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4: The Room without a Telephone (part 2)

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Author Topic: 4: The Room without a Telephone (part 2)  (Read 3 times)
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« on: January 22, 2023, 05:55:26 am »

DR. ELDRED, his secretary, and a reporter stood on the miniature stoop outside the front door of 27, Rotting Gardens, the flowery tip of Rotting Hill. At the foot of the six spotless white steps stood the uniformed car-hire driver—the uniform shabby, the car none too clean. It was noon on the driver's wrist and at the end of a gold chain in Eldred's pocket.

"No," said Eldred to the reporter rather nastily, fixing him with his eye. "No. A few days, no more. Down in Gloucestershire."

Every opportunity for contact with the Press was eagerly seized upon by Eldred, but on this occasion the Press was actually de trop, and the Press sensed the abnormality of its reception.

"Shall you be speaking while you are away, Dr. Eldred? May I know what are your subjects?" The reporter put great respect into his voice.

"I am-not-speaking!" Eldred ground out, pausing between the words. "In Gloucestershire I shall remain absolutely silent." At this point Eldred almost allowed a belly-jeer to escape him. It was able to mobilize down below before he nipped it in the bud. With professional inquisitiveness the reporter directed his eye immediately towards Eldred's gastric centres.

"You will be resting, Dr. Eldred?"

"No," Eldred droned ponderously. "No, I did not say I should be resting."

"I see, Dr. Eldred."

"I don't know what you see," Eldred scolded. "There is nothing to see."

The reporter laughed. A telegraph boy arrived at the foot of the steps.

"Eldred?" he called up at them. "Eldred?"

"Yes," said the reporter. And the boy handed him the telegram.

Paul Eldred had stepped hastily down and said to the driver "You know where to go?" at which the man rapped out (the reporter, behind Eldred, committing it to memory): "Nursing 'Ome. Fifty-five 'Astings Terrace, Putney 'Ill." His interest now thoroughly aroused, the reporter this time took down on the back of an envelope the number of the car. "I wonder if it's a prostate?" he asked himself. "He said he was going to be absolutely silent. What could that signify? Operation on the tongue? Malignant? Or just benign!" Secrecy of any sort being what most excites the pressman, this young fellow laid plans as he went down Rotting Hill on a bus.

The mock-chauffeur, leaning into the hired car, attempted to drape the unclean rug over the knees of his two passengers, both of whom stoutly resisted, pushing it off each time till he desisted and closed the door, while Eldred muttered to his secretary: "Did that young reporter go off with my wire?" In eloquently smiling silence Miss Cosway held up the telegram.

Having crossed the river they found themselves in that pleasantest of riverine districts, where the first of the Cecils was a publican, where the Oxford and Cambridge boat race starts, and where Swinburne was imprisoned by Watts Dunton—Putney. They found the nursing-home somewhat difficult to get into. After many summonses by knocks and bell a nun opened the door. She seemed willing enough that they should come in but unable to guess what might have brought them there and at first at a loss as to what to do with them. However she turned another older nun out of a small room, placed them there and closed the door. In the room they remained until perhaps ten minutes later a third nun appeared. She stopped, taken aback, she seemed about to leave them, but she changed her mind. She possessed much more administrative genius than the first nun. Having enquired if they were expected as patients she said, "You had better go to your room, I think." This was evidently a rather revolutionary idea, but, it seemed, there was literally no alternative. All the rooms and the wards as well were upstairs. "Go upstairs," she said, pointing the way. "Up?" asked Eldred, with great courtesy. She smiled brightly and nodded genially. Although dreamy and numbed with religion, as were most of the nuns downstairs, her smile and her nod were intact, even if her words were of the scantiest.

When they reached the top of the stairs there was a brief blank corridor. The corridor was L-shaped, they turned at right-angles and were in a gloomy hall and saw a man's back bent over a table. He was absorbed in something which turned out to be a temperature chart.

A nurse carrying a tray came out of an open doorway. She said: "Are you Dr. Eldred?" and the man doubled up over the chart abruptly straightened himself, and it was Dr. McLachlan smiling a frosty welcome. "Ah, I did not hear you," he said. "How curious." "Not really," said Eldred. "Miss Cosway and I are not a clamorous pair." They all laughed genteelly. "Well, let us come to your room, Dr. Eldred. It is just here." They moved down a fairly long windowless corridor. One door was open, from it came an authentically sepulchral groan, which increased Eldred's respect for the home (it might be small but it groaned like a hospital), whereas it caused Dr. McLachlan to cough censoriously while stepping up their progress.

Eldred's room, however, was the next and the doctor led the way in jauntily, rigid but jocular. "Admittedly small but it is quite pleasant I think," he remarked as he looked around. Eldred looked around as well. "A bright box for a toothless historian to lie in," was his view. "And a hot box, too." "Ah, but you asked for heat," the doctor reminded. "I asked for heat"—in his usual way Eldred, for answer provided a deep significant echo—the same words his interlocutor had used, but loaded with a supposed meaning of almost limitless profundity. Half of Eldred's conversation was made up of such reverberating echoes.

"I will get into bed," the patient abruptly announced. Miss Cosway moved towards the door quickly, casting an anxious backward glance over her shoulder.

"Yes, do so," agreed the doctor. "I will remain with Miss Cosway where you found me just now," and Eldred was left alone. Evidently no room for visitors, he thought. You have to stand around in the space between the lavatory and kitchen and study the charts, or else leave the premises. Contact with the profane is reduced to a clinical minimum. He smiled in the midst of his shirt, which he was pulling over his head. As he stood in his undergarments the door opened and a nun of severe aspect entered. She looked at him absent-mindedly, turned loiteringly as if attempting to remember something, and left. Eldred gave a belly-jeer with much real gusto. "Am I of glass?" he asked the air. "Do people see through me—but do I make them remember something they had forgotten? Am I a transparent remembrancer?"

Once in bed Eldred pressed the dangling bell-button and secured the return of his doctor and secretary. It was his wish to get rid of them quickly and to be alone with the nursing-home; away from everything with a lot of nuns—bathing in their remoteness from the vile and worthless world of the malignant commonplace, of vociferous nonentity, and to stop there until he had learned the secret of their apartness.

After apologizing for the absence of the Matron, Dr. McLachlan offered to drive Miss Cosway back to Rotting Gardens. To a few last anxious, indeed desperate, appeals from his secretary, Eldred answered: "Tell them I am dead."

Miss Cosway accorded to this the hysterical laugh indicated. Recovered from the spasm she said: "I have sent the telegrams to New College and to Wilfred Bull. There was nothing tonight..."

"Nothing tonight!" Eldred echoed angrily, glancing at his doctor.

Apprehensively Miss Cosway glanced at the doctor, too, slightly flushing. "Well, you know what I mean, nothing really important, nothing that cannot be arranged. But tomorrow..."

"Ah, tomorrow!" echoed Eldred significantly.

"Jennifer Robinson was coming to tea, and she will be so dreadfully angry."

"She does allow her temper a bit too much rope. And she grows arrogant."

"Yes. She bullies me when I say you are engaged. She doesn't think you are! It's quite absurd."

"Absurd!" Eldred frowned.

"I know," said Miss Cosway, "but you know what she is! She will go away and describe you somewhere, in a gossip item, as 'the greatest historian since Froude'!"

Eldred was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, under the sceptical gaze of his doctor. No engagement tonight!—and merely a publicity interview with a gossip-writer tomorrow! "Am I not supposed to be dining with Sir Christopher Smith tomorrow?" he demanded.

"No, Dr. Eldred. That is next month."

"Ah, next month. Next month it is!" growled Eldred, giving his secretary a rather nasty look.

"But what can I do about the address you had agreed to give on Monday? The Charterhouse Literary Society." She was wringing her hands over this unpaid talk to an obscure group. "And there is that Canadian historian."

"Canadian historian?"

"Yes. The one you said had cribbed your last book. His name is Dr. Burnaby Harry. I think you said he had a Chair in the Arctic Circle."

Eldred stared fixedly at Miss Cosway, attempting to mesmerize her into silence. "Please do not allow these problems to worry you," he said, spectacularly relaxing. "Tell everybody—and I mean everybody, to go to hell."

Dr. McLachlan beamed frostily upon her. "Excellent advice!" richly and throatily he told her. He then, with a frigid pinch of jauntiness and Scottish gallantry, carried her off, protesting.

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