Fiction

A CARD FROM THE Comtesse

The tiresome romantic tangle of the scatterbrained Lois was tidied up and Scott could now return to his serene routine. But could he? As he walked down the stairs he accepted

RONALD R. SMITH January 15 1955
Fiction

A CARD FROM THE Comtesse

The tiresome romantic tangle of the scatterbrained Lois was tidied up and Scott could now return to his serene routine. But could he? As he walked down the stairs he accepted

RONALD R. SMITH January 15 1955

A CARD FROM THE Comtesse

Fiction

The tiresome romantic tangle of the scatterbrained Lois was tidied up and Scott could now return to his serene routine. But could he? As he walked down the stairs he accepted

RONALD R. SMITH

SCOTT ATE his bacon and eggs without particular relish. He was extremely dissatisfied with himself. In addition, the big, fattish man, Roseberry, talked incessantly about cricket and about the poet, Shelley. Why Roseberry should be so obsessed with Shelley was something Scott couldn’t make out. Perhaps he was writing a book about him and wanted to try out one or two hypotheses on somebody.

Moreover Roseberry was on the second week of his honeymoon and Mrs. Roseberry, a young woman of considerable topographical interestevery inch a beauty queenwho had a great gift for seeing the funny side of things even when there wasn’t one was breakfasting in bed. Scott himself detested breakfast in bed but he felt that in certain circumstances, which were not absent in Roseberry’s case, he might have constrained himself to overcome his dislike. But not Roseberry. Tor some inscrutable reason he had to come down and breakfast at Scott’s table and talk about cricket and Shelley. That Shelley as a topic had a thousand sparkling facets Scott was not prepared to deny. But he was getting a little tired of the poet. And of cricket.

Across the dining room of the King Charles’ Head Tudor in fabric, pseudo-Tudor in furnishings three commercial travelers ate together beside a potted palm, absorbed to the exclusion of everything else in each others’ tales of commercial prowess. One of them, who in a moment of expansiveness had informed Scott that he traveled in rag books for tiny tots, looked such a jolly,

pink-cheeked, universal father type that he was almost sinister. - v ■.

Beside the cavernous fireplace with its false-log electric fire comic as a false nose the Comtesse peeled her after-breakfast pear. (Scott had always assumed that Comtesses invariably breakfasted in bed on hot chocolate and croissants except during revolutions. But the Comtesse Emilie de Beaurichard was invariably first down for breakfast.) She was a dark-haired, disquietingly handsome woman of about forty with green eves (not greenish, green—the green of a rain-wet. chestnut leaf) and a vivid pallor that made other people’s tan look unhealt hily sallow.

It was only her experienced eyes, tenebrous at times under their black lashes, that revealed her age to Scott. And not because time had even thought of dimming their splendor; it was simply that those eyes could not have seen all they manifestly had seen in anything under forty years.

She claimed to be studying the Roman remains in this venerable town with a view to writing a book about them. (Quite possibly, Scott thought, the commercial travelers were collaborating in a book on sales psychology, say? they too, who knew?)

She ate her pear with conscious gratification, delil>erately savoring, enjoying. She showed her teeth in a sort of smile when she opened her mouth to receive a piece of pear. They looked capable of snapping off an ear in a moment of playfulness. Merely watching her gave Scott great pleasure. She made the simple act of living seem a formidably agreeable thing. And at the moment . . .

Continued on page 33

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 13

“Sweet Lamp, my mothlike Muse has burned its wings ...”

Scott broke off his reflection for a moment to listen to Roseberry reciting with great brio from Shelley’s Epipsychidion. He nodded approvingly at Roseberry and returned to his reflection. At the moment life was far from agreeable. Every time he thought— which was about once every three minutes—of the reason he was sojourning in this ancient town, the situation became thoroughly revolting. And his own pitiful indecision was aggravating it.

Three days had passed already and he had attempted nothing. Yet, repugnant as his mission was, it was also simple, simple at least to attempt if not to make a success of. Some people might even regard it as a rather noble mission. Scott was indifferent to what other people might think of it. To him it was unprintably repugnant. Why couldn’t Lois’ parents have stayed married and looked after their abominable daughter? Alternatively why couldn’t Helen have contrived to be an only child—or have brothers—instead of a younger sister whose aptitude for every form of idiocy known to woman . . .

“Help yourself to marmalade, Scott,” Roseberry said.

It was marmalade from Roseberry’s own private stock, “genuine Oxford marmalade,” made from an old family recipe by two old maiden ladies who produced it to sell to a few friends. (Imagine a man being so preoccupied with marmalade that he carried his own private stock around with him on his honeymoon. Whatever was the world coming to? Scott asked himself.) Nevertheless he was not so scandalized that it prevented him from helping himself generously. Though it looked grim, turbid stuff, it was pungent and agreeably bitter — marmalade, Scott had to admit, of very high order indeed.

The Comtesse, having finished her pear, rose and crossed the room towards the door, rolling her sumptuous hips ever so slightly—though not more than is permissible to so much natural grace, Scott considered. (It was with the incurably shapeless who did it that someone should have a serious little talk.)

“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said to Scott and Roseberry. (The commercial travelers always austerely averted their eyes in her presence— thus repudiating the vile slanders often aimed at this fine body of men.) Then she gave Scott and Roseberry a brilliant, mocking smile and said: “Ah, you Englishmen!” and left the room.

“Whatever did she mean by that, Scott?” Roseberry said opening wide his little blue eyes.

“She meant,” Scott said, “that it’s a magnificent morning, that she feels herself worthy of enjoying it, and capable of enjoying it—a rarer capacity than you’d think—and that it is amusing to make fun of Englishmen who by tradition and upbringing are slightly Garnie Vail of which is essentially true.”

Scott had been infected by the Comtesse'**rvivacity, élan or whatever it was califes. Today the mission shall be undertaken, he thought. And not merely today, but now. (He was not unaware that spontaneous gushes of optimism sometimes dry up spontaneously.) He excused himself from visiting the cathedral with Mr. and Mrs. Roseberry, in spite of the unique rood screen to be found there, and went out into the cobbled yard to get his car. If he ever had a honeymoon—and none of us is invulnerable—it would be a more exclusive affair than the Roseberrys’, he decided. No strangers would be invited, not even Shelley.

AS HE was about to drive out of the ..yard a car drove in. A tall, languorous, sardonic-looking man got out. He had an elegant but rather timeworn profile of which he was not altogether unaware. He had an air of owning the inn, the street and possibly the entire town, of finding it a terrible bore, but of supporting the exhausting burden philosophically with a weary little ironic smile. Twice Scott had seen him in company with the Comtesse. Anybody who had the Comtesse as an ally in the great fight against boredom, Scott felt, need never despair.

It was indeed a magnificent morning. The ancient town basked under a benign sun. Its inhabitants bustled about the narrow, crooked streets modestly pretending to be unaware that the soil—with an interposed layer of asphalt, of course—they trod had rumbled under the chariot wheels of Caesar’s legionaries and that had it but a tongue it could fill half a library with massive historical tomes, not all of them dull. But the stream of traffic was heavy and turbulent. Scott had to sacrifice historical thinking to keeping his fenders intact.

His objective lay two miles from the centre of the town. It was a house called Leas End. In it he hoped to find a man called Haversham. Lois had demanded the utmost discretion of him. This was like a show girl of the Folies Bergère urging the virtues of red flannel next the skin.

“Were they very compromising letters you wrote to Haversham?” he had asked Lois. She had looked at Helen, looked out of the window, down at her shoes, flushed and with considerable satisfaction—he was absolutely certain it was satisfaction—she had said: “Very, very compromising, I’m afraid.” He clenched his teeth and an upper molar that needed attention instantly retaliated with a stab that made him shut one eye. Life was disgusting. It pullulated with horrors — dentists, Haversham, Lois ... A girl being hauled along the pavement by four boxers (dogs) smiled at him. He smiled back and immediately began to feel rather competent again.

If the affair had merely demanded physical courage it would have been simplicity itself. Soldiering through some pretty sticky fighting in Korea he had discovered—rather to his surprise —that he had apparently unlimited amounts of that. It was the moral stuff that was lacking. What undermined him was the thought that he was the ambassador of such a congenital idiot as Lois whose letters were probably the most grotesque and preposterous to be written this century. (He knew he was exaggerating; Lois was a pretty girl with a bright intelligence which she rather neglected to use.)

What was Haversham going to think of him? And what sort of man was Haversham? He had never seen him. Haversham had evidently at one time commended himself to Lois, therefore it was not unreasonable to suppose that he would be a horror of one kind or another. Probably one of those natty little men who spend half the day in a well-cut dressing gown, half-smoking cigarettes, and making epigrams for the benefit of the housemaid if they could find nobody else . . .

He had overshot the wrought-iron gates of Leas End by forty yards before

he realized it. He reversed and turned up the drive to a fine little four-square, stone house probably erected at the beginning of the nineteenth century when it was still happily under the influence of the eighteenth. A disgracefully agreeable place for a horror like Haversham to live in.

Scott got out of his car, leapt smartly up the three semicircular steps of the portico and rang the bell. Iciness must be the note. But let Haversham be very sparing with his epigrams. He, Scott, was in no mood for bright little sayings.

The door opened. A little man, neatly—nattily—dressed in a dark-grey suit stood looking questioningly out of narrow, immobile eyes. Could this be Haversham himself? Scott was vastly surprised. Then he was struck by the hairbreadth accuracy of the man’s central parting. That was a precision never achieved outside the calling; obviously he was the houseman.

“I’d like to see Mr. Haversham, please.”

“Mr. Haversham’s not at home, sir.”

The man spoke without hesitation

and in spite of his generally shady appearance had not the air of lying.

“You mean that he’s away somewhere? For the week end?”

“No, sir.”

“When will he be home again?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

Scott knew the little man was decorating his negativeness with a little insolence, and that his little bleak eyes were inspecting the cut of his suit, the make, horsepower, year, general condition of his car. And that he was not impressed.

“You have no idea where he is, what he is doing, when he’ll return?”

“Mr. Haversham doesn’t confide in me, sir.”

Scott was prepared to bet that he was precisely the sort of disgustingly canny little character that Haversham would confide in, that he was up to his neck in Haversham’s little galanteries. Scott considered the grain in the oak of the doorquite a new door. He shrugged his shoulders.

“Ah well, never mind. You might tell your master that Lord Oakportal called.” He turned and stepped briskly down the steps.

“Excuse me, sir, excuse me.” The little man came pattering down the steps behind Scott. “Did you say Lord Oakportal, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s of no importance.” Scott climbed into his car and drove away aristocratically preoccupied.

ON THE road again he turned the nose of his car away from the ancient town. He was not very pleased with himself. After three and a half days the sum of his achievement was to have discomfited a male housemaid—and rather shabbily at that. It was not exactly Napoleonic. Why had Lois ever been taught to write? It was time people awoke to the menace inherent in the reckless and indiscriminate spreading of literacy.

He pulled into the grass verge, sat down on a crumbling dry-stone wall

and lit a cigarette. Why hadn’t he left a message with the little man insisting on an interview with Haversham? And why the puerile and almost pointless lordship nonsense, a folly which was bound to recoil on his own head? Finally, what now? His mind gave the questions a blank stare.

Scott shook his head and watched a gaily painted barge glide with supernatural smoothness along the canal which ran for several hundred yards parallel with the road. What an admirable life. A little milk-chocolatecolored dog sat in the bow admiring the scenery. The helmsman smoked his pipe enveloped in a cloud of contemplative calm that Socrates might have envied. Scott threw away his cigarette, got back into his car and drove about the countryside for more than an hour, blind to a good deal of very agreeable landscape.

He made an effort to dissect his character, to find out why it took him three and a half days to fail to do what anybody else would have done in twenty-four hours. He discovered with very little surprise that he apparently had no character in the usual sense of the word. In its place he had a small bundle of disconnected impulses that functioned quite unpredictably.

He got back to King Charles’ Head a little before the lunch hour. By that time he had convinced himself that he would never make contact with Haversham even if he devoted his life to it, that fate had erected an invisible and impenetrable barrier between them. He ordered a whisky and soda and took it with him into the lounge.

The room was empty except for Mrs. Roseberry leaning against the marble fireplace. She was turning over the pages of an American woman’s magazine which drooped voluptuously under its own glamorous bulk. In a dazzling Italianate-looking frock she appeared more delectably Miss Seaside of 1954 than ever.

“Oh, Mr. .Scott, you can’t guess who’s lunching here.”

Scott admitted frankly that he could not and offered her a drink.

“I never drink before sundown,” she said. Scott suspected this was a Roseberry dictum.

To give a little symmetry to the scene Scott leaned against the opposite side of the fireplace, made a feeble little joke about the midnight sun, and asked who was lunching there.

“Oh yes. You know the Jenny and John series, don’t you? But of course you do. Everybody does.”

“Series of what?” Scott said.

Mrs. Roseberry’s pretty dark eyebrows almost disappeared into her pretty fair hair. “Of books of course. Novels.”

Yet another writer. Laid end to end you could probably encircle the ancient town with them. “Ah, books,” he said.

“You actually mean,” Mrs. Roseberry said, scandalized, “that you have never read any of the Jenny and John books!”

“My dear Carole.” Roseberry, bulky, benevolent, was standing in the doorway. He entered the room. “My dear Carole, seriously now, does Mr. Scott strike you as the sort of man to go in for your intellectual puff-pastries, these—no doubt charming in their way —sensibleries? Come, come.” '

Mrs. Roseberry smiled adoringly at Roseberry. It was clear to Scott that she was convinced that she had captured a genius. Lucky fellow. V'ith h3r equipment there was quite a chance that she would never discover h^mistake. If it was a mistake, of coursed

“I won’t have you say a word against Haversham’s books,” she said.

They were going to have one of those merry little mock battles now, Scott thought. Full of innocent fun for the contestants but for the spectator . . . “Haversham,” he said. “Haversham is lunching here?”

“I knew you must have heard, of him. He’s lunching with the Comtesse de Beaurichard. He lunched with her yesterday too but we didn’t know who he was then. You must have noticed him. A tall, awfully distinguished, awfully blasé-looking man.”

“I saw him in the bar as I came past,” Roseberry said. “The barman was telling him about pigs.”

“He was alone? The Comtesse wasn’t with him?”

“The Comtesse has gone up to change, I think. They’ve been nosing around the old Roman baths and naturally—”

“Forgive me,” Scott said. “You’ve just reminded me of something rather important that I must do at once.”

THE barman was still telling Haversham about pigs. Haversham, with a glass in his hand, rested one thigh on a small table. He listened with ironically smiling patience. Scott waited in the doorway until the barman paused for inspiration and then moved rapidly in.

“You’re Haversham, I believe. My name is Scott.”

The barman politely attended to his glass-washing. It involved plopping, gurgling, sucking noises which always horribly evoked for Scott the mating play of octopuses. Haversham turned his faintly acid, infinitely patient smile on Scott.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “Ah, yes.”

“I am a very great friend of Helen Benham’s. She has a sister, Lois.”

If Haversham suppressed a guilty start at the sound of that name he did it, Scott had to admit, with great virtuosity.

“Ah yes, Mr. Scott. May I offer you a drink?”

“No thank you,” Scott said sternly. “Lois Benham”—he lowered his voice so that at a short distance it would be drowned by the sound of the unspeakable grapplings of the octopuses— “Lois Benham has written a number of letters to you.”

“Such a multitude of people do that.” Haversham sighed, still smiling but ineffably weary. “Such a multitude. You’re quite sure you won’t have a drink?”

“Quite sure. Compromising letters, Haversham.”

Haversham’s weariness increased to the point at which it resembled total exhaustion. “So very many are that. Or so Miss Codd, my secretary, tells me.”

“This is not fan mail I’m talking about, Haversham. Lois Benham met you at some party in Chelsea or St. John’s Wood or somewhere. You’re not going to deny that, are you?”

“I don’t deny it for one moment, Scott. One meets people incessantly all over the place. Incessantly. One forgets most of them. One tries.”

“You mean you may have met her casually? That you have had no sort of dealings with her? That you have never even read her letters? Why then did you refuse to send them back? Or does the Codd woman do that for you?” Haversham slid his leg off the table and sank weakly into a chair. Clearly he was a man that the irremediable coarseness, the importunities of the world^afflicted severely.

“Plc-yse sit down, Scott. It’s painful to me to see you standing like that.” Scott shook his head impatiently.

“I wonder if I might—in the light of past experience—sum this thing up for you, Scott.” Haversham closed his eyes for a moment and pressed the eyeballs with his thumb and second finger.

“Your young woman—”

“Not my young woman—”

"'This young woman writes letters to me—and depend on it, Scott, it was my books that provoked the letters in the first place; unhappily they have a fatal quality that makes young women reach for their pens. This young woman writes letters to me. Miss Codd, as is her habit, burns them. This young woman writes more letters asking for the return of the first letters. Miss Codd burns these also.

“This young woman, I suggest, Scott, is one of those who find life

rather humdrum, deficient in excitements. In an effort to remedy this unfortunate dearth she is rather apt — shall we say?—to ‘interpret’ facts, to embellish them a little. Consequently she interpreted my silence as a refusal to return her letters.”

He delicately fingered the host of lines (rather like a railway marshaling yard, Scott thought irrelevantly) on his brow. “If 1 may say so, Scott, the natural habitat of such young women— and how disconcertingly numerous they are—is the strip cartoon in which a fresh adventure is ineluctably forth-

coming every day. T say, I do wish you would have a drink, Scott.”

Simply to justify himself Scott would have liked to put a few cunningly probing questions. But what was the use? Haversham’s estimate of Lois fitted her like her skin. Scott also felt that a little righteous anger with Lois might have been creditable to him. But he had to recognize that he was so constituted that he felt nothing but relief that he was seeing the end of the fatuous affair, almost hilarious relief.

He said: “It’s been an agreeable experience meeting you, Haversham. And if you are taking up pig breeding I hope you will win lots of cups and medals at the agricultural shows.”

AS HE left the bar he felt there was a certain buoyancy in his step that had been absent for some days. He decided not to leave the ancient town until the following morning. There was a strange-looking ikon apparently made of bone in an antique shop. He thought he might buy it for Helen, who loved mysterious objects.

He lunched with the Roseberrys. Roseberry talked with good-natured derision of Haversham’s books, eruditely of Gothic architecture, dragging in Shelley by the hair here and there. Mrs. Roseberry listened to him with fascinated incomprehension. Across the room the Comtesse lunched with Haversham. Scott was delighted to see that even the world-weary Haversham displayed faint but unmistakable signs of animation in her presence. When Scott caught her eye she gave him one of her flashing, rather barbaric smiles. What an intoxicating woman she was; what an ornament of her sex, he thought lavishly, what a justification of her sex. One could almost forgive it its all too crowded ranks of Loises . . .

They had just lighted their cigarettes when the waitress brought Scott his telegram.

“Not bad news I hope, Scott,” Roseberry said.

“L DECAMPED WITH AUNTYS LOGAN WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN PLEASE RETURN IMMEDIATELY LOVE HELEN,” the telegram read.

Scott said good-by to the Roseberrys in case he didn’t see them again and they made resolutions to “keep in touch.” He paid his bill and went up to pack.

It was a severe blow. Gone was the prospect of a little peace. Lois had added another frame or two to her strip. Scott’s heart went out to poor Helen. How did such a charming and civilized girl come to have a natural anarchist for a sister?

As he stuffed soiled shirts into his bag he scowled blackly and invented terrible Old Testament punishments for the delinquent girl. But after a while his brow began to clear. Had he not approached this thing rather superficially? Viewed in the cold, clear light of reason—and who more coldly rational than he when he set his mind to it?—it took on a somewhat different aspect. When he had completed his packing he threw his raincoat on the bed and sat down beside it. He read the telegram for a second time.

Transcribed from telegraphese it clearly meant that Lois had eloped with young Logan, their rich Aunt Georgina’s chauffeur. Scott recalled Logan very clearly. He was a severe-looking young man with beetling ginger eyebrows, an autocratic manner, and a look in his eye which probably implied that he intended to be prime minister someday, or a millionaire motor manufacturer, a champion golfer—anyway someone of vast importance.

Could it really be said to be a disaster that Lois had fallen into such capable hands? Scott was not prepared to admit it for one moment. Logan was a young man who would tolerate no frivolous nonsense from Lois—he had tolerated none from Aunt Georgina, threatening to leave instantly, without wages if necessary, if she did not treat her own cars with the consideration he had laid down as the bare minimum. Why, this thing was obviously going to be the making of the girl. It was probably the first intelligent action she had performed in her life.

Scott picked up his bag and threw his raincoat jauntily over his arm.

Another rather important result of this curious attack of intelligence which Lois had experienced would be that his own little idyll with Helen would be able to pursue its course to wherever it might lead—and there was not much doubt where that would be—without the continual shocks and disturbances of Lois’ idiotic behavior which upset Helen and by contagion himself, and even occasionally called for his direct intervention. Scott did not like messing about in other people’s lives, especially lives like Lois’. He was eccentricenough actually to prefer minding his own business. Life couldn’t be too uncomplicated for him.

ÁT THE foot of the stairs, absorbed in rather agreeable reflection, he almost ran into the Comtesse. She stood looking at him gravely. He began to feel grave himself. She seemed to have the faculty of transferring her moods to him. Why was she looking at him like that? What an extraordinary woman she was. She was not wearing a single piece of jewelry. Where then did this air of sumptuousness, of preciousness, come from? A comparison between her and Helen insinuated itself into his mind, a gaudy metaphor of which he was ashamed and which he tried unsuccessfully to suppress: a goblet of rare, potent wine beside a nice glass of orange squash. He was surprised to hear the Comtesse say: “You were leaving without saying good-by to me?”

“I didn’t think you would care to be bothered,” he said.

“We have not seen much of each other but T thought that we had become good friends.”

“1 would have liked to think so but, to be honest, I didn’t.”

“I believed that there was a happy conspiracy between us. I had the impression that we both saw life in the same manner, a manner quite different from that of the other people here.” “You know perfectly well,” he said, “that if I had known you were expecting me to come and say good-by to you nothing would have prevented me from doing it.”

She smiled. She pressed his arm. People were continually passing but she didn’t appear to care two sous what they might think.

“Don’t be angry with me,” she said. “A moment, please.”

She turned and walked with a rapid click of heels into the lounge. Scott remained where he was, his bag in his right hand, his raincoat over his left arm. He was not to be angry with her. He had imagined her armed to the teeth with deadly weapons: wit, hauteur, irony--but not this womanly yielding, deadliest of the lot. He suddenly had a feeling that something or other was getting seriously out of his control.

The Comtesse returned smiling and handed him a visiting card. There was writing on the back, tiny, heavy script. It was an address in South Kensington, London.

“Here I have been busy with fatiguing people concerned with my work; there I shall have more leisure. I return in three days.”

With his left hand Scott tucked the card into his breast pocket.

“It’s very kind of you,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Here our friendship has been conducted—I express myself badly, I think—conducted in little snatches of conversation and silently across the whole length of a room. There, if you wish, it will be more propitious for it to ripen and grow. I am sanguine enough to believe so—in English you say sanguine?”

“Yes. But we pronounce it sanggwin.”

“You see what an ignorant woman I am. You will wish to teach me, perhaps. Teaching is agreeable.” She gave him one of her quick flashing smiles. “And perhaps I shall have a little to teach you too.”

The dialogue wasn’t terribly sparkling, Scott thought. He would have supposed that she would do the allusive stuff a little better. But at the same time his mind was scuttling in all directions finding excuses for her: unfamiliarity with the language, the need for haste, etc.

He smiled instead of replying and the Comtesse held out her hand. He dropped his bag. Her hand felt cool and extraordinarily strong in his, which he was uncomfortably aware was hot and sticky from holding his bag. It did not appear to disturb the Comtesse.

“Au revoir,” she said smiling almost gravely. “We say: To part is to die a little.”

Scott found himself smiling almost gravely. “We say, after Shakespeare, that parting is such sweet sorrow.” He thought: What beautiful and touching, if a trifle platitudinous, sentiments. He also thought: The worst of platitudes is that they’re often true.

“Au revoir,” he said and picked up his bag.

He crossed the cobbled courtyard to his car. The sun had gone and the color was bleached out of the sky. He was going to run into stormy weather

on his way down, he thought.

He threw his bag and raincoat into the back of the car, got in, and slammed the door. The Comtesse, he thought, had descended on him like a thunderbolt out of a perfectly clear sky. Well, he had tried—chivalrous Scott!—to defend himself by attempting to deglamorize her. He had tried . . .

And now where was his placid little idyll with Helen? Where was his peace of mind? Where his uncomplicated life? Where indeed? Where were the snows of yesteryear? He frowned at the dashboard and pressed the starter. This was going to be far worse than the Lois epoch. For how could it be other when always at the back—and not even the back, the forefront—-of his mind would be the disturbing knowledge that he had only to get into his car and within thirty-five minutes or so he could be at the address on the card in his pocket where there was a great deal to be learned, he was sure, as well as taught?

He drove out of the yard and turned his back on the ancient town from the centre of which rose, black against the livid sky, the twin towers of the cathedral. As the country opened out in front of him —the hedges, he noticed, were thick with red hawthorn berries, sign of a severe winter to come, countrymen said—he turned the questions over in his mind. There was one solution. For some time he continued to set it aside.

But at last he shrugged his shoulders and reached into his breast pocket with his forefinger and thumb. Holding the steering wheel with his forearm he tore the tough little card into small pieces and let them flutter out of the window.

He recognized that as an act of renunciation it was not without elegance. That the gesture should have been necessary was a tribute to the Comtesse’s beauty; that it should have been made a tribute to Helen’s; and there was still a little glory left over for himself for having made it. It had a certain geometric elegance. So far as Scott could see it was quite perfect except for one defect: the address on the card was already as indelibly engraved on his mind as his old army number: 7928448.

A dozen heavy drops of rain spattered against his windscreen. He had been right, he reflected, he was going to run into stormy weather. +c