‘COME up to town with me and see Ross,’ Walter said at breakfast next morning.
But Searle wanted to stay in the country. It was blasphemy, he said, to spend even one day in London with the English countryside bursting into its first green. Besides, he did not know Ross. It would be better if Walter put the proposition to Ross first, and brought him into the business later.
And Walter, though disappointed, did not stop to analyse the exact quality of his disappointment.
But as he drove up to town his mind was much less occupied than usual with the matter of his broadcast, and a great deal oftener than usual it strayed back to Trimmings.
He went to see Ross and laid before him the plans for Canoes on the Rushmere. Ross professed himself delighted and allowed himself to be beaten up an extra 2½ per cent on a provisional agreement. But of course nothing could be settled, he pointed out, until he had consulted Cromarty.
It was popularly supposed that Ross had taken Cromarty into partnership for the fun of it; as a matter of euphony. He had been doing quite well for himself as Cormac Ross, as far as anyone could judge, and there seemed on the surface no reason to rope in a partner; more especially a partner as colourless as Cromarty. But Cormac Ross had sufficient West Highland blood in him to find it difficult to say no. He liked to be liked. So he engaged Cromarty as his smoke-screen. When an author could be received with open arms, the open arms were Cormac Ross’s. When an author had regretfully to be turned down it was on account of Cromarty’s intransigeance. Cromarty had once said to Ross in a fit of temper: ‘You might at least let me see the books I turn down!’ But that was an extreme case. Normally Cromarty did read the books that he was going to be responsible for rejecting.
Now, faced with the offer of a book by the British Public’s current darling, Ross used the automatic phrase about consulting his partner; but his round pink face shone with satisfaction, and he bore Walter off to lunch and bought him a bottle of Romanée-Conti; which was wasted on Walter, who liked beer.
So, full of good burgundy and the prospect of cheques to come, Walter went on to the studio and his mind once more began to play tricks on him and run away back to Salcott instead of staying delightedly in the studio as was its habit.
For half of his weekly time on the air Walter always had a guest. Someone connected with the Open Air; a commodity in which Walter had lately taken so much stock as to make it a virtual Whitmore monopoly. Walter compèred the Open Air in the shape of a poacher, a sheep farmer from the back blocks of Australia, a bird watcher, a keeper from Sutherland, an earnest female who went round pushing acorns into roadside banks, a young dilettante who hunted with a hawk, and anyone else who happened to be both handy and willing. For the latter half of his time Walter merely talked.
Today his guest was a child who kept a tame fox, and Walter was dismayed to find himself disliking the brat. Walter loved his guests. He felt warm and protective and all-brothers-together about them; he never loved mankind so largely or so well as when he and his guests were talking together in his Half Hour. He loved them to the point of tears. And now it upset him to feel detached and critical about Harold Dibbs and his silly fox. Harold had a sadly under-developed jaw, he noticed, and looked regrettably like a fox himself. Perhaps the fox had stayed with him because it had felt at home. He felt guilty about having had this thought and tried to compensate by giving his voice more warmth than it would carry, so that his interest had a forced note. Harold and his fox were Walter’s first failure.
Nor was the talk successful enough to blot out the memory of Harold. The talk was about ‘What Earthworms do for England’. The ‘for England’ was a typical Whitmore touch. Other men might speak on the place of the Earthworm in Nature, and no one cared two hoots either about Nature or earthworms. But Walter pinned his worm on to a Shakespearean hook and angled gently with it, so that his listeners saw the seething legions of blind purpose turning the grey rock in the western sea into the green Paradise that was England. There would be fifty-seven letters tomorrow morning by the first available post from north of the Border, of course, to point out that Scotland too had her earthworms. But this was just so much additional evidence of Walter’s drawing-power.
It was Walter’s secret habit to speak to one particular person when broadcasting; a trick which helped him to achieve that unselfconscious friendliness which was his trade-mark. It was never a real person; nor did he ever visualise his imaginary hearer in detail. He merely decided that today he would talk to ‘an old lady in Leeds’, or ‘a little girl in hospital in Bridgwater’, or ‘a lighthouse-keeper in Scotland’. Today for the first time he thought of speaking to Liz. Liz always listened to his broadcast, and he took it for granted that she would listen, but his imaginary listener was so much a part of his act that it had never occurred to him before to use Liz as the person he talked to. Now, today, some obscure need to bind Liz closely to him, to make sure that she was there, blotted out his ‘pretence’ listener, and he talked to Liz.
But it was not the success it should have been. The mere recollection of Liz wooed his mind from the script, so that he remembered last night by the river, and the darkening willows, and the single golden star in the side of the Mill House. A daffodil-pale light, ‘the way Liz liked them’. And his attention wandered from the worms and from England and he stumbled over the words, so that the illusion of spontaneity was lost.
Puzzled and a little annoyed, but still not greatly disturbed, he signed the autograph books that had been sent to the studio for that purpose, decided what was to be done in the case of (a) a request for his presence at a christening, (b) a request for one of his ties, (c) nineteen requests to appear on his programme, and (d) seven requests for financial loans; and turned his face homewards. As an afterthought he turned back and bought a pound boot of chocolate dragées for Liz. As he tucked it into the glove compartment it occurred to him that it must be some time since he took Liz something on his way home. It was a pleasant habit; he must do it more often.
It was only when the traffic dropped behind him, and the Roman directness of the arterial highway stretched uneventful in front of him that his mind went past Liz to the thing her image was hiding: Searle. Searle. Poor Serge’s ‘middle-west Lucifer’. Why Lucifer, he wondered? Lucifer, Prince of the Morning. He had always pictured Lucifer as a magnificent, burning figure six-and-a-half feet tall. Not at all like Searle. What in Searle had suggested Lucifer to Ratoff’s accusing mind?
Lucifer. A fallen glory. A beauty turned evil.
He saw in his mind a picture of the Searle who walked round the farm with him; his hatless blond hair blown into untidy ends by the wind, his hands pushed deep into very English flannels. Lucifer. He nearly laughed aloud.
But there was, of course, a strangeness in Searle’s good looks. A— what was it? — an unplaceable quality. Something not quite of the world of men.
Perhaps that was what had suggested fallen angels to Serge’s fertile mind.
Anyhow, Searle seemed a good chap, and they were going to do a book together; and Searle knew that he was engaged to marry Liz, so that he would not ——
He did not finish the thought, even to himself. Nor did it occur to him to wonder how a beauty that made one think of fallen angels was likely to affect a young woman engaged to a B.B.C. commentator.
He drove home at a better speed than normally, put away the car, took Liz’s favourite sweets out of their place in the glove compartment, and went in to present them and be kissed for his forethought. He was also the bearer of the good news that Cormac Ross liked the idea of the book and was prepared to pay them well for it. He could hardly wait to reach the drawing-room.
The baronial hall was very silent and cold as he crossed it, and it smelled, in spite of anachronistic baize doors, of sprouts and stewed rhubarb. In the drawing-room, which as usual was warm and gay, there was no one but Lavinia, who was sitting with her feet on the fender and her lap covered with that day’s issue of the highbrow weeklies.
‘It’s a strange thing,’ said Lavinia, taking her nose out of the Watchman, ‘how immoral it is to make money out of writing.’
‘Hullo, Aunt Vin. Where are the others?’
‘This rag used to worship Silas Weekley until he went and made himself a fortune. Em is upstairs, I think. The others aren’t back yet.’
‘Back? Back from where?’
‘I don’t know. They went out in that dreadful little car of Bill Maddox’s after lunch.’
‘“The slick repetition of a technique as lacking in subtlety as a poster.” Don’t they make you sick! Yes, I didn’t need Liz this afternoon, so they went out. It has been a glorious day, hasn’t it?’
‘But it is only ten minutes till dinner time!’
‘Yes. Looks as though they’re going to be late,’ said Lavinia, her eyes pursuing the slaughter of Silas.
So Liz hadn’t heard the broadcast! He had been talking to her and she hadn’t even been listening. He was dumbfounded. The fact that the old lady in Leeds, and the child in the hospital in Bridgwater, and the lighthouse-keeper in Scotland hadn’t been listening either made no difference. Liz always listened. It was her business to listen. He was Walter, her fiancé, and if he spoke to the world it was right that she should listen. And now she had gone out gaily with Leslie Searle and left him talking into thin air. She had gone out gadding without a thought, on a Friday, on his broadcast afternoon, gone out God knew where, with Searle, with a fellow she had known only seven days, and they stayed out to the very last minute. She wasn’t even there to have chocolates given her when he had gone out of his way to get them for her. It was monstrous.
Then the vicar arrived. No one had remembered that he was coming to dinner. He was that kind of man. And Walter had to spend another fifteen minutes with earthworms when he had already had more than enough of them. The vicar had listened to his broadcast and was enchanted by it; he could talk of nothing else.
Mrs Garrowby came in, greeted the vicar with commendable presence of mind, and went away to arrange for a supplement of tinned peas to the entrée and a pastry covering for the stewed rhubarb.
By the time that the missing pair were twenty minutes late and Mrs Garrowby had decided not to wait for them, Walter had changed his attitude and decided that Liz was dead. She would never be late for dinner. She was lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Perhaps with the car on top of her. Searle was an American and it was well-known that all Americans were reckless drivers and had no patience with English lanes. They had probably gone round a corner slap into something.
He played with his soup, his heart black with dread, and listened to the vicar on demonology. He had heard at one time or another everything that the vicar had to say on the subject of demonology, but at least it was a relief to get away from worms.
Just when his heart had blackened and shrunk to the state of a very old mushroom, the gay voices of Searle and Liz could be heard in the hall. They came in breathless and radiant. Full of off-hand apology for their lateness and commendation for the family in that they had not kept dinner back for them. Liz presented Searle to the vicar but did not think of casting any special word to Walter before falling on her soup like a starving refugee. They had been all over the place, they said; first they had viewed Twells Abbey, and adjacent villages; then they had met Peter Massie and had gone to look at his horses and given him a lift into Crome; then they had had tea at the Star and Garter in Crome, and they had been on the way home out of Crome when they found a cinema which was showing The Great Train Robbery, and it was of course not in anyone’s power to refuse a chance of viewing The Great Train Robbery. They had had to sit through several modern exhibits before The Great Train Robbery appeared — which was what had made them late — but it had been worth waiting for.
An account of The Great Train Robbery occupied most of the fish course.
‘How was the broadcast, Walter?’ Liz said, reaching for some bread.
It was bad enough that she did not say: ‘I am desolated to have missed your broadcast, Walter’; but that she should spare for the broadcast only the part of her mind that was not occupied with the replenishing of her bread plate was the last straw.
‘The vicar will tell you,’ said Walter. ‘He listened.’
The vicar told them, con amore. Neither Liz nor Leslie Searle, Walter noticed, really listened. Once, during the recital, Liz met Searle’s glance as she passed him something and gave him her quick friendly smile. They were very pleased with themselves, with each other, and with the day they had had.
‘What did Ross say about the book?’ Searle asked, when the vicar had at last run down.
‘He was delighted with the idea,’ Walter said, wishing passionately that he had never begun this partnership with Searle.
‘Have you heard what they plan, Vicar?’ Mrs Garrowby said. ‘They are going to write a book about the Rushmere. From its source to the sea. Walter is going to write it and Mr Searle to illustrate it.’
The vicar approved of the idea and pointed out its classic form. Was it to be on shanks’s mare or with a donkey, he asked.
‘On foot down to Otley, or thereabouts,’ Walter said. ‘And by water from there.’
‘By water? But the Rushmere is full of snags in its early reaches,’ the vicar said.
They told him about the canoes. The vicar thought canoes a sensible craft for a river like the Rushmere, but wondered where they could be got.
‘I talked to Cormac Ross about that today,’ Walter said, ‘and he suggested that Kilner’s, the small craft builders at Mere Harbour, might have some. They build for all over the world. It was Joe Kilner who designed that collapsible raft-boat-tent that Mansell took up the Orinoco on his last trip, and then said afterwards that if he had thought in time he could have made it a glider too. I was going to suggest that Searle and I should go over to Mere Harbour tomorrow and see Kilner — if he has no other plans.’
‘Fine,’ Searle said. ‘Fine.’
Then the vicar asked Searle if he fished. Searle did not, but the vicar did. The vicar’s other interest, a short head behind demonology, was the dry fly. So for the rest of dinner they listened to the vicar on flies, with the detached interest that they might bring to cement-mixing, or gum-chewing, or turning the heel of a sock; a subject of academic interest only. And each of them used the unoccupied half of their minds in their own fashion.
Walter decided that he would leave the little white packet of chocolates on the hall table, where he had dropped it as he went in to dinner, until Liz asked about it; when he would tell her casually what it was. She would be full of compunction, he decided, that he had thought of her while she had entirely forgotten him.
As they walked out of the dining-room he glanced sideways to make sure that the little packet was still there. It certainly was. But Liz, too, it seemed, had dropped something on the table on her way in to dinner. A great flat box of candy from the most expensive confectioners in Crome. Four pounds weight at the very least. ‘Confits,’ it said in dull gold freehand across its cream surface, and it was tied up with yards of broad ribbon finished in a most extravagant bow. Walter considered the ‘confits’ affected and the ribbon deplorably ostentatious. The whole thing was in the worst of taste. So like an American to buy something large and showy. It made him quite sick to look at it.
What made him sick, of course, was not the box of candy.
He was sick of an emotion that was old before candy was invented.
As he poured brandy for Searle, the vicar and himself to drink with their coffee he looked round in his mind for comfort, and found it.
Searle might give her boxes of expensive sweetmeats, but it was he, Walter, who knew what her favourite sweets were.
Or — did Searle know that too? Perhaps the Crome confectioner didn’t happen to have dragées.
He tilted the brandy bottle again. He needed an extra spot tonight.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01