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The Loved One
By Evelyn Waugh
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Evelyn Waugh
All right reserved.
All day the heat had been barely supportable but at evening a breeze arose in the west, blowing from the heart of the setting sun and from the ocean, which lay unseen, unheard behind the scrubby foothills. It shook the rusty fingers of palm-leaf and swelled the dry sounds of summer, the frog-voices, the grating cicadas, and the ever present pulse of music from the neighboring native huts.
In that kindly light the stained and blistered paint of the bungalow and the plot of weeds between the verandah and the dry water-hole lost their extreme shabbiness, and the two Englishmen, each in his rocking-chair, each with his whisky and soda and his outdated magazine, the counterparts of numberless fellow-countrymen exiled in the barbarous regions of the world, shared in the brief illusory rehabilitation.
“Ambrose Abercrombie will be here shortly,” said the elder. “I don’t know why. He left a message he would come. Find another glass, Dennis, if you can.” Then he added more petulantly: “Kierkegaard, Kafka, Connolly, Compton Burnett, Sartre, ‘Scottie’ Wilson. Who are they? What do they want?”
“I’ve heard of some of them. They were being talked about in London at the time I left.”
“They talked of ‘Scottie’ Wilson?”
“No. I don’t think so. Not of him.”
“That’s ‘Scottie’ Wilson. Those drawings there. Do they make any sense to you?”
Sir Francis Hinsley’s momentary animation subsided. He let fall his copy of Horizon and gazed towards the patch of deepening shadow which had once been a pool. His was a sensitive, intelligent face, blurred somewhat by soft living and long boredom. “It was Hopkins once,” he said; “Joyce and Freud and Gertrude Stein. I couldn’t make any sense of them either. I never was much good at anything new. ‘Arnold Bennett’s debt to Zola’; ‘Flecker’s debt to Henley.’ That was the nearest I went to the moderns. My best subjects were ‘The English Parson in English Prose’ or ‘Cavalry Actions with the Poets’—that kind of thing. People seemed to like them once. Then they lost interest. I did too. I was always the most defatigable of hacks. I needed a change. I’ve never regretted coming away. The climate suits me. They are a very decent generous lot of people out here and they don’t expect you to listen. Always remember that, dear boy. It’s the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard.”
“Here comes Ambrose Abercrombie,” said the young man.
“Evening, Frank. Evening, Barlow,” said Sir Ambrose Abercrombie coming up the steps. “It’s been another scorcher, eh? Mind if I take a pew? When,” he added aside to the young man who helped him to whisky. “Right up with soda, please.”
Sir Ambrose wore dark gray flannels, an Eton Rambler tie, an I Zingari ribbon on his boater hat. This was his invariable dress on sunny days; whenever the weather allowed it he wore a deer-stalker cap and an Inverness cape. He was still on what Lady Abercrombie fatuously called the “right” side of sixty but having for many years painfully feigned youth, he now aspired to the honors of age. It was his latest quite vain wish that people should say of him: “Grand old boy.”
“Been meaning to look you up for a long time. Trouble about a place like this one’s so darn busy, one gets in a groove and loses touch. Doesn’t do to lose touch. We limeys have to stick together. You shouldn’t hide yourself away, Frank, you old hermit.”
“I remember a time when you lived not so far away.”
“Did I? ’Pon my soul I believe you’re right. That takes one back a bit. It was before we went to Beverly Hills. Now, as of course you know, we’re in Bel Air. But to tell the truth I’m getting a bit restless there. I’ve got a bit of land out on Pacific Palisades. Just waiting for building costs to drop. Where was it I used to live? Just across the street, wasn’t it?”
Just across the street, twenty years or more ago, when this neglected district was the center of fashion, Sir Francis, in prime middle-age, was then the only knight in Hollywood, the doyen of English society, chief scriptwriter in Megalopolitan Pictures and President of the Cricket Club. Then the young, or youngish Ambrose Abercrombie used to bounce about the lots in his famous series of fatiguing roles, acrobatic, heroic, historic, and come almost nightly to Sir Francis for refreshment. English titles abounded now in Hollywood, several of them authentic, and Sir Ambrose had been known to speak slightingly of Sir Francis as a “Lloyd George creation.” The seven-league boots of failure had carried the old and the ageing man far apart. Sir Francis had descended to the Publicity Department and now held rank, one of a dozen, as Vice-President of the Cricket Club. His swimming-pool which had once flashed like an aquarium with the limbs of long-departed beauties was empty now and cracked and over-grown with weed.
Yet there was a chivalric bond between the two.
“How are things at Megalo?” asked Sir Ambrose.
“Greatly disturbed. We are having trouble with Juanita del Pablo.”
“ ‘Luscious, languid and lustful’?”
“Those are not the correct epithets. She is—or rather was—‘Surly, lustrous and sadistic.’ I should know because I composed the phrase myself. It was a ‘smash-hit,’ as they say, and set a new note in personal publicity.
“Miss del Pablo has been a particular protégée of mine from the first. I remember the day she arrived. Poor Leo bought her for her eyes. She was called Baby Aaronson then—splendid eyes and a fine head of black hair. So Leo made her Spanish. He had most of her nose cut off and sent her to Mexico for six weeks to learn Flamenco singing. Then he handed her over to me. I named her. I made her an antifascist refugee. I said she hated men because of her treatment by Franco’s Moors. That was a new angle then. It caught on. And she was really quite good in her way, you know—with a truly horrifying natural scowl. Her legs were never photogénique but we kept her in long skirts and used an understudy for the lower half in scenes of violence. I was proud of her and she was good for another ten years’ work at least.
“And now there’s been a change of policy at the top. We are only making healthy films this year to please the League of Decency. So poor Juanita has to start at the beginning again as an Irish colleen. They’ve bleached her hair and dyed it vermilion. I told them colleens were dark but the technicolor men insisted. She’s working ten hours a day learning the brogue and to make it harder for the poor girl they’ve pulled all her teeth out. She never had to smile before and her own set was good enough for a snarl. Now she’ll have to laugh roguishly all the time. That means dentures.
“I’ve spent three days trying to find a name to please her. She’s turned everything down. Maureen—there are two here already; Deirdre—no one could pronounce it; Oonagh—sounds Chinese; Bridget—too common. The truth is she’s in a thoroughly nasty temper.”
Sir Ambrose, in accordance with local custom, had refrained from listening.
“Ah,” he said, “healthy films. All for ’em. I said to the Knife and Fork Club, ‘I’ve always had two principles throughout all my life in motion-pictures: never do before the camera what you would not do at home and never do at home what you would not do before the camera.’ ”
He enlarged this theme while Sir Francis, in his turn, sequestered his thoughts. Thus the two knights sat for nearly an hour, side by side in their rocking-chairs, alternately eloquent and abstracted, gazing into the gloaming through their monocles while the young man from time to time refilled their glasses and his own.
The time was apt for reminiscence and in his silent periods Sir Francis strayed back a quarter of a century and more to foggy London streets lately set free for all eternity from fear of the Zeppelin; to Harold Monro reading aloud at the Poetry Bookshop; Blunden’s latest in the London Mercury; Robin de la Condamine at the Phoenix matinees; luncheon with Maud in Grosvenor Square, tea with Gosse in Hanover Terrace; eleven neurotic balladmongers in a Fleet Street pub just off for a day’s cricket in Metroland, the boy with the galley-proofs plucking at his sleeve; numberless toasts at numberless banquets to numberless Immortal Memories…
Sir Ambrose had a more adventurous past but he lived existentially. He thought of himself as he was at that moment, brooded fondly on each several excellence and rejoiced.
“Well,” he said at length, “I should be toddling. Mustn’t keep the missus waiting”; but he made no move and turned instead to the young man. “And how are things with you, Barlow? We haven’t seen you on the cricket field lately. Very busy at Megalo, I suppose?”
“No. As a matter of fact my contract ran out three weeks ago.”
“I say, did it? Well, I expect you’re glad of a rest. I know I should be.” The young man did not answer. “If you’ll take my advice, just sit easy for a time until something attractive turns up. Don’t jump at the first thing. These fellows out here respect a man who knows his own value. Most important to keep the respect of these fellows.
“We limeys have a peculiar position to keep up, you know, Barlow. They may laugh at us a bit—the way we talk and the way we dress; our monocles—they may think us cliquey and stand-offish, but, by God, they respect us. Your five-to-two is a judge of quality. He knows what he’s buying and it’s only the finest type of Englishman that you meet out here. I often feel like an ambassador, Barlow. It’s a responsibility, I can tell you, and in various degrees every Englishman out here shares it. We can’t all be at the top of the tree but we are all men of responsibility. You never find an Englishman among the underdogs—except in England of course. That’s understood out here, thanks to the example we’ve set. There are jobs that an Englishman just doesn’t take.
“We had an unfortunate case some years ago of a very decent young fellow who came out as a scene designer. Clever chap but he went completely native—wore ready-made shoes, and a belt instead of braces, went about without a tie, ate at drugstores. Then, if you’ll believe it, he left the studio and opened a restaurant with an Italian partner. Got cheated, of course, and the next thing he was behind a bar shaking cocktails. Appalling business. We raised a subscription at the Cricket Club to send him home, but the blighter wouldn’t go. Said he liked the place, if you please. That man did irreparable harm, Barlow. He was nothing less than a deserter. Luckily the war came. He went home then all right and got himself killed in Norway. He atoned, but I always think how much better not to have anything to atone for, eh?
“Now you’re a man of reputation in your own line, Barlow. If you weren’t you wouldn’t be here. I don’t say poets are much in demand but they’re bound to want one again sooner or later and when they do, they’ll come to you cap in hand—if you haven’t done anything in the meantime to lose their respect. See what I mean?
“Well, here I am talking like a Dutch uncle while the missus is waiting for her dinner. I must toddle. So long, Frank, I’ve enjoyed our talk. Wish we saw you more often at the Cricket Club. Good-bye, young man, and just remember what I’ve been saying. I may look like an old buffer but I know what I’m talking about. Don’t move, either of you. I can find my way.”
It was quite dark now. The head-lamps of the waiting car spread a brilliant fan of light behind the palm trees, swept across the front of the bungalow and receded towards Hollywood Boulevard.
“What do you make of that?” said Dennis Barlow.
“He’s heard something. That was what brought him here.”
“It was bound to come out.”
“Certainly. If exclusion from British society can be counted as martyrdom, prepare for the palm and the halo. You have not been to your place of business today?”
“I’m on the night shift. I actually managed to write today. Thirty lines. Would you like to see them?”
“No,” said Sir Francis. “It is one of the numberless compensations of my exile that I need never read unpublished verses—or, for that matter, verses in any condition. Take them away, dear boy, prune and polish at your leisure. They would only distress me. I should not understand them and I might be led to question the value of a sacrifice which I now applaud. You are a young man of genius, the hope of English poetry. I have heard it said and I devoutly believe it. I have served the cause of art enough by conniving at your escape from a bondage to which I myself have been long happily reconciled.
“Did they ever, when you were a child, take you to a Christmas play called Where the Rainbow Ends—a very silly piece? St. George and a midshipman flew off on a carpet to rescue some lost children from a Dragon’s country. It always seemed to me a gross interference. The children were perfectly happy. They paid tribute, I remember, of their letters from home, unopened. Your verses are my letters from home—like Kierkegaard and Kafka and ‘Scottie’ Wilson. I pay without protest or resentment. Fill my glass, dear boy. I am your memento mori. I am deep in thrall to the Dragon King. Hollywood is my life.
“Did you see the photograph some time ago in one of the magazines of a dog’s head severed from its body, which the Russians are keeping alive for some obscene Muscovite purpose by pumping blood into it from a bottle? It dribbles at the tongue when it smells a cat. That’s what all of us are, you know, out here. The studios keep us going with a pump. We are still just capable of a few crude reactions—nothing more. If we ever got disconnected from our bottle, we should simply crumble. I like to think that it was the example of myself before your eyes day after day for more than a year that inspired your heroic resolution to set up in an independent trade. You have had example and perhaps now and then precept. I may have counseled you in so many words to leave the studio while you could still do so.”
“You did. A thousand times.”
“Surely not so often? Once or twice when I was in liquor. Not a thousand times. And my advice, I think, was to return to Europe. I never suggested anything so violently macabre, so Elizabethan, as the work you chose. Tell me, do you give you new employer satisfaction, do you think?”
“My manner is congenial. He told me so yesterday. The man they had before caused offence by his gusto. They find me reverent. It is my combination of melancholy with the English accent. Several of our clientele have commented favorably upon it.”
“But our fellow expatriates? We cannot expect sympathy from them. What did our late visitor say? ‘There are jobs that an Englishman just doesn’t take.’ Yours, dear boy, is pre-eminently one of those.”
Dennis Barlow went to work after dinner. He drove towards Burbank, past luminous motels, past the Golden Gates and floodlit temples of Whispering Glades Memorial Park, almost to the extremity of the city, to his place of business. His colleague, Miss Myra Poski, was waiting for relief, hatted and freshly painted.
“I hope I’m not late.”
“You’re sweet. I’ve a date at the Planetarium or I’d stay and fix you some coffee. There’s been nothing to do all day except mail a few remembrance cards. Oh, and Mr. Schultz says if anything comes in put it straight on the ice this hot weather. Good-bye”; and she was gone leaving Dennis in sole charge of the business.
The office was furnished in somber good taste that was relieved by a pair of bronze puppies on the chimneypiece. A low trolley of steel and white enamel alone distinguished the place from a hundred thousand modern American reception rooms; that and the clinical smell. A bowl of roses stood beside the telephone; their scent contended with the carbolic, but did not prevail.
Dennis sat in one of the armchairs, put his feet on the trolley and settled himself to read. Life in the Air Force had converted him from an amateur to a mere addict. There were certain trite passages of poetry which from a diverse multitude of associations never failed to yield the sensations he craved; he never experimented; these were the branded drug, the sure specific, big magic. He opened the anthology as a woman opens her familiar pack of cigarettes.
Outside the windows the cars swept past continuously, out of town, into town, lights ablaze, radios at full throttle.
“I wither slowly in thine arms,” he read. “Here at the quiet limit of the world,” and repeated to himself: “Here at the quiet limit of the world. Here at the quiet limit of the world”… as a monk will repeat a single pregnant text, over and over again in prayer.
Presently the telephone rang.
“The Happier Hunting Ground,” he said.
A woman’s voice came to him, hoarse, it seemed, with emotion; in other circumstances he might have thought her drunk. “This is Theodora Heinkel. Mrs. Walter Heinkel, of 207 Via Dolorosa, Bel Air. You must come at once. I can’t tell you over the phone. My little Arthur—they’ve just brought him in. He went out first thing and never came back. I didn’t worry because he’s sometimes been away like that before. I said to Mr. Heinkel, ‘But, Walter, I can’t go out to dine when I don’t know where Arthur is’ and Mr. Heinkel said, ‘What the heck? You can’t walk out on Mrs. Leicester Scrunch at the last minute,’ so I went and there I was at the table on Mr. Leicester Scrunch’s right hand when they brought me the news… Hullo, hullo, are you there?”
Dennis picked up the instrument which he had laid on the blotting-pad. “I will come at once, Mrs. Heinkel. 207 Via Dolorosa I think you said.”
“I said I was sitting at Mr. Leicester Scrunch’s right hand when they brought me the news. He and Mr. Heinkel had to help me to the automobile.”
“I am coming at once.”
“I shall never forgive myself as long as I live. To think of his being brought home alone. The maid was out and the city wagon-driver had to telephone from the drugstore… Hullo, hullo, are you there? I said the city scavenger had to telephone from the drugstore.”
“I am on my way, Mrs. Heinkel.”
Dennis locked the office and backed the car from the garage; not his own, but the plain black van which was used for official business. Half an hour later he was at the house of mourning. A corpulent man came down the garden path to greet him. He was formally dressed for the evening in the high fashion of the place—Donegal tweeds, sandals, a grass-green silk shirt, open at the neck with an embroidered monogram covering half his torso. “Am I pleased to see you,” he said.
“Mr. W. H., all happiness,” said Dennis involuntarily.
“I am the Happier Hunting Ground,” said Dennis.
“Yes, come along in.”
Dennis opened the back of the wagon and took out an aluminum container. “Will this be large enough?”
They entered the house. A lady, also dressed for the evening in a long, low gown and a diamond tiara, sat in the hall with a glass in her hand.
“This has been a terrible experience for Mrs. Heinkel.”
“I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to speak of it,” said the lady.
“The Happier Hunting Ground assumes all responsibility,” said Dennis.
“This way,” said Mr. Heinkel. “In the pantry.”
The Sealyham lay on the draining-board beside the sink. Dennis lifted it into the container.
“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking a hand?”
Together he and Mr. Heinkel carried their load to the wagon.
“Shall we discuss arrangements now, or would you prefer to call in the morning?”
“I’m a pretty busy man mornings,” said Mr. Heinkel. “Come into the study.”
There was a tray on the desk. They helped themselves to whisky.
“I have our brochure here setting out our service. Were you thinking of interment or incineration?”
“Buried or burned?”
“Burned, I guess.”
“I have some photographs here of various styles of urn.”
“The best will be good enough.”
“Would you require a niche in our columbarium or do you prefer to keep the remains at home?”
“What you said first.”
“And the religious rites? We have a pastor who is always pleased to assist.”
“Mr. Barlow, we’re neither of us what you might call very church-going people, but I think on an occasion like this Mrs. Heinkel would want all the comfort you can offer.”
“Our Grade A service includes several unique features. At the moment of committal, a white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Heinkel, “I reckon Mrs. Heinkel would appreciate the dove.”
“And every anniversary a card of remembrance is mailed without further charge. It reads: Your little Arthur is thinking of you in heaven today and wagging his tail.”
“That’s a very beautiful thought, Mr. Barlow.”
Excerpted from The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
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