The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
May 25, 2024, 11:50:23 am
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

Login with username, password and session length
News: Here you may discover hundreds of little-known composers, hear thousands of long-forgotten compositions, contribute your own rare recordings, and discuss the Arts, Literature and Linguistics in an erudite and decorous atmosphere full of freedom and delight.
 
  Home Help Search Gallery Staff List Login Register  

Chapter Two

Pages: [1]   Go Down
  Print  
Author Topic: Chapter Two  (Read 32 times)
Admin
Administrator
Level 8
*****

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 4329


View Profile
« on: July 28, 2023, 07:31:32 am »

THE car turned off the road and drove in between tall stone gate pillars. Orvil looked up at the columns topped with Roman helmets and trophies framing Gothic shields of arms. Here a broken spear-tip jutted out; there a sad laurel wreath hung down.

By the gate stood a little lodge. It was threatened from behind by a huge mass of ancient rhododendrons. The whole drive was overhung and darkened by these bushes.

The pretty ‘Elizabethan’ plaster lodge bore the date 1846 in large black numbers. Above the date, a duke’s coronet, two badges and a crest stood out in high relief. In those days it was not usual to leave things to chance, it seems.

For the last ninety years the drive had been growing narrower as the rhododendrons grew larger. Now it had become quite tortuous for the big cars which passed up and down. The newly laid pink gravel gave it a rather vulgar expensive look; and the light filtered greenly through the tunnel of dark leaves.

When the car came out at last into a broad sweep of lawn, Orvil gazed with pleasure at the mansion before him. It was a huge late eighteenth-century building of pale brick.

Sash windows with delicate bars, row upon row, decreased in height, until the attic windows were mere strips; while those on the ground floor were at least fourteen feet high.

The early-Victorian duke who had built the lodge had evidently also erected the fat stone porte-cochere over the charming door. The new ballroom wing jutted out from one side of the old house. It was built of genteel-coloured brick that could not be called red. Its dinky little lead casements, by contrast, made the tall thin sashes look more beautiful than ever.

Fine cedars were dotted about before the house in a haphazard pattern, making it clear that some of their number had died from old age.

As the car drew up, the hall-porter came down the steps of the hotel with a note in his hand.

“Excuse me, sir, but are you Mr. Pym?” he asked.

Mr. Pym took the note and read it. It was from Charles, to say that he had arrived at the hotel the day before, and not finding any of his family there, had left again to go flying with a friend; but they would both be back for dinner that night.

Orvil squirmed. Organs inside him seemed to be contracting. The emptiness welled up, sank down; then hung suspended painfully. The palms of his hands sweated, and one of his eyelids began to quiver. He was very much afraid of his eldest brother.

Charles was always able to make him feel small, young, effeminate, inferior, cowardly and disgraceful. Charles would lavish a curious love on him sometimes---in the privacy of a bedroom in the early morning, or in a car alone at night---but by the light of day, with other people present, he was mocking and contemptuous. And his rages were so terrible. For no apparent reason he would suddenly pour out a stream of shaming words which seemed to shrivel up Orvil’s soul for days afterwards. The uncertainty of his temper was the most terrifying thing about him. Orvil had not yet learnt to bear the strain of feeling unsafe with another person. Charles turned his bones to water, and he rebelled wildly against this horrible feeling.

He had never lived much with Charles; because of the six years’ difference in their ages, they had always been separated by schools. Orvil humbly thanked God for this, and prayed to Him now that Charles might not come back to dinner that night. He imagined the aeroplane crashing; and the next moment he was overcome with the fear that his prayer might be granted.

“Cancel it, cancel it!” he shrieked to God silently.

Mr. Pym, unlike Orvil, was pleased that his eldest son had arrived at the hotel. Secretly he was most fond of Charles, chiefly because of his dashing extravagance and unreliability. He was always rather excited when he received Charles’s unpaid bills from shops or professional men in Oxford and London.

The hall-porter led them into the central glassed-in courtyard, where a young woman in black satin and Ciro pearls came forward to conduct them to their rooms. Walking behind her, Orvil noticed that the pearls were slightly dulled with waxy dirt where they lay against the white skin on the back of her neck.

“I’m afraid this one hasn’t got much of a view,” she said, throwing open the door of a large room on the first floor. It had two beds in it, so Orvil realized that it was the one intended for himself and Ben. But Ben would not be back from camp for a few more days yet. He went to the window and looked across a court to another wing of the building. Below him was a huddle of outhouse roofs---buildings that looked like the laundry and the electric-light plant.

The young woman turned to him and said roguishly, “But boys don’t mind whether there’s a view or not, do they!”

Mr. Pym had to smile and nod his head for Orvil. Orvil would do nothing but turn away and scowl. He hated other people to imagine that they understood his mind because he was a boy. The woman’s words made him hate the drab outlook from the window. It was insulting.

His father followed the young woman to a room in the new wing, and Orvil was left alone. After choosing the bed nearest the window, he unpacked his suitcase, hiding the stolen lipstick under the paper at the back of the pot-de-chambre cupboard. He sometimes liked to call the article by this pompous name. It reminded him of his childhood when he and a friend used to play a curious precocious game in which they both pretended to be noble ladies at a ball. One would always begin by asking the other, “And what, if I may ask, is that exquisite perfume you are wearing tonight, Duchess?”

The other would then flutter an imaginary fan and simper before replying, “It is Guerlain’s new Pot-de-Chambre, my dear Countess. Is it permitted to ask what your ravishing odour is?”

“Certainly, Duchess; I am honoured that you like it. It is Chanel’s latest Vase-de-Nuit.” The language was always extremely formal, affected and stilted.

This game, with endless variations, would go on for whole afternoons together.

Orvil had originally discovered the two French phrases by one of those idle questions which he loved to put to his mother. “Mummy, what would I ask for if I suddenly woke up in France in the middle of the night?” he had said. When his mother told him what to call for, he was struck by the likeness of the phrases to the names of his mother’s scents. And so the whole game had slowly been evolved. To get new names of perfumers, Orvil ransacked his mother’s cupboards. He took it that both ‘Veet’ and ‘Odorono’ were such rare Eastern cosmetics that they were kept specially hidden; and the registered name of a certain towel ranked in his mind with those of the dressmakers Worth and Schiaparelli. He realized that his mother could not be expected to furnish a long list of French improprieties suitable for imaginary names of scents, so he and the other child were reduced to poring over her signed menus of past dinner-parties. There they found such exciting things as ‘Bisque d’écrevisses’ and ‘Baba à l’Impératrice.’ This last seemed delightfully naughty and rude, because Orvil translated it with much conviction as ‘Bobbles of the Empress’ and ‘Bobbles’ had been his first nurse’s childish name for teats . . .

Orvil shut the door of the bedside cupboard and left his room. He found his way down the passage to the head of the broad stairs. Below him in the court he saw groups of people sitting in armchairs. They wore that very sad look of people who have nothing to do before they dress for dinner.

Orvil hurried past them to the front door, turning his eyes away. He could not look straight at their gloom and boredom. Even the first sharp glimpse of it had been enough to cast some thick melancholy over him.

At the beginning of this story I have told how Orvil wandered out into the gardens on his first night at the hotel. We have reached this point now.

Choosing a pink serpentine path, he made his way into the heart of a shrubbery. Although it was still high summer, a feeling of departed glory seemed to hang in the evening air. The gentleness of the sun on his face was telling and sad.

Orvil passed out of the dark shrubbery and found himself on a terrace where a fountain played into a large round bowl. Beautiful orange carp swam in the bowl. Orvil caught glimpses of their flashing tails and fins through the perpetual downpour of white rain. He wondered how they bore with this eternal battering. He searched for their gold bodies in the bowl until the noise of falling water began to stupefy him; then he went to lean on the balustrade at the edge of the terrace. Flowers frothed over and dribbled down the stonework in thick masses. The beautiful scene made him excited, nervous and impatient. He strained his eyes to see into the distance across the valley, where the river wound between masses of plump trees.

Still filled with his strained excitement, Orvil ran down the shallow steps of the terrace, turned a corner, and found himself in a little hollow which had been completely hidden from above. Clamped to one of its cliff-like sides was a charming small cottage; beyond it, a mysterious studded door seemed to open into the heart of the rock.

The cottage orné had been built in the early nineteenth century. It had delicate lancet windows filled with blood-red, purple and orange saints; a most exquisite little porch of clustered columns and plaster fan-vaulting; and, on the roof, thick purple-blue slates shaped like fishes’ scales. A twisted barley-sugar chimney rose from the centre, giving to the cottage the appearance of a giant’s beautifully decorated ink-pot.

Orvil was so entranced with it, and with the whole dingle, that it gave him acute pain to think that it would never be his to keep and cherish. It would always be open to the loiterers from the hotel; and at any moment its indifferent owners might destroy it.

He went up to the cottage to see if he could get in, but the door was locked and the windows latched. He tried to look into the interior, but the glass was too thick with dirt and rich with colour. He knew that if ever he wanted to explore the cottage he must do it by stealth. Orvil had learnt that if windows fitted badly, latches could be lifted with the blunt edge of a knife. But it must not be a penknife. He had tried once with one of these and the blade had suddenly snapped shut, catching his fingers and cutting them badly. He determined to come back one evening, armed with one of the hotel knives.

Orvil passed on to the miniature cliff wall, where weeds hung down romantically from crags and shelves. He quite expected the heavily studded door to be locked too, but it opened when he turned the squeaking iron ring, and let out a smell of bat’s dung, green slime and earth. There was a tiny bell-like tinkle of water dripping in the darkness. Orvil became so tantalized by not being able to see that he pushed into the blackness almost petulantly; until his outstretched hand touched some slithery pointed object. Then he was overcome with fear; he rushed out, clanging the door behind him. He had a sudden horror of the bats, imagining them as they must have hovered above his head in the dark cave. He saw the unspeakable insects teeming on their bodies.

Running to the other side of the dingle, Orvil reached a yet lower level by another flight of shallow stairs. Here trim rows of tiny tombstones under the shade of yew trees confronted him. Orvil’s first notion was that a large family of children had died in infancy and were buried here. He imagined them all with some fatal disease. But when he went up to the tombstones, he wondered at the strange names written on them.

Pat-a-Cake, Tansy, Ricochet, Snigger,---What sort of children could these be? Then he knew they were the names of pets, and he read each inscription carefully:

“In Memory of Fiddle, a Darling Pug. March 19th, 1814”



“Here lies Puce, my sweet Cat. Murdered June 5th, 1831”

Suddenly Orvil looked up from the tombstones and saw that the sun was setting. He knew that he would be late for dinner, that he would not be able to change. The interesting things he had discovered, together with the fear of meeting Charles again, had kept him out in the grounds for over an hour. He turned hurriedly out of the pets’ graveyard and started to run across the lawns.

Orvil stood in front of the mirror in one of the downstairs cloakrooms, trying to tidy his hair. He smeared it with water and then regretted it. His rough curls had been turned into cold-looking rat’s tails.

He walked down a broad white-panelled way until he came to the glass doors of the dining-room. He heard dishes clinking and the hum of talk. ‘Will I ever find them in this huge room?’ he asked himself. He stared through the thick bevelled glass until at last he discovered his father’s smooth grey head. A waiter jerked the door open officiously, and he found himself walking between the tables. The blood had rushed up to his face; his palms were sweating again.

“I won’t shake hands, I won’t shake hands with anyone,” he swore.

He sat down at the table, smiling all over his crimson face, but not daring to look up. He busied himself with his napkin, spreading it over his knees, tucking it under his legs, following the pattern of the damask with his finger.

When at last he did raise his eyes, he saw that his brother’s friend’s face was covered with scars. It was a charming face, pale oatmeal colour, with glossy eyebrows; but the bone-white or pencil-blue lines wove a strange pattern on top of this creaminess. He seemed a gentle person, very masculine and dumb.

They were just finishing their meal. Mr. Pym said, “Where have you been, Microbe? Why are you so late?” But before Orvil could answer properly, Charles had impatiently broken in and introduced his friend as Ted Wilkie. Ted said, “Pleased to meet you, son,” in a soft American voice, and Charles went on with the interrupted story of how Ted crash-landed six months ago and was pitched out on his face. The scars were now explained to Orvil. He had a picture in his mind of the machine cockling up, of Ted shooting out and then ploughing along the ground, where sharp stones ripped up his face.

“Did you have a bad time? Was it terribly sore?” he asked involuntarily. Ted was smiling now, trying not to look self-conscious.

“Oh, I was all right. I just didn’t know anything for some time; and when I came round, they’d patched me up fine. There were no bones broke.”

A waiter leant over Ted, saying, “Will you take the savoury, sir?”

“No, I’ll just have some coffee,” Ted answered.

The waiter looked insolently surprised. “But won’t you take that outside in the lounge, as is usual, sir?” he asked.

Orvil suddenly felt very annoyed with the waiter for trying to make a fool of Ted.

The others got up to go, and Orvil was left alone to finish his meal. When he joined them afterwards in the court, he found them all drinking brandy from large glasses. Charles had his nose in his. He was sniffing like a horse. “Ah, lovely!” he said. Orvil admired again the glistening wings of dark hair sweeping back behind his ears. He admired too his brick-dust cheeks, his small bright eyes and his delicate nose. But he knew that his feet smelt. He always tried to think of this when he felt uneasy with Charles.

He escaped as soon as possible to his room, saying that the long drive from Salisbury had made him sleepy.

. . .

When Orvil woke the next morning he felt ill; he had a slight headache. He looked at the tea-tray which had been brought to him. There was a minute jug of milk next to the squat teapot. He thought that he might feel better if he drank off the milk; he had so often heard of its health-giving qualities. Lifting the little jug to his lips, he poured the contents down his throat; then he licked round his mouth, trying to rid it of the faint animal taste left behind. Suddenly his stomach revolted against the milk, and it returned into his mouth in the form of curds and whey. Orvil was surprised, but on the whole more pleased than alarmed by this result of his experiment. It gave him something interesting to think about, and he gradually began to forget his headache.

He got up, bathed and dressed quickly, and went down to breakfast. His father and brother had not appeared yet, so he sat alone, eating scrambled eggs and horseshoe rolls. Unconsciously he hurried over the last part of his meal, hoping to miss the others. They were still not down when he jumped up to leave the hotel. He had made no plan; he only wished to be left alone to explore for the rest of the day.

Leaving the terraced gardens, he branched off over the fields, making for the river. There was no foot-path here and he had to push through hedges and climb over gates before he came at last to the tow-path. Trees hung right over the water, making a thick green shade. The water was khaki-colour, with darting insects flashing backwards and forwards above it. The sun filtered through in round spots that trembled like jelly-fish. Orvil lay back in the grass, content to do nothing but watch the sight before him.

After some time he heard the sound of distant singing. Gradually it drew nearer and he recognized it as the sea-shanty ‘Rio Grande.’ He waited expectantly, ready to back through the hedge if he did not like the look of the singers.

Suddenly a scarlet canoe appeared round the bend of the river. It was paddled by a young man, and two boys of about Orvil’s own age. They wore khaki shorts, and their chests and arms were brown as burnt sugar. Orvil saw the Adam’s-apples rippling up and down their throats as they sang lustily. They were grinning and laughing and swearing at each other under cover of the song. One of the boys splashed the man wickedly, and the man called him to order by beating him with his wet paddle. There were shrieks and yells; the boy jumped up, the canoe nearly capsized, and the others swore at him furiously until he subsided again. When he stood up, Orvil saw that he wore a stout leather Scout’s belt from which dangled a clumsy knife with a handle of rough horn. Orvil now noticed that the others also wore these heavy belts to keep up their flimsy khaki shorts. The man’s legs suddenly glinted like silk; the sun had caught the golden hairs, making the ordinary human legs look glossy and vigorous like those of a wild animal.

The trio took no notice of Orvil. He pressed back into the hedge, watching them with all his eyes as they disappeared smoothly round the next curve.

Orvil waited, wondering what to do next. He longed for the life of the two boys and the man in the canoe. He pictured it as one of almost complete happiness. A rush of hot bitterness welled up in him when he realized that this could never be his life, that he must always live in hotels, or with relations, or imprisoned at school like any criminal in gaol. The degradation of his life appalled him.

His great longing for freedom brought him to his feet. He started to run along the path, hoping to find a place where he also could get a canoe. He ran a long way and was almost out of breath when he came to a stone bridge and beside it, on the water’s edge, a small painted booth and boat-house. The doors were open and tips of boats jutted out, looking like sharks’ blunt noses as seen when they cut through waves.

Orvil went up to the booth. Coloured bottles of cherry and lemon drink stood on the counter. Fishing-tackle and bright scarlet bathing-slips hung from hooks in the ceiling. The man was bending down, searching for something on the shelf under the counter. Orvil could hear the heavy breathing, and his eyes rested on the wide back where the seam of the sweaty waistcoat had just begun to split.

When Orvil asked for a boat, the man looked up and grunted, “A shilling an hour.” Suddenly Orvil blurted out, “And how much are those things?” pointing to the slips. He had a fierce desire for them. They seemed to him at that moment a very potent symbol---something very free, daring.

“Eighteen pence,” the man said. Orvil thrust out the money for answer. The man handed him one of the scarlet triangles and his face showed a sort of dull surprise when he saw Orvil’s agitation at receiving it. Orvil could hardly wait to be in his boat and as far away as possible from all signs of civilization.

The man led Orvil to a canoe and put an absurd carpet cushion of pretty cerise moss-roses on the seat. Orvil impatiently shoved it off and sat on the bare wood. He pushed out into midstream.

“Don’t you split that paddle now,” the man said warn-ingly; and Orvil began to move up the river.

Soon he was passing the place where he had emerged from the hedge. His excitement was rising. He wanted to take off all his clothes; he hated the very feel of them against his skin. He longed for the sun on his back and on his legs.

‘If only,’ he thought, ‘I could live all by myself in a tent by the river! If I could hunt for my food, and get brown and fierce and hard all over! I could search in the fields for mushrooms, berries and roots. I might even try eating grass.’

With this delightful picture in his mind, Orvil paddled on until he came to a point where the river, by taking a sudden turn, had formed a smooth shelving bank in a curved inlet. Orvil grounded his boat on this miniature beach and scrambled out. He stood under the trees and stripped off his jacket, then he undid his belt, pulled up his shirt and let his trousers fall to the ground. He wondered if anyone would pass and see him like this, with his head and arms imprisoned in the shirt and his ankles in the trousers, the rest of his body quite naked. He jerked the shirt off his head excitedly.

When he pulled up the slips and felt the connecting string between his legs, he gulped and trembled and went rigid. He stood like this on the muddy little beach, exulting and tremulous, hugging himself, each hand trapped tightly under the opposite armpit.

He walked slowly into the dark water and lay down flat. His exaltation passed into a more sober delight. Water always soothed him. He felt calm and peaceful. As he floated, he felt the sun hot on his face and on the parts of his chest and arms which were still above water. The rest of his body was tingling with cold.

‘I’m like one of those Baked Alaskas,’ he thought, ‘one of those lovely puddings of ice-cream and hot sponge.’

It was only afterwards, when he went back dripping to his clothes, that he realized he had no towel. He took the tails of his shirt, and his handkerchief, and wiped off the sparkling drops which clung to each tiny hair; then he lay down in the sun and spread the wet shirt beside him. Soon he began to steam. He liked the nice smell of his body which rose in the air. Plaiting his fingers through his pubic hair, he lay there for a few moments utterly content. He saw how the sun, shining on the polished grasses and on his glossy skin, deprived them both of colour.

    “Silver blades of grass
     And silver skin”

he began to chant. It was always in these moments that poems came to him. He often feared to write them down, for he had learnt that although at the time they might seem almost magic, yet afterwards they could appear as dull and stupid as any printed in a book.

“Green veins and Red.”---He thought of the crimson blood travelling and tingling all over his body, and of the branching green life in the leaves.

The poem began to falter and die. The poem was no good; it was rotten. Orvil jumped to his feet, put on the still damp shirt, pulled down the clammy slips from under it and threw them on the grass. They were deep blood colour now, and the shrivelled folds of cotton clung together. He got back into the canoe and spread the slips out to dry at his feet.

As Orvil paddled still farther upstream, the trees became more uncouth and overhanging. Soon he was in a green haze of shade, where the sun only occasionally broke through in jagged shapes. He passed under an echoing railway-bridge with slime oozing down the walls and large drops falling from the centre of the arch. On the other side, half hidden by trees, was a small wooden hut built some distance from the water’s edge. Through the leaves he could just see two brown figures moving about busily. He paddled the canoe a little farther along, to a more open space, drew it in to the bank and spied on the scene through the long grass.

The man of the scarlet canoe sat majestically behind a small fire, stirring something in an aluminium pan. The two boys were in and out of the hut, fetching things to lay on the table which stood beside the man, doing his bidding in every small thing.

“Quickly with the bread, you sods,” he said in a lordly way. And at that moment Orvil longed to be able to jump out of the canoe and go to fetch the bread for him. He wanted to do this more than anything else.

The boys brought camp-stools from the hut and sat down at the table; then the man left the fire and poured rich pinkish cocoa from the pan into their mugs. He also brought potatoes which had been baking in the blue ashes, and a red-brown earthenware dish which had been kept hot there. In the dish were sausages, eggs, bacon, sardines, tomatoes and mushrooms. The boys had found the mushrooms that morning; they kept yelling about them as the man ladled large spoonfuls of the mixture on to their plates. They had difficulty in discovering the mushrooms, for everything was fried together into a delicious mass.

As Orvil hungrily watched the man helping the boys to this rich dish, he wondered what the time was. Lunch at the hotel had probably been finished long ago. But his real hunger was not for the food but for the joyful life of these others. A burning pang of longing and envy shot through him while he crouched there, his face camouflaged by the long feathery blades of grass.

When the boys bent forward to shovel the food into their mouths, delicate notched ridges suddenly appeared down the centres of their smooth backs; then, when they sat up again, to laugh or wipe their hands across their mouths, the backbones as suddenly disappeared and shallow silky troughs took their place.

The boys’ manners were rough and the man often indulgently called them filthy devils and disgusting swine. When one boy began to play with his food, tossing up a sausage and trying to spear it on his fork, the man leant forward, grabbed the sausage in mid-air, and solemnly stuffed it complete into his own mouth. “Greedy pig! greedy pig!” the boy shouted, rising from his seat to fall on the man. There was a tussle, in which the man did not even attempt to get up. He lazily gave the boy several good punches and clouts, then he laughed and the boy laughed back; but Orvil noticed how strained he looked as he went back to his seat. The punches had evidently hurt him and winded him much more than he wished to admit.

After the meal, the man lay down on the grass, leaving the boys to clear away the dishes and wash them up in an old baby’s bath. This they did very methodically, as if their actions were the result of long and careful training.

“Dig the knives up and down in the earth and then rinse them,” the man said, without taking his eyes from the bowl of his pipe which he was now trying to light.

The boys dried the dishes on their own dirty bathing-towels; then, after spreading the towels out to dry on the long springy grass, they both disappeared into the bushes. They came back, smarming their hair politely. Neither of them spoke until they were quite close to the man, then one of them said gently, “Read to us, sir, won’t you?” The other wheedled, “Yes, do, sir, please!”

Orvil was surprised; he had not heard them call the young man ‘sir’ before.

The man looked at the boys with lofty contempt. He sucked fiercely at his pipe and then spat out fat clouds of smoke.

“You don’t deserve it, you young bastards,” he said with imitation heaviness.

“Oogh, sir! natural children you mean, sir,” said one of the boys, pretending to be shocked. The other giggled.

“I said bastards and I mean bastards. Fetch the book if you want me to read. What is it to be---Jane Eyre, or some of your own pornographic muck?” The man strung all the words together without colouring them or pausing between the sentences.

Jane Eyre!” both the boys shouted excitedly. One of them ran to fetch the book, while the other sat down demurely by the fire.

“Please, sir---what’s pornographic?” he asked, after a moment or two.

“I shan’t tell you. I only said it to arouse, and leave unsatisfied, your evil curiosity.”

The boy looked at the man admiringly. It was clear that he enjoyed very much this wicked taunting mood.

When the book was brought, the man settled himself full-length on the grass and the boys gradually drew nearer until at last they were rubbing up against his legs. Every now and then the man tweaked an ear, jutted his toe into one of their rumps, or did something else to discomfort them; but the boys took as little notice as possible of these attacks. The reading was giving them exquisite pleasure, and they had no wish to exchange it for brawling and rough sport, in which they nearly always got knocked about rather severely.

The man came to the part where Jane meets Rochester in the lane. One of the boys tried to rub his hands up and down while he held them tightly imprisoned between his taut thighs. It was a strange, unconscious, very excited movement.

Suddenly Orvil pushed out from the bank, in exasperation at their happiness. He did not care whether they saw him or not. He paddled away as rapidly as he could. Hot tears were balancing on his eye-rims, just kept back by the lashes.

‘If I blink, they’ll dribble down my cheeks,’ he thought, So he tried to dash them away with his hand, and then they began to pour down in earnest. He paddled on, savagely splashing himself all over and wetting the moss-roses on the carpet cushion. As he drew nearer the boat-house he was able to compose himself quite easily.

He owed the man a great many shillings, for it was now late afternoon. Once again he felt thankful for that handful of silver which his father had so surprisingly slipped into his pocket as he lay half-asleep in the car on the way to Oxford.

He left the man carefully examining the canoe and the paddle for signs of damage. He hoped, by following the tow-path, to come out on a road near the hotel. He did not want to cross fields and push through hedges again.

At one point, the ruined stucco gates of some river garden came into sight. They were of the late Regency period, and had heavy Greek acanthus leaf and honeysuckle patterns on them. The cast-iron bars were made in the shape of crossed arrows tied with tasselled cord. Some of the bars were broken, and barbed-wire had at one time been stretched across the gaps, but this had been pushed aside again and there was now a clearly marked hole through which a man’s body could pass easily.

Orvil, who never could resist exploring derelict places, felt impelled to get through this hole into the garden beyond. He also fiercely desired some very solitary place; for the frustration and excitement inside him were becoming almost unbearable.

He climbed up the broken steps and hid himself in the deep overgrown laurels.

When, after some minutes, he pushed through the hole and stood on the tow-path again, a man, who had evidently been waiting, jumped out at him from behind one of the stucco pillars.

“What are you doing on private property?” the man snapped, his eyes behind his glasses seeming to swell, and then to grow smaller, as some people’s do when they are lusting. He was a respectable-looking man with hat-band slightly darkened and stained with sweat along the edge.

Orvil was extremely frightened, but at the same time the man’s insolence enraged him, and gave him quick wits for a very cheap rude answer.

“Is it your place, then?” he asked, politely incredulous, looking up at the grandiose if rather bedraggled gates, trying to put all his contempt into this nasty taunting of the man’s poverty.

“Never you mind whose place it is---what are you doing trespassing? For the matter of that, why shouldn’t it be my place?” the man added, as the full import of Orvil’s question sank in. He raised his flapping umbrella. He seemed so beside himself with rage that Orvil jumped back, quite expecting him to strike.

“I saw you! You devil! You filthy little devil! You’ll go mad. Your eyes will drop out. And serve you right too. God is not mocked! God is not mocked!”

The man was now advancing on Orvil with his arms raised, in the style of a comic ranting minister or an Old Testament prophet.

Orvil’s terror drove all his fierceness to the top. “Shut up!” he screamed. “Shut up! How dare you!”

They stood, white, sweaty, breathless, facing each other; then Orvil turned and ran, hating to be near the man with the umbrella for another moment.

He ran madly along the tow-path. The river-banks were more populous here; he flashed past a picnic party and some young men outside a tent, who were singing Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, jazzed up, as they rubbed their dirt-ingrained broad shoulders with grimy towels. The young men made cat-calls and screeching whistles, calling after him in mockery, “Hullo, darling! Coo-er, look at that! What’s bitten you?”

Orvil ran on, not bothered for once by these absurdities, because of his anger and fear.

He arrived at the hotel with dust on his sticky face. His hair was dank, and the leather scratched on the toe-caps of his shoes. He tried to stop gasping before he went into the court. It was the hour for late tea. Waiters threaded their way through the crowded room. Some carried trays poised high in the air; others trundled chromium trolleys with glass shelves, on which brilliant little cakes were piled. The crowd was composed of a mixture of carefully dressed people who had been sleeping or idling all afternoon, and tousled people who had been swimming or playing games. Some of these had sweaters tied round their necks and spikes of wet hair dangling on their foreheads. Orvil was pleased to see them; he hoped that he too would be taken for a sportsman.

For a moment he looked at the bright scene without feeling anything. He heard, but hardly understood, the bird-high chatter, the monkey laughter and the animal grunting. Behind it all was music from another room; the gipsy violins were bleeding plaintively.

Suddenly, as he gazed thus, blankly, he was overcome with an immense hunger. He passed rapidly through the court to get a book from the little writing-room beyond. He knew that a book in his hand or on his knee would give him confidence, alone in that throng. It would also add to the pleasure of the food.

The writing-room was low, with walls and ceiling decorated in Adam plasterwork of fantastic refinement. The festoons, pendant husks, quivers of arrows, rams’ skulls with twisting horns, were all fined down to the most heartless delicacy. Orvil put out his finger and traced the outline of a tendril. The relief was so shallow and thin that it felt like a twirl of wire or thread. The complete whiteness of the room was only broken by the mahogany of the door, which had faded to the brilliant scintillating colour of a cat’s eye.

Orvil looked along the shelves in their curved recesses on each side of the fireplace. At last he chose an Edwardian book on physical culture. The cover was decorated with a strong man bending his arms. His biceps had swollen into hard balls, and his belly and stomach were drawn in, so that the basket of the ribs overhung a smooth hollow.

Orvil took the book back with him to the crowded court and found a chair in a corner. His eye followed the glass trolleys anxiously. A waiter approached and put down teapot and hot-water jug of that frosted-looking silver only to be found in hotels. Orvil poured out a cup of tea and waited impatiently for the cakes. His eyes were already eating them up as the man steered the trolley towards him. The little cakes lay helpless on their plates and seemed to call to him. He took in at a glance the square ones covered with jam, sprinkled with coconut and topped with glistening cherries; the round shortbread ones with portholes to show the bright lemon curd inside; the small tarts of criss-cross lattice-work; the phallic chocolate and coffee éclairs, oozing fat worms of cream; the squares of sponge, enclosed in four hard slabs of chocolate and dressed with wicked green beauty-spots of pistachio nut.

Orvil had one of each sort put on a plate before him. He hardly dared to ask for so many, and only achieved it by refusing to look at the waiter. He fixed his gaze on the distance until the waiter left him; then he bowed his head, opened the book, and began to eat.

The chatter and the music surged round him. The waves of sound broke through the deliciousness of the cakes, then receded and were forgotten again. Orvil was not concentrating, but the hyphened words, ‘press-up,’ ‘knees-bend,’ ‘trunk-tum,’ ‘deep-breathing,’ jumped out from the printed page. His eye also idly followed the diagrams of a coarse little man who squatted, thrust his legs out, and tucked his chin into his neck until a large vein, like a branching ivy stem, stood out on his forehead.

Although Orvil’s eyes still looked down at the page, they gradually came to focus far beyond it. He thought of ruins lost in wooded valleys; kittens with black faces; toast in a Gothic Revival toast-rack like the nave of some miniature cathedral; lovely uncut stones reminiscent of sucked jujubes; a top-heavy Georgian coffee-pot shaped like a funeral urn; his mother’s minute ring-watch, the face the size of a sequin, with little diamonds winking all round it. He saw it again on her little finger, and remembered how miraculous it had always seemed.

His mind turned from things it loved to things it hated. He thought of rude cocktail cabinets which resembled nothing so much as old-fashioned commodes. On lifting the lid of one of these articles, it was still a shock to him to find, instead of a pan, a nest of glasses painted, oh so artfully, with cocks. He thought of the perilous joke of a Fabergé cigarette-lighter, in bronze and ormolu, shaped like an anarchist’s bomb. It had been given to his father by a Russian refugee. He remembered flicking the little wheel and watching the flame prick up. He thought of the absurd hookah and bottle of rose-water he had once bought for his father’s birthday present.

The cakes were all gone now. Gradually Orvil’s chin sank down on to his chest. He felt comforted and soothed, and the memory of his unhappy day evaporated. People left the court to go to their rooms to dress. Soon it was nearly empty; but Orvil did not move. He had fallen asleep.

Report Spam   Logged

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter


Pages: [1]   Go Up
  Print  
 
Jump to:  

Powered by EzPortal
Bookmark this site! | Upgrade This Forum
SMF For Free - Create your own Forum


Powered by SMF | SMF © 2016, Simple Machines
Privacy Policy