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4: The Room without a Telephone (part 6)


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Author Topic: 4: The Room without a Telephone (part 6)  (Read 3 times)
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« on: January 22, 2023, 07:57:19 am »

ELDRED had now been sixteen days in the nursing-home. The Matron, the nurse, and everybody else had When is he going written plainly upon their faces. But he showed no sign whatever of moving. There was nothing to prevent his going except his disinclination to take up his own life again where he had left it to have a lot of teeth extracted. In the end they were obliged practically to push him out. His doctor gave the first push, humorously of course.

"If you wish to enter upon a monastic life," McLachlan told him jocularly, "this is not the place for that. This is a nunnery."

He packed and left, but only after many representations had been made to him, to the effect that (1) he had now recovered and had even been seen running up the stairs; and (2) a queue of sick people was waiting for his room, and one was in a dying condition. So he had said farewell to Sister Bridget and Sister Giles, and to the Matron, with great emotion, and, after a convalescence was back in Rotting Gardens. The house had been redecorated inside and out. Black was the predominant colour.

Miss Cosway sat in her office as usual. She was dressed in what amounted to a black uniform. She looked very despondent. Black did not suit her, she considered; formerly she had shown a taste for gayish frocks. Also she liked the bustle of life. But the bustle of life had ebbed from Rotting Gardens. As Eldred no longer spent the major part of the day writing letters and telephoning, letters had stopped pouring in at the letter-box. As to the telephone, it sometimes stood there silent for hours together. For that reason Miss Cosway jumped slightly as it now burst into life, with its loud cross bell. The call was from Evan Jones. Miss Cosway said "Oh, yes" as she heard the name. She was disappointed. Naturally she took her tone from her employer, who exhibited a submissive weariness when anyone was announced, but added a kind brave smile when it was Evan Jones. However, after a short absence from the telephone she informed Jones austerely that the doctor would see him at six the following day.

The tall figure in shabby black that entered Eldred's study punctually at six was far more monastic in appearance than Eldred could ever manage to look, with his leathery lawyer's face, though this would not be for want of trying.

The visitor sat down in the same chair as upon his earlier visit, when he had expounded the risks inherent in commerce with Doctors (M.D.).

"You appear to have escaped injury," he observed. "At least physical."

"Ah, yes, that was only an affair of teeth. Just a little dental show, doctors in secondary roles."

"Dentists are not greatly to be feared. They can break your jaw. That is all."

"They cannot do much more than break your jaw. My dentist was the O'Toole. He left my jaw intact. But then I did not tread on the tail of his coat."

"Good."

"Yes."

There was a silence, during which they both looked at one another. In each case their thoughts were uncomplimentary. Jones noticed that the Buddha had been removed. In its place was a large engraving of a Madonna. He turned away his head, watched by Eldred. He then found himself looking at a Descent from the Cross.

"Are you," he enquired, "for Grasmere or for Ambleside?"[Pg 159]

With a smile of hawk-like sweetness, of an overbearing and superior douceur, his head inclined as if condescending to a child, Eldred said: "What is that, Evan? What is Grasmere?"

The visitor shrugged his shoulder.

"Grasmere? I see you have not read what has happened in connection with the centenary of Wordsworth's death."

"Has there been a centenary?"

"You are so out of the world! The newspapers have been splashing it as if it were a child-murder by an erotic homicide. You see the people of Grasmere, and those of Ambleside, both claim that the authentic Wordsworth Shrine is their town (or is it village). Celebrations have gone on simultaneously in both places, with mutual recriminations and denunciations, in which members of parliament and archbishops have been involved. It is, I imagine, a matter of the first importance to the hotel-keepers, lodging-house keepers, garage-proprietors, caterers, and tradesmen of the rival communities. It is a case of a shy little 'violet by a mossy stone half-hidden from the eye' no more. Yet it had to hide behind the mossy stone in the first instance ... just as 'trade follows the Flag'."

"I suppose so," said Eldred politely, twirling his thumbs and gazing at his visitor as if the latter had been vitreous and as if glassiness bored him. He, of course, had read the newspaper reports of the Wordsworth Centenary disturbance and, while he read, had speculated as to whether the people of Rotting Hill would be the victors when it came to his centenary. He would put his money on the Rotters, though his birthplace would no doubt put up a good fight and do all they could to attract pilgrims: though his birthplace was frankly a repulsive spot and he doubted whether more than a few hundred devotees would collect there. It was such problems as these that he was turning over in his mind when his visitor began speaking again. He then listened, twirling his thumbs at top speed.

"It is generally agreed, I suppose, that Wordsworth was one of those men who outlive their genius. As a young man he preferred human liberty as understood by the men of the French Revolution to the hypocritical liberties of the Anglo-Saxon middle class."

"Rubbish."

"I beg your pardon? A commonplace or a conventional man outliving a bit of vision—for the great visionaries see 'the light that never was' to the end—a worldly person who has been visited by some muse in error, naturally exploits this visitation for ever afterwards, like some little businessman. When the age of poetry was over the prosy old moralist naturally proceeded to exploit his dead self just as one hundred years later the Grasmerites and Amblesiders are doing, who follow his example to the letter. 'Greatness' is at times a sweet racket. Some are the pioneers of the racket growing up around their dead virtue. They build their own Shrine—when their genius has departed. A Shrine-builder of this sort always builds a sham or phoney Shrine. Victor Hugo, for instance, was really all Shrine. It would not be fair to mention Tolstoy in the same breath with Wordsworth...."

"Have you ever read Wordsworth?" Eldred said tonelessly, looking away. But his visitor understood that unwittingly he had been treading on someone's toes—or perhaps trespassing on someone's Shrine!

"Yes." Jones nodded. "I read him last night." Then he changed the subject: only his choice of a subject was unfortunate. He spoke, and in somewhat partisan terms, of the Crusade to Prevent a Third World War. Eldred grew more and more remote, until at one moment Jones actually registered the sensation of being alone in the room.

It had not taken this very observant visitor long to realize that Paul was pretending to be a new Paul. He would, he felt certain, have given a fruity belly-jeer at a certain moment, packed with insult, had he not superannuated his abdominal Jeer, which was a revolutionary step. It had not been lost on him, either, that Eldred had been conducting himself as though his visitor had been a large piece of animated glass. Needless to say the twirling of the thumbs had been remarked and marvelled at: he had attempted to assign a cause—unsuccessfully. What impressed him most forcibly, however, was that Paul Eldred was elsewhere (realizing of course that it was in all probability a deliberate absence): successfully self-abstracted.

Eldred had acquired so skilfully what he interpreted as the nun's technique of self-abstraction, that everyone he came in contact with now felt he was not really there, or uncomfortably remote. Evan Jones found it so oppressive that his stay was an unusually short one. As was his custom he rather abruptly rose. For a moment he stood looking down on his oldest friend, not unaffectionately.

"Paul, are you becoming a monk, as the newspapers say you are?"

"No," Eldred answered carelessly. "That is just a silly lie."

"Whose?" was all that Evan Jones said, as he moved towards the door, in a tone that indicated he did not expect an answer. As he descended the steps of 27 Rotting Gardens he communed with himself almost thinking aloud: "I can take old Paul neat, I can take him with soda, I can take him with tonic, orange, or lime, and I can even take him, and often have, with vinegar. I fear I cannot take him with holy water. That is an innovation against which my stomach rebels." A fire-engine rushed across Rotting Gardens. It brought instant relief, it released something which had got obstructed somewhere within, and Jones's eyes shone again. "Thank Beelzebub there is a fire somewhere!" was what he thought as, smiling, he stepped briskly away.

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