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5: Time the Tiger (part 5)


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« on: January 23, 2023, 05:47:40 am »

MARK's dreams that night were coloured by anticipation of the next day's lunch with Ida. Memory led off with an album of dream-pictures of Ida as the most lovely schoolgirl that ever shook a golden curl—seventeen, a year younger that he was then. She poked fun at him, in the dream, and finally gave him a huge pinch, hooting with schoolgirlish mischief. The pain of the pinch woke Mark up. When in a few seconds he was again asleep, it appeared that he was on his way to visit his wealthy aunt who lived at York. Soon he had reached his destination, and as he had been fancying she might be dead he pressed the bell, making ready to say how sad it was and he did hope she had not suffered at the last. However, she was not dead: he saw her crossing the cavernous drawing-room quite skittishly as he entered. "How down-in-the-mouth you look, Mark? Has anything happened!" she was exclaiming, her white teeth flashing in the gloom, holding out briskly a shrivelled hand. And then he perceived it was Ida smiling at him ironically: only an Ida of what would probably be called "a young seventy". The face changed sometimes into that of his aunt Susan (Robins), and then his aunt began to masquerade as Ida, in a really horrible fashion. They were looking into a very large glass bowl containing goldfish when his aunt made a sickly little soft gasping sound. He found himself supporting her in his arms. She was quite heavy, he placed her with difficulty on a sofa, on the way tripping over a rug and almost falling to the floor with her. It was obvious to him that she was dead, and he looked at her face most unwillingly. It was that of Ida, a waxen white deeply lined, the scalp disagreeably grizzled. Turning away violently he cannoned into a parlourmaid who had arrived there behind him without noise. "She passed away quite peacefully," he told her and she smiled. He smiled too. Then he laughed.

When next day at her club Mark found himself in the presence of the real Ida, for a moment he was incredulous. He smiled at her emptily with his teeth, as if to show he was not taken in. But he soon warmed up, for she was no apparition.

Ida looked—oh, around twenty-five. The lazy laughing lips of Rossetti's Jenny ("fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea") were as roseate and indolent as ever: her eyes were steady, an almost imperceptible dance, as well, giving them a remote glitter of gaiety.

As if it were a top, humming and spinning on without changing position, perhaps she would go on being like this until suddenly time asserted itself and she stopped dead. Such images of precarious fixity were frankly admitted to his consciousness by the otherwise infatuated Mark: but he was not altogether innocent of cosmetics. He was aware that the illusionist's name might be Rubinstein, but what did that matter? It could not be all Rubinstein. A divine mental sloth, it occurred to him, played a major part. She would have agreed actually: she knew more about herself than the fish does regarding its marvellous iridescence, or the humming-bird its aerial spinning. Any marvels she could account for.

The quality was still dream-like and introspective, certainly, only Mark felt confident that this time she was not going to turn into a wealthy aunt.

"Your labours at the Ministry have greyed you Mark a little," Ida said at once (no doubt reading his thoughts and diverting attention from her face to his). "Otherwise much the same."

"Yes, I have altered, but you my dear Ida are just the same—and if there is art, its causes are not found."

She shook her 'twenties curls with a nervous and defensive mirth. "A little vanishing cream, combined with an empty mind, is quite enough," she laughed. So he and the woman he had always been in love with—and had not married any other because she was always there in his imagination—eyed one another benignly. He exposed his haunted vacuum, and she automatically entered and warmed it to the temperature of paradise.

They were a party heated by the suns of the past: they were three people in the nineteen-twenties who entered the Ivy Restaurant. The restaurant personnel, stolidly Italian, were cold and hard in nineteen-forty-nine. Mark, Ida, and Charles talked of old 'twenties books and dishes and jokes, their politics were only those that may be found in a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera where everyone present is a little liber-al or a little conserva-tive—except for a moment in the small entrance lobby. An authentically proletarian youth, attempting to look dramatic and sinister, was heard to ask the doorman-vestiaire, "Is Mr. Zilliacus here yet?" Charles said "I hope not" to the ceiling, but the comment was intercepted by the doorman-vestiaire, who looked curiously at Charles and Charles returned his gaze.

Ideology, otherwise, was wiped off this trio who had that clean sensation the non-political have. Mark had actually put the question to himself. Why had he not married Charles's sister? He supposed it was Charles. It would have been too like homosexuality, which was an absurd sensation. She had not married, herself, until nearly thirty, and in a couple of years that marriage was terminated by the death of her husband in the hunting-field. He had been no horseman, poor chap. She insisted on his learning to ride in a Bayswater riding-school, however, and she whisked him off to week-end hunts with a stockbroker outfit in East Anglia. Since his death she had divided her time between Tadicombe Priory and Withers Norton, the other parklet which had materialized on her wedding-day and which she had so far been able to retain.

Three theatre queues outside had an Italian minstrel in attendance; with a most piercing pathos locked up in his sinuses the high notes of heart-throb of a gutter-Pagliacci penetrated the lunch-time roar of the ever-full Ivy, and provided a musical sugarstick background as the three old friends rolled again in memory in the Swiss snows at Wengen—or drifted talking very youngly along "The High" on their way to Blackwell's to buy Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. And Mark reflected as they talked that one never knew, one might some day (if one did not come to the point with Ida) get married at this late date and to the wrong woman. Horrifying thought! He had a premonition of the form the wrongness would take.

But the cocktails and the Sylvaner were taking effect. What happened arrived with great suddenness. At one moment they were blissfully gay as they revisited the landscapes of their youth—as if by common consent refusing to admit anything to their consciousness later than 1929 (that as a rather dangerous limit). Next moment almost, it seemed, they were all three glaring at one another. Ida—an Ida at least twenty years older—was denouncing the Socialist Government: she had asked why he, Mark, had not immediately handed in his resignation after the "vermin" speech of "that filthy little man Bevan, who ought to be horse-whipped!" "Ida!" Mark had protested, half-rising. But "why not!" had shouted Charles, half-rising, too, "is he not the lowest and dirtiest..." "I am not going to listen to this nonsense!" Mark protested still more strongly. "If Ida is drunk, that is one thing. You, Charles, should have a stronger head! I see you should take water even with your wine!"[Pg 208]

The change of climate, however, had been so abrupt and so absolute, and Mark prior to that had been so completely transported into the neutral fairyland of the past, that—though he attempted to silence public abuse of a powerful Minister, and of one personally admired by him as well—he was for a short time dull and bewildered, groping his way about between two worlds.

But the Navy League side of Ida, aroused with so alarming a suddenness, tore on into battle, her face distorted with partisan rage. "They have cut down the reserve of officers!" spat those lips so recently models of a charmed aloofness. "The last R.N.V.R. cadets are now in training. There are to be no more. Who are to replace officer casualties? The lower deck I suppose! Only half the Fleet is in commission. Fine fighting units are rotting in port—soon we shall have the navy of a South American republic. We could be defeated in battle by Brazil!"

Her eyes flashed as, in indignant fancy, she saw the flagship of the Home Fleet cock up its stern, explode, and sink, the victim of a Brazilian torpedo.

"Ida, do stop talking such dreadful nonsense," Mark expostulated.

"She is not talking nonsense but very good sense," Charles objected. "Ida has her facts from a pretty reliable source. Admiral Darrell is a neighbour of hers at Withers Norton."

"Wars are decided in the air—surface craft are militarily obsolete," Mark said with cross indifference. "Darrell is gaga anyway."

"Say what you like," Ida broke in again. "England is defenceless. The gang of ex-dock labourers, asiatics, and corporation lawyers who push us around from Whitehall are traitors. They should be hanged from the yard-arm!" She pointed fiercely out of the window at a convenient lamp-post.

At a neighbouring table a man who had been reading put down his paper and signalled angrily the maître d'hôtel. He was recognized by Mark as a socialist member of parliament. He was complaining about them to the maître d'hôtel, who studied Mark with attention but apparent lack of interest.

Ida by no means desisted—she became personal.

"You, who are of our class, deliberately helping that rabble to enslave England! It does not make sense. Can't you make an equally good living in some more honest way?"

"By engaging in a bit of black-marketing?" he enquired dryly.

"Yes, Mark, yes! That would be a damn sight straighter than what you are doing."

"I'm sorry, Ida, but you see I am a socialist."

"So you say!" Charles smiled with good-natured scepticism.

Mark closed his eyes to shut out Charles's smile. He felt very foolish and his choler was unabated. To the spring-time regions where the great sex issues are normally decided he had returned—the greatly retarded mating was in process of consummation when his love transformed herself with nightmare suddenness into a Tory soap-boxer. He had consented to play Romeo, and Juliet, at the critical moment, had acquired the mask of Col. Blimp, haranguing him from the moonlit balcony. An irrational resentment towards the brother and sister he was sitting with possessed him. He was in no mood to see in it an illustration of Time's tigerish leaping. He had been tricked, was what he really felt, by Charles and Ida; they had made a regular fool of him. This was a matter of feelings only, though, for he did not suspect a plot.

Mark looked across the table coldly at the vindictive female mask. A woman he had a few minutes before theoretically united himself with! He understood that it would be impossible for her to behave otherwise: that even from 1939 to now was a great time-leap for her—from a life of petty pomp to one of straightened anxiety—dismissal of gardener, disposal of a horse or horses, acuteness of the dress problem, and a prospect, as she saw it, should this election go the wrong way, tantamount to murder. Murder just as truly by Cripps as would have been murder by Crippen. What was the difference between a man who killed you with taxes or one who killed you with a revolver bullet or a dose of arsenic? None: except that the taxer takes longer over it—and is not tried for homicide!

A long silence was broken by Charles's laugh.

"Three old friends," he croaked, "who stopped to look forward at the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Future—and they all three are turned to salt!"

Charles was unable, however, to turn them back into flesh and blood; and when not long afterwards these three old friends left the restaurant all three knew that they would never lunch together again, that they were friends no longer. Charles, singly, would have been able to postpone, for some time at least, this break. But Ida had been decisive. The Brazilian Navy had sent to the bottom the good ship Friendship, built in the palmy days of pre-World War I.

---

Charles had taken his bag away about five—both were a little stiff at the last. That evening a loneliness attacked Mark in quite new places, even interfering, he found, with housework. He had had no time to make any arrangements for the evening, so there he was cleaning up after Charles, and afraid to sit down—for he had already tried to read and found he could not. The expulsion of Ida from her place in his imagination was responsible. These were the final pangs of Mark's rebirth into a novel age, as well as the death-throes of Ida's image. But he did not identify his pangs: he did not analyse. He went to his desk, took out a piece of notepaper and wrote "My dear Wendy". Wendy Richardson was a good party-woman, with a pretty face. He asked her if she thought Time was a tiger or a pussy-cat. He had been thinking a lot about Time lately, he told her. He thought himself it was a pussy-cat that had grown overnight into a tiger. Anyway, would she go with him to see the French film "Time the Tiger". "It is," he concluded, "a film with a kick in it. Excuse the Americanism."

---

EPILOGUE

Post-General Election exchange of notes between Mark Robins and Charles Dyat

3 March, 1950.

My Dear Mark,

Your "Pick the winning side" argument is only effective if the side you support is at the moment winning. With a majority of merely seven in the House of Commons you have to find a new argument, don't you? What is it?

Charles.

---

Dear Charles,

Like most Tories you seem to forget that the Election was won by the Socialist Party. You will yet be disagreeably surprised by what can be done with a majority of seven. But you seem to mistake me for a recruiting-sergeant. If I were one, however, I should not be interested in you as a recruit. I should tell you to go and join some other army. Meanwhile I suggest you find some other correspondent.

Mark.

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