Read The Gap in the Curtain Online
Authors: John Buchan
The trouble was Pamela Brune. It appeared that he was deeply in love, and that she was toying with his young heart. “There's a strong lot of entries,” he explained, “and Charles Ottery has been the favourite up till now. But she seems a bit off Charles, and . . . and . . . anyhow, I'm going to try my luck. I wangled an invitation here for that very purpose. I say, you knowâyou're her godfather, aren't you? If you could put in a kind word . . .”
But my unreceptive eye must have warned Reggie that I was stony soil. He had another glass of port, and sighed.
I intended to go to bed as soon as I decently could. I was not sleepy, but I was seeing things with the confusion of a drowsy man. As I followed my host across the hall, where someone had started a gramophone, I seemed more than ever to be in a phantasmal world. The drawing room, with the delicate fluted pilasters in its panelling and the Sir Joshuas and Romneys between them, swam in a green dusk, which was partly the afterglow through the uncurtained windows and partly the shading of the electric lamps. A four at bridge had been made up, and the young people were drifting back towards the music. Lady Nantley beckoned me from a sofa. I could see her eyes appraising my face and disapproving of it, but she was too tactful to tell me that I looked ill.
“I heard that you were to be here, Ned,” she said, “and I was very glad. Your goddaughter is rather a handful just now, and I wanted your advice.”
“What's wrong?” I asked. “She's looking uncommonly pretty.” I caught a glimpse of Pamela patting her hair as she passed a mirror, slim and swift as a dryad.
“She's uncommonly perverse. You know that she has been having an affair with Charles Ottery ever since Christmas at Wirlesdon. I love Charles, and Tom and I were delighted. Everything most suitableâthe right age, enough money, chance of a career, the same friends. There's no doubt that Charles adores her, and till the other day I thought that she was coming to adore Charles. But now she has suddenly gone off at a tangent, and has taken to snubbing and neglecting him. She says that he's too good for her, and that his perfections choke herâdoesn't want to play second fiddle to an Admirable Crichtonâwants to shape her own lifeâall the rubbish that young people talk nowadays.”
Mollie's charming eyes were full of real distress, and she put an appealing hand on my arm.
“She likes you, Ned, and believes in you. Couldn't you put a little sense into her head?”
I wanted to say that I was feeling like a ghost from another sphere, and that it was no good asking a tenuous spectre to meddle with the affairs of warm flesh and blood. But I was spared the trouble of answering by the appearance of Lady Flambard.
“Forgive me, Mollie dear,” she said, “but I must carry him off. I'll bring him back to you presently.”
She led me to a young man who was standing near the door. “Bob,” she said, “this is Sir Edward Leithen. I've been longing for you two to meet.”
“So have I,” said the other, and we shook hands. Now that I saw Goodeve fairly, I was even more impressed than by his profile as seen at dinner. He was a finely made man, and looked younger than his thirty-eight years. He was very dark, but not in the least swarthy; there were lights in his hair which suggested that he might have been a blond child, and his skin was a clear brown, as if the blood ran strongly and cleanly under it. What I liked about him was his smile, which was at once engaging and natural, and a little shy. It took away any arrogance that might have lurked in the tight mouth and straight brows.
“I came here to meet you, sir,” he said. “I'm a candidate for public life, and I wanted to see a man who interests me more than anybody else in the game. I hope you don't mind my saying that . . . What about going into the garden? There's a moon of sorts, and the nightingales will soon begin. If they're like the ones at Goodeve, eleven's their hour.”
We went through the hall to the terrace, which lay empty and quiet in a great dazzle of moonlight. It was only about a fortnight till midsummer, a season when in fine weather in southern England it is never quite dark. Now, with a moon nearing the full, the place was bright enough to read print. The stone balustrade and urns were white as snow, and the two stairways that led to the sunk garden were a frosty green like tiny glaciers.
We threaded the maze of plots and lily ponds and came out on a farther lawn, which ran down to the little river. That bit of the Arm is no good for fishing, for it has been trimmed into a shallow babbling stretch of ornamental water, but it is a delicious thing in the landscape. There was no sound except the lapse of the stream, and the occasional squattering flight of a moorhen. But as we reached the brink a nightingale began in the next thicket.
Goodeve had scarcely spoken a word. He was sniffing the night scents, which were a wonderful blend of early roses, new-mown hay, and dewy turf. When we reached the Arm, we turned and looked back at the house. It seemed suddenly to have gone small, set in a great alleyway of green between olive woods, an alleyway which swept from the high downs to the river meadows. Far beyond it we could see the bare top of Stobarrow. But it looked as perfect as a piece of carved ivoryâand ancient, ancient as a boulder left millenniums ago by a melting icecap.
“Pretty good,” said my companion at last. “At Flambard you can walk steadily back into the past. Every chapter is written plain to be read.”
“At Goodeve, too,” I said.
“At Goodeve, too. You know the place? It is the first home I have had since I was a child, for I have been knocking about for years in lodgings and tents. I'm still a little afraid of it. It's a place that wants to master you. I'm sometimes tempted to give myself up to it and spend my days listening to its stories and feeling my way back through the corridors of time. But I know that that would be ruin.”
“Because you cannot walk backward. It is too easy, and the road leads nowhere. A man must keep his eyes to the front and resist the pull of his ancestors. They're the devil, those ancestors, always trying to get you back into their own rut.”
“I wish mine would pull harder,” I said. “I've been badly overworked lately, and I feel at this moment like a waif, with nothing behind me and nothing before.”
He regarded me curiously. “I thought you looked a little done up. Well, that's the penalty of being a swell. You'll lie fallow for a day or two and the power will return. There can't be much looking backward in your life.”
“Nor looking forward. I seem to live between high blank walls. I never get a prospect.”
“Oh, but you are wrong,” he said seriously. “All your time is spent in trying to guess what is going to happenâwhat view the courts will take of a case, what kind of argument will hit the prospective mood of the House. It is the same in law and politics and business and everything practical. Success depends on seeing just a little more into the future than other people.”
I remembered my odd feeling at dinner of the raft on the misty sea, and the anxious peering faces at the edge.
“Maybe,” I said. “But just at the moment I'm inclined to envy the people who live happily in the present. Our host, for example, and the boys and girls who are now dancing.” In the stillness the faint echo of music drifted to us from the house.
“I don't envy them a bit,” he said. “They have no real sporting interest. Trying to see something solid in the mist is the whole fun of life, and most of its poetry.”
“Anyhow, thank Heaven, we can't see very far. It would be awful to look down an avenue of time as clear as this strip of lawn, and see the future as unmistakable as Flambard.”
“Perhaps. But sometimes I would give a good deal for one moment of prevision.”
After that, as we strolled back, we talked about commonplace thingsâthe prospects of a not very secure government, common friends, the ways of our hostess, whom he loved, and the abilities of Mayot, whichâalong with meâhe doubted. As we entered the house again we found the far end of the hall brightly lit, since the lamps had been turned on in the porch. The butler was ushering in a guest who had just arrived, and Sally had hastened from the drawing room to greet him.
The newcomer was one of the biggest men I have ever seen, and one of the leanest. A suit of grey flannel hung loose upon his gigantic bones. He reminded me of Nansen, except that he was dark instead of fair. His forehead rose to a peak, on which sat one solitary lock, for the rest of his head was bald. His eyes were large and almost colourless, mere pits of light beneath shaggy brows. He was bowing over Sally's hand in a foreign way, and the movement made him cough.
“May I present Sir Edward Leithen?” said Sally. “Sir Robert Goodeve . . . Professor Moe.”
The big man gave me a big hand, which felt hot and damp. His eyes regarded me with a hungry interest. I had an impression of powerâ immense power, and also an immense fragility.
I did not have a good night; I rarely do when I have been overworking. I started a chapter of
, dropped off in the middle, and woke in two hours, restless and unrefreshed. Then I must have lain awake till the little chill before dawn which generally sends me to sleep. The window was wide open, and all the minute sounds of a summer night floated through it, but they did not soothe me. I had one of those fits of dissatisfaction which often assail the sleepless. I felt that I was making very little of my life. I earned a large income, and had a considerable position in the public eye, but I was living, so to speak, from hand to mouth. I had long lost any ordinary ambitions, and had ceased to plan out my career ahead, as I used to do when I was a young man. There were many things in public life on which I was keen, but it was only an intellectual keenness; I had no ardour in their pursuit. I felt as if my existence were utterly shapeless.
It was borne in on me that Goodeve was right. What were his words?â“Trying to see something solid in the mist is the whole fun of life, and most of its poetry.” Success, he had argued, depended upon looking a little farther into the future than other people. No doubt; but then I didn't want successânot in the ordinary way. He had still his spurs to win, whereas I had won mine, and I didn't like the fit of them. Yet all the same I wanted some plan and policy in my life, for I couldn't go on living in the mud of the present. My mind needed prospect and horizon. I had often made this reflection before in moments of disillusionment, but now it came upon me with the force of a revelation. I told myself that I was beginning to be cured of my weariness, for I was growing discontented, and discontent is a proof of vitality . . . As I fell asleep I was thinking of Goodeve and realizing how much I liked him. His company might prove the tonic I required.
I rose early and went for a walk along the Arm to look for a possible trout. The mayfly season was over, but there were one or two good fish rising beyond a clump of reeds where the stream entered the wood. Then I breakfasted alone with Evelyn, for Flambard is not an early house. His horses were mostly at grass, but he lent me a cob of Sally's. I changed into breeches, cut a few sandwiches, and set out for the high Downs. I fancied that a long lonely day on the hills would do me as much good as anything.
It was a quiet dim morning which promised a day of heat. I rode through a mile of woods full of nesting pheasants, then over a broomy common, and then by way of a steep lane on to the turf of the Downs. I found myself on the track where Evelyn exercised his racehorses, for he trained at home, so I gave my beast its head, and had that most delectable of experiences, a gallop over perfect turf. This brought me well up on the side of Stobarrow, and by the time I reached its summit the haze was clearing, and I was looking over the Arm and the young Thames to the blue lift of Cotswold.
I spent the whole day on the uplands. I ate my sandwiches in a clump of thorns, and had a mug of rough cider at an alehouse. I rode down long waterless combes, and ascended other tops besides Stobarrow. For an hour I lay on a patch of thyme, drowsy with the heat and the aromatic scents. I smoked a pipe with an old shepherd, and heard slow tales of sheep and dogs and storms and forgotten fox hunts. In the end I drugged myself into a sort of animal peace. Thank God, I could still get back when I pleased to the ancient world of pastoral.
But when on my return I came over the brink of Stobarrow I realized that I had gained little. The pastoral world was not mine; my world was down below in the valley where men and women were fretting and puzzling . . . I no longer thought of them as on a raft looking at misty seas, but rather as spectators on a ridge, trying to guess what lay beyond the next hill. Tavanger and Mayot and Goodeveâthey were all at it. A futile game, maybe, but inevitable, since what lay beyond the hill was life and death to them. I must recapture the mood for this guessing game, for it was the mainspring of effort, and therefore of happiness.
I got back about six, had a bath, and changed into flannels. Sally gave me a cup of tea at a table in the hall which carried food for a multitude, but did not look as if it had been much patronized. Evelyn and the Lamingtons had gone to see the Wallingdon training stables; the young people had had tea in the tennis-court pavilion; Mayot had motored to Cirencester to meet a friend, and Tavanger had gone to Goodeve to look at the pictures, in which subject he was a noted connoisseur; Charles Ottery had disappeared after luncheon, and she had sent the professor to bed till dinner.
Sally's face wore something between a smile and a frown.
“Reggie Daker is in bed, too. He was determined to try Sir Vidas over the jumps in the park, though Evelyn warned him that the horse was short of exercise and was sure to give trouble. The jumps haven't been mended for months, and the take-off at some of them is shocking. Well, Sir Vidas came down all right, and Reggie fell on his head and nearly cracked his skull. He was concussed, and unconscious for a quarter of an hour. Dr. Micklem sewed him up, and he is now in bed, covered with bandages, and not allowed to speak or be spoken to till tomorrow. It's hard luck on poor Reggie, but it will keep him for a little from making a fool of himself about Pamela Brune. He hasn't a chance there, you know, and he is such a tactless old donkey that he is spoiling the field for Charles Ottery.”
But it was not Reggie's misfortunes that made my hostess frown. Presently I learned the reason.
“I'm very glad of the chance of a quiet talk with you,” she said. “I want to speak to you about Professor Moe. You saw him when he arrived last night. What did you think of him?”
“He seemed a formidable personage,” I replied. “He looked very ill.”
very ill. I had no notion how ill he was. He makes light of it, but there must be something mortally wrong with his lungs or his heart. He seems to be always in a fever, and now and then he simply gasps for breath. He says he has been like that for years, but I can't believe it. It's a tragedy, for he is one of the greatest minds in the world.”
“I never heard of him before.”
“You wouldn't. You're not a scientist. He's a most wonderful mathematician and physicistârather in the Einstein way. He has upset every scientific law, but you can't understand just how unless you're a great scientist yourself. Our own people hush their voices when they mention him.”
“How did you come across him?”
“I met him last year in Berlin. You know I've a flair for clever people, and they seem to like me, though I don't follow a word they say. I saw that he was to be in London to read a paper to some society, so I thought I'd ask him to Flambard to show him what English country life was like. Rather to my surprise he acceptedâ I think London tired him and he wanted a rest.”
“You're worried about him? Are you afraid that he'll die on your hands?”
“No-o,” she answered. “He's very ill, but I don't think he'll die just yet. What worries me is to know how to help him. You see, he took me into his confidence this morning. He accepted my invitation because he wanted the quiet of the country to finish a piece of work. A tremendous piece of workâthe work of his life . . . He wants something more. He wants our help. It seems that some experiment is necessary before he can be quite sure of his ground.”
“What sort of experiment?”
“With human beingsâthe right kind of human beings. You mustn't laugh at me, Ned, for I can't explain what he told me, though I thought I understood when he was speaking . . . It has something to do with a new theory of time. He thinks that time is not a straight line, but full of coils and kinks. He says that the Future is here with us now, if we only knew how to look for it. And he believes he has found a way of enabling one to know what is going to happen a long time ahead.”
I laughed. “Useful for Evelyn and George. They'll be able to back all the Ascot winners.”
But Sally did not laugh.
“You must be serious. The professor is a genius, and I believe every word he says. He wants help, he told me. Not people like Evelyn and George. He has very clear ideas about the kind of man he needs. He wants Mr. Mayot and Mr. Tavanger and perhaps Charles Ottery, though he's not quite sure about Charles. Above all, he wants you and Bob Goodeve. He saw you last night, and took a tremendous fancy to you both.”
I forbore to laugh only out of deference to Sally's gravity. It seemed a reduction to the absurd of Goodeve's talk the night before and my reflections on the Downs. I had decided that I must be more forward-looking, and here was a wild foreigner who believed that he had found the exact technique of the business.
“I don't like it,” I said. “The man is probably mad.”
“Oh, no, he isn't. He is brilliantly sane. You have only to talk to him to realize that. Even when I couldn't follow him I could see that he was not talking nonsense. But the point is that he wants to put it all before you. He is certain that he can make a convert of you.”
“But I don't know the first thing about science. I have often got up a technical subject for a case, and then washed it out of my mind. I've never been instructed in the first principles. I don't understand the language.”
“That is just why Professor Moe wants you. He says he wants a fresh mind, and a mind trained like yours to weigh evidence. It wasn't your
, Ned, that he fell for, but your reputation as a lawyer.”
“I don't mind listening to what he has got to say. But look here, Sally, I don't like this experiment business. What does he propose?”
“Nothing in the least unpleasant. It only means one or two people preparing themselves for an experience, which he says he can give them, by getting into a particular frame of mind. He's not sure if he can bring it off, you know. The experiment is to be the final proof of his discovery. He was emphatic that there was no danger and no unpleasantness, whether it was successful or not . . . But he was very particular about the people he wanted. He was looking at us all this morning with the queerest appraising eyes. He wants you and Bob especially, and Mr. Mayot and Mr. Tavanger, and possibly Charles. Oh, yes, and he thinks he may want me. But nobody else. He was perfectly clear about that.”
I must say that this rather impressed me. He had chosen exactly those whom I had selected at dinner the previous night as the careful as opposed to the carefree. He wanted people whose physical vitality was low, and who were living on the edge of their nerves, and he had picked them unerringly out of Sally's house party.
“All right,” I said. “I'll have a talk to him after dinner. But I want you to be guided by me, and if I think the thing fishy to call it off. If the man is as clever as you say, he may scare somebody into imbecility.”
Before I dressed I rang up Landor, and was lucky enough to find him still in London. Landor, besides being a patent-law barrister pretty near the top of his branch, is a fellow of the Royal Society, and a devotee of those dim regions where physics, metaphysics, and mathematics jostle each other. He has published and presented me with several works which I found totally incomprehensible.
When I asked him about Professor Moe he replied with a respectful gurgle. “You don't mean to say you've got him at Flambard? What astounding luck! I thought he had gone back to Stockholm. There are scores of people who would walk twenty miles barefoot to get a word with him.”
Landor confirmed all that Sally had said about the professor's standing. He had been given the Nobel Prize years ago, and was undoubtedly the greatest mathematician alive. But recently he had soared into a world where it was not easy to keep abreast of him. Landor confessed that he had only got glimmerings of meaning from the paper he had read two days before to the Newton Club. “I can see the road he is travelling,” he said, “but I can't quite grasp the stages.” And he quoted Wordsworth's line about “Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.”
“He's the real thing,” I asked, “and not a charlatan?”
I could hear Landor's cackle at the other end of the line.
“You might as well ask a conscript to vouch for Napoleon's abilities as ask me to give a certificate of respectability to August Moe.”
“You're sure he's quite sane?
“Absolutely. He's only mad in so far as all genius is mad. He is reputed to be a very good fellow and very simple. Did you know that he once wrote a book on Hans Andersen? But he looked to me a pretty sick man. There's a lot of hereditary phthisis in his race.”
Dinner that evening was a pleasanter meal for me. I had more of an appetite, there was a less leaden air about my companions in fatigue, the sunburnt boys and girls were in good form, and Reggie Daker's woebegone countenance was safe on its pillow. Charles Ottery, who sat next to Pamela Brune, seemed to be in a better humour, and Mrs. Lamington was really amusing about the Wallingdon stables and old Wallingdon's stable-talk. I had been moved farther down the table, and had a good view of Professor Moe, who sat next to our hostess. His was an extraordinary faceâthe hollow cheeks and the high cheekbones, the pale eyes, the broad high brow, and the bald head rising to a peak like Sir Walter Scott's. The expression was very gentle, like a musing child, but now and then he seemed to kindle, and an odd gleam appeared in his colourless pits of eyes. For all his size he looked terribly flimsy. Something had fretted his body to a decay.
He came up to me as soon as we left the dining room. He spoke excellent English, but his voice made me uneasyâit seemed to come with difficulty from a long way down in his big frame. There was a vague, sad kindliness about his manner, but there was a sense of purpose too. He went straight to the point.
“Some time you are going to give me your attention, Sir Edward, and I in return will give you my confidence. Her ladyship has so informed me. She insists, that gracious one, that I must go to bed, for I am still weary. Shall our talk be tomorrow after breakfast? In the garden, please, if the sun still shines.”