Time and time again, p.13
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Time and Time Again, p.13

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30

  Mr. Mansfield stroked his chin and was about to reply when someone pushed through the crowd and clapped him violently on the shoulder. There followed the inevitable greetings and introductions and respectful references to Sir 'Avelock and another round of bitters; it was half an hour before Charles had a chance to repeat what he had said, though somewhat less coherently.

  So Mr. Mansfield stroked his chin again. 'Charlie, wot you say does you credit. Maybe you wasn't a gentleman that once, but you tike after your dad, like 'Arry Byfield said, and your dad's a gentleman if ever there was one. That's why I give 'im my word. It's right wot 'e said too. Lily's a nice gel, as nice a gel as a father could wish to 'ave, but she wouldn't be a 'elp to you, Charlie, not in your kind of life. Man to man, and speakin' as men of the world, your dad and I agreed about that. Not that I ain't just as proud of my own family, mind you--my great-granddad was in the Battle of Waterloo--we got a 'istory, too, the Mansfields 'ave. Only, as your dad said, with all your ejucation and the position you'll 'ave later on--'

  'Oh, for God's sake,' Charles interrupted, 'will you let me tell you the plain truth? I'm not going to have the kind of future my father's planning for me. I've done so badly in my examinations I couldn't have it even if I wanted it.'

  'That's wot Lily said, and it upset 'er, thinkin' she was part responsible.'

  'Let me finish. There's no reason for anybody to be upset. When I'm twenty-one I shall have enough money and I'm going to live abroad and if Lily will marry me we can both be happy. Now then, will you consent?'

  'Charlie, it ain't a bit o' good you carryin' on about it. I give my word to your dad. You're too 'eadstrong, that's wot's the matter with you. But I tike back wot I said when I said you wasn't a gentleman. . . .' Mr. Mansfield also was beginning to feel the effects of six or seven bitters. It was almost ten o'clock; the barman was already blinking lights and calling for the last reorders; Mrs. Webber and Milly were rolling up their sleeves for a final crescendo of service. 'Gawlummy, look at the time! Charlie, boy--one more, just to show there's no ill feelin'. And call me Fred. . . . Easy now, mind them glarsses. . . . Goo' night, 'Arry . . . Goo' night, Mr. Wilkinson . . . Two more, please, Mrs. Webber, when you've a minute . . . But wot I was sayin', Charlie, you're too 'eadstrong. She's only a gel yet, but like I said to the wife, a gel of sixteen can go around with an older feller, provided 'e's a gentleman, and that's wot I thought you was, Charlie.' Mr. Mansfield seemed to have some vague awareness that he had said that before and the memory troubled him in a wispy sort of way. His eyes were red and wet, but probably owing to the smoke.

  The bitters came. Charles raised his glass and saw past the brown liquid to something on the opposite wall that brought him to a jerk of attention--the picture of a pretty girl holding up a glass of beer just as he was, and the girl reminded him of Lily, and Lily reminded him of a word that Mr. Mansfield had just spoken about her.

  'Sixteen,' Charles muttered. 'You said SIXTEEN . . .'

  'Sixteen THEN--when you was first seein' 'er . . . Goo' night, Mr. Beale--remember me to Mrs. Beale . . . Goo' night, Scotty. . . . Seventeen now--seventeen a week ago larst Sunday.'

  'She never told me.'

  'You never told 'er things neither. But I tike back wot I said, remember that.' Mr. Mansfield raised his own glass and for the first time that evening offered a toast. 'Well, Charlie . . . 'Ere's to us and our dear ones. . . .'

  * * * * *

  Charles did not remember much of what happened during the next few hours. He had an impression that they left the Prince Rupert together, but their conversation, if any, did not stay in his mind. Later he woke up in darkness with a terrific headache and an enormous confrontation of difficulties--physical difficulty in finding a light switch and, when he had found one and pressed it, mental difficulty in recognizing the scene and visual difficulty in facing any kind of illumination. At length he decided he had been asleep on the couch in the parlour at Ladysmith Road. He was fully dressed except for jacket and shoes, which were beside him.

  Feeling parched he fumbled his way to the kitchen sink. Along the lobby he could hear loud snores from upstairs. He drank several glasses of water and returned to the parlour to put on his shoes, but this was too much of an undertaking, so he leaned back on the couch. Doubtless more time passed, because when he looked again there was light beyond the Ficus elastica as well as dangling from the ceiling. He remembered then that Lily had said there were trains every hour throughout the night between Linstead and London. So it really didn't matter what time it was. This seemed an enormous boon as he laced his shoes and put on his coat. In the pocket he found a pencil and his Cambridge tailor's bill that had arrived at Beeching the previous morning; he hadn't opened it, but he did so now, merely to use the envelope. On the back of this he wrote: 'Dear Mr. Mansfield, Thanks, I'm all right. Best wishes, C.' He left the note on top of the radio-gramophone.

  As he went to the front door he could still hear snores from upstairs. They reminded him of something that sent him back to the parlour and the radio-gramophone. He crossed out 'Mr. Mansfield' and wrote 'Fred'.

  In the street the cool air, which he had hoped might be refreshing, merely invited a fuller onslaught of nausea. He had been drunk a few times before, but never like this. His last act in Ladysmith Road was to vomit, monumentally, into the gutter a few yards from the corner of the High Road. Then, with some relief, he was able to catch the 4.23 at Linstead station. From Liverpool Street, where he felt worse again after the train journey, he took a taxi to an all-night Turkish bath in a street near the Haymarket. But even after every ministration it could offer, including a long doze in the steam room, he still felt far from himself when he left it around noon. Or rather, he speculated, perhaps he did feel himself, and what he had felt before had never been himself at all. A rather grim change, as if he had grown out of something, but not yet into something else.

  * * * * *

  During the next few days at Beeching Charles was able to confirm that the change existed, though less grimly and no longer by any possibility the result of a hangover. For the first time he found himself meeting his father on territory where boundaries were recognized. He made no disclosures of his recent trip to Linstead and Havelock put no questions. Charles walked about the Beeching gardens feeling somehow adult and hard-bitten, and in a perverse kind of way relishing it. He wrote, for instance, to Brunon, who had a teaching job at Clermont-Ferrand; he asked what sort of place that was to live in. What he must wait for, of course, was his twenty-first birthday--the first step; but he gave his father no inkling of any special urgency. That would be revealed on the day he was of age for acts as well as words. Not that his planning was sensational--merely to step down finally from the educational ladder, without trying for any higher rung, and live abroad on his private income. It might not be heroic--private incomes rarely were--but he had no wish to be heroic. As for Lily in his scheme of things, he was, he knew, handicapped by her age; perhaps he would have to wait awhile--but surely not till she also was of age-- that would be unthinkable. The whole matter was one he must explore, legally to begin with, then he would know where he stood. So far he had behaved like a youth; from now on he must do things with a man's determination and responsibility.

  Havelock was immensely genial during this period. After dinner father and son would usually sit in the library drinking port for an hour or so--a pose of eighteenth-century comeliness that well matched the house. But each was secretly measuring the other and aware of a trigonometry of distance between them. Often the conversation turned to Havelock's early triumphs in the law--he liked to recollect them and how he had outwitted this or that witness or an opposing counsel. Charles could picture his father wigged and gowned and pointing a playful finger over the courtroom-- Prospero casting his spell till suddenly, the mask withdrawn, everything dissolved in Caliban fury. Charles had seen this happen in his dreams, but now, because he was no longer afraid, he did not banish it from his waking thoughts--he even welcome
d it, with a slight burlesque of being impressed. He knew his father revelled in the high drama, but his own enjoyment was to snap the tensions by some light remark that Havelock could not relish, though it was never anything to which he could object. 'I'll bet you put on a show,' was the sort of thing Charles would comment, in half- derisive admiration. For Havelock was still putting on a show.

  The darkest moment came when he asked why Charles didn't paint any more--had he given it up after Charnock's verdict? Charles shrugged in answer, then said obscurely: 'You're the one to worry about verdicts, not me.' The truth was, he couldn't endure just then even the thought of painting, much less a discussion of it with his father. It belonged somehow to the part of him that was hurt, the part that could not be bitten hard enough to become hard- bitten.

  Sometimes comedy came unsought as when, for instance, Charles asked if there had ever been any reply to that letter Havelock had written to The Times about the honorary degree.

  Havelock seemed to have to ransack his memory for any recollection of the incident (he always found it easy to forget the foolish things he had done), but at length he replied: 'Oh yes, just one-- but only from some crazy fellow.' Amiably he went to the bureau where he kept his papers and began a search. 'Some parson--if I can find it. Addressed to me personally, of course--he must have known it wouldn't do for The Times. . . . Here it is.'

  Scribbled on embossed notepaper from a Yorkshire vicarage, it pointed out that the initial letters of 'Sagacity, Willpower, Integrity, Nobility, Experience' (which Havelock had offered as his own better translation of the Latin) could well supply a motto for the entire Coalition administration in its choice of appointees to government positions--a choice naturally dictated by such a leader as Lloyd George. The motto the parson suggested was: 'Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Never English.'

  'Now who would have thought of that?' Havelock mused. 'Of course the fellow must be off his head.'

  Charles began to laugh, and soon was laughing almost hysterically. The whole incident seemed to find its perfect end in a joke that was all the better because his father did not see it.

  * * * * *

  The twenty-first birthday fell on a Friday, so Charles and his father went to London that morning, having planned a weekend that would include dinner at Havelock's club and an evening at the London Pavilion, where there was a good revue. They would stay a couple of nights at Claridge's and return on Sunday morning. On the Sunday evening a few local guests would come to dinner at Beeching.

  Havelock's club was among the more exclusive, and it was hard for a young man just of age not to feel that admittance to it, as his father's honoured guest, symbolized something not to be lightly disregarded in the world's scheme of things. The fact that Charles was about to disregard it, and not lightly at all, made him feel rather serious as he sat in the deep library chair before dinner and drank an almost sacramental sherry. The superbly proportioned room with its high ceiling and near-great portraits and vistas of wine-red carpet--all were alchemy to the soul; it was a very wonderful life, doubtless, for those who were rich and important and well content to be both. A far cry from Ladysmith Road, and nearly as far from living at Clermont-Ferrand on three hundred a year (for Brunon had already replied that this was possible if one were content with a modest ménage). It only remained now for Charles to make the announcement, and because he would rather spoil an evening's entertainment than a good dinner he had decided to bring the matter up while they were drinking coffee in the library afterwards. There would only be a short time then before having to leave for the theatre, but Charles did not see why the announcement should take long.

  The dinner was indeed good, though Havelock assured him it was just the ordinary club meal. 'But I'm glad I brought you here, Charles. I hope to put you up for membership one of these days, so it's appropriate we should choose it for our celebration. Incidentally, I believe this is the first time we've ever dined out together.' It was, not counting train dinners and times when they had both been guests of neighbours around Beeching. 'You may not realize it, Charles, but a father finds it hard to get to know his son, and therefore easy to postpone the effort. I hope we shall make that effort jointly--from now on.' He waited for some response, but Charles could not think of any. 'I'd like this to be the beginning of confidence between us. Don't think I shall be unsympathetic-- even about Lily.'

  Charles flushed, resenting Havelock's use of the first name, as if there were in it some intolerable assertion of intimacy. Yet he could not help probing the matter by answering: 'Yes, you met her, didn't you?'

  'I did, and thought her charming--though of course utterly unsuited to you, apart from her age.'

  'You mean her Cockney accent--all that?'

  'Well, it would be no help, though she might manage to unlearn it-- others have. Much more important is a lack in her of something you need, Charles--you especially. Even at her age one can tell she hasn't got it--a drive, a dynamism--a woman who will push you ahead, not just freewheel along in any mood you set for her.'

  Charles was surprised by his father's assessment of Lily; he had expected the class angle to count much more. He said: 'How about being happy? Doesn't that come into the scheme of what you think I need?'

  'No one should put happiness first, Charles. One doesn't die without it. From my own experience I can assure you of that.'

  'But wouldn't you have PREFERRED to be happy?'

  'Yes--if it could have come from achievement--from triumph. But not from mere BEING. Not just bliss. The Orientals believe in bliss--and look at them. Whereas, to take an opposite example, the Americans PURSUE happiness--it's the pursuit they stress, not the happiness itself. The phrase is even written into their Declaration of Independence--and look at THEM. They count.'

  'Because they've pursued happiness without finding it?'

  'Yes--rather than finding it and languishing with it.'

  'I don't much care for pursuing things. I suppose that's why I'm no good at games.'

  'But you haven't the blood in you to languish. Or if you have, I don't know where it comes from.'

  'From my mother, perhaps. I hope so.'

  'You mean you wish you were not my son?'

  'I don't think that follows . . . but haven't you wished it too-- sometimes?'

  They faced each other, as near to the core of some central issue as they had ever been, and aware of it. At that moment, if the message in Havelock's eyes had persisted, Charles might have decided to leave Beeching and his father and never see either again. But it changed, and Havelock further eased the tension by a slow smile. 'I don't see any reason to bicker, Charles. I just wanted you to know I liked Lily.'

  'That's fine. I liked her too. In fact I still like her. And if I had the chance, now that I'm of age, I'd marry her. But you've seen to it that I haven't the chance.'

  'You can still have it if you want it enough.'

  'What do you mean?'

  'Didn't Mansfield tell you ANYTHING?'

  'He said nothing about . . .' Then Charles saw he had fallen into the oldest trap in the cross-examiner's repertoire. 'Oh, well,' he added, transferring some of his anger to himself, 'you evidently know it all, so what's the difference? Mansfield told me nothing except that he'd given you his word, he'd given you his word--he repeated that like a litany.'

  'Then he kept his word too. Quite a fellow.' Havelock paused. 'Share another bottle of claret? . . . No? . . . Just the ordinary claret they have here, but not bad, I think. . . . Sure you won't? . . . Charles, let me be frank about all this. No father nowadays can put a final veto on a son's marriage--and that's as it should be. But when the girl's still so young-- younger than you ever thought she was, younger than she told you she was . . . surely there's a case for delay--or at least no need for any special hurry? Mansfield and I agreed that if, at the end of a year, you and Lily both wished, you could begin meeting again . . . and later still--say in eighteen months or two years-- and she'd only be nineteen then, remember--'

bsp; 'And in the meantime?'

  'No meetings--no letters, communications of any kind--for a year-- on either side.'

  'And what did SHE say to that?'

  'Very little, as I remember. She didn't make a scene, though. Bless her.'

  'But she agreed to the separation?'

  'In all fairness, Charles, I must point out there was nothing else she could do. After all, a father does have some control over a seventeen-year-old--'

  'Did she know it was only to be for a year?'

  'We didn't go into that with her. I didn't intend to with you, either, but I was tempted just now--I wanted to make your birthday a more cheerful one. Don't be distressed. If, after a year, as I said--'

  'I know what YOU said--what I want to know is what SHE said. What were the words she used? How did she take it? I can't believe--'

  'As I told you before, she was perfectly charming--both to her father and me. Other girls might have been sulky or hysterical or hostile--instead of which--well, I couldn't help admiring her attitude. And perhaps in her heart she felt the reasonableness of ours.'

  'Damn the reasonableness.'

  'A year isn't much, Charles. You once said that yourself.'

  Charles remembered and it made him bitter. 'Yes, I suppose as a test of true love it's romantic as well as reasonable.'

  'I've weakened it, though, by letting you know it exists. I've given you that much advantage.'

  'Like throwing a dog a small bone.'

  'No . . . like revising--slightly--the handicap in a race.'

  'To make it more exciting for the spectator.'

  Havelock chuckled. 'Your brain works rather well when you're excited.'

  'I'm not excited--not in the way you are, anyhow. And whether it's a week or a month or a year, as far as I'm concerned, I promise nothing, I've agreed to nothing. Let's end the argument on that.'

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment