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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 2, 1904
Date of Death:April 3, 1991
Place of Birth:Berkhamsted, England
Place of Death:Vevey, Switzerland
Education:Balliol College, Oxford
Read an Excerpt
I am now in my twenty-second year and yet the only birthday which I can clearly distinguish among all the rest is my twelfth, for it was on that damp and misty day in September I met the Captain for the first time. I can still remember the wetness of the gravel under my gym shoes in the school quad and how the blown leaves made the cloisters by the chapel slippery as I ran recklessly to escape from my enemies between one class and the next. I slithered and came to an abrupt halt while my pursuers went whistling away, because there in the middle of the quad stood our formidable headmaster talking to a tall man in a bowler hat, a rare sight already at that date, so that he looked a little like an actor in costume — an impression not so far wrong, for I never saw him in a bowler hat again. He carried a walking-stick over his shoulder at the slope like a soldier with a rifle. I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father.
I slid so far that I landed on my knees at the two men's feet, and when I picked myself up the headmaster was glaring at me from under his heavy eyebrows. I heard him say, 'I think this is the one you want — Baxter Three. Are you Baxter Three?'
'Yes, sir,' I said.
The man, whom I would never come to know by any more permanent name than the Captain, said, 'What does Three indicate?'
'He is the youngest of three Baxters,' the headmaster said, 'but not one of them is related by blood.'
'That puts me in a bit of a quandary,' the Captain said. 'For which of them is the Baxter I want? The Christian name, unlikely as it may sound, is Victor. Victor Baxter — the names don't pair very well.'
'We have little occasion here fore Christian names. Are you called Victor Baxter?' the headmaster inquired of me sharply.
'Yes, sir,' I said after some hesitation, for I was reluctant to admit to a name which I had tried unsuccessfully to conceal from my fellows. I knew very well that Victor for some obscure reason was one of the unacceptable names, like Vincent or Marmaduke.
'Well then, I suppose that this is the Baxter you want, sir. Your face needs washing, boy.'
The stern morality of the school prevented me from telling the headmaster that it had been quite clean until my enemies had splashed it with ink. I saw the Captain regarding me with brown, friendly and what I came to learn later from hearsay, unreliable eyes. He had such deep black hair that it might well have been dyed and a long thin nose which reminded me of a pair of scissors left partly ajar, as though his nose was preparing to trim the military moustache just below it. I thought that he winked at me, but I could hardly believe it. In my experience grown-ups did not wink, except at each other.
'This gentleman is an old boy, Baxter,' the headmaster said, 'a contemporary of your father's he tells me.'
'He has asked permission to take you out this afternoon. He has brought me a note from your father, and as today is a half holiday, I see no reason why I shouldn't give my consent, but you must be back at your house by six. He understands that.'
'You can go now.'
I turned my back and began to make for the classroom where I was overdue.
'I meant go with this gentleman, Baxter Three. What class do you miss?'
'He means Divinity,' the headmaster told the Captain. He glared at the door across the quad from which wild sounds were emerging, and he swept his black gown back over his shoulder. 'From what I can hear you will miss little by not attending.' He began to make great muffled strides towards the door. His boots — he always wore boots — made no more sound than carpet slippers.
'What's going on in there?' the Captain asked.
'I think they are slaying the Amalekites,' I said.
'Are you an Amalekite?'
'Then we'd better be off.'
He was a stranger, but I felt no fear of him at all. Strangers were not dangerous. They had no such power as the headmaster or my fellow pupils. A stranger is not a permanency. One can easily shed a stranger. My mother had died a few years back — I could not even then have said how long before; time treads at quite a different pace when one is a child. I had seen her on her deathbed, pale and calm, like a figure on a tomb, and when she hadn't responded to my formal kiss on her forehead, I realized with no great shock of grief that she had gone to join the angels. At that time, before I went to school, my only fear was of my father who, according to what my mother told me, had long since attached himself to the opposing party up there where she had gone. 'Your father is a devil,' she was very fond of telling me, and her eyes would lose their habitual boredom and light suddenly up for a moment like a gas cooker.
My father, I do remember that, came to the funeral dressed top to toe in black; he had a beard which went well with the suit, and I looked for the tail under his coat, but I couldn't perceive one, although this did little to reassure me. I had not seen him very often before the day of the funeral, nor after, for he seldom came to my home, if you could call the flat in a semidetached house named The Laurels near Richmond Park where I began to live after my mother's death, a home. It was at the buffet party which followed the funeral that I now believe he plied my mother's sister with sherry until she promised to provide a shelter for me during the school holidays.
My aunt was quite an agreeable but very boring woman and understandably she had never married. She too referred to my father as the Devil on the few occasions when she spoke of him, and I began to feel a distinct respect for him, even though I feared him, for to have a devil in the family was after all a kind of distinction. An angel one had to take on trust, but the Devil in the words of my prayer book 'roamed the world like a raging lion', which made me think that perhaps it was for that reason my father spent so much more time in Africa than in Richmond. Now after so many years have passed I begin to wonder whether he was not quite a good man in his own way, something which I would hesitate to say of the Captain who had won me from him at backgammon, or so he said.
'Where shall we go now?' the Captain asked me. 'I hadn't expected you to be released as easily as all that. I thought there would be a lot of papers to sign — there are nearly always papers to be signed in my experience. It's too early for lunch,' he added.
'It's nearly twelve,' I said. Bread, jam and tea at eight always left me hungry.
'My appetite only begins at one, but my thirst is always there at least half an hour before — however twelve is good enough for me — but you are too young to take into a bar.' He looked me up and down. 'You would certainly never pass. Why, you are even small for your age.'
'We could go for a walk,' I suggested without enthusiasm because walks were a compulsory feature of school life on Sundays and often entailed the slaughter of some Amalekites.
'There's the High Street or the Common or the Castle.'
'I seem to remember on the way from the station that I saw a pub called the Swiss Cottage.'
'Yes. By the canal.'
'You could be trusted, I suppose, to stay outside while I swallowed a gin and tonic. I shan't be long doing that.'
All the same he was away for nearly half an hour and I think now with the wisdom of the years that he must have swallowed at least three.
I loitered by a timber yard close by and stared at the green weeds of the canal. I felt very happy. I was not puzzled at all by the Captain's arrival, I accepted it. It had just happened like a fine day between two weeks of rain. It was there because it was there. I wondered whether it would be possible to build a raft out of the planks in the yard and float it down towards the sea. A canal of course was not a river, but yet surely a canal would have to end in a river, for we lived — so I understood from my geography classes — on an island and a river always came eventually to the sea. A sail might be made out of my shirt, but there was also the question of provisions for a long journey ...
I was deep in thought when the Captain came out of the Swiss Cottage and asked me abruptly, 'Have you any money?'
I counted out what was left of my last week's pocket-money which was always paid by my housemaster on Sundays — perhaps because on that day the shops were all closed and out of the range of temptation; even the school tuckshop was not open on Sunday. He little realized what an opportunity Sunday gave for complicated financial operations, for the payment of debts, for the arrangement of forced loans, the calculations of interest, and for the marketing of unwanted possessions.
'Three and threepence halfpenny,' I told the Captain. It was not so small a sum in those days before the metric system when money was still relatively stable. The Captain went back into the pub and I began to consider what foreign coinage I would need to take with me on my voyage. I came to the conclusion that pieces of eight would probably prove the most practical.
'The landlord had no change,' the Captain explained when he returned.
It did occur to me then that he might himself have run short of money, but when he said, 'And now for a good lunch at The Swan,' I knew I must be wrong. Even my aunt had never taken me to The Swan: she would always arrive at the school with home-made sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper and with a thermos full of hot milk. 'I don't trust meals cooked by strangers,' she had often told me, and she would add, 'and from the prices they charge in restaurants, you can tell that they are not honest meals.'
The bar of The Swan was crowded when we arrived and the Captain installed me at a table in an annexe which apparently counted as a restaurant so that the law allowed me to sit there. I could watch him exchanging a few words with the landlord and his precise and authoritative voice carried through all the rumble-tumble of the bar. 'Two single rooms for the night,' I heard him say. For a moment I wondered who was going to join him, but my mind drifted off to more interesting things, for never before had I even been in sight of a bar and I was fascinated. Everyone standing there had so much to say and everyone seemed to be in a good humour. I thought of the raft and the long voyage I had planned, and it seemed to me that I had arrived at the other end of the world, in the romantic city of Valparaiso, and that I was carousing with foreign sailors who had sailed the Seven Seas — true, they all wore collars and ties, but perhaps one had to dress up a little if one went ashore in Valparaiso. My imagination was aided by a small barrel on the bar which I supposed must contain rum, and a sword without a scabbard — undoubtedly a cutlass — which was hanging as a decoration above the landlord's head.
'A double gin and tonic at the table,' the Captain was saying, 'and something fizzy for the boy.'
I thought with admiration how he was completely at home in a place like this, he was at ease in Valparaiso. The tobacco smoke, driven by a draught from an open door, blew around my head and I sniffed up the fumes with pleasure. The Captain told the landlord, 'You'll remember, won't you, that you've got my suitcase behind the bar? If you would just send it up to my room. I and the boy will take a walk after lunch. Or tell me — is there a suitable movie?'
'The only film that's on,' the landlord said, 'Is a pretty old one. The Daughter of Tarzan it's called, and I wouldn't know if it's suitable or not. There's a girl who makes love with an ape I believe ...'
'Is there a matinée?'
'Yes, today's Saturday, so there'll be one at two-thirty.'
The Captain came to me at the table. He picked up the menu and told me, 'Some smoked salmon, I think, for a start. Afterwards would you rather have a pork chop or a lamb cutlet?' The landlord himself brought us what I supposed was the gin and tonic and a fizzy drink which proved to be orangeade. After he had gone the Captain gave me a short lecture. 'Remember that it's never too late to learn from a man like myself who has been around. If you are a bit short of cash — which will often happen when you are my age — never drink at the bar, unless you've booked a room first, for otherwise they want their money straightaway. That orange fizz and my gin go on the price of the meal and the cost of that goes on the price of the room.' What he said meant nothing at all to me then. It was only later that I appreciated the Captain's foresight and saw that he was trying in his own way to prepare me for a new life.
It was a very good meal we had, though the salmon made me thirsty, and the Captain, seeing me look a little wistfully at my empty glass, ordered me another orangeade. 'We'll have to take a walk,' he said, 'If only to let the gas escape.' I was beginning to lose some of the awe I had felt for him and I ventured on a question. 'Are you a sea captain?' But no, he said, he didn't care for the sea, he was an army man. Remembering his loan from me at the Swiss Cottage I waited with some anxiety to see if he would have trouble in paying, but all he did was to take the bill and write his name on it with a number which he explained to me was the number of his room. I noticed that he wrote 'J. Victor (Capt.)'. It struck me as an odd coincidence that his surname was the same as my Christian one, but at the same time it gave me a comfortable feeling, a feeling that at last I had found a relative whom I could like — one who was neither an angel nor a devil nor an aunt.
After our very good lunch the Captain began to talk to the landlord about the dinner which we would be taking next. 'We'll want it early,' he said. 'A boy of his age ought to be in bed by eight.'
'I can see you know how to bring up a child.'
'I've had to learn the hard way. You see, his mother's dead.'
'Ah! Have a brandy, sir, on the house. It's not an easy thing for a man to play the mother's part.'
'I never refuse a good offer,' the Captain said, and a minute later they were clicking glasses together over the bar. It did occur to me that I had never seen anyone less like a mother than the Captain.
'Time, gentlemen, time,' the landlord called and added in a confidential tone to the Captain, 'Of course it doesn't apply to you, sir, you being a guest in the hotel. Can I give your nipper another orangeade?'
'Better not,' the Captain said. 'Too much gas you know.' I was to discover as time went on that the Captain had a strong disinclination for gas — a sentiment which I shared, for in the dormitory at night there were too many of my companions who liked to show off the vigour of their farts.
'About that early dinner,' the Captain said.
'We don't usually serve a hot meal before eight. But if you wouldn't mind something tasty and cold ...'
'I prefer it.'
'Shall we say a bit of cold chicken and a slice of ham ...?'
'And perhaps a little green salad?' the Captain suggested. 'A growing boy needs a bit of green — or so his mother used to say. For me — well, I've lived too long in the tropics where a salad can mean dysentery and death ... However if you have a bit of that apple tart left ...'
'And a bit of cheese to go with it?' the landlord suggested with a sort of enthusiasm for good works.
'Not for me, not at night,' the Captain said, 'gassy again. Well, we'll be getting along now. I'll take a look at the pictures outside the cinema. Tarzan's Daughter you said, didn't you? One can generally judge from the pictures outside if a film's suitable for a child. If it's not, we'll just go for a walk, and I might slip in myself for the evening performance when the boy's safe in bed.'
'You turn left out of the door, and then it's just across the road a hundred yards down.'
'We'll be seeing you,' the Captain replied and we went out, but to my surprise we turned sharp right.
'The cinema's the other way,' I said.
'We are not going to the cinema.'
I was disappointed, and I tried to reassure him. 'Lots of the day boys have been to Tarzan's Daughter.'
The Captain halted. He said, 'I'll give you a free choice. We'll go and see Tarzan's Daughter if you insist and then back you must go to — what did that pompous old ass call it? — your "house," or else we don't go to the film and you don't go to your house.'
'Where do I go?'
'There's a good train to London at three o'clock.'
'You mean we can go all the way to London. But when do we come back?'
'We don't come back — unless of course you want to see Tarzan's Daughter.'
'I don't want to see Tarzan's Daughter that much.'
'Well then ... Is this the way to the station, boy?'
'Yes, but you ought to know.'
'Why the hell should I know? I took a different route this morning.'
'But you're an old boy, the headmaster said.'
'This is the first time I've ever seen the bloody town.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Captain and the Enemy"
Copyright © 1988 Graham Greene Estate.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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