Time and time again, p.2
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       Time and Time Again, p.2
 

          

  The trouble was that so far Palan seemed to have scored rather heavily. Even in his bad French he had drawn laughs from the other delegates at the expense of Sir Malcolm, and Sir Malcolm had found it possible to keep his temper in public only by losing it a little in private. Charles had had to endure this too. There were times when he would have been relieved to learn, on rejoining the Conference for another session, that Palan had been run over by a taxi during the interval. And yet . . . in a way he could not exactly analyse he felt a quality in Palan that made him picture himself victorious, but also magnanimous, over such a foe . . . He imagined himself saying, at some reception after a draft agreement had been signed on all the terms that Palan's side had at first violently opposed: 'I trust, M'sieur Palan, there are no hard feelings between us. For myself, and speaking also on behalf of Sir Malcolm Bingay, who is unfortunately confined to his bed by a severe attack of arthritis--I can assure you, etc. etc. . . .' It would sound good in his own perfect French.

  Unfortunately nothing of all this seemed likely, except perhaps Sir Malcolm's arthritis, which did indeed get worse as the Conference proceeded.

  Once, in the street outside the building in which the Conference was being held, a little girl of nine or ten presented Palan with a bunch of flowers. Palan picked up the child in his arms and kissed her. A few bystanders smiled. Charles, who had been a witness from a distance, turned away as shyly as if the incident had involved himself. Again he envied Palan.

  * * * * *

  How refreshing, amidst these encounters and experiences, to think of Gerald's arrival and the birthday dinner. As soon as he had received the answering wire Charles went to the Cheval Noir, a small restaurant near the Champs Elysées, which was a favourite of his--not one of those famous institutions like Prunier's or Voisin's, meccas for tourists, but the sort of place he would have been disappointed to hear spoken of by any Englishman or American, and that he himself was careful never to recommend. At the Cheval Noir he talked to Henri. Of course the dinner was not to be planned in detail--it was part of Charles's anticipated pleasure that he would discuss such important matters with Gerald and (using all the tact of which he was capable) let the boy seem to be making his own decisions. But there could be no harm in considering possibilities. Only a simple dinner--soup, fish, then flesh or fowl of the kind that Henri knew how to cook as well as any man in Europe. No cocktails beforehand, but perhaps a glass of Vino de Pasto--no champagne (unless Gerald seemed disappointed by its absence), but a Chablis and then one of those honest Burgundies-- say a Chambertin. . . . And crępes Suzette to follow, as a sporting concession to a youthful palate--Charles himself was not fond of them (just dressed-up pancakes, after all), but they did offer a spectacle in the festive mood. Then brandy--just a plain good one--and finally, if Gerald wanted to take a small chance or to show off, a very mild and thin cigar, even if he put it down after a few whiffs. . . . And during all this they would be talking, their minds released by the warmth and the wine and by the emerging phenomenon of their mutual discovery; they would talk till near midnight--father and son, aware of a new relationship . . . they would gossip, exchange adult confidences, perhaps even a few slightly risqué stories. . . . And then last of all, if the intimacy had proceeded so far, and if Gerald felt that the evening was still young, they might take a taxi to the Place Pigalle for another kind of initiation. Charles believed that a trial crop of wild oats should be sown under experienced sponsorship--nothing extreme, of course--just a visit to one of those rather absurd places where it could do a young man no harm to get his first sight of a row of nude women cavorting so closely that one could see all their imperfections.

  How pleasant to think of these things, to plan them gently in his mind while Palan bellowed his abominable French amidst the gilt- framed mirrors and Buhl cabinets that seemed, by their contrasting elegance, to focus the whole eye of the past upon the world's deplorable present.

  * * * * *

  On the day of Gerald's arrival events at the Conference had been particularly trying. To begin with, Sir Malcolm's arthritis had forced him to quit at the lunch interval and leave affairs during the afternoon in Charles's hands, and this, which in normal circumstances would have been both a challenge and an opportunity, turned out much more like an ordeal. For Palan, under the silent surveillance of his own superior, had concentrated upon Charles with a certain grim joyousness that had been just amusing enough to keep the Conference room in the wrong kind of good humour; Charles had a feeling he was being baited, and that even a few of his colleagues were enjoying the performance. Not that Charles lacked weapons of his own. He was sound if somewhat precise in argument; he had an expert's knowledge of the matters being discussed; he was also patient, often witty, and unfailingly polite. He could not bring himself to show temper, even when he felt it rising within himself; whereas Palan, he suspected, often put on an act of temper when he felt none. Moreover, Charles had acquired a masterly technique of listening with apparent equanimity while he was being ridiculed. 'M'sieur Anderson is, of course, a man of much greater diplomatic experience than I,' Palan had mocked, 'but I would venture to match my knowledge of the world against his, for when you have probed behind all the statistics in blue books and white papers, when you have got down to the bedrock of reality, what is it that you find? Is it merely a diplomatic game, to be played by those who have been to the right school and college like M'sieur Anderson, or is it LIFE?' And all that sort of thing.

  Charles had replied: 'M'sieur Palan is in error if he supposes that I regard these proceedings as a game. Since I dislike games I am certainly under no temptation to adopt such an attitude.' (A few titters from his neighbours.) 'And as for M'sieur Palan's knowledge of the world, I have no means of computing it, but I should not readily assume it to be greater than mine, though doubtless it has been of a very different kind of world.' There had been a general laugh at that, but Charles had not been quite certain at whose expense.

  Throughout the afternoon they had sparred, and more and more it had seemed to Charles that Palan was regarding him as a personal adversary. By the time of the adjournment Charles could only pray that Sir Malcolm's arthritis would improve enough for him to take over the following morning. Charles felt that though he had done quite creditably as a substitute, it had worn some frayed edges on his nerves.

  His spirits rose, however, as he waited on the platform at the Gare de l'Est. It was good to have a growing-up son, and he thought happily of the corner table at the Cheval Noir which Henri was doubtless already preparing. The train came in, with the familiar place names attached to its coaches--Berne, Delle, Vesoul, Chaumont, Troyes . . . It had been Gerald's first European trip-- what magic it must have contained, and now to culminate so fittingly!

  Charles was still thinking of that when his son spotted him first. 'Hello, dad. . . . I didn't really expect you to meet me--I thought you'd be too busy.'

  'My dear boy. . . .' They shook hands. 'However busy I am, I'd take time off for this, I assure you.'

  The noise of the station excused him from saying more. Gerald was instructing the porter who had carried his luggage--a small suitcase--from the train. Charles was tactful enough not to correct or amplify the boy's halting French, but he did, with his own French, summon a taxi and ask the driver to put the suitcase in the cab. Gerald then tipped the porter a hundred-franc note and Charles told the driver to take them to the Crillon.

  As the taxi left the station Charles said: 'How times have changed-- I can remember when a hundred francs was really money! But the city hasn't lost its fascination. Did you see much of it on your way out?'

  'Not a thing. The train just shunted into some station in the middle of the night. I was half asleep.'

  'Ah yes, the Ceinture.' Charles could not repress an emotion of astonishment--that anyone who had never seen Paris before could allow himself to be taken in and out without even leaving the train for a quick look. 'You were here once when you were a baby--just passing through. But t
his can be called your first real visit.'

  'Yes. I know I ought to get a thrill.' The boy was peering through the window. 'I must say everything looks a bit run down after Switzerland.'

  'Everything is. France, remember, has been through two world wars.'

  'And the Swiss have been sitting pretty, I know. But the mountains-- the clean air--I think that's really more in my line than big cities.'

  'You went to the right country, then. You look very fit. And still growing--or is it my imagination?'

  Gerald was a little shy of his height, which was already six foot one. He laughed. 'Oh, I hope not, or I'll be a freak. I think I've stopped, though.'

  'I sometimes wish I had an inch or two more myself. Not that five feet nine is really short. But you can look over my head.'

  'It's useful in climbing,' Gerald admitted.

  'Did you do much of that?'

  'Just Pilatus and the Faulhorn and some of the easier ones.'

  Charles was suddenly aware of an emotion which, in a younger man and in connection with a woman, he would have diagnosed as jealousy. 'So you got along all right with that schoolmaster--I forget his name?'

  'Tubby Conklin? Oh, he isn't so bad when you get to know him. Not really stuffy--just a bit of a watchdog. I suppose he felt he had to be, with all of us on his hands.'

  STUFFY. Charles caught the word as if it had been a hit below the belt, but immediately decided that Gerald was unlikely to have heard of the nickname--and if he had, as he must sooner or later, what did it matter? Perhaps that was one of the confessions that would develop so naturally towards midnight at the Cheval Noir. He imagined an opening. 'D'you know what they call me at the Office, Gerald? STUFFY Anderson.' (Pause for merriment.) 'I suppose having any sort of nickname's a good sign--after all, they called Disraeli Dizzy, but you can't imagine Gladstone ever being called Gladdy. . . . Gladwyn Jebb, perhaps, but not Gladstone. . . . I hope, though, I'm not TOO stuffy. Now that you're old enough to judge, you must tell me if ever you think I am.' Perhaps he would be able to talk like that before the evening was over.

  Gerald was still staring out of the taxi window. 'Where are we going, dad?'

  'The Crillon. My hotel. I thought you might like a bath before dinner. I have to change myself anyhow.'

  'Change? You mean--' Gerald looked round and seemed to be studying his father's attire.

  'Well, I had thought of a black tie in your honour.'

  'I'm afraid I didn't bring--'

  'Oh, then it doesn't matter. I'll wear what I have on, and if your lounge suit needs pressing the hotel people can do it in a hurry.'

  'I'm terribly sorry, Dad, but I'll have to wear what I have on, too. All my clothes went through in a trunk to London--this bag's only got souvenirs and things in it--'

  What Gerald had on included an open-necked shirt, tweed jacket, and grey flannel trousers.

  Charles smiled. 'You could have something of mine, but since you've grown so tall I rather doubt . . . Well, the only real essential is a tie--which I CAN provide. I can also lend you pyjamas.'

  'Pyjamas?'

  'In case you forgot to pack them. And don't worry about a room-- the Crillon can fix you up in my suite.'

  'But I--I'm--I wasn't planning to stay overnight. I'm booked through on the boat train from St. Lazare--'

  'Tonight?'

  'Yes. I'm terribly sorry if--'

  Charles was hurt, but did not want to hurt himself more by showing it. 'You didn't say so, and I'm afraid I assumed--'

  'I didn't think it mattered so long as there was time for dinner.'

  'Of course. Oh, of course. Though if you wished I daresay even as late as this I could have your train ticket changed--'

  'Except that I--I'd--well, actually I'd planned to join up with some of the others on the boat-train--some of the people I'd been with--I sort of promised . . . And then I've got dates in London tomorrow--Mallinson, for one--he has to fix a filling that came loose, so you see . . .'

  'My dear boy, that's all right--don't let it bother you. I'm glad you're careful of your teeth--most important. . . . Well, here we are--the Place de la Concorde--one of the great sights of the world, and the best time to see it is about now when the lights are just coming on. Rather splendid, don't you think?'

  Gerald seemed much more impressed by his father's suite when they reached it. 'The British taxpayer certainly has to shell out for this,' he commented, walking around.

  'Only because the British Government is anxious that its representatives abroad should not appear as impoverished as they usually are.'

  Gerald grinned. 'Are WE impoverished?'

  'We certainly should be if we had to live on my salary.'

  'Ah . . . so the old family fortune's standing up pretty well?'

  Charles was never quite sure when Gerald was having fun with him, or what kind of fun it was. He answered, half seriously: 'It isn't much of a fortune, after inflation and taxes. But you needn't worry.'

  'Oh, I don't. . . . You know, dad, if I were you I'd spend every penny during the next ten years or so, then you'd be sure of enjoying yourself. Or is that a crazy idea?'

  'Not at all. You'd be surprised how popular it seems to be--hence in part the present state of Europe. But don't get me on to politics or I shall say the kind of things that annoy Sir Malcolm.'

  'Your boss?'

  'Boss, chief, or head of department.'

  'Like rod, pole, or perch?'

  'Exactly.'

  'What kind of chap is he?'

  'Very able. I'd introduce you if he were staying here, but he prefers the Embassy. A fine diplomat and--so they say--an EXCEEDINGLY fine bridge player.'

  'I guess all that means you don't like him much.'

  'Oh now, come, come,' protested Charles with restrained glee. 'You mustn't guess anything of the sort. Sir Malcolm and I work very well in harness. But even a horse doesn't want to be in harness all the time.'

  Gerald laughed heartily, and Charles thought that the evening, after a somewhat inauspicious start, was proceeding well.

  * * * * *

  An hour later they were at the corner table in the Cheval Noir with Henri hovering about them like a benign and elderly angel. Charles introduced Gerald proudly. 'Henri, I want you to meet my son. Quite an occasion--his first evening in Paris as well as his seventeenth birthday.'

  Henri bowed, but Gerald offered his hand; Charles was pleased at this--it was intelligent of the boy to realize that Henri was not just an ordinary restaurant keeper. After the exchange of civilities Charles added: 'Henri is one of mankind's truest benefactors--his huîtres Mornay puts him with Cellini and Michelangelo. Too bad they're out of season--oysters, I mean.'

  After Henri, beaming at the compliment, had gone off, Gerald said: 'Do you really think cooking's an art like painting, dad?'

  'A much HIGHER art than some modern painting. Anyhow, it's a polite thing to say to a cook who really is an artist.'

  'I suppose being a diplomat you get a lot of practice saying polite things.'

  'I wish I got more. I sometimes feel at a disadvantage because I'm not equally proficient in saying nasty things.' He was thinking of Palan.

  'Why's that?'

  'Perhaps because the world isn't getting any better.' Charles rallied himself from the dark reflection. 'Though I must admit I see it looking pretty good here and now.' Henri was serving the Vino de Pasto. 'I'm very happy to be with you tonight, Gerald. I drink an affectionate toast to your future.'

  Gerald grinned embarrassedly, then sipped from his glass. 'Thanks, dad. Is this sherry?'

  'Yes. . . . Smoke a cigarette if you like--it's the only wine that isn't spoiled by smoking.' Charles, proffering his cigarette case, thought he had conveyed his hint rather tactfully. 'I hope you like it.'

  'It's--well, I daresay one could get used to it.'

  'Just about my own first reaction. That, I remember, was at a Foundation dinner at Cambridge. I mixed my drinks rather recklessly--with the inevitable res
ult. My gyp told me afterwards I'd tried to festoon the chapel belfry with toilet paper.'

  Gerald laughed. 'It's hard to imagine you ever getting drunk.'

  'That's because you think of me as I am today.'

  'Or else because I really don't know you properly.'

  The remark, so seemingly cold, was actually warm to Charles; it hinted that Gerald too was aware of the barrier and that such awareness might be a first step towards their joint effort to remove it. He said agreeably: 'I've often thought that's one of the biggest drawbacks of a career like mine. Chopping and changing posts, with you in England half the time when you were a baby, then the war came and you went to America, and even after that there was school and we could only meet during the holidays if I happened to be in London. The wonder is we know each other at all. But now you're getting older and I'm not likely to be abroad so much, things ought to work out better.'

 
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