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The Wheel of Fortune
By Susan Howatch
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Leaftree Limited
All rights reserved.
How seductive are the memories of one's youth! My cousin Ginevra once said she would never forget dancing with me beneath the chandeliers at Oxmoon while the orchestra played "The Blue Danube." Women are such incurable romantics. I was a romantic myself once but I recovered. A rational disposition must necessarily preclude a romantic outlook on life, and only the failures of this world can afford to dispense with a rational disposition.
No one could have called me a failure. I have always recoiled from the second-rate; whenever I compete I have to come first, and every time I come first I take another step away from that disaster I can never forget, that catastrophe which followed my dance with Ginevra, my own Ginette, beneath the chandeliers at Oxmoon while the orchestra played "The Blue Danube."
However as a rational man I could hardly mourn an adolescent tragedy like a lovesick swain sighing for some lost Arcadia. I admit I still had my maudlin moments, but they seldom survived sunrise, breakfast and the leading article in The Times. Recovering from an ill-starred romance is, after all, to anyone of sufficient willpower and self-respect, purely an attitude of mind.
I reminded myself of this proven fact when I opened The Times on that May morning in 1913, perused the leading article on the Marconi scandal and then found I could not remember a word I had read. To skim uncomprehendingly through an article on financial machinations is pardonable; nothing can be more boring than high finance at its most convoluted. But to skim uncomprehendingly through an article on the idiotic financial machinations of Isaacs and Lloyd George suggested an absence of mind amounting almost to derangement. I was involved in politics, particularly in Liberal politics. I greatly admired Asquith, the Prime Minister, but Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the Welshman in whom I felt a special interest. To find my attention now wandering from the latest headlines in his history was disturbing in the extreme, and after making a mental note to find a new mistress without delay I applied myself to reading the article again. A prolonged abstinence from carnal satisfaction—never a desirable state of affairs—had evidently resulted in a depression which was affecting my powers of concentration, and remedial measures had to be taken without delay.
At this point my man Bennett glided into the room with the morning's post. I sighed with relief. Now I could postpone asking myself why I had lost interest in carnal matters; now I could avoid examining the shining surface of my well-ordered private life for blemishes which logic dictated could not and should not exist. With alacrity I cast aside The Times, picked up the paper knife and slit open the envelopes which lay waiting to divert me.
I divided the contents into four piles; invitations, personal notes, bills and rubbish; all business correspondence was delivered to my chambers downstairs. The invitations were wearisome but most of them would have to be accepted. A rising young banister with unlimited ambition must seize every opportunity to meet the people who matter, but how much more entertaining life would be if the people who mattered had more to recommend them! However, boredom on social occasions is an inescapable hazard for the overeducated, and for the overambitious it must be endured with what my mother would no doubt have called Christian resignation.
So much for the invitations. The personal letters included a typically dreary offering from my mother herself—my mother was a good woman but with a provincial cast of mind—an obsequious scrawl from one of my numerous tiresome siblings, but still nothing from my father. That was a pity but evidently he was too busy to escape to London for one of his "little sprees." The remainder of my correspondence, I saw as I unfolded writing paper of varying degrees of opulence, consisted of billets-doux. If I had been vain I would have found such attentions flattering but I knew well enough that these society women saw me only as a myth in my barrister's wig and gown. No woman had ever seen me as I really was, no woman except my cousin Ginevra long ago in that lost paradise we had shared at Oxmoon.
So much for the personal letters. I turned to the bills and found them unpleasant but not unreasonable. I was not given to wild extravagances which I considered to be the mark of an inferior intellect. I neither gambled nor showered overpriced gems on music-hall girls. Even when I was not living like a monk I never kept a mistress; my mistresses were kept, usually in great style, by their complaisant husbands. Soon, I knew, I would have to marry in order to further the political career I intended to have, but since I naturally intended to marry money my bank account would hardly suffer when I made the required trip to the altar. I intended to marry into the aristocracy too, but not the impoverished aristocracy, no matter how charming its feminine representatives might be. Man cannot live on charm alone, and an ambitious man cannot live on anything less than wealth, good social connections and substantial political influence. One must be rational about such matters, and being rational need not mean being cold. I had every intention of being fond of my future wife, whoever she might be, and I had every confidence that we would do tolerably well together. Marrying for love might be romantic but I considered it the hallmark of an undisciplined private life. Romance is the opiate of the dissatisfied; it anesthetizes them from the pain of their disordered second-rate lives. I was neither disordered nor second-rate and so I had no need of opiates, just as I no longer had any need of my cousin Ginevra, my own Ginette, now fifteen years married and still living happily ever after in New York.
So much for the bills. Turning to the rubbish I discovered not only circulars and begging letters but also passionate outpourings from disturbed females who apparently thought I wanted to wreck my future political career by making a speech in favor of women's suffrage. I consigned all these effusions to the wastepaper basket, filed the invitations, bills and personal letters in the appropriate pigeonholes of my desk and took a deep breath. My day was about to begin. My life was in perfect order. I was healthy, wealthy and supremely successful and if I were not happy I was a fool.
I was not a fool, therefore I had to be happy.
I was happy. Life was exciting, glittering, a perpetually coruscating challenge. First I had to go downstairs to consult my clerk, talk to my fellow attorneys, glance through the new briefs that had arrived. Then I would take a cab to the Old Bailey where I was in the midst of defending a most charming woman who had promised me tearfully that it had been sheer coincidence that she had bought arsenic three days before her husband had died such an unpleasant death; I could not believe this but the jury would—by the time I had finished with them. Later I would dine out. The McKennas were giving a political dinner party and I had heard Lloyd George was to be present; my young hostess Pamela would make much of me and to repay her I would be debonair and charming, stifling my yawns as the ladies rattled on interminably about the wedding of Princess Victoria Louise. But after the ladies had withdrawn and the port was circulating the real business of the evening would begin.
We would talk of politics; I would keep respectfully silent as Lloyd George discussed Welsh Disestablishment—but if he were to ask me for my opinion I would, of course, have a few well-chosen words prepared. Then no doubt someone would say what a bore the suffragettes were and someone else would say what a bore most women were anyway, and Lloyd George and I would look at each other, two Welshmen in the land of our masters, and wonder how English gentlemen ever summoned the effort to reproduce themselves.
Then the port would go round again and we would talk of Turkey and Bulgaria and the Kaiser and the Dreadnoughts until propriety forced us to join the ladies in the drawing room and talk of Caruso, Melba and the rising price of pre-Raphaelite paintings. However I would escape before eleven; someone was sure to invite me to Brooks's or some other club, but I would have to retire to my chambers and burn the midnight oil in order to ensure that I won my case on the morrow. By the time I went to bed I would be exhausted, too exhausted to lie awake and think maudlin thoughts, but when I awoke at six another enthralling day would be waiting for me—for I was so lucky, always fortune's favorite, and I had everything I had ever wanted, everything but the life I longed to lead with the woman I could never have, but what did such sentimental aspirations matter when I was so happy, success personified, forever coming first and winning all the way along the line?
I told myself I could not be unhappy because it was logically impossible. But then I remembered those Greek philosophers, all eminently sane and rational, arguing with inexorable logic towards a truth which turned out to be not a truth but an absurdity. Zeno had proved everything in the world was fixed and unchanging, Heraclitus had proved everything in the world was changing continuously, and both men had provided impeccable arguments to support their points of view. But reality, as Democritus had later tried to show, had all the time lain elsewhere.
I saw a chaotic world of infinite complexity where reason was impotent, and instinctively I recoiled from it. I had long since decided that a successful life was like a well-ordered game governed, as all games were, by rules. One grew up, learned the rules, played one's chosen game and won. That was what life was all about. Any fool knew that.
But what was the nature of my chosen game? And how had I wound up in this particular game in the first place? And suppose it was the wrong game? And if it was the wrong game then what was the point of winning it? And if winning was meaningless what was my life all about? And if I had no idea what my life was all about, did this mean my life was in a mess and if my life was in a mess did this mean I was a failure? And what exactly had I failed to do and how could I repair the omission when I had no idea what I had left undone?
The telephone rang in the hall.
"I'm not in!" I shouted to Bennett as he emerged from the pantry.
The ringing ceased as Bennett addressed himself to the instrument. Presently I heard him say, "One moment, Mr. Godwin, I thought he'd left but it's possible—"
I sprang to my feet and sped to the hall.
"Papa?" I said into the mouthpiece as Bennett yielded his place to me. "Is something wrong?" There was no telephone at Oxmoon, and I thought such an unexpected communication might herald news of a family disaster, but I was worrying unnecessarily. My father's letter telling me of his imminent visit to London for a "little spree" had gone astray; he had arrived late on the previous evening at his club, and finding no note from me awaiting him there he was now telephoning to ask when we could meet.
"—and I've got the most extraordinary news, Robert—"
For one aghast moment I wondered if my mother was pregnant. My parents had an obsession with reproducing themselves and were the only couple I knew who had celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with such undisciplined zest that an infant had arrived nine months later to mark the occasion.
"—and I wonder if I should tell you over the telephone or whether I should wait till I see you—"
"My God, it's not Mama, is it?"
"What? Oh no, she's fine, in capital form, sent you her love and so on—"
"Then what is it? What's happened?"
"Well, it's about Ginevra. She—hullo? Robert?"
"Yes, I'm still here. Go on."
"What's the news about Ginette ?"
"Well, there's no need to shout, Robert! I may be on the wrong side of fifty now but I'm not deaf!"
"God Almighty, I swear I shall go mad in a moment. My dear Papa, could you kindly tell me with as much speed as possible—"
"It's Ginevra's husband. He's dead, Robert. She's coming home."
IN MY DREAMS I always said to her, "Take me back to Oxmoon, the Oxmoon of our childhood. Take me back to Oxmoon and make it live again."
How seductive indeed were the memories of my youth, and the older I grew the more alluring they became to me until they assumed the gilded quality of myth. If romance is the opiate of the dissatisfied, then surely nostalgia is the opiate of the disillusioned, for those who see all their dreams come true and find themselves living in a nightmare. The present may be ungovernable, crammed with questions that have no answers, and the future may be unimaginable, obscured by doubt and bewilderment, but the past thrives with increasing clarity, not dead at all but running parallel to the present and often seeming, in my memory, more real than the reality of my daily life in 1913.
At the beginning of my life there were my parents, who were hardly more than children themselves, and at Oxmoon with my parents was this grubby little girl who talked to me, pinched me, played with me, slapped me, helped me to walk and generally made herself useful. She was somewhat stout and vain as a peacock; she was always standing on tiptoe to examine her ringlets in the looking glass. For the first few years of my life I found her full name impossible to pronounce, but she was gracious and permitted me to use an abbreviation, a favor that was never granted to anyone else.
I seem always to have known she was not my sister. "You're not my sister, are you?" I said to her once, just to make sure, and she exclaimed, "Heavens, no—what an idea!" and was most offended. She knew I disliked sisters. Later she explained to me, "I'm Bobby's cousin," although when I asked her how that could be possible when my father was so much older than she was, she snapped, "Ask no questions and you'll be told no lies," which meant she had no idea.
I thought that if this story was true she should call my father "Cousin Bobby" but in truth my father, still resurrecting his bankrupt estate from the grave, hardly had the time to concern himself with a minor detail of family etiquette. Later when my mother had recovered from the nightmare of her first years at Oxmoon she became more strict about what she called "doing the done thing," but even then Ginette usually forgot to address her guardian as "Cousin" so the exact nature of the relationship between us was never stressed.
Eventually I discovered that her father and my grandfather had been half-brothers; her father, the child of a second marriage, had been the younger by twenty years, a circumstance that meant he belonged more to the generation of his nephew, my father, than to the generation of his half-brother, my grandfather. He had spent his early childhood at Oxmoon and in later life long after he had removed to the English Midlands, he and my father had remained good friends. My father had even borrowed money from him when the reconstruction of the Oxmoon estate was begun, so presumably the ties of affection which united them had remained strong; that those ties survived unimpaired despite the borrowing of money was demonstrated when my great-uncle drew up a will in which he named my father the guardian of the infant Ginevra. Within a month he had died of typhoid, and his young widow, who must have been a tiresome creature, went into a decline and eventually managed to starve herself to death on the nearest picturesque chaise longue.
I was nine months old when Ginette came to live with us, and Oxmoon was barely habitable at the time. My parents pretended to occupy the entire house but in fact lived in three rooms on the ground floor. However despite my parents' straitened circumstances it never crossed their minds that they might make some other provision for Ginette and they always treated her as if she were their daughter. No doubt my father's affection for her father made any other course of action unthinkable to him, while my mother too would have felt bound by an absolute moral duty.
"Poor little me!" said Ginette later when she reflected on her predicament. "But never mind, all the best heroines are beautiful orphans, abandoned to their fate, and the one thing that's certain about my situation is that I'm going to be a heroine when I grow up."
"Can I be a hero?"
"Well, I suppose you can try. But you'll have to try very hard."
Excerpted from The Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch. Copyright © 1984 Leaftree Limited. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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