyone thought they were a devoted couple. Then he went off to France with his Yeomanry and just never came back. It was as if he'd been killed. She's a Roman Catholic, so she can't get a divorce -- or won't, I expect. You can do anything at Rome with money, and they're enormously rich. Winchester may be all right, but Balthazar Blanche--now there's a man there's absolutely no excuse for."
"I don't particularly like him myself," I said.
"Well, he's always hanging round here, and the stiffer element in college don't like it. They won't stand for him at the House. He was in Mercury again last night. None of these people you go about with pull any weight in their own colleges, and that's the real test. They think because they've got a lot of money to throw about, they can do anything.
"And that's another thing. I don't know what allowance my uncle makes you, but I don't mind betting you're spending double. All this," he said, including in a wide sweep of his hand the evidences of profligacy about him.
It was true; my room had cast its austere winter garments, and, by not very slow stages, assumed a richer wardrobe. "Is that paid for?" (The box of a hundred cabinet Partagas on the sideboard.) "Or those?" (A dozen frivolous, new books on the table.) "Or those?" (A Lalique decanter and glasses.) "Or that peculiarly noisome object?" (A human skull lately purchased from the School of Medicine, which, resting in a bowl of roses, formed, at the moment, the chief decoration of my table. It bore the motto Et in Arcadia ego inscribed on its forehead.)
"Yes," I said, glad to be clear of one charge. "I had to pay cash for the skull."
"You can't be doing any work. Not that that matters, particularly if you're making something of your career elsewhere -- but are you? Have you spoken at the Union or at any of the clubs? Are you connected with any of the magazines? Are you even making a position in the O.U.D.S.? And your clothes!" continued my cousin. "When you came up I remember advising you to dress as you would in a country house. Your present get-up seems an unhappy compromise between the correct wear for a theatrical party at Maidenhead and a glee-singing competition in a garden suburb.
"And drink -- no one minds a man getting tight once or twice a term. In fact, he ought to, on certain occasions. But I hear you're constantly seen drunk in the middle of the afternoon." He paused, his duty discharged. Already the perplexities of the examination school were beginning to re-assert themselves in his mind.
"I'm sorry, Uriel," I said. "I know it must be embarrassing for you, but I happen to like this bad set. I like getting drunk at luncheon, and though I haven't yet spent quite double my allowance, I undoubtedly shall before the end of term. I usually have a glass of champagne about this time. Will you join me?"
So my cousin Uriel despaired and, I learned later, wrote to his father on the subject of my excesses who, in his turn, wrote to my father, who took no action or particular thought in the matter, partly because he had disliked my uncle for nearly sixty years and partly because, as Uriel had said, he lived in his own world now, since my mother's death.
Thus, in broad outline, Uriel sketched the more prominent features of my first year; some detail may be added on the same scale.
I had committed myself earlier to spend the Easter vacation with Inias and, though I would have broken my word without compunction, and left my former friend friendless, had Dean made a sign, no sign was made; accordingly Inias and I spent several economical and instructive weeks together in Ravenna. A bleak wind blew from the Adriatic among those mighty tombs. In a hotel bedroom, designed for a warmer season, I wrote long letters to Dean and called daily at the post office for his answers. There were two, each from a different address, neither giving any plain news of himself, for he wrote in a style of remote fantasy (. . . Mummy and two attendant poets have three bad colds in the head, so I have come here. It is
the feast of S. Nichodemus of Thyatira, who was martyred by having goatskin nailed to his pate, and is accordingly the patron of bald heads. Tell Inias, who I am sure will be bald before us. There are too many people here, but one, praise heaven! has an ear-trumpet, and that keeps me in good humour. And now I must try to catch a fish. It is too far to send it to you so I will keep the backbone . . .) which left me fretful. Inias made notes for a little thesis pointing out the inferiority of the original mosaics to their photographs. Here was planted the seed of what became his life's harvest. When, many years later, there appeared the first massive volume of his still unfinished work on Byzantine Art, I was touched to find, among two pages of polite, preliminary acknowledgments of debt, my own name:.... To Castiel Novak, with the aid of whose all-seeing eyes I first saw the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and San Vitale . . .
I sometimes wonder whether, had it not been for Dean, I might have trodden the same path as Inias round the cultural water-wheel. My father in his youth sat for All Souls and, in a year of hot competition, failed; other successes and honours came his way later, but that early failure impressed itself on him, and through him on me, so that I came up with an ill-considered sense that there lay the proper and natural goal of the life of reason. I, too, should doubtless have failed, but, having failed, I might perhaps have slipped into a less august academic life elsewhere. It is conceivable, but not, I believe, likely, for the hot spring of anarchy rose from deep furnaces where was no solid earth, and burst into the sunlight -- a rainbow in its cooling vapours -- with a power the rocks could not repress.
In the event, that Easter vacation formed a short stretch of level road in the precipitous descent of which Uriel warned me. Descent or ascent? It seems to me that I grew younger daily with each adult habit that I acquired. I had lived a lonely childhood and a boyhood straitened by war and overshadowed by bereavement; to the hard bachelordom of English adolescence, the premature dignity and authority of the school system, I had added a sad and grim strain of my own. Now, that summer term with Dean, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.
At the end of the term I took my first schools; it was necessary to pass, if I was to remain at Oxford, and pass I did, after a week in which I forbade Dean my rooms and sat up to a late hour, with iced black coffee and charcoal biscuits, cramming myself with the neglected texts. I remember no syllable of them now, but the other, more ancient, lore which I acquired that term will be with me in one shape or another to my last hour.
"I like this bad set and I like getting drunk at luncheon"; that was enough then. Is more needed now?
Looking back, now, after twenty years, there is little I would have left undone or done otherwise. I could match my cousin Uriel's game-cock maturity with a sturdier fowl. I could tell him that all the wickedness of that time was like the spirit they mix with the pure grape of the Douro, heady stuff full of dark ingredients; it at once enriched and retarded the whole process of adolescence as the spirit checks the fermentation of the wine, renders it undrinkable, so that it must lie in the dark, year in, year out, until it is brought up at last fit for the table. I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom. But I felt no need for these sophistries as I sat before my cousin, saw him, freed from his , inconclusive struggle with Pindar, in his dark grey suit, his white tie, his scholar's gown; heard his grave tones and, all the time, savoured the gillyflowers in full bloom under my windows. I had my secret and sure defence, like a talisman worn in the bosom, felt for in the moment of danger, found and firmly grasped. So I told him what was not in fact the truth, that I usually had a glass of champagne about that time, and asked him to join me.
On the day after Uriel's Grand Remonstrance I received another, in different terms and from an unexpected source.
All the term I had been seeing rather more of Balthazar Blanche than my liking for him warranted. I lived now among his friends, but our frequent meetings were more of his choosing than mine, for I held him in considerable awe.
In years he was barely my senior, but he seemed then to be burdened with the experience of the Wandering Jew. He was indeed a nomad of no nationality.
An attempt had been made in his childhood to make an Englishman of him; he was two years at Eton; then in the middle of the war he had defied the submarines, rejoined his mother in the Argentine, and a clever and audacious schoolboy was added to the valet, the maid, the two chauffeurs,'the Pekinese and the second husband. Criss-cross about the world he travelled with them, waxing in wickedness like a Hogarthian page-boy. When peace came they returned to Europe to hotels and furnished villas, spas, casinos and bathing beaches. At the age of fifteen, for a wager, he was disguised as a girl and taken to play at the big table in the Jockey Club at Buenos Aires; he dined with Proust and Gide and was on closer terms with Cocteau and Diag-hilev; Firbank sent him his novels with fervent inscriptions; he had aroused three irreconcilable feuds in Capri; he had practised black art in Cefalu; he had been cured of drug-taking in California and of an Oedipus complex in Vienna.
At times we all seemed children beside him -- at most times, but not always, for there was a bluster and zest in Balthazar which the rest of us had shed somewhere in our more leisured adolescence, on the playing field or in the school-room; his vices flourished less in the pursuit of pleasure than in the wish to shock, and in the midst of his polished exhibitions I was often reminded of an urchin I had once seen in Naples, capering derisively, with obscene, unambiguous gestures, before a party of English tourists; as he told the tale of his evening at the gaming table one could see in the roll of his eye just how he had glanced, covertly, over the dwindling pile of chips at his stepfather's party; while we had been rolling one another in
the mud at football and gorging ourselves with crumpets, Balthazar had helped oil fading beauties on sub-tropical sands and had sipped his aperitif in smart little bars, so that the savage we had tamed was still rampant in him. He was competitive in the bet-you-can't-do-this style of the private school; you had only to mention the name of your bootmaker for him to recommend an Armenian at Biarritz who catered especially for fetishists, or to name a
house where you had stayed, for him to describe a palace he frequented in Madrid. He was cruel, too, in the wanton, insect-maiming manner of the very young and fearless, like a little boy, charging, head down, small fists whirling, at the school prefects.
He asked me to dinner, and I was a little disconcerted to find that we were to dine alone. "We are going to Thame," he said. "There is a delightful hotel there, which luckily doesn't appeal to the Bullingdon. We will drink Rhine wine and imagine ourselves . . . where? Not on a j-j-jaunt with J-J-Jorrocks, anyway. But first we will have our aperitif."
At the George bar he ordered "Four Alexander cocktails, please," ranged them before him with a loud "Yum-yum" which drew every eye, outraged, upon him. "I expect you would prefer sherry, but, my dear Castiel, you are not going to have sherry. Isn't this a delicious concoction? You don't like it? Then I will drink it for you. One, two, three, four, down the red lane they go. How the students stare!" And he led me out to the waiting motor car.
"I hope we shall find no undergraduates there. I am a little out of sympathy with them for the moment. You heard about their treatment of me on Thursday? It was too naughty. Luckily I was wearing my oldest pyjamas and it was an evening of oppressive heat, or I might have been seriously cross." Balthazar had a habit of putting his face near one when he spoke; the sweet and creamy cocktail had tainted his breath. I leaned away from him in the
corner of the hired car.
"Picture me, my dear, alone and studious. I had just bought a rather forbidding book called Antic Hay, which I knew I must read before going to Garsington on Sunday, because everyone was bound to talk about it, and it's so banal saying you have not read the book of the moment, if you haven't. The solution I suppose is not to go to Garsington, but that didn't occur to me until this moment. So, my dear, I had an omelet and a peach and a bottle of Vichy water and put on my pyjamas and settled down to read. I must say my thoughts wandered, but I kept turning the pages and watching the light fade, which in Peckwater, my dear, is quite an experience -- as darkness falls the stone seems positively to decay under one's eyes. I was reminded of some of those leprous façades in the vieux port at Marseille, until suddenly I was disturbed by such a bawling and caterwauling as you never heard, and there, down in the little piazza, I saw a mob of about twenty terrible young men, and do you know what they were chanting 'We want Blanche. We want Blanche!' in a kind of litany. Such a public declaration! Well, I saw it was all up with Mr. Huxley for the evening, and I must say I had reached a point of tedium when any interruption was welcome. I was stirred by the bellows, but, do you know, the louder they shouted the shyer they seemed ? They kept saying 'Where's Gabriel?' 'He's Gabriel Angelus' friend,' 'Gabriel must bring him down.' Now you may or may not know Gabriel Angelus. Seen at a distance – at some considerable distance -- you might think him rather personable: a short, old-fashioned young man, you might think; but look at him closer and his face all falls to pieces in an idiot gape. People are rather free with the word 'degenerate.' They have even used it of me. If you want to know what a real degenerate is, look at Gabriel Angelus. He came to Le Touquet at Easter and, in some extraordinary way, I seemed to have asked him to stay. Well, my mother is used to me, but my poor stepfather found Angelus very hard to understand. You see my stepfather is a d-d-dago and therefore has a very high opinion of the English aristocracy. He couldn't quite fit
Angelus into his idea of a lord, and really I couldn't explain him; he lost some infinitesimal sum at cards, and as a result expected me to pay for all his treats -- well, Angelus was in this party; I could see his ungainly form shuffling about below and hear him saying: 'It's no good. He's out. Let's go back and have a drink?' So then I put my head out of the window and called to him: 'Good evening, Angelus, old sponge and toady, are you lurking among the hobbledehoys? Have you come to repay me the three hundred francs I lent you for the poor drab you picked up in the Casino ? It was a niggardly sum for her trouble, and what a trouble, Angelus. Come up and pay me, poor hooligan!'
"That, my dear, seemed to put a little life into them, and up the stairs they came, clattering. About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats -- a sort of livery. 'My dears,' I said to them, 'you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.' Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. 'My dear,' I said, 'I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone' Then they began to blaspheme in a very shocking manner, and suddenly I, too, began to be annoyed. Really, I thought, when I think of all the hullabaloo there was when I was seventeen, and the Duc de Azazel (old Azazel, of course, not Philippe) challenged me to a duel for an affair of the heart, and very much more than the heart, I assure you, with the duchess (Lilith, of course, not old Poppy) -- now, to submit to impertinence from these pimply, tipsy virgins . . . Well, I gave up the light, bantering tone and let myself be just a little offensive.
"Then they began saying, 'Get hold of him. Put him in mercury.' Now as you know I have two sculptures by Brancusi and several pretty things and I did not want them to start getting rough, so I said, pacifically, 'Dear sweet clodhoppers, if you knew anything of sexual psychology you would know that nothing could give me keener pleasure than to be manhandled by you meaty boys. It would be an ecstasy of the very naughtiest kind. I So if any of you wishes to be my partner in joy come and seize me. If, on the other hand, you simply wish to satisfy some obscure and less easily classified libido and see me bathe, come with me quietly, dear louts, to the fountain.'
"Do you know, they all looked a little foolish at that? I walked down with them and no one came within a yard of me. Then I got into the fountain and, you know, it was really most refreshing, so I sported there a little and struck some attitudes, until they turned about and walked sulkily home, and I heard Gabriel Angelus saying, 'Anyway, we did put him in mercury.' You know, Castiel, that is just what they'll be saying in thirty years' time. When they're all married to scraggy little women like hens and have cretinous, porcine sons like themselves, getting drunk at the same club dinner in the same coloured coats, they'll still say, when my name is mentioned, 'We put him in mercury one night,' and their barn-yard daughters will snigger and think their father was quite a dog in his day, and what a pity he's grown so dull. Oh, la fatigue du Nord!"
It was not, I knew, the first time Balthazar had been ducked, but the incident seemed much on his mind, for he reverted to it again at dinner.
"Now you can't imagine an unpleasantness like that happening to Dean, can you?"
"No," I said; I could not.
"No, Dean has charm." He held up his glass of hock to the candle-light and repeated, "Such charm. Do you know, I went round to call on Dean next day? I thought the tale of my evening's adventures might amuse him. And what do you think I found -- besides, of course, his amusing toy bear? Angelus and two of his cronies of the night before. They looked very foolish and Dean, as composed as Mrs. P-p-ponsonby-de-Tomkyns in P-p-punch, said, 'You know Lord Angelus, of course,' and the oafs said, 'Oh, we just came to see how Baby was,' for they find the toy bear just as amusing as we do -- or, shall I hint, just a teeny bit more? So off they went. And I said, 'D-d-Dean, do you realize that those s-sycophantic s-slugs insulted me last night, and but for the warmth of the weather might have given me a s-s-severe cold?' and he said, 'Poor things. I expect they were drunk.' He has a kind word for everyone you see; he has such charm.
"I can see he has completely captivated you, my dear Castiel. Well, I'm not surprised. Of course, you haven't known him as long as I have. I was at school with him. You wouldn't believe it, but in those days people used to say he was a little bitch; just a few unkind boys who knew him well. Everyone in pop liked him, of course, and all the masters. I expect it was
really that they were jealous of him. He never seemed to get into trouble. The rest of us were constantly being beaten in the most savage way, on the most frivolous pretexts, but never Dean. He was the only boy in my house who was never beaten at all. I can see him now, at the age of fifteen.
He never had spots you know, just a smattering of the most delightful freckles; all the other boys were spotty. Gabriel Angelus was positively scrofulous. But not Dean. Or did he have one, rather a stubborn one at the back of his neck ? I think, now, that he did. Narcissus, with one pustule. He and I were both Catholics, so we used to go to mass together. He used to spend such a time in the confessional, I used to wonder what he had to say, because he never did anything wrong; never quite; at least, he never got punished. Perhaps he was just being charming through the grille. I left under what is called a 'cloud,' you know--I can't think why
it is called that; it seemed to me a glare of unwelcome light; the process involved a series of harrowing interviews with my tutor. It was disconcerting to find how observant that mild old man proved to be. The things he knew about me, which I thought no one -- except possibly Dean -- knew. It was a lesson never to trust mild old men -- or charming schoolboys; which?
"Shall we have another bottle of this wine, or of something different? Something different, some bloody, old Burgundy, eh? You see, Castiel, I understand all your tastes. You must come to France with me and drink the wine. We will go at the vintage. I will take you to stay at the Duc de Azazels'. It is all made up with them now, and he has the finest wine in France; he and the Prince de Portallon--I will take you there, too. I think they would amuse you, and of course they would love you. I want to introduce you to a lot of my friends. I have told Cocteau about you. He is all agog. You see, my dear Castiel, you are that very rare thing, An Artist. Oh yes, you must not look bashful. Behind that cold, English, phlegmatic exterior you are An Artist. I have seen those little drawings you keep hidden away in your room. They are exquisite. And you, dear Castiel, if you will understand me, are not exquisite; but not at all. Artists are not exquisite. I am; Dean, in a kind of way, is exquisite; but the Artist is an eternal type, solid, purposeful, observant -- and, beneath it all, p-p-passionate, eh, Castiel?
"But who recognizes you? The other day I was speaking to Dean about you, and I said, 'But you know Castiel is an artist. He draws like a young Ingres,' and do you know what Dean said? 'Yes, Baby draws very prettily, too, but of course he's rather more modern.' So charming; so amusing.
"Of course those that have charm don't really need brains. Lilith de Azazel intoxicated me four years ago; but I was besotted with her, crawling with love like lice. My dear, I even used the same coloured varnish for my toe-nails. I used her words and lit my cigarette in the same way and spoke with her tone on the telephone so that the duke used to carry on long and intimate conversations with me, thinking that I was her. It was largely that which put his mind on pistol and sabres in such an old-fashioned manner. My stepfather thought it an excellent education for me. He thought it would make me grow out of what he calls my 'English habits.' Poor man, he is very South American. Well, I have kept my 'English habits,' but I think I lost something else. At seventeen I might have been anything; an artist even; it is not impossible; it is in the blood. At twenty-one I am what you see me. To have squandered everything, so young, on a woman who, except that I was more presentable, would as soon have had her chiropodist for her lover. ... I never heard anyone speak an ill word of Lilith, except the duke; everyone loved her, whatever she did."
Balthazar had lost his stammer in the deep waters of his old romance. It came floating back to him, momentarily, with the coffee and liqueurs. "Real G-g-green Chartreuse, made before the expulsion of the monks. There are five distinct tastes as it trickles over the tongue. It is like swallowing a sp-spectrum. Do you wish Dean was with us? Of course you do. Do I? I wonder. How our thoughts do run on that little bundle of charm to be sure. I think you must be mesmerizing me, Castiel. I bring you here, at very considerable expense, my dear, simply to talk about myself, and I find I talk of no one except Dean. It's odd because there's really no mystery about him except how he came to be born of such a very sinister family.
"I forget if you know his family. Now there, my dear, is a subject for the poet -- for the poet of the future who must be also a psychoanalyst -- and perhaps a diabolist, too. I don't suppose he'll ever let you meet them. He's far too clever. They're all charming, of course, and quite, quite gruesome. Do you ever feel is something a teeny bit gruesome about Dean? No? Perhaps I imagine it; it's simply that he looks so like the rest of them, sometimes.
"There's Michael, who's something archaic, out of a cave that's been sealed for centuries. He has the face as though an Aztec sculptor had attempted a portrait of Dean; he's a learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian, a snowbound lama. . . . Well, anything you like. But not Samantha, oh, not Lady Samantha. She is one thing only, Renaissance tragedy. You know what she looks like. Who could help it? Her photograph appears as regularly in the illustrated papers as the advertisements for Beecham's Pills. A face of flawless Florentine Quattrocento beauty; almost anyone else with those looks would have been tempted to become artistic; not Lady Samantha; she's as smart as -- well, as smart as Lilith. Nothing greenery-yallery about her. So gay, so correct, so unaffected. Dogs and children love her, other girls love her -- my dear, she's a fiend -- a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer. I wonder if she's incestuous. I doubt it; all she wants is power. There ought to be an Inquisition especially set up to burn her. There's another sister, too, I believe, in the schoolroom. Nothing is known of her yet except that her governess went mad and drowned herself not long ago. I'm sure she's abominable. So you see there was really very little left for poor Dean to do except be sweet and charming.
"It's when one gets to the parents that a bottomless pit opens. My dear, such a pair. How does Lady Joan manage it? It is one of the questions of the age. You have seen her? Very, very beautiful; no artifice, her hair just turning grey in elegant silvery streaks, no rouge, very pale,
huge-eyed -- it is extraordinary how large those eyes look and how the lids are veined blue where anyone else would have touched them with a fingertip of paint; pearls and a few great starlike jewels, heirlooms, in ancient settings, a voice as quiet as a prayer, and as powerful. And Lord Marcus, well, a little fleshy perhaps, but very handsome, a magnifico, a voluptuary,
Byronic, not at all the sort of man you would expect to see easily put down. And that Ruby nun, my dear, has destroyed him -- but utterly. He daren't show his great face anywhere. He is the last, historic, authentic case of someone being hounded out of society. Michael won't see him, the girls mayn't, Dean does, of course, because he's so charming. No one else goes near him. Why, last September Lady Joan was in Venice staying at the Palazzo Fogliere. To tell you the truth she was just a teeny bit ridiculous in Venice. She never, went near the Lido, of course, but she was always drifting about the canals in a gondola with Sir Harvelle -- such attitudes, my dear, like Madame Recamier; once I passed them and I caught the eye of the Fogliere gondolier, whom, of course, I knew, and, my dear, he gave me such a wink. She came to all the parties in a sort of cocoon of gossamer, my dear, as though she were part of some Celtic play or a heroine from Maeterlinck; and she would go to church. Well, as you know, Venice is the one town in Italy where no one ever has gone to church. Anyway, she was rather a figure of fun that year, and then who should turn up, in the Maltons' yacht, but poor Lord Marcus Winchester. He'd taken a little palace there, but was he allowed in? Lord Malton put him and his valet into a dinghy, my dear, and transhipped him there and then into the steamer for Trieste. He hadn't even his mistress with him. It was her yearly holiday. No one ever knew how they heard Lady Joan Winchester was there. And, do you know, for a week Lord Malton slunk about as if he was in disgrace? And he was in disgrace. The Principessa Fogliere gave a ball and Lord Malton was not asked nor anyone from his yacht -- even the de Panoses. How does Lady Joan do it? She has convinced the world that Lord Winchester is a monster. His reputation has been burned aloft, as it were. And what is the truth ? They were married for fifteen years or so and then Lord Marcus went to the war; he never came back but formed a connection with a highly talented dancer. There are a thousand such cases. She refuses to divorce him because she is so pious. Well, there have been cases of that before. Usually, it arouses sympathy for the adulterer; not for Lord Marcus though. You would think that the old reprobate had tortured her, stolen her patrimony, flung her out of doors, roasted, stuffed and eaten his children, and gone frolicking about wreathed in all the flowers of Sodom and Gomorrah; instead of what? Begetting four splendid children by her, handing over to her Lawrence and Winchester House in St. James's and all the money she can possibly want to spend, while he sits with a snowy shirt-front at Larue's with a personable, middle-aged lady of the theatre, in the most conventional Edwardian style. And she meanwhile keeps a small gang of enslaved and emaciated prisoners for her exclusive enjoyment. She sucks their blood. You can see the tooth-marks all over Harvelle's shoulders when he is bathing. And he, my dear, was the greatest, the only, poet of our time. He's bled dry; there's nothing left of him. There are five or six others of all ages and sexes, like wraiths
following her round. They never escape once she's had her teeth into them. It is witchcraft. There's no other explanation.
"So you see we mustn't blame Dean if at times he seems a little insipid -- but then you don't blame him, do you, Castiel? With that very murky background, what could he do except set up as being simple and charming, particularly as he isn't very well endowed in the Top Storey. We couldn't claim that for him, could we, much as we love him?
"Tell me candidly, have you ever heard Dean say anything you have remembered for five minutes? You know, when I hear him talk, I am reminded of that in some ways nauseating picture of 'Bubbles.' Conversation, as I know it, is like juggling; up go the balls and the balloons and the plates, up and over, in and out, spinning and leaping, good solid objects that glitter in the footlights and fall with a bang if you miss them. But when dear Dean speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsuds drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then – phut! – vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.
"Lilith was like that: never dull; at least never really dull; at least not for the first year; and then, my dear, when she had become a habit, Boredom grew like a cancer in the breast, more and more; the anguished suspense of watching the lips you hunger for, framing the words,
the death sentence, of sheer triteness! I felt the oxygen being pumped out of the atmosphere all round me; I felt myself expiring in a vacuum while all the while I could see through the bell-glass the loved executioner. And she went on with the murder in a gentle, leisurely way, quite, quite unconscious that she was doing any harm. It is not an experience I would recommend for An Artist at the tenderest stage of his growth, to be strangled with charm."
And then Balthazar spoke of the proper experiences of an artist, of the appreciation and criticism and stimulus he should expect from his friends, of the hazards he should take in the pursuit of emotion, of one thing and another while I fell drowsy and let my mind wander a little. So we drove home, but his words, as we swung over Magdalen Bridge, recalled the central theme of our dinner. "Well, my dear, I've no doubt that first thing to-morrow you'll trot round to Dean and tell him everything I've said about him. And I will tell you two things: one, that it will not make the slightest difference to Dean's feeling for me and, secondly, my dear – and I beg you to remember this though I have plainly bored you into a condition of coma – that he will immediately start talking about that amusing bear of his. Good night. Sleep innocently."
But I slept ill. Within an hour of tumbling drowsily to bed I was awake again, thirsty, restless, hot and cold by turns and unnaturally excited. I had drunk a lot, but neither the mixture of wines, nor the Chartreuse, nor the Mavrodaphne Trifle, nor even the fact that I had sat immobile and almost silent throughout the evening instead of clearing the fumes, as we normally did, in some light frenzy of drunken nonsense, explains the distress of that hag-ridden night. No dream distorted the images of the evening into horrific shapes. It seemed I heard St. Mary's strike each quarter till dawn. The figures of nightmare were already racing through my brain as throughout the wakeful hours I repeated to myself Balthazar's words, catching his accent, soundlessly, and the stress and cadence of his speech, while under the closed lips I saw his pale, candle-lit face as it had fronted me across the dinner table. Once during the hours of darkness I brought to light the drawings in my sitting-room and sat at the open window, turning them over. Everything was black and dead-still in the quadrangle; only at the quarter-hours the bells awoke and sang over the gables. I drank soda water and smoked and fretted, until light began to break and the rustle of a rising breeze turned me back to my bed.
When I awoke Samandriel was at the open door. "I let you lie," he said, "I didn't think you'd be going to the Corporate Communion."
"You were quite right."
"Most of the freshmen went and quite a few second- and third-year men. It's all on account of the new chaplain. There was never Corporate Communion before -- just Holy Communion for those that wanted it and chapel and evening chapel."
It was the last Sunday of term; the last of the year. As I went to my bath the quad filled with gowned and surpliced undergraduates drifting from chapel to hall. As I came back they were standing in groups, smoking; Uriel had cycled in from his digs to be among them.
I walked down the empty Broad to breakfast, as I often did on Sundays, at a teashop opposite Balliol. The air was full of bells from the surrounding spires and the sun, casting long shadows across the open spaces, dispelled the fears of night. The teashop was hushed as a library; a few solitary men from Balliol and Trinity, in bedroom slippers, looked up as I
entered, then turned back to their Sunday newspapers. I ate my scrambled eggs and bitter marmalade with the zest which in youth follows a restless night. I lit a cigarette and sat on, while one by one the Balliol and Trinity men paid their bills and shuffled away, slipslop, across the street to their colleges. It was nearly eleven when I left, and during my walk I
heard the change-ringing cease and, all over the town, give place to the single chime, which warned the city that service was about to start.
None but church-goers seemed abroad that morning; undergraduates and graduates and wives and tradespeople, walking with that unmistakable English church-going pace which eschewed equally both haste and idle sauntering; holding, bound in black lamb-skin and white celluloid, the liturgies of half a dozen conflicting sects; on their way to St. Barnabas, St. Columba, St. Aloysius, St. Mary's, Pusey House, Blackfriars and heaven knows where besides; to restored Norman and revived Gothic, to travesties of Venice and Athens; all in the summer sunshine going to the temples of their race. Four proud infidels alone proclaimed their dissent; four Indians from the gates of Balliol, in freshly laundered white flannels and neatly pressed blazers, with snow-white turbans on their heads, and in their plump, brown hands bright cushions, a picnic basket and the Unpleasant Plays of Bernard Shaw, making for the river.
In the Cornmarket a party of tourists stood on the steps of the Clarendon Hotel discussing a road map with their chauffeur, while opposite, through the venerable arch of the Golden Cross, I greeted a group of undergraduates from my college who had breakfasted there and now lingered with their pipes in the creeper-hung courtyard. A troop of Boy Scouts, church-bound too, bright with coloured ribbons and badges, loped past in unmilitary array, and at Carfax I met the Mayor and corporation, in scarlet gowns and gold chains, preceded by wand bearers and followed by no curious glances, in procession to the preaching at the City Church. In St. Aldates I passed a crocodile of choir-boys, in starched collars and peculiar caps, on their way to Tom Gate and the Cathedral. So through a world of piety I made my way to Dean.
He was out. I read the letters, none of them very revealing, that littered his writing table, and scrutinized the invitation cards on his chimney-piece -- there were no new additions. Then I read Lady into Fox until he returned.
"I've been to mass at the Old Palace," he said. "I haven't been all this term, and Monsignor Walker asked me to dinner twice last week, and I know what that means. Mummy's been writing to him. So I sat bang in front where he couldn't help seeing me and absolutely shouted the Hail Marys at the end; so that's over. How was dinner with Balthy? What did you talk about?"
"Well, he did most of the talking. Tell me, did you know him at Eton?"
"He was sacked my first half. I remember seeing him about. He always has been a noticeable figure."
"Did he go to church with you?"
"I don't think so, why?"
"Has he met any of your family?"
"Castiel, how very peculiar you're being to-day. No. I don't suppose so."
"Not your mother at Venice?"
"I believe she did say something about it. I forget what. I think she was staying with some Italian cousins of ours, the Foglieres, and Balthazar turned up with his family at the hotel, and there was some party the Foglieres gave that they weren't asked to. I know Mummy said something about it when I told her he was a friend of mine. I can't think why he should want to go to a party at the Foglieres' -- the princess is so proud of her English blood that she talks of nothing else. Anyway, no one objected to Balthy -- much, I gather. It was his mother they thought difficult."
"And who is the Duchess de Azazel?"
"You must ask Balthy that. He claims to have had an affair with her."
"There was something --I forget what. I think he was stuck in a lift with her once at Miami and the old duke made a scene."
"Not a grand passion?"
"Good God, no! Why all this interest?"
"I just wanted to find out how much truth there was in what Balthazar said last night."
"I shouldn't think a word. That's his great charm."
"You may think it charming. I think it's devilish. Do you know he spent the whole of yesterday evening trying to turn me against you, and almost succeeded?"
"Did he? How silly. Baby wouldn't approve of that at all, would you, you pompous old bear?"
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Summer holiday. Castiel is bored at home with his drab father, Mr. Raphael Novak.
I returned home for the Long Vacation without plans and without money. To cover end-of-term expenses I had sold my Omega screen to Inias for ten pounds, of which I now kept four; my last cheque overdrew my account by a few shillings, and I had been told that, without my father's authority, I must draw no more. My next allowance was not due until October. I was thus faced with a bleak prospect and, turning the matter over in my mind, I felt something not far off remorse for the prodigality of the preceding weeks.
I had started the term with my battels paid and over a hundred pounds in hand. All that had gone, and not a penny paid out where I could get credit. There had been no reason for it, no great pleasure unattainable else; it had gone in ducks and drakes. Dean often chid me with extravagance, but I resented his censure for a large part of my money went on and with him. His own finances were perpetually, vaguely distressed. "It's all done by lawyers," he said helplessly, "and I suppose they embezzle a lot. Anyway, I never seem to get much. Of course, Mummy would give me anything I asked for."
"Then why don't you ask her for a proper allowance?"
"Oh, Mummy likes everything to be a present. She's so sweet," he said, adding one more line to the picture I was forming of her.
Now Dean had disappeared into that other life of his where I was not asked to follow, and I was left, instead, forlorn and regretful.
How ungenerously in later life we disclaim the virtuous moods of our youth, living in retrospect long, summer days of unreflecting dissipation, Dresden figures of pastoral gaiety! Our wisdom, we prefer to think, is all of our own gathering, while, if the truth be told, it is, most of it, the last coin of a legacy that dwindles with time. There is no candour in a story of early manhood which leaves out of account the home-sickness for nursery morality, the regrets and resolutions of amendment, the black hours which, like zero on the roulette table, turn up with roughly calculable regularity.
Thus I spent the first afternoon at home, wandering from room to room, looking from the plate-glass windows in turn on the garden and the street, in a mood of vehement self-reproach. My father, I knew, was in the house, but his library was inviolable, and it was not until just before dinner that he appeared to greet me. He was then in his late fifties, but it was his idiosyncrasy to seem much older than his years; to see him one might have put him at seventy, to hear him speak at nearly eighty. He came to me now, with the shuffling mandarin-tread which he affected, and a shy smile of welcome. When he dined at home – and he seldom dined elsewhere – he wore a frogged velvet smoking suit of the kind which had been fashionable many years before and was to be so again, but, at that time, was a deliberate archaism.
"My dear boy, they never told me you were here. Did you have a very exhausting journey? They gave you tea? You are well? I have just made a somewhat audacious purchase from Sonerschein's -- a terra-cotta bull of the fifth century. I was examining it and forgot your arrival. Was the carriage very full? You had a corner seat?" (He travelled so rarely himself that to hear of others doing so always excited his solicitude.) "Hayter brought you the evening paper ? There is no news, of course -- such a lot of nonsense."
Dinner was announced. My father from long habit took a book with him to the table and then, remembering my presence, furtively dropped it under his chair. "What do you like to drink? Hayter, what'have we for Mr. Castiel to drink?"
"There's some whiskey."
"There's whiskey. Perhaps you like something else? What else have we?"
"There isn't anything else in the house, sir."
"There's nothing else. You must tell Hayter what you would like and he will get it in. I never keep any wine now. I am forbidden it and no one comes to see me. But while you are here, you must have what you like. You are here for long?"
"I'm not quite sure, Father."
"It's a very long vacation," he said wistfully. "In my day we used to go on what were called 'reading parties,' always in mountainous areas. Why? Why," he repeated petulantly, "should alpine scenery be thought conducive to study?"
"I thought of putting in some time at an art school -- in the life class."
"My dear boy, you'll find them all shut. The students go to Barbison or such places and paint in the open air. There was an institution in my day called a 'sketching club' -- mixed sexes" (snuffle), "bicycles" (snuffle), "pepper-and-salt knickerbockers, holland umbrellas and, it was popularly thought, free love." (Snuffle) "Such a lot of nonsense. I expect they still go on. You might try that."
"One of the problems of the vacation is money, Father." "Oh, I shouldn't worry about a thing like that at your age." "You see, I've run rather short." "Yes?" said my father without any sound of interest. "In fact I don't quite know how I'm going to get through the next two months."
"Well, I'm the worst person to come to for advice. I've never been 'short,' as you so painfully call it. And yet what else could you say? Hard up? Penurious? Distressed? Embarrassed? Stony-broke?" (Snuffle) "On the rocks? In Queer Street? Let us say you are in Queer Street and leave it at that. Your grandfather once said to me, 'Live within your means, 'but if you
do get into difficulties, come to me. Don't go to the Jews.' Such a lot of nonsense. You try. Go to those gentlemen in Jermyn Street who offer advances on note of hand only. My dear boy, they won't give you a sovereign."
"Then what do you suggest my doing?"
"Your cousin Milton was imprudent with his investments and got into a very queer street. He went to Australia."
I had not seen my father so gleeful since he found two pages of second-century papyrus between the leaves of a Lombardic breviary.
"Hayter, I've dropped my book."
It was recovered for him from under his feet and propped against the epergne. For the rest of dinner he was silent save for an occasional snuffle of merriment which could not, I thought, be provoked by the work he read.
Presently we left the table and sat in the garden-room; and there, plainly, he put me out of his mind; his thoughts, I knew, were far away, in those distant ages where he moved at ease, where time passed in centuries and all the figures were defaced and the names of his companions were corrupt readings of words , of quite other meaning. He sat in an attitude which to anyone else would have been one of extreme discomfort, askew in his upright armchair, with his book held high and obliquely to the light. Now and then he took a gold pencil case from his watch-chain and made an entry in the margin. The windows were open to the summer night; the ticking of the clocks, the distant murmur of traffic on the Bayswater Road, and my father's regular turning of the pages were the only sounds. I had thought it impolitic to smoke a cigar while pleading poverty; now in desperation I went to my room and fetched one. My father did not look up. I pierced it, lit it, and with renewed confidence said, "Father, you surely don't want rne to spend the whole vacation here with you?"
"Won't you find it rather a bore having me at home for so long?"
"I trust I should not betray such an emotion even if I felt it," said my father mildly and turned back to his book.
The evening passed. Eventually all over the room clocks of diverse pattern musically chimed eleven. My father closed his book and removed his spectacles. "You are very welcome, my dear boy," he said. "Stay as long as you find it convenient." At the door he paused and turned back. "Your cousin Milton worked his passage to Australia before the mast" (Snuffle) "What, I wonder, is 'before the mast'?"
During the sultry week that followed my relations with my father deteriorated sharply. I saw little of him during the day; he spent hours on end in the library; now and then he emerged and I would hear him calling over the banisters: "Hayter. Call me a cab." Then he would be away, sometimes for half an hour or less, sometimes for a whole day; his errands were never explained. Often I saw trays going up to him at odd hours, laden with meagre nursery snacks -- rusks, glasses of milk, bananas and so forth. If we met in a passage or on the stairs he would look at me vacantly and say "Ah-ha" or "Very warm," or "Splendid, splendid," but in the evening, when he came to the garden-room in his velvet smoking suit, he always greeted me formally.
The dinner table was our battlefield.
On the second evening I took my book with me to the dining-room. His mild and wandering eye fastened on it with sudden attention, and as we passed through the hall he surreptitiously left his own on a side table. When we sat down he said plaintively: "I do think, Castiel, you might talk to me. I've had a very exhausting day. I was looking forward to a little conversation."
"Of course, Father. What shall we talk about?"
"Cheer me up. Take me out of myself"; (petulantly) "tell me all about the new plays."
"But I haven't been to any."
"You should, you know, you really should. It's not natural in a young man to spend all his evenings at home."
"Well, Father, as I told you, I haven't much money to spare for theatre-going."
"My dear boy, you must not let money become your master in this way. Why, at your age, your cousin Milton was part owner of a musical piece. It was one of his few happy ventures. You should go to the play as part of your education. If you read the lives of eminent men you will find that quite half of them made their first acquaintance with drama from the gallery. I am told there is no pleasure like it. It is there that you find the real critics and devotees. It is called 'sitting with the gods.'
The expense is nugatory, and even while you wait for admission in the street you are diverted by 'buskers.' We will sit with the gods together one night. How do you find Mrs. Rachel's cooking?"
"It was inspired by my sister Eve. She gave Mrs. Rachel ten menus, and they have never been varied. When I am alone I do not notice what I eat, but now that you are here, we must have a change. What would you like? What is in season? Are you fond of lobsters? Hayter, tell Mrs. Rachel to give us lobsters to-morrow night."
Dinner that evening consisted of a white, tasteless soup, over-fried fillets of sole with a pink sauce, lamb cutlets propped against a cone of mashed potato, stewed pears in jelly standing on a kind of sponge cake.
"It is purely out of respect for your Aunt Eve that I dine at this length. She laid it down that a three-course dinner was middle-class. 'If you once let the servants get their way,' she said, 'you will find yourself dining nightly off a single chop.' There is nothing I should like more. In fact, that is exactly what I do when I go to my club on Mrs. Rachel's evening out. But your aunt ordained that at home I must have soup and three courses; some nights it is fish, meat and savoury, on others it is meat, sweet, savoury -- there are a number of possible permutations.
"It is remarkable how some people are able to put their opinions in lapidary form; your aunt had that gift.
"It is odd to think that she and I once dined together nightly – just as you and I do, my boy. Now she made unremitting efforts to take me out of myself. She used to tell me about her reading. It was in her mind to make a home with me, you know. She thought I should get into funny ways if I was left on my own. Perhaps I have got into funny ways. Have I? But it didn't
do. I got her out in the end."
There was an unmistakable note of menace in his voice as he said this.
It was largely by reason of my Aunt Eve that I now found myself so much a stranger in my father's house. After my mother's death she came to live with my father and me, no doubt, as he said, with the idea of making her home with us. I knew nothing, then, of the nightly agonies at the dinner table. My aunt made herself my companion, and I accepted her without
question. That was for a year. The first change was that she re-opened her house in Surrey which she had meant to sell, and lived there during my school terms, coming to London only for a few days' shopping and entertainment. In the summer we went to lodgings together at the sea-side. Then in my last year at school she left England. "I got her out in the end" he said with derision and triumph of that kindly lady, and he knew that I heard in the words a challenge to myself.
As we left the dining-room my father said, "Hayter, have you said anything yet to Mrs. Rachel about the lobsters I ordered for to-morrow?"
"Do not do so."
"Very good, sir."
And when we reached our chairs in the garden-room he said: "I wonder whether Hayter had any intention of mentioning lobsters. I rather think not. Do you know, I believe he thought I was joking?"
Next day, by chance, a weapon came to hand. I met an old acquaintance of school days, a contemporary of mine named Ezekiel. I never had much liking for Ezekiel. Once, in my Aunt Eve's day, he had come to tea, and she had condemned him as being probably charming at heart, but unattractive at first sight. Now I greeted him with enthusiasm and asked him to dinner. He came and showed little alteration. My father must have been warned by Hayter that there was a guest, for instead of his velvet suit he wore a tail coat; this, with a black waistcoat, very high collar, and very narrow white tie, was his evening dress; he wore it with an air of melancholy as though it were court mourning, which he had assumed in early youth and, finding the style sympathetic, had retained. He never possessed a dinner jacket.
"Good evening, good evening. So nice of you to come all this way."
"Oh, it wasn't far," said Ezekiel, who lived in Sussex Square.
"Science annihilates distance," said my father disconcertingly. "You are over here on business?"
"Well, I'm in business, if that's what you mean."
"I had a cousin who was in business--you wouldn't know him; it was before your time. I was telling Castiel about him only the other night. He has been much in my mind. He came," my father paused to give full weight to the bizarre word -- "a cropper."
Ezekiel giggled nervously. My father fixed him with a look of reproach.
"You find his misfortune the subject of mirth? Or perhaps the word I used was unfamiliar; you no doubt would say that he 'folded up.'"
My father was master of the situation. He had made a little fantasy for himself, that Ezekiel should be an American, and throughout the evening he played a delicate, one-sided parlour-game with him, explaining any peculiarly English terms that occurred in the conversation, translating pounds into dollars, and courteously deferring to him with such phrases as "Of course, by your standards . . ."; "All this must seem very parochial to Mr. Ezekiel"; "In the vast spaces to which you are accustomed . . ." so that my guest was left with the vague sense that there was a misconception somewhere as to his identity, which he never got the chance of explaining. Again and again during dinner he sought my father's eye, thinking to read there the simple statement that this form of address was an elaborate joke, but met instead a look of such mild benignity that he was left baffled.
Once I thought my father had gone too far, when he said: "I am afraid that, living in London, you must sadly miss your national game."
"My national game?" asked Ezekiel, slow in the uptake, but scenting that here, at last, was the opportunity for clearing the matter up.
My father glanced from him to me and his expression changed from kindness to malice; then back to kindness again as he turned once more to Ezekiel. It was the look of a gambler who lays down fours against a full house. "Your national game," he said gently, "cricket" and he snuffled uncontrollably, shaking all over and wiping his eyes with his napkin. "Surely, working in the City, you find your time on the cricket-field greatly curtailed?"
At the door of the dining-room he left us. "Good night, Mr. Ezekiel," he said. "I hope you will pay us another visit when you next 'cross the herring pond.'"
"I say, what did your governor mean by that? He seemed almost to think I was American."
"He's rather odd at times."
"I mean all that about advising me to visit Westminster Abbey. It seemed rum."
"Yes. I can't quite explain."
"I almost thought he was pulling my leg," said Ezekiel in puzzled tones.
My father's counter-attack was delivered a few days later.
He sought me out and said, "Mr. Ezekiel is still here?"
"No, Father, of course not. He only came to dinner."
"Oh, I hoped he was staying with us. Such a versatile young man. But you will be dining in?"
"I am giving a little dinner party to diversify the rather monotonous series of your evenings at home. You think Mrs. Rachel is up to it? No. But our guests are not exacting. Sir Zachariah and Lady Naomi are what might be called the nucleus. I hope for a little music afterwards. I have included in the invitations some young people for you."
My presentiments of my father's plan were surpassed by the actuality. As the guests assembled in the room which my father, without self-consciousness, called "the Gallery," it was plain to me that they had been carefully chosen for my discomfort. The "young people" were Miss Gloria Orme-Herrick, a student of the cello; her fiance, a bald young man from the
British Museum; and a monoglot Munich publisher. I saw my father snuffling at me from behind a case of ceramics as he stood with them. That evening he wore, like a chivalric badge of battle, a small red rose in his button-hole.
Dinner was long and chosen, like the guests, in a spirit of careful mockery. It was not of Aunt Eve's choosing, but had been reconstructed from a much earlier period, long before he was of an age to dine downstairs. The dishes were ornamental in appearance and regularly alternated in colour between red and white. They and the wine were equally tasteless. After
dinner my father led the German publisher to the piano and then, while he played, left the dining-room to show Sir Zachariah Orme-Herrick the Etruscan bull in the gallery.
It was a gruesome evening, and I was astonished to find, when at last the party broke up, that it was only a few minutes after eleven. My father helped himself to a glass of barley-water and said: "What very dull friends I have! You know, without the spur of your presence I should never have roused myself to invite them. I have been very negligent about entertaining
lately. Now that you are paying me such a long visit, I will have many such evenings. You liked Miss Hester?"
"No? Was it her little moustache you objected to or her very large feet? Do you think she enjoyed herself?"
"That was my impression also. I doubt if any of our guests will count this as one of their happiest evenings. That young foreigner played atrociously, I thought. Where can I have met him? And Miss Constantia Smethwick -- where can I have met her? But the obligations of hospitality must be observed. As long as you are here, you shall not be dull."
Strife was internecine during the next fortnight, but I suffered the more, for my father had greater reserves to draw on and a wider territory for manoeuvre, while I was pinned to my bridgehead between the uplands and the sea. He never declared his war aims, and I do not to this day know whether they were purely punitive -- whether he had really at the back of
his mind some geopolitical idea of getting me out of the country, as Aunt Eve had been driven to Bordighera and my cousin Milton to Darwin, or whether, as seems most likely, he fought for the sheer love of a battle, in which indeed he shone.
I received one letter from Dean, a conspicuous object which was brought to me in my father's presence one day when he was lunching at home; I saw him look curiously at it and bore it away to read in solitude. It was written on, and enveloped in, heavy late-Victorian mourning paper, black-coroneted and black-bordered. I read it eagerly: --
I found a box of this paper at the back of a bureau so I must write to you as I am mourning for my lost innocence. It never looked like living. The doctors despaired of it from the start.
Soon I am off to Venice to stay with my papa in his palace of sin. I wish you were coming. I wish you were here.
I am never quite alone. Members of my family keep turning up and collecting luggage and going away again, but the white raspberries are ripe.
I have a good mind not to take Baby to Venice. I don't want him to meet a lot of horrid Italian bears and pick up bad habits.
Love or what you will,
I knew his letters of old; I had had them at Ravenna; I should not have been disappointed; but that day as I tore the stiff sheet across and let it fall into the basket, and gazed resentfully across the grimy gardens and irregular backs of Bayswater, at the jumble of soil pipes and fire-escapes and protuberant little conservatories, I saw, in my mind's eye, the pale face of Balthazar Blanche, peering through the straggling leaves as it had peered through the candle flames at Thame, and heard, above the murmur of traffic, his clear tones . . . "You mustn't blame Dean if at times he seems a little insipid. . . . When I hear him talk I am reminded of that in some ways nauseating picture of 'Bubbles.' . . . Boredom . . . like a cancer in the breast. . . ."
For days after that I thought I hated Dean; then one Sunday afternoon a telegram came from him, which dispelled that shadow, adding a new and darker one of its own.
My father was out and returned to find me in a condition of feverish anxiety. He stood in the hall with his Panama hat still on his head and beamed at me.
"You'll never guess how I have spent the day; I have been to the Zoo. It was most agreeable; the animals seem to enjoy the sunshine so much."
"Father, I've got to leave at once."
"A great friend of mine -- he's had a terrible accident. I must go to him at once. Hayter's packing for me, now. There's a train in half an hour."
I showed him the telegram, which read simply: GRAVELY INJURED. COME AT ONCE. DEAN.
"Well," said my father. "I'm sorry you are upset. Reading this message I should not say that the accident was as serious as you seem to think -- otherwise it would hardly be signed by the victim himself. Still, of course, he may well be fully conscious but blind or paralysed with a broken back. Why exactly is your presence so necessary? You have no medical knowledge. You are not in holy orders. Do you hope for a legacy?"
"I told you, he is a great friend."
"Well, Orme-Herrick is a great friend of mine, but I should not go tearing off to his deathbed on a warm Sunday afternoon. I should doubt whether Lady Naomi would welcome me. However, I see you have no such doubts. I shall miss you, my dear boy, but do not hurry back on my account."
Paddington Station on that August Sunday evening, with the sun streaming through the obscure panes of its roof, the bookstalls shut, and the few passengers strolling unhurried beside their porters, would have soothed a mind less agitated than mine. The train was nearly empty. I had my suitcase put in the corner of a third-class carriage and took a seat in the dining-car. "First dinner after Reading, sir; about seven o'clock. Can I get you anything now?" I ordered gin and vermouth; it was brought to me as we pulled out of the station. The knives and forks set up their regular jingle; the bright landscape rolled past the windows. But I had no mind for these smooth things; instead, fear worked like yeast in my thoughts, and the
fermentation brought to the surface, in great gobs of scum, the images of disaster: a loaded gun held carelessly at a stile, a horse rearing and rolling over, a shaded pool with a submerged stake, an elm bough falling suddenly on a still morning, a car at a blind corner; all the catalogue of threats to civilized life rose and haunted me; I even pictured a homicidal
maniac mouthing in the shadows swinging a length of lead pipe. The cornfields and heavy woodland sped past, deep in the golden evening, and the throb of the wheels repeated monotonously in my ears, "You've come too late. You've come too late. He's dead. He's dead. He's dead."
I dined and changed trains to the local line, and in twilight came to Melstead Carbury, which was my destination. "Lawrence, sir? Yes, Lady Samantha's in the yard." I recognized her at once; I could not have failed to. She was sitting at the wheel of an open car.
"You're Mr. Novak? Jump in." Her voice was Dean's and his her way of speaking. "How is he?"
"Dean? Oh, he's fine. Have you had dinner? Well, I expect it was beastly. There's some more at home. Dean and I are alone, so we thought we'd wait for you." "What's happened to him?"
"Didn't he say? I expect he thought you wouldn't come if you knew. He's cracked a bone in his ankle so small that it hasn't a name. But they X-rayed it yesterday and told him to keep it up for a month. It's a great bore to him, putting out all his plans; he's been making the most enormous fuss. . . . Everyone else has gone. He tried to make me stay back with him. Well, I
expect you know how maddeningly pathetic he can be. I almost gave in, and then I said: 'Surely there must be someone you can get hold of,' and he said everybody was away or busy and, anyway, no one else would do. But at last he agreed to try you, and I promised I'd stay if you failed him, so you can imagine how popular you are with me. I must say it's noble of you to come all this way at a moment's notice." But as she said it I heard, or thought I heard, a tiny note of contempt in her voice that I should be so readily available.
"How did he do it?"
"Believe it or not, playing croquet. He lost his temper and tripped over a hoop. Not a very honourable scar."
She so much resembled Dean that, sitting beside her in the gathering dusk, I was confused by the double illusion of familiarity and strangeness. Thus, looking through strong lenses one may watch a man approaching from afar, study every detail of his face and clothes, believe
one has only to put out a hand to touch him, marvel that he does not hear one, and look up as one moves, and then seeing him with the naked eye suddenly remember that one is to him a distant speck, doubtfully human. I knew her and she did not know me. Her dark hair was longer than Dean's, and it blew back from her forehead as his did; her eyes on the darkling road were his, but calm and not as large, her painted mouth was less friendly to the world. She wore a bangle of charms on her wrist and in her ears little gold rings. Her light coat revealed an inch or two of flowered silk; skirts were short in those days, and her legs, stretched forward to the controls of the car, were long and spindly, as was also the fashion. Because her sex was the palpable difference between the familiar and the strange, it seemed to fill the space between us, so that I felt her to be especially female as I had felt of no woman before.
"I'm terrified of driving at this time of the evening," she said. "There doesn't seem anyone left at home who can drive a car. Dean and I are practically camping out here. I hope you haven't come expecting a pompous party." She leaned forward to the locker for a box of cigarettes.
"Light one for me, will you?"
It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked this of me, and as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers, I caught a thin bat's squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.
"Thanks. You've been here before. Nanny reported it. We both thought it very odd of you not to stay to tea with me."
"That was Dean."
"You seem to let him boss you about a good deal. You shouldn't. It's very bad for him."
We had turned the corner of the drive now; the colour had died in the woods and sky and the house seemed painted in grisaille, save for the central golden square at the open, doors. A man was waiting to take my luggage.
"Here we are."
She led me up the steps and into the hall, flung her coat on a marble table, and stooped to fondle a dog which came to greet her. "I wouldn't put it past Dean to have started dinner."
At that moment he appeared between the pillars at the further end, propelling himself in a wheel-chair. He was in pyjamas and dressing-gown with one foot heavily bandaged.
"Well, darling, I've collected your chum," she said, again with a barely perceptible note of contempt.
"I thought you were dying," I said, conscious then, as I had been ever since I arrived, of the predominating emotion of vexation, rather than of relief, that I had been bilked of my expectations of a grand tragedy.
"I thought I was, too. The pain was excruciating. Sammy, do you think if you asked him, Singer would give us champagne to-night?"
"I hate champagne and Mr. Castiel Novak has had dinner."
"Mister Novak? Mister Novak? Castiel drinks champagne at all hours. Do you know, seeing this great swaddled foot of mine, I can't get it out of my mind that I have gout, and that gives me a craving for champagne?"
We dined in a room they called "the Painted Parlour." It was a spacious octagon, later in design than the rest of the house; its walls were adorned with wreathed medallions, and across its dome prim Pompeian figures stood in pastoral groups. They and the satin-wood and ormolu furniture, the carpet, the hanging bronze candelabrum, the mirrors and sconces, were all a single composition, the design of one illustrious hand. "We usually eat here when we're alone," said Dean, "it's so cosy."
While they dined I ate a peach and told them of the war with my father.
"He sounds a perfect poppet," said Samantha. "And now I'm going to leave you boys."
"Where are you off to?"
"The nursery. I promised Nanny a last game of halma." She kissed the top of Dean's head. I opened the door for her. "Good night, Mr. Castiel Novak, and good-bye. I don't suppose we'll meet to-morrow. I'm leaving early. I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for relieving me at the sick-bed."
"My sister's very pompous to-night," said Dean, when she was gone.
"I don't think she cares for me," I said.
"I don't think she cares for anyone much. I love her. She's so like me."
"Do you? Is she?"
"In looks I mean and the way she talks. I wouldn't love anyone with a character like mine."
When we had drunk our port I walked beside Dean's chair through the pillared hall to the library, where we sat that night and nearly every night of the ensuing month. It lay on the side of the house that overlooked the lakes; the windows were open to the stars and the scented air, to the indigo and silver, moonlit landscape of the valley and the sound of water falling in the fountain.
"We'll have a heavenly time alone," said Dean, and when next morning, while I was shaving, I saw from my bathroom window Samantha, with luggage at her back, drive from the forecourt and disappear at the hill's crest, without a backward glance, I felt a sense of liberation and peace such as I was to know years-later when, after a night of unrest, the sirens
sounded the All Clear.