Complete stories of evey.., p.39
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Complete Stories of Eveyln, p.39
 

          

  “Comment dit-on en français ‘hiccup’?” he asked his neighbour.

  “Plaît-il, mon professeur?”

  Scott-King hiccuped. “Ça,” he said.

  “Ça c’est le hoquet.”

  “J’en ai affreusement.”

  “Évidemment, mon professeur. Il faut du cognac.”

  The waiters had drunk and were drinking profusely of brandy and there was a bottle at hand. Scott-King tossed off a glassful and his affliction was doubled. He hiccuped without intermission throughout the long dinner.

  This neighbour, who had so ill-advised him, was, Scott-King saw from the card, Dr. Bogdan Antonic, the International Secretary of the Association, a middle-aged, gentle man whose face was lined with settled distress and weariness. They conversed, as far as the hiccups permitted, in French.

  “You are not Neutralian?”

  “Not yet. I hope to be. Every week I make my application to the Foreign Office and always I am told it will be next week. It is not so much for myself I am anxious—though death is a fearful thing—as for my family. I have seven children, all born in Neutralia, all without nationality. If we are sent back to my unhappy country they would hang us all without doubt.”

  “Yugoslavia?”

  “I am a Croat, born under the Hapsburg Empire. That was a true League of Nations. As a young man I studied in Zagreb, Budapest, Prague, Vienna—one was free, one moved where one would; one was a citizen of Europe. Then we were liberated and put under the Serbs. Now we are liberated again and put under the Russians. And always more police, more prisons, more hanging. My poor wife is Czech. Her nervous constitution is quite deranged by our troubles. She thinks all the time she is being watched.”

  Scott-King essayed one of those little, inarticulate, noncommittal grunts of sympathy which come easily to the embarrassed Englishman; to an Englishman, that is, who is not troubled by the hiccups. The sound which in the event issued from him might have been taken as derisive by a less sensitive man than Dr. Antonic.

  “I think so, too,” he said severely. “There are spies everywhere. You saw that man, as we came in, sitting with the woman with the cigar. He is one of them. I have been here ten years and know them all. I was second secretary to our Legation. It was a great thing, you must believe, for a Croat to enter our diplomatic service. All the appointments went to Serbs. Now there is no Legation. My salary has not been paid since 1940. I have a few friends at the Foreign Office. They are sometimes kind and give me employment, as at the present occasion. But at any moment they may make a trade agreement with the Russians and hand us over.”

  Scott-King attempted to reply.

  “You must take some more brandy, Professor. It is the only thing. Often, I remember, in Ragusa I have had the hiccups from laughing. . . . Never again, I suppose.”

  Though the company was smaller at the banquet than at the vin d’honneur, the noise was more oppressive. The private dining room of the Ritz, spacious as it was, had been built in a more trumpery style than the Hôtel de Ville. There the lofty roof had seemed to draw the discordant voices upwards into the cerulean perspective with which it was painted, and disperse them there amid the floating deities; the Flemish hunting scenes on the walls seemed to envelop and muffle them in their million stitches. But here the din banged back from gilding and mirrors; above the clatter and chatter of the dinner table and the altercations of the waiters, a mixed choir of young people sang folk songs, calculated to depress the most jovial village festival. It was not thus, in his classroom at Granchester, that Scott-King had imagined himself dining.

  “At my little house on the point at Lapad, we used to sit on the terrace laughing so loudly, sometimes, that the passing fishermen called up to us from their decks asking to share the joke. They sailed close inshore and one could follow their lights far out towards the islands. When we were silent, their laughter came to us across the water when they were out of sight.”

  The neighbour on Scott-King’s left did not speak until the dessert, except to the waiters; to them he spoke loudly and often, sometimes blustering, sometimes cajoling, and by this means got two helpings of nearly every course. His napkin was tucked into his collar. He ate intently with his head bowed over his plate so that the morsels which frequently fell from his lips were not permanently lost to him. He swigged his wine with relish, sighing after each draught and tapping the glass with his knife to call the waiter’s attention to the need of refilling it. Often he jammed glasses on his nose and studied the menu, not so much, it seemed, for fear of missing anything, as to fix in his memory the fleeting delights of the moment. It is not entirely easy to achieve a Bohemian appearance in evening dress but this man did so with his shock of grizzled hair, the broad ribbon of his pince-nez, and a three days’ growth of beard and whisker.

  With the arrival of the dessert, he raised his countenance, fixed on Scott-King his large and rather bloodshot eyes, belched mildly and then spoke. The words were English; the accent had been formed in many cities from Memphis (Mo.) to Smyrna. “Shakespeare, Dickens, Byron, Galsworthy,” he seemed to say.

  This late birth of a troublesome gestation took Scott-King by surprise; he hiccuped noncommittally.

  “They are all great English writers.”

  “Well, yes.”

  “Your favourite, please?”

  “I suppose Shakespeare.”

  “He is the more dramatic, the more poetic, no?”

  “Yes.”

  “But Galsworthy is the more modern.”

  “Very true.”

  “I am modern. You are a poet?”

  “Hardly that. A few translations.”

  “I am an original poet. I translate my poems myself into English prose. They have been published in the United States. Do you read the New Destiny?”

  “I am afraid not.”

  “It is the magazine which publishes my translations. Last year they sent me ten dollars.”

  “No one has ever paid me for my translations.”

  “You should send them to the New Destiny. It is not possible, I think,” continued the Poet, “to render the poetry of one language into the poetry of another. Sometimes I translate English prose into Neutralian poetry. I have done a very beautiful rendering of some selected passages of your great Priestley. I hoped it would be used in the High Schools but it is not. There is jealousy and intrigue everywhere—even at the Ministry of Education.”

  At this moment a splendid figure at the centre of the table rose to make the first speech. “Now to work,” said his neighbour, produced a notebook and pencil and began busily writing in shorthand. “In the new Neutralia we all work.”

  The speech was long and provoked much applause. In the course of it a note came to Scott-King by the hand of a waiter: “I shall call on you to reply to his Excellency. Fe.”

  Scott-King wrote in answer: “Terribly sorry. Not tonight. Indisposed. Ask Whitemaid,” stealthily left his place and, still hiccuping, passed behind the table to the dining-room door.

  Outside the foyer was almost deserted; the great glass dome which throughout the years of war had blazed aloft nightly, a candle in a naughty world, rose darkly. Two night porters shared a cigar behind one of the pillars; a huge empty carpet, strewn with empty chairs, lay before Scott-King in the subdued light to which a parsimonious management had reduced the earlier blaze. It was not much past midnight but in the New Neutralia memories persisted of the revolutionary curfew, of police roundups, of firing squads in the public gardens; New Neutralians liked to get home early and bolt their doors.

  As Scott-King stepped into this silent space, his hiccups mysteriously ceased. He went through the swing doors and breathed the air of the piazza where under the arc-lamps workmen were washing away with hoses the dust and refuse of the day; the last of the trams, which all day long rattled round the fountains, had long since returned to its shed. He breathed deeply, testing, as it were, the limits of his miraculous recovery, and knew it to be complete. Then he turned back, to
ok his key and, barely conscious, ascended.

  During the first tumultuous afternoon and evening in Bellacita there had been little opportunity for more than the barest acquaintance between Scott-King and his fellow guests of the Bellorius Association. Indeed he had scarcely distinguished them from their hosts. They had bowed and shaken hands, they had exchanged nods among the University archives, they had apologized one to the other as they jostled and jogged elbows at the vin d’honneur; Scott-King had no share in whatever intimacies flourished after the banquet. He remembered an affable American and a Swiss of extreme hauteur and an Oriental whom on general principles he assumed to be Chinese. Now on the morning following he came cheerfully to join them in the Ritz foyer in accordance with the printed programme. They were to leave at 10.30 for Simona. His bags were packed; the sun, not yet oppressive, shone brilliantly through the glass dome. He was in the best of tempers.

  He had awoken in this rare mood after a night of untroubled sleep. He had breakfasted on a tray of fruit, sitting on his verandah above the square, showering copious blessings on the palms and fountains and trams and patriotic statuary. He approached the group in the foyer with the intention of making himself peculiarly agreeable.

  Of the festive Neutralians of the day before only Dr. Fe and the Poet remained. The rest were at work elsewhere constructing the New Neutralia.

  “Professor Scott-King, how are you this morning?”

  There was more than politeness in Dr. Fe’s greeting; there was definite solicitude.

  “Extremely well, thank you. Oh, of course, I had forgotten about last night’s speech. I was very sorry to fail you; the truth was . . .”

  “Professor Scott-King, say no more. Your friend Whitemaid I fear is not so well.”

  “No?”

  “No. He has sent word that he cannot join us.” Dr. Fe raised exquisitely expressive eyebrows.

  The Poet drew Scott-King momentarily aside. “Do not be alarmed,” he said. “Reassure your friend. Not a hint of last night’s occurrences shall appear. I speak with the authority of the Ministry.”

  “You know I’m completely in the dark.”

  “So are the public. So they shall remain. You sometimes laugh at us in your democratic way for our little crowds, but they have their uses, you see.”

  “But I don’t know what has happened.”

  “So far as the press of Neutralia is concerned, nothing happened.”

  The Poet had shaved that morning and shaved ruthlessly. The face he thrust near Scott-King’s was tufted with cotton-wool. Now he withdrew it and edged away. Scott-King joined the group of delegates.

  “Well,” said Miss Bombaum, “I seem to have missed a whole packet of fun last night.”

  “I seem to have missed it too.”

  “And how’s the head this morning?” asked the American scholar.

  “Seems like you had fun,” said Miss Bombaum.

  “I went to bed early,” said Scott-King coldly. “I was thoroughly over-tired.”

  “Well, I’ve heard it called plenty of things in my time. I reckon that covers it too.”

  Scott-King was an adult, an intellectual, a classical scholar, almost a poet; provident Nature who shields the slow tortoise and points the quills of the porcupine, has given to such tender spirits their appropriate armour. A shutter, an iron curtain, fell between Scott-King and these two jokers. He turned to the rest of the company and realized too late that jocularity was the least he had to fear. The Swiss had not been cordial the day before; this morning he was theatrical in his coldness; the Asiatic seemed to have spun himself a cocoon of silken aloofness. The assembled scholars did not positively cut Scott-King; in their several national fashions they signified that they were not unaware of Scott-King’s presence amongst them. Further than this they did not go. They too had their shutters, their iron curtains. Scott-King was in disgrace. Something unmentionable had happened in which he was vicariously but inextricably implicated; a gross, black, inexpungible blot had fallen on Scott-King overnight.

  He did not wish to know more. He was an adult, an intellectual; he was all that has already been predicated of him. He was no chauvinist. Throughout six embattled years he had remained resolutely impartial. But now his hackles rose; quite literally he felt the roots of his sparse hairs prick and tingle. Like the immortal private of the Buffs he stood in Elgin’s place; not untaught certainly, nor rude, nor abysmally low-born, but poor and, at the moment, reckless, bewildered and alone, a heart with English instinct fraught he yet could call his own.

  “I may have to keep the party waiting a few minutes,” he said. “I must go and call on my colleague Mr. Whitemaid.”

  He found him in bed looking strange rather than ill; almost exalted. He was still rather drunk. The windows stood wide open on to the balcony and on the balcony, modestly robed in bath towels, sat Miss Sveningen eating beefsteak.

  “They tell me downstairs that you are not coming with us to Simona?”

  “No. I’m not quite up to it this morning. I have things to attend to here. It is not easy for me to explain.” He nodded towards the giant carnivore on the balcony.

  “You spent an agreeable evening?”

  “A total blank, Scott-King. I remember being with you at some kind of civic reception. I remember a fracas with the police, but that was much later. Hours must have intervened.”

  “The police?”

  “Yes. At some kind of dancing place. Irma here was splendid—like something in a film. They went down like nine-pins. But for her I suppose I should be in a cell at this moment instead of happily consuming Bromo-Seltzer in your company.”

  “You made a speech.”

  “So I gather. You missed it? Then we shall never know what I said. Irma in her blunt way described it as long and impassioned but incomprehensible.”

  “Was it about Bellorius?”

  “I rather suppose not. Love was uppermost in my mind, I think. To tell you the truth I have lost my interest in Bellorius. It was never strong. It wilted and died this morning when I learned that Irma was not of us. She has come for the Physical Training Congress.”

  “I shall miss you.”

  “Stay with us for the gymnastics.”

  For a second Scott-King hesitated. The future at Simona was obscure and rather threatening.

  “There are to be five hundred female athletes. Contortionists perhaps from the Indies.”

  “No,” said Scott-King at length firmly. “I must keep faith with Bellorius.”

  And he returned to the delegates who now sat impatiently in a charabanc at the doors of the Ritz.

  III

  The town of Simona stands within sight of the Mediterranean Sea on the foothills of the great massif which fills half the map of Neutralia. Groves of walnut and cork-oak, little orchards of almond and lemon, cover the surrounding country and grow to the foot of the walls which jut out among them in a series of sharp bastions, ingeniously contrived in the seventeenth century and never, in a long history of strife, put to the test of assault; for they enclose little of military significance. The medieval university, the baroque cathedral, twenty churches in whose delicate limestone belfries the storks build and multiply, a rococo square, two or three tiny shabby palaces, a market and a street of shops are all that can be found there and all that the heart of man can properly desire. The railway runs well clear of the town and betrays its presence only by rare puffs of white smoke among the treetops.

  At the hour of the angelus Scott-King sat with Dr. Bogdan Antonic at a café table on the ramparts.

  “I suppose Bellorius must have looked out on almost precisely the same prospect as we see today.”

  “Yes, the buildings at least do not change. There is still the illusion of peace while, as in Bellorius’s time, the hills behind us are a nest of brigands.”

  “He alludes to them, I remember, in the eighth canto, but surely today? . . .”

  “It is still the same. Now they call them by different names—partisans
, resistance groups, unreconcilables, what you will. The effect is the same. You need police escort to travel many of the roads.”

  They fell silent. In the course of the circuitous journey to Simona, sympathy had sprung up between Scott-King and the International Secretary.

  Bells deliciously chimed in the sunlit towers of twenty shadowy churches.

  At length Scott-King said: “You know I suspect that you and I are the only members of our party who have read Bellorius.”

  “My own knowledge of him is slight. But Mr. Fu has written of him very feelingly, I believe, in demotic Cantonese. Tell me, Professor, do you think the celebration is a success?”

  “I’m not really a professor, you know.”

  “No, but for the occasion all are professors. You are more professor than some who are here. I was obliged to cast my net rather wide to have all countries represented. Mr. Jungman, for example, is simply a gynaecologist from The Hague, and Miss Bombaum is I do not know what. The Argentine and the Peruvian are mere students who happened to be in the country at this time. I tell you these things because I trust you and because I think you suspect them already. You have not perceived an element of deception?”

  “Well, yes.”

  “It is the wish of the Ministry. You see, I am their cultural adviser. They required a celebration this summer. I searched the records for an anniversary. I was in despair until by chance I hit on the name of Bellorius. They had not heard of him, of course, but then they would have been equally in the dark if he had been Dante or Goethe. I told them,” said Dr. Antonic with a sad, sly, highly civilized little smile, “that he was one of the greatest figures of European letters.”

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll
Add comment

Add comment