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Authors: Iris Murdoch

The Bell (9 page)

BOOK: The Bell
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A man came into view. It was Michael Meade, dressed in a blue and white striped apron. Toby was shocked at the apron, and conscience-stricken when he saw that Michael was stacking up cups and saucers in a tall wooden rack. He had quite forgotten to offer to wash up. At that moment the inner door opened and James Tayper Pace came in.
‘Where's the boy now?' asked Michael.
‘He's up on the balcony,' said James.
Toby held his breath.
‘Will you take him down?' said Michael.
‘I'd rather you did,' said James. ‘You know what I think of this idea!'
‘I'm sorry, James, I ought to have consulted you,' said Michael, ‘but last week was frantic and it went right out of my head. In any case, I still think it's worth trying. We needn't make heavy weather of it. If the boy hates being there, or Nick is unpleasant to him, we'll move him back to the house. But I'm certain it'll be O.K. And it would relieve my mind if someone was there with Nick.'
‘Why not send one of ourselves to keep an eye on Nick?' said James.
‘Precisely for that reason,' said Michael, ‘that he'd know he was being kept an eye on. If we send the boy, Nick'll feel responsible for
him
.'
‘You think too well of Nick, and that's the plain truth,' said James. ‘If you'd seen as much as I have of that type of person you'd be more suspicious.'
‘I don't think too well of him,' said Michael, ‘I don't think well of him at all, and I certainly know him better than you do. I think he's a poor fish. I'm afraid of his melancholy, that's all.'
‘I'm not afraid of his melancholy,' said James, ‘I'm afraid of his capacity to make mischief. The more I think of it, Michael, the more I'm sure we made a mistake when we took him in. I know how one feels about such a case, and I think I agreed with you at the time, at least I let you talk me round. I admit too that I don't really understand his background. But it's obviously a complex business, a bad history there. I doubt if we can do him any good, and meanwhile he can do us plenty of harm.'
‘Anyhow, we've got him', said Michael, ‘for better or worse, and we can't chuck him out, just now especially, because of Catherine.'
‘I know, I know,' said James. ‘It's most unfortunate. All the same, I wish I had your faith. I know faith in people, or perhaps one should say faith
for
people, works miracles. And a miracle's what's needed here. Still, to come down to the common sense level, I'd rather have kept the boy in the house. We're responsible for him too, you know.'
‘He'll take no harm,' said Michael. ‘He's got his head screwed on. I liked him very much, by the way; you were quite right. That sort of youthful integrity is proof against infections. He'll be working hard anyway, he won't actually be in the Lodge very much - and he may provide just that link with Nick that we haven't managed to make so far.'
Toby began to walk backwards very quietly. When he got off the cobble stones onto the grass he began to run back toward the front of the house. The grass was longish and he had to go leaping through it. He hoped he was not making too much noise. When he reached the terrace he slowed down and walked slowly across the gravel, getting his breath, and up the steps to the balcony. The lights were still on in the hall and in the common room, and the doors stood open, but there seemed to be nobody there. Toby stood still on the balcony, tense and irresolute. He was extremely disturbed by what he had overheard and by having overheard it. The simplicity and curiously pure charm of the scene had disappeared in an instant. He now felt extreme disquietude at the thought of living in the Lodge. On the other hand, he felt very flattered as well as startled at the confidence that was being shown in him, and excited as at the prospect of an adventure. His thoughts were in a turmoil.
Before he had time to reflect any further a shadow fell from the common room doorway and Michael Meade appeared. Toby stepped forward into the light.
‘Ah, there you are!' said Michael. ‘I'm terribly sorry we kept you waiting. We'll go on down to the Lodge now, if you're ready. Have you got your bag?'
‘It's here,' said Toby. He picked it up from beside the doorway.
‘Can you manage?' said Michael. ‘Let me carry one side.'
They went down the steps together, across the terrace and down onto the yew tree patch. Michael walked with a slight stoop, darting glances at this companion.
‘We'll go across by the ferry,' he said. ‘We don't use the causeway except for going to the Abbey.'
They stepped onto the wooden landing-stage, and the sound of their footsteps echoed in the hollow space between the planks and the lapping water. Michael put Toby's case into the boat. The moon was still unobscured.
‘How does the boat get back', said Toby, ‘after somebody's been across?' He found himself speaking in a low voice.
‘There's a painter tied to each end of it', said Michael, ‘and attached to each shore, so that it can be pulled from either side. Here, I'll steady it and you get in.'
Toby stepped into the swaying yielding bottom of the rowing boat and sat down at once. He wanted desperately to be allowed to row, but kept quiet. The enormous night sky full of stars, the shadows of the moon, the great house brooding behind them, the splashing of the water under the boat, filled him with a breathless inarticulate excitement.
Michael stepped in and pushed off vigorously. He took up the single oar which lay across the seats, slipped it into a rowlock at the stern of the boat, and worked it expertly to and fro. The boat veered quietly and began to move, rolling a little, across the surface of the lake, which remained smooth, scarcely rippled at their progress, black and radiantly glossy. Toby let his hand trail in the water. It was warm.
‘All right, Toby?' said Michael.
‘
Yes
!' said Toby, answering the vague question with a sudden inexplicit enthusiasm. He saw Michael looking down at him and caught the flash of his smile. Then Michael freed the oar and drew it smoothly along the side of the boat. The other side came bumping neatly against the landing-stage. Toby hopped out and seized his suitcase. Michael followed, and the boat bobbed away a little on the water.
A grassy path led straight ahead of them and Toby could dimly see the avenue of trees beyond. A bird sang harshly beside the lake. It was not a nightingale.
‘I hope you don't mind living at the Lodge,' said Michael. ‘You'll be with us for all meals and work and so on. I expect James explained to you. It's just for sleeping.'
‘I don't mind a bit,' said Toby. He began to wonder painfully whether he oughtn't to tell Michael that he had overheard the conversation. Perhaps it was dishonest not to. He couldn't decide.
Michael went on. ‘I'm sure you'll get on well with Nick Fawley. You may find he's a bit gloomy at times. He's had a difficult life. It'll cheer him up to have a little company, draw him into things a bit.'
‘Nick Fawley?' said Toby, surprised.
‘Yes, he's Catherine Fawley's brother, her twin brother, in fact. Didn't James tell you? I'm so sorry, we're being very inefficient. You must think we're a proper collection of otherworldly crack-pots! '
Toby felt disconcerted, he didn't quite know why, to learn that the man at the Lodge was Catherine's brother. He stole a glance sideways at Michael Meade, but could not see his face. Michael seemed uneasy and embarrassed. Probably he was always rather an awkward man and not easy to get on with like James. Toby felt perplexed. The sense of adventure was gone now and only anxiety remained. He stumbled from the grass on the stony surface of the drive.
‘Here we are on the drive,' said Michael. ‘You probably remember all this from this afternoon. The avenue of trees from the entrance ends here - it frames the view of the house from the road - but the drive turns away round the end of the lake. It's quite a long walk that way to the house, more than a mile.'
They walked on in silence towards the Lodge. Toby saw that a light was shining from one of the windows. A dog began to bark.
‘That's Nick's dog, Murphy,' said Michael Meade. ‘Murphy is quite a character.' Michael seemed to be nervous.
‘I adore dogs,' said Toby inanely, feeling nervous too.
‘Nick used to work in aero-dynamics,' said Michael Meade. ‘He knows a lot about engines. In fact, he's by way of being our Transport Officer here. You shall be his understudy. I do hope you'll like it here, Toby,' he added, turning to look at the boy as they neared the Lodge. ‘We're all so pleased you were able to come.'
They arrived at the porch. There was no knocker, but Michael knocked briskly with his fist on the wood of the door with an imperious echoing sound. From within the dog's barking was redoubled. Michael slowly pushed the door open and entered. Toby followed.
He shaded his eyes. All the electric lights were so bright at Imber. The door opened straight into what must be the living-room. In a quick dazzled glance Toby saw a large stove in the wall, two sagging wickerwork armchairs, an immense deal table, a wireless set, and a great many newspapers strewn on the floor. There was an unpleasant smell of stale food. The dog was barking and jumping about. A man who had been sitting behind the table had risen and was looking at Michael.
‘The great man himself!' said Nick Fawley. ‘I didn't expect you. One is not often visited. One is gratified.'
‘I brought young Toby along,' said Michael, amid the continued din of barking.
‘Shut up, Murphy!' said Nick.
‘Shut up!'
Murphy was a rusty brown dog, of indefinite terrier breed, with a white beard and an intelligent monkey-like face. He had a long sleek mud-coloured tail which hung limply from his rump as if stuck on as an afterthought. Becoming silent, he stood near Toby, legs stiff and fur slightly rising, looking up at him with inscrutable hostility. A long gleaming fang carelessly wrinkled the soft dark skin of his lower jaw. Toby eyed him uneasily.
‘You brought young Toby along,' said Nick. ‘That was nice of you.'
Toby stole a glance at Nick. He was immediately startled by Nick's close resemblance to Catherine. Here was the same long slightly heavy face, the leaden slumbrous eyelids, the curling fringe of dark hair over the high forehead, the large eyes and secretive expression. Only Nick was wrinkled about the eyes, which were red-rimmed and watery, as if from much laughing, and this, together with a sagging of the cheeks, gave him something of the look of a bloodhound. His nose was large and covered with tiny red veins. He gave the impression of being a little greasy and of having too much hair. Yet he had a certain handsomeness and even a distant touch of that refinement which breathed so chill and sweet in the beauty of his sister.
Nick was younger-looking than Toby had expected, but certainly seemed the worse for wear. Toby, whose imagination was ready for flights where Nick was concerned, immediately conjectured that he might be a drunkard. This would explain the portentous conversation he had overheard. It was a part of Toby's new sophistication to know that there were also many ways of being a drunkard. There were good drunkards. He decided that Nick was probably one, and with that resolved to like him. At the same moment he noticed a whisky bottle standing on the table, which confirmed his view.
Nick and Michael were looking at each other. Michael still seemed embarrassed. He said, ‘I do hope you're giving yourself enough to eat down here. I wish you'd come up to the house occasionally for a meal.' He scanned the table. There was an unsavoury-looking dish of meat near the far end.
‘That's Murphy's supper,' said Nick, ‘I was just going to give it to him. Doggy, your moment has come!' He decanted the meat off the dish on to the floor with a plop. It fell on to one of the newspapers. It was evident that other newspapers present had served a similar purpose. Murphy ceased his contemplation of Toby and began noisily to eat his supper.
‘Mrs Mark must have had a fit when she saw this scene,' said Michael.
‘She animadverted, as women do,' said Nick. They were looking at each other uneasily.
‘She got Toby's room ready?' said Michael.
‘She did something upstairs which I assume was that. She was here an unconscionable time,' said Nick. ‘Have a drink.' He picked up the whisky bottle.
‘No, thank you,' said Michael. ‘I think I'd better go. I just came to deliver Toby.'
‘Don't then, and go then,' said Nick.
Michael Meades still lingered, his eyes straying about the room. He looked as if he felt he had not conducted the encounter very well.
‘How is my sainted sister?' said Nick, who also seemed to want to prolong the interview.
‘She's very well, very happy,' said Michael.
‘When I am told that a person is happy,' said Nick, ‘I know that he is not. Of really happy people this is never said. Don't you agree, Toby?'
Toby jumped nervously at being addressed. He had settled into being a spectator. ‘I don't know,' he said.
‘Toby doesn't know,' said Nick. ‘Has the erring wife arrived?'
‘Mrs Greenfield has come,' said Michael. ‘Well, I hope we'll see more of you up at the house. I must be getting back now.'
‘So you keep saying,' said Nick.
‘Look after Toby,' said Michael.
Nick laughed, which made him suddenly look pleasanter, and opened the door ceremoniously for Michael, who, with an awkward gesture of farewell, disappeared.
‘Incompetent,' said Nick, looking after him into the darkness. ‘Incompetent. Oh God!'
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