IT was Emma’s hope that Searle would go quietly away before any further evidences of desirableness were revealed to the family; but in that too she was bound to be frustrated. Searle had avowedly come to England for a holiday, he had no relations or intimate friends to visit, he had a camera and every intention of using it, and there seemed no reason why he should not stay at Trimmings and use it. His expressed intention, once he had seen the largely unspoiled loveliness of Orfordshire, was to find a good hotel in Crome and make that a centre for photographic foraging among the cottages and country houses of the neighbourhood. But that, as Lavinia swiftly pointed out, was absurd. He could stay at Trimmings, among his friends, and forage just as far afield and with as good results as he could at Crome. Why should he come back each night to a hotel room and the company of casual acquaintances in a hotel lounge, when he could return to a home and the comfort of his own room in the tower?
Searle would no doubt have accepted the invitation in any case, but the final makeweight was the suggestion that he and Walter might do a book together. No one could remember afterwards who first made the suggestion, but it was one that anyone might have made. It was from journalism that Walter had graduated to the eminence of radio commentator, and an alliance between one of Britain’s best-known personalities and one of America’s most admired photographers would produce a book that might, with luck, have equal interest for Weston-super-Mare and Lynchburg, Va. In partnership they could clean up.
So there was no question of Searle’s departing on Monday morning, nor on Tuesday, nor on any specific day in a foreseeable future. He was at Trimmings to stay, it seemed. And no one but Emma found any fault with that arrangement. Lavinia offered him the use of her Rolls two-seater to take him round the country — it did nothing but lie in the garage, she said, when she was working — but Searle preferred to hire a small cheap car from Bill Maddox, who kept the garage at the entrance to the village. ‘If I’m going nosing up lanes that are not much better than the bed of a stream, some of them, I want a car I don’t have to hold my breath about,’ he said. But Liz felt that this was merely a way of declining Lavinia’s offer gracefully, and liked him for it.
Bill Maddox reported well of him to the village —‘no airs at all and can’t be fooled neither; upped with the bonnet and went over her as if he was bred to the trade’— so that by the time he appeared in the Swan with Walter of an evening Salcott St Mary knew all about him and were prepared to accept him in spite of his reprehensible good looks. The Salcott aliens, of course, had no prejudice against good looks and no hesitation whatever in accepting him. Toby Tullis took one look at him and straightway forgot his royalties, the new comedy he had just finished, the one he had just begun, and the infidelity of Christopher Hatton (how had he ever been such a half-wit as to trust a creature of a vanity so pathological that he could take to himself a name like that!) and made a bee-line for the bench where Walter had deposited Searle while he fetched the beer.
‘I think I saw you at Lavinia’s party in town,’ he said, in his best imitation-tentative manner. ‘My name is Tullis. I write plays.’ The modesty of this phrase always enchanted him. It was as if the owner of a transcontinental railroad were to say: ‘I run trains.’
‘How do you do, Mr Tullis,’ said Leslie Searle. ‘What kind of plays do you write?’
There was a moment of silence while Tullis got his breath back, and while he was still searching for words Walter came up with the beer.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I see you have introduced yourselves.’
‘Walter,’ said Tullis, deciding on his line and leaning towards Walter with empressement, ‘I have met him!’
‘Met whom?’ asked Walter who always remembered his accusatives.
‘The man who never heard of me. I have met him at last!’
‘And how does it feel?’ asked Walter, glancing at Searle and deciding yet once again that there was more in Leslie Searle than met the eye.
‘Wonderful, my boy, wonderful. A unique sensation.’
‘If you care, his name is Searle. Leslie Searle. A friend of Cooney Wiggin.’
Walter saw a shadow of doubt cross the fish-grey eye of Toby Tullis and followed the thought quite clearly. If this beautiful young man had been a friend of the very-international Cooney, then was it possible that he had never heard of the even-more-international Toby Tullis? Was it possible that the young man was taking him for a ride?
Walter set the beer mugs down, slid into the seat beside Searle, and prepared to enjoy himself.
Across the room he could see Serge Ratoff glaring at this new piece of grouping. Ratoff had at one time been the raison d’être and prospective star of an embryo play of Toby Tullis’s which was to be called Afternoon and was all about a faun. Unfortunately it had suffered considerable changes in the processes of birth and had eventually become something called Crépuscule, which was all about a little waiter in the Bois, and was played by a newcomer with an Austrian name and a Greek temperament. Ratoff had never recovered from this ‘betrayal’. At first he had drunk himself into scintillations of self-pity; then he had drunk to avoid the ache of self-pity that filled him when he was sober; then he was sacked because he had become independable both at rehearsals and performance; then he reached the ultimate stage of a ballet dancer’s downfall and ceased even to practise. So that now, vaguely but surely, the fatty tissue was blurring the spare tautness. Only the furious eyes still had the old life and fire. The eyes still had meaning and purpose.
When Toby ceased to invite him to the house at Salcott, Ratoff had bought the old stable next the village shop; a mere lean-to against the shop’s gable end; and made it into a dwelling for himself. This had proved in a quite unexpected way his salvation, for his point of vantage next the only shop in the place had turned him from a mere reject of Toby’s into a general purveyer of gossip to the community, and therefore a person in his own right. The villagers, lured by the childish quality in his make-up, treated him without the reservation that they used to the other aliens, employing to him the same tolerance that they used to their own ‘innocents’. He was therefore the only person in the village who was equally free of both communities. No one knew what he lived on, or if he ever ate, as opposed to drinking. At almost any hour of the day he could be found draped in incorrigible grace against the post-office counter of the shop, and in the evenings he drank at the Swan like the rest of the community.
In the last few months a rapprochement had taken place between him and Toby, and there were rumours that he was even beginning to practise again. Now he was glaring at this newcomer to Salcott, this unsmirched unblurred radiant newcomer, who had taken Toby’s interest. In spite of ‘betrayal’ and downfall, Toby was still his property and his god. Walter thought with a mild amusement how scandalised poor Serge would be if he could witness the treatment to which his adored Toby was being subjected. Toby had by now discovered that Leslie Searle was a fellow who photographed the world’s celebrities, and was therefore confirmed in his suspicion that Searle had known quite well who he was. He was puzzled, not to say wounded. No one had been rude to Toby Tullis for at least a decade. But his actor’s need to be liked was stronger than his resentment, and he was putting forth all his charm in an effort to win over this so-unexpected antagonist.
Sitting watching the charm at work, Walter thought how ineradicable was the ‘bounder’ in a man’s personality. When he was a child his friends at school had used the word ‘bounder’ loosely to describe anyone who wore the wrong kind of collar. But of course it was not at all like that. What made a man a bounder was a quality of mind. A crassness. A lack of sensitivity. It was something that was quite incurable; a spiritual astigmatism. And Toby Tullis, after all those years, stayed unmistakably a bounder. It was a very odd thing. With the possible exception of the Court of St James’s, there was no door in the world that was not wide open to Toby Tullis. He travelled like royalty and was given almost diplomatic privileges; he was dressed by the world’s best tailors and had acquired the social tricks of the world’s best people; in everything but essence he was the well-bred man of the world. In essence he remained a bounder. Marta Hallard had once said: ‘Everything that Toby does is just a little off-key,’ and that described it very well.
Looking sideways to see how Searle was taking this odd wooing, Walter was delighted to observe a sort of absentmindedness in Searle as he consumed his beer. The degree of absentmindedness was beautifully graded, Walter noticed; any more would have laid him open to the charge of rudeness and so put him in the wrong, any less might not have been obvious enough to sting Tullis. As it was, Toby was baffled into trying far too hard and making a fool of himself. He did everything but juggle with plates. That anyone should be unimpressed by Toby Tullis was a state of affairs not to be borne. He sweated. And Walter smiled into his beer, and Leslie Searle was gentle and polite and a little absentminded.
And Serge Ratoff continued to glare from the other side of the room.
Walter reckoned that he was two drinks short of making a scene, and wondered if they should drink up and go, before Serge joined them in a torrent of unintelligible English and unfathomable accusations. But the person who joined them was not Serge but Silas Weekley.
Weekley had been watching them from the bar for some time, and now brought his beer over to their table and greeted them. He came, as Walter knew, for two reasons: because he had a woman’s curiosity, and because everything beautiful had for him the attraction of the repulsive. Weekley resented beauty, and it was not entirely to be held against him that he made a very large income indeed out of that resentment. His resentment was quite genuine. The world he approved of was, as Liz had said, ‘all steaming manure and slashing rain’. And not even the clever parodies of his individual style had sufficed to ruin his vogue. His lecture tours in America were wild successes, not so much because his earnest readers in Peoria and Paduca loved steaming manure but because Silas Weekley looked the part so perfectly. He was cadaverous, and dark, and tall, and his voice was slow and sibilant and hopeless, and all the good ladies of Peoria and Paduca longed to take him home and feed him up and give him a brighter outlook on life. In which they were a great deal more generous than his English colleagues; who considered him an unmitigated bore and a bit of an ass. Lavinia always referred to him as ‘that tiresome man who always tells you that he was at a board school’, and held that he was just a little mad. (He, on his part, referred to her as ‘the woman Fitch’, as one speaking of a criminal.)
Weekley had come over to them because he could not keep away from the hateful beauty of Leslie Searle, and Walter caught himself wondering if Searle knew it. For Searle, who had been all gentle indifference with the eager Toby, was now engaged in throwing a rope over the antagonistic Silas. Walter, watching the almost feminine dexterity of it, was willing to bet that in about fifteen minutes Searle would have Silas roped and hog-tied. He glanced at the big bland clock behind the bar and decided to time him.
Searle did it with five minutes to spare. In ten minutes he had Weekley, resentful and struggling, a prisoner in his toils. And the bewilderment in Weekley’s sunken eyes was greater than ever the bewilderment in Toby’s fish-scale ones had been. Walter nearly laughed aloud.
And then Searle put the final touch of comedy to the act. At a moment when both Silas and Toby were doing their rival best to be entertaining, Searle said in his quiet drawl: ‘Do forgive me, won’t you, but I see a friend of mine,’ and got up without haste and walked away to join the friend at the bar. The friend was Bill Maddox, the garage keeper.
Walter buried his face in his beer mug and enjoyed the faces of his friends.
It was only afterwards, rolling it over in his mind to savour it, that a vague discomfort pricked him. The fun had been so bland, so lightly handled, that its essential quality, its ruthlessness, had not been apparent.
At the moment he was merely amused by the typical reactions of Searle’s two victims. Silas Weekley gulped down what was left of his beer, pushed the mug away from him with a gesture of self-disgust, and went out of the pub without a word. He was like a man fleeing from the memory of some frowsy back-room embrace; a man sickened by his own succumbing. Walter wondered for a moment if Lavinia could possibly be right, and Weekley was after all a little mad.
Toby Tullis, on the other hand, had never known either retreat or self-disgust. Toby was merely deploying his forces for further campaigning.
‘A little farouche, your young friend,’ he remarked, his eye on Searle as he talked to Bill Maddox at the bar.
Farouche was the last word that Walter would have used of Leslie Searle but he understood that Toby must justify his temporary overthrow.
‘You must bring him to see Hoo House.’
Hoo House was the beautiful stone building that stood so unexpectedly in Salcott’s row of pink and cream and yellow gables. It had once been an inn; and before that, it was said, its stones had been part of an abbey farther down the valley. Now it was a show-piece of a quality so rare that Toby, who normally changed his dwelling-place (one could hardly say his home) every second year, had refused all offers for it for several years now.
‘Is he staying long with you?’
Walter said that he and Searle planned to do a book together. They had not yet decided on the form of it.
‘Gipsying Through Orfordshire?’
‘Something like that. I do the spiel and Searle does the illustrations. We haven’t thought of a good central theme yet.’
‘A little early in the year to go gipsying.’
‘Good for photography, though. Before the county becomes clotted with greenery.’
‘Perhaps your young friend would like to photograph Hoo House,’ Toby said, picking up the two mugs and moving with admirable casualness to the bar with them.
Walter stayed where he was and wondered how many drinks Serge Ratoff had had since last he noticed him. He had been only two short of a row then, he had reckoned. Now he must be almost at explosion point.
Toby put the mugs on the counter, entered first into conversation with the landlord, then with Bill Maddox, and so quite naturally with Searle again. It was dexterously done.
‘You must come and see Hoo House,’ Walter heard him say presently. ‘It is very beautiful. You might even like to photograph it.’
‘Has it not been photographed?’ asked Searle, surprised. It was quite an innocent surprise; an astonishment that a thing so beautiful should be unrecorded. But what it conveyed to his hearers was: ‘Is it possible that any facet of Toby Tullis’s life has remained unpublicised?’
This was the spark that ignited Serge.
‘Yes!’ he shrieked, shooting out of his corner like a squib and sticking his furious small face within an inch of Searle’s, ‘it has been photographed! It has been photographed ten thousand times by the greatest photographers in the world and it does not need to be made cheap by any stupid amateur from a country that was stolen from the Indians even if he has a profile and dyed hair and no morals and a ——’
‘Serge!’ said Toby, ‘shut up!’
But the wild babble poured out of Serge’s ravaged face without a pause.
‘Serge! Do you hear! Stop it!’ Toby said, and pushed Ratoff lightly on the shoulder so as to urge him away from Searle.
This was the final touch, and Serge’s voice rose into one high continuous stream of vituperation, most of it couched in mercifully unintelligible English but spattered liberally with phrases in French or Spanish and studded here and there with epithets and descriptions of a freshness that was delightful. ‘You middle-west Lucifer!’ was one of the better ones.
As Toby’s hand took him by the back of the collar to drag him away from Searle by force, Serge’s arm shot out to where Toby’s new-filled beer mug was waiting on the counter. He reached it a split second before Reeve, the landlord, could save it, grabbed it, and launched the whole contents into Searle’s face. Searle’s head moved sideways by instinct, so that the beer streamed over his neck and shoulder. Screaming with baffled rage, Serge lifted the heavy mug above his head to fling it, but Reeve’s large hand closed on his wrist, the mug was prised out of his convulsive clutch, and Reeve said: ‘Arthur!’
There was no chucker-out at the Swan, since there had never been any need for one. But when any persuading had to be done, Arthur Tebbetts did it. Arthur was cattleman up at Silverlace Farm, and he was a large, slow, kind creature who would go out of his way to avoid treading on a worm.
‘Come now, Mr Ratoff,’ Arthur said, enveloping with his Saxon bulk the small struggling cosmopolitan. ‘There’s no call to get fussed over little things. It’s that there gin, Mr Ratoff. I’ve told you afore. That ain’t no drink for a man, Mr Ratoff. Now you come with me, and see if you don’t feel the better of a dose of fresh air. See if you don’t.’
Serge had no intention of going anywhere with anyone. He wanted to stay and murder this newcomer to Salcott. But there was never any successful argument against Arthur’s methods. Arthur just put a friendly arm round one and leaned. The arm was like a limb of a beech tree, and the pressure was that of a landslide. Serge went with him to the door under pressure, and they went out together. Not for one moment had Serge stopped his torrent of accusation and offence, and not once as far as anyone knew had he repeated himself.
As the high babbling voice died into the outer air, the onlookers stirred into relief and conversation again.
‘Gentlemen,’ said Toby Tullis, ‘I apologise on behalf of the Theatre.’
But it was not said lightly enough. Instead of being an actor’s gay smoothing over of an awkward moment, it was Toby Tullis reminding them that he spoke for the English Theatre. As Marta had said: everything that Toby did was a little off-key. There was a murmur of amusement, but if anything his speech added to the village’s embarrassment.
The landlord mopped Searle’s shoulder with a glass-cloth, and begged him to come in behind and his missus would take some clean water to his suit and get the smell of the beer off it before it dried in. But Searle refused. He was quite amiable about it but seemed to want to get out of the place. Walter thought that he was looking a little sick.
They said good-evening to Toby, who was still explaining Serge’s temperament in terms of the Theatre, and went out into the sweet evening.
‘Does he often sound off like that?’ Searle asked.
‘Ratoff? He has made scenes before, yes, but never such a violent one. I’ve never known him use physical means before.’
They met Arthur, returning to his interrupted beer, and Walter asked what had become of the disturber.
‘He run away home,’ Arthur said with his large smile. ‘Went off like an arrow from a bow. He could beat a hare, that one.’ And went back to his drink.
‘It’s early for dinner yet,’ Walter said. ‘Let us walk home by the river and up by the field-path. I am sorry about the row, but I expect that in your job you are used to temperaments.’
‘Well, I have been called things, of course, but so far nothing has actually been flung at me.’
‘I dare swear no one ever thought of calling you a middle-west Lucifer before. Poor Serge.’ Walter paused to lean on the bridge below the Mill House, and look at the reflection of the afterglow in the waters of the Rushmere. ‘Perhaps the old saying is true and it is not possible to love and be wise. When you are as devoted to anyone as Serge is to Toby Tullis, I expect you cease to be sane about the matter.’
‘Sane,’ said Searle sharply.
‘Yes; things lose their proper proportions. Which, I take it, is a loss of sanity.’
Searle was quiet for a long time, staring at the smooth water as it flooded so slowly towards the bridge and then was flicked under it with the sudden hysteria of water sucked round obstacles in its path.
‘Sane,’ he repeated, watching the place where the water lost control and was sucked under the culvert.
‘I’m not suggesting the fellow is mad,’ Walter said. ‘He has just lost hold of common sense.’
‘And is common sense so desirable a quality?’
‘An admirable quality.’
‘Nothing great ever came out of common sense,’ Searle said.
‘On the contrary. Lack of common sense is responsible for practically every ill in life. Everything from wars to not moving up in the bus. I see there is a light in the Mill House. Marta must be back.’
They looked up at the pale bulk of the house glowing in the half-dark as a pale flower glows. A single light, still bright yellow in what was left of the daylight, starred the side that looked on the river.
‘A light the way Liz likes them,’ Searle said.
‘She likes them golden like that in the daylight. Before the dark turns them white.’
For the first time Walter was forced into considering Searle in relation to Liz. It had not crossed his mind until now to consider them in relation to each other at all, since he was not in the least possessive about Liz. This unpossessiveness might have been accounted to him for virtue if it had not sprung directly from the fact that he took her for granted. If by some method of hypnotism the last dregs of Walter’s subconscious could have been dragged to the surface, it would have been found that he thought that Liz was doing very well for herself. Even the shadow of such a thought would have shocked Walter’s conscious mind, of course; but since he was entirely unself-analytical and largely unselfconscious (a quality that enabled him to perpetrate the broadcasts which so revolted Marta and endeared him to the British public), the farthest his conscious mind went was to hold it gratifying and proper that Liz should love him.
He had known Liz so long that she had no surprises for him. He took it for granted that he knew everything about Liz. But he had not known a simple little fact like her pleasure in lights in the daytime.
And Searle, the newcomer, had learned that.
And, what was more, remembered it.
A faint ripple stirred the flat waters of Walter’s self-satisfaction.
‘Have you met Marta Hallard?’ he asked.
‘We must remedy that.’
‘I have seen her act, of course.’
‘Oh. In what?’
‘A play called Walk in Darkness.’
‘Oh, yes. She was good in that. One of her best parts, I think,’ Walter said, and dropped the subject. He did not want to talk about Walk in Darkness. Walk in Darkness might be a Hallard memory, but it was one that held also Marguerite Merriam.
‘I suppose we couldn’t drop in now?’ Searle said, looking up at the light.
‘It’s a little too near dinner time, I think. Marta isn’t the kind of person you drop in on very easily. That, I suspect, is why she chose the isolated Mill House.’
‘Perhaps Liz could take me down and present me tomorrow.’
Walter had nearly said: ‘Why Liz?’ when he remembered that tomorrow was Friday, and that he would be away all day in town. Friday was broadcast day. Searle had remembered that he would not be here tomorrow although he himself had forgotten. Another ripple stirred.
‘Yes. Or we might ask her up to dinner. She likes good food. Well, I suppose we had better be getting along.’
But Searle did not move. He was looking up the avenue of willows that bordered the flat pewter surface of the darkening water.
‘I’ve got it!’ he said.
‘The theme. The connecting link. The motif.’
‘For the book, you mean?’
‘Yes. The river. The Rushmere. Why didn’t we think of that before?’
‘The river! Yes! Why didn’t we? I suppose because it isn’t entirely an Orfordshire river. But of course it is the perfect solution. It has been done repeatedly for the Thames, and for the Severn. I don’t see why it shouldn’t work with the smaller Rushmere.’
‘Would it give us the variety we need for the book?’
‘Indubitably,’ said Walter. ‘It couldn’t be better. It rises in that hilly country, all sheep and stone walls and sharp outlines; then there’s the pastoral bit with beautiful farm houses, and great barns, and English trees at their best, and village churches like cathedrals; and then Wickham, the essence of English market towns, where the villein that marched from the town cross to speak to King Richard in London is the same man that prods today’s heifer on to the train on its way to the Argentine.’ Walter’s hand stole up to the breast pocket where he kept his notebook, but fell away again. ‘Then the marshes. You know: skeins of geese against an evening sky. Great cloudscapes and shivering grasses. Then the port: Mere Harbour. Almost Dutch. A complete contrast to the county at its back. A town full of lovely individual building, and a harbour full of fishing and coastwise traffic. Gulls, and reflections, and gables. Searle, it’s perfect!’
‘When do we start?’
‘Well, first, how do we do it?’
‘Will this thing take a boat?’
‘Only a punt. Or a skiff where it widens below the bridge.’
‘A punt,’ Searle said doubtfully. ‘That’s one of those flat duck-shooting things.’
‘That doesn’t sound very handy. It had better be canoes.’
‘Yes. Can you manage one?’
‘I’ve paddled one round an ornamental pond when I was a child. That’s all.’
‘Oh, well, at least you’ve got the hang of it. You’ll soon remember the drill. How far up could we start, with canoes? Man, it’s a wonderful idea. It even gives us our title. “Canoes on the Rushmere.” A title with a nice swing to it. Like “Drums Along the Mohawk.” Or “Oil for the Lamps of China”.’
‘We shall have to tramp the first bit of it. The sheep-country bit. Down to about Otley. I expect the stream will take a canoe at Otley. Though, God help me, I don’t anticipate being much at home in a canoe. We can carry a small pack from the source of the river — it’s a spring in the middle of a field, I’ve always understood — down to Otley or Capel, and from there to the sea we canoe. “Canoes on the Rushmere”. Yes, it sounds all right. When I go up to town tomorrow I’ll go and see Cormac Ross and put the proposition to him and see what he is moved to offer. If he doesn’t like it, I have half a dozen more who will jump at it. But Ross is in Lavinia’s pocket, so we might as well make use of him if he will play.’
‘Of course he will,’ Searle said. ‘You’re practically royalty in this country, aren’t you!’
If there was any feeling in the gibe it was not apparent.
‘I should really offer it to Debham’s,’ Walter said. ‘They did my book about farm life. But I quarrelled with them about the illustrations. They were dreadful, and the book didn’t sell.’
‘That was before you took to the air, I infer.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Walter pushed himself off the bridge and began to walk towards the field-path and dinner. ‘They did refuse my poems, after the farm book, so I can use that as a get-out.’
‘You write poems too?’
‘I for one.’
‘Clod!’ said Walter amiably.
And they went back to discussing the ways and means of their progress down the Rushmere.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01