The Black Prince
A Celebration of Love
It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, 'Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife.' A deeper pattern however suggests Francis Marloe as the first speaker, the page or house-maid (these images would appeal to him) who, some half an hour before Arnold's momentous telephone call, initiates the action. For the news which Francis brought me forms the frame, or counterpoint, or outward packaging of what happened then and later in the drama of Arnold Baffin. There are indeed many places where I could start. I might start with Rachel's tears, or Priscilla's. There is much shedding of tears in this story. In a complex explanation any order may seem arbitrary. Where after all does anything begin? That three of the four starting points I have mentioned were causally independent of each other suggests speculations, doubtless of the most irrational kind, upon the mystery of human fate.
As I have explained, I was about to leave London. It was a raw damp cold afternoon in May. The wind carried no flowery smells, but rather laid a moist healthless humour upon the flesh which it then attempted to flay. I had my suitcases ready and was about to telephone for a taxi, had in fact already lifted the phone, when I experienced that nervous urge to delay departure, to sit down and reflect, which I am told the Russians have elevated into a ritual. I replaced the instrument and went back into my crowdedlittle Victorian sitting-room and sat down. The result of this manoeuvre was that I was immediately aching with anxiety about a number of arrangements which I had already checked ten times over. Had I got enough sleeping pills? Had I packed the belladonna mixture? Had I packed my notebooks? I can only write in a certain kind of notebook with the lines a certain distance apart. I ran back into the hall. I found the notebooks and the pills and the belladonna of course, but by now the suitcases were half unpacked again and my heart was beating violently.
I lived then and had long lived in a ground-floor flat in a small shabby pretty court of terrace houses in North Soho, not far from the Post Office Tower, an area of perpetual seedy brouhaha. I preferred this genteel metropolitan poverty to the styleless surburban affluence favoured by the Baffins. My 'rooms' were all at the back. My bedroom looked on to dustbins and a fire escape. My sitting-room on to a plain brick wall caked with muck. The sitting-room, half a room really (the other half, stripped and degraded, was the bedroom) had wooden panels of that powdery dignified shade of green which can only be achieved by about fifty years of fading. This place I had crammed with too much furniture, with Victorian and oriental bric-à-brac, with tiny heterogeneous objets d'art, little cushions, inlaid trays, velvet cloths, antimacassars even, lace even. I amass rather than collect. I am also meticulously tidy though resigned to dust. A sunless and cosy womb my flat was, with a highly wrought interior and no outside. Only from the front door of the house, which was not my front door, could one squint up at sky over tall buildings and see above the serene austere erection of the Post Office Tower.
So it was that I deliberately delayed my departure. What if I had not done so? I was proposing to disappear for the whole summer, to a place incidentally which I had never seen but had adopted blind. I had not told Arnold where I was going. I had mystified him. Why I wonder? Out of some sort of obscure spite? Mystery always bulks larger. I had told him with a firm vagueness that I should be travelling abroad, no address. Why these lies? I suppose I did it partly to surprise him. I was a man who never went anywhere. Perhaps I felt it was time I gave Arnold a surprise. Neither had I informed my sister Priscilla that I was leaving London. There was nothing odd in that. She lived in Bristol with a husband whom I found distasteful. Suppose I had left the house before Francis Marloe knocked on the door? Suppose the tram had arrived at the tram stop and taken Prinzip away before the Archduke's car came round the corner?
I repacked the suitcases and transferred to my pocket, for re-reading in the train, the third version of my review of Arnold's latest novel. As a one-book-a-year man Arnold Baffin, the prolific popular novelist, is never long out of the public eye. I have had differences of opinion with Arnold about his writing. Sometimes in a close friendship, where important matters are concerned, people agree to differ and, in that area, fall silent. So, for a time, it had been with us. Artists are touchy folk. I had, however, after a superficial glance at his latest book, found things in it which I liked, and I had agreed to review it for a Sunday paper. I rarely wrote reviews, being in fact rarely asked to. I felt that this tribute would be some amends to Arnold for former criticisms which he had perhaps resented. Then on reading the novel with more care I decided regretfully that I detested it just as much as I detested its numerous confrères, and I found myself writing a review which was in effect a general attack upon Arnold's whole uvre. What to do? I did not want to offend the editor: one does sometimes want to see oneself in print. And should not a critic simply speak out fearlessly? On the other hand Arnold was an old friend.
Then the front door bell (already too long delayed by my rambling narrative) rang.
The person who stood outside (within the front door of the house, but without my subsidiary front door) was strange to me. He seemed to be trembling, perhaps from the recent attentions of the wind, perhaps from nerves or alcohol. He wore a very old blue raincoat and a stringy fawn scarf of the throttling variety. He was stout (the raincoat failed to button) and not tall, with copious greyish longish frizzy hair and a round face and a slightly hooked nose and big very red lips and eyes set very close together. He looked, I later thought, rather like a caricature of a bear. Real bears, I believe, have eyes rather wide apart, but caricatured bears usually have close eyes, possibly to indicate bad temper or cunning. I did not like the look of him at all. Something significantly ill-omened which I could not yet define emanated from him. And I could smell him from where he stood.
Perhaps I might pause here yet again for a moment to describe myself, I am thin and tall, just over six feet, fairish and not yet bald, with light fine silky rather faded straight hair. I have a bland diffident nervous sensitive face and thin lips and blue eyes. I do not wear glasses. I look considerably younger than my age.
The smelly person on the doorstep began talking at once very fast, saying things which I could not hear. I am a trifle deaf.
'I am sorry, I cannot hear what you are saying, what do you want, speak up, please, I cannot hear you.'
'She's back,' I heard him say.
'What? Who's back? I do not understand you.'
'Christian's back. He's dead. She's back.'
This was the name, not pronounced now in my presence for very many years, of my former wife.
I opened the door wider and the person on the step, whom I now recognized, slipped, or dodged, into the flat. I retreated into the sitting-room, he following.
'You don't remember me.'
'Yes, I do.'
'I'm Francis Marloe, you know, your brother-in-law.'
'Yes, yes '
'As was, that is. I thought you should know. She's a widow, he left her everything, she's back in London, back in your old place '
'Did she send you?'
'Here? Well, not exactly '
'Did she or didn't she?'
'Well, no, I just heard through the lawyer, She's back in your old place! God!'
'I see no need for you to come '
'So she's written you? I wondered if she'd have written you.'
'Of course she hasn't written to me!'
'I thought of course you'd want to see her '
'I don't want to see her! I cannot think of anyone I less want to see or hear of!'
I shall not attempt here to describe my marriage. Some impression of it will doubtless emerge. For the present story, its general nature rather than its detail is important. It was not a success. At first I saw her as a life-bringer. Then I saw her as a death-bringer. Some women are like that. There is a sort of energy which seems to reveal the world: then one day you find you are being devoured. Fellow victims will know what I mean. Possibly I am a natural bachelor. Christian was certainly a natural flirt. Sheer silliness can be attractive in a woman. I was, of course, attracted. She was, I suppose, a rather 'sexy' woman. Some people thought me lucky. She brought, what I detest, disorder into my life. She was a great maker of scenes. In the end I detested her. Five years of marriage seemed to have convinced both of us of the utter impossibility of this state. However, shortly after our divorce Christian married a rich unlettered American called Evandale, went to live in Illinois, and as far as I was concerned disappeared forever.
There is nothing quite like the dead dull feel of a failed marriage. Nor is there anything like one's hatred for an ex-spouse. (How can such a person dare to be happy?) I cannot credit those who speak of 'friendship' in such a context. I lived for years with a sense of things irrevocably soiled and spoiled, it could give suddenly such a sad feel to the world sometimes. I could not liberate myself from her mind. This had nothing to do with love. Those who have suffered this sort of bondage will understand. Some people are just 'diminisbers' and 'spoilers' for others. I suppose almost everybody diminishes someone. A saint would be nobody's spoiler. Most of one's acquaintances however can be blessedly forgotten when not present. Out of sight out of mind is a charter of human survival. Not so Christian, she was ubiquitous: her consciousness was rapacious, her thoughts could damage, passing like noxious rays through space and time. Her remarks were memorable. Only good old America cured her for me in the end. I put her away with a tedious man in a tedious and very distant town and was able to feel that she had died. What a relief.
Francis Marloe was another matter. Neither he nor his thoughts had ever been important to me, nor as far as I could see to anyone. He was Christian's younger brother, treated by her with indulgent contempt. He never married. After lengthy trying he qualified as a doctor, but was soon struck off the register for some irregularity in the prescription of drugs. I learnt later with abhorrence that he had set up in business as a self-styled 'psychoanalyst'. Later still I heard he had taken to drink. If I had been told that he had committed suicide I should have heard the news without either concern or surprise. I was not pleased to see him again. He had in fact altered almost beyond recognition. He had been a slim tripping blond-haloed faun. Now he looked coarse, fat, red-faced, pathetic, slightly wild, slightly sinister, perhaps a little mad. He had always been very stupid. However at that moment I was not concerned about Mr Francis Marloe, but about the absolutely terrifying news which he had brought me.
'I am surprised that you felt it your business to come here. It was an impertinence. I don't want to know anything about my ex-wife. I finished with that business long ago.'
'Now don't be cross,' said Francis, pursing up his red lips with a fawning kissing sort of movement which I remembered with loathing. 'Please don't be cross with me, Brad.'
'And don't call me "Brad". I'm catching a train.'
'I won't keep you for a moment, I'll just explain, I've been thinking yes, I'll make it snappy, just please listen to me, please, I beseech you Look, it's this, you see you're the first person Chris will be looking up in London '
'She'll come straight to you, I bet, I intuit it '
'Are you completely mad? Don't you know how I can't discuss this There can be no possible communication, this was utterly finished with years ago.'
'No, Brad, you see '
'Don't call me "Brad"!'
'All right, all right, Bradley, sorry, please don't be cross, surely you know Chris, she cared awfully for you, she really cared, much more than for old Evans, she'll come to you, even if it's only out of curiosity '
'I won't be here,' I said. This suddenly sounded horribly plausible. Perhaps there is a deep malign streak in all of us. Christian certainly had more than her share of sheer malignancy. She might indeed almost instinctively come to me, out of curiosity, out of malice, as cats are said to jump on to the laps of cat-haters. One does feel a certain curiosity about an ex-spouse, a desire doubtless that they should have suffered remorse and disappointment. One only wants bad news. One wants to gloat. Christian would yearn to satisfy herself of my wretchedness.
Francis was going on, 'She'll want to show off, she's rich now you see, sort of merry widow style, she'll want to show off to her old friends, anybody would, oh yes, she'll be sniffing after you, you'll see, and '
'I'm not interested,' I cried, 'I'm not interested!'
'You are interested, you know. Why if ever I saw an interested look on a bloke's face '
'Has she got children?'
'There you are, you are. No, she hasn't. Now I've always liked you, Brad, and wanted to see you again, I've always admired you, I read your book '
'I forget its name. It was great. Maybe you wondered why I didn't turn up '
'Well, I was bashful, felt I was small fry like, but now with Christian turning up it's You see, I'm in debt up to the neck, have to keep changing my digs and that Now Chris sort of paid me off you might say some time back, and I thought that if you and Chris were likely to get together again '
'You mean you want me to intercede for you?'
'Sort of, sort of-'
'Oh God!' I said, 'Get out, will you?' The idea of my prising money out of Christian for her delinquent brother struck me as unusually lunatic even for Francis.
'And, you know, I was knocked when I heard she was back, it's a shock, it changes a lot of things; I wanted to come and chew it over with somebody, for human interest like, and you were natural I say, is there any drink in the house?'
'Just go, will you please.'
'I intuit she'll want you, want to impress you and that We broke down in letters, you see, I was always wanting money, and then she got a lawyer to stop me writing to her But now it's like a new start, if you could just sort of ease me in, bring me along like '
'You want me to pose as your friend?'
'But we could be friends, Brad Look, is there anything to drink in the house?'
The telephone began to ring.
'Go away please,' I said, 'and stay away.'
'Bradley, have a heart '
He stood before me with that air of revolting humility. I threw open the sitting-room door and the door of the flat. I picked up the telephone in the hall.
Arnold Baffin's voice was on the wire. He spoke quietly, rather slowly. 'Bradley, could you come round here please I think that I may have just killed Rachel.'
I said immediately, quietly too but in emotion, 'Arnold, don't be silly. Don't be silly!'
'Could you come round at once please.' His voice sounded like a recorded announcement.
I said, 'Have you called a doctor?'
A moment's pause. 'No.'
'Well, do so!'
'I'll explain Could you come round at once '
'Arnold,' I said, 'you can't have killed her You're talking nonsense You can't have '
A moment's pause. 'Maybe.' His voice was toneless as if calm. A matter doubtless of severe shock.
'What happened ?'
'Bradley, could you '
'Yes,' I said, 'I'll come round at once. I'll get a taxi.' I replaced the receiver.
It may be relevant to record that my first general feeling on hearing what Arnold had to say was one of curious joy. Before the reader sets me down as a monster of callousness let him look into his own heart. Such reactions are not after all so abnormal and may be said in that minimal sense at least to be almost excusable. We naturally take in the catastrophes of our friends a pleasure which genuinely does not preclude friendship. This is partly but not entirely because we enjoy being empowered as helpers. The unexpected or inappropriate catastrophe is especially piquant. I was very attached to both Arnold and Rachel. But there is a natural tribal hostility between the married and the unmarried. I cannot stand the shows so often quite instinctively put on by married people to insinuate that they are not only more fortunate but in some way more moral than you are. Moreover to help their case the unmarried person often naïvely assumes that all marriages are happy unless shown to be otherwise. The Baffin marriage had always seemed pretty sound. This sudden vignette of home life set the ideas in a turmoil.
Still rosy with the rush of blood which Arnold's words had occasioned, and also, I should make clear (there is no contradiction), very alarmed and upset, I turned round and saw Francis, whose existence I had forgotten.
'Anything the matter?' said Francis.
'I heard you say something about a doctor.'
'The wife of a friend of mine has had an accident. She fell. I'm just going over.'
'Shall I come too?' said Francis. 'I might be useful. After all, I am still a doctor in the eyes of God.'
I thought for a moment and said, 'All right.' We got a taxi.
I pause here to say another word or two about my protégé Arnold Baffin. I am anxious (this is not just a phrase, I feel anxiety) about the clarity and justice of my presentation of Arnold, since this story is, from a salient point of view, the story of my relations' with Arnold and the astounding climax to which these relations led. I 'discovered' Arnold, a considerably younger man, when I was already modestly established as a writer, and he, recently out of college, was just finishing his first novel. I had by then 'got rid of' my wife and was experiencing one of those 'fresh starts' which I have so often hoped would lead on to achievement. He was a schoolmaster, having lately graduated in English literature at the university of Reading. We met at a meeting. He coyly confessed his novel. I expressed polite interest. He sent me the almost completed typescript. (This was, of course, Tobias and the Fallen Angel. Still, I think, his best work.) I thought the piece had some merits and I helped him to find a publisher for it. I also reviewed it quite favourably when it came out. Thus began one of the most, commercially speaking, successful of recent literary careers. Arnold at once, contrary as it happens to my advice, gave up his job as a teacher and devoted himself to 'writing'. He wrote easily, producing every year a book which pleased the public taste. Wealth, fame followed.
It has been suggested, especially in the light of more recent events, that I envied Arnold's success as a writer. I would like at once and categorically to deny this. I sometimes envied his freedom to write at a time when I was tied to my desk. But I did not in general feel envy of Arnold Baffin for one very simple reason: it seemed to me that he achieved success at the expense of merit. As his discoverer and patron I felt from the start identified with his activities. And I felt, rather, distress that a promising young writer should have laid aside true ambition and settled so quickly into a popular mould. I respected his industry and I admired his 'career'. He had many gifts other than purely literary ones. I did not, however, much like his books. Tact readily supervened however and, as I have said, we soon instinctively avoided certain topics of conversation.
I was present at Arnold's marriage to Rachel. (I am speaking of a time which is now getting on for twenty-five years ago.) And after this for many years I used to have lunch with the Baffins every Sunday, and would usually see Arnold at least once during the week as well. It was like a family relationship. At one time Arnold even used to refer to me as his 'spiritual father'. The close regularity of these customs ceased after Arnold made a remark, which I will not retail here, about my work. Friendship survived however. It became even, in test and in tribulation, rather more intense, certainly more complicated. I will not go so far as to say that Arnold and I were obsessed with each other. But we were certainly of abiding mutual interest. I felt that the Baffins needed me. I felt, in relation to them, like a tutelary deity. Arnold was always grateful, even devoted, though there is no doubt that he feared my criticisms. He had perhaps, as he increasingly embraced literary mediocrity, a very similar critic inside his own breast. Often one identifies with what would otherwise prove a menace. Dislike of another's work is a deep source of enmity in artists. We are a vain crew and can be irrevocably estranged by criticism. It is a tribute to Arnold and myself, two demonic men, that we ingeniously preserved, for whatever reason, our affection for each other.
I should make clear that Arnold was not in any crude sense 'spoilt' by success. He was no tax-dodger with a yacht and a house in Malta. (We sometimes laughingly discussed tax-avoidance, but never tax-evasion.) He lived in a fairly large, but not immodest, suburban villa in a 'good class' housing estate in Ealing. His domestic life was, even to an irritating extent, lacking in style. It was not that he put on an act of being 'the ordinary chap'. In some way he was 'the ordinary chap', and eschewed the vision which might, for better as well as worse, have made a very different use of his money. I never knew Arnold to purchase any object of beauty. He was indeed quite deficient in visual taste, though he was rather aggressively fond of music. As to his person, he continued to look like a schoolmaster, dressed shapelessly, and retained a raw shy boyish appearance. It never occurred to him to play 'the famous writer'. Or perhaps intelligence, of which he had plenty, suggested this way of playing it. He wore steel rimmed specs, behind which his eyes were a very pale bluish-green, rather striking. His nose was pointed, his face always rather greasy, but healthy looking. There was a general lack of colour. Something of an albino? He was accounted, and perhaps was, good-looking. He was always combing his hair.
Arnold stared at me and pointed mutely at Francis. We were standing in the hall. Arnold looked unlike himself, his face waxy, his hair jagged, his eyes without glasses crazed and vague. There was a red mark like a Chinese character upon his cheek.
'This is Dr Marloe. Dr Marloe Arnold Baffin. Dr Marloe happened to be with me when you rang up about your wife's accident.' I stressed the last word.
'Doctor,' said Arnold. 'Yes, you see she '
'She fell?' I suggested.
'Yes. Is he is this chap a medical doctor?'
'Yes,' I said. 'A friend of mine.' This untruth at least conveyed important information.
'Are you the Arnold Baffin?' said Francis.
'Yes, he is,' I said.
'I say, I do admire your books I've read '
'What's the situation?' I said to Arnold. I thought he looked as if he was drunk, and immediately after I could smell drink.
Arnold, making some sort of effort, said slowly, 'She locked herself into our bedroom. After it happened She was bleeding a lot I thought I don't quite know what the injury was At any rate At any rate ' He stopped.
'Go on, Arnold. Look, you'd better sit down. Hadn't he better sit down?'
'Arnold Baffin,' said Francis, to himself.
Arnold leaned back against the hall stand. He leaned his head back into a coat that was hanging there, closed his eyes for a moment, and then went on. 'Sorry. You see. She was sort of crying and wailing in there for a time. I mean in the bedroom. Now it's all quiet and she doesn't answer at all. I'm afraid she may be unconscious or '
'Can't you break open the door?'
'I tried to, I tried to, but the chisel, the outside woodwork just broke away and I couldn't get any '
'Sit down, Arnold, for Christ's sake.' I pushed him on to a chair.
'And you can't see through the keyhole because the key '
'She's probably just upset and won't answer out of you know '
'Yes,' he said. 'I didn't want to If it's all a I don't know quite what You go and try, Bradley ' '
'Where's your chisel?'
'Up there. But it's a small one. I can't find '
'Well, you two stay here,' I said. 'I'll just go up and see what's going on. I bet you anything Arnold, stay here and sit down!'
Excerpted from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch. Copyright © 1973 by Iris Murdoch. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.