The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
December 10, 2023, 10:56:56 pm
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  

Part Nine

Pages: [1]   Go Down
  Print  
Author Topic: Part Nine  (Read 25 times)
Admin
Administrator
Level 8
*****

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 3405


View Profile
« on: July 19, 2023, 09:17:19 am »

WHILE Peter and his father attended to the disposal of Tiberius, Somerset left me in the drink tent on pretence of wanting a pee. Watching from the entrance to the tent, I saw him go up to a bookmaker and collect a handsome wad of notes. I stood and looked and looked straight at Somerset as he walked back.

'Yes,' said Somerset, putting a cool face on it, 'it was not for nothing I was reared in the country. I liked the took of that little grey. Seven to one . . . My family has always had an eye for horses.'

'Well,' I said, swallowing my anger in my need, 'you can lend me some of it. I'm almost out of money and I don't want to bother Peter just now.'

'Try him tomorrow,' Somerset answered, putting his money carefully away. 'He'll have got over it then.'

'It's the least you can do.'

'I don't lend money. Fielding. It makes me brood, wondering when it will come back. Peter will let you have what you want. He has stronger nerves than I have, and a more generous disposition.'

+++

'Of course.' said Peter the following afternoon. 'How much will you need?'

Somerset had gone home. 'See you at the Headmaster's,' was all he had said to me before he left. No further reference to what had passed in the bus. Happily, Peter had asked me to stay one more night, so that there was now a chance to say a great deal which would otherwise have been impossible.

'How much will you need?' Peter said.

'Fifteen pounds, if that's all right. To see me home, then down to the head man's place and back. I'll send it on to you as soon as my mother gets home from her holiday. About September the fifteenth, she said.'

'You'd best send it to the bank for me. Barclay's, Whereham. I shan't want fifteen pounds where I'm going.'

'Even in the Army one gets time off.'

'Not recruits.' He went to a drawer and produced a bundle of notes. 'So that's settled. Now what is it you've been so anxious to tell me these last days?'

'You've noticed?'

'I've noticed. Let's walk.'

As we left the house, I told Peter the substance of what had been said on the bus.

'Don't say I didn't warn you,' said Peter when I had finished. And then, 'I don't suppose for a moment you've got anything you could throw back at Somerset?'

'! have, oddly enough. But no one would believe me.'

I told him about the spree at Angela Tuck's.

'You're right,' Peter said. 'It's all too remote. It might just as well have happened in Timbuctoo. They won't believe you, and you can't prove anything, and Somerset knows it. Whereas what he's got on you . . . He probably can't prove it either, but it's so close to home that he might make things very awkward.'

'I know. What shall I do, Peter?'

We were walking down the old smugglers' path, which made straight as an arrow over the ten miles to the sea. The way was between high banks which were topped by overshadowing trees. It was dusty and rutted but it was also cool and secret, a fitting place to consider threat and devise counter.

'Ignore the whole thing.' Peter said at last. 'Treat it as a bluff. Somerset may make himself a bloody nuisance, but unless he's got absolute proof he can't do any more. So ignore Somerset and ignore his threat. But from now on make doubly sure you keep your nose clean. You'll remember, I hope, what I said to you last quarter about that.'

Peter sat down against the bank and I sat down beside him. The leaves rustled listlessly over our heads. They were still green, the leaves, but they already looked tired, as though they would be glad to fall in a week or two and rot away to nothing in the earth.

'Tomorrow,' said Peter, 'you must leave here. A day or so later I go to the Army. So for the time, perhaps for a long time, we are parting; and since this is so, I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me Fielding, for all our sakes, that you won't hurt Christopher again.'

'What happened wasn't my fault. And I've made it up with him.'

'Yes. But what have you got in mind for him this time?'

'To be friends. To give him what he's always wanted.'

'You're telling me the truth, Fielding? You promise that you won't . . . take advantage of him?'

'I'm going to be to Christopher exactly what he wants me to be,' I said. 'I shan't ask for anything more.'

I shan't need to, I thought.

'Good,' said Peter. 'I was afraid you might still be greedy; it's always been your trouble, you know. But now I can go away without worrying. And if you stick to what you've promised me, you'll have nothing to fear from Somerset or anyone else.'

'I'll stick to it,' I said: 'to the last syllable.'

So I returned to Broughton Staithe, to make ready for Wiltshire and the Headmaster; and Peter, three days later, packed one small bag and went for a soldier of the King. I felt sadder, more oppressed, at this parting than at any time since the morning I had left the school at the end of July. My ally, my old counsellor, was now gone; and I felt as some early Englishman might have felt, as he watched the long line of Romans file down to the ships, bound for tottering Rome and leaving England unmanned to face whatever might come out of the misty North.

+++

The first thing I saw, when I unlocked the front door of the empty house at Broughton, was a sprawling heap of letters. Three were for me; one of them from Christopher.

'Dear Fielding,
'No, I'm afraid you can't come and stay on your way to Wiltshire. It's no longer possible. I can't explain now.
'Yours, 'Christopher'

Unfriendly, not to say mysterious. I read the other two letters: one from my mother, saying that she was having a nice holiday and confirming that she would be back on 15th September, just after I myself returned from Wiltshire; and one from Ivan Blessington.

'. . . Was passing through Tonbridge the other day and called on Christopher for tea. He looked ill and very nervous. I know my arrival was unexpected, but it can't have been that. He seemed upset that his tutor, who'd been there for most of August, was now gone; but again, it can't have been just that. There's something very wrong there. I don't pretend to know what, but you if anybody should he able to find out and help . . .'

Blunt, imperceptive Ivan. If he had spotted something wrong, then something wrong there must certainty be. I didn't care for the dictatorial tone, but Ivan surely had a point. Not only was it within my power to help, it was my plain duty. But how could I help when I had just been so brusquely warned off the grass? After some thought, I wrote to Christopher and suggested that we should meet in London for lunch and a film on the sixth of the month; we might even have dinner together, I added, as I should be staying in a hotel overnight and the journey back to Tonbridge was a short one . . . or so he himself had once said. Even if this failed to flush Christopher, I thought, it must at least elicit some account of what was doing.

+++

Dining that night in the local hotel, I saw Mr. Tuck and Angela. They seemed morose but oddly in concert. I began to wonder, not for the first time, how and where my father had originally made Tuck's acquaintance. Tuck was indeed the dreadful sort of friend I would have expected my father to have, but I could remember no reference to him, over the years, until the evening early in the holidays when his impending visit had been announced. On the one hand, my father's knowledge of Tuck had been sketchy, for he had not known about Angela until she appeared on the doorstep: on the other hand, he had apparently had sufficient confidence in the man to accept his tea-planting proposition at face value. Driven by renewed curiosity about this odd couple and bored by the prospect of a lonely evening, I suppressed the embarrassment to which memories of my last meeting with Angela inclined me and approached the Tucks, rather warily, while they were drinking coffee in the lounge.

Tuck was affable, Angela off-hand. When I asked if I might drink my coffee with them, no one seemed to care much either way, so I braved their indifference and sat down.

'Sorry to hear about your father.' Tuck said.

'It was certainly sudden . . . Tell me, when did you first know him? You'll forgive me saying so, but until a few weeks ago neither mother nor I had ever heard of you.'

'Good point,' said Tuck. He laughed loudly, as though it were also a cracking good joke. 'Let's see now. When did I first meet your old man? Early in the war, it must have been. He was with some kind of Ordnance outfit in Kalyan---big transit camp near Bombay. We just met by accident in the old Taj one night. Got talking over a peg, saw a bit more of one another . . . Then he was posted away. That's how it was in those days. You were just getting to know a chap, and he'd be posted away.'

He lit a particularly foul cheroot.

'And you didn't see him again until this summer?' I said.

'That's it.'

'And yet he spoke of you as an old friend, and was prepared to pull my entire career to pieces on your suggestion.'

'Your old man,' said Tuck, 'knew a good thing when he saw it,'

'Perhaps.' I said, with a glance at Angela. 'But India wouldn't have been any good for me.'

'That,' said Tuck. 'remains to be seen.'

'What do you mean?'

'Do you suppose,' Angela said, 'that this hole can produce a drink?'

'No harm in trying.' said Tuck, and rang a bell.

'What do you mean? What remains to be seen?'

An indignant woman in a tweed skirt appeared.

'Who rang the bell?' she snarled.

'I did,' Tuck snarled back, 'because I wants some service. What is there to drink?'

'No drinks in the lounge,' she said with relish. 'There's been a war on, or hadn't you heard?'

'I'd also heard it was over.'

'No drinks in the lounge.' the tweedy woman repeated spitefully, and marched out.

'Jesus Christ,' said Tuck, 'whatever is this bloody country coming to? You may find,' he said to me, 'that India's not so bad after all. At least the servants do what they're told.'

'Would you please tell me,' I said, 'what all this is about? I neither have, nor ever have had, any intention of going to India to plant tea. And now my father's dead----'

'---But old Ange,' said Tuck complacently, 'had quite a few talks with your mother before she went away. Didn't you, Ange?'

'So you've been getting at her? I suppose you want our money for your damned plantation.'

'Her money,' Angela emended. 'She's very concerned, you know, about your future. So are we all.'

I rose to go.

'That's very kind of you.' I said, 'but I don't need your interest. Nor does my mother.'

'No?' said Angela. 'She's very lonely . . . and very grateful for advice.'

'She's weak, if that's what you mean. Too weak to get rid of hangers-on.'

'Now then,' said Tuck: 'you're being most impolite to my wife.'

'Your wife,' I shouted at him, 'is a common whore and you're a common crook.'

Not until I was half-way home did it occur to me that Tuck had almost certainly connived at, had probably indeed ordained, Angela's infidelity with my father. That it had failed so ludicrously of its object was mere bad luck. Now they had started on my mother instead. And Somerset? Had that been just a whim of Angela's, or had she decided that Somerset too might somehow come in useful? What had they spoken of together, I wonder, that night after I was dismissed?

'Dear Fielding (Christopher wrote)
I can't come to London to meet you for lunch or anything else. I'm sorry, but please don't write to me again until I've first written to you.
'Christopher'

I walked along the empty beach. It was a grey, blowy day, not at all like the afternoon, a month before, when I had sat in the warm sand hills with Angela. Autumn was coming to expel the few holiday-makers who had braved the barbed wire and the gun-sites, war-time relics which, though already rusted and crumbling, brought a lingering hint of violence to the lonely dunes. Violence; savagery; threat. Somerset; my mother; Tuck. And Christopher. Christopher too seemed to betoken the same residual sense of menace as the jagged concrete and the rotting ration packs. What did he mean---'don't write to me again until I've first written to you'? Everything had been made up between us. If he really couldn't have me to stay (parent trouble?) what could be more pleasant and obvious than a day together in London? What the devil was going on? Nervous, Ivan had said, and also upset because the tutor had gone. But it wasn't just that. 'Something very wrong there . . . you if anyone should be able to help.' But Christopher had refused my help. Should I go there despite that, force myself on him, make him tell me about it? Oh hell, I thought, and kicked an empty tin: his letters had been plain enough; if he didn't want me, he didn't.

But for my own sake I must find someone else. I thought of Dixie quivering in the ghost-train; of Angela's finger nails on my bare flesh. Both of them had sent me away unappeased. I must be appeased, I must know. Now that it was over with Christopher, I must be admitted, at long last, into the Lotus Country.

Thoughtfully I counted my money. Ten pounds and odd were left of what I had borrowed from Peter. I must pay for my railway ticket, also for meals and so on during the journey; and then there would be the hotel bill for the night in London---but this, as my family was known to the hotel could always be sent to my mother. Yes, I told myself: there would be, there had to be, enough.

Piccadilly, struggling back to the gaieties of peace; coloured lights which I hadn't seen since I was a child in 1939, tawdry, pathetic, out-dated: museum pieces.

Scott's, Oddenio's, Del Monico. The little streets between Piccadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue, the broken glass awnings for the cinema queues. No lack of choice, numerically. But in point of quality, all much the same: young enough, but tired, bitter, all with the angular look of predators, or (worse) with the angles blocked out by slabs of make-up.

Now or never. Choose one. This one; of the angular variety, rather too thin in the leg, a little older than the rest, but with a discernible air of kindness.

'Please could you tell me the----'

'---Like a nice time, dearie? Only just round the corner. A pound.'

'A pound?' (Surely it was more than that, admission to the Lotus Country?)

'Can't do it for less, dear. Professional, pride, you know.'

'All right.'

Over Shaftesbury Avenue and down another little street.

'Rather young, aren't you? I'm not sure I ought to be going with you. Ah well. In here.'

Up three flights of stairs. Little room, big bed, bare dressing table. Ashtray by the bed full of lip-sticked cigarette ends. 'Pound first, please, dearie. And five bob for the maid.'

'For the maid?'

'Someone's got to clean the place up, haven't they? Ta.' Skirt up round middle. Rather nice thighs above gartered stockings. Dixie. Angela. Christopher . . .

'Just let me get the doings, dearie . . . No, don't take your shirt off. Just let your trousers down . . . There . . . Oh, my, my . . . There's a naughty boy.'

Rubber sheath. The woman sitting on the side of the bed. Reaching forward with her hands.

'Can't we get properly on the bed?'

'Don't want much for a quid, do you? '

'Finished? That's a good boy. Not bad, was it? We'll just . . . get . . . this . . . off you.'

Into the ashtray with the lip-sticked cigarettes.

And so now I knew. It had been, as my companion put it, not bad. Which was about all one could say. Not bad; just about worth a pound (and five shillings for the maid). Now back, to the hotel quickly for a thorough wash.

+++

The Headmaster's holiday retreat was in one of those little valleys which, cosy and tree-girt, are tucked away like oases in the military wilderness round Salisbury. Somerset, I was told when I arrived, was in bed at home with a chill and would not be joining us till the morrow. After an ample supper (the Headmaster's wife, besides being a capable amateur philosopher, qualified as a bonne femme) the Headmaster took me to his study.

'There's something,' he said, 'which I don't wish to discuss in front of Elizabeth.'

'Oh?'

'Roland,' said the Headmaster, 'Christopher Roland.'

Oh my God, had Somerset already opened his mouth? Or someone else? Or Christopher, in an agony of repentance (hence his unfriendly letters), written to confess?

'What about Christopher, sir? '

Commendably cool, on the whole.

'It's very odd and very sad. It seems he was reported to the Tonbridge police for hanging about a nearby Army camp and . . . and what they call soliciting.'

'Oh my God.' Horror. Relief. Nothing to do with me at any rate.

'I can understand that you're shocked. I wondered, though, whether you could . . . cast any light on the matter. After all, the two of you were very close.'

'I don't think so, sir.' Play this one with care. 'It explains, of course, some rather curious letters I've had lately.' I told him what Ivan Blessington had written, and about the curt notes of refusal I'd had from Christopher himself. 'I was puzzled and hurt. But if this had already happened . . .'

'It happened about ten days ago. Because of his youth and the good standing of his family the police have agreed to take no action, provided his parents keep him in strict supervision and arrange for him to have psychiatric treatment. He cannot, it goes without saying, come back to us next quarter.'

'I suppose not.'

'No question of it. But my duty lies, not only in taking preventive measures for the future, but in investigating any damage that may already have been done. It occurred to me . . . that you might help me there.'

'But look, sir. You say he was suspected of soliciting. It can't have been more, or else the police would have acted---family or no family. So on the strength of mere suspicion. Christopher is to be confined at home, messed about by psychiatrists, and forbidden to return to school---disgraced. Can't you see the terrible injury this must do to him?'

'I have six hundred boys to consider. I can't risk contamination.'

'Where there are six hundred boys, there's bound to be contamination already. You know that, sir.'

'I can't, knowingly, add to it.'

'But what do you know? What did Christopher do?'

'He hung about . . . with his bicycle . . . near the entrance to this camp. When the men came out, he used to smile at them, try to enter into conversation.'

'There could be a dozen explanations. He could have had friends serving there, friends from school perhaps.'

'Among the private men?'

'Everyone starts in the ranks these days.'

'In special training units. Not in a serving battation. Besides, Roland was given every chance to provide just such an explanation. His only response was to sulk. They could think what they pleased, he said.'

'Dignified.'

'Petulant. I can understand. Fielding, that you are concerned for your friend. I am too; but I must put my public duty first. And I must therefore ask you directly, to tell me anything you may know about Roland's previous behaviour, so that any damage he has done may be undone.'

'By removing more people on mere suspicion?'

'That was not worthy.' the Headmaster said wearily.

'I know, sir, and I'm sorry. But Christopher is a very dear friend and this has been a shock. Can nothing be done?'

'The psychiatrists will do all they can.'

'The shame of it will destroy him.'

'I gather lots of people these days submit quite willingly to psychiatric treatment.'

'Not people of Christopher's kind.'

'But is there anything so special about him?' said the Headmaster gently. 'He always seemed an ordinary boy to me. Pleasant but ordinary.'

'He was very proud in his own way, very . . . fastidious. This kept him away from the others and made him lonely. He wanted love.'

Careful; don't go too far.

'For someone who was fastidious he seems to have gone a very peculiar way about getting it. So I shall ask you once again: how was this wretched boy corrupted? And has he corrupted anyone else in my charge? As we both know, Fielding, you were intimate with him.'

'Yes, I was sir. And as far as I am concerned, he was innocent. His innocence . . . that's what I prized most of all.'

'But now . . . after what's happened?'

'I can't begin to understand or explain it, sir, and there's nothing more I can say.'

And that must be enough for him, I thought. After all, what I had told him was true enough. I certainly couldn't understand what had happened; and from where I stood, Christopher was neither corrupter nor corrupted. The terms were meaningless.

'I think,' said the Headmaster heavily, 'that Elizabeth will have coffee ready now.'

Thinking it all over in bed that night, I suddenly realized that I was glad. Despite my protest to the Headmaster, despite my genuine indignation at what had been done, I could not really have wished it undone and Christopher restored. Where Christopher now was he was truly lovable, because he could be contemplated as the image of vanished beauty: if brought back again, he would only become what he had threatened to become in July, a common pastime, to be casually lusted for. and later a common nuisance. Christopher's downfall, then, was both convenient and poetically apt. Best get such people out of the way before they lost their charm and grew ugly, boring, irrelevant. These things are so . . .

+++

Somerset arrived the next afternoon, looking even more pasty-faced than usual as a result of his chill. After tea. however, he felt strong enough to walk with the Headmaster and myself to inspect a nearby church, the tower of which, as the Headmaster explained, had once been used for an interesting local variant of the games of Fives.

'A custom more common further west,' Somerset commented: 'in my part of the country we once had as many kinds of Fives as there were convenient church towers.'

'When was it given up? ' I asked.

'Early nineteenth century,' Somerset said. 'Ball games against church walls did not suit middle-class notions of propriety.'

'It went deeper than that,' said the Headmaster. 'Even early in the nineteenth century, it was already plain that Christianity was to be dangerously attacked. Not just by irreverant ironists, as in the previous century, but by dedicated men of science and intellect and high moral principle. The threat was so serious that the church could no longer afford to be associated with everyday pleasures: the parson must cease to hunt, the layman from playing his games in the churchyard. Frivolities like these could be tolerated only in an age of faith, when the church was so firmly entrenched that even ribaldry in its own ministers could do it no damage.' He gestured amiably. 'In an age of faith, immorality itself could be seen as joyous. But once let there be doubt, and severity, even in the most trivial things, must follow. It is the first line of defence.'

'So evangelism, like the Inquisition, was a reaction against rational inquiry? ' I said smugly.

'There is something in that, though a stricter study of dates would discourage so glib a summary . . . There is a box-tomb which I should like you both to see. Twelfth century.'

The Headmaster led us over a small mound, through a clump of yew trees, and down into a little hollow. The tomb was of a curious faded red: it had sunk unevenly, so that on the side nearest us, which was badly cracked, it was about a foot high while on the far side the tilting slab that topped it almost dug into the grass.

'A tomb of importance,' Somerset remarked. 'One would have expected its occupant to be buried inside the church.'

'Ah,' said the Headmaster with relish. 'This tomb belongs to a renegade. Geoffery of Underavon he was called, and he was given this manor as a reward for knight service in one of the minor crusades. But Sir Geoffery had come home through Provence where he acquired the habits and graces of the Troubadors. The arts he had learned proved only too effective in the unsophisticated part of the world, where bored wives and daughters were very grateful for a little pagan zest. His songs and addresses made him notorious and then infamous: until finally, one summer afternoon when he was riding by the river, without armour and on his way to an assignation, he was set upon and murdered by six vizored knights, none of whom displayed either pennant, crest or coat of arms. Or so said the one attendant esquire, who had made off at the first sign of trouble. The deed was approved by the local clergy, who were keen to curry favour with injured husbands, and it was decreed that the Lord Geoffery should not be buried inside any church of the diocese. However, he could not well be denied burial in holy ground, and hence this tomb, out here in a lonely corner of the churchyard.'

'Lord Geoffery of Underavon,' I murmured, touched by the tale, 'martyr for poetry. Do any of his songs survive?'

'"Ver purpuratura exiit",' said the Headmaster in his soft, deep voice.
Ornatus sous induit,
Aspergit terram floribus,
Ligna silvarum frondibus
”.'

'Sir?' objected Somerset politely.

'I know, I know. Sir Geoffery would have sung in French or Provencal. In any case, that verse comes from the Cambridge Collection and so was probably written by a clerk. But it is my fancy to imagine Geoffery singing something out of the kind. Since,' said the Headmaster sadly, turning to me, 'the answer to your questions is “no”. None of his songs has come down.'

A flowered meadow by the river. The chirrup of the grasshopper, to remind him of fiercer afternoons when he had pursued the same errand in the Midi. The long robe, the lute, the two prancing heraldic dogs, the esquire riding a few paces behind. 'Will you not sing, my lord?' 'For you, boy? Why not? A song of the season.' The tone of the lute, plangent even in celebration. 'Ver purpuratum exiit ...' The coloured spring is forth . . . Then six men, six black helmets, and down goes poet and lover, vulnerable in the soft robe which he wears for his tender mission. No, his songs have not come down to us. He could not even be buried in his own church. He has lain in the shadow of the yew trees for eight hundred years.

'Martyrdom,' observed Somerset, cutting into my reverie, 'is a powerful expression. Not to be used of those who dally with the arts and their neighbours' women.'

We all three circled the tomb warily.

'Still,' said the Headmaster, 'at this distance in time Sir Geoffery makes an attractive figure.'

'A joyous sinner in an age of faith, sir?' I suggested.

'If you like. He fits so beautifully, somehow, into his background.'

'So beautifully that he was murdered.'

'Then let us say,' said Somerset, 'that his story fits beautifully into his background. He was deservedly punished for importing heresy and vice.'

The Headmaster looked vaguely troubled at this. The sentiment did not match with his notion of Sir Geoffery as a Chaucerian sinner; it implied something altogether more sinister; it was, he might have said, unworthy.

'I think we can afford to be more tolerant than that.' he remarked, bending down creakily to examine a crack in the side of the tomb.

'We can. sir,' said Somerset, 'because it all happened so long ago. But could they?'

'Some songs and a few love affairs,' I said; 'not very injurious.'

'Scandal,' said Somerset, 'and disorder. Injurious enough.'

'So we are to equate poetry with disorder?'

'As did Plato.'

'Who has ever since been discredited for doing so.'

Our voices rose acrimoniously. The Headmaster smiled and put a finger to his lips.

'Hush,' he said, 'you will disturb the Lord Geoffery. His sins and his songs are both forgotten now. We must let him lie in peace.'

+++

When we got back for supper, the Headmaster's wife handed him a slip of paper. He went into his study to telephone and reappeared, very grave, fifteen minutes later. He nodded apologetically to his wife.

'Supper in twenty minutes, my dear. Please come in here, Somerset, Fielding . . . It's Roland,' he said, when he had closed the door. The poor boy's killed himself.'

'Oh, Christopher.' I said stupidly.

'Why should he do that?' said Somerset, looking ingenuously from me to the Headmaster.

The latter told him briefly of the police complaint and Christopher's confinement.

'It seems,' he added, 'that he found a pistol of his father's, also some ammunition. He put the pistol in his mouth----'

'I told you,' I interrupted angrily, 'I told you it could only do harm.'

'It had to be done,' said the Headmaster sternly. 'And what I must now say to both of you is this. So far, nothing in this wretched affair directly concerns the school: the whole sequence of disaster has begun and ended in the boy's own home and during the holidays. But questions may be asked, and so I must ask you: do either of you know of anything in the boy's activities at school which might have bearing on all this? Do you?' he said, turning to Somerset.

'I didn't know him very well, sir,' said Somerset, with a hint of smugness. 'Perhaps Fielding can be more helpful.'

'I've already told you what I know, sir. As far as I'm concerned, he was lonely and innocent. Which I suppose could explain what has happened,' I said, gulping back the tears which now threatened.

Briefly and viciously, Somerset smiled at me.

'A martyr to innocence? ' he said.

The Headmaster looked at Somerset with a curious cross between disapproval and admiration.

'It seems there is no more to be said,' he remarked flatly; 'we must not keep my wife waiting.'

The tears which had nearly overcome me had not been for Christopher. They had been tears of vexation that there should be such unseemliness in things, that a convenient pattern should have been so crudely torn. Christopher confined had been someone who could give no more trouble and was at the same time a source of pleasantly nostalgic memories. Christopher confined had been like a well loved book, to be taken down and replaced at will. But Christopher dead was something that had to be explained, by myself to myself and, perhaps, to others as well: in either case an abiding source of concern and nuisance.

'You see now,' said Somerset later that night in the bedroom we shared, 'why I am so averse to disorder. This is the kind of thing which results.'

'You're not blaming me?'

'No,' said Somerset equably, 'I'm not. Even if I did, what's past is past, and my concern, as I've already told you, is with the future. But perhaps all this will serve to remind you that I meant what I said the other day: l will have nothing like this happen while I'm in charge, and in charge I still intend to be.'

'You mean, you'd still make use of Christopher against me?'

'If you stand in my way.'

'Even now . . . after this?'

'Let's not be sentimental. What you think of as Christopher Roland will soon be a mass of maggots. What survives him has gone to account elsewhere. Neither the spirit nor what's left of the flesh will worry about any use which I might make of their past.'

'I thought perhaps you might worry.'

'No more than you would,' said Somerset cheerfully, and turned out the light.

The inquest, so the Headmaster was able to tell us three days later, established that Christopher had taken his life while the balance of his mind was disturbed. There would be a funeral service in Tonbridge in two days' time, after which the body would be cremated. Gently but very firmly the Headmaster insisted that I myself, as Christopher's closest friend, should attend these ceremonies with him. This would mark the end of our little house party. Somerset would return home when the Headmaster and I left (by car) for Tonbridge; the Headmaster's wife would close the house and proceed to the school, where the Headmaster would join her after the funeral; and I would return from Tonbridge via London to Broughton Staithe.

'It's a long way to Tonbridge, sir,' I said hopelessly. 'Are you sure you'll have enough petrol?'

'I get an extra allowance. For special duties.'

'I see, sir . . . I don't at all want to come with you. I've already been to one funeral these holidays.'

'It will please the boy's parents.'

'How? I mean nothing to them---or they to me.'

'Then let us say,' said the Headmaster, 'that I myself shall value your support.'

There could be no answer to that.

'But that's not until the day after tomorrow,' the Headmaster said, his eyes brightening. Tomorrow is the last day of your visit, the last of my own holiday. In the midst of death we are in life. Tomorrow, yes, tomorrow we must do something memorable. We will walk to Salisbury Cathedral, like pilgrims over the plain.'

+++

'Somerset?' I whispered in the dark.

'Well? '

'What was . . . it . . . like with Angela?'

'Very pleasing,' said Somerset. 'Angela,' he added conceitedly, 'thought so too. I rather hope we'll get together again before she leaves for India.'

'You've arranged to meet?'

'We correspond.'

So Angela thought Somerset was worth keeping in touch with.

'But what,' I resumed, 'was it actually like? I mean. I always thought it was something quite incredibly different. But in fact . . .'

'What do you know about it?' said Somerset crossly.

'As much as you.' Piqued by Somerset's tone. I told him of my adventure in Piccadilly. Perhaps, I thought, I was being rash, but I wanted to tell somebody, and Somerset could never use this against me any more than I could use Angela against him. We were on neutral territory, territory so remote, as Peter had put it, that nothing which happened there could count.

'But buying women,' said Somerset, 'is not at all the same thing. Besides, there's a nasty shock in store for those who consort with street-walkers.'

'Oh?'

'The Lazar of Venice,' Somerset said with relish, 'the French Worm. Otherwise known as the Raw-boned Knight of Germany, the Neapolitan Bone-Ache, the Spanish Sweat, or, tout court, the Pox.'

'---For God's sake. We used one of those rubber things. And I washed jolly carefully.'

'Some kinds of dirt cannot be washed off.' said Somerset sententiously.

'Come to that, Angela's not exactly chaste.'

'At least she's amateur.'

'I wouldn't be so sure,' I muttered spitefully.

'What's that?'

'Nothing. Get back to the point, Somerset. Did you find it . . . well . . . the revelation one's been led to expect?'

'Candidly,' said Somerset, 'no. But then I never expected a revelation. Did you?'

'I think I expected something rather remarkable.'

'Just like all sensualists. You expect far too much of bodily amusements, and then complain when you're disappointed. Ungrateful lot.'

'I'm not ungrateful.'

'You will be,' said Somerset happily, 'if you get the Spanish Sweat.'

'I'm merely surprised that everyone makes such a thing about it.'

'There you have a point. It needs putting in its proper place. As for me,' said Somerset complacently, 'if Angela makes herself available again, I shall be well content. If not, then at least I shall be spared the trouble of making my confession.'

+++

We walked towards Salisbury by way of the Race Course. As we passed the empty stands, I told the Headmaster about Peter and Tiberius.

'We shall miss Peter Morrison,' the Headmaster said, his eyes lowered towards the cathedral spire beneath us. 'I must write to tell him about Christopher Roland. I'm afraid it will come at a bad time, just when he's starting his Army life, but I feel he should know.'

There was a long silence as we started to descend over the downs. The cathedral spire, always visible except when we walked among trees, pointed straight up out of the close like the finger of an Archangel. I accuse. At any moment, surely, the huge finger would point or beckon. This was my beloved son, and because of you he is now a mass of maggots. State your defence.' Please, he was so attractive. That firm body, those golden legs with the silver down . . . 'What's that got to do with It? God delighteth not in any man's legs, nor in any woman's for that matter. But we'll say no more of that for the moment. Why did you desert him when he needed your love?'

'There is something,' the Headmaster broke in on this dismal fantasy, 'which I have been meaning to say to you both. A trifle awkward. The question of which of you I shall choose as Head of the School next summer.'

Somerset went poker-faced. The grey sky started to drizzle.

'I think, sir,' I said, 'that Somerset---how shall I put it?---has more appetite for the job.'

'With due respect and without prejudice, that does not necessarily make him the better man for it.'

'I shall be very busy,' I added, 'with cricket and so on.'

None of this was said to placate Somerset or from fear of his devices. Having what I already had, I did not really want more, and I was glad to make this plain. There would be quite enough, by way of business and pleasure, to occupy me next summer.

'By the beginning of May,' said the Headmaster, 'you will have been to Cambridge and either succeeded or failed in improving on your award. I cannot see that you will be as busy as all that.'

'Then let us say that I am not particularly keen.'

'That,' said the Headmaster, 'does not unfit you for the task. It might even mean that it would be very good for you. What do you think, Somerset?'

'I think, sir, that Fielding is not much concerned with whether a thing is good for him or not.'

'And does that unfit him for the position we are discussing?'

'No. I think Fielding would be a good Head of the School, if rather off-hand. I also think that I should be a better one, because I should be more . . . more dedicated.'

'To the responsibilities? Or merely to the concept?'

'To both, sir.'

'Well,' said the Headmaster, 'we shall have to see. Meanwhile, I have only raised the point in order to receive your assurances that this will not make for bad blood between you.'

'Not for my part.' I said.

'I'm sure,' said Somerset, 'that I shall have no cause to show ill will.'

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