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5: Humphrey Rose

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Author Topic: 5: Humphrey Rose  (Read 49 times)
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« on: April 21, 2023, 05:52:32 am »

JUDGE Jefferson was still a sick man, and his deputy continued to be called upon to fill his place. Pettigrew travelled the length and breadth of Markshire. He passed from draughty town halls, where inaudible witnesses competed vainly with the roar of traffic outside, to stuffy police-courts loud with the clamour of imprisoned stray dogs. Daily he was called upon to solve the insoluble, to divine the truth between competing perjuries, to apportion derisory incomes among innumerable creditors, or to discover what had caused two stationary cars, each hugging its proper side of the road, to smash each other to pieces in the middle of the highway. He found time in the intervals to order the adoption of dozens of babies. He enjoyed himself immensely.

The last sitting before the Easter vacation was at Markhampton. Pettigrew occupied the old Assize Court there, recalling battles long ago on the Southern Circuit, while he listened to a long and preternaturally dull dispute relating to a dressmaker's bill. (In his innocence, he did not realize that anything relating to women's clothes is automatically News, and he was astonished to find the case featured in all but one of the next morning's newspapers, garnished with a quantity of judicial sallies which he was quite unconscious of having uttered.) He finished the case eventually in time to catch one of the few trains that amble from Markhampton along the branch line following the valley of the Didder. A moment after he had taken his seat the express from London thundered into the station on the other side of the platform. Looking from the window, Pettigrew casually observed a middle-aged man leave a first-class carriage opposite. The passenger waited patiently until he had attracted the attention of a porter, to whom he handed a very small suitcase, apparently all the luggage he had. Followed by the porter, he then strolled jauntily across the width of the platform, entered Pettigrew's compartment, sat down in the corner opposite and rewarded the porter for his labour with a half-crown. It was difficult to say which of the two men seemed the more pleased with the transaction.

A moment later the train started. The newcomer produced a large cigar, which he began to smoke with almost exaggerated enjoyment. Pettigrew looked at him with interest---an interest not untinged with envy. He had seldom seen anybody of mature years so completely happy as was this stranger. It seemed unnatural that a man in this age and hemisphere could be quite so pleased with himself and with his surroundings. He looked out of the window at the passing suburbs of Markhampton and beamed with joy as though they had been the most beautiful buildings on earth. He looked round the sordid compartment with its dirty paintwork and fly-blown advertisements of remote beauty-spots, and even that seemed to meet with his ecstatic approval. It was quite heartening merely to look at him. Best of all, from Pettigrew's point of view, he was satisfied to admire the world and all that therein was in silence. The fact that he made no attempt to extend his pleasure in life by addressing a word to his fellow passenger contradicted Pettigrew's first impression that here was merely an American visitor, enjoying the peculiarities of a foreign scene, and not yet familiar with the normal tariff of English porters.

The odd thing is, Pettigrew told himself, I'm sure I've seen this fellow before, but I can't for the life of me think where. He studied him closely over the top of his evening paper. He saw a short, full-featured man, neatly dressed in a suit that hung rather loosely upon him. His eyes were very bright, his expression full of vitality, but in marked contrast to this his cheeks were flabby and his complexion was noticeably pale. An unhealthy pallor, Pettigrew thought. It put him in mind of---of what, exactly? His brain was tired after his day in court, and again the connection eluded him. He dozed as the train pottered on down the valley.

When Pettigrew alighted at his station his companion followed him out of the train, and again waited for a porter to take his bag. At the station entrance Pettigrew saw Mr. Todman, sitting at the wheel of the high, old-fashioned saloon which was Yewbury's state chariot for weddings, funerals and distinguished visitors. Unashamedly inquisitive, he loitered outside, and was rewarded in due course by the appearance of the stranger.

"Are you the gentleman for The Alps, sir?" asked Mr. Todman.

"The Alps it is," was the reply, in a rich, creamy baritone.

Some voices are more memorable than the faces that go with them. It only needed those four syllables for Pettigrew to remember exactly who the speaker was and where and how he had last seen him.

"Well, I'll be blowed!" he murmured as the hired car drove away. Exactly the same remark was being made at the same moment by the porter as he contemplated the largesse in his hand.

---

"We have acquired an interesting new neighbour," said Pettigrew to his wife that evening. "Humphrey Rose is staying at The Alps."

"Rose? I thought he went to prison."

"He did---for seven years. The Family Fundholdings swindle. He can only be just out. Prison life didn't suit him, to judge by his looks. I had the pleasure of his company in the train."

"What is he like?"

Pettigrew wrinkled his nose in thought before he gave his opinion.

"A callous, selfish brute," he said finally. "He brings destruction and misery wherever he goes. A man of extraordinary charm, generous and kind-hearted."

"Well?" said Eleanor. "Which is he? He can't be both."

"Indeed he can. That's what makes him so dangerous."

---

On second thoughts, Godfrey had decided to postpone his serious talk to his mother about the impending visitor. He was not in the least afraid of her, but he had a strong objection to being laughed at, and laughter would, he felt, be the only response that he was likely to get to any protest. The proper course, he decided, would be to register his disapproval by a cold and dignified attitude towards the unwanted guest. The contrast between his own impeccable behaviour and the orgies in which a man of bad character would be certain to indulge---Godfrey was a little vague on this point, but orgies, he thought, there were certain to be---would tell its own tale. His mother, after all, knew the difference between right and wrong---witness her evident appreciation of Mrs. Pink---and it was his duty as a son to help her to choose the right way. If the worse came to the worst, and he failed in his attempt, he would abandon the contaminated house and finish his holidays somewhere on his own.

On the evening of Rose's arrival, therefore, Godfrey immured himself with his books and brass-rubbings until dinner-time. It would be time enough to greet the visitor when he had to. He was aware of the sound of a warm, resonant and---he was bound to admit---cultured voice downstairs, but he firmly shut his ears to any distractions. When the moment came he went down to the drawing-room with a carefully arranged expression of blended civility and distaste.

"Humphrey, this is my son Godfrey," said Mrs. Ransome as he entered.

Rose was sitting in a deep armchair on the farther side of the room. The words were hardly out of her mouth before he fairly leaped to his feet and strode across the intervening space with extended hand.

"I'm delighted to meet you, sir," he said. "Delighted."

Astonishingly, he really did seem delighted. Godfrey's intention had been merely to bow distantly, but somehow his hand, too, had come out automatically and he found it being warmly shaken.

"You are at school, I take it?" said Rose with eager interest. "Where is that?"

Godfrey told him.

"A scholar, of course? But I needn't ask. I could see that as soon as you came into the room. My congratulations! You are greatly privileged. What are you reading? Classics? Languages?"

Again, Godfrey could not but oblige with the information. It struck him as he did so that his mother, for all her charm, had never been in the least impressed by his scholastic attainments, nor even asked what his special subjects at school were.

"You'll be going up to the university later, no doubt," Rose was saying. "To your father's college, I hope. I remember meeting him once. He impressed me tremendously. You know, Marian,"---he turned to Mrs. Ransome---"you made a terrible mistake when you parted company with your husband."

"My dear Humphrey! That from you, of all people!"

"I am perfectly serious. The break-up of families through divorce is one of the greatest evils of the day. I am sure your son will agree with me."

Godfrey's head began to spin. So far from indulging in orgies, the scandalous Mr. Rose had not even finished his glass of sherry, and now was taking his side against his mother in the interests of morality. Could the Times Literary Supplement have got its facts right?

"But I was talking about the university," Rose went on. "I don't know if you've decided on your career yet, but an academic life---if you're fitted for it---must be the finest thing in the world. I went to work when I was fourteen, and I've never ceased to regret it. What do I know of the things that really matter? I had to waste my time in business---politics---rubbish of that kind. I've picked up a few scraps of learning here and there since, but it's not the same thing. That's one reason why I'm always glad to meet someone who's had the luck to be properly educated. There are a lot of things I'd like your opinion about. . . ."

And indeed throughout dinner and after Rose continued not only to talk agreeably and amusingly but also to listen with flattering deference to any views that Godfrey was pleased to express. He examined with absorbed interest the rubbing of Sir Guy d'Harville and, unlike Mrs. Ransome, found exactly the right thing to say. He told some good stories about famous political figures, and, more important, laughed generously when Godfrey ventured on an anecdote of his own. Long before the evening was over Godfrey had completely forgotten that this was the man about whom he had intended to speak seriously to his mother. He found it impossible to resist Rose. Indeed the contest was over almost before it had begun. The charm that in the past had wheedled thousands of pounds from hard-headed men of business was now turned with full force upon a schoolboy, and the schoolboy inevitably surrendered.

The enchanted evening ended too soon for Godfrey. Rose professed himself to be tired and wished to go to bed early. Before doing so, however, he insisted on taking a turn on the terrace outside the french windows of the drawing-room. Godfrey accompanied him. The air was keen, and a bright moon bathed in light the yews at the head of the Druids' Glade, stretching down the hill into the mists of the valley below. A bat flew gibbering low over their heads.

"'Wanton wheels the bat's wing round my cottage dwelling'," quoted Rose unexpectedly. "'Something as the something'---how does it go? Ah, I remember:

"'Fickle as the loved one that calls and bids me go'." He chanted the rest of the stanza. "You know the Yew Hill Eclogues, of course. What do young men of today think of Henry Spicer?"

"One reads his poetry, some of it," Godfrey told him. "The novels, of course, are quite unreadable nowadays. The style----"

A violent sneeze cut short his pontifications.

"My dear fellow, you're catching cold! How very selfish of me to bring you out on a night like this!" He hastily led the way indoors. "You know," he went on, as he drew the curtains of the window behind them, "I hesitate to suggest it, but I think the young men of today are wrong about Henry Spicer. He was a most remarkable fellow, and once you get used to his mannerisms the novels are very enjoyable. I've read The Solipsist three times, and the third reading was the best. You should try it. It takes an intelligent person like you to appreciate it. I met Spicer once when I was about your age, by the way, and he---- But it's too late to embark on another story. It must wait till tomorrow."

"I suppose you read his books because you'd met him," said Mrs. Ransome. "Otherwise I can't imagine that stuff like that would be in your line."

"Oh no," said Rose simply. "I only took to reading them because they happened to be in the prison library. Good night."

---

"Godfrey," said Mrs. Ransome as she kissed her son good night, "I feel that I ought to warn you about Humphrey Rose. He's not always like this by any manner of means. You will be careful with him, won't you?"

And that, thought Godfrey as he made his way up to bed, was positively the last straw.

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