Was anyone hurt?”
“No one I am thankful to say,” said Mrs. Beaver, “except two housemaids who lost their heads and jumped through a glass roof into the paved court. They were in no danger. The fire never reached the bedrooms I am afraid. Still, they are bound to need doing up, everything black with smoke and drenched in water and luckily they had that old-fashioned sort of extinguisher that ruins everything. One really cannot complain. The chief rooms were completely gutted and everything was insured. Sylvia Newport knows the people. I must get on to them this morning before that ghoul Mrs. Shutter snaps them up.”
Mrs. Beaver stood with her back to the fire, eating her morning yogurt. She held the carton close under her chin and gobbled with a spoon.
“Heavens, how nasty this stuff is. I wish you’d take to it, John. You’re looking so tired lately. I don’t know how I should get through my day without it.”
“But, mumsy, I haven’t as much to do as you have.”
“That’s true, my son.”
John Beaver lived with his mother at the house in Sussex Gardens where they had moved after his father’s death. There was little in it to suggest the austerely elegant interiors which Mrs. Beaver planned for her customers. It was crowded with the unsalable furniture of two larger houses, without pretension to any period, least of all to the present. The best pieces and those which had sentimental interest for Mrs. Beaver were in the L-shaped drawing room upstairs.
Beaver had a dark little sitting room (on the ground floor, behind the dining room) and his own telephone. The elderly parlormaid looked after his clothes. She also dusted, polished and maintained in symmetrical order on his dressing table and on the top of his chest of drawers, the collection of somber and bulky objects that had stood in his father’s dressing room; indestructible presents for his wedding and twenty-first birthday, ivory, brass bound, covered in pigskin, crested and gold mounted, suggestive of expensive Edwardian masculinity—racing flasks and hunting flasks, cigar cases, tobacco jars, jockeys, elaborate meerschaum pipes, button hooks and hat brushes.
There were four servants, all female and all, save one, elderly.
When anyone asked Beaver why he stayed there instead of setting up on his own, he sometimes said that he thought his mother liked having him there (in spite of her business she was lonely); sometimes that it saved him at least five pounds a week.
His total income varied around six pounds a week, so this was an important saving.
He was twenty-five years old. From leaving Oxford until the beginning of the slump he had worked in an advertising agency. Since then no one had been able to find anything for him to do. So he got up late and sat near his telephone most of the day, hoping to be rung up.
Whenever it was possible, Mrs. Beaver took an hour off in the middle of the morning. She was always at her shop punctually at nine, and by half past eleven she needed a break. Then, if no important customer was imminent, she would get into her two-seater and drive home to Sussex Gardens. Beaver was usually dressed by then and she had grown to value their morning interchange of gossip.
“What was your evening?”
“Audrey rang up at eight and asked me to dinner. Ten of us at the Embassy, rather dreary. Afterwards we all went on to a party given by a woman called de Trommet.”
“I know who you mean. American. She hasn’t paid for the toile-de-jouy chair covers we made her last April. I had a dull time too; didn’t hold a card all the evening and came away four pounds ten to the bad.”
“I’m lunching at Viola Chasm’s. What are you doing? I didn’t order anything here I’m afraid.”
“Nothing so far. I can always go round to Brat’s.”
“But that’s so expensive. I’m sure if we ask Chambers she’ll be able to get you something in. I thought you were certain to be out.”
“Well, I still may be. It isn’t twelve yet.”
(Most of Beaver’s invitations came to him at the last moment; occasionally even later, when he had already begun to eat a solitary meal from a tray… “John, darling, there’s been a muddle and Sonia has arrived without Reggie. Could you be an angel and help me out? Only be quick, because we’re going in now”… Then he would go headlong for a taxi and arrive, with apologies, after the first course… One of his few recent quarrels with his mother had occurred when he left a luncheon party of hers in this way.)
“Where are you going for the weekend?”
“Who’s that? I forget.”
“Yes, of course. She’s lovely, he’s rather a stick. I didn’t know you knew them.”
“Well, I don’t really. Tony asked me in Brat’s the other night. He may have forgotten.”
“Send a telegram and remind them. It is far better than ringing up. It gives them less chance to make excuses. Send it tomorrow just before you start. They owe me for a table.”
“What’s their dossier?”
“I used to see her quite a lot before she married. She was Brenda Rex, Lord St. Cloud’s daughter, very fair, underwater look. People used to be mad about her when she was a girl. Everyone thought she would marry Jock Grant-Menzies at one time. Wasted on Tony Last, he’s a prig. I should say it was time she began to be bored. They’ve been married five or six years. Quite well off but everything goes in keeping up the house. I’ve never seen it but I’ve an idea it’s huge and quite hideous. They’ve got one child at least, perhaps more.”
“Mumsy, you are wonderful. I believe you know about everyone.”
“It’s a great help. All a matter of paying attention while people are talking.”
Mrs. Beaver smoked a cigarette and then drove back to her shop. An American woman bought two patchwork quilts at thirty guineas each, Lady Metroland telephoned about a bathroom ceiling, an unknown young man paid cash for a cushion; in the intervals between these events, Mrs. Beaver was able to descend to the basement where two dispirited girls were packing lampshades. It was cold down there in spite of a little oil stove, and the walls were always damp. The girls were becoming quite deft, she noticed with pleasure, particularly the shorter one who was handling the crates like a man.
“That’s the way,” she said, “you are doing very nicely, Joyce. I’ll soon get you on to something more interesting.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Beaver.”
They had better stay in the packing department for a bit, Mrs. Beaver decided; as long as they would stand it. They had neither of them enough chic to work upstairs. Both had paid good premiums to learn Mrs. Beaver’s art.
Beaver sat on beside his telephone. Once it rang and a voice said, “Mr. Beaver? Will you please hold the line, sir, Mrs. Tipping would like to speak to you.”
The intervening silence was full of pleasant expectation. Mrs. Tipping had a luncheon party that day, he knew; they had spent some time together the evening before and he had been particularly successful with her. Someone had chucked…
“Oh, Mr. Beaver, I am so sorry to trouble you. I was wondering, could you possibly tell me the name of the young man you introduced to me last night at Madame de Trommet’s? The one with the reddish mustache. I think he was in Parliament.”
“I expect you mean Jock Grant-Menzies.”
“Yes, that’s the name. You don’t by any chance know where I can find him, do you?”
“He’s in the book but I don’t suppose he’ll be at home now. You might be able to get him at Brat’s at about one. He’s almost always there.”
“Jock Grant-Menzies, Brat’s Club. Thank you so very much. It is kind of you. I hope you will come and see me some day. Good-bye.”
After that the telephone was silent.
At one o’clock Beaver despaired. He put on his overcoat, his gloves, his bowler hat and with neatly rolled umbrella set off to his club, taking a penny bus as far as the corner of Bond Street.
The air of antiquity pervading Brat’s, derived from its elegant Georgian façade and finely paneled rooms, was entirely spurious, for it was a club of recent origin, founded in the burst of bonhomie immediately after the war. It was intended for young men, to be a place where they could straddle across the fire and be jolly in the card room without incurring scowls from older members. But now these founders were themselves passing into middle age; they were heavier, balder and redder in the face than when they had been demobilized, but their joviality persisted and it was their turn now to embarrass their successors, deploring their lack of manly and gentlemanly qualities.
Six broad backs shut Beaver from the bar. He settled in one of the armchairs in the outer room and turned over the pages of the New Yorker, waiting until someone he knew should turn up.
Jock Grant-Menzies came upstairs. The men at the bar greeted him saying, “Hullo, Jock old boy, what are you drinking?” or, more simply, “Well, old boy?” He was too young to have fought in the war but these men thought he was all right; they liked him far more than they did Beaver, who, they thought, ought never to have got into the club at all. But Jock stopped to talk to Beaver. “Well, old boy,” he said. “What are you drinking?”
“Nothing so far.” Beaver looked at his watch. “But I think it’s time I had one. Brandy and ginger ale.”
Jock called to the barman and then said:
“Who was the old girl you wished on me at that party last night?”
“She’s called Mrs. Tipping.”
“I thought she might be. That explains it. They gave me a message downstairs that someone with a name like that wanted me to lunch with her.”
“Are you going?”
“No, I’m no good at lunch parties. Besides I decided when I got up that I’d have oysters here.”
The barman came with the drinks.
“Mr. Beaver, sir, there’s ten shillings against you in my books for last month.”
“Ah, thank you, Macdougal, remind me sometime, will you?”
“Very good, sir.”
Beaver said, “I’m going to Hetton tomorrow.”
“Are you now? Give Tony and Brenda my love.”
“What’s the form?”
“Very quiet and enjoyable.”
“No paper games?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. A certain amount of bridge and backgammon and low poker with the neighbors.”
“Not bad. Plenty to drink. Rather a shortage of bathrooms. You can stay in bed all the morning.”
“I’ve never met Brenda.”
“You’ll like her, she’s a grand girl. I often think Tony Last’s one of the happiest men I know. He’s got just enough money, loves the place, one son he’s crazy about, devoted wife, not a worry in the world.”
“Most enviable. You don’t know anyone else who’s going, do you? I was wondering if I could get a lift down there.”
“I don’t, I’m afraid. It’s quite easy by train.”
“Yes, but it’s more pleasant by road.”
“Yes, and cheaper I suppose… well, I’m going down to lunch. You won’t have another?”
Beaver rose to go.
“Yes, I think I will.”
“Oh, all right. Macdougal. Two more, please.”
Macdougal said, “Shall I book them to you, sir?”
“Yes, if you will.”
Later, at the bar, Jock said, “I made Beaver pay for a drink.”
“He can’t have liked that.”
“He nearly died of it. Know anything about pigs?”
“Only that they keep writing to me about them from my constituency.”
Beaver went downstairs but before going into the dining room he told the porter to ring up his home and see if there was any message for him.
“Mrs. Tipping rang up a few minutes ago and asked whether you could come to luncheon with her today.”
“Will you ring her up and say that I shall be delighted to, but that I may be a few minutes late?”
It was just after half past one when he left Brat’s and walked at a good pace towards Hill Street.
Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last lies the extensive park of Hetton Abbey. This, formerly one of the notable houses of the county, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest. The grounds are open to the public daily until sunset and the house may be viewed on application by writing. It contains some good portraits and furniture. The terrace commands a fine view.
This passage from the county Guide Book did not cause Tony Last any serious annoyance. Unkinder things had been said. His aunt Frances, embittered by an upbringing of unremitting severity, remarked that the plans of the house must have been adapted by Mr. Pecksniff from one of his pupils’ designs for an orphanage. But there was not a glazed brick or encaustic tile that was not dear to Tony’s heart. In some ways, he knew, it was not convenient to run; but what big house was? It was not altogether amenable to modern ideas of comfort; he had many small improvements in mind, which would be put into effect as soon as the death duties were paid off. But the general aspect and atmosphere of the place; the line of its battlements against the sky; the central clock tower where quarterly chimes disturbed all but the heaviest sleepers; the ecclesiastical gloom of the great hall, its ceiling groined and painted in diapers of red and gold, supported on shafts of polished granite with vine-wreathed capitals, half-lit by day through lancet windows of armorial stained glass, at night by a vast gasolier of brass and wrought iron, wired now and fitted with twenty electric bulbs; the blasts of hot air that rose suddenly at one’s feet, through grills of cast-iron trefoils from the antiquated heating apparatus below; the cavernous chill of the more remote corridors where, economizing in coke, he had had the pipes shut off; the dining hall with its hammer-beam roof and pitch-pine minstrels’ gallery; the bedrooms with their brass bedsteads, each with a frieze of Gothic text, each named from Malory, Yseult, Elaine, Mordred and Merlin, Gawaine and Bedivere, Lancelot, Perceval, Tristram, Galahad, his own dressing room, Morgan le Fay, and Brenda’s Guinevere, where the bed stood on a dais, the walls hung with tapestry, the fireplace like a tomb of the thirteenth century, from whose bay window one could count, on days of exceptional clearness, the spires of six churches—all these things with which he had grown up were a source of constant delight and exultation to Tony; things of tender memory and proud possession.
They were not in the fashion, he fully realized. Twenty years ago people had liked half timber and old pewter; now it was urns and colonnades; but the time would come, perhaps in John Andrew’s day, when opinion would reinstate Hetton in its proper place. Already it was referred to as “amusing,” and a very civil young man had asked permission to photograph it for an architectural review.
The ceiling of Morgan le Fay was not in perfect repair. In order to make an appearance of coffered wood, molded slats had been nailed in a checker across the plaster. They were painted in chevrons of blue and gold. The squares between were decorated alternately with Tudor roses and fleurs-de-lis. But damp had penetrated into one corner, leaving a large patch where the gilt had tarnished and the color flaked away; in another place the wooden laths had become warped and separated from the plaster. Lying in bed, in the grave ten minutes between waking and ringing, Tony studied these defects and resolved anew to have them put right. He wondered whether it would be easy, nowadays, to find craftsmen capable of such delicate work.
Morgan le Fay had been his room since he left the night nursery. He had been put there so that he would be within calling distance of his parents (inseparable in Guinevere), for until quite late in his life he was subject to nightmares. He had taken nothing from the room since he had slept there, but every year added to its contents, so that it now formed a gallery representative of every phase of his adolescence—the framed picture of a dreadnought (a colored supplement from Chums), all its guns spouting flame and smoke; a photographic group of his private school; a cabinet called “the Museum,” filled with the fruits of a dozen desultory hobbies, eggs, butterflies, fossils, coins; his parents, in the leather diptych which had stood by his bed at school; Brenda, eight years ago when he had been trying to get engaged to her; Brenda with John, taken just after the christening; an aquatint of Hetton, as it had stood until his great-grandfather demolished it; some shelves of books, Bevis, Woodwork at Home, Conjuring for All, The Young Visiters, The Law of Landlord and Tenant, Farewell to Arms.
All over England people were waking up, queasy and despondent. Tony lay for ten minutes very happily planning the renovation of his ceiling. Then he rang the bell.
“Has her ladyship been called yet?”
“About quarter of an hour ago, sir.”
“Then I’ll have breakfast in her room.”
He put on his dressing gown and slippers and went through into Guinevere.
Brenda lay on the dais.
She had insisted on a modern bed. Her tray was beside her and the quilt was littered with envelopes, letters and the daily papers. Her head was propped against a very small blue pillow; clean of make-up, her face was almost colorless, rose-pearl, scarcely deeper in tone than her arms and neck.
“Well?” said Tony.
He sat by the tray at the head of the bed; she leaned forward to him (a nereid emerging from fathomless depths of clear water). She turned her lips away and rubbed against his cheek like a cat. It was a way she had.
He picked up some of the letters.
“No. Mama wants nanny to send John’s measurements. She’s knitting him something for Christmas. And the mayor wants me to open something next month. I needn’t, need I?”
“I think you’d better, we haven’t done anything for him for a long time.”
“Well, you must write the speech. I’m getting too old for the girlish one I used to give them all. And Angela says, will we stay for the New Year?”
“That’s easy. Not on her life, we won’t.”
“I guessed not… though it sounds an amusing party.”
“You go if you like. I can’t possibly get away.”
“That’s all right. I knew it would be ‘no’ before I opened the letter.”
“Well, what sort of pleasure can there be in going all the way to Yorkshire in the middle of winter?”
“Darling, don’t be cross. I know we aren’t going. I’m not making a thing about it. I just thought it might be fun to eat someone else’s food for a bit.”
Then Brenda’s maid brought in the other tray. He had it put by the window seat, and began opening his letters. He looked out of the window. Only four of the six church towers were visible that morning. Presently he said, “As a matter of fact I probably can manage to get away that weekend.”
“Darling, are you sure you wouldn’t hate it?”
“I daresay not.”
While he ate his breakfast Brenda read to him from the papers. “Reggie’s been making another speech… There’s such an extraordinary picture of Babe and Jock… a woman in America has had twins by two different husbands. Would you have thought that possible?… Two more chaps in gas ovens… a little girl has been strangled in a cemetery with a bootlace… that play we went to about a farm is coming off.” Then she read him the serial. He lit his pipe. “I don’t believe you’re listening. Why doesn’t Sylvia want Rupert to get the letter?”
“Eh? Oh well, you see, she doesn’t really trust Rupert.”
“I knew it. There’s no such character as Rupert in the story. I shall never read to you again.”
“Well, to tell you the truth I was just thinking.”
“I was thinking how delightful it is, that it’s Saturday morning and we haven’t got anyone coming for the weekend.”
“Oh, you thought that?”
“Well, it sometimes seems to me rather pointless keeping up a house this size if we don’t now and then ask some other people to stay in it.”
“Pointless? I can’t think what you mean. I don’t keep up this house to be a hostel for a lot of bores to come and gossip in. We’ve always lived here and I hope John will be able to keep it on after me. One has a duty towards one’s employees, and towards the place too. It’s a definite part of English life which would be a serious loss if…” Then Tony stopped short in his speech and looked at the bed. Brenda had turned on her face and only the top of her head appeared above the sheets.
“Oh God,” she said into the pillow. “What have I done?”
“I say, am I being pompous again?”
She turned sideways so that her nose and one eye emerged. “Oh no, darling, not pompous. You wouldn’t know how.”
Brenda sat up. “And, please, I didn’t mean it. I’m jolly glad too, that no one’s coming.”
(These scenes of domestic playfulness had been more or less continuous in Tony and Brenda’s life for seven years.)
Outside, it was soft English weather; mist in the hollows and pale sunshine on the hills; the coverts had ceased dripping, for there were no leaves to hold the recent rain, but the undergrowth was wet, dark in the shadows, iridescent where the sun caught it; the lanes were soggy and there was water running in the ditches.
John Andrew sat on his pony, solemn and stiff as a Life-Guard, while Ben fixed the jump. Thunderclap had been a present on his sixth birthday from Uncle Reggie. It was John who had named her, after lengthy consultation. Originally she had been called Christabelle which, as Ben said, was more the name for a hound than a horse. Ben had known a strawberry roan called Thunderclap who killed two riders and won the local point-to-point four years running. He had been a lovely little horse, said Ben, till he staked himself in the guts, hunting, and had to be shot. Ben knew stories about a great many different horses. There was one called Zero on whom he had won five Jimmy-o-goblins at ten to three at Chester one year. And there was a mule he had known during the war, called Peppermint, who had died of drinking the company’s rum ration. But John was not going to name his pony after a drunken mule. So in the end they had decided on Thunderclap, in spite of her imperturbable disposition.
She was a dark bay, with long tail and mane. Ben had left her legs shaggy. She cropped the grass, resisting John’s attempts to keep her head up.
Before her arrival riding had been a very different thing. He had jogged round the paddock on a little Shetland pony called Bunny, with his nurse panting at the bridle. Now it was a man’s business. Nanny sat at a distance, crocheting, on her camp stool; out of earshot. There had been a corresponding promotion in Ben’s position. From being the hand who looked after the farm horses, he was now, perceptibly, assuming the air of a stud groom. The handkerchief round his neck gave place to a stock with a fox-head pin. He was a man of varied experience in other parts of the country.
Neither Tony nor Brenda hunted but they were anxious that John should like it. Ben foresaw the time when the stables would be full and himself in authority; it would not be like Mr. Last to get anyone in from outside.
Ben had got two posts bored for iron pegs, and a whitewashed rail. With these he erected a two-foot jump in the middle of the field.
“Now take it quite easy. Canter up slow and when she takes off lean forward in the saddle and you’ll be over like a bird. Keep her head straight at it.”
Thunderclap trotted forwards, cantered two paces, thought better of it and, just before the jump, fell into a trot again and swerved round the obstacle. John recovered his balance by dropping the reins and gripping the mane with both hands; he looked guiltily at Ben, who said, “What d’you suppose your bloody legs are for? Here take this and just give her a tap when you get up to it.” He handed John a switch.
Nanny sat by the gate re-reading a letter from her sister.
John took Thunderclap back and tried the jump again. This time they made straight for the rail.
Ben shouted “Legs!” and John kicked sturdily, losing his stirrups. Ben raised his arms as if scaring crows. Thunderclap jumped; John rose from the saddle and landed on his back in the grass.
Nanny rose in alarm. “Oh, what’s happened, Mr. Hacket, is he hurt?”
“He’s all right,” said Ben.
“I’m all right,” said John, “I think she put in a short step.”
“Short step my grandmother. You just opened your bloody legs and took an arser. Keep hold on to the reins next time. You can lose a hunt that way.”
At the third attempt John got over and found himself, breathless and insecure, one stirrup swinging loose and one hand grabbing its old support in the mane, but still in the saddle.
“There, how did that feel? You just skimmed over like a swallow. Try it again?”
Twice more John and Thunderclap went over the little rail, then nanny called that it was time to go indoors for his milk. They walked the pony back to the stable. Nanny said, “Oh dear, look at all the mud on your coat.”
Ben said, “We’ll have you riding the winner at Aintree soon.”
“Good morning, Mr. Hacket.”
“Good morning, miss.”
“Good-bye, Ben, may I come and see you doing the farm horses this evening?”
“That’s not for me to say. You must ask nanny. Tell you what though, the gray carthorse has got worms. Would you like to see me give him a pill.”
“Oh yes; please nanny, may I?”
“You must ask mother. Come along now, you’ve had quite enough of horses for one day.”
“Can’t have enough of horses,” said John, “ever.” On the way back to the house, he said, “Can I have my milk in mummy’s room?”
Nanny’s replies were always evasive, like that—“We’ll see” or “That’s asking” or “Those that ask no questions, hear no lies”—altogether unlike Ben’s decisive and pungent judgments.
“What does it depend on?”
“Lots of things.”
“Tell me one of them.”
“On your not asking a lot of silly questions.”
“Silly old tart.”
“John! How dare you? What do you mean?”
Delighted by the effect of this sally, John broke away from her hand and danced in front of her, saying, “Silly old tart, silly old tart” all the way to the side entrance. When they entered the porch his nurse silently took off his leggings; he was sobered a little by her grimness.
“Go straight up to the nursery,” she said. “I am going to speak to your mother about you.”
“Please, nanny. I don’t know what it means, but I didn’t mean it.”
“Go straight to the nursery.”
Brenda was doing her face.
“It’s been the same ever since Ben Hacket started teaching him to ride, my lady, there’s been no doing anything with him.”
Brenda spat in the eye black. “But nanny, what exactly did he say?”
“Oh, I couldn’t repeat it, my lady.”
“Nonsense, you must tell me. Otherwise I shall be thinking it something far worse than it was.”
“It couldn’t have been worse… he called me a silly old tart, my lady.”
Brenda choked slightly into her face towel. “He said that?”
“Repeatedly. He danced in front of me all the way up the drive, singing it.”
“I see… well you were quite right to tell me.”
“Thank you, my lady, and since we are talking about it I think I ought to say that it seems to me that Ben Hacket is making the child go ahead far too quickly with his riding. It’s very dangerous. He had what might have been a serious fall this morning.”
“All right, nanny, I’ll speak to Mr. Last about it.”
She spoke to Tony. They both laughed about it a great deal. “Darling,” she said, “you must speak to him. You’re so much better at being serious than I am.”
“I should have thought it was very nice to be called a tart,” John argued, “and anyway it’s a word Ben often uses about people.”
“Well, he’s got no business to.”
“I like Ben more than anyone in the world. And I should think he’s cleverer too.”
“Now you know you don’t like him more than your mother.”
“Yes I do. Far more.”
Tony felt that the time had come to cut out the cross talk and deliver the homily he had been preparing. “Now, listen, John. It was very wrong of you to call nanny a silly old tart. First, because it was unkind to her. Think of all the things she does for you every day.”
“She’s paid to.”
“Be quiet. And secondly because you were using a word which people of your age and class do not use. Poor people use certain expressions which gentlemen do not. You are a gentleman. When you grow up all this house and lots of other things besides will belong to you. You must learn to speak like someone who is going to have these things and to be considerate to people less fortunate than you, particularly women. Do you understand?”
“Is Ben less fortunate than me?”
“That has nothing to do with it. Now you are to go upstairs and say you are sorry to nanny and promise never to use that word about anyone again.”
“And because you have been so naughty today you are not to ride tomorrow.”
“Well, next day then.”
“But you said ‘tomorrow.’ It isn’t fair to change now.”
“John, don’t argue. If you are not careful I shall send Thunderclap back to Uncle Reggie and say that I find you are not a good enough boy to keep it. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”
“What would Uncle Reggie do with her? She couldn’t carry him. Besides, he’s usually abroad.”
“He’d give it to some other little boy. Anyway that’s got nothing to do with it. Now run off and say you’re sorry to nanny.”
At the door John said, “It’s all right about riding on Monday, isn’t it? You did say ‘tomorrow.’ ”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Hooray. Thunderclap went very well today. We jumped a big post and rail. She refused first time but went like a bird after that.”
“Didn’t you come off?”
“Yes, once. It wasn’t Thunderclap’s fault. I just opened my bloody legs and cut an arser.”
“How did the lecture go?” Brenda asked.
“Bad. Rotten bad.”
“The trouble is that nanny’s jealous of Ben.”
“I’m not sure we shan’t both be soon.”
They lunched at a small, round table in the center of the dining hall. There seemed no way of securing an even temperature in that room; even when one side was painfully roasting in the direct blaze of the open hearth, the other was numbed by a dozen converging drafts. Brenda had tried numerous experiments with screens and a portable, electric radiator, but with little success. Even today, mild elsewhere, it was bitterly cold in the dining hall.
Although they were both in good health and of unexceptional figure, Tony and Brenda were on a diet. It gave an interest to their meals and saved them from the two uncivilized extremes of which solitary diners are in danger—absorbing gluttony or an irregular régime of scrambled eggs and raw beef sandwiches. Under their present system they denied themselves the combination of protein and starch at the same meal. They had a printed catalog telling them which foods contained protein and which starch. Most normal dishes seemed to be compact of both, so that it was fun for Tony and Brenda to choose the menu. Usually it ended by their declaring some food “joker.”
“I’m sure it does me a great deal of good.”
“Yes, darling, and when we get tired of it we might try an alphabetical diet, having things beginning with a different letter every day. J would be hungry, nothing but jam and jellied eels… What are your plans for the afternoon?”
“Nothing much. Carter’s coming up at five to go over a few things. I may go to Pigstanton after luncheon. I think we’ve got a tenant for Lowater Farm but it’s been empty some time and I ought to see how much needs doing to it.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to going in to the ‘movies.’ ”
“All right. I can easily leave Lowater till Monday.”
“And we might go to Woolworth’s afterwards, eh?”
What with Brenda’s pretty ways and Tony’s good sense, it was not surprising that their friends pointed to them as a pair who were preeminently successful in solving the problem of getting along well together.
The pudding, without protein, was unattractive.
Five minutes afterwards a telegram was brought in. Tony opened it and said, “Hell.”
“Something too horrible has happened. Look at this.”
Brenda read: Arriving 3:18 so looking forward visit. Beaver. And asked, “What’s Beaver?”
“It’s a young man.”
“That sounds all right.”
“Oh no it’s not. Wait till you see him.”
“What’s he coming here for? Did you ask him to stay?”
“I suppose I did in a vague kind of way. I went to Brat’s one evening and he was the only chap there so we had some drinks and he said something about wanting to see the house…”
“I suppose you were tight.”
“Not really, but I never thought he’d hold it against me.”
“Well, it jolly well serves you right. That’s what comes of going up to London on business and leaving me alone here… Who is he anyway?”
“Just a young man. His mother keeps that shop.”
“I used to know her. She’s hell. Come to think of it we owe her some money.”
“Look here, we must put a call through and say we’re ill.”
“Too late, he’s in the train now, recklessly mixing starch and protein in the Great Western three and sixpenny lunch… Anyway he can go into Galahad. No one who sleeps there ever comes again—the bed’s agony I believe.”
“What on earth are we going to do with him? It’s too late to get anyone else.”
“You go over to Pigstanton. I’ll look after him. It’s easier alone. We can take him to the movies tonight, and tomorrow he can see over the house. If we’re lucky he may go up by the evening train. Does he have to work on Monday morning?”
“I shouldn’t know.”
Three-eighteen was far from being the most convenient time for arrival. One reached the house at about a quarter to four and if, like Beaver, one was a stranger, there was an awkward time until tea; but without Tony there to make her self-conscious, Brenda could carry these things off quite gracefully and Beaver was so seldom wholly welcome anywhere that he was not sensitive to the slight constraint of his reception.
She met him in what was still called the smoking room; it was in some ways the least gloomy place in the house. She said, “It is nice that you were able to come. I must break it to you at once that we haven’t got a party. I’m afraid you’ll be terribly bored… Tony had to go out but he’ll be in soon… was the train crowded? It often is on Saturdays… would you like to come outside? It’ll be dark soon and we might get some of the sun while we can…” and so on. If Tony had been there it would have been difficult, for she would have caught his eye and her manner as châtelaine would have collapsed. Beaver was well used to making conversation, so they went out together through the French windows on to the terrace, down the steps, into the Dutch garden, and back round the orangery without suffering a moment’s real embarrassment. She even heard herself telling Beaver that his mother was one of her oldest friends.
Tony returned in time for tea. He apologized for not being at home to greet his guest and almost immediately went out again to interview the agent in his study.
Brenda asked about London and what parties there were. Beaver was particularly knowledgeable.
“Polly Cockpurse is having one soon.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Are you coming up for it?”
“I don’t expect so. We never go anywhere nowadays.”
The jokes that had been going round for six weeks were all new to Brenda; they had become polished and perfected with repetition and Beaver was able to bring them out with good effect. He told her of numerous changes of alliance among her friends.
“What’s happening to Mary and Simon?”
“Oh, didn’t you know? That’s broken up.”
“It began in Austria this summer…”
“And Billy Angmering?”
“He’s having a terrific walk out with a girl called Sheila Shrub.”
“And the Helm-Hubbards?”
“That marriage isn’t going too well either… Daisy has started a new restaurant. It’s going very well… and there’s a new night club called the Warren…”
“Dear me,” Brenda said at last. “What fun everyone seems to be having.”
After tea John Andrew was brought in and quickly usurped the conversation. “How do you do?” he said. “I didn’t know you were coming. Daddy said he had a weekend to himself for once. Do you hunt?”
“Not for a long time.”
“Ben says it stands to reason everyone ought to hunt who can afford to, for the good of the country.”
“Perhaps I can’t afford to.”
“Are you poor?”
“Please, Mr. Beaver, you mustn’t let him bore you.”
“Yes, very poor.”
“Poor enough to call people tarts?”
“Yes, quite poor enough.”
“How did you get poor?”
“I always have been.”
“Oh.” John lost interest in this topic. “The gray horse at the farm has got worms.”
“How do you know?”
“Ben says so. Besides you’ve only got to look at his dung.”
“Oh dear,” said Brenda, “what would nanny say if she heard you talking like that?”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-five. How old are you?”
“What do you do?”
“Well if I was you I’d do something and earn some money. Then you’d be able to hunt.”
Excerpted from A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
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