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Upper-class scoundrel Basil Seal, mad, bad, and dangerous to know, creates havoc wherever he goes, much to the despair of the three women in his life-his sister, his mother, and his mistress. When Neville Chamberlain declares war on Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for more action and adventure. So Basil follows the call to arms and sets forth to enjoy his finest hour-as a war hero. Basil's instincts for self-preservation come to the fore as he insinuates himself into the Ministry of Information and a ...
Upper-class scoundrel Basil Seal, mad, bad, and dangerous to know, creates havoc wherever he goes, much to the despair of the three women in his life-his sister, his mother, and his mistress. When Neville Chamberlain declares war on Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for more action and adventure. So Basil follows the call to arms and sets forth to enjoy his finest hour-as a war hero. Basil's instincts for self-preservation come to the fore as he insinuates himself into the Ministry of Information and a little-known section of Military Security. With Europe frozen in the "phoney war," when will Basil's big chance to fight finally arrive?
In the week which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War—days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace—and on the Sunday morning when all doubts were finally resolved and misconceptions corrected, three rich women thought first and mainly of Basil Seal. They were his sister, his mother and his mistress.
Barbara Sothill was at Malfrey; in recent years she had thought of her brother as seldom as circumstances allowed her, but on that historic September morning, as she walked to the village, he predominated over a multitude of worries.
She and Freddy had just heard the Prime Minister’s speech, broadcast by wireless. “It is an evil thing we are fighting,” he had said and as Barbara turned her back on the house where, for the most part, the eight years of her marriage had been spent, she felt personally challenged and threatened, as though, already, the mild, autumnal sky were dark with circling enemy and their shadows were trespassing on the sunlit lawns.
There was something female and voluptuous in the beauty of Malfrey; other lovely houses maintained a virginal modesty or a manly defiance, but Malfrey had no secret from the heavens; it had been built more than two hundred years ago in days of victory and ostentation and lay, spread out, sumptuously at ease, splendid, defenseless and provocative; a Cleopatra among houses; across the sea, Barbara felt, a small and envious mind, a meanly ascetic mind, a creature of the conifers, was plotting the destruction of her home. It was for Malfrey that she loved her prosaic and slightly absurd husband; for Malfrey, too, that she had abandoned Basil and with him the part of herself which, in the atrophy endemic to all fruitful marriages, she had let waste and die.
It was half a mile to the village down the lime avenue. Barbara walked because, just as she was getting into the car, Freddy had stopped her saying, “No petrol now for gadding about.”
Freddy was in uniform, acutely uncomfortable in ten-year-old trousers. He had been to report at the yeomanry headquarters the day before, and was home for two nights collecting his kit, which, in the two years since he was last at camp, had been misused in charades and picnics and dispersed about the house in a dozen improbable places. His pistol, in particular, had been a trouble. He had had the whole household hunting it, saying fretfully, “It’s all very well, but I can get court-martialled for this,” until, at length, the nursery-maid found it at the back of the toy cupboard. Barbara was now on her way to look for his binoculars which she remembered vaguely having lent to the scoutmaster.
The road under the limes led straight to the village; the park gates of elaborately wrought iron swung on rusticated stone piers, and the two lodges formed a side of the village green; opposite them stood the church, on either side two inns, the vicarage, the shop and a row of gray cottages; three massive chestnuts grew from the roughly rectangular grass plot in the center. It was a Beauty Spot, justly but reluctantly famous, too much frequented of late by walkers but still, through Freddy’s local influence, free of charabancs; a bus stopped three times a day on weekdays, four times on Tuesdays when the market was held in the neighboring town, and to accommodate passengers Freddy had that year placed an oak seat under the chestnuts.
It was here that Barbara’s thoughts were brought up sharply by an unfamiliar spectacle; six dejected women sat in a row staring fixedly at the closed doors of the Sothill Arms. For a moment Barbara was puzzled; then she remembered. These were Birmingham women. Fifty families had arrived at Malfrey late on Friday evening, thirsty, hot, bewildered and resentful after a day in train and bus. Barbara had chosen the five saddest families for herself and dispersed the rest in the village and farms.
Punctually next day the head housemaid, a veteran of old Mrs. Sothill’s regime, had given notice of leaving. “I don’t know how we shall do without you,” said Barbara.
“It’s my legs, madam. I’m not strong enough for the work. I could just manage as things were, but now with children all over the place…”
“You know we can’t expect things to be easy in war time. We must expect to make sacrifices. This is our war work.”
But the woman was obdurate. “There’s my married sister at Bristol,” she said. “Her husband was on the reserve. I ought to go and help her now he’s called up.”
An hour later the remaining three housemaids had appeared with prim expressions of face.
“Edith and Olive and me have talked it over and we want to go and make aeroplanes. They say they are taking on girls at Brakemore’s.”
“You’ll find it terribly hard work, you know.”
“Oh, it’s not the work, madam. It’s the Birmingham women. The way they leave their rooms.”
“It’s all very strange for them at first. We must do all we can to help. As soon as they settle down and get used to our ways…” but she saw it was hopeless while she spoke.
“They say they want girls at Brakemore’s,” said the maids.
In the kitchen Mrs. Elphinstone was loyal. “But I can’t answer for the girls,” she said. “They seem to think war is an excuse for a lark.”
It was the kitchen-maids, anyway, and not Mrs. Elphinstone, thought Barbara, who had to cope with the extra meals…
Benson was sound. The Birmingham women caused him no trouble. But James would be leaving for the Army within a few weeks. It’s going to be a difficult winter, thought Barbara.
These women, huddled on the green, were not Barbara’s guests but she saw on their faces the same look of frustration and defiance. Dutifully, rather than prudently, she approached the group and asked if they were comfortable. She spoke to them in general and each felt shy of answering; they looked away from her sullenly towards the locked inn. Oh dear, thought Barbara, I suppose they wonder what business it is of mine.
“I live up there,” she said, indicating the gates. “I’ve been arranging your billets.”
“Oh, have you?” said one of the mothers. “Then perhaps you can tell us how long we’ve got to stop.”
“That’s right,” said another.
“D’you know,” said Barbara, “I don’t believe anyone has troubled to think about that. They’ve all been too busy getting you away.”
“They got no right to do it,” said the first mother. “You can’t keep us here compulsory.”
“But surely you don’t want to have your children bombed, do you?”
“We won’t stay where we’re not wanted.”
“That’s right,” said the yes-woman.
“But of course you’re wanted.”
“Yes, like the stomach-ache.”
For some minutes Barbara reasoned with the fugitives until she felt that her only achievement had been to transfer to herself all the odium which more properly belonged to Hitler. Then she went on her way to the scoutmaster’s, where, before she could retrieve the binoculars, she had to listen to the story of the Birmingham schoolmistress, billeted on him, who refused to help wash up.
As she crossed the green on her homeward journey, the mothers looked away from her.
“I hope the children are enjoying themselves a little,” she said, determined not to be cut in her own village.
“They’re down at the school. Teacher’s making them play games.”
“The park’s always open you know, if any one of you care to go inside.”
“We had a park where we came from. With a band Sundays.”
“Well. I’m afraid I can’t offer a band. But it’s thought rather pretty, particularly down by the lake. Do take the children in if you feel like it.”
When she had left the chief mother said: “What’s she? Some kind of inspector, I suppose, with her airs and graces. The idea of inviting us into the park. You’d think the place belonged to her the way she goes on.”
Presently the two inns opened their doors and the scandalized village watched a procession of mothers assemble from cottage, farm and mansion and make for the bar parlors.
Luncheon decided him; Freddy went upstairs immediately he left the dining-room and changed into civilian clothes. “Think I’ll get my maid to put me into something loose,” he said in the voice he used for making jokes. It was this kind of joke Barbara had learned to recognize during her happy eight years in his company.
Freddy was large, masculine, prematurely bald and superficially cheerful; at heart he was misanthropic and gifted with that sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich; his indolence was qualified with enough basic bad temper to ensure the respect of those about him. He took in most people, but not his wife or his wife’s family.
Not only did he have a special expression of face for making jokes; he had one for use when discussing his brother-in-law Basil. It should have conveyed lofty disapproval tempered by respect for Barbara’s loyalty; in fact it suggested sulkiness and guilt.
The Seal children, for no reason that was apparent to the rest of the world, had always held the rest of the world in scorn. Freddy did not like Tony; he found him supercilious and effeminate, but he was prepared to concede to him certain superiorities; no one doubted that there was a brilliant career ahead of him in diplomacy. The time would come when they would all be very proud of Tony. But Basil from his earliest days had been a source of embarrassment and reproach. On his own terms Freddy might have been willing to welcome a black sheep in the Seal family, someone who was “never mentioned,” to whom he might, every now and then, magnanimously unknown to anyone except Barbara, extend a helping hand; someone, even, in whom he might profess to see more good than the rest of the world. Such a kinsman might very considerably have redressed the balance of Freddy’s self-esteem. But, as Freddy found as soon as he came to know the Seals intimately, Basil, so far from being never mentioned, formed the subject of nearly half their conversation. At that time they were ever ready to discuss with relish his latest outrage, ever hopeful of some splendid success for him in the immediate future, ever contemptuous of the disapproval of the rest of the world. And Basil himself regarded Freddy pitilessly, with eyes which, during his courtship and the first years of marriage, he had recognized in Barbara herself.
For there was a disconcerting resemblance between Basil and Barbara; she, too, was farouche in a softer and deadlier manner, and the charm which held him breathless, flashed in gross and acquisitive shape in Basil. Maternity and the tranquil splendor of Malfrey had wrought changes in her; it was very rarely, now, that the wild little animal in her came above ground; but it was there, in its earth and from time to time he was aware of it, peeping out, after long absences; a pair of glowing eyes at the twist in the tunnel watching him as an enemy.
Barbara herself pretended to no illusions about Basil. Years of disappointment and betrayal had convinced her, in the reasoning part of her, that he was no good. They had played pirates together in the nursery and the game was over. Basil played pirates alone. She apostatized from her faith in him almost with formality, and yet, as a cult will survive centuries after its myths have been exposed and its sources of faith tainted, there was still deep in her that early piety, scarcely discernible now in a little residue of superstition, so that this morning when her world seemed rocking about her, she turned back to Basil. Thus, when earthquake strikes a modern city and the pavements gape, the sewers buckle up and the great buildings tremble and topple, men in bowler hats and natty, ready-made suitings, born of generations of literates and rationalists, will suddenly revert to the magic of the forest and cross their fingers to avert the avalanche of concrete.
Three times during luncheon Barbara had spoken of Basil and now, as she and Freddy walked arm in arm on the terrace she said, “I believe it’s what he’s been waiting for all these years.”
“Who, waiting for what?”
“Basil, for the war.”
“Oh… Well, I suppose in a way we all have really… the gardens are going to be a problem. I suppose we could get some of the men exemption on the grounds that they’re engaged in agriculture, but it hardly seems playing the game.”
It was Freddy’s last day at Malfrey and he did not want to spoil it by talking of Basil. It was true that the yeomanry were not ten miles away; it was true, also, that they were unlikely to move for a very long time; they had recently been mechanized, in the sense that they had had their horses removed; few of them had ever seen a tank; he would be back and forwards continually during the coming months; he meant to shoot the pheasants; but although this was no final leave taking he felt entitled to more sentiment than Barbara was showing.
“Freddy, don’t be bloody.” She kicked him sharply on the ankle for she had found, early in married life, that Freddy liked her to swear and kick in private. “You know exactly what I mean. Basil needed a war. He’s not meant for peace.”
“That’s true enough. The wonder is he’s kept out of prison. If he’d been born in a different class he wouldn’t have.”
Barbara suddenly chuckled. “D’you remember how he took mother’s emeralds, the time he went to Azania? But then you see that would never have happened if there’d been a war of our own for him to go to. He’s always been mixed up in fighting.”
“If you call living in a gin palace in La Paz and seeing generals shoot one another…”
“Journalist and gun runner.”
“He’s always been a soldier manqué.”
“Well, he hasn’t done much about it. While he’s been gadding about the rest of us have been training as territorials and yeomanry.”
“Darling, a fat lot of training you’ve done.”
“If there’d been more like us and fewer like Basil there’d never have been a war. You can’t blame Ribbentrop for thinking us decadent when he saw people like Basil about. I don’t suppose they’ll have much use for him in the army. He’s thirty-six. He might get some sort of job connected with censorship. He seems to know a lot of languages.”
“You see,” said Barbara. “Basil will be covered with medals while your silly old yeomanry are still messing in a Trust House and waiting for your tanks.”
There were duck on the lake and she let Freddy talk about them. She led him down his favorite paths. There was a Gothic pavilion where by long habit Freddy often became amorous; he did become amorous. And all the time she thought of Basil. She thought of him in terms of the war books she had read. She saw him as Siegfried Sassoon, an infantry subaltern in a mud-bogged trench standing to at dawn, his eyes on his wrist watch, waiting for zero hour; she saw him as Compton Mackenzie, spider in a web of Balkan intrigue, undermining a monarchy among olive trees and sculptured marble; she saw him as T. E. Lawrence and Rupert Brooke.
Freddy, assuaged, reverted to sport. “I won’t ask any of the regiment over for the early shoots,” he said. “But I don’t see why we shouldn’t let some of them have a bang at the cocks round about Christmas.”
Lady Seal was at her home in London. She had taken fewer precautions against air raids than most of her friends. Her most valuable possession, her small Carpaccio, had been sent to safe keeping at Malfrey; the miniatures and Limoges enamels were at the bank; the Sèvres was packed in crates and put below stairs. Otherwise there was no change in her drawing-room. The ponderous old curtains needed no unsightly strips of black paper to help them keep in the light.
The windows were open now on the balcony. Lady Seal sat in an elegant rosewood chair gazing out across the square. She had just heard the Prime Minister’s speech. Her butler approached from the end of the room.
“Shall I remove the radio, my lady?”
“Yes, by all means. He spoke very well, very well indeed.”
“It’s all very sad, my lady.”
“Very sad for the Germans, Anderson.”
It was quite true, thought Lady Seal; Neville Chamberlain had spoken surprisingly well. She had never liked him very much, neither him nor his brother—if anything she had preferred the brother—but they were uncomfortable, drab fellows both of them. However, he had spoken very creditably that morning, as though at last he were fully alive to his responsibilities. She would ask him to luncheon. But perhaps he would be busy; the most improbable people were busy in war time, she remembered.
Her mind went back to the other war, that until that morning had been The War. No one very near to her had fought. Christopher had been too old, Tony just too young; her brother Edward had begun by commanding a brigade—they thought the world of him at the Staff College—but, inexplicably, his career had come to very little; he was still brigadier in 1918, at Dar-es-Salaam. But the war had been a sad time; so many friends in mourning and Christopher fretful about the coalition. It had been a bitter thing for them all, accepting Lloyd George, but Christopher had patriotically made the sacrifice with the rest of them; probably only she knew how much he had felt it. The worst time had been after the armistice, when peerages were sold like groceries and the peace terms were bungled. Christopher had always said they would have to pay for it in the long run.
The hideous, then unfamiliar shriek of the air-raid sirens sang out over London.
“That was the warning, my lady.”
“Yes, Anderson, I heard it.”
“Will you be coming downstairs?”
“No, not yet at any rate. Get all the servants down and see they are quiet.”
“Will you require your respirator, my lady?”
“I don’t suppose so. From what Sir Joseph tells me the danger of gas is very slight. In any case I daresay this is only a practice. Leave it on the table.”
“Will that be all, my lady?”
“That’s all. See that the maids don’t get nervous.”
Lady Seal stepped on to the balcony and looked up into the clear sky. They’ll get more than they bargain for if they try and attack us, she thought. High time that man was taught a lesson. He’s made nothing but trouble for years. She returned to her chair thinking, Anyway I never made a fuss of that vulgar man von Ribbentrop. I wouldn’t have him inside the house, even when that goose Emma Granchester was plaguing us all to be friendly to him. I hope she feels foolish this morning.
Lady Seal waited with composure for the bombardment to begin. She had told Anderson it was probably only a practice. That was what one told servants; otherwise they might panic—not Anderson but the maids. But in her heart Lady Seal was sure that the attack was coming; it would be just like the Germans, always blustering and showing off and pretending to be efficient. The history Lady Seal had learned in the schoolroom had been a simple tale of the maintenance of right against the superior forces of evil and the battle honors of her country rang musically in her ears—Crecy, Agincourt, Cadiz, Blenheim, Gibraltar, Inkerman, Ypres. England had fought many and various enemies with many and various allies, often on quite recondite pretexts, but always justly, chivalrously, and with ultimate success. Often, in Paris, Lady Seal had been proud that her people had never fallen to the habit of naming streets after their feats of arms; that was suitable enough for the short-lived and purely professional triumphs of the French, but to put those great manifestations of divine rectitude which were the victories of England to the use, for their postal addresses, of milliners and chiropodists, would have been a baseness to which even the radicals had not stooped. The steel engravings of her schoolroom lived before her eyes, like tableaux at a charity fête—Sydney at Zutphen, Wolfe at Quebec, Nelson at Trafalgar (Wellington, only, at Waterloo was excluded from the pageant by reason of the proximity of Blücher, pushing himself forward with typical Prussian effrontery to share the glory which the other had won) and to this tremendous assembly (not unlike in Lady Seal’s mind those massed groups of wealth and respectability portrayed on the Squadron Lawn at Cowes and hung with their key plans in lobbies and billiard rooms) was added that morning a single new and rather improbable figure, Basil Seal.
The last war had cost her little; nothing, indeed, except a considerable holding of foreign investments and her brother Edward’s reputation as a strategist. Now she had a son to offer her country. Tony had weak eyes and a career, Freddy was no blood of hers and was not cast in a heroic mould, but Basil, her wayward and graceless and grossly disappointing Basil, whose unaccountable taste for low company had led him into so many vexatious scrapes in the last ten years, whose wild oats refused to correspond with those of his Uncle Edward; Basil who had stolen her emeralds and made Mrs. Lyne distressingly conspicuous; Basil, his peculiarities merged in the manhood of England, at last was entering on his inheritance. She must ask Jo about getting him a commission in a decent regiment.
At last, while she was still musing, the sirens sounded the All Clear.
Sir Joseph Mainwaring was lunching with Lady Seal that day. It was an arrangement made early in the preceding week before either of them knew that the day they were choosing was one which would be marked in the world’s calendars until the end of history. He arrived punctually, as he always did; as he had done, times out of number, in the long years of their friendship.
Sir Joseph was not a church-going man except when he was staying at one of the very rare, very august houses where it was still the practice; on this Sunday morning, however, it would not have been fantastic to describe his spirit as inflamed by something nearly akin to religious awe. It would be fantastic to describe him as purged, and yet there had been something delicately purgative in the experiences of the morning and there was an unfamiliar buoyancy in his bearing as though he had been at somebody’s Eno’s. He felt ten years younger.
Lady Seal devoted to this old booby a deep, personal fondness which was rare among his numerous friends and a reliance which was incomprehensible but quite common.
“There’s only ourselves, Jo,” she said as she greeted him. “The Granchesters were coming but he had to go and see the King.”
“Nothing could have been more delightful. Yes, I think we shall all be busy again now. I don’t know exactly what I shall be doing yet. I shall know better after I’ve been to Downing Street tomorrow morning. I imagine it will be some advisory capacity to the War Cabinet. It’s nice to feel in the center of things again, takes one back ten years. Stirring times, Cynthia, stirring times.”
“It’s one of the things I wanted to see Emma Granchester about. There must be so many committees we ought to start. Last war it was Belgian refugees. I suppose it will be Poles this time. It’s a great pity it isn’t people who talk a language one knows.”
“No, no Belgians this time. It will be a different war in many ways. An economic war of attrition, that is how I see it. Of course we had to have all this A.R.P. and shelters and so on. The radicals were making copy out of it. But I think we can take it there won’t be any air raids, not on London at any rate. Perhaps there may be an attempt on the seaports, but I was having a most interesting talk yesterday to Eddie Beste-Bingham at the Beefsteak; we’ve got a most valuable invention called R.D.F. That’ll keep ’em off.”
“Dear Jo, you always know the most encouraging things. What is R.D.F.?”
“I’m not absolutely clear about that. It’s very secret.”
“Poor Barbara has evacuees at Malfrey.”
“What a shocking business! Dear, dreaming Malfrey. Think of a Birmingham board school in that exquisite Grinling Gibbons saloon. It’s all a lot of nonsense, Cynthia. You know I’m the last man to prophesy rashly, but I think we can take one thing as axiomatic. There will be no air attack on London. The Germans will never attempt the Maginot line. The French will hold on forever, if needs be, and the German air-bases are too far away for them to be able to attack us. If they do, we’ll R.D.F. them out of the skies.”
“Jo,” said Lady Seal, when they were alone with the coffee. “I want to talk to you about Basil.”
How often in the last twenty years had Sir Joseph heard those heavy words, uttered with so many intonations in so wide a variety of moods, but always, without fail, the prelude, not, perhaps to boredom, but to a lowering of the interest and warmth of their converse! It was only in these maternal conferences that Cynthia Seal became less than the perfect companion, only then that, instead of giving, she demanded, as it were, a small sumptuary duty upon the riches of her friendship.
Had he been so minded Sir Joseph could have drawn a graph of the frequency and intensity of these discussions. There had been the steady rise from nursery, through school to the university, when he had been called on to applaud each new phase of Basil’s precocious development. In those days he had accepted Basil at his face value as an exceptionally brilliant and beautiful youth in danger of being spoiled. Then, towards the end of Basil’s second year at Balliol had come a series of small seismic disturbances, when Cynthia Seal was alternately mutely puzzled or eloquently distressed; then the first disaster, rapidly followed by Christopher’s death. From then onwards for fifteen years the line had dipped and soared dizzily as Basil’s iniquities rose on the crest or fell into the trough of notoriety, but with the passing years there had been a welcome decline in the mean level; it was at least six months since he had heard the boy’s name.
“Ah,” he said. “Basil, eh,” trying to divine from his hostess’s manner whether he was required to be judicial, compassionate or congratulatory.
“You’ve so often been helpful in the past.”
“I’ve tried,” said Sir Joseph recalling momentarily his long record of failures on Basil’s behalf. “Plenty of good in the boy.”
“I feel so much happier about him since this morning, Jo. Sometimes, lately, I’ve begun to doubt whether we shall ever find the proper place for Basil. He’s been a square peg in so many round holes. But this war seems to take the responsibility off our hands. There’s room for everyone in war time, every man. It’s always been Basil’s individuality that’s been wrong. You’ve said that often, Jo. In war time individuality doesn’t matter anymore. There are just men, aren’t there?”
“Yes,” said Sir Joseph doubtfully. “Yes. Basil’s individuality has always been rather strong, you know. He must be thirty-five or thirty-six now. That’s rather old for starting as a soldier.”
“Nonsense, Jo. Men of forty-five and fifty enlisted in the ranks in the last war and died as gallantly as anyone else. Now I want you to see the Lieutenant-Colonels of the foot guard regiments and see where he will fit in best…”
In her time Cynthia Seal had made many formidable demands on Basil’s behalf. This, which she was now asking with such an assumption of ease, seemed to Sir Joseph one of the most vexatious. But he was an old and loyal friend and a man of affairs, moreover, well practiced by a lifetime of public service, in the evasion of duty. “Of course, my dear Cynthia, I can’t promise any results…”
Angela Lyne was returning by train from the South of France. It was the time when, normally, she went to Venice, but this year, with international politics tediously on every tongue, she had lingered at Cannes until and beyond the last moment. The French and Italians whom she met had said war was impossible; they said it with assurance before the Russian pact, with double assurance after it. The English said there would be war, but not immediately. Only the Americans knew what was coming, and exactly when. Now she was traveling in unwonted discomfort through a nation moving to action under the dour precepts, “il faut en finir” and “nous gagnerons parce que nous sommes les plus forts.”
It was a weary journey; the train was already eight hours late; the restaurant car had disappeared during the night at Avignon. Angela was obliged to share a two-berth sleeper with her maid and counted herself lucky to have got one at all; several of her acquaintances had stayed behind, waiting for things to get better; at the moment no reservations were guaranteed and the French seemed to have put off their politeness and packed it in moth-ball for the duration of hostilities.
Angela had a glass of Vichy water on the table before her. She sipped, gazing out at the passing landscape every mile of which gave some evidence of the changing life of the country; hunger, and the bad night she had spent, raised her a hair’s breadth above reality and her mind, usually so swift and orderly, fell into pace with the train, now rocking in haste, now, barely moving, seeming to grope its way from point to point.
A stranger passing the open door of her compartment might well have speculated on her nationality and place in the world and supposed her to be American, the buyer perhaps for some important New York dress shop whose present abstraction was due to the worries of war-time transport for her “collection.” She wore the livery of the highest fashion, but as one who dressed to inform rather than to attract: nothing which she wore, nothing it might be supposed in the pigskin jewel-case above her head, had been chosen by or for a man. Her smartness was individual; she was plainly not one of those who scrambled to buy the latest gadget in the few breathless weeks between its first appearance and the inundation of the cheap markets of the world with its imitations; her person was a record and criticism of succeeding fashions, written as it were, year after year, in one clear and characteristic fist. Had the curious fellow passenger stared longer—as he was free to do without offence, so absorbed was Angela in her own thoughts—he would have been checked in his hunt when he came to study his subject’s face. All her properties—the luggage heaped above and around her, the set of her hair, her shoes, her finger-nails, the barely perceptible aura of scent that surrounded her, the Vichy water and the paper-bound volume of Balzac on the table before her—all these things spoke of what (had she been, as she seemed, American) she would have called her “personality.” But the face was mute. It might have been carved in jade, it was so smooth and cool and conventionally removed from the human. A stranger might have watched her for mile after mile, as a spy or a lover or a newspaper reporter will loiter in the street before a closed house, and see no chink of light, hear no whisper of movement behind the shuttered façade, and in direct proportion to his discernment, he would have gone on his way down the corridor baffled and disturbed. Had he been told the bare facts about this seemingly cosmopolitan, passionless, barren, civilized woman, he might have despaired of ever again forming his judgment of a fellow being; for Angela Lyne was Scottish, the only child of a Glasgow millionaire—a jovial, rascally millionaire who had started life in a street gang—she was the wife of a dilettante architect, the mother of a single robust and unattractive son, the dead spit, it was said, of his grandfather, and her life had so foundered on passion that this golden daughter of fortune was rarely spoken of by her friends without the qualifying epithet of “poor” Angela Lyne.
Only in one respect would the casual observer have hit upon the truth. Angela’s appearance was not designed for man. It is sometimes disputed—and opinions canvassed in popular papers to decide the question—whether woman alone on a desert island would concern herself with clothes; Angela, as far as she herself was concerned, disposed of the question finally. For seven years she had been on a desert island; her appearance had become a hobby and distraction, a pursuit entirely self-regarding and self-rewarding; she watched herself moving in the mirrors of the civilized world as a prisoner will watch the antics of a rat, whom he has domesticated to the dungeon. (In the case of her husband, grottoes took the place of fashion. He had six of them now, bought in various parts of Europe, some from Naples, some from Southern Germany, and painfully transported, stone by stone, to Hampshire.)
For seven years, ever since she was twenty-five and two years married to her dandy-aesthete, “poor” Angela Lyne had been in love with Basil Seal. It was one of those affairs which, beginning lightheartedly as an adventure and accepted lightheartedly by their friends as an amusing scandal, seemed somehow petrified by a Gorgon glance and endowed with an intolerable permanence; as though in a world of capricious and fleeting alliances, the ironic Fates had decided to set up a standing, frightful example of the natural qualities of man and woman, of their basic aptitude to fuse together; a label on the packing case, “These chemicals are dangerous”—an admonitory notice, like the shattered motor-cars erected sometimes at dangerous turns in the road, so that the least censorious were chilled by the spectacle and recoiled saying, “Really, you know, there’s something rather squalid about those two.”
It was a relationship which their friends usually described as “morbid” by which they meant that sensuality played a small part in it, for Basil was only attracted to very silly girls and it was by quite other bonds that he and Angela were fettered together.
Cedric Lyne pottering disconsolately in his baroque solitudes and watching with dismay the progress of his blustering son, used to tell himself, with the minimum of discernment, that a béguin like that could not possibly last. For Angela there seemed no hope of release. Nothing, she felt in despair, would ever part them but death. Even the flavor of the Vichy water brought thoughts of Basil as she remembered the countless nights in the last seven years when she had sat late with him, while he got drunk and talked more and more wildly, and she sipping her water waited her turn to strike, hard and fierce, at his conceit, until as he got more drunk he became superior to her attacks and talked her down and eventually came stupidly away.
She turned to the window as the train slackened to walking pace, passing truck after truck of soldiers. “Il faut en finir,” “Nous gagnerons parce que nous sommes les plus forts.” A hard-boiled people, the French. Two nights ago at Cannes, an American had been talking about the mutinous regiments decimated in the last war. “It’s a pity they haven’t got anyone like old Pétain to command them this time,” he had said.
The villa at Cannes was shut now and the key was with the gardener. Perhaps she would never go back. This year she remembered it only as the place where she had waited in vain for Basil. He had telegraphed: “International situation forbids joy riding.” She had sent him the money for his journey but there had been no answer. The gardener would make a good thing out of the vegetables. A hard-boiled people, the French; Angela wondered why that was thought to be a good thing; she had always had a revulsion from hard-boiled eggs, even at picnics in the nursery; hard-boiled; over-cooked; over-praised for their cooking. When people professed a love of France, they meant love of eating; the ancients located the deeper emotions in the bowels. She had heard a commercial traveler in the Channel packet welcome Dover and English food. “I can’t stomach that French messed-up stuff.” A commonplace criticism, thought Angela, that applied to French culture for the last two generations—“messed-up stuff,” stale ingredients from Spain and America and Russia and Germany, disguised in a sauce of white wine from Algeria. France died with her monarchy. You could not even eat well, now, except in the provinces. It all came back to eating. “What’s eating you?”… Basil claimed to have eaten a girl once in Africa; he had been eating Angela now for seven years. Like the Spartan boy and the fox… Spartans at Thermopylae, combing their hair before the battle; Angela had never understood that, because Alcibiades had cut off his hair in order to make himself acceptable. What did the Spartans think about hair really? Basil would have to cut his hair when he went into the army. Basil the Athenian would have to sit at the public tables of Sparta, clipped blue at the neck where before his dark hair had hung untidily to his collar. Basil in the pass at Thermopylae…
Angela’s maid returned from gossiping with the conductor. “He says he doesn’t think the sleeping cars will go any farther than Dijon. We shall have to change into day coaches. Isn’t it wicked, madam, when we’ve paid?”
“Well, we’re at war now. I expect there’ll be a lot to put up with.”
“Will Mr. Seal be in the army?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“He will look different, won’t he, madam?”
They were both silent, and in the silence Angela knew, by an intuition which defied any possible doubt, exactly what her maid was thinking. She was thinking: “Supposing Mr. Seal gets himself killed. Best thing really for all concerned.”
… Flaxman Greeks reclining in death among the rocks of Thermopylae; riddled scarecrows sprawling across the wire of no-man’s land… Till death us do part… Through the haphazard trail of phrase and association, a single, unifying thought recurred, like the sentry posts at the side of the line, monotonously in Angela’s mind. Death. “Death the Friend” of the sixteenth-century wood-cuts, who released the captive and bathed the wounds of the fallen; Death in frock coat and whiskers, the discreet undertaker, spreading his sable pall over all that was rotten and unsightly; Death the macabre paramour in whose embrace all earthly loves were forgotten; Death for Basil, that Angela might live again… that was what she was thinking as she sipped her Vichy water but no one, seeing the calm and pensive mask of her face, could ever possibly have guessed.
Rupert Brooke, Old Bill, the Unknown Soldier—thus three fond women saw him, but Basil breakfasting late in Poppet Green’s studio fell short and wide of all these ideals. He was not at his best that morning, both by reason of his heavy drinking with Poppet’s friends the night before and the loss of face he was now suffering with Poppet in his attempts to explain his assertion that there would be no war. He had told them this the night before, not as a speculation, but as a fact known only to himself and half a dozen leading Germans; the Prussian military clique, he had told them, were allowing the Nazis to gamble just as long as their bluff was not called; he had had this, he said, direct from von Fritsch. The army had broken the Nazi Party in the July purge of 1936; they had let Hitler and Goering and Goebbels and Ribbentrop remain as puppets just as long as they proved valuable. The army, like all armies, was intensely pacifist; as soon as it became clear that Hitler was heading for war, he would be shot. Basil had expounded this theme not once but many times, over the table of the Charlotte Street restaurant, and because Poppet’s friends did not know Basil, and were unused to people who claimed acquaintance with the great, Poppet had basked in vicarious esteem. Basil was little used to being heard with respect and was correspondingly resentful at being reproached with his own words.
“Well,” Poppet was saying crossly, from the gas stove. “When do the army step in and shoot Hitler?”
She was a remarkably silly girl, and, as such, had commanded Basil’s immediate attention when they met, three weeks earlier, with Ambrose Silk. With her Basil had spent the time he had promised to Angela at Cannes; on her he had spent the twenty pounds Angela had sent him for the journey. Even now when her fatuous face pouted in derision she found a soft place in Basil’s heart.
Evidence of her silliness abounded in the canvases, finished and unfinished, which crowded the studio. Eighty years ago her subjects would have been knights in armor; ladies in wimples and distress; fifty years ago “nocturnes”; twenty years ago pierrots and willow trees; now, in 1939, they were bodiless heads, green horses and violet grass, seaweed, shells and fungi, neatly executed, conventionally arranged in the manner of Dali. Her work in progress on the easel was an overlarge, accurate but buttercup-colored head of the Aphrodite of Melos, poised against a background of bull’s-eyes and barley-sugar.
“My dear,” Ambrose had said, “you can positively hear her imagination creaking, as she does them, like a pair of old, old corsets, my dear, on a harridan.”
“They’ll destroy London. What shall I do?” asked Poppet plaintively. “Where can I go? It’s the end of my painting. I’ve a good mind to follow Parsnip and Pimpernell” (two great poets of her acquaintance who had recently fled to New York).
“You’ll be in more danger crossing the Atlantic than staying in London,” said Basil. “There won’t be any air raids on London.”
“For God’s sake don’t say that.” Even as she spoke the sirens wailed. Poppet stood paralyzed with horror. “Oh God,” she said. “You’ve done it. They’ve come.”
“Faultless timing,” said Basil cheerfully. “That’s always been Hitler’s strong point.”
Poppet began to dress in an ineffectual fever of reproach. “You said there wouldn’t be a war. You said the bombers would never come. Now we shall all be killed and you just sit there talking and talking.”
“You know I should have thought an air raid was just the thing for a surréaliste; it ought to give you plenty of compositions—limbs and things lying about in odd places you know.”
“I wish I’d never met you. I wish I’d been to church. I was brought up in a convent. I wanted to be a nun once. I wish I was a nun. I’m going to be killed. Oh, I wish I was a nun. Where’s my gas-mask? I shall go mad if I don’t find my gas-mask.”
Basil lay back on the divan and watched her with fascination. This was how he liked to see women behave in moments of alarm. He rejoiced, always, in the spectacle of women at a disadvantage: thus he would watch, in the asparagus season, a dribble of melted butter on a woman’s chin, marring her beauty and making her ridiculous, while she would still talk and smile and turn her head, not knowing how she appeared to him.
“Now do make up your mind what you’re frightened of,” he urged. “If you’re going to be bombed with high explosive run down to the shelter; if you’re going to be gassed, shut the skylight and stay up here. In any case I shouldn’t bother about that respirator. If they use anything it’ll be arsenical smoke and it’s no use against that. You’ll find arsenical smoke quite painless at first. You won’t know you’ve been gassed for a couple of days; then it’ll be too late. In fact for all we know we’re being gassed at this moment. If they fly high enough and let the wind carry the stuff they may be twenty miles away. The symptoms, when they do appear, are rather revolting…”
But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter downstairs, making little moaning noises as she went.
Basil dressed and, only pausing to paint in a ginger mustache across Poppet’s head of Aphrodite, strolled out into the streets.
The normal emptiness of Sunday in South Kensington was made complete that morning by the air-raid scare. A man in a tin helmet shouted at Basil from the opposite pavement, “Take cover, there. Yes, it’s you I’m talking to.”
Basil crossed over to him and said in a low tone, “M.I.13.”
“I don’t quite twig.”
“But you ought to twig,” said Basil severely. “Surely you realize that members of M.I.13 are free to go everywhere at all times?”
“Sorry, I’m sure,” said the warden. “I was only took on yesterday. What a lark getting a raid second time on!” As he spoke the sirens sounded the All Clear. “What a sell!” said the warden.
It seemed to Basil that this fellow was altogether too cheerful for a public servant in the first hours of war; the gas scare had been wasted on Poppet; in her panic she had barely listened; it was worthy of a more receptive audience. “Cheer up,” he said. “You may be breathing arsenical smoke at this moment. Watch your urine in a couple of days’ time.”
“Coo. I say, what did you say you was?”
“Is that to do with gas?”
“It’s to do with almost everything. Good morning.”
He turned to walk on but the warden followed. “Wouldn’t we smell it or nothing?”
“Or cough or anything?”
“And you think they’ve dropped it, just in that minute and gone away leaving us all for dead?”
“My dear fellow, I don’t think so. It’s your job as a warden to find out.”
That’ll teach him to shout at me in the street, thought Basil.
After the All Clear various friends of Poppet’s came together in her studio.
“I wasn’t the least frightened. I was so surprised at my own courage I felt quite giddy.”
“I wasn’t frightened, I just felt glum.”
“I felt positively glad. After all we’ve all said for years that the present order of things was doomed, haven’t we? I mean it’s always been the choice for us between concentration camp and being blown up, hasn’t it? I just sat thinking how much I preferred being blown up to being beaten with rubber truncheons.”
“I was frightened,” said Poppet.
“Dear Poppet, you always have the healthiest reactions. Erchman really did wonders for you.”
“Well, I’m not sure they were so healthy this time. D’you know, I found myself actually praying.”
“I say, did you? That’s bad.”
“Better see Erchman again.”
“Unless he’s in a concentration camp.”
“We shall all be in concentration camps.”
“If anyone so much as mentions concentration camps again,” said Ambrose Silk, “I shall go frankly hay wire.” (“He had an unhappy love affair in Munich,” one of Poppet’s friends explained to another, “then they found he was half Jewish and the Brown Shirt was shut away.”) “Let’s look at Poppet’s pictures and forget the war. Now that,” he said, pausing before the Aphrodite, “that I consider good. I consider it good, Poppet. The mustache… it shows you have crossed one of the artistic rubicons and feel strong enough to be facetious. Like those wonderfully dramatic old chestnuts in Parsnip’s Guernica Revisited. You’re growing up Poppet, my dear.”
“I wonder if it’s the effect of that old adventurer of hers.”
“Poor Basil, it’s sad enough for him to be an enfant terrible at the age of thirty-six; but to be regarded by the younger generation as a kind of dilapidated Bull Dog Drummond…”
Ambrose Silk was older than Poppet and her friends; he was, in fact, a contemporary of Basil’s, with whom he had maintained a shadowy, mutually derisive acquaintance since they were undergraduates. In those days, the mid ’20’s at Oxford, when the last of the ex-service men had gone down and the first of the puritanical, politically minded had either not come up or, at any rate, had not made himself noticed, in those days of broad trousers and high-necked jumpers and cars parked nightly outside the Spread Eagle at Thame, there had been few sub-divisions; a certain spiritual extravagance in the quest for pleasure had been the sole common bond between friends who in subsequent years had drifted far apart, beyond hailing distance, on the wider seas. Ambrose, in those days, had ridden ridiculously and ignominiously in the Christ Church Grind, and Peter Pastmaster had gone to a Palais de Danse in Reading dressed as a woman. Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington absorbed in immature experiments into the question of how far various lewd debutantes would go with him, still had time when tippling his port at Mickleham to hear, without disapproval, Ambrose’s recitals of unrequited love for a rowing blue. Nowadays Ambrose saw few of his old friends except Basil. He fancied that he had been dropped and sometimes in moments of vainglory, to the right audience, represented himself as a martyr to Art; as one who made no concessions to Mammon. “I can’t come all the way with you,” he said once to Parsnip and Pimpernell when they explained that only by becoming proletarian (an expression to which they attached no pedantic suggestion of childbearing; they meant that he should employ himself in some ill-paid, unskilled labor of a mechanical kind) could he hope to be a valuable writer, “I can’t come all the way with you, dear Parsnip and Pimpernell. But at least you know I have never sold myself to the upper-class.” In this mood he saw himself as a figure in a dream, walking down an endless fashionable street; every door stood open and the waiting footmen cried, “Come in and join us; flatter our masters and we will feed you,” but Ambrose always marched straight ahead unheeding. “I belong, hopelessly, to the age of the ivory tower,” he said.
It was his misfortune to be respected as a writer by almost everyone except those with whom he most consorted. Poppet and her friends looked on him as a survival from the Yellow Book. The more conscientiously he strove to put himself in the movement and to ally himself with the dour young proletarians of the new decade, the more antiquated did he seem to them. His very appearance, with the swagger and flash of the young Disraeli, made him a conspicuous figure among them. Basil with his natural shabbiness was less incongruous.
Ambrose knew this, and repeated the phrase “old adventurer” with relish.
Alastair and Sonia Trumpington changed house, on an average, once a year, ostensibly for motives of economy, and were now in Chester Street. Wherever they went they carried with them their own inalienable, inimitable disorder. Ten years ago, without any effort or desire on their part, merely by pleasing themselves in their own way, they had lived in the full blaze of fashionable notoriety; today without regret, without in fact being aware of the change, they formed a forgotten cove, where the wreckage of the roaring-twenties, long tossed on the high seas, lay beached, dry and battered, barely worth the attention of the most assiduous beachcomber. Sonia would sometimes remark how odd it was that the papers nowadays never seemed to mention anyone one had ever heard of; they had been such a bore once, never leaving one alone.
Basil, when he was in England, was a constant visitor. It was really, Alastair said, in order to keep him from coming to stay, that they had to live in such painfully cramped quarters.
Wherever they lived Basil developed a homing instinct towards them, an aptitude which, in their swift moves from house to house, often caused consternation to subsequent tenants, who, before he had had time to form new patterns of behavior, would quite often wake in the night to hear Basil swarming up the drain pipes and looming tipsily in the bedroom window or, in the morning, to find him recumbent and insensible in the area. Now, on this catastrophic morning, Basil found himself orientated to them as surely as though he were in wine, and he arrived on their new doorstep without conscious thought of direction. He went upstairs immediately for, wherever they lived, it was always in Sonia’s bedroom, as though it were the scene of an unending convalescence, that the heart of the household beat.
Basil had attended Sonia’s levees (and there were three or four levees daily for, whenever she was at home, she was in bed) off and on for nearly ten years, since the days of her first, dazzling loveliness, when, almost alone among the chaste and daring brides of London, she had admitted mixed company to her bathroom. It was an innovation, or rather the revival of a more golden age, which, like everything Sonia did, was conceived without any desire for notoriety; she enjoyed company, she enjoyed her bath. There were usually three or four breathless and giddy young men, in those days, gulping Black Velvet in the steam, pretending to take their reception as a matter of common occurrence.
Basil saw little change in her beauty now and none in the rich confusion of letters, newspapers, half-opened parcels and half-empty bottles, puppies, flowers and fruit which surrounded the bed where she sat sewing (for it was one of the vagaries of her character to cover acres of silk, yearly, with exquisite embroidery).
“Darling Basil, have you come to be blown up with us? Where’s your horrible girl friend?”
“She took fright.”
“She was a beast, darling, one of your very worst. Look at Peter. Isn’t it all crazy?” Peter Pastmaster sat at the foot of her bed in uniform. Once, for reasons he had now forgotten, he had served, briefly, in the cavalry; the harvest of that early sowing had ripened, suddenly overnight. “Won’t it be too ridiculous, starting all over again, lunching with young men on guard.”
“Not young, Sonia. You should see us. The average age of the subalterns is about forty, the colonel finished the last war as a brigadier, and our troopers are all either weatherbeaten old commissionaires or fifteen-stone valets.”
Alastair came in from the bathroom. “How’s the art tart?” He opened bottles and began mixing stout and champagne in a deep jug. “Blackers?” They had always drunk this sour and invigorating draught.
“Tell us all about the war,” said Sonia.
“Well—” Basil began.
“No, darling, I didn’t mean that. Not all. Not about who’s going to win or why we are fighting. Tell us what everyone is going to do about it. From what Margot tells me the last war was absolute heaven. Alastair wants to go for a soldier.”
“Conscription has rather taken the gilt off that particular gingerbread,” said Basil. “Besides, this ain’t going to be a soldier’s war.”
“Poor Peter,” said Sonia, as though she was talking to one of the puppies. “It isn’t going to be your war, sweetheart.”
“Suits me,” said Peter.
“I expect Basil will have the most tremendous adventures. He always did in peace time. Goodness knows what he’ll do in war.”
“There are too many people in on the racket,” said Basil.
“Poor sweet, I don’t believe any of you are nearly as excited about it as I am.”
The name of the poet Parsnip, casually mentioned, reopened the great Parsnip–Pimpernell controversy which was torturing Poppet Green and her friends. It was a problem which, not unlike the Schleswig-Holstein question of the preceding century, seemed to admit of no logical solution for, in simple terms, the postulates were self-contradictory. Parsnip and Pimpernell, as friends and collaborators, were inseparable; on that all agreed. But Parsnip’s art flourished best in England, even an embattled England, while Pimpernell’s needed the peaceful and fecund soil of the United States. The complementary qualities which, many believed, made them together equal to one poet, now threatened the dissolution of partnership.
“I don’t say that Pimpernell is the better poet,” said Ambrose. “All I say is that I personally find him the more nutritious; so I personally think they are right to go.”
“But I’ve always felt that Parsnip is so much more dependent on environment.”
“I know what you mean, Poppet, but I don’t agree… Aren’t you thinking only of Guernica Revisited and forgetting the Christopher Sequence…”
Thus the aesthetic wrangle might have run its familiar course, but there was in the studio that morning a cross, red-headed girl in spectacles from the London School of Economics; she believed in a People’s Total War; an uncompromising girl whom none of them liked; a suspect of Trotskyism.
“What I don’t see,” she said (and what this girl did not see was usually a very conspicuous embarrassment to Poppet’s friends)—“What I don’t see is how these two can claim to be Contemporary if they run away from the biggest event in contemporary history. They were contemporary enough about Spain when no one threatened to come and bomb them.”
It was an awkward question; one that in military parlance was called “a swift one.” At any moment, it was felt in the studio, this indecent girl would use the word “escapism”; and, in the silence which followed her outburst, while everyone in turn meditated and rejected a possible retort, she did, in fact, produce the unforgivable charge. “It’s just sheer escapism,” she said.
The word startled the studio, like the cry of “Cheat” in a card-room.
“That’s a foul thing to say, Julia.”
“Well, what’s the answer?…”
The answer, thought Ambrose, he knew an answer or two. There was plenty that he had learned from his new friends, that he could quote to them. He could say that the war in Spain was “contemporary” because it was a class war; the present conflict, since Russia had declared herself neutral, was merely a phase in capitalist disintegration; that would have satisfied, or at least silenced, the red-headed girl. But that was not really the answer. He sought for comforting historical analogies but every example which occurred to him was on the side of the red-head. She knew them too, he thought, and would quote them with all her post-graduate glibness—Socrates marching to the sea with Xenophon, Virgil sanctifying Roman military rule, Horace singing the sweetness of dying for one’s country, the troubadours riding to war, Cervantes in the galleys at Lepanto, Milton working himself blind in the public service, even George IV, for whom Ambrose had a reverence which others devoted to Charles I, believed he had fought at Waterloo. All these, and a host of other courageous contemporary figures rose in Ambrose’s mind; Cézanne had deserted in 1870, but Cézanne in the practical affairs of life was a singularly unattractive figure; moreover, he was a painter whom Ambrose found insufferably boring. There was no answer to be found on those lines.
“You’re just sentimental,” said Poppet, “like a spinster getting tearful at the sound of a military band.”
“Well, they have military bands in Russia, don’t they? I expect plenty of spinsters get tearful in the Red Square when they march past Lenin’s tomb.”
You can always stump them with Russia, thought Ambrose; they can always stump each other. It’s the dead end of all discussion.
“The question is, would they write any better for being in danger,” said one.
“Would they help the People’s Cause?” said another.
It was the old argument, gathering speed again after the rude girl’s interruption. Ambrose gazed sadly at the jaundiced, mustachioed Aphrodite. What was he doing, he asked himself, in this galley.
Sonia was trying to telephone to Margot, to invite themselves all to luncheon.
“An odious man says that only official calls are being taken this morning.”
“Say you’re M.I.13,” said Basil.
“I’m M.I.13…. What can that mean? Darling, I believe it’s going to work… It has worked… Margot, this is Sonia… I’m dying to see you too…”
Aphrodite gazed back at him, blind, as though sculptured in butter; Parsnip and Pimpernell, Red Square and Brown House, thus the discussion raged. What was all this to do with him?
Art and Love had led him to this inhospitable room.
Love for a long succession of louts—rugger blues, all-in wrestlers, naval ratings; tender, hopeless love that had been rewarded at the best by an occasional episode of rough sensuality, followed, in sober light, with contempt, abuse and rapacity.
A pansy. An old queen. A habit of dress, a tone of voice, an elegant, humorous deportment that had been admired and imitated, a swift, epicene felicity of wit, the art of dazzling and confusing those he despised—these had been his, and now they were the current exchange of comedians; there were only a few restaurants, now, which he could frequent without fear of ridicule and there he was surrounded, as though by distorting mirrors, with gross reflections and caricatures of himself. Was it thus that the rich passions of Greece and Arabia and the Renaissance had worn themselves out? Did they simper when Leonardo passed and imitate with mincing grace the warriors of Sparta; was there a snigger across the sand outside the tents of Saladin? They burned the Knights Templar at the stake; their loves, at least, were monstrous and formidable, a thing to call down destruction from heaven if man neglected his duty of cruelty and repression. Beddoes had died in solitude, by his own hand; Wilde had been driven into the shadows, tipsy and garrulous, but, to the end, a figure of tragedy looming big in his own twilight. But Ambrose, thought Ambrose, what of him? Born after his time, in an age which made a type of him, a figure of farce; like mothers-in-law and kippers, the century’s contribution to the national store of comic objects; a kin with the chorus boys who tittered under the lamps of Shaftesbury Avenue. And Hans, who at last, after so long a pilgrimage, had seemed to promise rest, Hans so simple and affectionate, like a sturdy young terrier, Hans lay in the unknown horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.
The huge, yellow face with scrawled mustaches offered Ambrose no comfort.
There was a young man of military age in the studio; he was due to be called up in the near future. “I don’t know what to do about it,” he said. “Of course, I could always plead conscientious objections, but I haven’t got a conscience. It would be a denial of everything we’ve stood for if I said I had a conscience.”
“No, Tom,” they said to comfort him. “We know you haven’t a conscience.”
“But then,” said the perplexed young man, “if I haven’t got a conscience, why in God’s name should I mind so much saying that I have?”
“… Peter’s here and Basil. We’re all feeling very gay and warlike. May we come to luncheon? Basil says there’s bound to be an enormous air raid tonight so it may be the last time we shall ever see each other… What’s that? Yes, I told you I’m (What am I, Basil?) I’m M.I.13. (There’s a ridiculous woman on the line saying is this a private call?)… Well, Margot, then we’ll all come round to you. That’ll be heaven… hello, hello, I do believe that damned woman has cut us off.”
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art. Nature in the raw is seldom mild; red in tooth and claw; matelots in Toulon smelling of wine and garlic, with tough brown necks, cigarettes stuck to the lower lip, lapsing into unintelligible, contemptuous argot.
Art: this was where Art had brought him, to this studio, to these coarse and tedious youngsters, to that preposterous yellow face among the boiled sweets.
It had been a primrose path in the days of Diaghilev; at Eton he had collected Lovat-Frazer rhyme sheets; at Oxford he had recited In Memoriam through a megaphone to an accompaniment hummed on combs and tissue paper; in Paris he had frequented Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein; he had written and published his first book there, a study of Montparnasse negroes that had been banned in England by Sir William Joynson-Hicks. That way the primrose path led gently downhill to the world of fashionable photographers, stage sets for Cochrane, Cedric Lyne and his Neapolitan grottoes.
He had made his decision then, turned aside from the primrose path, had deliberately chosen the austere and the heroic; it was the year of the American slump, a season of heroic decisions, when Paul had tried to enter a monastery and David had succeeded in throwing himself under a train. Ambrose had gone to Germany, lived in a workman’s quarter, found Hans, begun a book, a grim, abstruse, interminable book, a penance for past frivolity; the unfinished manuscript lay somewhere in an old suitcase in Central Europe, and Hans was behind barbed wire; or worse, perhaps, had given in, as with his simple, easy-going acceptance of things, was all too likely, was back among the Brown Shirts, a man with a mark against his name, never again to be trusted, but good enough for the firing line, good enough to be jostled into battle.
The red-headed girl was asking inconvenient questions again. “But Tom,” she was saying. “Surely if it was a good thing to share the life of the worker in a canned fruit factory, why isn’t it a good thing to serve with him in the army?”
“Julia’s just the type who used to go about distributing white feathers.”
“If it comes to that, why the hell not?” said Julia.
Ars longa, thought Ambrose, a short life but a gray one.
Alastair plugged his electric razor into the lamp on Sonia’s writing table and shaved in the bedroom, so as not to miss what was going on. He had once in the past seen Peter in full dress uniform at a Court Ball and had felt sorry for him because it meant that he could not come on afterwards to a night club; this was the first time he had seen him in khaki and he was jealous as a schoolboy. There was still a great deal of the schoolboy about Alastair; he enjoyed winter sports and sailing and squash racquets and the chaff round the bar at Bratt’s; he observed certain immature taboos of dress, such as wearing a bowler hat in London until after Goodwood week; he had a firm, personal sense of schoolboy honor. He felt these prejudices to be peculiar to himself; none of them made him at all censorious of anyone else; he accepted Basil’s outrageous disregard for them without question. He kept his sense of honor as he might have kept an expensive and unusual pet; as, indeed, once, for a disastrous month, Sonia had kept a small kangaroo named Molly. He knew himself to be as eccentric, in his own way, as Ambrose Silk. For a year, at the age of twenty-one, he had been Margot Metroland’s lover; it was an apprenticeship many of his friends had served; they had forgotten about it now, but at the time all their acquaintances knew about it; but never, even to Sonia, had Alastair alluded to the fact. Since marriage he had been unfaithful to Sonia for a week every year, during the Bratt’s Club golf tournament at Le Touquet, usually with the wife of a fellow member. He did this without any scruple because he believed Bratt’s week to be in some way excluded from the normal life of loyalties and obligations; a Saturnalia when the laws did not run. At all other times he was a devoted husband.
Alastair had never come nearer to military service than in being senior private in the Corps at Eton; during the General Strike he had driven about the poorer quarters of London in a closed van to break up seditious meetings and had clubbed several unoffending citizens; that was his sole contribution to domestic politics, for he had lived, in spite of his many moves, in uncontested constituencies. But he had always held it as axiomatic that, should anything as preposterous and antiquated as a large-scale war occur, he would take a modest but vigorous part. He had no illusions about his abilities, but believed, justly, that he would make as good a target as anyone else for the King’s enemies to shoot at. It came as a shock to him now, to find his country at war and himself in pajamas, spending his normal Sunday noon with a jug of Black Velvet and some chance visitors. Peter’s uniform added to his uneasiness. It was as though he had been taken in adultery at Christmas or found in mid-June on the steps of Bratt’s in a soft hat.
He studied Peter, with the rapt attention of a small boy, taking in every detail of his uniform, the riding boots, Sam Browne belt, the enameled stars of rank, and felt disappointed but, in a way, relieved, that there was no sword; he could not have borne it if Peter had had a sword.
“I know I look awful,” Peter said. “The adjutant left me in no doubt on that subject.”
“You look sweet,” said Sonia.
“I heard they had stopped wearing cross straps on the Sam Browne,” said Alastair.
“Yes, but technically we still carry swords.”
Technically. Peter had a sword, technically.
“Darling, do you think that if we went past Buckingham Palace the sentries will salute?”
“It’s quite possible. I don’t think Belisha has quite succeeded in putting it down yet.”
“We’ll go there at once. I’ll dress. Can’t wait to see them.”
So they walked from Chester Street to Buckingham Palace; Sonia and Peter in front, Alastair and Basil a pace or two behind. The sentries saluted and Sonia pinched Peter as he acknowledged it. Alastair said to Basil:
“I suppose we’ll be doing that soon.”
Excerpted from Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
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