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When Guy Crouchback’s grandparents, Gervase and Hermione, came to Italy on their honeymoon, French troops manned the defenses of Rome, the Sovereign Pontiff drove out in an open carriage and Cardinals took their exercise side-saddle on the Pincian Hill.
Gervase and Hermione were welcomed in a score of frescoed palaces. Pope Pius received them in private audience and gave his special blessing to the union of two English families which had suffered for their Faith and yet retained a round share of material greatness. The chapel at Broome had never lacked a priest through all the penal years and the lands of Broome stretched undiminished and unencumbered from the Quantocks to the Blackdown Hills. Forebears of both their names had died on the scaffold. The City, lapped now by the tide of illustrious converts, still remembered with honor its old companions in arms.
Gervase Crouchback stroked his side-whiskers and found a respectful audience for his views on the Irish question and the Catholic missions in India. Hermione set up her easel among the ruins and while she painted Gervase read aloud from the poems of Tennyson and Patmore. She was pretty and spoke three languages; he was all that the Romans expected of an Englishman. Everywhere the fortunate pair were praised and petted but all was not entirely well with them. No sign or hint betrayed their distress but when the last wheels rolled away and they mounted to their final privacy, there was a sad gap between them, made by modesty and tenderness and innocence, which neither spoke of except in prayer.
Later they joined a yacht at Naples and steamed slowly up the coast, putting in at unfrequented harbors. And there, one night in their state room, all at last came right between them and their love was joyfully completed.
Before they fell asleep they felt the engines stop and heard the rattle of the anchor-chain, and when Gervase came on deck at dawn, he found that the ship lay in the shelter of a high peninsula. He called Hermione to join him and so standing together hand-in-hand, at the moist taffrail, they had their first view of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce and took the place and all its people into their exulting hearts.
The waterfront was thronged as though the inhabitants had been shaken from bed by an earthquake; their voices came clearly across the water, admiring the strange vessel. Houses rose steeply from the quay; two buildings stood out from the ocher and white walls and rusty pantiles, the church domed, with a voluted façade, and a castle of some kind comprising two great bastions and what seemed a ruined watch-tower. Behind the town for a short distance the hillside was terraced and planted, then above broke wildly into boulders and briar. There was a card game which Gervase and Hermione had played together in the schoolroom in which the winner of a trick called, “I claim.”
“I claim,” cried Hermione, taking possession of all she saw by right of her happiness.
Later in the morning the English party landed. Two sailors went first to prevent any annoyance from the natives. There followed four couples of ladies and gentlemen; then the servants carrying hampers and shawls and sketching materials. The ladies wore yachting caps and held their skirts clear of the cobbles; some carried lorgnettes. The gentlemen protected them with fringed sunshades. It was a procession such as Santa Dulcina delle Rocce had never seen before. They sauntered through the arcades, plunged briefly into the cool twilight of the church and climbed the steps which led from the piazza to the fortifications.
Little remained. The great paved platform was broken everywhere with pine and broom. The watch-tower was full of rubble. Two cottages had been built in the hillside from the finely cut masonry of the old castle and two families of peasants ran out to greet them with bunches of mimosa. The picnic luncheon was spread in the shade.
“Disappointing when you get up here,” said the owner of the yacht apologetically. “Always the way with these places. Best seen from a distance.”
“I think it’s quite perfect,” said Hermione, “and we’re going to live here. Please don’t say a word against our castle.”
Gervase laughed indulgently with the others but later, when his father died and he seemed to be rich, the project came to life. Gervase made inquiries. The castle belonged to an elderly lawyer in Genoa who was happy to sell. Presently a plain square house rose above the ramparts and English stocks added their sweetness to the myrtle and the pine. Gervase called his new house the Villa Hermione, but the name never caught the local fancy. It was cut in large square letters on the gate-posts but honeysuckle spread and smothered it. The people of Santa Dulcina spoke always of the “Castello Crouchback” until eventually that title found its way to the head of the writing-paper and Hermione, proud bride, was left without commemoration.
Whatever its name, however, the Castello kept the character of its origin. For fifty years, until the shadows closed on the Crouchback family, it was a place of joy and love. Guy’s father and Guy himself came there for their honeymoons. It was constantly lent to newly married cousins and friends. It was the place of Guy’s happiest holidays with his brothers and sister. The town changed a little but neither railway nor high road touched that happy peninsula. A few more foreigners built their villas there. The inn enlarged itself, installed sanitation of a sort and a café-restaurant, took the name of “Hotel Eden” and abruptly changed it during the Abyssinian crisis to “Albergo del Sol.” The garage proprietor became secretary of the local Fascists. But as Guy descended to the piazza on his last morning, he saw little that would have been unfamiliar to Gervase and Hermione. Already, an hour before midday, the heat was fierce but he walked as blithely as they on that first morning of secret jubilation. For him, as for them, frustrated love had found its first satisfaction. He was packed and dressed for a long journey, already on his way back to his own country to serve his King.
Just seven days earlier he had opened his morning newspaper on the headlines announcing the Russian-German alliance. News that shook the politicians and young poets of a dozen capital cities brought deep peace to one English heart. Eight years of shame and loneliness were ended. For eight years Guy, already set apart from his fellows by his own deep wound, that unstaunched, internal draining away of life and love, had been deprived of the loyalties which should have sustained him. He lived too close to Fascism in Italy to share the opposing enthusiasms of his countrymen. He saw it neither as a calamity nor as a rebirth; as a rough improvisation merely. He disliked the men who were edging themselves into power around him, but English denunciations sounded fatuous and dishonest and for the past three years he had given up his English newspapers. The German Nazis he knew to be mad and bad. Their participation dishonored the cause of Spain, but the troubles of Bohemia, the year before, left him quite indifferent. When Prague fell, he knew that war was inevitable. He expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.
Everything was now in order at the Castello. His formal farewells were made. The day before he had visited the Arciprete, the Podestà, the Reverend Mother at the Convent, Mrs. Garry at the Villa Datura, the Wilmots at the Castelletto Musgrave, Gräfin von Gluck at the Casa Gluck. Now there was a last piece of private business to transact. Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young now, in heart and step he came to bid good-bye to a life-long friend who lay, as was proper for a man dead eight hundred years, in the parish church.
St. Dulcina, titular patroness of the town, was reputedly a victim of Diocletian. Her effigy in wax lay languorously in a glass case under the high altar. Her bones, brought from the Greek islands by a medieval raiding party, lay in their rich casket in the sacristy safe. Once a year they were carried shoulder high through the streets amid showers of fireworks, but except on her feast day she was not much regarded in the town to which she had given her name. Her place as benefactor had been usurped by another figure whose tomb was always littered with screws of paper bearing petitions, whose fingers and toes were tied in bows of colored wool as aides-mémoire. He was older than the church, older than anything in it except the bones of St. Dulcina and a pre-Christian thunderbolt which lay concealed in the back of the altar (whose existence the Arciprete always denied). His name, just legible still, was Roger of Waybrooke, Knight, an Englishman; his arms five falcons. His sword and one gauntlet still lay beside him. Guy’s uncle, Peregrine, a student of such things, had learned some of his story. Waybroke, now Waybrook, was quite near London. Roger’s manor had long ago been lost and over-built. He left it for the second Crusade, sailed from Genoa and was shipwrecked on this coast. There he enlisted under the local Count, who promised to take him to the Holy Land but led him first against a neighbor, on the walls of whose castle he fell at the moment of victory. The Count gave him honorable burial and there he had lain through the centuries, while the church crumbled and was rebuilt above him, far from Jerusalem, far from Waybroke, a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled; but the people of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, to whom the supernatural order in all its ramifications was ever present and ever more lively than the humdrum world about them, adopted Sir Roger and despite all clerical remonstrance canonized him, brought him their troubles and touched his sword for luck, so that its edge was always bright. All his life, but especially in recent years, Guy had felt an especial kinship with “il Santo Inglese.” Now, on his last day, he made straight for the tomb and ran his finger, as the fishermen did, along the knight’s sword. “Sir Roger, pray for me,” he said, “and for our endangered kingdom.”
The confessional was occupied that morning, for it was the day when Suora Tomasina brought the schoolchildren to their duties. They sat on a bench along the wall, whispering and pinching one another, while the sister flapped over them like a hen leading them in turn to the grille and thence to the high altar to recite their penance.
On an impulse, not because his conscience troubled him but because it was a habit learned in childhood to go to confession before a journey, Guy made a sign to the sister and interrupted the succession of peasant urchins.
“Beneditemi, padre, perche ho peccato…” Guy found it easy to confess in Italian. He spoke the language well but without nuances. There was no risk of going deeper than the denunciation of his few infractions of law, of his habitual weaknesses. Into that wasteland where his soul languished he need not, could not, enter. He had no words to describe it. There were no words in any language. There was nothing to describe, merely a void. His was not an “interesting case,” he thought. No cosmic struggle raged in his sad soul. It was as though eight years back he had suffered a tiny stroke of paralysis; all his spiritual faculties were just perceptibly impaired. He was “handicapped” as Mrs. Garry of the Villa Datura would have put it. There was nothing to say about it.
The priest gave him absolution and the traditional words of dismissal: “Sia lodato Gesù Cristo,” and he answered “Oggi, sempre.” He rose from his knees, said three “Aves” before the waxen figure of St. Dulcina and passed through the leather curtain into the blazing sunlight of the piazza.
Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren of the peasants who first greeted Gervase and Hermione still inhabited the cottages behind the Castello and farmed the surrounding terraces. They grew and made the wine; they sold the olives; they kept an almost etiolated cow in an underground stable from which sometimes she escaped and trampled the vegetable beds and plunged over the low walls until she was, with immense drama, recaptured. They paid for their tenancy in produce and service. Two sisters, Josefina and Bianca, did the work of the house. They had laid Guy’s last luncheon under the orange trees. He ate his spaghetti and drank his vino scelto, the brownish, heady wine of the place. Then with a fuss Josefina brought him a large ornamental cake which had been made in celebration of his departure. His slight appetite was already satisfied. He watched with alarm as Josefina carved. He tasted it, praised it, crumbled it. Josefina and Bianca stood implacable before him until he had finished the last morsel.
The taxi was waiting. There was no carriage drive to the Castello. The gates stood in the lane at the bottom of a flight of steps. When Guy rose to leave, all his little household, twenty strong, assembled to see him go. They would remain come what might. All kissed his hand. Most wept. The children threw flowers into the car. Josefina put into his lap the remains of the cake wrapped in newspaper. They waved until he was out of sight, then returned to their siestas. Guy moved the cake to the back seat and wiped his hands with his handkerchief. He was glad that the ordeal was over and waited resignedly for the Fascist secretary to start a conversation.
He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico. Gräfin von Gluck, who spoke no word of Italian and lived in undisguised concubinage with her butler, was simpatica. Mrs. Garry was simpatica, who distributed Protestant tracts, interfered with the fishermen’s methods of killing octopuses and filled her house with stray cats.
Guy’s uncle, Peregrine, a bore of international repute whose dreaded presense could empty the room in any center of civilization—Uncle Peregrine was considered molto simpatico. The Wilmots were gross vulgarians; they used Santa Dulcina purely as a pleasure resort, subscribed to no local funds, gave rowdy parties and wore indecent clothes, talked of “wops” and often left after the summer with their bills to the tradesmen unpaid; but they had four boisterous and ill-favored daughters whom the Santa-Dulcinesi had watched grow up. Better than this, they had lost a son bathing from the rocks. The Santa-Dulcinesi participated in these joys and sorrows. They observed with relish their hasty and unobstrusive departures at the end of the holidays. They were simpatici. Even Musgrave who had the Castelletto before the Wilmots and bequeathed it his name, Musgrave who, it was said, could not go to England or America because of warrants for his arrest, “Musgrave the Monster,” as the Crouchbacks used to call him—he was simpatico. Guy alone, whom they had known from infancy, who spoke their language and conformed to their religion, who was open-handed in all his dealing and scrupulously respectful of all their ways, whose grandfather built their school, whose mother had given a set of vestments embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework for the annual procession of St. Dulcina’s bones—Guy alone was a stranger among them.
The black-shirt said: “You are leaving for a long time?”
“For the duration of the war.”
“There will be no war. No one wants it. Who would gain?”
As they drove they passed on every windowless wall the lowering, stencilled face of Mussolini and the legend “The Leader is always right.” The Fascist secretary took his hands off the wheel and lit a cigarette, accelerating as he did so. “The Leader is always right”… “The Leader is always right” flashed past and was lost in the dust. “War is foolishness,” said the imperfect disciple. “You will see. Everything will be brought to an arrangement.”
Guy did not dispute the matter. He was not interested in what the taxi-driver thought or said. Mrs. Garry would have thrown herself into argument. Once, driving with this same man, she had stopped the cab and walked home, three hot miles, to show her detestation of his political philosophy. But Guy had no wish to persuade or convince or to share his opinions with anyone. Even in his religion he felt no brotherhood. Often he wished that he lived in penal times when Broome had been a solitary outpost of the Faith, surrounded by aliens. Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world. He never went to communion on Sundays, slipping into the church, instead, very early on weekdays when few others were about. The people of Santa Dulcina preferred Musgrave the Monster. In the first years after his divorce Guy had prosecuted a few sad little love affairs but he had always hidden them from the village. Lately he had fallen into a habit of dry and negative chastity which even the priests felt to be unedifying. On the lowest, as on the highest plane, there was no sympathy between him and his fellow men. He could not listen to what the taxi-driver was saying.
“History is a living force,” said the taxi-driver, quoting from an article he had lately read. “No one can put a stop to it and say: ‘After this date there shall be no changes.’ With nations as with men, some grow old. Some have too much, others too little. Then there must be an arrangement. But if it comes to war, everyone will have too little. They know that. They will not have a war.”
Guy heard the voice without vexation. Only one small question troubled him now: what to do with the cake. He could not leave it in the car; Bianca and Josefina would hear of it. It would be a great nuisance in the train. He tried to remember whether the Vice-Consul, with whom he had to decide certain details of closing the Castello, had any children to whom the cake might be given. He rather thought he had.
Apart from this one sugary encumbrance, Guy floated free; as untouchable in his new-found contentment as in his old despair. Sia lodato Gesù Cristo. Oggi, sempre. Today especially; today of all days.
The Crouchback family, until quite lately rich and numerous, was now much reduced. Guy was the youngest of them and it seemed likely he would be the last. His mother was dead, his father over seventy. There had been four children. Angela, the eldest; then Gervase, who went straight from Downside into the Irish Guards and was picked off by a sniper his first day in France, instantly, fresh and clean and unwearied, as he followed the duckboard across the mud, carrying his blackthorn stick, on his way to report to company headquarters. Ivo was only a year older than Guy but they were never friends. Ivo was always odd. He grew much odder and finally, when he was twenty-six, disappeared from home. For months there was no news of him. Then he was found barricaded alone in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was starving himself to death. He was carried out emaciated and delirious and died a few days later stark mad. That was in 1931. Ivo’s death sometimes seemed to Guy a horrible caricature of his own life, which at just that time was plunged in disaster.
Before Ivo’s oddness gave real cause for anxiety Guy had married, not a Catholic but a bright, fashionable girl, quite unlike anyone that his friends or family would have expected. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune, and settled in Kenya, living, it seemed to him afterwards, in unruffled good-humour beside a mountain lake where the air was always brilliant and keen and the flamingos rose at dawn first white, then pink, then a whirl of shadow passing across the glowing sky. He farmed assiduously and nearly made it pay. Then unaccountably his wife said that her health required a year in England. She wrote regularly and affectionately until one day, still affectionately, she informed him that she had fallen deeply in love with an acquaintance of theirs named Tommy Blackhouse; that Guy was not to be cross about it; that she wanted a divorce. “And, please,” her letter ended, “there’s to be no chivalrous nonsense of your going to Brighton and playing ‘the guilty party.’ That would mean six months separation from Tommy and I won’t trust him out of my sight for six minutes, the beast.”
So Guy left Kenya and shortly afterwards his father, widowed and despairing of an heir, left Broome. The property was reduced by then to the house and park and home farm. In recent years it had achieved a certain celebrity. It was almost unique in contemporary England, having been held in uninterrupted male succession since the reign of Henry I. Mr. Crouchback did not sell it. He let it, instead, to a convent and himself retired to Matchet, a near-by watering-place. And the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old.
No one was more conscious of the decline of the House of Crouchback than Guy’s brother-in-law, Arthur Box-Bender, who had married Angela in 1914 when Broome seemed set unalterably in the firmament, a celestial body emanating tradition and unobstrusive authority. Box-Bender was not a man of family and he respected Angela’s pedigree. He even at one time considered the addition of Crouchback to his own name, in place of either Box or Bender, both of which seemed easily dispensable, but Mr. Crouchback’s chilling indifference and Angela’s ridicule quickly discouraged him. He was not a Catholic and he thought it Guy’s plain duty to marry again, preferably someone with money, and carry on his line. He was not a sensitive man and he could not approve Guy’s hiding himself away. He ought to take over the home farm at Broome. He ought to go into politics. People like Guy, he freely stated, owed something to their country; but when at the end of August 1939 Guy presented himself in London with the object of paying that debt, Arthur Box-Bender was not sympathetic.
“My dear Guy,” he said, “be your age.”
Box-Bender was fifty-six and a Member of Parliament. Many years ago he had served quite creditably in a rifle regiment; he had a son serving with them now. For him soldiering was something that belonged to extreme youth, like butterscotch and catapults. Guy at thirty-five, shortly to be thirty-six, still looked on himself as a young man. Time had stood still for him during the last eight years. It had advanced swiftly for Box-Bender.
“Can you seriously imagine yourself sprinting about at the head of a platoon?”
“Well, yes,” said Guy. “That’s exactly what I did imagine.”
Guy usually stayed with Box-Bender in Lowndes Square when he was in London. He had come straight to him now from Victoria but found his sister Angela away in the country and the house already half dismantled. Box-Bender’s study was the last room to be left untouched. They were sitting there now before going out to dinner.
“I’m afraid you won’t get much encouragement. All that sort of thing happened in 1914—retired colonels dyeing their hair and enlisting in the ranks. I remember it. I was there. All very gallant of course but it won’t happen this time. The whole thing is planned. The Government know just how many men they can handle; they know where they can get them; they’ll take them in their own time. At the moment we haven’t got the accommodation or the equipment for any big increase. There may be casualties, of course, but personally I don’t see it as a soldier’s war at all. Where are we going to fight? No one in his senses would try to break either the Maginot or the Siegfried Lines. As I see it, both sides will sit tight until they begin to feel the economic pinch. The Germans are short of almost every industrial essential. As soon as they realize that Mr. Hitler’s bluff has been called, we shan’t hear much more of Mr. Hitler. That’s an internal matter for the Germans to settle for themselves. We can’t treat with the present gang of course, but as soon as they produce a respectable government we shall be able to iron out all our differences.”
“That’s rather how my Italian taxi-driver talked yesterday.”
“Of course. Always go to a taxi-driver when you want a sane, independent opinion. I talked to one today. He said: ‘When we are at war then it’ll be time to start talking about war. Just at present we aren’t at war.’ Very sound that.”
“But I notice you are taking every precaution.”
Box-Bender’s three daughters had been dispatched to stay with a commercial associate in Connecticut. The house in Lowndes Square was being emptied and shut. Some of the furniture had gone to the country; the rest would go into store. Box-Bender had taken part of a large brand-new luxury flat, going cheap at the moment. He and two colleagues from the House of Commons would share these quarters. The cleverest of his dodges had been to get his house in the constituency accepted as a repository for “National Art Treasures.” There would be no trouble there with billeting officers, civil or military. A few minutes earlier Box-Bender had explained these provisions with some pride. Now he merely turned to the wireless and said: “D’you mind awfully if I just switch this thing on for a moment to hear what they’re saying? There may be something new.”
But there was not. Nor was there any message of peace. The evacuation of centers of population was proceeding like clock-work; happy groups of mothers and children were arriving punctually at their distributing centers and being welcomed into their new homes. Box-Bender switched it off.
“Nothing new since this afternoon. Funny how one keeps twiddling the thing these days. I never had much use for it before. By the way, Guy, that’s a thing that might suit you, if you really want to make yourself useful. They’re very keen to collect foreign language speakers at the B.B.C. for monitoring and propaganda and that sort of rot. Not very exciting of course but someone has to do it and I think your Italian would come in very handy.”
There was no great affection between the two brothers-in-law. It never occurred to Guy to speculate about Box-Bender’s view of him. It never occurred to him that Box-Bender had any particular view. As a matter of fact, which he freely admitted to Angela, Box-Bender had for some years been expecting Guy to go mad. He was not an imaginative man, nor easily impressionable, but he had been much mixed up in the quest for Ivo and his ghastly discovery. That thing had made an impression. Guy and Ivo were remarkably alike. Box-Bender remembered Ivo’s look in the days when his extreme oddness still tottered this side of lunacy; it had not been a wild look at all; something rather smug and purposeful; something “dedicated”; something in fact very much like the look in Guy’s eyes now as he presented himself so inopportunely in Lowndes Square talking calmly about the Irish Guards. It could bode no good. Best get him quickly into something like the B.B.C., out of harm’s way.
They dined that night at Bellamy’s. Guy’s family had always belonged to this club. Gervase’s name was on the 1914–18 Roll of Honor in the front hall. Poor crazy Ivo had often sat in the bay window alarming passers-by with his fixed stare. Guy had joined in early manhood, seldom used it in recent years, but kept his name on the list notwithstanding. It was an historic place. Once fuddled gamblers, attended by linkmen, had felt their way down these steps to their coaches. Now Guy and Box-Bender felt their way up in utter blindness. The first glass doors were painted out. Within them in the little vestibule was a perceptible eerie phosphorescence. Beyond the second pair of doors was bright light, noise, and a thick and stagnant fog of cigar-smoke and whisky. In these first days of the black-out the problem of ventilation was unsolved.
The club had only that day re-opened after its annual cleaning. In normal times it would have been quite empty at this season. Now it was thronged. There were many familiar faces but no friends. As Guy passed a member who greeted him, another turned and asked: “Who was that? Someone new, isn’t it?”
“No, he’s belonged for ages. You’ll never guess who he is. Virginia Troy’s first husband.”
“Really? I thought she was married to Tommy Blackhouse.”
“This chap was before Tommy. Can’t remember his name. I think he lives in Kenya. Tommy took her from him, then Gussie had her for a bit, then Bert Troy picked her up when she was going spare.”
“She’s a grand girl. Wouldn’t mind having a go myself one of these days.”
For in this club there were no depressing conventions against the bandying of ladies’ names.
Box-Bender and Guy drank, dined and drank with a group which fluctuated and changed throughout the evening. The conversation was briskly topical and through it Guy began to make acquaintance with this changed city. They spoke of domestic arrangements. Everyone seemed to be feverishly occupied in disencumbering himself of responsibilities. Box-Bender’s arrangements were the microcosm of a national movement. Everywhere houses were being closed, furniture stored, children transported, servants dismissed, lawns plowed, dower-houses and shooting lodges crammed to capacity; mothers-in-law and nannies were everywhere gaining control.
They spoke of incidents and crimes in the black-out. So-and-so had lost all her teeth in a taxi. So-and-so had been sand-bagged in Hay Hill and robbed of his poker-winnings. So-and-so had been knocked down by a Red Cross ambulance and left for dead.
They spoke of various forms of service. Most were in uniform. Everywhere little groups of close friends were arranging to spend the war together. There was a territorial searchlight battery manned entirely by fashionable aesthetes who were called “the monstrous regiment of gentlemen.” Stockbrokers and wine salesmen were settling into the offices of London District Headquarters. Regular soldiers were kept at twelve hours’ notice for active service. Yachtsmen were in R.N.V.R. uniform growing beards. There seemed no opportunity for Guy in any of this.
“My brother-in-law here is looking for a job,” said Box-Bender.
“You’ve left it rather late, you know. Everyone’s pretty well fixed. Of course things will start popping once the balloon goes up. I should wait till then.”
They sat on late, for no one relished the plunge into darkness. No one attempted to drive a car. Taxis were rare. They made up parties to walk homeward together. At length Guy and Box-Bender joined a group walking to Belgravia. They stumbled down the steps together and set out into the baffling midnight void. Time might have gone back two thousand years to the time when London was a stockaded cluster of huts down the river, and the streets through which they walked, empty sedge and swamp.
In the following fortnight Guy came to spend most of the day in Bellamy’s. He moved to an hotel and immediately after breakfast daily walked to St. James’s Street as a man might go to his office. He wrote letters there, a thick batch of them every day, written shamefacedly with growing facility in a corner of the morning-room.
“Dear General Cutter, Please forgive me for troubling you at this busy time. I hope you remember as I do the happy day when the Bradshawes brought you to my house at Santa Dulcina and we went out together in the boat and so ignominously failed to spear pulpi…”
“Dear Colonel Glover, I am writing to you because I know you served with my brother Gervase and were a friend of his…”
“Dear Sam, Though we have not met since Downside I have followed your career with distant admiration and vicarious pride…”
“Dear Molly, I am sure I ought not to know, but I do know that Alex is Someone Very Important and Secret at the Admiralty. I know that you have him completely under your thumb. So do you think you could possibly be an angel…”
He had become a facile professional beggar.
Usually there was an answer; a typewritten note or a telephone call from a secretary or aide-de-camp; an appointment or an invitation. Always there was the same polite discouragement. “We organized skeleton staffs at the time of Munich. I expect we shall expand as soon as we know just what our commitments are”—from the civilians—“Our last directive was to go slow on personnel. I’ll put you in our list and see you are notified as soon as anything turns up.”
“We don’t want cannon-fodder this time”—from the Services—“we learned our lesson in 1914 when we threw away the pick of the nation. That’s what we’ve suffered from ever since.”
“But I’m not the pick of the nation,” said Guy. “I’m natural fodder. I’ve no dependents. I’ve no special skill in anything. What’s more I’m getting old. I’m ready for immediate consumption. You should take the thirty-fives now and give the young men time to get sons.”
“I’m afraid that’s not the official view. I’ll put you on our list and see you’re notified as soon as anything turns up.”
In the following days Guy’s name was put on many lists and his few qualifications summarized and filed in many confidential registers where they lay unexamined through all the long years ahead.
England declared war but it made no change in Guy’s routine of appeals and interviews. No bombs fell. There was no rain of poison or fire. Bones were still broken after dark. That was all. At Bellamy’s he found himself one of a large depressed class of men older than himself who had served without glory in the First World War. Most of them had gone straight from school to the trenches and spent the rest of their lives forgetting the mud and lice and noise. They were under orders to await orders and spoke sadly of the various drab posts that awaited them at railway stations and docks and dumps. The balloon had gone up, leaving them on the ground.
Russia invaded Poland. Guy found no sympathy among these old soldiers for his own hot indignation.
“My dear fellow, we’ve quite enough on our hands as it is. We can’t go to war with the whole world.”
“Then why go to war at all? If all we want is prosperity, the hardest bargain Hitler made would be preferable to victory. If we are concerned with justice the Russians are as guilty as the Germans.”
“Justice?” said the old soldiers. “Justice?”
“Besides,” said Box-Bender when Guy spoke to him of the matter which seemed in no one’s mind but his, “the country would never stand for it. The socialists have been crying blue murder against the Nazis for five years but they are all pacifists at heart. So far as they have any feeling of patriotism it’s for Russia. You’d have a general strike and the whole country in collapse if you set up to be just.”
“Then what are we fighting for?”
“Oh we had to do that, you know. The socialists always thought we were pro-Hitler, God knows why. It was quite a job in keeping neutral over Spain. You missed all that excitement living abroad. It was quite ticklish, I assure you. If we sat tight now there’d be chaos. What we have to do now is to limit and localize the war, not extend it.”
The conclusion of all these discussions was darkness, the baffling night that lay beyond the club doors. When the closing hour came the old soldiers and young soldiers and the politicians made up their same little companies to grope their way home together. There was always someone going Guy’s way towards his hotel, always a friendly arm. But his heart was lonely.
Guy heard of mysterious departments known only by their initials or as “So-and-so’s cloak and dagger boys.” Bankers, gamblers, men with jobs in oil companies seemed to find a way there; not Guy. He met an acquaintance, a journalist, who had once come to Kenya. This man, Lord Kilbannock, had lately written a racing column; now he was in Air Force uniform.
“How did you manage it?” Guy asked.
“Well, it’s rather shaming really. There’s an air marshal whose wife plays bridge with my wife. He’s always been mad keen to get in here. I’ve just put him up. He’s the most awful shit.”
“Will he get in?”
“No, no, I’ve seen to that. Three blackballs guaranteed already. But he can’t get me out of the Air Force.”
“What do you do?”
“That’s rather shaming too. I’m what’s called a ‘conducting officer.’ I take American journalists round fighter stations. But I shall find something else soon. The great thing is to get into uniform; then you can start moving yourself round. It’s a very exclusive war at present. Once you’re in, there’s every opportunity. I’ve got my eye on India or Egypt. Somewhere where there’s no black-out. Fellow in the flats where I live got coshed on the head the other night, right on the steps. All a bit too dangerous for me. I don’t want a medal. I want to be known as one of the soft-faced men who did well out of the war. Come and have a drink.”
So the evenings passed. Every morning Guy awoke in his hotel bedroom, early and anxious. After a month of it he decided to leave London and visit his family.
He went first to his sister, Angela, to the house in Gloucester-shire which Box-Bender bought when he was adopted as Member for the constituency.
“We’re living in the most frightful squalor,” she said on the telephone. “We can’t meet people at Kemble anymore. No petrol. You’ll have to change and take the local train. Or else the bus from Stroud if it’s still running. I rather think it isn’t.”
But at Kemble, when he emerged from the corridor in which he had stood for three hours, he found his nephew Tony on the platform to greet him. He was in flannels. Only his close-cropped hair marked him as a soldier.
“Hullo, Uncle Guy. I hope I’m a pleasant surprise. I’ve come to save you from the local train. They’ve given us embarkation leave and a special issue of petrol coupons. Jump in.”
“Shouldn’t you be in uniform?”
“Should be. But no one does. It makes me feel quite human getting out of it for a few hours.”
“I think I shall want to stay in mine once I get it.”
Tony Box-Bender laughed innocently. “I should love to see you. Somehow I can’t imagine you as one of the licentious soldiery. Why did you leave Italy? I should have thought Santa Dulcina was just the place to spend the war. How did you leave everyone?”
“Momentarily in tears.”
“I bet they miss you.”
“Not really. They cry easily.”
They bowled along between low Cotswold walls. Presently they came into sight of the Berkeley Vale far below them with the Severn shining brown and gold in the evening sun.
“You’re glad to be going to France?”
“Of course. It’s hell in barracks being chased round all day. It’s pretty good hell at home at the moment—art treasures everywhere and Mum doing the cooking.”
Box-Bender’s house was a small, gabled manor in a sophisticated village where half the cottages were equipped with baths and chintz. Drawing-room and dining-room were blocked to the ceiling with wooden crates.
“Such a disappointment, darling,” said Angela. “I thought we’d been so clever. I imagined us having the Wallace Collection and luxuriating in Sèvres and Boulle and Bouchers. Such a cultured war, I imagined. Instead we’ve got Hittite tables from the British Museum, and we mayn’t even peep at them, not that we want to, heaven knows. You’re going to be hideously uncomfortable, darling. I’ve put you in the library. All the top floor is shut so that if we’re bombed we shan’t panic and jump out of the windows. That’s Arthur’s idea. He’s really been too resourceful. He and I are in the cottage. I know we shall break our necks one night going to bed across the garden. Arthur’s so strict about the electric torch. It’s all very idiotic. No one can possibly see into the garden.”
It seemed to Guy that his sister had grown more talkative than she had been.
“Ought we to have asked people in for your last night, Tony? I’m afraid it’s very dull, but who is there? Besides there really isn’t elbow room for ourselves now we eat in Arthur’s business-room.”
“No, Mum, it’s much nicer being alone.”
“I so hoped you’d say that. We like it of course, but I do think they might give you two nights.”
“Have to be in at reveille on Monday. If you’d stayed in London…”
“But you’d sooner be at home your last night?”
“Wherever you are, Mum.”
“Isn’t he a dear boy, Guy?”
The library was now the sole living-room. The bed already made up for Guy on a sofa at one end consorted ill with the terrestrial and celestial globes at its head and foot.
“You and Tony will both have to wash in the loo under the stairs. He’s sleeping in the flower-room, poor pet. Now I must go and see to dinner.”
“There’s really not the smallest reason for all this,” said Tony. “Mum and Dad seem to enjoy turning everything topsy-turvy. I suppose it comes from having been so very correct before. And of course Dad has always been jolly close about money. He hated paying out when he felt he had to. Now he thinks he’s got a splendid excuse for economizing.”
Arthur Box-Bender came in carrying a tray. “Well, you see how we’re roughing it,” he said. “In a year or two, if the war goes on, everyone will have to live like this. We’re starting early. It’s the greatest fun.”
“You’re only here for week-ends,” said Tony. “I hear you’re very snug in Arlington Street.”
“I believe you would sooner have spent your leave in London.”
“Not really,” said Tony.
“There wouldn’t have been room for your mother in the flat. No wives. That was part of the concordat we made when we decided to share. Sherry, Guy? I wonder what you’ll think of this. It’s South African. Everyone will be drinking it soon.”
“This zeal to lead the fashion is something new, Arthur.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Not very much.”
“The sooner we get used to it the better. There is no more coming from Spain.”
“It all tastes the same to me,” said Tony.
“Well, the party is in your honor.”
A gardener’s wife and a girl from the village were now the only servants. Angela did all the lighter and cleaner work of the kitchen. Presently she called them in to dinner in the little study which Arthur Box-Bender liked to call his “business-room.” He had a spacious office in the City; his election agent had permanent quarters in the market town; his private secretary had files, a typewriter and two telephones in South-West London; no business was ever done in the room where they now dined, but Box-Bender had first heard the expression used by Mr. Crouchback of the place where he patiently transacted all the paper work of the estate at Broome. It had an authentic rural flavor, Box-Bender rightly thought.
In the years of peace Box-Bender often entertained neat little parties of eight or ten to dinner. Guy had memories of many candle-lit evenings, of a rather rigid adequacy of food and wine, of Box-Bender sitting square in his place and leading the conversation in humdrum topical subjects. Tonight with Angela and Tony frequently on their feet moving the plates, he seemed less at his ease. His interests were still topical and humdrum but Guy and Tony had each his own preoccupation.
“Shocking thing about the Abercrombies,” he said. “Did you hear? They packed up and went to Jamaica bag and baggage.”
“Why shouldn’t they?” said Tony. “They couldn’t be any use here. Just extra mouths to feed.”
“It looks as though I am going to be an extra mouth,” said Guy. “It’s a matter of sentiment, I suppose. One wants to be with one’s own people in war-time.”
“Can’t see it,” said Tony.
“There’s plenty of useful work for the civilian,” said Box-Bender.
“All the Prentices’ evacuees have gone back to Birmingham in a huff,” said Angela. “They always were unnaturally lucky. We’ve got the Hittite horrors for life, I know.”
“It’s an awful business for the men not knowing where their wives and families are,” said Tony. “Our wretched Welfare Officer spends his whole day trying to trace them. Six men in my platoon have gone on leave not knowing if they’ve got a home to go to.”
“Old Mrs. Sparrow fell out of the apple-loft and broke both legs. They wouldn’t take her in at the hospital because all the beds are kept for air-raid casualties.”
“We have to keep a duty officer on day and night doing P.A.D. It’s a ghastly bore. They ring up every hour to report ‘All clear.’ ”
“Caroline Maiden was stopped in Stroud by a policeman and asked why she wasn’t carrying a gas-mask.”
“Chemical Warfare is the end. I’m jolly grateful I had a classical education. We had to send an officer from the battalion on a C.W. course. They had me down for it. Then by the mercy of God a frightfully wet fellow turned up in C Company who’d just got a science scholarship, so I stood the adjutant a couple of drinks and got him sent instead. All the wettest fellows are in C.W.”
Tony was from another world; their problems were not his Guy belonged to neither world.
“I heard someone say that this was a very exclusive war.”
“Well, surely, Uncle Guy, the more who can keep out of it the better. You civilians don’t know when you’re well off.”
“Perhaps we don’t want to be particularly well off at the moment, Tony.”
“I know exactly what I want. An M.C. and a nice neat wound. Then I can spend the rest of the war being cosseted by beautiful nurses.”
“Sorry, Mum. Don’t look so desperately serious. I shall begin to wish I’d spent my leave in London.”
“I thought I was keeping such a stiff upper lip. Only please, darling, don’t talk like that about being wounded.”
“Well, it’s the best one can hope for, isn’t it?”
“Look here,” said Box-Bender, “aren’t we all getting a bit morbid? Take Uncle Guy away while your mother and I clear the table.”
Guy and Tony went into the library. The french windows were open on the paved garden. “Damn, we must draw the curtains before we put on the light.”
“Let’s go out for a minute,” said Guy.
It was just light enough to see the way. The air was scented by invisible magnolia flowers, high in the old tree which covered half the house.
“Never felt less morbid in my life,” said Tony, but as he and Guy strolled out into the gathering darkness, he broke the silence by saying suddenly, “Tell me about going mad. Are lots of Mum’s family cuckoo?”
“There was Uncle Ivo, wasn’t there?”
“He suffered from an excess of melancholy.”
“No, no. Why? Do you feel your reason tottering?”
“Not yet. But it’s something I read, about an officer in the last war who seemed quite normal till he got into action and then went barking mad and his sergeant had to shoot him.”
“ ‘Barking’ is scarcely the word for your uncle’s trouble. He was in every sense a most retiring man.”
“How about the others?”
“Look at me. Look at your grandfather—and your great-uncle Peregrine; he’s appallingly sane.”
“He’s spending his time collecting binoculars and sending them to the War Office. Is that sane?”
“I’m glad you told me.”
Presently Angela called: “Come in, you two. It’s quite dark. What are you talking about?”
“Tony thinks he’s going mad.”
“Mrs. Groat is. She left the larder un-blacked-out.”
They sat in the library with their backs to Guy’s bed. Quite soon Tony rose to say good night.
“Mass is at eight,” said Angela. “We ought to start at twenty to. I’m picking up some evacuees in Uley.”
“Oh I say, isn’t there something later? I was looking forward to a long lie.”
“I thought we might all go to communion tomorrow. Do come, Tony.”
“All right, Mum, of course I will. Only make it twenty-five-to in that case. I shall have to go to scrape after weeks of wickedness.”
Box-Bender looked self-conscious, as he still did, always, when religious practices were spoken of. He did not get used to it—this ease with the Awful.
“I shall be with you in spirit,” he said.
Then he left too, and stumbled across the garden to the cottage. Angela and Guy were left alone.
“He’s a charming boy, Angela.”
“Yes, so military, isn’t he? All in a matter of months. He doesn’t mind a bit going to France.”
“I should think not indeed.”
“Oh, Guy, you’re too young to remember. I grew up with the first war. I’m one of the girls you read about who danced with the men who were being killed. I remember the telegram coming about Gervase. You were just a schoolboy going short of sweets. I remember the first lot who went out. There wasn’t one of them left at the end. What chance has a boy of Tony’s age starting now at the very beginning? I worked in a hospital, you remember. That’s why I couldn’t bear it when Tony talked of a nice neat wound and being cosseted.”
“He oughtn’t to have said that.”
“There weren’t any nice little wounds. They were all perfectly beastly and this time there’ll be all kinds of ghastly new chemicals too, I suppose. You heard how he spoke about Chemical Warfare—a hobby for ‘wet’ officers. He doesn’t know what it will be like. There isn’t even the hope of his being taken prisoner this time. Under the Kaiser the Germans were still a civilized people. These brutes will do anything.”
“Angela, there’s nothing I can say except that you know very well you wouldn’t have Tony a bit different. You wouldn’t want him to be one of those wretched boys I hear about who have run away to Ireland or America.”
“That’s quite inconceivable, of course.”
“I know. I know. Time for bed. I’m afraid we’ve filled your room with smoke. You can open the window when the light’s out. Thank goodness Arthur has gone ahead. I can use my torch across the garden without being accused of attracting Zeppelins.”
That night, lying long awake, obliged to choose between air and light, choosing air, not reading, Guy thought: Why Tony? What crazy economy was it that squandered Tony and saved himself? In China when called to the army it was honorable to hire a poor young man and send him in one’s place. Tony was rich in love and promise. He himself destitute, possessed of nothing save a few dry grains of faith. Why could he not go to France in Tony’s place, to the neat little wound or the barbarous prison?
But next morning as he knelt at the altar-rail beside Angela and Tony he seemed to hear his answer in the words of the canon: Domine non sum dignus.
Guy had planned to stay two nights and go on Monday to visit his father at Matchet. Instead he left before luncheon on Sunday so as to leave Angela uninterrupted in her last hours with Tony. It was a journey he had often made before. Box-Bender used to send him into Bristol by car. His father used to send for him to the mainline station. Now all the world seemed on the move and he was obliged to travel tediously with several changes of bus and train. It was late afternoon when he arrived at Matchet station and found his father with his old golden retriever waiting on the platform.
“I don’t know where the hotel porter is,” said Mr. Crouchback. “He should be here. I told him he would be needed. But everyone’s very busy. Leave your bag here. I expect we’ll meet him on the way.”
Father and son and dog walked out together into the sunset down the steep little streets of the town.
Despite the forty years that divided them there was a marked likeness between Mr. Crouchback and Guy. Mr. Crouchback was rather the taller and he wore an expression of steadfast benevolence quite lacking in Guy. “Racé rather than distingué” was how Miss Vavasour, a fellow resident at the Marine Hotel, defined Mr. Crouchback’s evident charm. There was nothing of the old dandy about him, nothing crusted, nothing crotchety. He was not at all what is called “a character.” He was an innocent, affable old man who had somehow preserved his good humor—much more than that, a mysterious and tranquil joy—throughout a life which to all outward observation had been overloaded with misfortune. He had like many another been born in full sunlight and lived to see night fall. England was full of such Jobs who had been disappointed in their prospects. Mr. Crouchback had lost his home. Partly in his father’s hands, partly in his own, without extravagance or speculation, his inheritance had melted away. He had rather early lost his beloved wife and been left to a long widowhood. He had an ancient name which was now little regarded and threatened with extinction. Only God and Guy knew the massive and singular quality of Mr. Crouchback’s family pride. He kept it to himself. That passion, which is often so thorny a growth, bore nothing save roses for Mr. Crouchback. He was quite without class consciousness because he saw the whole intricate social structure of his country divided neatly into two unequal and unmistakable parts. On one side stood the Crouchbacks and certain inconspicuous, anciently allied families; on the other side stood the rest of mankind, Box-Bender, the butcher, the Duke of Omnium (whose onetime wealth derived from monastic spoils), Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain—all of a piece together. Mr. Crouchback acknowledged no monarch since James II. It was not an entirely sane conspectus but it engendered in his gentle breast two rare qualities, tolerance and humility. For nothing much, he assumed, could reasonably be expected from the commonality; it was remarkable how well some of them did behave on occasions; while, for himself, any virtue he had came from afar without his deserving, and every small fault was grossly culpable in a man of his high tradition.
He had a further natural advantage over Guy; he was fortified by a memory which kept only the good things and rejected the ill. Despite his sorrows, he had had a fair share of joys, and these were ever fresh and accessible in Mr. Crouchback’s mind. He never mourned the loss of Broome. He still inhabited it as he had known it in bright boyhood and in early, requited love.
In his actual leaving home there had been no complaining. He attended every day of the sale seated in the marquee on the auctioneer’s platform, munching pheasant sandwiches, drinking port from a flask and watching the bidding with tireless interest, all unlike the ruined squire of Victorian iconography.
“… Who’d have thought those old vases worth £18?… Where did that table come from? Never saw it before in my life… Awful shabby the carpets look when you get them out… What on earth can Mrs. Chadwick want with a stuffed bear?…”
The Marine Hotel, Matchet, was kept by old servants from Broome. They made him very welcome. There he brought a few photographs, the bedroom furniture to which he was accustomed, complete and rather severe—the brass bedstead, the oak presses and boot-rack, the circular shaving glass, the mahogany prie-dieu. His sitting-room was furnished from the smoking-room at Broome with a careful selection of old favorites from the library. And there he had lived ever since, greatly respected by Miss Vavasour and the other permanent residents. The original manager sold out and went to Canada; his successor took on Mr. Crouchback with the other effects. Once a year he revisited Broome, when a requiem was sung for his ancestors. He never lamented his changed state or mentioned it to newcomers. He went to mass every day, walking punctually down the High Street before the shops were open; walking punctually back as the shutters were coming down, with a word of greeting for everyone he passed. All his pride of family was a schoolboy hobby compared with his religious faith. When Virginia left Guy childless, it did not occur to Mr. Crouchback, as it had never ceased occurring to Box-Bender, that the continuance of his line was worth a tiff with the Church; that Guy should marry by civil law and beget an heir and settle things up later with the ecclesiastical authorities as other people seemed somehow to do. Family pride could not be served in dishonor. There were in fact two medieval ex-communications and a seventeenth century apostasy clearly set out in the family annals, but those were among the things that Mr. Crouchback’s memory extruded.
Tonight the town seemed fuller than usual. Guy knew Matchet well. He had picnicked there as a child and visited his father whenever he came to England. The Marine Hotel lay outside the town, on the cliff beside the coast-guard station. Their way led down the harbor, along the waterfront, then up again by a red rock track. Lundy Island could be seen in the setting sun, beyond the brown waters. The channel was full of shipping held by the Contraband Control.
“I should have liked to say good-bye to Tony,” said Mr. Crouchback. “I didn’t know he was off so soon. There’s something I looked out for him the other day and wanted to give him. I know he’d have liked to have it—Gervase’s medal of Our Lady of Lourdes. He bought it in France on a holiday the year the war broke out and he always wore it. They sent it back after he was killed with his watch and things. Tony ought to have it.”
“I don’t think there’d be time to get it to him now.”
“I’d like to have given it to him myself. It’s not the same thing sending it in a letter. Harder to explain.”
“It didn’t protect Gervase much, did it?”
“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Crouchback, “much more than you might think. He told me when he came to say good-bye before going out. The army is full of temptations for a boy. Once in London, when he was in training, he got rather drunk with some of his regiment and in the end he found himself left alone with a girl they’d picked up somewhere. She began to fool about and pulled off his tie and then she found the medal and all of a sudden they both sobered down and she began talking about the convent where she’d been at school and so they parted friends and no harm done. I call that being protected. I’ve worn a medal all my life. Do you?”
“I have from time to time. I haven’t one at the moment.”
“You should, you know, with bombs and things about. If you get hit and taken to hospital, they know you’re a Catholic and send for a priest. A nurse once told me that. Would you care to have Gervase’s medal, if Tony can’t?”
“Very much. Besides I hope to get into the army too.”
“So you said in your letter. But they’ve turned you down?”
“There doesn’t seem to be much competition for me.”
“What a shame. But I can’t imagine you a soldier. You never liked motor-cars, did you? It’s all motor-cars now, you know. The yeomanry haven’t had any horses since the year before last, a man was telling me, and they haven’t any motor-cars either. Seems a silly business. But you don’t care for horses either, do you?”
“Not lately,” said Guy, remembering the eight horses he and Virginia had kept in Kenya, the rides round the lake at dawn; remembering, too, the Ford van which he had driven to market twice a month over the dirt track.
“Trains de luxe are more in your line, eh?”
“There wasn’t anything very luxurious about today’s trains,” said Guy.
“No,” said his father. “I’ve no business to chaff you. It’s very nice of you to come all this way to see me, my boy. I don’t think you’ll be dull. There are all kinds of new people in the inn—most amusing. I’ve made a whole new circle of friends in the last fortnight. Charming people. You’ll be surprised.”
“More Miss Vavasours?”
“No, no, different people. All sorts of quite young people. A charming Mrs. Tickeridge and her daughter. Her husband is a major in the Halberdiers. He’s come down for Sunday. You’ll like them awfully.”
The Marine Hotel was full and overflowing, as all hotels seemed to be all over the country. Formerly when he came to visit his father, Guy had been conscious of a stir of interest among guests and staff. Now he found it difficult to get any attention.
“No, we’re quite full up,” said the manageress. “Mr. Crouch-back did ask for a room for you but we were expecting you tomorrow. There’s nothing at all tonight.”
“Perhaps you could fix him up in my sitting-room.”
“We’ll do what we can, if you don’t mind waiting a bit.”
The porter who should have been at the station was helping hand round drinks in the lounge.
“I’ll go just as soon as I can, sir,” he said. “If you don’t mind waiting until after dinner.”
Guy did mind. He wanted a change of shirt after his journey, but the man was gone with his tray of glasses before Guy could answer.
“Isn’t it a gay scene?” said Mr. Crouchback. “Those are the Tickeridges over there. Do come and meet them.”
Guy saw a mousy woman and a man in uniform with enormous handle-bar mustaches. “I expect they’ve sent their little girl up to bed. She’s a remarkable child. Only six, no nannie, and does everything for herself.”
The mousy woman smiled with unexpected charm at Mr. Crouchback’s approach. The man with the mustaches began moving furniture about to make room.
“Cheeroh,” he said. “Pardon my glove.” (He was holding a chair above his head with both hands.) “We were about to do a little light shopping. What’s yours, sir?”
Somehow he cleared a small space and filled it with chairs. Somehow he caught the porter. Mr. Crouchback introduced Guy.
“So you’re joining the lotus-eaters too? I’ve just settled madam and the offspring here for the duration. Charming spot. I wish I could spend a few weeks here instead of in barracks.”
“No,” said Guy, “I’m only here for one night.”
“Pity. The madam wants company. Too many old pussy-cats around.”
In addition to his huge mustaches Major Tickeridge had tufts of wiry ginger whisker high on his cheekbones, almost in his eyes.
The porter brought them their drinks. Guy tried to engage him on the subject of his bag but he was off in a twinkling with “I’ll be with you in one minute, sir.”
“Baggage problems?” said the major. “They’re all in rather a flap here. What’s the trouble?”
Guy told him at some length.
“That’s easy. I’ve got the invaluable but usually invisible Halberdier Gold standing easy somewhere in the rear echelon. Let him go.”
“No, I say, please….”
“Halberdier Gold has not done a hand’s turn since we got here except call me too damned early this morning. He needs exercise. Besides he’s a married man and the housemaids won’t let him alone. It’ll do Halberdier Gold good to get away from them for a bit.”
Guy warmed towards this kind and hairy man.
“Here’s how,” said the major.
“Here’s how,” said the mousy wife.
“Here’s how,” said Mr. Crouchback with complete serenity.
But Guy could only manage an embarrassed grunt.
“First today,” said the major, downing his pink gin. “Vi, order another round while I winkle out the Halberdier.”
With a series of collisions and apologies Major Tickeridge made his way across the hall.
“It’s awfully kind of your husband.”
“He can’t bear a man standing idle,” said Mrs. Tickeridge. “It’s his Halberdier training.”
Later when they separated for dinner Mr. Crouchback said: “Delightful people, didn’t I tell you? You’ll see Jenifer tomorrow. A beautifully behaved child.”
In the dining-room the old residents had their tables round the wall. The newcomers were in the center, and, it seemed to Guy, got more attention. Mr. Crouchback by a long-standing arrangement brought his own wine and kept it in the hotel cellars. A bottle of Burgundy and a bottle of port were already on the table. The five courses were rather better than might have been expected.
“It’s really remarkable how the Cuthberts cope with the influx. It’s all happened so suddenly. Of course one has to wait a bit between courses but they manage to turn out a very decent dinner, don’t they? There’s only one change I mind. They’ve asked me not to bring Felix in to meals. Of course he did take up an awful lot of room.”
With the pudding the waiter put a plate of dog’s dinner on the table. Mr. Crouchback studied it carefully, turning it over with his fork.
“Yes, that looks delicious,” he said. “Thank you so very much,” and to Guy, “D’you mind if I take it up to Felix now? He’s used to it at this time. Help yourself to the port. I’ll be back directly.”
He carried the plate through the dining-room up to his sitting-room, now Guy’s bedroom, and soon returned.
“We’ll take him out later,” said Mr. Crouchback. “At about ten. I see the Tickeridges have finished dinner. The last two nights they’ve joined me in a glass of port. They seem a little shy tonight. You don’t mind if I ask them over, do you?”
“A beautiful wine, sir.”
“Oh, it’s just something the people in London send down to me.”
“I wish you could come to our mess one day. We’ve got some very fine port we bring out for guest nights. You, too,” he added, addressing Guy.
“My son, in spite of his advanced years, is making frantic efforts to join the army himself.”
“I say, not really? I call that jolly sporting.”
“I’m not seeing much sport,” said Guy, and wryly described the disappointments and rebuffs of the last fortnight.
Major Tickeridge was slightly puzzled by the ironic note of the recitation.
“I say,” he said. “Are you serious about this?”
“I try not to be,” said Guy. “But I’m afraid I am.”
“Because if you are serious, why don’t you join us?”
“I’ve pretty well given up,” said Guy. “In fact I’ve as good as signed on in the Foreign Office.”
Major Tickeridge showed deep concern.
“I say, that is a pretty desperate thing to do. You know, if you’re really serious, I think the thing can be managed. The old corps never quite does things in the ordinary army style. I mean none of that Hore-Belisha stuff of starting in the ranks. We’re forming a brigade of our own, half regulars, half temporaries, half National Service men, half long-service. It’s all on bumf at present but we’re starting cadre training any day now. It’s going to be something rather special. We all know one another in the corps, you know, so if you’d like me to put in a word with the Captain-Commandant, just say so. I heard him saying the other day he could do with a few older chaps among the temporary officers.”
By ten o’clock that night, when Guy and his father let Felix go bounding into the blackness, Major Tickeridge had made notes of Guy’s particulars and promised immediate action.
“It’s remarkable,” said Guy. “I spent weeks badgering generals and Cabinet Ministers and getting nowhere. Then I come here and in an hour everything is fixed up for me by a strange major.”
“That’s often the way. I told you Tickeridge was a capital fellow,” said Mr. Crouchback, “and the Halberdiers are a magnificent regiment. I’ve seen them on parade. They’re every bit as good as the Foot Guards.”
At eleven lights went out downstairs in the Marine Hotel and the servants disappeared. Guy and his father went up to bed. Mr. Crouchback’s sitting-room smelled of tobacco and dog.
“Doesn’t look much of a bed, I’m afraid.”
“Last night at Angela’s I slept in the library.”
“Well, I hope you’ll be all right.”
Guy undressed and lay down on the sofa by the open window. The sea beat below and the sea-air filled the room. Since that morning his affairs had greatly changed.
Presently his father’s door opened: “I say, are you asleep?”
“There’s this thing you said you’d like. Gervase’s medal. I might forget it in the morning.”
Excerpted from Men At Arms by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 30, 2004
Apthorpe is a white African, just to have it straight, who eventually dies. This novel has a lot of comic satire aimed at the stupidity of organization of the war. It was an eye-opener for me to read about a member of the English Catholic aristocracy. I thought they had all been killed by the Protestant inquisition.
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Posted May 18, 2013
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