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Authors: Gerald Bullet

A Man of Forty

BOOK: A Man of Forty
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A MAN OF FORTY

By

GERALD BULLETT

Contents

I
SPRING APPROACHING

II
THE FLOOD

III
A SUNDAY IN JUNE

IV
THE GREEN HILL

V
THE INQUIRY

Part I
Spring Approaching
§
1

Not long after midnight they slipped away from the party, he and she, and getting into a taxi were driven to the entrance of Orkney House, where he lived. This was young Swinford's notion of seeing a girl home: to take her to the flat where he lived. Pushing his way round the revolving door he stopped to point an accusing finger at the neat uniformed young man who sat perched in the porter's lodge.


You'
re not Stevenage,” said Adam Swinford.

The hall porter smiled tolerantly. He was fresh from his sleep, having only recently come on duty. “No, sir. I'm Jackson.”


Why
aren't you Stevenage?” demanded Mr. Swinford suspiciously.

“It's not his turn, sir. He went off at eleven-thirty tonight.”

“Now that's very interesting,” Mr. Swinford confided, leaning across the hall porter's counter. “ I must have seen you before. But just because I've been to a party I don't know you. But I know you're not Stevenage,” he added shrewdly.

Jackson's smile became faintly apologetic, almost anxious. “ The young lady, sir—she's waiting.”

Adam Swinford wheeled round. “ My dear young friend, do forgive me!” Small and pretty she was : he could see that. And, by the look of her, she was beginning to wonder whether she had not better run away while she still had the chance. “ Don't do that,” he pleaded, though she had not said a word. “ Do, on the contrary, come to my little snuggery and have a little drink.”

He took the girl by the elbow and piloted her very efficiently up a flight of stone steps and along the corridor to his own front door. Though exhilarated by his many drinks he had a very clear idea of what he was doing.

“Welcome to my hearth and home,” he said, opening the door with a latchkey. “ Separate entrance and no questions asked.” He stood aside to let her pass in, and then escorted her, through the tiny
square hall, to the door of his sitting-room. “ Run along in and switch the fire on while I take off my coat. There's a good girl.”

Joining her half a minute later, he wondered whether it would be in order to kiss her again, without further delay. He had kissed her three times in the taxi, and on each occasion, with an exaggerated gaiety, had told her his name, Adam Swinford, as though to put everything on a proper and dignified basis. Three times he had pronounced it a.damned good party, and three times she had agreed with him. “ Lovely,” she said. And the second time, with careful articulation : “ Most pleasant. Most.” And finally : “ Ever so nice.” Dimly, through the golden mist that enveloped him, he perceived something odd, unexpected, about these answers, about this girl. Not in herself, but in relation to this late-lamented party. Three times in the taxi… but here, in one's own den, nook, funk-hole, apartment, or whatever, it was a little different, wasn't it? She had, after all, a pleasing touch of modesty : he, not she, had done the kissing. Moreover, she was not quite, well, not altogether ... in short, one didn't quite see how she had come to be at the Buckrams' squash : which made it (if you know what I mean, he said, explaining himself to an imaginary interlocutor) all the more important not to offend her.

“In the taxi, yes,” he said. “ I mean to say, what are taxis for?”

“Pardon?” said the young woman.

“But here,” he went on, unheeding, “ the crystal purity of one's motives might not be so frightfully manifest.”

“What
are
you talking about?”

“Call me Adam, darling.”

“You're ever so funny,” she assured him.

“Or just darling alone, if you'd rather.”

He sat down beside her on the chesterfield. It was a pleasant surprise, next moment, to find her in his arms : he didn't remember how it had happened. Delicious little creature, and, what was more, alive. Definitely alive and breathing, with a warm soft body and lustrous eyes. Unusual type, too : delicate hint of bronze in the hair. Slim but not epicene. Oh, by no means. Anything but. Beauty more than adequate, he said to himself, with cautionary understatement. Fiery hair ; a hint of red in the eyes ; delicate fair skin. And young, very young. Take care of Nature's Gift. Keep your husband's love by using Somebody's Skin-food.

“ You're very pretty, aren't you?” said Adam Swinford. “ Correct me if I am wrong.” He kissed her, and she did not correct him. “ I know now what rural poets mean when they talk about smiling champagne,” he continued. “ The champagne inside me is smiling like anything. How about you, dear child? You're a choice vintage : did you know that? That
was
a good party. Or a good bar, anyhow. Some schools of thought are inclined to regard the two statements as constituting one and the same proposition. I don't know if you agree with them, darling?”

She slipped out of his embrace and gave him a curious glance “ You like talking, don't you?”

“Do I? Perhaps I do.” He sobered a little, his ardour checked. “ Meaning you don't like listening?”

She leaned her head back among the cushions and closed her eyes. “ I think you're ever so funny.”

“Ever so,” he agreed. She sat up, opening her eyes wide. Repenting of his irony he said quickly : “ Do you know what? You've not told me your name.”

She gave him a cherubic grin. “ No names, no pack-drills, so they say.” It was surprising. It set him wondering in a new direction.

“So who say?”

“Well, my dad used to, for one,” she answered, with perky satisfaction. “ It's one of the remarks they used to pass in the army.”

“Is your father in the army? How original!”

“He was in the war
1
, wasn't he, like everyone else? He's dead now. Six months ago.”

Adam frowned. It wasn't playing fair to bring that sort of thing into the conversation. “ I'm awfully sorry,” he said. “ I was a child in the war, and you were a babe unborn. What did you say your name was?”

“I didn't say. But as a matter of fact, it's Miss Lily Elver, if you want to know.”

He looked at her in silence, annoyed to find his gaiety already evaporating, and inclined to blame her for it. A few moments ago he had been conscious of being several points above par. He had found himself, as well as the girl, to be a charming and amusing person. And still did. And still do, he admonished himself. Especially
you, Miss Lily Elver. Did they call you Miss in holy baptism, Lily? Well, never mind. What does it matter to me?

But it did matter, a little, that she was not of his world. It put certain things out of the question which might otherwise have rounded off the day very cosily. It was dangerous to go outside one's class for that kind of amusement; and, besides, one couldn't let oneself down, could one?

“Let's have a little drink,” he said.

He got up and moved across the room. His body felt agreeably unsubstantial, and walking had become an art—not a difficult art, but one that would have been difficult to anyone less clever than himself. He came to a standstill, and with his hand on the door of a built-in wall-cupboard paused to look back, momentarily forgetful of his purpose. Not a bad hole, this. Wonder what she thinks of it. It was in fact a large and pleasant room, furnished with modern simplicity but without modern affectation. You would never have guessed that its tenant slept in it. The only other room in Adam Swinford's apartment (unless you counted the bathroom) was a minute kitchen, where he boiled the water for his breakfast coffee each morning—the only meal he had in. This was his show room, his shop window : he put all he knew into it, himself included. It reflected his good taste (” impeccable “ was the word he preferred). It had a touch, a soupçon of a je ne sais quoi. He could have written it up very persuasively, in smooth, telling phrases; for that kind of thing was his job. He despised the job sometimes, but he liked the pay and he was rather good at it. It was understood between himself and his conscience that sooner or later he would blossom out as a poet, a painter, or even a musician : he believed he had a modicum of talent in all three departments. Meanwhile he wrote copy and arranged publicity for a firm of benefactors whose one wish in life was to spread health and happiness in English homes by the sale of their inestimable products : the money they spent every year on advertising, apart from Mr. Swinford's salary, would have sufficed to keep a hundred families in comfort.

“What am I doing here, Lily?” he said, feeling gay once more. “ Oh, yes, a little drink.” By good luck he found the brandy bottle and a siphon of soda water. Without consulting his guest he mixed a stiffish potion for himself and her. “ Here we are now! Drink
this, darling. It'll make a new woman of you.” Though she's very sweet as she is. Dashed if she isn't.

“I don't know if I ought to,” said Miss Elver, receiving the glass from his hand. “ Oh, look, you've spilt some.”

“By the way,” said Adam, “ do you know the Buckrams well?”

“All over my dress! You
are
awful, really!”

“Very nice dress, too,” said Adam Swinford, looking at her bare shoulders. “ Make it yourself?”

“What if I did?” she asked, tossing her head.

“Clever girl, that's all. Do you know the Buckrams well?”

“The what?”

“The Buckrams.”

“Are they people?”

“Good guess, darling. They're the people whose party you've just come from.”

“Oh,
them
!” She giggled. “ I don't know
them.
Why should I?”

“Quite,” he said airily. “ Oh quite. So long as their drink's good, why bother? I see your point.”

“No, but I don't. Really I don't.” Proud of her exploit, she was on the defensive no longer. “ What's more, they don't know me.”

The young man looked at her with a new admiration. She was well worth looking at. “ Do you mean to tell me you crashed?” He came and sat close beside her again.

“Crashed?”

“Gate-crashed.”

“As good as. I didn't have any old invitation. But my friend did. I went with my friend.”

“Man or woman?” said Adam Swinford.

“Now then! You needn't be jealous, dear.” She put a soft warm arm round his neck. Her lips came surprisingly to life under his kiss. “ I went with my friend. Well, she's not exactly my friend. She's a lady I know. I made a dress for her too, if you want to know.”

He didn't want to know. He was no longer paying attention to what she said. By shutting his ears to her speech he was able to see her as a simple shepherdess in the Theocritan tradition: artless, virginal, lovely. For two minutes he kept her speechless. Then suddenly
his hold slackened. She glanced at him in surprise, half resentful. His face was thoughtful, sombre.

“What's the matter now, pray?”

“My God!” said Adam. “ That's torn it!”

“What's torn what? My dress, I should think, by the way you go on.”

He laughed : vexed with himself but determined to be amused. “ I've just remembered something, that's all.”

“Is she nice?” asked Lily. She moved out of his reach and stood up, as if to go.

He laughed again. The transparency of her tactics amused him.

“Today's Friday, isn't it?”

“Well, it's Saturday, if you want to know. Look at the time!” She pointed.

“So it is. Same thing. I went to the party on Friday night and came home on Saturday morning.”

“Have it your own way,” said Lily. “ Where's my cloak, please?”

“Now the point is,” explained Adam, facetiously elaborate, “ I ought not to have gone to that party at all. Why not, dear Adam? you ask anxiously. Because, darling, I had engaged myself to go into the country, to spend a week-end with certain friends. Alternatively, as the lawyers say, I could have rung them up, to say I shouldn't arrive till Saturday.”

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