Harlequin

Harlequin

by Morris West

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781760297640
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 12/01/2017
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 478,704
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Morris West was one of the great storytellers of the twentieth century. He wrote 28 novels, several of which were made into films, as well as plays and non-fiction. Australian-born, his books have sold nearly 70 million copies worldwide, and have been translated into 28 languages. He is best known for his novels The Devil's Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Clowns of God.

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CHAPTER 1

George Harlequin and I have been friends for twenty years; yet I have to confess he is the one man I have ever truly envied. There was a time when I believe I hated him; and it was only his grace and sanity that cured me.

He is everything that I am not. I am big, burly, awkwardly put together, the despair of tailors. He is slim, elegant, a classic horseman, a tennis-player beautiful to watch. I am literate enough in one language, Harlequin is a polyglot, formidable in half a dozen. More, he wears a quite prodigious learning with the off-hand charm of a renaissance courtier. I am an antipodean, eager, impulsive, apt to be harsh or simplistic in my judgments. Harlequin is a European, cool, conciliatory, subtle, patient even with idiots.

He was born to money. His grandfather founded Harlequin et Cie, Merchant Bankers, in Geneva. His father made international alliances and opened branches in Paris, London and New York. Harlequin extended the territory, then inherited the Presidency and the largest block of voting shares. The tradition of the house was sacred to him: the character of the client outweighed his collateral; the risk, once taken, would never be abrogated; the contract was never hedged by legal tricks; a handshake was as binding as a formal document; if the client or his family fell on evil times, the motto of the bank held good: 'Amicus certus in re incerta: a sure friend in an uncertain business.'

I, on the other hand, began as a huckster, pure and simple. I clawed my way through the metal markets, made money and lost it. In the lean years that followed, I was humbled by the concern which Harlequin lavished on me, incredulous of the sums he gambled on my word alone. When my fortunes were restored, I gave him the money to invest, while I took a long cure for peptic ulcers and learned a few of the arts of contentment.

I married early and made a mess of it. Harlequin played the field until he was thirty-five and then made a runaway match with Juliette Gerard, whom he met on my boat while I was still coaxing her to marry me. We did not meet for three years after that. We remained banker and client, but reticent and constrained, until their son was born and they named him for me, Paul Desmond, and I stood sponsor at his christening. The same day, Harlequin offered me a seat on his board of directors. In a hot flush of sentiment, I accepted, and so became ambassador-at-large for Harlequin et Cie and doting godfather to a blond mite who was too like his mother for comfort.

Let me say it plain. We were friends of the heart, but I was still jealous of Harlequin. He was so much the arbiter of elegance; yet so judicious that even the greybeards of the money-game paid him a rabbinical respect. He was too fortunate, too full of too many graces. I suppose you could say he was too obviously happy. He rode, he sailed, he raced thoroughbreds, he collected pictures and porcelain. He was courted by beautiful women and doted on his wife. Yet he was so fastidious of excellence that lesser folk were daunted by him. In odd bleak moments, I wondered why he bothered with a hurly-burly fellow like me. I felt like a court jester bumbling round the most exquisite of princes.

I do not write this to disprize him — God help me! It must be clear that the jester loved the prince and, for his sins, was still in love with the princess. I want to show you how high Harlequin was, how visible and vulnerable, how unconscious of the peril of being himself. Even I did not see it very clearly. Juliette could only guess at it; and, being all woman, she gave it another name.

'... I feel so useless, Paul. I can give him nothing except myself in bed and another child when he wants it. There are twenty women who could take my place tomorrow. No matter that George doesn't see it. I do. I am not necessary to him, and one day he will know it ...'

I am no Iago, though sometimes I have wished to be. I told her the only truth I knew.

'Julie, you're married to a lucky man. Be lucky with him. Everything is a joy to him, and you're the greatest joy of all. Accept that and to hell with afterwards.'

Then Harlequin came in, bouncing and bubbling, with a new canvas under his arm and a new client on his books and plans for a weekend in Gstaad, where the snow would be deep and the weather promised fair and sunny for the beautiful people.

Soon after, it was April, and Harlequin and I went to Peking because the Chinese were talking business with Europe, and Harlequin wanted a share of it for himself and his clients. I wondered how he, mandarin of the mandarins, would measure against the spartan standards of the People's Republic. As usual, I underrated him. He was instantly at home and at ease. He was fluent in speech, dexterous in calligraphy. His courtesy was impeccable, his patience unlimited. Within a month, he was on comfortable terms with the senior hierarchy, respected by politicos and technocrats alike. He bought largely in antiquities, and jade and carpets. He discussed projects for the manufacture of antibiotics and synthetic drugs and precision instruments. He made friends among scholars and antiquarians. He saw the colour of the subtlest Oriental joke and yet never lost face or humour. It was a flawless performance, and our hosts made no secret of their approval.

Yet, it was not all charm and virtuosity. Harlequin was deeply moved by the experience. The things that depressed me, the immensity of the land, the vastness of the tribal enterprise, woke in him the poet and the dreamer. He would stand rapt for an hour watching the epic figures in the landscape — a solitary boatman homing against the sunset, women on a treadmill watering the paddy fields. Then he would break out into passionate but disjointed commentary.

'... There is a lunacy in our existence, Paul ... We live by fantasies and fragments. We've destroyed the tribe and condemned ourselves to the solitude of cities. We scramble for superfluous things and then do bloody battle to defend what we don't need. We peddle money and debase the currency we accumulate. We've turned away from the God of our fathers to haunt the parlours of wizards and mountebanks ... Sometimes, you know, I'm very afraid. I live in a walled garden, pleasant with lawns and flowers. I wonder, in nightmares, if it is not the valley of the assassins ...'

After Peking, we went to Hong Kong and Tokyo and thence to Hawaii and Los Angeles, where Harlequin was taken suddenly ill. The physician ordered him immediately into hospital, where x-rays revealed a massive infection of both lungs. At first, they suspected tuberculosis, but when the tests proved negative, they began another series of investigations. Juliette flew in from Geneva and I went back to Europe. Harlequin rallied for a few days and then relapsed. They tested him for Q-fever and psittacosis and other more exotic invasions. Then, one day, Juliette called me with disquieting news. The doctors suspected lymphangitic cancer. They had recommended a biopsy. Harlequin had refused.

'But why, Julie ... why?'

'He says he resents the idea. He would rather wait on what he calls a verdict by nature. It's his right. I don't want to persuade him.'

'Is he depressed?'

'Strangely, no. He's very calm. He says he's come to terms with the experience.'

'What about you?'

'I'm dreadfully worried. But he needs me, Paul. I'm glad of that, at least.'

'Hold the thought, girl. Give him my love. Tell him the boy is flourishing and we'll still be in business when he comes home ...'

I could make that promise confidently enough. I could not promise to get rid of the vultures who already were wheeling overhead. Every day some solicitous colleague enquired by telephone or telex for news of Harlequin's health. There were questions about policy changes, hints of merger offers in the event of Harlequin's death or incapacity. I had a sudden spate of invitations — to luncheon, dinner, cocktails and small private conventions in half-a-dozen capitals. More than one long-lost friend turned up with a useful tip for the market or a parcel of shares at a bargain price. Most significant of all was the personal intervention of one, Basil Yanko, President of Creative Systems Incorporated. His telex from New York was curt and simple:

'In Geneva tomorrow. Require private conference with you 10.00 hours. Please confirm. Yanko.'

Of course I confirmed. Harlequin et Cie had underwritten every issue of Creative Systems Incorporated and its affiliate companies. Our holdings in their stock were a licence to print money. A dozen major accounts had come to us on their recommendation. Basil Yanko could ask me to tango on a tight-rope and I would oblige him.

Not that I liked him. On the contrary, even his appearance put me off. He was a tall, gangling skeleton of a man, with a mouse-grey complexion, a thin trap mouth and black agate eyes with no humour in them at all. He was arrogant, peremptory and devoid of social graces. On the other hand, he was acknowledged as the most original intellect in computer technology. He had begun as a creator of hardware for Honeywell; then he had set up Creative Systems Incorporated and begun designing programmes for major institutions — Government agencies, international corporations, banks, airlines, the police. His companies were active in every European country, in the South Americas, in Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. His wealth was already a legend. His systems were the filaments that controlled millions of puppet lives. We used them ourselves. Basil Yanko made it clear that the systems were using us. We were scarcely settled at the conference table when he thrust an envelope under my nose.

'Read that. It's George Harlequin's medical report.'

I was angry and I let him know it. 'This is a private document. How the hell did you get it?'

'Easy. The hospital is a research institute which rents computer time from us.'

'That's bloody unethical!'

'Read it anyway. It indicates two possibilities. Harlequin has either lymphangitic cancer or a rare virus infection. If he recovers, he will require a lengthy convalescence and his activity will be drastically reduced for some time.'

'So ...?'

'If he dies, the natural heirs are his wife and an infant son. The management of Harlequin et Cie will devolve upon existing directors and any new talent they can discover. Good bankers are thin on the ground. Logical consequence, a reduction in share value and profit potential.'

'That's your logic, Mr Yanko.'

'I'm prepared to bet on it. If Harlequin dies, I want to buy his holdings. I'll top any offers in the market.'

'That's a matter for his executors.'

'Of whom you are the principal.'

'That's news to me.'

'You may take it as true.'

'And if Harlequin lives, as I have no doubt he will?'

'The same offer stands. You are requested to convey it to him when he is fit to consider it.'

'I'm confident he will refuse.'

'As an alternative, I'm prepared to buy the shares of his associates, several of whom are willing to sell.'

'Under the Articles of Association, George Harlequin has first option to buy.'

'I know that. He may be disposed to waive or sell the option.'

'I doubt that, very much.'

'You are too positive, Mr Desmond. Let me tell you that contingent behaviour in non-psychotic subjects can now be computed with seventy-five per cent accuracy.'

'And Harlequin is one of your subjects?'

'One of the most important.'

'He'll be flattered to know it.'

'Don't overrate him, Desmond. Don't underrate me. I usually get what I want.'

'Why do you want Harlequin et Cie?'

His trap mouth relaxed into a smile. 'Do you know how Harlequin got his name? His great-great-grandfather was a mummer who played Arlecchino in the Commedia dell' Arte. Oh, yes, it's true. I know the family history by heart. There's been quite a transformation in four generations. But that's the traditional role, isn't it? Harlequin transforms the world with a touch of his slapstick ... and then laughs in his sleeve at its discomfiture. By the way ... ' He fished in his brief-case and brought out a bulky folder. 'You pay us to run a security check on your accounting systems. That's the report for the last six months. The computer has thrown up some curious anomalies. You'll find some of them need urgent action. If you want clarification or help, my people are at your disposal.' He stood up. The hand he offered me was cold and limp as a dead fish. 'Thank you for your time. Please convey my respects to Madame Harlequin, and, to her husband, my hopes for his speedy recovery. Goodday, Mr Desmond.'

When I walked him to the elevator, I felt a faint chill as though a grey goose had walked over my grave. The earliest bankers were priests and money still has a ritual language. So, when you tell a banker that there are anomalies in his accounts, it is as if you point a bone at him or chant a mortal curse over his head. In theory, of course, the computer should insure him against such primitive disaster. The computer is a mighty brain, which can store centuries of knowledge, perform miracles of mathematics in the twinkling of an eye and deliver infallible answers to the most abstruse equations. In fact, it seduces man into blind faith and then betrays him to his own idiocy.

We could not buy the brain. We rented its time. We hired systems experts to explain our needs to it. We employed programmers to feed it facts and figures. We based momentous decisions on the answers it fed back to us. But, because we were haunted by the fear that the programmers might fall into error, or be suborned into malpractice, we used monitors to police the brain for any hint of error or fraud. So, we believed, as religious men should, that the system was safe and sacred, proof against fools or knaves.

There was only one problem: the brain, and the programmers and the monitors, were all members of the same family — Creative Systems Incorporated; the father of the family was Basil Yanko, who was jealous to take us all under his control. Like it or not, we were locked in a magic circle, drawn by a twentieth-century wizard. The report, which lay still unopened on my desk, was a grimoire full of spells and dangerous mysteries. I had to get my courage up to open it. I needed silence and privacy to study it. I told Suzanne to hold all calls, locked my door and settled down to read. Two hours later, I faced the brutal fact: Harlequin et Cie had been milked of fifteen million dollars. The milkman was identified as George Harlequin himself.

Now, a simple question: like the rabbi who ducked synagogue, played golf on Shabbat and hit a hole-in-one, whom do you tell? The culprit — or the victim — was seven thousand miles away in hospital, waiting for a man in a white coat to say whether he would live or die. I had to cover fifteen million before the auditors came in. If I put all my personal holdings on the line, I was good for five million; which left a shortfall of ten. To whom could I explain the need? Who would hold me safe for so much? There are few heroes in the money-game. Bankers are sensitive as sea-anemones. Poke a finger at them and they curl up into jelly-blobs, quivering with outrage and apprehension.

I had to prove the report, true or false. But who was there to trust? Computer people are clubbish too. They marry and give in marriage and meet at the county ball. Besides, computer information is like sex. You can sell it ten times over and you still own it. And who is to know or care, provided you don't peddle it under the nose of a passing policeman? If you don't believe me, I can quote you chapter and verse. One of our clients spent twenty million on off-shore oil exploration only to find that his rivals were drilling on his site before the last figures were printed on the tape.

It was one o'clock. At one-thirty, I was due to lunch and talk at the Club Commerciale de Geneve. I knew that if I breathed half a word of doubt or discouragement, it would go round the world before the market opened in New York. I locked the report in my brief-case, freshened myself in Harlequin's bathroom, opened my door and my telephone line and summoned Suzanne. Since I have to explain her, let me be done with it quickly.

Suzanne was Harlequin's secretary. She was forty years old, give or take a twelve month, and she had been in love with him from the day she walked into his office fifteen years ago. She was greying a little, but she was still a very comely woman with a good body and a bright mind and a commonsensical attitude to sex and friendship. For a while, we were lovers by default. Then we were friends by choice. I would trust her with my life; but I had no right to trust her with Harlequin's. So I told her only half the truth. It was the measure of her worth that she accepted it without question or resentment.

'Suzy, we're in a jam — a big one.'

'Basil Yanko?'

'Yes.'

'I hate that man.'

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Harlequin"
by .
Copyright © 1974 The Morris West Collection.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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