Time and time again, p.11
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       Time and Time Again, p.11

          
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  Afterwards when he looked back on that curious interval it seemed to him that most of the hours had been of sleep. For the first time in weeks the clock-chimes did not trouble him, and he would often doze on the couch and wake to find Debden offering some odd- looking meal on a tray. Debden was an understanding fellow and had seen many a reading gentleman overwork himself for an examination and then half collapse in this fashion. 'Sleep's the thing, sir. Can't do you any 'arm no matter 'ow much of it you get--and that's more than you can say of most things in life. . . . There was a man I 'ad 'ere once who didn't sleep a wink for weeks. . . .' This, thought Charles, was an unlikely story, but he listened quite contentedly to many such excerpts from the lifelong saga.

  On Friday morning Charles went to early chapel. He was not a regular attender, but at the beginnings and ends of term he had made it a custom, and this morning, the last one of all, seemed an extra-special occasion. He remembered how emotional he had felt about Cambridge during his first term and that last year of the war, but of course the atmosphere then had been charged with the mystique of youth facing death. Three years later, amidst dubious peace and economic depression, the mood was far different, and Charles, at almost twenty-one, was different with it. He would have liked to let that final chapel service soak into him sentimentally, but he couldn't relax enough; the thought of meeting Lily for lunch in London made him look at his watch too often.

  Crossing the quadrangle afterwards he met Debden outside his staircase. He had tipped him well, and the man's mood was confidential and extra-curricular, as if Charles had already passed into the saga. 'Gentleman to see you, sir. Wouldn't give 'is name, but said 'e'd wait. He was the kind I knew it was all right, sir, to let 'im into your rooms.'

  * * * * *

  He had never seen Havelock looking so well since the days before Lindsay's death; that was a first impression. It was not merely that he was in one of the vaulting moods--there was a hint of something else that must have happened to generate such an air of authority. Charles fancied he was seeing his father as had many a judge and jury during those early years of triumph, and the spectacle was notable--even in some ways intimidating.

  'Well . . . this IS a surprise, father!'

  'Yes, I'm sure it is. How are you, Charles? I'm glad I've caught you before you took the train, because I have the car here. I thought we'd travel back together. Nice day for a drive across country. Farrow's with me.'

  Farrow was the chauffeur, which meant that the car would be the big Daimler, which Charles never liked as much as the small open car he drove himself. This detail cast its minor shadow; the larger and darker one was that his father's unexpected visit meant cancelling the arrangement to meet Lily in London. There was no alternative, though of course he could make a special trip to see her some other day, and soon. The disappointment hit him all the more acutely because their last meeting had left, as it was bound to, so many after-thoughts and after-emotions.

  He said, seeking to disguise how he felt: 'That would be nice. . . . Have you had breakfast? Debden will get you some coffee . . . and in the meantime I must send a wire.'

  'A wire?'

  'Just to cancel an engagement. I'd planned to meet someone in London, but now that I can't manage it I must let them know.'

  'I see.' And then, when Charles had reached the door: 'Is it, by any chance, a girl?'

  Charles flushed and tried to laugh. 'Supposing it is--what then?'

  'If the girl's name is Lily Mansfield you needn't send it.'

  Charles recrossed the room, the warmth in his face draining to pallor as he approached his father. 'What makes you say that?'

  'She's not there--to receive it.'

  'Not where?'

  'Anywhere you would have sent it.' Havelock's eyes were shining. 'Now sit down. I've something to tell you. . . . And no coffee. Close your outer door--sport your oak--do they still use that phrase? . . . We don't want to be interrupted.'

  Charles was now possessed by a single fear. 'Father, what's happened? For God's sake don't make a drama of it. Is she all right? Is she well? Has anything . . . ?'

  'She's perfectly well--I didn't mean to alarm you. Now will you close that door?'

  After Charles had done so he heard a simple story of coincidence. Reg Robinson, it seemed, had been motorcycling on the previous Sunday evening and had found himself thirsty just outside the Swan in the little market town. From the saloon bar he could see into the dining-room where Lily and Charles were at one of the tables. Quelling an impulse to intrude, he had decided more shrewdly to watch and wait; presently he had seen them walk down the lane to a cottage. The possible significance of this grew on him slowly, but was soon (Havelock suggested) reinforced by personal jealousy and a strong surge of class-conscious virtue. He had made a few enquiries, taken down names and details, and then jumped on his motorcycle with the news. It was the following evening, however, before he passed it on. 'An interesting delay,' Havelock commented. 'Did he want time to think things over? Or was he enjoying a sense of power? He could have called before Mansfield went to work in the morning--but no, he waited till evening. Perhaps he was teased with the thought of talking to the girl beforehand--which he did. He telephoned her at her office during the day--just an innocent chat between friends, no disclosures on either side, yet both with a secret that must have been infinitely preoccupying. He asked her, perhaps, if she had had a pleasant weekend, and one may imagine her answer--casual enough, yet bringing a flush to her cheeks that no one observed. . . .'

  Havelock was soaring into an empyrean of his own, so far unclouded by blame or moral censure. The voice, lyric in quality, flowed on effortlessly from sentence to sentence, developing a theme, building to some sort of climax. 'The temptations of youth, Charles, are not beyond comprehension to any man of mature age who remembers his own. I don't know what kind of youth you think I had myself, but I assure you it was far from flawless, far from the patterns of pulpit and schoolroom. . . .'

  But by this time Charles was impatient; there was so much still that he did not know. He interrupted: 'Suppose we don't go into all that now, father. Just tell me a few more facts . . . do you mind?'

  'Of course not. Talk it over as much as you like. The whole matter's cleared up--there's no urgency. I'm telling you that in advance, because I don't want to scare you again. I'm sorry that at the outset you misunderstood me--it was my own fault for a somewhat clumsy opening--'

  'Please, father--just the facts. Tell me--'

  'You've had them all--all that are important. Your little escapade-- as I said--was discovered and reported, and I'm bound to say it was sheer bad luck--this fellow cruising about on his motorcycle--'

  'But what do you mean by saying it's all cleared up?'

  Then a curious transformation came over Havelock's face. It changed almost in texture as well as expression--from smooth and bland to rough and tough. It occurred to Charles, still under the influence of his first impression, that this was the sort of thing that must have happened when his father had cross-examined witnesses--first the sweet mellifluous questions, the artless probings, the seeming sympathy, the words, words, words to soften and disarm; then, all at once, the rapier-thrust.

  'Just this,' Havelock snapped. 'You were in a damned mess and I've got you out of it. This girl and her parents could have ruined your life. They had you in their power. I'm not exaggerating. It would have been easier to handle them if they'd been blackmailers, or if the girl had been some cheap little tart. But they're decent people. Keep away from decent people when you're in the mood for mischief of this kind. That's sound advice from a lawyer. I've known cases like this before and seen men jailed for them. Luring a minor from home for an immoral purpose--Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885--ABDUCTION--how do you like the sound of it? But that's what I could convict you of, you fool, if I were prosecuting and you were in the dock!'

  Charles didn't like the sound of it at all. He was sheerly appalled and there wasn't a word he could reply. He felt he had heard a story about someone else whose behaviour couldn't be likened to any that had ever been his own.

  Then Havelock's face relaxed somewhat. Beguilement began again, the sentences became less staccato, even the words seemed drawn from a different vocabulary. 'As I said, the Mansfields are decent people. That, at the outset, was an obstacle. But in the end--and owing, largely, if you must know the truth, to a certain skill I have always had in presenting a point of view--they agreed to behave magnanimously. They will not prosecute. You have nothing to worry about. And--incidentally--the girl isn't pregnant.'

  All Charles could then say was a muttered 'Oh God'--which he was glad his father did not hear because it represented a personal emotion which he did not want to explain or even to analyse. He then went to the window and stared out; men were still loitering in the court on their way from chapel. What a wonderful last morning of one's college career! he thought bitterly. He swung round and broke the silence that his father had made intolerable by his merely watching presence. 'Where is she? Where is she now?'

  'They've sent her to stay with some relatives in the country.'

  'I MUST see her.'

  'I don't think you can.'

  'But . . . dammit . . . as you yourself said, she's not a cheap little tart. I'd have married her . . . I WANT to marry her. Don't you realize that?'

  'I'm sure you feel the Mansfields ought to jump at such a thing, but believe me, they don't. It speaks well for them, Charles. Many a respectable family would have regarded that as quite legitimate blackmail.'

  'I'm not concerned with what they regard. It's what I want--and what Lily wants.'

  'What a girl of seventeen wants isn't--'

  'SEVENTEEN?'

  'Oh? Didn't she tell you that?'

  Charles replied absently, as if the matter were already unimportant: 'She said eighteen.'

  'In court I should point out that we have only your word for that. But of course I believe you, and I've no doubt the girl herself would confirm the deception.'

  'Good God, it isn't much of a deception. It's nothing. A year.'

  Havelock laughed in a way which, Charles reflected, would give a fine impression beyond the double doors that the two of them were having a very jolly time together. 'You know why I find that funny, Charles? Because you said a year is nothing. A year is just about what I could have got you off with!'

  So it WAS funny, maybe. But hardly jolly. Charles felt ill, and of all things in the world the one he least desired was to travel in a car with his father across several counties and finally arrive at Beeching. Yet that, quite clearly, was all he could do. So he went to his bedroom and began packing the last few things in a suitcase.

  * * * * *

  They didn't talk much during the journey, but Havelock remained in excellent humour. Not only must there be pleasure in having saved a son from ruin, but fatherly intervention had awakened old techniques, had unsheathed rusty swords from mildewed scabbards. They stopped for lunch at Banbury, and Havelock then mentioned Charles's approaching twenty-first birthday. He could not have chosen a worse time for evoking any warm response, and this may have been why he chose it, for he brought up the matter of the big party for tenants that landowners traditionally gave when their sons came of age. Havelock had done this for Lindsay, but now it was clear he didn't want to do it for Charles. Charles didn't mind a bit (he would have found such festivities irksome at the best of times), but he could only marvel at his father's astuteness in breaking the news just then. He said: 'Really, father, it suits me not to have the thing. So far as I'm concerned everybody can forget the birthday.'

  'Oh dear no, not at all. I had thought of a jaunt to town, perhaps-- just the two of us. We never have had that, have we? Dinner at my club and then perhaps a theatre.'

  'Oh, let's decide later.'

  'I thought I'd mention it, though, to stake out my claim before you plan anything else.'

  'I'm not planning. I can't make plans. I don't know what I'm going to do. Everything seems uncertain. How can it be otherwise just now?'

  'You mean that your future depends a great deal on the results of the Tripos Examination?'

  'God, no, I wasn't even thinking of that--but of course it's true. And I may as well tell you, I haven't done well. In fact I've done damn badly. Maybe I haven't even passed--and I don't care. I want some happiness in life. I don't see why it all has to be broken. I don't see--I can't--I--'

  He became speechless and incoherent, breaking down a little, and his father summoned an old and rather decrepit waiter who presided over the hotel dining-room. 'My son is ill,' he said. 'Would you kindly help me to take him to my car?'

  Charles soon pulled himself together at that. 'I don't need any help,' he said roughly. 'I'm all right. I can walk--there's nothing the matter with me.' But the old waiter had taken his arm by that time and Charles did not want to push him aside and perhaps off his feet, so before he properly knew what was happening he was taking part in a spectacle that moved slowly through the dining- room and across the hotel lobby and down the steps to the car, in front of the curious stares of a score or more onlookers. Probably they thought he was drunk. He reflected afterwards that his father must have staged it suddenly and for a mere whim before such an utterly random audience, since nobody in Banbury knew them and they were unlikely to stop there again.

  * * * * *

  Charles was ill at Beeching for several weeks, of no ailment that the local doctor could diagnose, and with no particular symptoms except a high temperature. But it was easy for Doctor Somerville to ascribe the trouble to recent overstudy, and to recommend rest and a holiday as the only but a very certain cure. Havelock was sympathetic and talked of a European trip if Charles would enjoy it later in the summer. Or perhaps he would rather stay at Beeching and do nothing except paint whenever he had the mood. But to Charles the thought of painting was a signal for despair, and the first day he got up after being in bed he collected all his paraphernalia--easel, brushes, paints and finished canvases--and packed them in an old trunk in the loft over the stables.

  Only one positive decision had emerged from the confusion of notions and emotions that had sent his temperature to fever height, and that was to visit Ladysmith Road. He had sent several letters there, addressed to Lily, and had not been surprised when they were unanswered. He knew that a personal visit might be just as fruitless, the Mansfields might refuse to admit him or discuss anything, there might be an unpleasant scene, they might even call the police (though knowing their respectabilities he did not really think there was much risk of this); but whatever happened or did not happen, some points would be elucidated, or at least removed from the sphere of total doubt. One of these questions was how far, if at all, his father's story was untrue or exaggerated. He did not expect to find much discrepancy, nevertheless the visit to Ladysmith Road became somehow obligatory in his mind, a scčne ŕ faire that had to be acted out.

  One day he went up to London without telling his father, leaving merely a message with Cobb that he might be back late that evening or the next day. On arrival at Paddington he made a routine test by telephoning the Kingsway office; a girl's voice answered that Miss Mansfield was no longer working there. This again was no astonishment. He next called in person and asked to see somebody named Ethel. Ethel, it seemed, had gone to lunch at the Lyons teashop near the British Museum where he had first set eyes on Lily. He was told to ask the girl at the cashier's desk to point out Ethel to him, and all this procedure, which normally he would have found devious and embarrassing, he went through in sombre misery that was aware of nothing but itself. Ethel was hostile; she would tell him nothing (perhaps she did not know much), but it was clear she held him responsible for at least the interruption of a friendship. After a few moments Charles left her and wandered vaguely through the streets till he found himself in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He sat down on a bench and tried to think of a way to get the afternoon over. He did not think he could concentrate on a film, still less on a revisiting of any of the places he had been to with Lily (and these had included practically everything in the guide-book), so he took an early train to Linstead and spent the intervening hours in that suburb. He knew it was no use calling on Mr. Mansfield before seven, by which time he would have finished his evening meal. Oddly, perhaps, Charles had seen little of Linstead with Lily. Except for the walk from the station to Ladysmith Road, less than half a mile and by an unchanging route, they had never made it a background of adventure or experience; they had always been hurrying somewhere else or home again afterwards. Yet Charles knew that Lily liked the place, and had shown pride in it on that first occasion he had gone there with her; but, as was her nature, she had let the matter drop when she found in him no special response. So now he walked about Linstead streets as if by so doing he could commune with something that had shared with him Lily's affections. It did not work out very well. He still found Linstead dull and featureless, its long roads of bay- windowed houses infinitely depressing. And yet, he realized, there were streets of Regency houses in the better parts of London almost as long and as uniform, and those houses too had been put up by speculative builders at a time of boom and with no aim but profit. So where, then, lay the difference that made the one style so much less deplorable than the other? The answer, which was only the beginning of other questions, gave his mind a focus for a while; but soon he was in dim perspectives again, wondering if and how he could trace a thin line of happiness for himself on the blind face of the future. Towards evening he entered a restaurant in the High Road near the station. He wasn't hungry but he wanted a cup of coffee. A first-floor window offered a view of trains that arrived every few minutes from London; he saw the countless doors open before the trains came to a halt and the crowd spill out like burst liquid, then shape into a stream, thickening and congesting as it reached the station exit; but once beyond this bottleneck the mass suddenly unliquefied--human beings with separate aims dispersing in every direction. Charles watched till after six; then he picked up his bill and left. On the way out to the cash desk he passed a big mirror and saw himself like any other fellow walking across a restaurant with his hand in his pocket feeling for change; he wondered what he would think of himself as a stranger met thus for the first time. Medium height, brown hair and eyes, no distinguishing marks--the passport specifications came easily. Or would it be no marks of distinction? Just a tired look and a worried face. But not even that; he did not think the stranger in the mirror looked more than averagely bothered about anything. A man he passed in the street outside had an air of far greater harassment, and Charles watched him for a few seconds, saw him buy an evening paper and turn to the stop-press column that gave the racing results. Charles smiled to himself; the incident was calming. People, it would seem, were apt to be neither as happy nor as unhappy as they looked; and he was one of them. The anonymity of being anybody nudged his mind with the first touch of philosophic comfort he had been able to muster. The world's end was a long way off, further even than Ladysmith Road. But then, thinking this, there came to him an echo from a forgotten source-- something he had read somewhere, he wished he could remember where-- 'It is not many miles to Mantua, no further than the end of this mad world'.

 
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