IF Emma Garrowby could ever be said to be glad of any connection of Leslie Searle with Trimmings, she was glad of the plan for the book. It would take him away from the household for the rest of his stay in Orfordshire; and once the Rushmere trip was over he would go away and they would see no more of him. No harm had been done so far, that she could see. Liz liked being with the creature, of course, because they were both young and because they seemed to laugh at the same things and because, naturally, he was attractive to look at. But she showed no signs of being seriously attracted. She never looked at Searle unless she had something to say to him; never followed him with her eyes as girls in love did, never sat near him in a room.
For all her apprehensiveness, Emma Garrowby was an imperceptive woman.
It was the semi-detached Lavinia, oddly enough, who observed and was troubled. The trouble welled up and overflowed into words, almost against her will, some seven days later. She was dictating as usual to Liz, but was making heavy weather of it. This was so rare that Liz was puzzled. Lavinia wrote her books with great ease, being genuinely interested in the fate of her current heroine. She might not remember afterwards whether it was Daphne or Valerie who had met her lover when she was gathering violets in the dawn on Capri, but while Daphne (or Valerie) had been in the process of that meeting and that gathering Lavinia Fitch watched over her like a godmother. Now, contrary to all precedent, she was distrait and had great difficulty in remembering even what Sylvia looked like.
‘Where was I, Liz, where was I?’ she said, striding up and down the room; a pencil stuck through the bird’s-nest mop of sandy hair and another being chewed to pulp between her sharp little teeth.
‘Sylvia is coming in from the garden. Through the French window.’
‘Oh, yes. “Sylvia paused in the window, her slim form outlined against the light, her large blue eyes wary and doubtful ——”’
‘Brown,’ said Liz.
‘Her eyes.’ Liz flipped back some pages of the script. ‘Page 59. “Her brown eyes, limpid as rainpools lying on autumn leaves ——”’
‘All right, all right. “— her large brown eyes wary and doubtful. With a graceful movement of resolution she stepped into the room, her tiny heels tapping lightly on the parquet floor ——”’
‘What d’you say?’
‘She has just been playing tennis.’
‘She could have changed, couldn’t she?’ Lavinia said with a touch of asperity that was foreign to her.
‘I don’t think so,’ Liz said patiently. ‘She is still carrying her racket. She came along the terrace “swinging her racket lightly”.’
‘Oh. Did she!’ Lavinia said explosively. ‘I bet she can’t even play! Where was I? “She stepped into the room — she stepped into the room, her white frock fluttering”— no; no, wait —“she stepped into the room”— Oh, damn Sylvia!’ she burst out, flinging her chewed pencil on to the desk. ‘Who cares what the silly moron does! Let her stay in the blasted window and starve!’
‘What is the matter, Aunt Vin?’
‘I can’t concentrate.’
‘Are you worried about something?’
‘No. Yes. No. At least, yes, I suppose I am, in a way.’
‘Can I help?’
Lavinia ran her fingers through the bird’s-nest, found the pencil there, and looked gratified. ‘Why, there’s my yellow pencil.’ She put it back again in her hair-do. ‘Liz, dear, don’t think me interfering or anything, will you, but you’re not by any chance getting a little — a little smitten with Leslie Searle, are you?’
Liz thought how like her aunt it was to use an out-of-date Edwardianism like ‘smitten’. She was always having to modernise Lavinia’s slang for her.
‘If by “smitten” you mean in love with him, be comforted. I’m not.’
‘I don’t know that that’s what I do mean. You don’t love a magnet, if it comes to that.’
‘A what! What are you talking about?’
‘It isn’t a falling in love, so much. It’s an attraction. He fascinates you, doesn’t he.’ She made it a statement, not a question.
Liz looked up at the troubled childish eyes, and hedged. ‘Why should you think that?’ she asked.
‘I suppose because I feel it too,’ Lavinia said.
This was so unexpected that Liz had no words.
‘I wish now I had never asked him down to Trimmings,’ Lavinia said miserably. ‘I know it isn’t his fault — it isn’t anything he does— but there’s no denying that he is an upsetting person. There’s Serge and Toby Tullis not on speaking terms ——’
‘That is nothing new!’
‘No, but they had become friends again, and Serge was behaving quite well and working, and now ——’
‘You can hardly blame Leslie Searle for that. It would have happened inevitably. You know it would.’
‘And it was very odd the way Marta took him back with her after dinner the other night and kept him till all hours. I mean the way she appropriated him as her escort, without waiting to see what the others were doing.’
‘But the vicar was there to see Miss Easton–Dixon home. Marta knew that. It was natural that he should go with Miss Dixon; they live in the same direction.’
‘It wasn’t what she did, it was the way she did it. She — she grabbed.’
‘Oh, that is just Marta’s lordly way.’
‘Nonsense. She felt it too. The — the fascination.’
‘Of course, he is exceedingly attractive,’ Liz said; and thought how utterly the cliché failed to convey any quality of Leslie Searle’s.
‘He is — uncanny,’ Lavinia said, unhappily. ‘There is no other word. You wait and watch for the next thing he is going to do, as if it were — as if it were a sign, or a portent, or a revelation, or something.’ She used the ‘you’ impersonally, but caught Liz’s eye and said challengingly: ‘Well, you do, don’t you!’
‘Yes,’ Liz said. ‘Yes, I suppose it is like that. As if — as if the smallest thing he does had significance.’
Lavinia picked up the chewed pencil from the desk and doodled with it on the blotter. Liz noticed that she was making figures-of-eight. Lavinia must be very troubled indeed. When she was happy she made herring-bones.
‘It’s very odd, you know,’ Lavinia said, mulling it over in her mind. ‘I get the same “kick” out of being in a room with him that I would get out of being in a room with a famous criminal. Only nicer, of course. But the same feeling of — of wrongness.’ She made several furious figures-of-eight. ‘If he were to disappear tonight, and someone told me that he was just a beautiful demon and not a human being at all, I would believe them. So help me, I would.’
Presently she flung the pencil back on to the desk, and said with a little laugh: ‘And yet it’s all so absurd. You look at him and try to find out what is so extraordinary about him, and what is there? Nothing. Nothing that can’t be matched elsewhere, is there? That radiant fairness and that skin like a baby; that Norwegian correspondent of the Clarion that Walter used to bring down had those. He is extraordinarily graceful for a man; but so is Serge Ratoff. He has a nice gentle voice and an engaging drawl; but so have half the inhabitants of Texas and a large part of the population of Ireland. You catalogue his attractions and what do they add up to? I can tell you what they don’t add up to. They don’t add up to Leslie Searle.’
‘No,’ said Liz soberly. ‘No. They don’t.’
‘The — the exciting thing is left out. What is it that makes him different? Even Emma feels it, you know.’
‘Only it takes her the opposite way. She hates it. She quite often disapproves of the people I bring down, sometimes she even dislikes them. But she loathes Leslie Searle.’
‘Has she told you so?’
‘No. She didn’t have to.’
No, thought Liz. She did not have to. Lavinia Fitch — dear, kind, abstracted Lavinia — manufacturer of fiction for the permanently adolescent, had after all a writer’s intuition.
‘I wondered for a while if it was that he was a little mad,’ Lavinia said.
‘Only nor-nor-west, of course. There is an unholy attraction about people who are stark crazy in one direction but quite sane every other way.’
‘Only if you know about their craziness,’ Liz pointed out. ‘You would have to know about their mental kink before you suffered any unholy attraction.’
Lavinia considered that. ‘Yes, I suppose you are right. But it doesn’t matter, because I decided for myself that the “mad” theory didn’t work. I have never met anyone saner than Leslie Searle. Have you?’
‘You don’t think, do you,’ Lavinia said, taking to doodling again and avoiding her niece’s eye, ‘that Walter is beginning to resent Leslie?’
‘Walter,’ Liz said, startled. ‘No, of course not. They are the greatest friends.’
Lavinia, having with seven neat strokes erected a house, put the door in it.
‘Why should you think that about Walter?’ Liz said, challenging.
Lavinia added four windows and a chimney-stack, and considered the effect.
‘Because he is so considerate to him.’
‘Considerate! But Walter is always——’
‘When Walter likes people he takes them for granted,’ Lavinia said, making smoke. ‘The more he likes them the more he takes them for granted. He even takes you for granted — as you have no doubt observed before now. Until lately he took Leslie Searle for granted. He doesn’t any more.’
Liz considered this in silence.
‘If he didn’t like him,’ she said at length, ‘he wouldn’t be doing the Rushmere with him, or the book. Well, would he?’ she added, as Lavinia seemed wholly absorbed in the correct placing of a doorknob.
‘The book is going to be very profitable,’ Lavinia said, with only a hint of dryness.
‘Walter would never collaborate with someone he didn’t like,’ Liz said stoutly.
‘And Walter might find it difficult to explain why he didn’t want to do the book after all,’ Lavinia said as if she had not spoken.
‘Why are you telling me this?’ Liz said, half angry.
Lavinia stopped doodling and said disarmingly: ‘Liz darling, I don’t quite know, except perhaps that I was hoping you would find some way of reassuring Walter. In your own clever way. Which is to say, without dotting any I’s or crossing any T’s.’ She caught Liz’s glance, and said: ‘Oh, yes, you are clever. A great deal cleverer than Walter will ever be. He is not very clever, poor Walter. The best thing that ever happened to him was that you should love him.’ She pushed the defaced blotter away from her and smiled suddenly, ‘I don’t think, you know, that it is entirely a Bad Thing that he should have a rival to contend with. As long as there is no chance of the contention becoming serious.’
‘Of course it isn’t serious,’ Liz said.
‘Then suppose we get that moron out of the window, and finish the chapter before lunch,’ Lavinia said, and, picking up the pencil, began to chew on it again.
But a sense of shock stayed with Liz while she recorded, for the ultimate benefit of the lending libraries and the Inland Revenue, the doings of Sylvia the moron. It had not occurred to her that her awareness of Searle could be known to anyone but herself. Now it seemed that not only did Lavinia know very accurately how she felt about him, but she hinted that Walter too might know. But that surely was impossible. How could he know? Lavinia knew because, as she so frankly said, she too was a victim of the Searle charm. But Walter would have no such pointer to her emotions.
And yet Lavinia had been so right. Walter’s first easy taking-for-granted attitude to the visitor had changed to a host and guest relationship. It had changed imperceptibly and yet almost overnight. When and why had it changed? There was the unfortunate coinciding of the two so-different boxes of sweets; but that could hardly have rankled in any adult mind. The buying of candy for a girl was an automatic reflex with Americans; of no more significance than letting her go first through a doorway. Walter could hardly have resented that. How then could Walter have guessed the secret that was shared only by her fellow sufferer, Lavinia?
Her mind went on to consider Lavinia and her perceptions. She considered the one count that Lavinia had left out of the indictment — the snubbing of Toby Tullis — and wondered whether Lavinia had not mentioned it because she did not know, or whether she was merely indifferent to any suffering that Toby might be subjected to. Toby, as the whole village knew, was enduring the finest tortures of frustration since Tantalus. Searle had refused, with the most unimaginably kind indifference, to go to see Hoo House, or to take part in any of the other activities that Toby was eager to arrange for him. He had even failed to show any interest when Toby offered to take him over to Stanworth and present him. This had never happened to Toby before. His freedom to trot in and out of the ducal splendours of Stanworth was his trump card. He had never before played it in vain. With Americans especially it took the trick. But not with this American. Searle wanted no part of Toby Tullis, and made it clear with the most charming good manners. He stonewalled with a grace that for all its mordant quality was delightful to watch. Intellectual Salcott watched it with open delight.
And it was that that excoriated Toby.
To be snubbed by Leslie Searle was bad enough; to have it known that he was snubbed was torture.
Truly, thought Liz, the advent of Leslie Searle had not been a particularly fortunate happening for Salcott St Mary. Of all the people whose lives he touched, only Miss Easton–Dixon, perhaps, was wholly glad of his coming. He had been lovely with Miss Dixon; as kind and patient with her endless questions as though he had been a woman himself and interested in the small talk of the film world. He had trotted out for her benefit all the light gossip of studio politics, and had exchanged with her reminiscences of films good and films bad until Lavinia had said that they were like a couple of housewives swapping recipes.
That was the night that Marta had come to dinner; and there had been a moment during that evening, when Liz, watching him with Miss Dixon, was seized with a terrible fear that she might after all be falling in love with Leslie Searle. She was still grateful to Marta for reassuring her. For it was when Marta commandeered him and carried him off with her into the night, and she felt no slightest pang at seeing them go, that she knew that, however strongly she felt Searle’s attraction, she was in no bondage to him.
Now, recording the doings of Sylvia the moron, she decided that she would take Lavinia’s advice and find some way of reassuring Walter, so that he went away on this trip happy and with no grudge against Searle in his heart. When they came back from Mere Harbour, where they were taking possession of the two canoes and arranging for their transport to Otley to await them there, she would think up some small exclusive thing to do with Walter; something that would be tête-à-tête. It had been too often a triangle lately.
Or too often, perhaps, the wrong tête-à-tête.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14