But when Marta came back two days later it was not with knitting needles and wool. She breezed in, very dashing in a Cossack hat worn at a casual rake that must have taken her several minutes at her mirror, just after lunch.
‘I haven’t come to stay, my dear. I’m on my way to the theatre. It’s matinée day, God help me. Tea trays and morons. And we’ve all got to the frightful stage when the lines have ceased to have any meaning at all for us. I don’t think this play is ever coming off. It’s going to be like those New York ones that run by the decade instead of by the year. It’s too frightening. One’s mind just won’t stay on the thing. Geoffrey dried up in the middle of the second act last night. His eyes nearly popped out of his head. I thought for a moment he was having a stroke. He said afterwards that he had no recollection of anything that happened between his entrance and the point where he came to and found himself half-way through the act.’
‘A black-out, you mean?’
‘No. Oh, no. Just being an automaton. Saying the lines and doing the business and thinking of something else all the time.’
‘If all reports are true that’s no unusual matter where actors are concerned.’
‘Oh, in moderation, no. Johnny Garson can tell you how much paper there is in the house while he is sobbing his heart out on someone’s lap. But that’s different from being “away” for half an act. Do you realise that Geoffrey had turned his son out of the house, quarrelled with his mistress, and accused his wife of having an affaire with his best friend all without being aware of it?’
‘What was he aware of?’
‘He says he had decided to lease his Park Lane flat to Dolly Dacre and buy that Charles The Second house at Richmond that the Latimers are giving up because he has got that Governor’s appointment. He had thought about the lack of bathrooms and decided that the little upstairs room with the eighteenth-century Chinese paper would make a very good one. They could remove the beautiful paper and use it to decorate that dull little room downstairs at the back. It’s full of Victorian panelling, the dull little room. He had also reviewed the drainage, wondered if he had enough money to take the old tiling off and replace it, and speculated as to what kind of cooking range they had in the kitchen. He had just decided to get rid of the shrubbery at the gate when he found himself face to face with me, on a stage, in the presence of nine hundred and eighty-seven people, in the middle of a speech. Do you wonder that his eyes popped. I see that you have managed to read at least one of the books I brought you if the rumpled jacket is any criterion.’
‘Yes. The mountain one. It was a godsend. I lay for hours looking at the pictures. Nothing puts things in perspective as quickly as a mountain.’
‘The stars are better, I find.’
‘Oh, no. The stars merely reduce one to the status of an amoeba. The stars take the last vestige of human pride, the last spark of confidence, from one. But a snow mountain is a nice human-size yard-stick. I lay and looked at Everest and thanked God that I wasn’t climbing those slopes. A hospital bed was a haven of warmth and rest and security by comparison, and The Midget and The Amazon two of the highest achievements of civilisation.’
‘Ah, well, here are some more pictures for you.’
Marta up-ended the quarto envelope she was carrying, and spilled a collection of paper sheets over his chest.
‘What is this?’
‘Faces,’ said Marta, delightedly. ‘Dozens of faces for you. Men, women, and children. All sorts, conditions, and sizes.’
He picked a sheet off his chest and looked at it. It was an engraving of a fifteenth-century portrait. A woman.
‘Who is this?’
‘Lucrezia Borgia. Isn’t she a duck.’
‘Perhaps, but are you suggesting that there was any mystery about her?’
‘Oh, yes. No one has ever decided whether she was her brother’s tool or his accomplice.’
He discarded Lucrezia, and picked up a second sheet. This proved to be the portrait of a small boy in late-eighteenth-century clothes, and under it in faint capitals was printed the words: Louis XVII.
‘Now there’s a beautiful mystery for you,’ Marta said. ‘The Dauphin. Did he escape or did he die in captivity?’
‘Where did you get all these?’
‘I routed James out of his cubby-hole at the Victoria and Albert, and made him take me to a print shop. I knew he would know about that sort of thing, and I’m sure he has nothing to interest him at the V. and A.’
It was so like Marta to take it for granted that a Civil Servant, because he happened also to be a playwright and an authority on portraits, should be willing to leave his work and delve about in print shops for her pleasure.
He turned up the photograph of an Elizabethan portrait. A man in velvet and pearls. He turned the back to see who this might be and found that it was the Earl of Leicester.
‘So that is Elizabeth’s Robin,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I ever saw a portrait of him before.’
Marta looked down on the virile fleshy face and said: ‘It occurs to me for the first time that one of the major tragedies of history is that the best painters didn’t paint you till you were past your best. Robin must have been quite a man. They say Henry the Eighth was dazzling as a young man, but what is he now? Something on a playing card. Nowadays, we know what Tennyson was like before he grew that frightful beard. I must fly. I’m late as it is. I’ve been lunching at the Blague, and so many people came up to talk that I couldn’t get away as early as I meant to.’
‘I hope your host was impressed,’ Grant said, with a glance at the hat.
‘Oh, yes. She knows about hats. She took one look and said “Jacques Tous, I take it”.’
‘She!’ said Grant surprised.
‘Yes. Madeleine March. And it was I who was giving her luncheon. Don’t look so astonished: it isn’t tactful. I’m hoping, if you must know, that she’ll write me that play about Lady Blessington. But there was such a to-ing and fro-ing that I had no chance to make any impression on her. However, I gave her a wonderful meal. Which reminds me that Tony Bittmaker was entertaining a party of seven. Magnums galore. How do you imagine he keeps going?’
‘Lack of evidence,’ Grant said, and she laughed and went away.
In the silence he went back to considering Elizabeth’s Robin. What mystery was there about Robin?
Oh, yes. Amy Robsart, of course.
Well, he wasn’t interested in Amy Robsart. He didn’t care how she had fallen down stairs, or why.
But he spent a very happy afternoon with the rest of the faces. Long before he had entered the Force he had taken a delight in faces, and in his years at the Yard that interest had proved both a private entertainment and a professional advantage. He had once in his early days dropped in with his Superintendent at an identification parade. It was not his case, and they were both there on other business, but they lingered in the background and watched while a man and a woman, separately, walked down the line of twelve nondescript men, looking for the one they hoped to recognise.
‘Which is Chummy, do you know?’ the Super had whispered to him.
‘I don’t know,’ Grant had said, ‘but I can guess.’
‘You can? Which do you make it?’
‘The third from the left.’
‘What is the charge?’
‘I don’t know. Don’t know anything about it.’
His chief had cast him an amused glance. But when both the man and the woman had failed to identify anyone and had gone away, and the line broke into a chattering group, hitching collars and settling ties preparatory to going back to the street and the world of everyday from which they had been summoned to assist the Law, the one who did not move was the third man from the left. The third man from the left waited submissively for his escort and was led away to his cell again.
‘Strewth!’ the Superintendent had said. ‘One chance out of twelve, and you made it. That was good going. He picked your man out of the bunch,’ he said in explanation to the local Inspector.
‘Did you know him?’ the Inspector said, a little surprised. ‘He’s never been in trouble before, as far as we know.’
‘No, I never saw him before. I don’t even know what the charge is.’
‘Then what made you pick him?’
Grant had hesitated, analysing for the first time his process of selection. It had not been a matter of reasoning. He had not said: ‘That man’s face has this characteristic or that characteristic, therefore he is the accused person.’ His choice had been almost instinctive; the reason was in his subconscious. At last, having delved into his subconscious, he blurted: ‘He was the only one of the twelve with no lines on his face.’
They had laughed at that. But Grant, once he had pulled the thing into the light, saw how his instinct had worked and recognised the reasoning behind it. ‘It sounds silly, but it isn’t,’ he had said. ‘The only adult entirely without face lines is the idiot.’
‘Freeman’s no idiot, take it from me,’ the Inspector broke in. ‘A very wide-awake wide boy he is, believe me.’
‘I didn’t mean that. I mean that the idiot is irresponsible. The idiot is the standard of irresponsibility. All those twelve men in that parade were thirty-ish, but only one had an irresponsible face. So I picked him at once.’
After that it had become a mild joke at the Yard that Grant could ‘pick them at sight’. And the Assistant Commissioner had once said teasingly: ‘Don’t tell me that you believe that there is such a thing as a criminal face, Inspector.’
But Grant had said no, he wasn’t as simple as that. ‘If there was only one kind of crime, sir, it might be possible; but crimes being as wide as human nature, if a policeman started to put faces into categories he would be sunk. You can tell what the normal run of disreputable women look like by a walk down Bond Street any day between five and six, and yet the most notorious woman in London looks like a cold saint.’
‘Not so saintly of late; she’s drinking too much these days,’ the A.C. had said, identifying the lady without difficulty; and the conversation had gone on to other things.
But Grant’s interest in faces had remained and enlarged until it became a conscious study. A matter of case records and comparisons. It was, as he had said, not possible to put faces into any kind of category, but it was possible to characterise individual faces. In a reprint of a famous trial, for instance, where photographs of the principal actors in the case were displayed for the public’s interest, there was never any doubt as to which was the accused and which the judge. Occasionally, one of the counsel might on looks have changed places with the prisoner in the dock — counsel were after all a mere cross-section of humanity, as liable to passion and greed as the rest of the world, but a judge had a special quality; an integrity and a detachment. So, even without a wig, one did not confuse him with the man in the dock, who had had neither integrity nor detachment.
Maria’s James, having been dragged from his ‘cubby-hole’, had evidently enjoyed himself, and a fine selection of offenders, or their victims. kept Grant entertained until The Midget brought his tea. As he tidied the sheets together to put them away in his locker his hand came in contact with one that had slipped off his chest and had lain all the afternoon unnoticed on the counterpane. He picked it up and looked at it.
It was the portrait of a man dressed in the velvet cap and slashed doublet of the late fifteenth century. A man about thirty-five or thirty-six years old, lean and clean shaven. He wore a rich jewelled collar, and was in the act of putting a ring on the little finger of his right hand. But he was not looking at the ring. He was looking off into space.
Of all the portraits Grant had seen this afternoon this was the most individual. It was as if the artist had striven to put on canvas something that his talent was not sufficient to translate into paint. The expression in the eyes — that most arresting and individual expression — had defeated him. So had the mouth: he had not known how to make lips so thin and so wide look mobile, so the mouth was wooden and a failure. What he had best succeeded in was in the bone structure of the face: the strong cheekbones, the hollows below them, the chin too large for strength.
Grant paused in the act of turning the thing over, to consider the face a moment longer. A judge? A soldier? A prince? Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too-conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist. A man at ease in a large design, but anxious over details. A candidate for gastric ulcer. Someone, too, who had suffered ill-health as a child. He had that incommunicable, that indescribable look that childhood suffering leaves behind it; less positive than the look on a cripple’s face, but as inescapable. This the artist had both understood and translated into terms of paint. The slight fullness of the lower eyelid, like a child that has slept too heavily; the texture of the skin; the old-man look in a young face.
He turned the portrait over to look for a caption.
On the back was printed: Richard the Third. From the portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. Artist Unknown.
Richard the Third.
So that was who it was. Richard the Third. Crouchback. The monster of nursery stories. The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy.
He turned the paper over and looked again. Was that what the artist had tried to convey when he had painted those eyes? Had what he had seen in those eyes been the look of a man haunted?
He lay a long time looking at that face; at those extraordinary eyes. They were long eyes, set close under the brows; the brows slightly drawn in that worried, over-conscientious frown. At first glance they appeared to be peering; but as one looked one found that they were in fact withdrawn, almost absent-minded.
When The Midget came back for his tray he was still staring at the portrait. Nothing like this had come his way for years. It made La Giaconda look like a poster.
The Midget examined his virgin teacup, put a practised hand against the teapot’s tepid cheek, and pouted. She had better things to do, she conveyed, than bring him trays for him to ignore.
He pushed the portrait at her.
What did she think of it? If that man were her patient what would be her verdict?
‘Liver,’ she said crisply, and bore away the tray in heel-tapping protest, all starch and blonde curls.
But the surgeon, strolling in against her draught, kindly and casual, had other views. He looked at the portrait, as invited, and said after a moment’s interested scrutiny:
‘Infantile paralysis?’ Grant said; and remembered all of a sudden that Richard III had a withered arm.
‘Who is it?’ the surgeon asked.
‘Richard the Third.’
‘Really? That’s interesting.’
‘Did you know that he had a withered arm?’
‘Had he? I didn’t remember that. I thought he was a hunchback.’
‘So he was.’
‘What I do remember is that he was born with a full set of teeth and ate live frogs. Well, my diagnosis seems to be abnormally accurate.’
‘Uncanny. What made you choose polio?’
‘I don’t quite know, now that you ask me to be definitive, just the look of the face, I suppose. It’s the look one sees on the face of a crippled child. If he was born hunchbacked that probably accounts for it and not polio. I notice the artist has left out the hump.’
‘Yes. Court painters have to have a modicum of tact. It wasn’t until Cromwell that sitters asked for “warts and all”.’
‘If you ask me,’ the surgeon said, absentmindedly considering the splint on Grant’s leg, ‘Cromwell started that inverted snobbery from which we are all suffering today. “I’m a plain man, I am; no nonsense about me.” And no manners, grace, or generosity, either.’ He pinched Grant’s toe with detached interest. ‘It’s a raging disease. A horrible perversion. In some parts of the States, I understand, it’s as much as a man’s political life is worth to go to some constituencies with his tie tied and his coat on. That’s being stuffed-shirt. The beau ideal is to be one of the boys. That’s looking very healthy,’ he added, referring to Grant’s big toe, and came back of his own accord to the portrait lying on the counterpane.
‘Interesting,’ he said, ‘that about the polio. Perhaps it really was polio, and that accounts for the shrunken arm.’ He went on considering it, making no movement to go. ‘Interesting, anyhow. Portrait of a murderer. Does he run to type, would you say?’
‘There isn’t a murder type. People murder for too many different reasons. But I can’t remember any murderer, either in my own experience, or in case-histories, who resembled him.’
‘Of course he was hors concours in his class, wasn’t he. He couldn’t have known the meaning of scruple.’
‘I once saw Olivier play him. The most dazzling exhibition of sheer evil, it was. Always on the verge of toppling over into the grotesque, and never doing it.’
‘When I showed you the portrait,’ Grant said, ‘before you knew who it was, did you think of villainy?’
‘No,’ said the surgeon, ‘no, I thought of illness.’
‘It’s odd, isn’t it. I didn’t think of villainy either. And now that I know who it is, now that I’ve read the name on the back, I can’t think of it as anything but villainous.’
‘I suppose villainy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Well, I’ll look in again towards the end of the week. No pain to speak of now?’
And he went away, kindly and casual as he had come.
It was only after he had given the portrait further puzzled consideration (it piqued him to have mistaken one of the most notorious murderers of all time for a judge; to have transferred a subject from the dock to the bench was a shocking piece of ineptitude) that it occurred to Grant that the portrait had been provided as the illustration to a piece of detection.
What mystery was there about Richard III?
And then he remembered. Richard had murdered his two boy nephews, but no one knew how. They had merely disappeared. They had disappeared, if he remembered rightly, while Richard was away from London. Richard had sent someone to do the deed. But the mystery of the children’s actual fate had never been solved. Two skeletons had turned up — under some stairs? — in Charles II’s day, and had been buried. It was taken for granted that the skeletons were the remains of the young princes, but nothing had ever been proved.
It was shocking how little history remained with one after a good education. All he knew about Richard III was that he was the younger brother of Edward IV. That Edward was a blond six-footer with remarkable good looks and a still more remarkable way with women; and that Richard was a hunchback who usurped the throne on his brother’s death in place of the boy heir, and arranged the death of that heir and his small brother to save himself any further trouble. He also knew that Richard had died at the battle of Bosworth yelling for a horse, and that he was the last of his line. The last Plantagenet.
Every schoolboy turned over the final page of Richard III with relief, because now at last the Wars of the Roses were over and they could get on to the Tudors, who were dull but easy to follow.
When The Midget came to tidy him up for the night Grant said: ‘You don’t happen to have a history book, by any chance, do you?’
‘A history book? No. What would I be doing with a history book.’ It was not a question, so Grant did not try to provide an answer. His silence seemed to fret her.
‘If you really want a history book,’ she said presently, ‘you could ask Nurse Darroll when she brings your supper. She has all her schoolbooks on a shelf in her room and it’s quite possible she has a history among them.’
How like The Amazon to keep her schoolbooks! he thought. She was still homesick for school as she was homesick for Gloucestershire every time the daffodils bloomed. When she lumbered into the room, bearing his cheese pudding and stewed rhubarb, he looked at her with a tolerance that bordered on the benevolent. She ceased to be a large female who breathed like a suction-pump and became a potential dispenser of delight.
Oh yes, she had a history book, she said. Indeed, she rather thought that she had two. She had kept all her schoolbooks because she had loved school.
It was on the tip of Grant’s tongue to ask her if she had kept her dolls, but he stopped himself in time.
‘And of course I loved history,’ she said. ‘It was my favourite subject. Richard the Lionheart was my hero.’
‘An intolerable bounder,’ Grant said.
‘Oh, no!’ she said, looking wounded.
‘A hyperthyroid type,’ Grant said pitilessly. ‘Rocketing to and fro about the earth like a badly made firework. Are you going off duty now?’
‘Whenever I’ve finished my trays.’
‘Could you find that book for me tonight?’
‘You’re supposed to be going to sleep, not staying awake over history books.’
‘I might as well read some history as look at the ceiling which is the alternative. Will you get it for me?’
‘I don’t think I could go all the way up to the Nurses’ Block and back again tonight for someone who is rude about the Lionheart.’
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’m not the stuff that martyrs are made of. As far as I’m concerned Coeur-de-Lion is the pattern of chivalry, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, a faultless commander and a triple D.S.O. Now will you get the book?’
‘It seems to me you’ve sore need to read a little history,’ she said, smoothing a mitred sheet-corner with a large admiring hand, ‘so I’ll bring you the book when I come past. I’m going out to the pictures anyhow.’
It was nearly an hour before she reappeared, immense in a camel-hair coat. The room lights had been put out and she materialised into the light of his reading-lamp like some kindly genie.
‘I was hoping you’d be asleep,’ she said. ‘I don’t really think you should start on these tonight.’
‘If there is anything that is likely to put me to sleep,’ he said, ‘it would be an English history book. So you can hold hands with a clear conscience.’
‘I’m going with Nurse Burrows.’
‘You can still hold hands.’
‘I’ve no patience with you,’ she said patiently and faded backwards into the gloom.
She had brought two books.
One was the kind of history book known as a Historical Reader. It bore the same relation to history as Stories from the Bible bears to Holy Writ. Canute rebuked his courtiers on the shore, Alfred burned the cakes, Raleigh spread his cloak for Elizabeth, Nelson took leave of Hardy in his cabin on the Victory, all in nice clear large print and one-sentence paragraphs. To each episode went one full-page illustration.
There was something curiously touching in the fact that The Amazon should treasure this childish literature. He turned to the fly-leaf to see if her name was there. On the fly-leaf was written:
Newbridge High School
This was surrounded by a fine selection of coloured transfers.
Did all children do that, he wondered? Write their names like that, and spend their time in class making transfers. He certainly had. And the sight of those squares of bright primitive colour brought back his childhood as nothing had for many years. He had forgotten the excitement of transfers. That wonderfully satisfying moment when you began the peeling-off and saw that it was coming perfectly. The adult world held few such gratifications. A clean smacking drive at golf, perhaps, was the nearest. Or the moment when your line tightened and you knew that the fish had struck.
The little book pleased him so much that he went through it at his leisure. Solemnly reading each childish story. This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud’s Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness.
The Richard III story, when he came to it, was called The Princes In The Tower, and it seemed that young Ella had found the Princes a poor substitute for Coeur-de-Lion, since she had filled every small O throughout the tale with neat pencil shading. The two golden-haired boys who played together in the sunbeam from the barred window in the accompanying picture had each been provided with a pair of anachronistic spectacles, and on the blank back of the picture-page someone had been playing Noughts and Crosses. As far as young Ella was concerned the Princes were a dead loss.
And yet it was a sufficiently arresting little story. Macabre enough to delight any child’s heart. The innocent children; the wicked uncle. The classic ingredients in a tale of classic simplicity.
It had also a moral. It was the perfect cautionary tale.
But the King won no profit from this wicked deed. The people of England were shocked by his cold-blooded cruelty and decided that they would no longer have him for King. They sent for a distant cousin of Richard’s, Henry Tudor, who was living in France, to come and be crowned King in his stead. Richard died bravely in the battle which resulted, but he had made his name hated throughout the country and many deserted him to fight for his rival.
Well, it was neat but not gaudy. Reporting at its simplest.
He turned to the second book.
The second book was the School History proper. The two thousand years of England’s story were neatly parcelled into compartments for ready reference. The compartments, as usual, were reigns. It was no wonder that one pinned a personality to a reign, forgetful that that personality had known and lived under other kings. One put them in pigeon-holes automatically. Pepys: Charles II. Shakespeare: Elizabeth. Marlborough: Queen Anne. It never crossed one’s mind that someone who had seen Queen Elizabeth could also have seen George I. One had been conditioned to the reign idea from childhood.
However it did simplify things when you were just a policeman with a game leg and a concussed spine hunting up some information on dead and gone royalties to keep yourself from going crazy.
He was surprised to find the reign of Richard III so short. To have made oneself one of the best-known rulers in all those two thousand years of England’s history, and to have had only two years to do it in, surely augured a towering personality. If Richard had not made friends he had certainly influenced people.
The history book, too, thought that he had personality.
Richard was a man of great ability, but quite unscrupulous as to his means. He boldly claimed the crown on the absurd ground that his brother’s marriage with Elizabeth Woodville had been illegal and the children of it illegitimate. He was accepted by the people who dreaded a minority, and began his reign by making a progress through the south, where he was well received. During this progress, however, the two young Princes who were living in the Tower, disappeared, and were believed to have been murdered. A serious rebellion followed, which Richard put down with great ferocity. In order to recover some of his lost popularity he held a Parliament, which passed useful statutes against Benevolences, Maintenance, and Livery.
But a second rebellion followed. This took the form of an invasion, with French troops, by the head of the Lancaster branch, Henry Tudor. He encountered Richard at Bosworth, near Leicester, where the treachery of the Stanleys gave the day to Henry. Richard was killed in the battle, fighting courageously, leaving behind him a name hardly less infamous than that of John.
What on earth were Benevolences, Maintenance, and Livery?
And how did the English like having the succession decided for them by French troops?
But, of course, in the days of the Roses, France was still a sort of semi-detached part of England; a country much less foreign to an Englishman than Ireland was. A fifteenth-century Englishman went to France as a matter of course; but to Ireland only under protest.
He lay and thought about that England. The England over which the Wars of the Roses had been fought. A green, green England; with not a chimney-stack from Cumberland to Cornwall. An England still unhedged, with great forests alive with game, and wide marshes thick with wild-fowl. An England with the same small group of dwellings repeated every few miles in endless permutation: castle, church, and cottages; monastery, church, and cottages; manor, church, and cottages. The strips of cultivation round the cluster of dwellings, and beyond that the greenness. The unbroken greenness. The deep-rutted lanes that ran from group to group, mired to bog in the winter and white with dust in the summer; decorated with wild roses or red with hawthorn as the seasons came and went.
For thirty years, over this green uncrowded land, the Wars of the Roses had been fought. But it had been more of a blood feud than a war. A Montague and Capulet affair; of no great concern to the average Englishman. No one pushed in at your door to demand whether you were York or Lancaster and to hale you off to a concentration camp if your answer proved to be the wrong one for the occasion. It was a small concentrated war; almost a private party. They fought a battle in your lower meadow, and turned your kitchen into a dressing-station, and then moved off somewhere or other to fight a battle somewhere else, and a few weeks later you would hear what had happened at that battle, and you would have a family row about the result because your wife was probably Lancaster and you were perhaps York, and it was all rather like following rival football teams. No one persecuted you for being a Lancastrian or a Yorkist, any more than you would be persecuted for being an Arsenal fan or a Chelsea follower.
He was still thinking of that green England when he fell asleep.
And he was not a whit wiser about the two young Princes and their fate.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01