Time and time again, p.12
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       Time and Time Again, p.12

          
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  He reached Number 214 about a quarter-past seven and rang the doorbell. He was not very nervous. The afternoon in Linstead, walking about and thinking things over, had been helpful. He saw the familiar lace curtains in the bay-window and noticed the centre one draped to enshroud a plant that was new there--an exotic fleshy- leaved thing, bigger than the much derided aspidistra. Probably Mr. Mansfield's latest pride. Somehow this evidence, if it were such, that Mr. Mansfield was still functioning in his beloved world of horticulture gave Charles another nudge of comfort. A nice job, being a park-keeper--and if one wanted to make a play on words rather than realities, what had generations of Andersons been if not park-keepers, since Beeching was called Beeching Park on old maps? The idea beguiled him--Havelock and Mr. Mansfield in a park together. But it was thus with so many words--LOVE, for instance, a perfect catch-all of meaning, since one could use it about anything from God to goulash; and yet so clinchingly compared with LIKE, because one never spoke of 'falling in liking' with anybody, and also because one often said one 'rather liked' somebody, whereas nobody ever 'rather loved'. For instance, he rather liked Mr. Mansfield . . . And so his thoughts rambled on till he heard footsteps approaching along the hall. He knew then he was in luck-- not only because someone was at home, but the footsteps were surely those of the one he rather liked. The door opened. Yes, indeed. Mr. Mansfield was in gardening boots and an old jacket, and carried a large earthenware flowerpot which he had apparently been too absentminded to set down anywhere. Naturally he was more taken aback than Charles, though the latter had to scrap all his rehearsed conversational openings when Mr. Mansfield suddenly dropped the flowerpot. It shattered on the floor of the lobby. Charles had prefigured just about every possibility but this. He crossed the threshold without invitation and stooped to gather the fragments into a heap.

  'Butterfingers!' exclaimed Mr. Mansfield, gasping a word that Charles had never expected to be the first one spoken between them. 'But you give me a turn, Charlie, that's wot you did--you really give me a turn. You was the larst person I'd 'ave thought--'

  'I'm terribly sorry,' Charles interrupted. 'Perhaps I should have let you know, but--here, let me tidy this up.'

  'No, it's all right.' Mr. Mansfield was fast recovering, and with recovery came a mounting resentment. 'Look 'ere now, I dunno wot you've come for--Lily ain't 'ere now, your dad must 'ave told you that. I really dunno wot you want, unless it's to mike trouble, and I tell you, I ain't goin' to 'ave no trouble. See?'

  But having delivered that, his protest and his credo, he was clearly at a loss to continue. He let Charles open the door of the parlour and followed him meekly inside. Then with his own big hands, but carefully wiping the garden dirt off them before he touched the knob, he closed the door. He looked sheerly incongruous with his old clothes and gardening boots in this small spotless room packed with furniture and ornaments. But at least, Charles reflected, he seemed already to have exhausted his anger.

  Charles said, breathlessly improvising: 'Mr. Mansfield, I've not come here to make trouble at all. I don't want it any more than you do. My father, as you say, told me more or less what happened, but I felt I had to see you for confirmation before I could take all of it in. . . .'

  'It ain't a bit of good,' Mr. Mansfield interposed. 'She ain't 'ere and you ain't goin' to see 'er. I give my word and I mean it.'

  'You mean you give me your word now or you gave it to my father?'

  'I give my word, that's all. I just give my word.' And then abruptly: 'I believe that front door's left open. Mind if I see?'

  And so it was, the front door left wide open, as people never left their front doors open in Ladysmith Road; amidst the excitement of their meeting and the smashed flowerpot neither of them had thought to close it. Mr. Mansfield went out to the lobby and did so, while Charles was aware of a quality he knew and loved in Lily, a gentleness, a humility, an almost foolish sweetness that would make Mr. Mansfield ask an unwelcome visitor if he might close the door of his own house.

  When Mr. Mansfield returned to the parlour Charles abandoned all his mentally rehearsed speeches to resume eagerly: 'Let me tell you this before we go any further. I love Lily and I want to marry her. And if I'd known there'd be all this upset I'd never have . . .' But then he stopped. What would he never have done? Did he mean merely that had he known Reg Robinson would be motorcycling anywhere near the Swan, he would have found another town and another hotel? This, even if true, was hardly worth saying; but was it the whole truth anyhow? Could there not be regrets that did not imply apology or confession--regrets for the grinding of memory into the sawdust of shabby outcome? But Charles could not hope to explain this question, still less expect an answer; and therefore he did not know how to finish his sentence. He broke off simply, without floundering, content with the silence that followed. Then, as if it had been the most natural enquiry of a friend, he said: 'She's all right, I suppose?'

  Mr. Mansfield replied in the same key and seemed relieved to do so. 'She's with the wife in the country. I give my word I wouldn't say where, but it's a nice place. She'll stay there awhile. She ain't come to no 'arm, in a manner of speakin'. Oh, she's all right-- right as rain--she's at the 'ouse of the wife's sister and 'er 'usband. 'Er 'olidays was due, anyway. The others are on their 'olidays too.'

  'Leaving you all by yourself?'

  Mr. Mansfield nodded, a crease of humour rounding the edge of his nostrils. 'To tell the truth I ain't sorry. Gives me a chance to do a bit extra in the garden.'

  'I was admiring this plant as I came in. New, isn't it?'

  'Ficus elastica. From Brazil. Fancy you noticin' it. Grows out of doors as a rule, but I brought it 'ome to see wot 'appened. Sometimes they like a change. Bin a good year for most things. I got a fine show of roses out in the back.' He paused as if meditating an invitation and then thinking better of it. 'I was just goin' out to water 'em when you come.'

  'I'm interrupting you, I'm afraid.'

  'Oh, they can wait. Matter of fact, if you don't mind, I'll take off these old boots. Dunno wot the wife would say if she saw me in 'ere with 'em on. . . . Be back in a minute.'

  Mr. Mansfield then went out and Charles heard him climb the stairs to the floor above--the room above also, for after a few seconds the ceiling shook to heavy footfalls and some glass beads in the lampshade began to tinkle. Charles had nothing to do but look about him, remembering the only time he had been in the room before and Reg's terrific handshake received over there by the piano. Pictures and photographs crowded the walls, there was an old- fashioned overmantel above the fireplace, and a centre table covered what would otherwise have been the only completely visible square yard of carpet. Pride of place was given to a modern radio- gramophone of exactly the same model as the one at Beeching. Sir Havelock had not been keen enough on music to equip his house with anything de luxe; whereas the Mansfields must have made sacrifices to buy such a relatively expensive machine. So the two families could meet, as it were, on the social level of mass-produced entertainment. And for that matter, Charles reflected, if one were to go round with the eye of an artist there was just as much junk in the Beeching drawing-room.

  Presently footsteps descended the stairs and Mr. Mansfield re- entered. He had changed not only his boots but his clothes, and Charles thought he must also have brushed his hair and given himself a general spruce-up.

  'Well, I wasn't long, was I? . . . Dunno 'ow you feel, but it seems to me--if you ain't in a 'urry . . . always quiet there this time of an evenin' . . . .'

  'Why, yes,' said Charles. 'A good idea.'

  * * * * *

  They talked mostly about gardening as they walked the short distance to the Prince Rupert, and Charles did not press the conversation to any more serious issue. He could bide his time, and he judged that after a drink or so Mr. Mansfield might be more communicative. Charles had learned very little so far, except that Lily's father had given a promise to his; he felt he must know more about this, where and how it had happened; it was the atmosphere he wanted to explore almost more than the territory.

  Then, during that first moment at the bar of the Prince Rupert, something happened that told him so much of everything that all else was merely a filling-in of detail. Charles had been the first to say 'What's yours, Mr. Mansfield?' and Mr. Mansfield had replied: 'Bitter for me, Charlie.' There was nobody else in the bar, not even the barmaid; soon, however, a buxom woman who was evidently the landlady came up and greeted Mr. Mansfield as an old and favourite customer. 'Two bitters,' said Charles, but before she could serve them Mr. Mansfield cleared his throat to proclaim with great solemnity: 'Mrs. Webber, I want you to meet Mr. Anderson.' Mrs. Webber smiled and Charles shook hands with her across the counter. She had the air of being a great lady. Mr. Mansfield continued: 'This Mr. Anderson's the son of Sir 'Avelock Anderson who was with me 'ere the other evening--you remember Sir 'Avelock, Mrs. Webber?'

  'My goodness, I should say I do! We were so glad to meet Sir Havelock.' And then to Charles: 'What a wonderful man your father is! The stories he told! I really do believe he enjoyed himself here, don't you, Mr. Mansfield?'

  Charles could believe it also. Over their drinks Mr. Mansfield was not in the least unwilling to talk of an event that had evidently added so much to his local prestige. Havelock, it seemed, had in the first place received a letter from Mr. Mansfield. 'Mind you, it was Reg that wrote it--Reg said your dad ought to know. And then your dad came to see us as soon as 'e got the letter. We was 'avin' supper but 'e'd 'ad 'is so the wife made 'im a cup of tea and we all talked it over.'

  'ALL?'

  'Well, not Bert and Maud and Evelyn--they was away on their 'olidays, like I said. But Reg was there.'

  'And Lily?'

  'She come in during the middle of it. She'd just bin round the corner to get some needles.'

  'Some WHAT?'

  'Needles. For the gramophone. Reg brought over a lot of new records and we was all goin' to 'ear 'em after supper.' Mr. Mansfield took in Charles's glance and slowly interpreted it. 'Oh, we was all on good terms by then--we'd 'ad it out with 'er. No good 'angin' on to trouble, I always says, or it'll 'ang on to you. . . . Besides, we couldn't blame it all on the girl. She didn't orter 'ave done what she did, but 'oos fault was it really?'

  Charles shook his head, not in either reluctance or inability to answer the question, but because his mind was boggling at the picture of his father sitting at the table in the living-room at Ladysmith Road, drinking a cup of tea and 'talking it over' with the Mansfields and Reg, then Lily entering the domestic circle with a supply of gramophone needles. . . .

  Mr. Mansfield took advantage of the silence to catch Mrs. Webber's eye and signal for two more bitters. He continued: 'I'll tell you, Charlie--and once said we won't say no more--it was YOUR fault, because you wasn't a gentleman. I thought you was, and I was wrong. I didn't know 'OO you was, mind you, but I did think you was a gentleman. That time after we first met in the street I said to Lily when she got 'ome . . . Lily, I said, 'e's a gentleman. Because I did think you was.'

  Charles could only pick up a single point of this indictment. He said weakly: 'I don't quite know what you mean when you say you didn't know WHO I was . . . Lily introduced us.'

  'Wot I mean is, you never told Lily about your dad bein' a Sir. It was Reg found that out. You never told nobody.'

  Charles agreed that he hadn't. 'I didn't think of it--or maybe when I did I thought it would sound boastful. Anyhow, to get back to what happened, my father came to see you and had a talk with you all, and then . . . then what?'

  'That's all. We just talked and I brought 'im 'ere and 'im and me 'ad another talk, man to man. A real gentleman, your dad is, that I will say.'

  'What did Lily think of him?'

  'She liked 'im. Who could 'elp it? Of course 'e was upset, but then afterwards 'e got friendly same as if 'e'd known us all for years.'

  'He was upset?'

  'An' why shouldn't 'e be? 'E 'adn't bin told any more than we 'ad. 'E didn't even know you knew Lily. It was a shock to 'im, the way it would be to any father. 'E 'as 'is 'opes on you, Charlie. An' all the time 'e thought you was studyin' at college you was carryin' on with a gel 'e never knew about. Natchrally 'e was upset. . . . Mind you, that was at first, at the 'ouse. Afterwards when 'im and me came 'ere we 'ad quite a lively time, like Mrs. Webber was sayin'.'

  'Tell me--tell me just this--did you ever, during the talk you had-- threaten--or say anything to him--about bringing a charge against me?'

  'A CHARGE?'

  Mr. Mansfield's stare was so bewildered that Charles knew it was the completest possible answer in itself. But he felt driven to continue: 'A charge in a police court--a charge of. . . .' But he somehow could not bring himself to speak the word 'abduction'.

  'Gawd, no, I never said nothin' about that,' Mr. Mansfield answered glumly, as if it were a mystery that must remain one or spoil his evening. Charles was devoutly glad that an interruption enabled them both to drop the matter at exactly that moment. For the door of the bar had opened and a voice was shouting: 'Wotcher, Freddy-- and 'ow's Freddy?'

  Mr. Mansfield swung round, happily diverted. 'Well, if it ain't old 'Arry! . . . 'Arry, this is Mr. Anderson--you remember Sir 'Avelock Anderson 'oo I came 'ere with the other night? This is Sir 'Avelock's son . . . Charlie . . . Mr. Byfield.'

  Harry Byfield, an excited little tub of a man with waxed moustaches, gripped Charles's hand and held it while he bestowed a beam of over-acted recognition. 'My goodness, and don't 'e look like 'is dad too! Same eyes, same nose . . . Charlie, what're you 'avin'? . . . Three bitters, Mrs. Webber, and 'ow's Mrs. Webber?'

  Charles, who had never thought he looked much like his father at all, found this rather disconcerting. But it was a sample of what went on all the evening, with customer after customer. What an audience his father must have had, he reflected, and after so many bitters and in spite of his own personal troubles, he could not help feeling slightly amused.

  * * * * *

  The bar filled up as the evening progressed, and the very crowding of it enabled Charles occasionally to get Mr. Mansfield alone. Then he put questions that seemed all the more urgent because he had either to shout them at normal speaking range or else whisper them loudly in Mr. Mansfield's ear. Whenever possible he did the latter. Nobody was listening or trying to, and there could not perhaps have been any place safer for the discussion of utterly private matters.

  'Tell me about Lily,' he kept saying more insistently as the drinks affected him. 'Tell me about her. You say she's all right--but is she happy?'

  'Well, now, you know Lily,' Mr. Mansfield temporized. 'She ain't wot you might call an un'appy gel by nature. She was upset, like we all was, but you don't 'ave to worry. She'll get over it.'

  Charles was more worried that she might than that she mightn't. And then through the undulating lens of alcohol, he saw Lily as incomparably fair and lovely, beckoning to him from some distant land where she would be happy anyway, with him if he joined her or without him if he didn't. Yes, he knew Lily. She liked people. She LOVED people. She loved EVERYBODY. She loved her father and mother and Bert and Evelyn and Maud. She loved Reg. She loved Mr. Graybar and Ethel and the busker outside the theatre who had stuck his cap through the window of their taxi. She loved Weigall and Peters. She even loved his father. It was easy for her to do all she could to please all these people because she loved them all. And for the same reason it had been easy for her to do anything she could to please him, Charles. Why, she even loved places too. She loved Linstead. She loved Cambridge. And she would doubtless love that nice place in the country whose whereabouts Mr. Mansfield would not disclose.

  'But surely we can write to each other,' Charles pleaded. 'If I send a letter won't you forward it?'

  'I give my word I wouldn't, Charlie.'

  'But what if she writes to me? Can't I answer? You can't stop her from writing.'

  'Well, now, Charlie, we was all 'opin' you'd understand.'

  'I'm damned if I do. I don't think you do either. Because--don't you realize?--I want to marry her. I asked her and she said she would if you consented. I'm twenty-one this month, so I don't need my father's consent after that.'

 
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