Time and time again, p.10
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       Time and Time Again, p.10

          
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  'Compared with Linstead--and when you're in amusing company.'

  'Oh, you can't compare it with Linstead. And I'd much rather have been with you--only, as you said, it would have meant leaving earlier.'

  'I think it was Peters, actually, who made the arrangement.'

  'Was it?'

  'It doesn't matter.' He seized her arm clumsily. 'Lily, you must forgive me--I'm being foolish. One good night's sleep and I'll see everything straighten . . . Don't take me seriously now. Let's have breakfast.'

  During the meal he felt happier, relaxing in her company and in her obvious pleasure to be with him. But she was troubled about his earlier mood. 'Charlie, what's wrong? Why can't you sleep?'

  'Overwork, I suppose, these last few weeks. Nothing to worry about.'

  'And taking all those days off to see me. You shouldn't have done that.'

  'On the contrary, they kept me going.' He laughed uncertainly. 'I probably can't live without you, Lily.'

  'Anybody ever say you had to?' she laughed back. It was one of the few times she had touched, even as lightly as that, on the notion of a future.

  'They'd better not.'

  She caught the grimmer note in his voice. 'Don't be cross about something that hasn't happened.'

  'I'm not cross about anything, really. Not when I'm with you.'

  'Maybe you'll sleep better tonight.'

  'After you've gone? I wonder.'

  'If those chimes keep people awake at nights I don't know why they have them.'

  'Probably because they've had them for years and years and years. In Cambridge that's a good reason.'

  'Never mind, you'll be on your holidays soon. It's country where you go home to, isn't it? That's one thing about the country--nice and quiet.'

  'Not always nice and sometimes TOO quiet. What will I do there now I haven't got an examination to work for?'

  'Aren't there some more examinations sometime?'

  'That's a cheerful idea.'

  'Well, I thought if you WANTED something to do . . . But if I were you I'd just take a rest. Bill told me you'd been working too hard.'

  'Bill Peters? He wouldn't know--he's in another college. Besides, nothing's hard work to him. I mean, he takes everything in his stride--examinations, sports, debates, even acting at the Footlights. Just like my brother Lindsay who died. One of those all-round fellows. Sure to have a career. A First for certain and probably a Blue and President of the Union--the whole bag of tricks. Nothing can stop him . . . and I like him enormously. I'm lucky to have him for a friend. He's very popular.'

  'Why are you talking so much about him?'

  'Aren't you interested? You seemed so last night--and he liked you too, that was obvious.'

  She shook her head, but in dismay more than denial. 'Oh, Charlie, it doesn't seem to work well, does it, either when you meet my friends or I meet yours?'

  'PLEASE. . . .' He struggled with some inward fret that centred round the pit of his stomach. 'Please forgive me again. The same old foolishness. The truth is, I wish I could have more time alone with you. Other people somehow seem to get in the way.'

  'All right then, let's be alone.'

  'For the rest of the day? That isn't much.'

  'It's all we have. I wish it were more too.'

  Then he heard his longings framing themselves into words that desperately came close and yet fought shy of what they really meant. 'Lily, you're supposed to go back by the 9.12--what if you didn't? Suppose I borrow a car--I think I could--and we'll go off somewhere on our own--now--this morning . . . and have all the time we can together--at some quiet place in the country . . . And tomorrow I'll drive you right to the door of the office--not too late for Mr. Graybar, I promise. . . . Could you? WOULD you?'

  She answered immediately and simply: 'Yes, if you want. But I must send dad a wire.'

  'Tell him you're staying here another night.'

  'I won't say "here", I'll just say "staying". Then it won't be a lie. I'd hate to tell my dad a lie.'

  * * * * *

  It took him till mid-afternoon to fix all the details of the sudden change of plan. He had to hire a car (not as easy on a Sunday as he had thought), and secure an overnight exeat from the college authorities (easy now that examinations were finished), and think of something plausible to tell Debden. The truth seemed most plausible of all--that he was just driving his guest back to London and would return the next day.

  Meanwhile she sent the wire to her father.

  They drove out of Cambridge southward over the Gog Magog hills towards those rolling Essex uplands that are never high but give every half-mile a changing contour. Presently they stopped at a small country town. It had a church with a crocketed spire that Charles would have sketched if he had been less tired, but they were satisfied to look around and then have tea in a nearby cottage. They didn't know where they would drive on to next; Charles hadn't even a map. It was the kind of wandering he had often dreamed of having again, after that week in Normandy with Brunon, and here it was, with her, a reality, yet still enclosed in a dream. As they explored the narrow streets the dream reached to the sky, as if actual sleep, like a great bird, was already wheeling and swooping over his head. The town was almost deserted, full of Sunday stillness till they reached a central square, where a Salvation Army band oompahed in the sun without any audience. There was an ancient timbered building which they crossed the square to inspect; it was a fifteenth-century cloth hall, still in use as a municipal office. They passed close to the band on the way back, and as they did so there came over the trombones and tambourines a sound so startling in an Essex town that they stared incredulously. A Salvation Army man approaching with a collection plate grinned at their astonishment and supplied the explanation. 'The circus just came in. Starts tomorrow for the Fair week.'

  'Fair week?' Charles echoed, fishing in his pocket.

  'Oh yes, we have a real big fair once a year--thank you, sir-- people come from miles around. Just up the road.' He proudly jerked a thumb. 'Turn to the right over there by the bank. That's where you heard them lions.' He seemed to be generously recommending a better entertainment than his own.

  In a mood to see what was to be seen, they took the indicated direction and soon found why the centre of the town was so empty. A crowd that looked like the entire population was watching the unloading of a long line of circus vans into an open field. Everything was lively and noisy and smelly; the lions roared again in their cages, men yelled to each other as they hoisted the big tent, whips were cracked, ponies trotted, men in top hats and riding boots gave what was halfway a free show. In a field next to the circus there was to be the fair itself; here men in shirtsleeves were putting up stalls and coconut shies and unpacking hideous china that would doubtless be given away as prizes. Soon the street lamps gleamed over the scene of such unusual Sunday activity; naphtha flares were hung on the stalls, and a searchlight began to test itself against the sky. The noise and smells and brilliance increased as the job proceeded; but sometimes in the midst of a lull the Salvation Army band could be heard still playing cheerfully on and on.

  During one of those lulls he said: 'I think all this must be a bit like Nizhni-Novgorod.'

  'What?'

  'Somewhere you've never been and neither have I. It has a fair too-- every year--or rather it did, before the Revolution. Perhaps still does. It's a place in Russia. I must have read about it somewhere.'

  'And it's like this?'

  'Might be. I don't really know why I think so. But a fair's a fair--everywhere.'

  'Yes, you're tired,' she agreed, as if that was what he had told her. 'You can't drive any more. Let's stay here.'

  'All right. If Nizhni-Novgorod has a decent pub.'

  The Swan was full, but recommended a cottage round the corner, the hotel being available for meals and garaging the car. A Mrs. Renshaw. 'Tell her the Swan sent you.' They told her the Swan had sent them, and the room she offered was under the thatched eaves, small and low-roofed and crammed with mahogany. The cottage was probably three hundred years old, but nobody had bothered much about that and all the walls had florid paper covering the uneven plaster. On the modern mantelpiece there were shells from some seashore and photographs of (presumably) Mrs. Renshaw's relatives. They were a glum collection and Charles was beguiled by their stares of disapproval. Lily was sympathetic, wondering from their faces if they had ever been happy.

  'Of course they were,' Charles said. 'It's just the way people used to pose for photographs. Now the man tells you to smile--in those days he must have said "Look serious". That was the fashion. Did Gladstone ever grin? Was Queen Victoria ever amused? . . . Well, yes, she was--a friend of my father's told him he was once at the Sutherland estate at Dunrobin when the Queen was being shown over, and in one of the rooms they looked into--by mistake, I suppose--they found a very fat policeman in bed with his clothes on . . . The Queen nearly collapsed with laughter.'

  'A friend of your father's knew the Queen?'

  'Oh, he didn't really know her--he was just there when it happened. Fat people in bed can be funny . . . thin people too.'

  'There's a lot of fun in just being a person--anywhere.'

  'So that's your view of life?'

  'Don't you like it?'

  'My little one . . . my darling . . . you know . . . you can't possibly know . . . how much it makes me love you.'

  'Love is fun too.'

  'Nizhni-Novgorod is fun.'

  'I'm glad we came here. Is that what you'll always call it?'

  'I don't think the people who live there call it that any more. I mean, in the real Nizhni-Novgorod. They've got some new name. I don't know what. I only know the old name because I read about the fair in a book. They used to have a fair there. A big fair there . . .'

  'Darling, you're so tired. I'm glad we came. Fancy, we both keep saying the same things again and again.'

  'Yes, fancy. . . . I had an aunt who said "fancy" to everything. "Fancy" or "Just fancy" or "Fancy that". Fancy this. Just fancy us being here. . . .'

  * * * * *

  Later he said: 'I've done rather badly in the examination. I know I have, but I don't mind about it now--that's why I can tell you. I couldn't even finish one of the papers--I fainted or something in the middle--the heat it was--I can't think why they chose a hall that had such poor ventilation. . . . Anyhow, I probably won't scrape through with more than a Third--which isn't good enough for what I was supposed to be aiming for--the Diplomatic. . . . So there you are--cards all on the table.'

  'I oughtn't to have taken up so much of your time.'

  'Oh no. Never think that. I couldn't have worked much harder than I did, anyhow.'

  'You could have rested instead of making all those trips to London.'

  'No, I shouldn't have rested--I should have tried to put in extra work and then broken down completely. Maybe you saved my life . . . Lily, I'm not like Peters. I can't take things in my stride. I'm not first-rate in his way, or the way my brother Lindsay was. That's why it's just as well to have a real failure now, at the beginning--then I'm definitely out of the race that I know I can't win. I'm not disappointed. My father may be, but not me. Or else he'll be disgusted . . . or perhaps in a queer sort of way glad that I've come such a cropper.'

  'GLAD, Charlie? I don't understand that.'

  'Never mind. . . .'

  'But how . . . how could he . . . ?'

  'Darling, all I mean is that this thing isn't a tragedy. I was never terribly keen on the Diplomatic--from what I've gathered it can be pretty dull and stuffy, and they send you to a lot of places you can't possibly enjoy. . . . It was just one way of getting started.'

  'Away from home?'

  'Oh yes, of course. I wouldn't want to stay at Beeching.'

  'You don't really like it there, do you? You've never told me much about it.'

  'That's not the reason. I didn't tell you much at first because I thought you'd imagine me too far out of your world, and I didn't want to be . . . and then I went on not telling you because I just hadn't before. There's nothing special about Beeching. Might impress you till you tried it, then you'd discover it had bad drains and no damp course and wasn't really very comfortable to live in.'

  'But your home--that's more than the house--that's really what you want to get away from.'

  'How do you know? . . . Well, in a way, you might be right. There are reasons I couldn't go into--'

  'Charlie, can I ask one more question?'

  'All right.'

  'What was your mother like?'

  'We have a big portrait of her and if she was like that she was wonderful. Of course I don't remember her.'

  'So you couldn't love her. And you don't love your father.'

  'Why do you say that? . . . Well, I'll admit I don't love people as you do. You love everybody. Which really means anybody. . . . Oh no, that's an unfair thing to say. I'm sorry, Lily. All I mean is that it must make it hard for you to FALL in love when you . . .'

  'I did with you--the first time we met.'

  'No, the second. The first time you didn't even look at me. That was when I did--while you weren't looking. I think we ought to get married quickly--before you look at somebody else . . . Lily, I mean that.'

  'Do you?'

  'Yes. . . . Oh God, yes. More than I've ever meant anything.'

  'Are you SURE it's what you want, Charlie?'

  'Don't you want it?'

  'Yes--if you do . . . and if dad consents. I can't without that, because of my age. You can't either, till you're twenty-one.'

  'I'll be that in a few weeks. We might live abroad. It's cheap in France these days, on account of the exchange. And another thing-- I could do some painting there . . . Yes, even after a Third. You never guessed I was serious about it, did you? You thought it was just a hobby?'

  'I thought it was a serious hobby--like dad's gardening.'

  'Well, why not? Oh, Lily, we shall get along fine. The things I really want in life are simple if only I stick to them--and stick to wanting them . . . that's the trouble, I'm not one of those vital characters. I'm not power-driven, like Bill Peters. . . . But a serious hobby I DO have--thank you for that description, I love you for it. So it's all settled--we'll live in France and I'll paint. How about it?'

  She said thoughtfully: 'Mr. Graybar does a lot of business with French exporters--I know their names and addresses--I've typed hundreds of letters to them--'

  He was thinking how delightfully irrelevant this was till she added: 'I'm sure I could find a job with one of them.' Shock and amazement were then added, so that he gasped out: 'Good God, you didn't suppose that was in my mind, did you?'

  'But you mightn't earn enough at first, Charlie. Not everybody buys paintings.'

  He didn't know then whether to laugh or cry--the intensely practical naďveté of it reminded him of plunging into an ice-cold crystal stream in the sunshine. 'Look, darling . . . please understand . . . there's no question of you having to find a job, whether my paintings sell or not. As soon as I'm twenty-one I come into some money from my mother's estate--not much, but enough to live on in France . . . About three hundred a year. . . .'

  'Three hundred pounds a year without working at all?'

  It occurred to him that he had never heard the central issue of modern economics stated so eloquently as by her own incredulity. It made him feel he had something to brazen out. 'Well, yes . . . so you see how it is--I can AFFORD my serious hobby--AND you.' He began to laugh. 'I'm laughing at myself for ever having worried about the future. Aren't YOU looking forward to it, Lily? There are beautiful places in France--'

  'And I could come home sometimes, couldn't I?'

  'Home?'

  'To Linstead. I'd like to see mum and dad now and again.'

  'Of course--as often as you want. France isn't the South Sea Islands.'

  'That would be fun too. Like that French painter who went there and lived with a native girl.'

  'WHAT?' He was amazed again. 'You mean Gauguin? I didn't know you knew anything about painters. . . .'

  'I read a book about him once. I do read, Charlie--you ought to know that--I was reading when you first saw me. I'm not really so silly--'

  He found this utterly adorable. It was, he supposed, the effect of Cambridge--of seeing colleges and libraries, of meeting Weigall and Peters, who had also found her adorable. The whole idea of marrying her and going to France to paint gained on him so fast that he felt an intoxication in being alive; the darkness of the little room glowed into deep colours, the touch of her body next to him was an easing of every strain. She was so small and unshy and gay, and she had another quality, the word for which had been pale in his mind for years--ever since he had first heard it in church as a child; but now it sprang to warmth and meaning. LOVING- KINDNESS. She was loving-kind.

  They talked over all the details of the future till dawn showed at the sides of the window curtains. Now and then, in the distance, a lion roared.

  * * * * *

  A few hours later they began the journey to London, having slept till it was too late for breakfast. As they approached the inner suburbs the sky darkened and rain began, so that the final miles of tramlined roads were slow and slippery. Charles had hoped to keep his word by delivering her at Kingsway in time for the normal office opening, but he was nearly an hour late. She said it didn't matter--and it would have been absurd, of course, if it had. When he stopped the car at the kerb, and before he could get out, she kissed him quickly and scampered through the rain to the swing- doors with an alacrity that seemed more absent-minded than apprehensive.

  He had a cup of tea at a café in Holborn, then drove back to Cambridge with the windshield-wipers marking slow time to his thoughts. It was two o'clock when he reached his rooms. He lay on the couch while Debden prepared a late lunch, but fell asleep and Debden did not wake him. He slept all afternoon and most of the evening and night. He had no more engagements; it was merely a matter of putting in days at the college till term was over and he could leave Cambridge for good. This was hard to realize--that it was his last term and his university career would soon be ended. He had no particular plans for a vacation and was in no present mood to think of any. Presumably he would go to Beeching, at any rate for a while, and he had arranged to meet Lily on his way there across London. That would be on the following Friday--five days hence.

 
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