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Chapter Six (A)

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« on: July 28, 2023, 12:32:37 pm »

APHRA was going. Her suitcases were packed, and the hall-porter had brought them down to the court.

Orvil went to her room. The mauve calf photograph case, the tortoise-shell boxes, the black glass scent-bottle, all had disappeared. He ran downstairs again, afraid that he might miss her altogether.

There they all stood in the covered court. Jackie was going with Aphra, but Dennis was staying at the hotel for a few more days. Aphra was thanking Mr. Pym and talking to him charmingly. Charles and Ben and Dennis hovered by the suitcases.

Aphra stood with one foot on the step of the car and looked back at Mr. Pym and the young men. There seemed to be something rather wild about her. She darted her head from side to side in bird-like movements.

Dennis began to fool about. He jumped on to a near-by pedestal, and clung to the urn as if it were some fat woman. He put his arms right round it lovingly and made ecstatic faces.

Aphra said something rude to him and told him to behave; then she turned and seemed to notice Orvil for the first time. She gave him a long sad look. Her mouth moved a little, as though a thought had come to her.

Suddenly she bent down from the car step and, putting her hands on his shoulders, gave him a quick delightful kiss.

“Good-bye, Orvil,” she said. Then she got hurriedly into the car.

Dennis, still clinging to the urn, groaned, “Lord, how heavily maternal!” He pretended to be disgusted. He kissed the urn in a slobbery imitation.

Aphra was already a little disconcerted. She smiled wryly out of the car window, to show that she did not mind being thought ridiculous. Orvil, filled with pride, looked at her blankly.

Jackie was impatient to be off. Now at last he would have Aphra to himself. He held his hat as if he were waving the others away with it. He smiled too much, and wiped the smiles off his face too quickly.

Aphra sat forward in her seat and held her hand out of the window. She waved it sadly and gratefully. The car started. Dennis and Charles ran after it, making terrifying faces. Aphra looked out of the back window and laughed in spite of herself; then her expression went quite blank and she looked like a very pretty corpse seen through the bevelled-glass window of an expensive coffin.

And that is how Orvil remembered her face---quite blank, with unreflecting eyes.

When the car had swished into the rhododendrons, he left the others abruptly and walked across the lawns to a place where a fallen tree sprawled on the ground. All the bark had come off and the smooth silky wood had turned silver-grey in the rain and sun. One thick branch, like a deer’s antler, reared up from the main trunk. Orvil jumped on to the branch and pressed on it, till it sprang up and down beneath him. He thought of Aphra’s kiss. He enjoyed the seesawing; it lulled him and comforted him for the loss of Aphra.

Orvil took out of his pocket the letter he had received that morning. It was from the sister of a boy who had been at his prep. school. Once he had been to stay with Guy Winkle in the holidays and had quickly made friends with this much older, grown-up sister. Now Constance was asking him to spend a week at Hastings, where her parents had taken a flat for the summer.

Orvil wondered what to do. He liked Constance and her mother; but he was alarmed by her father, and did not care much for his ex-schoolfellow Guy. Constance’s father was always polite and charming to Orvil; but he also gave the impression of being amused, and this made Orvil feel like a Pekinese or a marmoset---something with a strange physical appearance.

As he swayed up and down on the branch, Orvil remembered that he had told his father about the invitation at breakfast, and his father had immediately taken it for granted that he would go. This decided him. It would be easier to go than to explain to his father why he was not going.

Orvil jumped off the tree and walked towards the writing-room, in order to answer Constance’s letter at once.

He sat down at a desk and looked at the hotel notepaper. It was pale beige, with a vignette of the front facade in darker, shiny brown. Orvil ran his finger over the embossed effect, and thought it hideous.

When he had licked the envelope and stuck it down, he walked down the drive and out of the gates. He made his way to the near-by post office, which was also a little general shop. Outside the shop, just beneath the letter-box, someone had left a perambulator with a young child in it. The perambulator had a long repulsive flossy fringe round its silk sun-awning. Orvil looked under the sun-awning and saw the fair-haired child staring up at him with goggling, pug-dog eyes. He made a terrifying face at the child and waited to see what it would do. It opened its mouth and dribbled a little. Orvil made more and worse faces, darting his tongue in and out like a lizard, wrinkling up his nose and turning his eyes into devilish slits. The child looked utterly blank and surprised, then a look of horror came into its face and it started to howl and beat about helplessly with its fat little arms. Orvil looked down on it, fascinated by the change he had brought about. He made a weird, low, straining noise in his throat, which so terrified the child that it screamed piercingly and then was sick on its pillow.

Orvil felt hot, and excited, and ashamed of what he had done. He leant over the pram, thrust the letter into the mouth of the box, and then turned and ran.

He ran as hard as he could, all the way back to the hotel. He kept telling himself that he had only been playing with the child and that it ought to have realized this. He even called it ‘a stupid thing,’ and blamed it for being so dense; but his shame still tortured him.

In a final effort to quieten himself, he decided that, if he ever saw the child again, he would buy some sweets and slip them into its pram when it was not looking; for he realized painfully that, now, the very sight of him would send the child into a screaming fit.

. . .

Mr. Pym saw Orvil on to the Hastings train, putting him into a Pullman car, so that he could have lunch on the journey.

Orvil sat near an old, grand-looking man in a long tweed overcoat with an Inverness cape. Orvil had never seen one of these old-fashioned coats before, and he stared at it. He lifted his eyes and saw that one of the old man’s ears was swathed in bandages. They crossed through his pewter-coloured hair, making a sort of coronal for him. He had an acid, bird-like face, the colour and texture of cooked sweetbread. He was ordering special food from the cowed but still truculent waiter. He seemed to be insisting and dominating with almost fanatical zeal.

Orvil felt that anyone with so many whims and fancies must be of great importance.

Suddenly the old man looked away from the waiter and caught Orvil staring at him. His eyes flashed; one of his eyelids twitched; his mouth set into a rigid snarl. He seemed about to say something terrible. But just as Orvil expected the words to come pouring out, the old man started to his feet and left the carriage. The tails of his long coat and the Inverness cape swished out behind him.

Orvil became alarmed. He now imagined that the old gentleman was a lunatic.

When, some few minutes later, he saw the tall figure standing in the doorway again, he turned deep red and darted his glance away. The old man went to another seat and sat down pointedly with his back to Orvil.

Orvil began to drink the thick brown soup, which was very slightly flavoured with dish-rag. He crumbled his limp but tough-skinned roll. He had turbot with egg sauce, and good apple charlotte. As he stirred his coffee and unwrapped two lumps of sugar, he thought of the tip. The pleasure of ordering a meal and eating it alone was spoilt by this anxiety. He left paying the bill till the last moment, so that he might avoid knowing if he had done wrong.

At Hastings, Constance was on the platform to meet him, but she did not see him at once. Anxiously her eyes scanned the train. She looked along the line of windows in a way that was both resigned and agitated. She was very shortsighted, but she would not wear glasses. She had a pretty pair of old-fashioned lorgnettes; but evidently someone had made her self-conscious about using them, for she only brought them out in private houses or picture galleries.

When Orvil ran up to her, she kissed him and said, “Guy’s somewhere about, looking for you too.”

Orvil turned his head and was just in time to see the fierce old man swirl into the crowd, driving a porter in front of him. Before he disappeared, he jerked his head round abruptly and once more caught Orvil staring at him. The look of malevolence that crossed his face was so exaggerated that it was almost funny; but when Orvil turned to Constance to make her laugh by telling her about this strange old man, a sudden superstitious dread held him back. He decided never to mention him again.

Guy came up to them with a clever, superior smile on his face. He carried his new Sealyham puppy tucked under one arm. A shiny red leash hung down in a loop, and the metal clip glittered and tinkled.

Guy was a rather fat boy who used catch-phrases until he had quite worn them out. One term---Orvil remembered---he had said to everyone at school, “Don’t you know your Trollope?” He would show great astonishment, and then pass on to the next person with the same question. The suggestive name Trollope had evidently taken his fancy. He had never read any Trollope himself, but that did not matter to him.

He had dark smooth hair and hands which were very creamy because they were thick-skinned. They were handsome hands, but the fingers were so plump that Orvil always likened them to white grubs. He disliked these slothful-looking hands, especially when the fingers became active, and curled and wriggled.

Guy collected semi-precious stones which he kept in a box with trays. Orvil remembered him making this box in carpentry lessons. Wherever he went, he took the box of precious stones and the silver cups he had won for boxing. Orvil always thought that Guy’s fatness had been a great help to him in boxing. It protected him and intimidated his opponent.

Orvil had only once seen Guy’s mask crumble. It had been at an end of term gym. display. Guy was fighting a smaller, thinner boy who struck him on the mouth. Guy’s teeth cut his lip underneath and blood dribbled down his chin. He tasted the salt blood and grew frightened. He swung his arms helplessly, as if the balloon-like boxing-gloves were preventing him from strangling the other boy; then he charged forward, his flesh jellying under the thin sweaty singlet. Orvil remembered again the heat and smell of Guy in his rage. Guy got another blow on his unprotected face. His expression went quite blank. He looked up to the ceiling, and then tears began to splash down his cheeks on to the dry wood floor, where they made dark spots. His face had gone much squarer. The crying had made it like a puckered-up cat’s face. He began to make strange fluttering whining noises in his throat. Orvil remembered that he had looked away, not being able to bear the sight of Guy’s complete nakedness . . .

Guy now took Orvil’s suitcase in that casual way which seems to point out that the politeness is only assumed as a joke.

Constance began at once to talk about Marie de Medici and the Louvre. Constance had been dragged up at home with no official education, and so she loved history. Orvil loved it too, and this interest bound them together. Constance had given him a book on old silver with a table of hall-marks, also a little horn snuff-box; and he had given her some old cut-steel shoe-buckles.

Constance was saying, “My dear Orvil, the most awful thing happened to my book on the Medici”---she was always very careful to pronounce it correctly, with the accent on the first syllable---“I was balancing it on a pile of other books near the gas-stove while I was stirring the soup. Suddenly the whole pile collapsed and the Medici fell straight into the soup! I snatched it out and rushed it to the sink, where I ran the tap over it for some time; then I put it on the plate-rack and let it dry out. It’s quite all right again now, except that the hot soup made the colour on the cover run a little.”

Guy, who had given the appearance of completely ignoring this conversation, now broke in with, “And what did you do with the soup? Did you throw it away?”

His voice had become menacing. Constance turned red and said nothing.

Constance winced and then laughed uneasily. Orvil felt outraged. It was terrible of Guy to hit Constance; not because she was a woman, but because she was grown-up.

They got into the ’bus in silence. Orvil, as a protest, refused to look at Guy, but Guy did not notice this, for he was fully occupied in trying to calm his whimpering puppy. Orvil sat close to Constance on the seat, trying to show in this way that he was entirely on her side.

They climbed up the four flights of stairs, still in silence, except for one or two bright remarks from Constance.

Lady Winkle must have seen them from the window, for the front door was already open and she was standing by it, smiling very gently and nervously. pale colours. Her movements were tentative and jerky, as if she were doing everything for the first time. She had a passion for looking over houses, or showing other people over them, and so she at once began to conduct Orvil over the flat.

The only living-room was small and rather long. Tall windows, veiled in gentian-blue net, looked down on to the street. A low shelf of old leather-bound books ran along one wall. The Waverley Novels were there, in a wonderful deep crimson morocco, but many of the earlier calf-bound books had lost their spines and showed only curious fragments of printing, crossed with string and glue.

Lady Winkle drew Orvil’s attention to an old child’s harp, broken but very pretty, which stood in one of the corners. She also led him up to several dull old prints which the owner of the flat had said were very valuable.

‘They’re two a penny in almost any junk-shop,’ thought Orvil, but he said nothing.

They went to look at the three poky bedrooms. Lady Winkle told him which was to be his, and Orvil saw in a moment that she and her husband, to get to their own room, would have to pass through his; there was no other door. To him this was an added anxiety. Constance’s room was the one nearest the kitchen, and Guy had to sleep on the couch in the living-room.

At this point Constance called out that tea was ready. She came out of the kitchen, carrying the tray with a set of harlequin cups on it. There was a lavender-mauve cup, a lemon-yellow cup, a rose-pink cup, and a powder-blue one.

Constance sat down behind the tray and began to pour out. Her mother sat by quietly, like a guest. Constance had cut thick white bread and had spread it with greasy butter. The butter had gone greasy because she had warmed it too much in a saucer over a saucepan of hot water. She had provided a pot of greengage jam to be eaten with the bread and butter, and, to finish with, a plate of coconut kisses. Their rosy colour and vicious points made them look like the tiny jagged mountains in the background of an Italian primitive.

Constance had to do all the work in the flat. Once a week a woman came in to scrub the kitchen floor. Her father and Guy refused to do anything but clean their own shoes; and it was the generally accepted opinion that Lady Winkle could not be expected to learn to do housework at her age. She helped by making coffee in her pet machine for breakfast and after the other meals.

Conversation was difficult; Lady Winkle’s anxiety became accentuated when her son sat near her. She kept darting startled glances in his direction. Guy behaved badly and took no notice of anyone. He broke up a coconut kiss and threw the bits about the room for his puppy to find. The puppy rooted about and squeaked in excitement. Whenever Guy threw a piece of coconut kiss into the air, Lady Winkle winced.

“Do be careful, darling!” she said; “it would be frightful if we broke anything in the flat. We could never replace some of Miss Skipton’s old things if we broke them.”

Constance seemed thoroughly impatient with Guy and yet still rather afraid of him. In the flat she seemed to be playing a part which was half Cinderella, half wicked stepmother. She did all the work, and the others took it for granted and did not pay her much attention; but she also poured out tea, arranged the meals and invited people to stay. She was half charwoman, half autocratic hostess.

When tea was over, she said: “Now, I’m sure Orvil would like to see the sea. Take him out, Guy, and show him the sights.”

Because his sister had made the suggestion, Guy’s face clouded; but he decided to go out with Orvil, for he was never tired of showing off his new puppy in the streets.

The little puppy pattered behind them over the pavements, until Guy grew impatient and snatched it up in his arms. It whimpered and put its tender pink tongue out, then it scrabbled against his chest with its paws, and the next moment something hot and wet had soaked right through Guy’s smart rust-brown jacket to his skin.

For a moment Guy seemed to be stunned. He stopped walking and his mouth fell open. Suddenly he held the puppy at arm’s length. His white hands were cruelly tight round its body. He swore at it, then said, in a curious assumed voice which seemed to come right from the root of his throat, “Naughty, naughty, naughty, how dare you wee-wee on me! Wee-wee! Wee-wee! Wee-wee!”

At each ‘wee-wee’ Guy shook the puppy brutally. It became terrified and let out piercing cries.

Guy’s head suddenly swooped down. He kissed the puppy’s nose and cuddled it in his arms. He made cooing noises, like an electric kettle which has just been switched on.

He began to wipe the front of his coat with his handkerchief. Turning to Orvil, he asked for his handkerchief also, but Orvil would not lend it. Guy then told Orvil the name of his tailor and how much the jacket had cost.

“Who’s your tailor?” he asked, with an insolent downward glance at Orvil’s clothes.

Orvil realized that Peter Robinson or Harrods were not quite the names to impress, and so he said with as much superciliousness and disgust as he could assume: “Surely nobody bothers about their clothes until they’ve finished growing! My father says there’s nothing more ridiculous than boys who dress up and try to ape their elders.”

Orvil’s father had never said anything of the sort. The whole sentence was a clumsy pretence and invention. Orvil hated Guy for always cornering him and making him behave in this alien way. He was glad that the dog had wee-wee’d on Guy’s expensive jacket.

Guy was now thoroughly ruffled. He felt that it was his duty to impress Orvil in some way. He began hurriedly to talk about his fashionable and sporting life at Eton. Whenever Orvil said anything about his own school, or harked back to the time when they were both at school together, Guy would observe a moment’s silence and then go on with his own tedious anecdotes.

Orvil was determined to stem this flow at any price. Suddenly he burst into the middle of one of Ben’s doubtful limericks:

   “She knelt down on the sod
    And prayed: О dear Lord God,
    Lengthen and strengthen and thicken ’em.”

Guy was puzzled, annoyed. Not knowing the beginning of the limerick, he took it for granted that it was indecent.

“You filthy youth,” he said with exaggerated distaste. He turned his head away.

Orvil laughed. “Surely there’s nothing filthy,” he said, “in a young lady of Twickenham who loved sausages and never got sick on ’em. You ought to go to a psychologist, Guy, if you think that’s filthy.”

Orvil was delighted with himself. The touch about the psychologist had come at the last moment. It was brilliant. It sounded very sophisticated and knowing. Guy would feel ignorant, and become flustered. He would sulk and so stop his pretentious talk about his wretched school.

Guy’s lips set into a snarl. Orvil almost expected to be struck with the dog’s leash as Constance had been, but nothing happened. They climbed down to the beach in silence. Guy put the puppy down and let it run free. At first it stood bewildered; then it danced and whined and yapped with delight.

Orvil went up to a booth and bought two clear red lollipops on white wood sticks. Solemnly he handed one as a peace-offering to Guy.

Guy looked at the thing aghast, but said, “Thank you.” He did not know what to do. His snobbery and conventionality forbade him to suck such a thing in public; yet he was not quite boorish enough to refuse Orvil’s present. He unwrapped the transparent paper reluctantly, and gave the lollipop a few tentative licks. Suddenly an idea came to him. He darted a furtive look at Orvil and then dropped the lollipop. It fell into a little pool of salt water.

“Oh there! Now I’ve dropped it!” exclaimed Guy with very badly simulated exasperation.

Orvil, who had watched the whole pantomime, pretended to have seen nothing. He felt hurt, and disgusted with Guy. As a gesture, he began to suck his own lollipop with ostentatious noises, smacking and licking his lips extravagantly between mouthfuls.

All this time, the puрру had been exploring with great delight. Under the promenade it found an interesting dark hole and ran into it. A curious odour attracted it. It did not, of course, know that this hole was labelled ‘Ladies,’ but when Guy suddenly caught sight of it disappearing, he was horrified. He grew almost desperate, imagining that it might stay in there for hours.

The woman looked startled and unfriendly. She nodded her head abruptly and disappeared. In a moment she reappeared with the puppy tucked unfeelingly under her arm. She handed it to Orvil without a word and then turned her back and began to walk away as quickly as possible. She passed the cavernous opening without a glance, and went on down the path as if she had never had any intention of entering. By the way she walked and held her back she seemed to express a fastidious distaste for all physical matters. Orvil felt sorry that she would have to wait now until they were out of sight.

He hurried Guy up and they began to climb the steps.

When they got back to the flat, they found Guy’s father sitting in the living-room. He had just returned from playing golf. He was a man who ‘enjoyed his clothes’; this was his own phrase. On this occasion he was wearing thick slate-blue corduroy trousers, a canary-coloured silk shirt, and an old shooting-jacket with leather pads on the shoulders. His appearance was striking, almost startling. He was tall, with a good-looking, meat-coloured face, and a very carefully shaped moustache. At night he fastened some sort of bag over this moustache to keep the ends from drooping.

As soon as he saw Orvil, a look of tolerant amusement came into his eyes. He smiled welcomingly. “Hullo!” he said, holding out his hand, but not getting up.

Orvil walked quickly across the room to grasp the hand. “Hullo, sir,” he gulped unhappily. Sir Robert’s look and manner always so disconcerted him that he was thrown into complete confusion. While he was in this state, the most grotesque pictures kept forming in his mind. He fought against them with all his might, but they kept crystallizing, melting, and crystallizing again like a sinister kaleidoscope. As he looked down at Sir Robert, taking his ease in the armchair, he suddenly saw him in imagination with his buttons undone and a cockatoo tuft of canary-coloured shirt sticking out. He saw him with splits in the seat of his trousers, through which could be seen, not ordinary human flesh, but the terrifying blue flesh of the mandrill baboon. Orvil saw Sir Robert with a bedroom article, which he could not remove, on his head. His shirt-tails flapped round his naked grey legs, and enchanting little white mice with pink eyes were running up and down, tickling him to death. Sir Robert screamed girlishly and wriggled his legs, but the mice would not leave him alone, and he could do nothing because his head was imprisoned in the po.

Orvil tried desperately to talk and appear unconcerned, but the terrible pictures of social disasters kept swirling round him like rising waters.

At last Constance brought in the supper of cold tongue, salad, creamed rice and tinned mangoes. The relief of having something to concentrate on was enormous. Lady Winkle told Orvil that she had bought the tin of mangoes at an Indian restaurant. “And, after all, they really only taste like curiously flavoured vegetable marrow,” she said disappointedly. “Their real flavour has been completely lost.”

After supper, they went out into the warm night to walk along the Front. They heard Offenbach's music from the open-air amphitheatre.

When the others got up to go, Orvil, who loved to hear ‘Orpheus in the Underworld,’ waited for the last note. He then got up in a hurry, scraping his chair on the ground. This noise must have startled a small black-and-white terrier which had been waiting in a stationary car, for it suddenly darted across the pavement and bit Orvil’s leg in a sharp snatch. Immediately afterwards it disappeared into the darkness, barking fitfully, as if lost.

The shock of this sudden bite unnerved Orvil. He hated the darkness and his loneliness. He wondered how he was going to be able to sleep in that communicating room at the Winkles’ flat. He hoped that the bite on his leg would become poisoned.

He caught the others up and told them what had happened. As soon as they got home, Lady Winkle washed his leg and then made malted cocoa on her spirit-stove. She was so kind; Orvil felt better.

“I like it absolutely boiling, don’t you?” she said. “I know it’s wrong to boil milk, but I always wait till it has frothed right up to the lip of the saucepan.”

They drank the scalding cocoa alone. Guy was putting his puppy to bed, Constance was in the kitchen, laying things on a tray for the next day’s breakfast, and her father was there too, looking for the soda-water.
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