He got up and took his cigarettes from the pocket of the coat that was hanging on the back of the door.
Why hadn’t he been more shocked when Loding made his suggestion?
Because he had guessed that a proposition would be coming? Because the man’s face had been warning enough that his interests would be shady? Because it quite simply had nothing to do with him, was not anything that he was likely to touch?
He had not been indignant with the man; had not said: “You swine, to think of cheating your friend out of his inheritance!” or words to that effect. But then he had never been interested in other people’s concerns: their sins, their griefs, or their happiness. And anyhow, you couldn’t be righteous with a man whose food you were eating.
He moved over to the window and stood looking out at the dim frieze of chimney-pots against the luminous haze. He was not broke yet but he had got the length of prospecting for a job, and the prospects were anything but encouraging. It seemed that there were far more people interested in stable jobs in England than stables to accommodate them. The horse world contracted as the horse lovers expanded. All those men who had lost their main interest in living when the cavalry was put down were still hale and active, and besieged stable entrances at the mere whiff of a vacancy.
Besides, he didn’t want just to “do his two a day.” If road engineering interested you you didn’t pine to spend your days putting tar on the surface.
He had tried a few contacts, but none of the good places was interested in a lame stranger without references. Why should they be? They had their pick of England’s best. And when he had mentioned that his experience of breaking had been in the States, that seemed to settle it. “Oh, cattle horses!” they said. They said it quite kindly and politely — he had forgotten until he came back how polite his countrymen were — but they had inferred in one way or another that Western kill-or-cure methods were not theirs. Since they never said so openly he could not explain that they were not his either. And anyhow, it wouldn’t have been any good. They wanted to know something about you before they took you to work with them in this country. In America, where a man moved on every so often, it was different; but here a job was for life, and what you were mattered almost as much as what you could do.
The solution, of course, was to leave the country. But the real, the insurmountable trouble was that he didn’t want to go. Now that he was back he realised that what he had thought of as free, purposeless wandering had merely been a long way round on the way back to England. He had come back, not via Dieppe, but via Las Cruces and points east; that was all. He had found what he wanted when he found horses; but he had no more sense of “belonging” in New Mexico than he had had at the grammar school. He had liked New Mexico better, that was all.
And better still, now that he looked at it, he liked England. He wanted to work with English horses in an English greenness on English turf.
In any case, it was much more difficult to get out of this country than to get into it, if you were broke. He had shared a table at the Coventry Street Lyons one day with a man who had been trying for eighteen months to work his passage somewhere or other. “Cards!” the little man had snarled. “That’s all they ever say. Where is your card? If you don’t happen to belong to the Amalgamated Union of Table-napkin Folders you can’t as much as help a steward set a table. I’m just waiting to see them let a ship sink under them because no one aboard has the right card for manning a pump with.”
He had looked at the Englishman’s furious blue eyes and remembered the man in the Havre bistro. “One has also to have papers.” Yes, the world was cluttered up with paper.
It was a pity that Loding’s proposition was so very criminal.
Would he have listened to it with any more interest if Loding had mentioned the horses earlier?
No, of course not; that was absurd. The thing was criminal and he wouldn’t touch it.
“It would be quite safe, you know,” said a voice in him. “They wouldn’t prosecute you even if they found out, because of the scandal. Loding said that.”
“Shut up,” he said. “The thing’s criminal.”
It might be amusing to go and see Loding act, one night. He had never met an actor before. It would be a new sensation to sit and watch the performance of someone you knew “off.” How would Loding be as a partner?
“A very clever partner, believe me,” said the voice.
“A plain bad lot,” he said. “I don’t want any part of him.”
“You don’t need any part of any of it,” said the voice. “You have only to go to Latchetts and say: Take a look at me. Do I remind you of anyone? I was left on a doorstep on such-and-such a date, and as from to-day I want a job.”
“Blackmail, ‘m? And how much do you think I’d enjoy a job I’d blackmailed out of anyone? Don’t be silly.”
“They owe you something, don’t they?”
“No, they don’t. Not a bean.”
“Oh, come off it! You’re an Ashby and you know it.”
“I don’t know it. There have been doubles before. Hitler had several. Lots of famous people have doubles. The papers are for ever printing photographs of the humble doubles of great men. They all look like the great men with the character sponged out.”
“Bunk. You’re an Ashby. Where did you get your way with horses?”
“Lots of people have a way with horses.”
“There were sixty-two kids at that orphanage, and did any of them go about spurning good jobs, and adoption by rich parents, so that they could find their way to horses?”
“I didn’t know I was looking for horses.”
“Of course you didn’t know. Your Ashby blood knew.”
“Oh, shut up.”
To-morrow he would go down to Lewes and have a go at that jumping stable. He might be lame but he could still ride anything on four legs. They might be interested in someone who could ride at ten stone and didn’t mind risking his neck.
“Risk your neck when you might be living in clover?”
“If it was clover I wanted I could have had it long ago.”
“Ah, but not clover with horses in it.”
“Shut up. You’re wasting your time.”
He began to undress, as if movement might put an end to the voice. Yes: he would go down to Lewes. It was a little too near his calf country, but no one would recognise him after those six years. It wouldn’t really matter, of course, if they did; but he didn’t want to go backwards.
“You could always say: Sorry, my name is Ashby,” mocked the voice.
“Will you be quiet!”
As he hung his jacket over the back of the chair he thought about that young Ashby who had bowed out. With everything in the world to live for he had gone and thrown himself off a cliff. It didn’t make sense. Did parents matter all that much?
“No, he was a poor thing, and you’d make a much better job of Latchetts in his place.”
He poured cold water into the basin and washed vigorously; an orphanage training being almost as lasting as a Regular Service one. And as he towelled himself on the thin turkish — so old that it was limp-wet before he was dry — he thought: “I wouldn’t like it, anyhow. Butlers, and things.” His idea of English middle-class life being derived from American films.
Anyhow, the thing was unthinkable.
And he’d better stop thinking about it.
Someone had said that if you thought about the unthinkable long enough it became quite reasonable.
But he would go some time and see those photographs of Loding’s. There was no harm in that.
He must see what his “twin” looked like.
He didn’t like Loding much, but just going to see him could do no harm, and he did want to see photographs of Latchetts.
Yes, he would go to see Loding.
The day after to-morrow perhaps; after he had been to Lewes.
Or even to-morrow.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01