BUT Emma did not, as Marta Hallard had prophesied, get the young man out of the house first thing on Monday morning. By Monday morning it was incredible to the inhabitants of Trimmings — all but Emma herself — that on the previous Friday they had never heard of Leslie Searle. There had never been any guest at Trimmings who had merged himself with the household as Searle did. Nor had there ever been anyone who intensified the life of each one of them to the same extent.
He walked round the farm with Walter, admiring the new brick paths, the piggery, and the separator. He had spent his school holidays on a farm, and was knowledgeable as well as receptive. He stood patiently in green lanes while Walter recorded in his little notebook a hedgerow sprout or a bird-note that would do for his broadcast next Friday. He photographed with equal enthusiasm the seventeenth-century honesty of the little farmhouse, and the surrealist irrelevance of Trimmings, and contrived to convey the essential quality of each. Indeed, his photographic comment on Trimmings was so witty that Walter after his involuntary laughter had a moment of discomfort. This amiable young man had more sides to him than were apparent in a discussion on husbandry. He had so taken for granted the boy’s discipleship that it was as disconcerting to look at these photographs as if his shadow had suddenly spoken to him.
But he forgot the moment almost before it had passed. He was not an introspective person.
For the introspective Liz, on the other hand, life had become all of a sudden a sort of fun-fair. A kaleidoscope. A place where no surface ever stayed still or horizontal for more than a few seconds together. Where one was plunged into swift mock danger and whirled about in coloured lights. Liz had been falling in and out of love more or less regularly since the age of seven, but she had never wanted to marry anyone but Walter. Who was Walter, and different. But never in that long progression from the baker’s roundsman to Walter had she been aware of anyone as she was aware of Searle. Even with Tino Tresca, of the yearning eyes and the tenor that dissolved one’s heart like a melting ice, even with Tresca, craziest of all her devotions, it was possible to forget for minutes together that she was in the same room with him. (With Walter, of course, there was nothing remarkable in the fact that they should be sharing the same air: he was just there and it was nice.) But it was never possible to forget that Searle was in a room.
Why? she kept asking herself. Or rather, why not?
It had nothing to do with falling in love, this interest; this excitement. If, on Sunday night, after two days in his company, he had turned to her and said: ‘Come away with me, Liz,’ she would have laughed aloud at so absurd a notion. She had no desire to go away with him.
But a light went out of the room with him, and sprang up again when he came back. She was aware of every movement of his, from the small mallet of his forefinger as it flicked the radio switch, to the lift of his foot as it kicked a log in the fireplace.
She had gone walking with him through the woods, she had shown him the village and the church, and always the excitement had been there; in his gentle drawling courtesy, and in those disconcerting grey eyes that seemed to know too much about her. For Liz, all American men were divided into two classes: those who treated you as if you were a frail old lady, and those who treated you as if you were just frail. Searle belonged to the first class. He helped her over stiles, and shielded her from the crowding dangers of the village street; he deferred to her opinion and flattered her ego; and, as a mere change from Walter, Liz found it pleasant. Walter took it for granted that she was adult enough to look after herself, but not quite adult enough to be consulted by Walter Whitmore, Household Word Throughout the British Isles and a Large Part of Overseas. Searle’s was a charming reversal of form.
She had thought, watching him move slowly round the interior of the church, what a perfect companion he would have made if it were not for this pricking excitement; this sense of wrongness.
Even the unimpressionable Lavinia, always but semi-detached from her current heroine, was, Liz noticed, touched by this strange attraction. Searle had sat with her on the terrace after dinner on Saturday night, while Walter and Liz walked in the garden and Emma attended to household matters. As they passed below the terrace each time on their round of the garden, Liz could hear her aunt’s light childlike voice babbling happily, like a little stream in the half-dark of the early moonrise. And on Sunday morning Lavinia had confided to Liz that no one had ever made her feel so abandoned as Mr Searle. ‘I am sure that he was something very wicked in Ancient Greece,’ she said. And had added with a giggle: ‘But don’t tell your mother that I said so!’
Against the entrenched opposition of her sister, her nephew, and her daughter, Mrs Garrowby would have found it difficult to rid Trimmings of the young man’s presence; but her final undoing came at the hands of Miss Easton–Dixon.
Miss Easton–Dixon lived in a tiny cottage on the slope behind the village street. It had three windows, asymmetrical in their own right and in relation to each other, a thatched roof, and a single chimney, and it looked as if one good sneeze would bring the whole thing round the occupant’s ears; but its aspect of disintegration was equalled only by its spick and span condition. The cream wash of the plaster, the lime-green paint of door and windows, the dazzling crispness of the muslin curtains, the swept condition of the red-brick path, together with the almost conscientious crookedness of everything that normally would be straight, made a picture that belonged by right to one of Miss Easton–Dixon’s own fairy-tale books for Christmas.
In the intervals of writing her annual story, Miss Easton–Dixon indulged in handcrafts. In the schoolroom she had tortured wood with red-hot pokers. When pen-painting came in she had pen-painted with assiduity, and had graduated from that to barbola work. After a spell of sealing-wax, she had come to raffia, and thence to hand-weaving. She still weaved now and then, but her ingrained desire was not to create but to transform. No plain surface was safe against Miss Easton–Dixon. She would take a cold cream jar and reduce its functional simplicity to a nightmare of mock-Meissen. In times which have seen the disappearance of both the attic and the boxroom, she was the scourge of her friends; who, incidentally, loved her.
As well as being a prop of the Women’s Rural Institute, a lavish provider of goods for bazaars, a devoted polisher of Church plate, Miss Easton–Dixon was also an authority on Hollywood and all its ramifications. Every Thursday she took the one o’clock bus into Wickham and spent the afternoon having one-and-ninepence-worth at the converted Followers of Moses hall that did duty as a cinema. If the week’s film happened to be something of which she did not approve — ukelele opus, for instance, or the tribulations of some blameless housemaid — she put the one-and-ninepence, together with the eight-penny bus fare, into the china pig on the mantelpiece, and used the fund to take her to Crome, when some film that she specially looked forward to was being shown in that comparative metropolis.
Every Friday she collected her Screen Bulletin from the newsagent in the village, read through the releases for the week, marked those she intended to view, and put away the paper for future reference. There was no bit player in two hemispheres that Miss Easton–Dixon could not give chapter and verse for. She could tell you why the make-up expert at Grand Continental had gone over to Wilhelm’s, and the exact difference that had made to Madeleine Rice’s left profile.
So that poor Emma, walking up the spotless brick path to hand in a basket of eggs on her way to Evensong, was walking all unaware into her Waterloo.
Miss Easton–Dixon asked about the party to celebrate the birth of Maureen’s Lover and Lavinia Fitch’s literary coming-of-age. Had it been a success?
Emma supposed so. Ross and Cromarty’s parties always were. A sufficiency of drink was all that was ever necessary to make a party a success.
‘I hear that you have a very good-looking guest this weekend,’ Miss Easton–Dixon said, less because she was curious than because it was against her idea of good manners to have gaps in the conversation.
‘Yes. Lavinia brought him back from the party. A person called Searle.’
‘Oh,’ said Miss Easton–Dixon in absentminded encouragement, while she transferred the eggs to a tenpenny white bowl that she had painted with poppies and corn.
‘An American. He says that he is a photographer. Anyone who takes photographs can say that he is a photographer and there is no one to deny it. It is a very useful profession. Almost as useful as “nurse” used to be before it became a matter of registration and reference books.’
‘Searle?’ Miss Easton–Dixon said, pausing with an egg in her hand. ‘Not Leslie Searle, by any chance?’
‘Yes,’ said Emma, taken aback. ‘His name is Leslie. At least that is what he says. Why?’
‘You mean Leslie Searle is here? In Salcott St Mary? How simply unbelievable!’
‘What is unbelievable about it?’ Emma said, on the defensive.
‘But he is famous.’
‘So are half the residents of Salcott St Mary,’ Emma reminded her tartly.
‘Yes, but they don’t photograph the most exclusive people in the world. Do you know that Hollywood stars go down on their knees to get Leslie Searle to photograph them? It is something that they can’t buy. A privilege. An honour.’
‘And, I take it, an advertisement,’ said Emma. ‘Are we talking about the same Leslie Searle, do you think?’
‘But of course! There can hardly be two Leslie Searles who are American and photographers.’
‘I see nothing impossible in that,’ said Emma, a last-ditcher by nature.
‘But of course it must be the Leslie Searle. If it won’t make you late for Evensong we can settle the matter here and now.’
‘I have a photograph of him somewhere.’
‘Of Leslie Searle!’
‘Yes. In a Screen Bulletin. Just let me look it out; it won’t take a moment. This really is exciting. I can’t think of anyone more — more exotic — to find in Salcott of all places.’ She opened the door of a yellow-painted cupboard (decorated Bavarian-fashion with scrolls of stylised flowers) and disclosed the neat stacks of hoarded Bulletins. ‘Let me see. It must be eighteen months ago — or perhaps two years.’ With a practised hand she thumbed down the edges of the pile, so that the date in the corner of each was visible for a moment, and picked two or three from the pile. ‘There is a “contents” list on the outside of each,’ she pointed out, shuffling them on the table, ‘so it doesn’t take a moment to find what one wants. So useful.’ And then, as the required issue did not turn up at once: ‘But if this is going to make you late, do leave it and come in on your way home. I shall look it out while you are in church.’
But nothing would now have moved Emma from the house until she had seen that photograph.
‘Ah, here it is!’ said Miss Easton–Dixon at last. ‘“Lovelies And The Lens” it was called. I suppose one cannot expect style and information for threepence a week. However, if I remember rightly the article was more respect-worthy than the title. Here it is. These are samples of his work — that is a very clever one of Lotta Marlow, isn’t it — and here, over the page, you see, is a self-portrait. Isn’t that your weekend guest?’
It was a photograph taken at an odd angle and full of odd shadows; a composition rather than a ‘likeness’ in the old sense. But it was unmistakably Leslie Searle. The Leslie Searle who was occupying the ‘tower’ bedroom at Trimmings. Unless, of course, there were twins, both called Leslie, both called Searle, both Americans, and both photographers; which was something at which even Emma baulked.
She skimmed through the article, which, as Miss Easton–Dixon had indicated, was a perfectly straight-forward account of the young man and his work and might equally well have come out of Theatre Arts Monthly. The article welcomed him back to the Coast for his annual stay, envied him being free of the world for the rest of the year, and commended his new portraits of the stars, more especially that of Danny Minsky in Hamlet clothes. ‘The tears of laughter that Danny has wrung from us have no doubt blinded us to that Forbes–Robertson profile. It took Searle to show us that,’ they said.
‘Yes,’ said Emma, ‘that’s ——’ She had nearly said ‘the creature’ but stopped herself in time; ‘that is the same person.’
No, she said cautiously, she did not know how long he was staying — he was Lavinia’s guest — but Miss Easton–Dixon should certainly meet him before he left if that were humanly possible.
‘If not,’ said Miss Easton–Dixon, ‘do please tell him how much I admire his work.’
But that, of course, Emma had no intention of doing. She was not going to mention this little matter at home at all. She went to Evensong and sat in the Trimmings pew looking placid and benevolent and being thoroughly miserable. The creature was not only ‘personable’, he was a personality, and by that much more dangerous. He had a reputation that for all she knew might vie with Walter’s in worldly worth. He no doubt had money, too. It was bad enough when she had only his ‘personableness’ to fear; now it turned out that he was eligible as well. He had everything on his side.
If it had been possible to call up the powers of darkness against him, she would have done it. But she was in church and must use the means to hand. So she invoked God and all his angels to guard her Liz against the evils in her path; that is to say, against not inheriting Lavinia’s fortune when the time came. ‘Keep her true to Walter,’ she prayed, ‘and I’ll ——.’ She tried to think of some bribe or penance that she could offer, but could think of none at the moment, so she merely repeated: ‘Keep her true to Walter,’ with no inducement added and left it to the unselfish goodness of the Deity.
It did nothing to reassure her nor to bolster her faith in the Deity, to come on her daughter and Searle leaning on the little side gate into the Trimmings garden and laughing together like a pair of children. She came up behind them along the field path from the church, and was dismayed by some quality of loveliness, of youth, that belonged to their gaiety. A quality that was not apparent in any communion between Liz and Walter.
‘What I like best is the yard or two of Renaissance before the bit of Border peel,’ Liz was saying. They were evidently at their favourite game of making fun of the Bradford magnate’s folly.
‘How did he forget a moat, do you think?’ Searle asked.
‘Perhaps he started life digging ditches and didn’t want to be reminded of them.’
‘It’s my guess he didn’t want to spend money on digging a hole just to put water in it. They’re Yankees, aren’t they, up there?’
Liz ‘allowed’ that north-country blood had probably much in common with New England. Then Searle saw Emma and greeted her, and they walked up to the house with her, not self-conscious in her presence or stopping their game, but drawing her into it and sharing their delight with her.
She looked at Liz’s sallow little countenance and tried to remember when she had last seen it so alive; so full of the joy of life. After a little she remembered. It was on a Christmas afternoon long ago, and Liz had experienced in the short space of an hour her first snow and her first Christmas tree.
So far she had hated only Leslie Searle’s beauty. Now she began to hate Leslie Searle.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55