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Long Summer Day
A Horseman Riding By Book One
By R. F. Delderfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 R. F. Delderfield
All rights reserved.
He left the carriage, ascended the short flight of steps and walked briskly past the dozing porter sitting in the deep shade of the portico; a small, neat man, in dark, well-cut city clothes and glossy topper. He did not look incongruous out here in the open country under a blistering sun, but like a confident rook, or perhaps a raven, with years of combative experience well behind him; a sleek, utterly self-possessed and, in a subdued sense, deadly raven, with a bill best avoided.
The porter did not see him until he was inside the cool hall and in the act of turning the polished handle of the door, marked 'MATRON: PRIVATE'. The man rubbed sleep from his eyes and shouted 'Hi there! You can't ...' but the dapper man with the jutting Van Dyke beard was already inside with the door closed behind him, and the porter, baffled and dismayed, hesitated, bemused by the visitor's arrogance.
The matron, fourteen stone of starched linen, was almost equally disconcerted, at least for the moment. She was accustomed to deference, advertised by timid knocks, downcast eyes, abject mumbles and not merely because, as matron, she was Queen Empress of the Hospital for Convalescent Officers, but because, as a Countess who had given her country seat to the nation in its hour of need, she had been basking in a golden glow of patriotism ever since Black Week, in December 1899, when every capital in Europe was whooping at the spectacle of a few thousand Boer farmers trouncing the British Empire. Here she had sat ever since, flirting decorously with the Harley Street men, patronising the nameless doctors, cosseting heroes, and resolutely bullying her volunteer nurses. She had never realised a war could be so richly rewarding.
She looked up from her tea-pouring and saw the little man with the beard standing in front of her desk and his leisured removal of his hat was no more than a token courtesy. She was so astonished that she forgot to be outraged and could only suppose the insolent intruder has lost his way and blundered in here by mistake. But while she was waiting for the porter to arrive and remove him he actually sat down. Actually seated himself, in the leather swivel chair, used by Sir Brian Willmott, and all the other famous physicians who paid calls on her, and before she could exclaim he said, in a hoarse voice she could only describe as singularly common, 'Lieutenant Craddock: Lieutenant P. Craddock, of the Yeomanry. He arrived here a day or so ago. I should like the latest report on him!', and he pushed a visiting card across the table.
She made a slight gobbling sound, handling the card as though it was a live cockroach. It read, 'Franz Zorndorff, Zorndorff & Craddock, Ltd.' and underneath, in neat script, 'Canal Place, and Belsize Mansions.' She found her voice at last, just as the porter, after a perfunctory knock, sidled into the room and looked at her for inspiration.
'How dare you? You had no appointment ...?'
'No,' Zorndorff said, blandly, 'none!', and then smiled in the most insolent and embarrassing way possible.
The porter arrived, passing a hand over his jowls. 'He walked past!' he began, 'he walked right past ...', and then the little man looked at him and suddenly the Countess did not seem nearly as formidable and he retreated, muttering so that the matron was abandoned to make what head she could against the visitor's armoury of invincible insolence.
She said, weakly, 'Craddock, you said?', and made a miserable pretence of shuffling among the papers on her desk, whereupon the little man smiled, this time a charming although by no means ingratiating smile, and said, 'Perhaps I should be more explicit, Countess; I am at present serving on the Board of Voluntary Hospitals in the London area. I have been a generous subscriber but in view of Lieutenant Craddock's presence here, I have decided to particularise. I have here a banker's draft for five hundred guineas, earmarked for this institution, together with a guarantee of another five hundred to be paid over the day my late partner's son is removed from the dangerously ill list!', and he took from his pocket a stiff, foolscap envelope, laying it beside the visiting card.
All the tension went out of the atmosphere and although the Matron began to gobble again it was not with suppressed indignation but the effusiveness she hitherto reserved for Harley Street visitors, men like Sir Brian, known to have been consulted on royal births at Windsor Lodge and York House. Her blunt fingers shook as she withdrew the cheque from the envelope and all the time Franz Zorndorff watched her; with relish.
She began to bustle then, so that suddenly the room was full of the whisper of starched linen. Bells rang in far off corners of the mansion and a sister appeared, and then a hollow-eyed young man in a white coat, and finally the Chief Medical Officer, inclined to be irritable and impatient until the Matron waved the cheque under his nose, after which he became almost cordial and produced a gold cigarette case from under his white coat, offering the visitor an Egyptian cigarette which was declined. He thought, 'A Jew, almost certainly! And a Continental Jew at that! But who the devil am I to quibble? If we can nail that other five hundred we can expand and beat Marylebone's intake by fifty patients, what might that mean? Publicity if nothing else; and with the war virtually over and private practice in the offing, that will be one up on quacks like Sir Brian!' His mind began to juggle with the new cases in 'H' Ward, whence all the recent arrivals had been sent but he found it difficult to isolate a Lieutenant Craddock, and held the visitor at bay with vague rumbles of 'Craddock! Ah yes, Craddock. Leg wound, I believe. Smashed knee-cap. One of the stretcher cases that came in from the Mondego Castle on Monday ... Monday was it, or Tuesday? ... We've been inundated, Mr Zorndorff, inundated ...' and then, mercifully, the Matron (who at last seemed to have grasped the urgency of the occasion) placed the file in front of him, and he could stop floundering and seriously address himself to manoeuvring this big fish to the bank. 'Craddock!' he exclaimed, 'Lieutenant Craddock, P. Why, of course, Mr Zorndorff! Give Mr Zorndorff some tea, Countess!', and he relaxed in his chair, like an ageing athlete who, against all probability, has breasted the tape an inch ahead of odds-on competitors.
Zorndorff watched the interplay with quiet enjoyment, looking more than ever like a raven, with deep-set, hooded eyes and supercilious beak. These people, he thought, were such tyros at the game. They gave themselves away so easily and they had no reserves of subtlety, no real knowledge of the blasting power of money. As if he would be here, scattering them all like a fox in a hen-run, if he had not made it his business to reconnoitre in advance, and satisfy himself that the rivalry between the various members of the minor aristocracy and their medical cliques had not already reached a point where, one and all, they were ready to bankrupt themselves, and submerge their entire professional lives in outbidding one another in patriotic endeavour, just so long as whispers of their efforts appeared in The Bystander and Illustrated London News. Patriotism, he reflected, was a kind of illness itself, and one that would respond to no other drug but public acclaim, public adulation. Before the war it had been who gave the largest house parties, and whose equipage attracted most notice at Ascot, but now only the slow-witted, clinging to Victorian traditions, raised these faded banners. Ever since Black Week, ever since national prestige had been spat upon by Kruger and his Bible-thumping peasants, these people had been at work on a new banner that was no more than a Union Jack; a man like himself, who knew that even Union Jacks had to be paid for, would be a fool not to take every possible advantage of their gavottes. He said, very civilly, 'What are his chances? That's what I must know before I leave,' and waited.
The Medical Officer was now in command of the situation. Lieutenant Craddock was on the touch-and-go list; Lieutenant Craddock's wound originated from a Mauser bullet entering on an upward course, half-an-inch below the right kneecap, and received whilst patrolling the blockhouses along the Pretoria-Bloemfontein railway. Two operations had already been performed, one in South Africa, one during the voyage home. Both were badly botched. The patient's condition had deteriorated during the voyage but he was now reported to be 'holding his own'. If gangrene was confirmed then the leg would certainly have to be amputated. So far his youth and health had served him well but he would appear to have rather less than a fifty-fifty chance. Everything that could be done for the boy was being done. The M.O. closed the file and searched the visitor's face for reactions. Seeing none he said, without malice, 'His next of kin is given as "father", Mr Zorndorff.'
'I buried his father yesterday,' Zorndorff said without looking at doctor or matron for he appeared to be thinking so deeply that the process was almost visible.
The Countess said, in a voice entirely free from disappointment, 'Poor laddie! You are a relative, Mr Zorndorff?'
Zorndorff must have arrived at his decision for he looked up, brightly, and said, 'No relative at all. I am his executor. His father was my oldest friend and business partner. He left his son the sum of twenty-eight thousand pounds, plus a third share in our joint undertaking.'
He did not seem in the least interested in the effect of this statement and the ensuing silence in the room was embarrassing for the subdued. They waited, each conscious of the loudly ticking clock; there was nothing else they could do. When Zorndorff rose, asking, or rather demanding, to be led to the patient, they stood up as one and the Countess would have demurred if her half-hearted protest had not been cut short by the M.O.'s gesture. The gesture did not escape Zorndorff, who smiled grimly, standing aside for the surgeon to lead the way through a maze of corridors to a small ward, on the south side of the house.
There were ten or twelve patients lying there and it was insufferably hot, the strong May sunshine beating in at tall, half-curtained windows. One or two voluntary nurses stood about listlessly but straightened themselves as the surgeon strode in, with Zorndorff mincing behind. They went along the beds until they came to one containing a man with his right leg suspended in a cradle that looked like a miniature gallows. The patient was asleep, but fitfully so, for as Zorndorff looked down at him he moved his head left and right half-a-dozen times and his breathing was irregular. Zorndorff studied the face without emotion and the surgeon, watching him, thought, 'He's a damned coldblooded customer! I wonder if the money reverts to him if the boy dies?' and then he flushed slightly, being half-persuaded that the Jew could read his thoughts.
Zorndorff stood by the bed looking down for more than a minute. He saw a narrow face, with a long jaw-line and slightly hollowed cheekbones sprouting a half-inch of blue-black stubble. It was a strong, obstinate face, still boyish under the flush of fever and a man's beard. The dark hair was thick and plentiful, the forehead high, the mouth rather thin and somehow fastidious, like the shapely fingers drumming feebly on the turned-back sheet. It had, he thought, very little in common with the squarish, stolid features of old Josh Craddock, whom he had first met when he was about this boy's age but there was, Zorndorff suddenly realised, a strong resemblance to the dark, silent woman, who had married Josh the Plumber and had watched him moulded, clinging desperately to his artisan background, into Josh the Merchant. It was the first time he had thought of Josh Craddock's wife in years and he did so now with reluctance and the merest flicker of guilt. He had forgotten even her name, for she had never been linked in his mind to the man who came forward out of nowhere to stand resolutely and illogically between him and deportation to Austria, at the time of his bankruptcy. Yet he recalled her face now and one other thing about her; she had been a countrywoman who had wandered into the city and never found her way out again. He remembered this clearly, and also that she had loathed the city and the claims it made upon her and that her loathing had broken her heart at the age of twenty-eight.
He said, without looking up, 'You have private wards here?'
The M.O. said they had indeed, a few, but they were occupied.
'Be so good as to move someone out,' Zorndorff said, 'someone with a better chance of recovery.' Then, before the surgeon could either agree or disagree, 'Can you recommend a specialist, a good one, who will make himself available for a second opinion?'
The surgeon hesitated, clutching the rags of his pride, but the prospect of the honours list jogged his elbow just in time and he said, sourly, 'I was at Barts under Sir Jocelyn Ferrars but he would be extremely expensive!'
'His fee would not, I think, amount to more than twenty-eight thousand pounds,' Zorndorff said, and the surgeon's resentment was swamped by a grudging tide of admiration for such preposterous insolence.
They were out in the cool hall again, where the smell of disinfectant followed them but the temperature was twenty degrees lower and suddenly Zorndorff was being very civil again, thanking him gravely for his courtesy, and begging him to convey his respects to the Countess. Then, in a twinkling, he was gone, and the porter lumbered forward to open the door and run down the steps to the visitor's carriage. The M.O. waited just long enough to see the fellow get a tip for his pains, which from the man's expression was at least a florin, possibly as much as a crown.
He thought, as he plunged his hands into his cluttered overall pockets, 'Damn him! I ought to have torn out a handful of beard and thrown it in his face!' but the mood of bitterness did not last as far as the Matron's door for by then his attention was fully occupied with other matters. Who could be ejected from a private ward with the least fuss? And how much should he offer Sir Jocelyn on that arrogant little bastard's behalf?
For a man lying flat on his back, with one leg suspended from a pulley, the ceiling looked incredibly far off, yet not so far as to prevent Craddock conjuring fantasies from stains etched into the plaster by leaks that were stopped a century ago; during the long, hot afternoons, when pain and drugs were doing battle with one another inside him, the ragged edges of the damp areas resolved themselves into charging lines of infantry and squadrons of cavalry, with here the burst of a bombshell, there an angled standard.
The battle overhead distressed him far more than pain or weakness resulting from his wound, for in the months between the present, and the day he had pitched headlong into the dry water-course beside the railway line, he had come to terms with pain. There never seemed to have been a time when small, darting flames were not searing the nerves between shin and groin. The battle overhead was something different. It would never resolve itself. The opposing armies were always on the point of advancing but when he looked again they were still ranged in lines, with bayonets advanced, officers' swords upraised, drums beating, bugles braying, and the smoke from the batteries billowing between the two hosts. It was a set-piece, but there was about it an immediacy that compelled him to cock an ear for the sob of breathless men and the screams of wounded. It exhausted him but unless he closed his eyes he found it difficult to look elsewhere, for the pulley, and the narrowness of the cot, exacted a penalty in terms of pain. Yet often enough he paid the fee, pressing his left cheek to the pillow to bring his right eye in line with the french windows opposite and staring out at the prospect beyond the terrace, where convalescents played their interminable games of pontoon.
Beyond them he could see the park sloping down a field or two, then up to a line of woods on the horizon. Nothing much happened at there. Sometimes a cow browsed into view, and occasionally a farm waggon crawled along the hillside track, moving so slowly that it seemed to take a very long time to cross his restricted line of vision. He could see clouds drifting above the elms, and patches of blue through the rents and somehow, as though to counter the poised strife overhead, the view brought peace and sanity, for he was aware that the stillness outside was real. Whereas the battle on the ceiling was not.
Gradually he began to relate the two vistas, the one fraught with anxiety and stress, the other bringing him joy and tranquility, so that, as the days passed, and the hillside view slowly began to assume mastery over the armies above, he knew that he would live, drawing more reassurance from the contrast than from anything the surgeon said or the soothing remarks made by the plump nurse who brought him drinks. And with this growing belief in his survival the battle on the ceiling lost its horrid significance, and the vision of serenity framed in woods resolved itself into a kind of Promised Land where he, Lieutenant Paul Craddock, whom they had given up for dead, roamed in the splendour of his youth.
Excerpted from Long Summer Day by R. F. Delderfield. Copyright © 1966 R. F. Delderfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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