Ficiton

Philippa Takes the Count

The frail and lovely lady novelist intercepted a right to the jaw, but the way it worked out a sardonic critic called O'Connel took the full force of it

RONALD R. SMITH February 15 1952
Ficiton

Philippa Takes the Count

The frail and lovely lady novelist intercepted a right to the jaw, but the way it worked out a sardonic critic called O'Connel took the full force of it

RONALD R. SMITH February 15 1952

Philippa Takes the Count

Ficiton

The frail and lovely lady novelist intercepted a right to the jaw, but the way it worked out a sardonic critic called O'Connel took the full force of it

I OPENED my door. Victoria, Philippa Clarges’ maid, stood on the step. She handed me this note: “Robert, it is essential, vital that I see you. I need your sympathy, advice, counsel. Philippa Clarges.”

It was characteristic Clarges—the style of the summons and the shunning of the mundane telephone. Philippa never wasted time seeking the mot juste. She lavishly sprayed her pages with whatever came into her head, and one hundred thousand readers regularly appeared to love it.

I put the note in my pocket, gave Victoria a bunch of the hothouse grapes I had won at the Black Dog playing dominoes, took the remainder for myself, and set ofT for Philippa’s.

Though it was late June the May blossom was in bloom and the hedges were creamy white and the air was heavy with its rich honey-smell. As we walked I ate my grapes but Victoria was too well brought up to eat out of doors.

We turned into Philippa’s garden gateway and approached the attractive house built of russet stone which, in certain lights, took on a misty purple overtone. It had a studded oak door in a graceful pointed archway, deep mullioned windows and sparkling diamond panes. Laburnum t rees wept t heir golden t ears in pretty melancholy over the path.

Inside it was as cool and fresh as the underside of a waterfall. Philippa sat at her little satinwood cabinet-writing-table by Sheraton. She was an unbelievably beautiful woman, in spite of the fact that she had been thirty-seven for somewhat longer than is customary. Her profile had the pure hard delicacy, the silvery precision of a face on a medallion. Her husband, who had died in France in 1940 as gallantly as one would have expected, once said: "Damn it, beside her, old boy, I feel like a great elephant with mud on its feet.” She even made me who was fond of her hut not in love feel a trifle green and young and knobbly.

She t urned. “What have you been doing to your hair, Robert?” “Nothing. I haven’t even combed it.”

She rose from her writing table and progressed to her Sheraton

chaise longue which was upholstered in white and gold. She floated into a semireclining position and waved a transparent hand at the far backless end of the chaise longue. I obeyed and sat down beside her exquisitely articulated ankles and long slender El Greco feet. For five seconds she remained silent staring sombrely at the lyre-shaped fire screen, also Sheraton, fulfilling its arduous role of doing-nothinguseful-elegantly with rare grace.

“It’s devilish. Envenomed. Virulent,” she said and she rose and went, to her writing table again. She returned with a clipping which she held as though it might at any moment turn on her and hury its septic fangs in her wrist. “Read that, if you please.”

A bumblebee, his amher and black fur coat as dusty with pollen as a miller’s with flour, buzzed and stubbornly tapped his horny head against one of the panes of the French window.

The clipping had heen cut from the New Tribunal, a literary review. It was headed: “Trumpet From Beyond The Moon, by

Philippa Clarges. Simon & Blasgate. 10/6.” It was a review of Philippa’s latest novel and was signed: “John Bulmer.”

“Unquestionably,” wrote Bulmer, “in Trumpet From Beyond The Moon a pretentious title, incidentally, for a banal theme— Mrs. Clarges has written another best seller.” And that first sentence was the politest thing Bulmer had to say. From that point the heat was turned on and maintained steadily white for a thousand words of about as able abuse as I had read for some time. Not one aspect of Philippa’s slapdashery had escaped Bulmer’s withering eye. “These towering two-dimensional characters lit garishly by a light that never was on land or sea . . . an orchidaceous bedlam of promiscuous women and troglodyte men in Savile Row suits with the latest catchwords on their lips ... a ragbag of bugus philosophy and monstrously false values. It is a grave commentary on our times that copies of this book will soon be lying on the night tables beside a myriad beds from London to Montreal, to New York, to Sydney.”

I looked at Philippa out of the corner of my eye. One thing was certain: it would never occur to her that, whips, scorpions and

corrosive acid apart, what this bold fellow had to say was by no means oil the mark.

“Well, Robert?”

Reluctantly I raised my eyes. “A bit harsh.”

Her nostrils flared. “Your foolish habit of understatement, Robert, has always been your undoing as a man of letters. It is quite obvious to me after reflection that this man is mad.”

I twisted one of my ears, said nothing.

“Psychopathic. The whole article is a paroxysm of impotent rage, frustration, envy.” She turned her beautiful profile toward me as she looked out of the window on to the lawn gilded by the sun. “Robert, I want you to see this man fcr me.”

“I hope you’re not expecting me to horsewhip him or something, Philippa. It’s more or less frowned on these days. Anyway I haven’t a horsewhip.”

“Please be serious. And believe me when I say I have no wish to hurt this unfortunate man. 1 shall reason with him, reassure him. With guidance and encouragement he might undertake some work of his own and sublimate his frustration.”

That Philippa was fundamentally kind and generous I had never

doubted but this talk of guidance shook me a little. Buhner’s style was violent but there were one or two phrases that cut like a blade and which Philippa could not have evolved from the facile theatrical workshop of her mind if she had tried from then until doomsday.

“I’ve never heard of Bulmer before,” I said. The truth was that I was a lit tle surprised to find Philippa attacked in the New Tribunal. Normally literary reviews didn’t interest themselves in her or if they did it was in a jocular tcngue-in-the-cheek fashion. “It’s probably a pen name anyway. Hew could I go to him?”

“Oh, it is a pseudonym. I have already rung up the editor and he refuses almost rudely to divulge the man’s real name.”

“He’s undoubtedly right to do sc, Philippa. You know that.”

“1 also know, Robert, that you have a number of dubious friends in London, hangers-on to the skirts of literature, who will either knew the name of this man or who will certainly have t he means of discovering it.”

A horsedrawn mowing machine clicked and whirred lac.ily in the warm fragrant air. The bumblebee had succeeded in getting in and was resting in the musky bosom of an opulent Madame Koo rose. My bit of the chaise ('0:1 tinned on I'oge 54

Continued on I'oge 54

RONALD R. SMITH

Philippa Takes the Count

Continued from page 15

longue was far from comfortable.

“Philippa,” I said. “As you know, I’m devoted to you. My life’s blood is yours for the asking. But I emphatically decline to embroil myself in any literary wrangle than which there is nothing more sordid in this ignoble world.” And I stood up.

Philippa turned and smiled sadly at me. Her frail hand caught my sleeve I and insinuated me back on to the I chaise longue. “Of course, Robert. I understand perfectly.”

IN LONDON, under the afternoon sun, it was like the engine room of ! a vast tramp steamer. The same oily I stench, the same heat, the same noise. And the same feeling that everybody knew precisely what they were supposed to do except me.

I was looking for O’Connel, a lone I wolf who jealously guarded his loneness. He was a member of Philby’s,

I a tightly exclusive West End club that had been known to blackball ministers of state. Equally he was persona grata with a shady little community of folk in Camden Town who called themi selves Existentialists. At irregular intervals he would bring out a volume ¡ of literary criticism that made his colleagues damn with faint praise in ! public and in private gibber with envy.

Not unnaturally the possession of j such an extravagantly acute instrument as O’Connel’s brain became bur¡ densome to him at times and he had ¡ to take a few drinks to blunt its edge and interpose a blanketing mist. On the other hand at eighteen-month intervals he would disappear and be gone for ten or twelve weeks. When he returned his eye was bright, his skin sun-ani wind-burned, the palms of his hands hard and smooth as hickory. And all ha would say was: “I’ve been to visit my father in Alberta.” And he would laugh: “Look at me. Strong as a huh and gentle as an old spaniel.” And he would have to go on the soak for at least three weeks to regain the old venom and stony-hearted ness necessary to follow lu3 appointed destiny of pricking inflated renown and chopping down top-heavy reputations.

I took a taxi at King’s Cross station and made a start in the pubs of Camden Town. Along the north side of Regent’s Park to St. John’s Wood. A little place near Lord’s cricket ground. To Baker Street, Park Lane, Mayfair. The Strand, to a couple of spots in Fleet Street. North to Bloomsbury, back to a place off the Euston Road not three hundred yards from King’s Cross. And there was O’Connel, sitting alone at a little iron table drinking French vd.ite wine out of a tumbler, sweating, his eyes half closed, looking out on to seme tragic vista that only his eyes could see.

I sat down opposite him and ordered another bottle of the white wine. It smelled sharp and sour when it was uncorked.

“Scott,” he said, nodding, and retired at once into his melancholy private universe.

“O’Connel.” I filled my glass and pushed the bottle into the centre of the table. “I want to ask you a question, O’Connel.”

He rapped on the table. “Bring me some cigarettes, Hippolyte.”

The waiter said, “Certainly, Arthur, certainly,” and returned with a beige, brown and gold carton. “Your favorites, Arthur,” he said smiling.

O’Connel pushed the tray out of the carton and put it on the table. We

each took a cigarette, including the waiter.

“Why slaughter Philippa Clarges?” I said. “Why use all that high-class shot and shell on such a frail unimportant craft?”

He hooked the cigarette out of his mouth with his forefinger. “When she wrote for entertainment, concocted literary tipsy cakes, none of my business. But in Trumpet the woman presumes to instruct, influence and edify. Dangerous.” He made a cutting gesture with the edge of his hand. “Can’t permit it.”

I took a drink of the white wine; the smell was misleading; it was quite pleasant. “She wants to see you. She wants you to go and stay for a few days.”

“Bah,” he said. He smiled bitterly at the waiter and said: “Bah, eh, Hippolyte?”

The waiter pursed his lips and cocked his head. “I don’t know. She might be beautiful. You can be beautiful and write like an educated horse. I have known it, Arthur.”

“She is beautiful,” I said.

“Feminine beauty is simply the chöese in the biological trap; Old Mothe*' Nature looking after the family interests. As far as I am concerned it’s irrelevant.”

“You’d like it. Charming little house in an agreeable little village. Three pubs. A decent cook. And apart from a predilection for reclining a trifle regally on gold and white chaise longues she’s a delightful woman quite honestly.”

O’Connel shut his eyes and instead of looking hard and dangerous his face appeared tired and worn. “No,” he said.

Hippolyte filled O’Connel’s glass and then mine. “A little artifice in a woman, myself, I like it. Besides you might teach her to write a little better, Arthur.”

O’Connel groaned.

“Maybe she has honey from her own bees. And you know you like that, Arthur.”

“Quite right. She has.” It wasn't quite right. But she did get honey in the comb from the village policeman who had six hives. “And there’s my

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cottage. And the old smithy in the yard full of fascinating bits of cld iron. Plenty of places to hide if the chaise longue intrudes itself too much.”

He opened his eyes and stroked his jaws raspingly. He looked at the waiter. Hippolyte nodded wisely like an old lawyer.

O’Connel took a long draw at his cigarette. “Seems I’m just as capable now of performing a gratuitously stupid action as I was at eighteen. Refreshing or depressing, which?” He stood up.

“Refreshing, Arthur. Stupid people are always monotonously sensible.” Hippolyte brushed the cigarette ash from the front of O’Connel’s grey flannel suit which was both expensive and elegant.

Tall, powerfully built, with his thick hrown hair, slightly greying at the temples, his eyes weary and an ineffable weight of sadness about his mouth O’Connel looked like some fighting priest, some evangelizing minister, battered by the forces of evil, despairing of victory but battling on.

As the train steamed northward O’Connel looked morosely at his grip on the luggage rack opposite with the air of a man who realizes that he is gratuitously committing himself to a very stupid action indeed. Suddenly he said: “I may not shave all the time I’m at this woman’s.”

A RARELY perceptible fragrance entered the room with Philippa. She was smiling, a sweet smile shadowed with anguish at the corners. She had been maligned, traduced, held up to public contempt; but look! she was neither bitter nor vengeful -it was all in the smile. “I’m so glad you were able to come,” she said.

Even before she entered O’Connel had transmuted his face into wood. It remained wooden. Rut I saw his shoulders stiffen slightly. I can guess what he had pictured; it’s so much easier for best-selling woman writers to earn a reputation for beauty than it is for most other women. Obviously he had not been prepared for this fastidious dragonfly excellence.

He bowed slightly. “It was kind of you to invite me.”

It was a highly civilized performance all round. They had both had shocks; for this inscrutable, rather alarminglooking man was far from the querulous neurotic fellow she had imagined. The decor couldn’t have been more artistically contrived for the sun was setting in a tempestuous blaze of glory and dramatically projected an enormous oblique effigy of the French windows in ruddy gold across the Aubusson carpet.

“You would like me to show you your room, Mr. O’Connel?”

I followed them upstairs, carrying O’Connel’s grip.

“This used to be my husband’s room. He was a soldier. I hope you will be comfortable.” It was angular and austere.

“Well?” I said when Philippa had left us.

“She’s a handsome woman.” He took off his coat and added, “And the Sheraton fire screen is a handsome fire screen.”

There were just the three of us for dinner. The atmosphere was electric, full of silences that were gibes, courtesies that were exquisitely uncivil. We had almost finished our soufflé glacé when Philippa brought the conversation to its true head. “Perhaps after dinner you will explain to me why you so much dislike my poor little book, Mr. O’Connel?”

“I have nothing to add to what I said in my review, Mrs. Clarges.” He raised his eyes slowly. “Nor, I regret, anything to retract, though as your guest—

“As my guest, Mr. O’Connel,” Philippa interrupted, sharply for her, “as my guest you are naturally at liberty to think, say or do whatever you choose.”

O’Connel became elaborately sardonic: “I expressed myself badly if

I seemed to impugn your hospitality, Mrs. Clarges. Actually I meant to say that as your guest I felt it incumbent on me to speak with complete frankness.”

Philippa gave her plate a brusque little push. “It’s gratifying, if a little astonishing, to know that we have at least some common ground.” She turned to me and said sweetly: “You’re very silent tonight.”

“It’s the only form of protective coloring available to me at the moment.”

O’Connel grinned at me.

Philippa said, also smiling: “Shall

we go into the drawing room?”

A little log fire crackled brightly in the drawing room. The lighting was discreet and the easy chairs were easy and not Sheraton. The coffee was richly aromatic.

Philippa sipped and said, “Robert tells me how filial you are, how you regularly visit ycur father in Alberta, Mr. O’Connel.”

He looked at me as though I had betrayed him. He drained his cup —and the coffee was scalding hot—und set it down. “My father is an old man, an old-fashioned man, a patriarchal man. A simple and violent man. He has a scale of values that is perhaps primitive, certainly intolerant. Rut he adheres to it and I find that refreshing, stimulating. I go to sweat the sophistry out of my spirit and the padding of fat off my mind and body, to get my hands dirty and my reasoning sterilized, plus always, I must insist,” he smiled without irony, “because I feel a certain affection for the old man.” He got enormously to his feet. “I hope you won’t think me discourteous if I go to my room now. I have a little work to do before I sleep and I am rather tired.” He said good night and let himself out of the room.

“He’s a strange man. Spiky as a hedgehog.” Philippa spoke thoughtfully, looking through me rather than at me.

“I thought you wouldn’t altogether dislike him.”

Her eyes focused at once. “I don’t like him at all. I n spite of his politeness he is fundamentally unchivalrous and crude. I do not like to be told that because I live a civilized life I inhabit an ivory tower with my head in the clouds. It isn’t true.”

“He never said that, Philippa.”

“Ry implication, Robert. Don’t pre*tend to lx* stupid. You are not.”

There was a set about her mouth that made me pretend to be tired and I, too, said good night.

“What this house needs,” O’Connel said, “is for a good icy wind to blow through it. To tear away the

dainty little perfumed cobwebs. It’s a house of women; it’s unhealthy; it gets its soft downy little tendrils about you and chokes you.”

We were walking in the belt of elms on the east side of Philippa’s garden. I had not seen him the previous day; he was restless.

“There’s always the Black Dog. That’s masculine enough.”

“Let's get our hats,” he said.

In the hall we encountered Philippa. I explained.

“Do you know,” she said, “I have lived here for ten years and no one has yet offered to take me to the Black Dog.”

I did not look at O’Connel as he issued the invitation.

Philippa put on a sort of flimsy floating duster coat. The hedgerows were untidy with the wisps of hay caught up from the wains as they passed. Philippa walked between us holding our arms. I pretexed an untied shoelace for the pleasure of seeing her and O’Connel walking arm in arm down a country lane. He stepped out with a constrained military precision; Philippa’s long elegant legs moved as though she were walking with complete assurance along a tightrope. They were silent.

There were half a dozen men in the bar. The atmosphere was wholesomely masculine: beer, sweat, corduroy,

horses and hay. There was some consternation when we entered. Philippa lessened it with a quite remarkably pally sort of smile. But we were not a scintillating party as we sat on a bench below the window. We talked, but our words fell flatly without echo.

Then Vetkin came in. He was already a little drunk. A big narrowheaded man, wide across the jaws and with a skin that would not tan. He was a sort of absentee farmer of a couple of years’ standing. He had made too much money during the war and had brought some of it out into the country in the hope of sweetening it. “Double Scotch, Ben.”

“We’re right out of Scotch, Mr. Vetkin.” The landlord spoke quietly. “We’ve some nice Irish.” He put a bottle on the bar.

“Double Scotch, Ben.”

“Honestly, Mr. Vetkin, there’s not a drop of Scotch in the house. But this is nice Irish. A nice mature drink.” “Double Scotch, Ben.”

The landlord stood looking at him. The talk of the men had dropped; they were watching Vetkin. But Philippa’s voice remained clear and precise. She was telling O’Connel about a plague of bats in the next village. Vetkin turned round and looked steadily at Philippa. Very slowly his hand came up and he pointed at us. Perhaps the reflection of the setting sun—it was already below the horizon—on the table gave Philippa’s gin a slightly amber tinge. Vetkin was drunk enough already to be talking slightly down his

nose; his voice shook slightly: “That’s Scotch in there. That’s Scotch for a quid. She gets Scotch.”

“No it isn’t, Mr. Vetkin,” the landlord said. “It isn’t now.”

Philippa was saying: “It’s odd but

while I don’t mind mice in the least, bats—.”

“Look, I’ve spent a fortune in this house. But this woman comes in once for five minutes bringing a couple of her fancy men and she gets Scotch. She gets Scotch.”

Philippa said, “Excuse me a momee*.” She walked across the room ano stopped in front of Vetkin. She slapped him hard across the left cheek. A dry clean smack. She turned, her duster coat floating. Her heels clicked over the red tiles. She sat down beside O’Connel, “As I was saying, Mr. O’Connel, bats disgust me.”

VETKIN’S broad cheek was scarlet with three white stripes. The room was quite silent except for O’Connel’s voice. He was speaking slightly slower than usual and his face was inscrutable. “The disgust and even fear,” he was saying, “aroused by bats seem to be both widespread and of long standing. In the folk tales of most countries and particularly those of central Europe —.”

Vet kin could barely stop himself and almost crashed into our table. He held a shaking finger under O’Connel’s nose “Don’t think you’re going to get away with it, you,” he said. His voice was painfully nasal now. “Hiding behind this dolled-up piece of—.”

O’Connel stood up, hit Vetkin in the mouth and followed him into the centre of the room. There was a sudden tigerish ferocity in O’Connel. Vetkin staggered back against the bar and then heaved himself forward like a boxer using the ropes. Philippa and I got to our feet. She was the quicker. She stepped in between the two men. I heard O’Connel grunt as he checked his punch. Vetkin’s right swing landed with a soft thud on O’Connel’s neck. He took it without swaying or trying to ride it. He put his arm across Philippa’s shoulders to pull her aside and Vetkin swung again. The blow landed cleanly on the point of Philippa’s chin. She spun airily out of O’Connel’s arm, took a single pace backward, spun once again and then settled gracefully as a ballet dancer on to the red tiles.

I dodged around toward her but O’Connel, completely ignoring Vetkin, was already on one knee beside her. “My dear,” he said, and there was a strange new note in his voice. “My dear.” Clearly she was out cold.

Two men had Vetkin by the arms from the back. Blood was running down his nose and he was licking it up as fast as he could move his tongue. He was rolling his shoulders; his eyes were bulging and the whites were as brown as wet dead leaves. He started to use his heels on the men. As he

got free I stood up. He had his fists raised to use as bludgeons on O’Connel’s bent head: his chin was out. It was really too easy. I hit him with my right and he crashed to the floor like a felled tree.

O’Connel had Philippa in his arms and was carrying her toward the door. I followed him outside. Her head lay against his shoulder. Her eyelashes looked very long over her demurely closed eyes; her face was quite serene. There was a dark welt on the left side of her chin but as yet no swelling. O’Connel kept looking down at her with a sort of solemn boyish astonish -ment. About thirty yards up the lane he stopped.

“Is she coming round?”

He didn’t answer me but stood looking down at her. Her eyelids fluttered and then opened very wide. Her head jerked as she belatedly tried to avoid the punch that had knocked her out. She opened her eyes again and 1 watched the pupils swiftly dilate and contract until they focused on O’Connel’s face. She smiled and with a puckering of her brow. “1 was knocked out,” she said. “Imagine that!” The puckered smile again.

“Philippa,” O’Connel said hoarsely.

“1 never felt anything. Simply click! And the lights were out.” Again the smile but there were tears in her eyes now.

‘‘My dear,’’ O’Connel said. There was no sign of the sardonic cynic of Camden Town in his husky tenderness.

“I think I’m all right now. I’m sure I am. I can walk now.”

He lowered her legs and she stood swaying with his arm about her shoulders. Her hands went up instinctively to her hair. Her fingers moved about it, mak ing skilled little movements as though they had eyes in them. She took several deep, rather shaky, breaths. She touchr d her chin tenderly and smiled really amusedly at O’Connel. “Shall we go?” she said.

They were facing down the lane toward the Black Dog. away from her house. She started to walk. “No,” O’Connel said, halting her. “Home’s this way.” She looked up at him. “But we didn’t finish our drinks.” O’Connel made a little sighing sound. “My dear,” he said and his grip tightened on her shoulders.

“Really it would he contemptible if we allowed ourselves to be driven out of our own village pub, wouldn’t it?”

“My dear,” he said again. Then, in an entirely different voice with a sort of lilt in it, “Philippa, let’s go.”

I had become a hit of the scenery.

I watched them once more walking down the road together back toward the Black Dog. They looked irresponsible. Like undergraduates. No, younger. 1 turned and started for home. A white owl silent as a cunning thought planed across the lane.

Victoria was standing at the gate of Philippa’s house. Her eves widened with horror when she saw I was alone. “Mr. Scott! Where are they?”

I slowed but did not stop. “They’re fine, Victoria. They’ve just been thrown out of the Black Dog. They’re now fighting their way back in again.” She leaned over the gate to follow me wit h her eyes. “Oh. he’s a te rrible, terrible man, that Mr. O’Connel.” “You’ll learn to love him I dare say, Victoria.”

Somewhere a dog bayed out his love I«) the not yet risen moon; a calf half-angry, half-plaintive, bellowed for its mother; the white owl, flying higher now and black against the dusty orange-brown of the western sky, crossed the lane again returning to his family, a mouse hanging limp from his strange sawn - off looking face. O’Connel’s Old Mother Nature was certainly looking after the family interests tonight.

Except perhaps t he mouse’s, and mine, +