Authors: J. G. Farrell
Who were these poor chaps? the Major wondered distantly, without pity. On what basis had selection been made? Young men from Kilnalough? But recruiting had been poor in Ireland. Connolly, the Sinn Feiners, Nationalists of every hue had declared that Irishmen should not fight in the British Army. But if not from Kilnalough from Trinity, perhaps, or from some heroic cricket club or old school. There were so many ways in which the vast army of the dead could be drilled, classified, inspected, and made to present their ghostly arms. No end to the institutions, civilian and military, busy drawing up their sombre balance-sheet and recording it in wood, stone or metal. But if there was no end to the institutions there was no end to the dead men either. In truth, there were more than enough to go round several times over. “Greater love hath no man than this,” the Major thought mechanically. Bacon and eggs...the saliva rinsed shamefully around his teeth.
Long ranks of tiny eyes were now staring at the Major as if accusing him of being both alive and about to eat breakfast. With a dignified gesture Edward had grasped each page of the book and folded it outward and back on concealed hinges, revealing row after row of photographs of young men, most of them in uniform. The photographs were not very good, some of them. Fuzzy or beginning to fade, ill-assorted; one or two of the young men were laughing unsuitably or, dazzled by the sun, looked to be already in agony. For the most part, though, they were meticulously uniformed and the Major could imagine them sitting there, grim and composed, as if for a portrait in oils. As often as not this long exposure to the unblinking eye had so completely steamed the life out of them that now one was difficult to tell from another.
Edward said in somewhat sepulchral tones: “They gave their lives for their King, their country and for us. Let us remain silent for a moment in their name.” Silence descended. The only sounds to be heard were Murphy's regular, whistling breath and a faint gurgle of gastric juices.
Meanwhile the Major was trying once again to delve into the past with the paralysed fingers of his memory, hoping to grasp some warmth or emotion, the name perhaps of a dead friend that might mean the beginning of grief, the beginning of an end to grief. But now, as he stood at the breakfast table, even the dead faces that nightly appeared in his dreams remained absent. There was only the cold and constant surprise that would come, say, from dreaming of home and waking among strangers. He ground his teeth at the accusing, many-eyed memorial and thought: “Hypocrisy.”
As Edward said grace his eye met the Major's for an instant and perhaps he noticed the Major's bitterness, for a shadow of concern crossed his face. Turning, he closed the memorial and took his seat.
Now that the domed lid was being lifted from the silver dish the Major's spirits improved and he thought that today, after breakfast, he must have a talk with Angela and clear up her misconceptions. Then he would leave. After all, if he did not leave promptly his presence might well foster more misconceptions. If she could nominate herself his “fiancÃ©e” on the strength of a few meetings in Brighton she might well be capable of arranging the wedding without consulting him. All the same, it was difficult to bring the matter up while Angela continued to treat him as a casual acquaintance. It seemed indelicate to recall that time they had kissed with the cactus in Brighton.
“Did you sleep well, Brendan?” Angela wanted to know... and looking at her pale and frigid face he wondered whether the kiss might have taken place only in his imagination.
“Yes,” the Major replied curtly, hoping to indicate the contrary.
“That's good,” Edward said with satisfaction, spearing the fat rump of a kidney and a few leaves of bacon (all stone-cold by now and remarkably greasy). “Don't pay any heed to what those bally guide-books say. It may not be quite what it was in the old days but it's still a comfortable old place. Anyway, they're all written by Liberals and Socialists and so forth... They envy us, if you want my opinion, it's as simple as that.”
This was too much for the Major. “There was a sheep's head in the cupboard by my bed.”
“Good heavens,” exclaimed Angela, though without surprise.
“That's what we give the dogs. Boil 'em down. Very nourishing and they cost nothing at all. The butcher would probably throw them away if it wasn't for us, though I've heard the country people sometimes eat them too. You should see the healthy coats they have on them. Come along with me afterwards and see for yourself.”
The Major, who hoped never in his life to see another sheep's head, could only nod mutely and trust to luck that Edward would forget.
He didn't, however. Just as the Major was preparing to slope off after breakfast (and perhaps corner Angela to drop a few hints about not wanting to marry her) Edward abruptly materialized at his elbow and steered him firmly down unfamiliar corridors, through a yard festooned with damp sheets bulging in the wind and into a smaller yard walled by outhouses. Here a dozen or so dogs of varying ages, shapes and sizes (whose names the Major already knew by heart) were dozing on piles of straw or empty sacks.
“My dogs,” Edward said with simplicity. “Aren't they beauties? Mind where you walk.”
“They certainly are,” the Major replied insincerely.
The dogs brightened up at the sight of Edward and crowded round him excitedly, snapping at his fingers and trying to land their paws on his chest, barging, quarrelling and getting in the way to such an extent that the two men had trouble wading through them to reach a gate on the far side. This led into yet another yard, empty this time except for a three-sided fireplace sprouting black smoke and orange flames. Over the fire hung the round black belly of an iron cauldron, steaming and bubbling. The dogs sprang towards it in a frenzy of excitement.
Evans, the tutor, was standing beside the cauldron stirring it, his pale, unhealthy face completely expressionless. “What a strange fellow!” thought the Major. Stirring the cauldron with the flames leaping about his ears made him look positively sinister.
“Thank you, Tutor. A good brew today, is it?” Edward turned to the Major. “Evans does the cooking, I do the feeding. Dogs know who feeds them, believe you me. It's not the same thing if you tell your servants to do it...they don't know who's master (I mean, the
don't). Now take a look at that. Rich and juicy!”
The Major peered with distaste at the simmering liquid. Fortunately the surface was covered with an oily grey froth which masked the pot's macabre contents.
“Very nourishing, I shouldn't be surprised,” observed the Major drily. But Edward was not yet satisfied. Picking up a couple of charred sticks, he fished with them until he had located something beneath the surface. A moment later the Major was face to face with a long, narrow skull, eyeless and tipped with grinning teeth.
“Well, thanks a lot for showing me. I think I'll take a stroll round while the weather holds.” The Major stared up at the overcast sky and then, backing away a couple of paces, almost fell over a massive sheepdog that had moved up behind him. Edward grasped him firmly by the upper armâwhether to help him keep his balance or to prevent him from leaving was not immediately clear.
“Look here, Major,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “We don't want to be too hard on the boy, do we?”
The Major stared at him and Edward, taking his silence for disagreement, continued: “A lot of it's my own fault, I realize that. He was sacked from school, d'you see, and I had him sent to a crammer. Shouldn't have done that...turned him agin the government. I was angry, you know, and thought I wouldn't let him get away with it...not scot free, anyway.”
“You mean Ripon?”
“Yes, yes, Ripon. I know you've been wondering why he didn't volunteer and so forth. It's only natural after what you've been through.”
“Really, Mr Spencer, I can assure you...” But Edward was patting his arm soothingly and saying: “Only natural. Anyone would feel the same in your position. Those who go and those who stay at home...white feathers and all that rot. He's not a coward, though, and neither am I. Take a look at this!” Dropping the charred sticks, he unbuttoned his waistcoat and began pulling his shirt out until he had uncovered a patch of pale skin at his waist. In the middle of the patch was a round white scar as big as a halfpenny.
“In the service of the King-Emperor. Didn't think I'd get back from that little affair. Somehow or other it missed the intestines or I wouldn't be here to tell the tale. Get down, sir!” A spaniel was attempting to lick the exposed patch of skin.
While Edward adjusted his clothing the Major repeated his innocence of any critical thoughts about Ripon. “Lot of fuss about nothing, was it?” Edward hastened to agree. “Well, that's all right then. Still, I wouldn't have wanted you to think we were a family of milksops. Ripon told Angela that the first thing you asked him was whether he'd been abroad. He was angry with Angela, d'you see, because he thought she'd been telling tales.”
There was silence for a moment. Edward had retrieved one of the sticks and was stirring the pot, with the dogs milling and woofing round him. His rugged face with its clipped moustache and flattened ears was still scowling with anxiety in spite of the Major's reassurance.
“He's not a bad boy at heart, you know. It's true he was sacked from school (though not for anything unhealthy, mind)...and I suppose that rather set him agin the government. I lose my temper with him at times and that doesn't help...Get down! I'll tell you when it's ready,” he added to a large Alsatian puppy that from behind had forced its head under his arm. “All the same, he should have volunteered when he was needed, coward or no coward. He may never have another chance as good as the one he missed.”
A chance to do what? wondered the Major. To have his name carved into the dark wood of Edward's war memorial, a dead servant of His Majesty? But a nation must require all its people to participate. A just cause must be defended by everyone. There's no room for young men who are “agin the government.” Believing, as the Major did, that the cause
been a just one and that throughout the world the great civilizing power of the British Empire had been at stake, it was right that Ripon should be held in contempt. Besides, Ripon was perhaps alive in the place of one of those destroyed men who came at night to plead with him in the agony of his dreams.
The Major glanced at Edward. What a man to have such a son! How stiff and military he looked! When he moved, one half expected to hear the clinking of medals. The sort of man who in peacetime looks rather out of place, like a heavy fur coat on a hot summer's day. But again he noticed that mild and disabused expression of the eyes which contrasted so strongly with Edward's military appearance, that trace of self-mockery so firmly restrained that perhaps even Edward himself refused to acknowledge it except in his most private thoughts.
“No you don't,” Edward said, aiming a kick at a tall and rickety Afghan hound that was poking its long nose into one of the Major's trouser pockets. “Come on then,” he added, addressing the multitude of dogs. He unhooked the cauldron and at the centre of a whirlpool of barking, yelping animals dragged it over to a shallow trough, saying over his shoulder to the Major: “You know, it smells so good I shouldn't mind eating it myself.”
The Major spent the rest of the morning trying to corner Angela. For a while he wandered the hotel aimlessly, meeting no one at all. He walked down corridors, through deserted rooms in twilight, often as not curtains still drawn from the evening before (perhaps even from many, many evenings before), up a staircase here, down a staircase there. Shortly before eleven o'clock, attracted by a smell of coffee, he found his way to the kitchens, which were chilly and cavernous, the whitewashed walls hung with an armoury of giant pots and pans (some of them big enough to braise an entire sheep, legs and all) which for the most part were rusted beyond recognition, so that they looked more like huge reddish-brown growths sprouting from the walls. In the middle of the table a tortoiseshell cat lay in a veined meat-dish, dozing.
Here in the kitchens the Major was given a cup of tea (the coffee had been an olfactory illusion) stewed black and bitter by numerous reheatings, served to him by the extremely fat lady he had noticed at breakfast. She was the cook, he gathered, but though she appeared garrulous her accent was such that he could understand little of what she said. He did believe her to say, however, that “the mistress” might be found arranging flowers in the dining-room above.
“The mistress?” he repeated, wanting to make sure (he had been trailing long enough through empty rooms). He pointed up at the ceiling. The cook nodded vigorously and began to speak again, rapidly and with considerable urgency. Evidently what she was saying was important. Her face was working with emotion; between volleys of words there were shuddering intakes of breath; her shoulders shook, causing the gelatinous layers of flesh on her arms to shiver. “Good heavens!” thought the Major with concern. “What can it all be about?” Here and there he recognized a word: “heaven”... and “poor creature”...and “gone to the angels”; but to capture the sense of what she was saying was impossible. Presumably the good lady was referring to Angela's mother who also, come to that, might be described as “the mistress”âdead of an embolism, he remembered, on St Swithin's Day, 1910. But the cook obviously thought that he had understood her tirade, so to show sympathy he nodded glumly as she stopped speaking and began to chop away with extraordinary speed and ferocity, using a kitchen knife as big as a bayonet. And then, to make things worse, he noticed that her eyes were streaming with tears. She was weeping without restraint! And it was all his fault. He swallowed his tea (making a face, it was as bitter as wormwood) and stole out of the kitchen. But a little later, as he felt his way along the damp, stone corridor to the stairs, it occurred to him that the cook had been chopping onionsâa fact which might have contributed to her display of emotion.