The traveler went looking for a friend, a man who had driven his tank at the enemy while wearing a bowler hat. Surely seven years of peace and the love of a good and sensible woman couldn’t change John Evelyn Blount
RONALD R. SMITH
THE INSTRUMENT in the booth smelled rather of fish. Across the street in the lamplight the Marquis of Cramby discreetly rotted. It would have been more agreeable to telephone from the Cramby. But inside it had an air of impending bankruptcy. The staff had shy doomed smiles which had turned into agonies of remorse and shame when he had twice nearly broken his neck—the rooms on the ground floor almost all being at different levels, necessitating unsuspected steps. He hadn’t had the heart to risk wounding them further with disconcerting questions about the telephone. Or so Scott told himself.
He dialed. How did one greet a man one had not seen since the war ended? One was unhearty, naturally; avoided by-goddery and verbal backslapping. Also, Hare would have changed in eight civilian years, even Hare. Harebrain Hare, the soldier, and Hare the surveyor or whatever it was.
“Helen Hare!” The voice fluted into his right ear, gay, piercingly sweet, the sort of voice he attributed to certain of the young women who display underwear in the advertisements, the voice of a very fully integrated personality. Scott liked women to leave their personalities alone. He half considered throwing over the whole thing. But it wasn’t a reason, really.
He said austerely: “I would like to speak to
Mr. Hare, if I may.”
“Who did you say was speaking?” In spite of its implied criticism of his manner of telephoning the voice remained uncompromisingly sweet and full of sunshine.
Dazzlingly full. Scott experienced an unconquerable reluctance to expose his name naked to this blast of sunshine. “This is”—he made a complicated noise-“a friend of his.”
“I beg your pardon. 1 didn’t quite catch . . .” He was well aware that women with fully integrated personalities are quite capable of blandly admitting half a dozen times if necessary that they failed to catch something a curious lack of savoirvivre. But he had to go on now that he had started. He repeated the noise precisely.
“Ah yes. Well, Mr. Hare isn’t at home at the moment. He’s not far away though. He’s at a neighbor’s watching the handicrafts thing on television.” She laughed radiantly.
“He’s not ill, is he?”
“On the contrary. Healthy to the point of
rudeness.” She laughed even more radiantly. He could almost see the advertisement—“light as a cobweb, soft to the touch as a rose petal, these slenderizing . . .”
“We are talking about John Evelyn Blount Hare, aren’t we?”
“Of course. Of course we are. I say, you aren’t by any chance one of the County Sanitary people, are you?”
“No,” Scott said. His first instinct had been right: renounce. Go back to the Cramby, get
a whisky if they had any— and a book and retire to his medieval bedchamber with “Brunswick Room” neatly painted on the door which had the habit of suddenly springing open with a lecherous sigh.
“Is there any message I could give my husband, Mr.—er—oh, do forgive me. I’m so stupid about names. I become so interested in what people are saying, in their voices ...”
“Ttssnnbbnns,” Scott said brusquely as he felt a tendency toward good will creeping in. Was it honestly worth all this trouble simply to have a couple of drinks with a man one hadn’t seen or heard from in seven years? Meanwhile he found himself saying: “Would you tell him I’m staying
overnight at the Marquis of Cramby; ask him to drop in if he has time? I’d be most grateful, Mrs. Hare.”
“But couldn’t you come round here? We’d be delighted . . .”
“Quite impossible.” This integrated type of woman was always hospitable to a fault. “Much as I would like to, quite impossible. You see I have to” his inventiveness deserted him—“to expand my notes,” he contrived finally, the good will gone.
Mrs. Hare produced a cogent, close-knit argument why that was all the more reason . . . Scott was adamant. The sunshine was rather veiled when he resolutely ended the conversation. He closed the door of the booth behind him on the odor of fish and domesticity. He was becoming less and less sure that he would get any particular pleasure out of seeing Hare. Even Hare was going to have insidious little patches of the domestic blight on him.
Scott lit a cigarette and stood frowning down the darkened street. He had not escaped the domestic blight Continued on page 70
Continued on page 70
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 32
himself. He had lost his mustache to it—a not unimpressive mustache. Monica had carried on a sort of oblique smear campaign against it until he had lost confidence in the thing . . . “But it’s inches longer on this side, darling.” “Did you hear what that frightful little bleached girl said then?” Etc.
He crossed the street toward the Cramby. The street lamps were dim, the shops all shut, their windows dark, the street almost deserted. Was a passion for handicrafts universal here? The sky was starless, the night warm and still. Scott wouldn’t have minded gloom, a rich, portentous gloom, but this parsimonious demi-gloom ... It wasn’t actually the quality of the gloom that exercised his mind but, nagging neurotically, had seven civilian years diluted and debilitated him to the extent that he feared they had? How would he stand alongside a Hare? Blight or no blight Hare was a highly resistant character. It did not escape him that this sort of comparison was not without its odiousness. Nevertheless . . .
A rocking flagstone in the porched entrance of the Cramby spurted a jet of dirty water on to his right leg as he stepped on it. He accepted it philosophically; against all odds the Cramby had extorted his sympathy.
Alone in the bar a handsome old military man with a "broken nose silently drank beer out of a pewter skull. The barman, laughing with pleasure at not being asked for something he hadn’t got, explained circumstantially where Tichburn Avenue—in which Hare lived—was. Only five or six minutes away. Evidently an earthly paradise. It had the nicest people, the nicest gardens, houses, chestnut trees to be found in the town. For a barman —men who usually inhabit a less mundane plane—he was depressingly concerned with niceness and Scott was accord i ngly depressed.
The old military man sat and gazed at his beaten pewter death’s head—a presentation from some mess, no doubt; it was inscribed —with morose satisfaction. Half-eager, half-fearful, the barman waited to submit himself to further tests. Behind the uneasy silence there was a faint susurration which Scott was convinced was the sound of electrons flying off from their nuclei as the fell work of dissolution went on in the fabric of the building. It was a situation in which a sensitive character might well begin to meditate on the transience of all things and man’s tragic destiny. Instead Scott decided to exercise his right as a resident to take his beer into the lounge.
Naturally, it was empty; a long low raftered room with flimsy little easy chairs, some of them wicker, the sort that react with a feminine squeak of indignation when you sit on them; hulking slabs of mahogany furniture and crouching, sinister shadows—he had switched on the light at one end only.
He paced the floor trying to ward off the ancient desiccated anguish the room was trying to impose on him. All dust now the ecstatic lovers’ meetings, the exhilarating (but deplorable, of course) beginnings of illicit unions, the angry ruptures, calculated betrayals, the pathetic, platitudinous partings— all dried up now indistinguishably into the same fine dust that must film everything. He ran his finger along t he ledge of the massive mahogany tenementhousing books. Disappointingly his finger came away immaculate except
for a faint antiseptic smell of furniture polish.
In the bookcase among the jetsam of decades of travelers were two identical copies, spanking new, of a German general’s war memoirs in an opulent American format.
He was about to open the door of the bookcase when the door of the lounge burst open and a tall man looking—the desire to secure an early advantage made Scott caricature slightly—looking rather like Sherlock Holmes disguised as a cavalry officer in mufti, loped in. He had the Holmes domed brow with a promontory of dark hair in the middle, the aquiline nose and the sharp chin. And in between the two latter a large unlikely mustache the color and texture of medium shag. Rather unsubtly he wore a suit of smoky cavalry twill with a sporting maroon waistcoat.
The man peered swiftly round the room as though giving it a preliminary check before a colonel’s inspection and his eyes finally found Scott. They examined him without charity.
“Beg your pardon. Looking for a chap.”
SCOTT was not asking for charity but he had expected recognition. The passage of seven years, the absence of a uniform, the loss of a mustache—had he not recognized Hare instantly behind that article de fantaisie he had since grown?—and a layer of tan had reduced him to a drab anonymity? His individuality was of such faint impress that the absence of these trifles had wiped it out entirely? He would need more convincing evidence of it than Hare was competent to produce, by God. And he turned his highly critical attention on to Hare and started another series of rhetorical questions. Was this distinguished-looking character, this exemplar of manly chic, this member of the warrior caste the same amiably scruffy Hare who had insisted always on his civilian status, maintaining that war was a job for civilians, far too grubby, slippery, squalid for professional soldiers? And who asserted his right by commanding his tank in a bowler hat—a greenish chapeau melon picked up in poor battered C heux —until the colonel, while admitting the exquisite wit of the thing, forbade it on the grounds that such levity might tend to expose war to ridicule and bring it into disrepute?
“What sort of chap?” Scott said.
“No idea really. Whole thing damn silly, I’m beginning to think.” He gave Scott a terribly piercing look.
To be reduced to this gimlet-eyed business! Pitiful, pitiful! That such a species of Hare should have emerged from the tepid crucible of peace! Could it be—could it not be, rather—that h: *' wife was working on Hare’s personal? too? Almost certainly the mustache must be a flower of her cultivation. At least the poor fellow had managed to get away with a shoelace undone, thank God.
“I’m the only chap here,” Scott said. Hare picked up an old magazine from the table, looked underneath it, and threw if down again. He eyed Scott’s half-empty glass of beer suspiciously. “Dreary sort of practical joke. Bound to say it. it’ll be the golf professional, I expect.”
“1 shouldn’t imagine so. They’re very serious people.”
“Not this one.” Hare thrust his hands into his trouser pockets, pressed his arms to his sides, scowled at Scott and then looked down at the carpet. He raised his head slowly. “We met somewhere before?”
“I’ve never been here before in my life.”
“Ah, yes, well, hope you like it now
you’ve come. Full of historical and archaeological interest.” He turned round scrutinizing the room again. “Absolutely stuffed.”
Scott wondered if Hare was contemplating standing as mayor for the historic borough. He seemed capable of any sort of turpitude. “Any particular reason why the telephone booth should smell of fish?”
Hare swung round. “That damn fishmonger’s been doing it again, has he? Í shall bring it before the council, I promise you. Have the man excluded. Third complaint. Actually seen resting a fish on the box last time. Gluey scales everywhere. The scoundrel! Grateful to you for telling me.”
“Oh, a whiff of fish here and there . . .” Scott deprecated. Poor old Hare. One could hardly continue to bear him ill will.
HARE appeared to have forgotten about the ñsh. He chuckled and his mustache, distorted, became a separate entity, having no relation to his face except proximity. He clenched his fists in his pockets, thrusting them out. “Just remembered. Chap you remind me of. Bigger than you, of course. Younger. Robust. Bit of a hellhound too, this one. West Country.” He laughed and was slightly embarrassed because he had laughed. “Just thinking of an incident.” He inspected Scott with good-natured contempt. “Not really like him, of course. Vital sort of chap. You know, robust. But there’s that something. You know, the way a chap lifts one eyebrow. Something like that.”
“I lift both eyebrows or none,” Scott said coldly.
“No. Didn’t actually mean lifting an eyebrow. A thing Like that I meant. No resemblance at all really though.” He took a watch out of his maroon waistcoat pocket and shook his head. “Supposed to take the chap I was supposed to meet back with me. Told her it would be the golf professional being witty. Pulled a little thing on him myself on Saturday.” He straightened his tie, tugged at his waistcoat, buttoned his jacket, missed the untied shoelace and inspected himself like a soldier preparing to go on guard parade. “Wife waiting.” He laughed again. “Great, robust, mustachioed chap, the army chap I was talking about. Bet he’s raising hell somewhere. Must get in touch with him.” He moved to the
door. “Don’t forget to go and look at the Roman drains. Just dug up. You’ll be surprised.” He waved his hand. “Got something up my sleeve for the golf professor. H’ve good time.” The door slammed.
SCOTT produced a loose match from his jacket pocket, carefully broke if into four, walked over to the fireplace and dropped the pieces among the stack of brittle heather deputizing for a fire. The correct emotion to experience, he supposed, was chagrin. Chagrin. He contemplated the word, projecting it on to a space between two dangerouslooking beams supporting, or being supported by, the ceiling. Alarmingly, what little meaning he could give it began rapidly to drain away. He averted his eyes smartly, before it became pure gibberish. And as he became conscious of the word vaguely filling up again he had to acknowledge that he really felt no particular chagrin at all. On the contrary, he felt rather relaxed, appeased, reconciled. Rather like an old convict on discovering an old pal in the next cell. Or a hunter demoted to riding school if it encountered there a former, and formidable, stable-mate enduring, with slightly inane good humor, the unrhythmic thuds of a pair of bouncing jodhpurs lavishly filled with young patron. After all, who was he to expect to escape the common lot of man?
He turned hack to the bookcase and rejected the German general. He was not precisely in the mood for war memoirs. The only other interesting book he could find was Babney’s Fruitgrowing For Profit which took caustic exception to the general public’s idiotic preference for pretty foreign apples —“all carmine, cotton wool and saccharine water.”
He took the book with him into the bar and had an instructive little talk about apple trees with the barman who advanced some surprisingly bold opinions on the cutting of maidens.
Then Scott went up to his room, cleaned his teeth, regretted the absence of Monica, mildly astonished himself by resolving to telegraph her some flowers before he moved on in the morning, climbed into the bed reputed to have been slept in by Caroline of Brunswick and, wearing the honor lightly, slid as confidently into sleep as many a man who had spent the day in worthy and gainful employment. +