Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
‘Helped by your charming daughters.’
‘My daughters were nothing but a personification of your own selfishness.’
A dull, deep rage was brewing in me.
‘I happened—stupidly, I grant you—to fall in love with one of them.’
‘As an unscrupulous collector falls in love with a painting he wants. And will do anything to get.’
‘Except that this wasn’t a painting. It was a girl with as much morality as a worn-out whore from the Place Pigalle.’
She let a little silence pass, the elegant drawing-room reprove, then said quietly, ‘Strong words.’
I turned on her. ‘I begin to wonder how much you know. First of all, your not so virgin daugher—’
‘ I know precisely what she did.’ She sat calmly facing me; but a little more erect. ‘And I know precisely the reasons behind what she did. But if I told you them, I would tell you everything.’
‘Shall I call those two down there? Tell your son how his sister performs—
think that’s the euphemism—one week with me, the next with a Negro?’
She let silence pass again, as if to isolate what I said; as people leave a question unanswered in order to snub the questioner.
‘Does a Negro make it so much worse?’
‘It doesn’t make it any better.’
‘He is a very intelligent and charming man. They have been sleeping together for some time.’
‘And you approve?’
‘My approval is unasked for and unnecessary. Lily is of age.’
I grinned sourly at her, then looked out at the garden. ‘Now I understand why you grow so many flowers.’ She shifted her head, not understanding. I said, ‘To cover the stink of sulphur.’
She got up and stood with one hand on the mantelpiece, watching me as I walked about the room; still calm, alert, playing me like a kite. I might plunge and flare; but she held the string.
‘Are you prepared to listen without interrupting?’
I looked at her; then shrugged assent.
‘Very well. Now let us get this business of what is and what is not sexually proper out of the way.’ Her voice was even, as matter-of-fact as one of those woman doctors determined to ban gender from the surgery. ‘Because I live in a Queen Anne house do not think I live, like most of the rest of our country, by a Queen Anne morality.’
‘Nothing was further from my mind.’
‘Will you listen?’ I went and stood by the window, my back to her. I felt that at last I ought to have her in a corner; I must have her in a corner. ‘How shall I explain to you? If Maurice were here he would tell you that sex is perhaps a greater, but in no way a different, pleasure from any other. He would tell you that it is only one part—and not the essential part—in the relationship we call love. He would tell you that the essential part is truth, the trust two people build between their minds. Their souls. What you will. That the real
infidelity is the one that hides the sexual infidelity. Because the one thing that must never come between two people who have offered each other love is a lie.’
I stared out over the lawn. I knew it was prepared, all she was saying; perhaps learnt by heart, a key speech.
‘Are you daring to preach to me, Mrs de Seitas?’
‘Are you daring to pretend that you do not need the sermon?’
‘Please listen to me.’ If her voice had held the least sharpness or arrogance, I should not have done so. But it was unexpectedly gentle; almost beseeching. ‘I am trying to explain what we are. Maurice convinced us—over twenty years ago—that we should banish the normal taboos of sexual behaviour from our lives. Not because we were more immoral than other people. But because we were more moral. “We attempted to do that in our own lives. I have attempted to do it in the way I have brought up our children. And I must make you understand that sex is for us, for all of us who help Maurice, not an important thing. Or not the thing it is in most people’s lives. We have more important things to do.’
I would not turn and look at her.
‘Before the war I twice played roles somewhat similar to Lily’s with you. She is prepared to do things that I was not. I had far more inhibitions to shed. I also had a husband whom I loved sexually as well as in the other more important ways. But since we have penetrated so deep into your life, I owe it to you to say that even when my husband was living I sometimes gave myself, with his full knowledge and consent, to Maurice. And in the war he in his turn had an Indian mistress, with my full knowledge and consent. Yet I believe ours was a very complete marriage, a very happy one, because we kept to two essential rules. We never told each other lies. And the other one … I will not tell you until I know you better.’
I looked round then, contemptuously. I found her calmness uncomfortable; the madness seething underneath. She sat down again.
‘Of course, if you wish to live in the world of received ideas and received manners, what we did, what my daughter did, is disgusting. Very well. But remember that there is another possible explanation. She may have been being very brave. Neither I nor my children pretend to be ordinary people. They were not brought up to be
ordinary. We are rich and we are intelligent and we mean to live rich, intelligent lives.’
‘Of course. Lucky us. And we accept the responsibility that our good luck in the lottery of existence puts upon us.’
‘Responsibility!’ I wheeled round on her again.
‘Do you really think we do this just for you? Do you really believe we are not … charting the voyage?’ She went on in a milder voice. ‘All that we did was to us a necessity.’ She meant, not self-indulgence.
‘With all the necessity of gratuitous obscenity.’
‘With all the necessity of a very complex experiment.’
‘I like my experiments simple.’
‘The days of simple experiments are over.’
A silence fell between us. I was still full of spleen; and in some obscure way frightened to think of Alison in this woman’s hands, as one hears of a countryside one has loved being sold to building developers. And I also felt left behind, abandoned again. I did not belong to this other-planet world.
‘I know young men who would envy you.’
‘Not if I ever tell the story.’
‘Then they will pity you your narrow-mindedness.’
She came behind me and put her hand on my shoulder and made me turn.
‘Do I look an evil woman? Did my daughters?’
‘Actions. Not looks.’ My voice sounded raw; I wanted to slap her arm down, to get out.
‘Are you absolutely sure our actions have been nothing but evil?’
I looked down. I wouldn’t answer. She took her hand away, but stayed close in front of me.
‘Will you trust me a little—just for a little while?’ I said nothing and she went on. ‘You can always telephone me. If you want to watch the house, then do. But I warn you that you will see no one you want to see. Only Benjie and Gunhild and my two middle children when they come home from France next week. Only one person is making you wait at the moment.’
‘She should tell me so herself
She looked out of the window, then sideways at me. ‘I should so like to help you.’
‘I want Alison. Not help.’
‘May I call you Nicholas now?’ I turned from her; went to the sofa-table, stared down at the photos there. ‘Very well. I will not ask again.’
‘I could go to a newspaper and sell them the story. I could ruin your whole blasted
‘Just as you could have brought that cat down across my daughter’s back.’
I looked sharply back at her. ‘It was you? In the sedan?’
‘You were told. It was empty.’ She met my disbelieving eyes. ‘I give you my word. It was not Alison. Or myself.’ She smiled at my still suspicious look. ‘Well. Perhaps there was someone there.’
‘Someone … quite famous in the world. Whose face you might have recognized. That is all.’
Tendrils of her sympathy began to sneak their way through my anger. With a curt look, I wheeled and walked towards the door. She came after me, snatching up a sheet of paper from the top of the desk.
‘Please take this.’
I saw a list of names; dates of birth;
Hughes to de Seitas, February 22nd; 1933
; the telephone number.
‘It doesn’t prove anything.’
‘Yes, it does. Go to Somerset House.’
I shrugged, pushed the list carelessly in my pocket and went on without looking at her. I jerked open the front door and went down the steps. She came behind me, but stopped at the top of them. I stood by the driving-door of my car and stared balefully across at her.
‘I’ll see Alison in hell before I come to you again.’
She opened her mouth as if to answer, but changed her mind. Her face showed a kind of reproach; and a patience, as towards a wayward child. I found the first expression unwarranted and the second, exasperating. I got in the car and switched on. As I went out of the gate I glimpsed her figure in the mirror, beneath the Tuscan porch. She was still standing there, ridiculously as if she were sorry to see me go.
Yet even then I knew I was pretending to be angrier than I really was; that just as she was trying to break down my hostility by calm, I was trying to break down her calm by hostility. I didn’t in the least regret being ungracious, rebuffing her overtures; and I more than half meant, at the time, what I said about Alison.
Because this was now the active mystery: that I was not allowed to meet Alison. Something was expected of me, some Orphean performance that would gain me access to the underworld where she was hidden … or hiding herself. I was on probation. But no one gave me any real indication of what I was meant to be proving. I had apparently found the entrance to Tartarus. But that brought me no nearer Eurydice.
Just as the things Lily de Seitas had told me brought me no nearer the permanent mystery: what voyage, what charts?
My anger carried me through the next day; but the day after that I went to Somerset House and found that every fact Lily de Seitas had given me to check was true, and somehow this turned my anger into a depression. That evening I rang up her number in Much Hadham. The Norwegian girl answered the phone.
‘Dinsford House. Please, who is it?’ I said nothing. Someone must have called, because I heard the girl say, ‘There is no one to answer.’
Then there came another voice.
I put down the receiver. She was still there. But nothing would make me speak to her.
The next day, the third after the visit, I spent in getting drunk and in composing a bitter letter to Alison in Australia. I had decided that that was where she was. It said everything I had to say to her; I must have read it twenty times, as if by reading it enough I could turn it into the definitive truth about my innocence and her complicity.
But I kept on putting off posting it, and in the end it spent the night on the mantelpiece.
I had got into the habit of going down and having breakfast with Kemp most mornings, though not those last three, when I had carried with me a scowl against the whole human condition. Kemp had no time at all for the kitchen, but she could make a good cup of coffee; and on the fourth morning, I badly needed it.
When I came in she put the
down—she read the
‘for the truth’ and a certain other paper ‘for the fucking lies’—and sat there smoking. Her mouth without a cigarette was like a yacht without a mast; one presumed disaster. We exchanged a couple of sentences. She fell silent. But during the next few minutes I became aware that I was undergoing a prolonged scrutiny through the smoke she wore like a merciful veil in front of her Gorgonlike morning face. I pretended to read, but that didn’t deceive her.
‘What’s up with you, Nick?’
‘Up with me?’
‘No friends. No girls. Nothing.’
‘Not at this time of the morning. Please.’
She sat there dumpily, in an old red dressing-gown, her hair uncombed, as old as time.
‘You’re not looking for a job. That’s all my fanny.’
‘If you say so.’
‘I’m trying to help you.’
‘I know you are, Kemp.’
I looked up at her face. It was pasty, bloated, with the eyes permanently narrowed against tobacco smoke; somehow like a mask in a
play, which in an odd way suited the Cockney resonances that loitered in her voice and the hard anti-sentimentality she affected. But now, in what was for her an extraordinary gesture of affection, she reached across the table and patted my hand. She was, I knew, five years younger than Lily de Seitas; and yet she looked ten years older. She was by ordinary standards foul-mouthed; a blatant member of what had been my father’s most hated regiment, one he used to consign far lower even than the Damned Socialists and the Blasted Whitehall Airy-fairies—the Longhaired Brigade. I had a moment’s vision of his standing, his aggressive blue eyes, his bushy colonel’s moustache, in the door of the studio; the unmade divan, the stinking old rusty oil-stove, the mess on the table, the garish sexual-foetal abstract oils that littered the walls; a tat of old pottery, old clothes, old newspapers. But in that short gesture of hers, and the look that accompanied it, I knew there was more real humanity than I had ever known in my own home. Yet still that home, those years, governed me; I had to repress the natural response. Our eyes met across a gap I could not bridge; her offer of a rough temporary motherhood, my flight to what I had to be, the lonely son. She withdrew her hand.
I said, ‘It’s too complicated.’
‘I’ve got all day.’
Her face peered at me through the blue smoke, and suddenly it seemed as blank, as menacing, as an interrogator’s. I liked her, I liked her, yet I felt her curiosity like a net drawn round me. I was like some freakish parasitic species that could establish itself only in one rare kind of situation, by one precarious symbiosis. They had been wrong, at the trial. It was not that I preyed on girls; but the fact that my only access to normal humanity, to social decency, to any openness of heart, lay through girls, preyed on me. It was in that that I was the real victim.
There was only one person I wanted to talk with. Till then I could not move, advance, plan, progress, become a better human being, anything; and till then, I carried my mystery, my secret, round with me like a defence; as my only companion.
‘One day, Kemp. Not now.’
She shrugged; gave me a stonily sibylline look, auguring the worst.
The old woman who cleaned the stairs once a fortnight bawled through the door. My telephone was ringing. I raced up the stairs, lifting the receiver on what seemed the dying ring.
‘Hallo. Nicholas Urfe.’
‘Oh, good morning, Urfe. It’s me. Sandy Mitford.’
‘What’s left of me, old man. What’s left of me.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Got your note. Wondered if you were free for a spot of lunchington.’
A minute later, a time and place fixed, I was reading once more my letter to Alison. The injured Malvolio stalked through every line. In another minute there was no letter; but, as with every other relationship in my life, an eschar of ashes. The word is rare, but exact.
Mitford hadn’t changed at all, in fact I could have sworn that he was wearing the same clothes, the same dark-blue blazer, dark-grey flannels, club tie. They looked a little shabbier, like their wearer; he was far less jaunty than I remembered, though after a few gins he got back some of his old guerilla cockiness. He had spent the summer ‘carting bands of Americans’ round Spain; no, he’d received no letter from Phraxos from me. They must have destroyed it. There was something they hadn’t wanted him to tell.
Over sandwiches we had a talk about the school. Bourani wasn’t mentioned. He kept on saying that he’d warned me, and I said, yes, he’d warned me. I waited for a chance to broach the only subject that interested me. Eventually, as I’d been hoping, he made the opening himself.
‘Ever get over to the waiting-room?’
I knew at once that the question was not as casual as he tried to make it sound; that he was both afraid and curious; that in fact we both had the same reason for meeting.
‘Oh God now, I meant to ask you about that. Do you remember, just as we said goodbye
‘Yes.’ He gave me a tightly cautious look. ‘Never went to a bay called Moutsa? Rather jolly, over on the south side?’
‘Of course. I know it.’
‘Ever notice the villa on the cape to the east?’
‘Yes. It was always shut up. I was told.’
‘Ah. Interesting. Very interesting.’ He looked reminiscently across the lounge; left me in suspense. I watched him lift, an infuriating upward arc, his cigarette to his lips; the gentleman connoisseur of fine Virginia; then fume smoke through his nostrils. ‘Well that was it, old boy. Nothing really.’
‘But why beware?’
‘Oh it’s nothing. Nothing at all.’
‘Then you can tell me.’
‘I did, actually.’
‘Row with collaborationist. Remember?’
‘Same man who has the villa.’
‘Oh but … ‘ I flicked my fingers … ‘wait a moment. What was his name?’
‘Conchis.’ He had an amused smile on his face, as if he knew what I was going to say. He touched his moustache; always preening his moustache.
‘But I thought he did something rather fine during the resistance.’
‘Not on your nelly. Actually he did a deal with the Germans. Personally organized the shooting of eighty villagers. Then got his kraut chums to line him up with them. See. As if he was all brave and innocent.’
‘But wasn’t he badly wounded, or something?’
He blew out smoke, despising my innocence. ‘You don’t survive a German execution, old boy. No, the bugger pulled a very fast one. Acted like a traitor and got treated like a bloody hero. Even forged a phoney German report on the incident. One of the neatest little cover-up jobs of the war.’
I looked sharply at him. A dreadful new suspicion crossed my mind. New corridors in the labyrinth.
‘But hasn’t anyone … ?’
Mitford made the Greek corruption gesture; thumb and forefinger.
I said, ‘You still haven’t explained the waiting-room business.’
‘His name for the villa. Waiting for death or something. Had it nailed up on a tree in Frog.’ His finger traced a line.
‘What happened between you?’
‘Nothing, old boy. Absolutely nothing.’
‘Come on.’ I smiled ingenuously. ‘Now I know the place.’
I remembered as a very small boy lying on the bough of a willow over a Hampshire stream; I was watching my father casting for a trout. It was his one delicacy, casting a dry fly, posing it on the water as soft as thistledown. I could see the trout he was trying to coax into a rise. And I remembered that moment when the fish floated slowly up and hovered beneath the fly, a moment endlessly prolonged in a heart-stopping excitement; then the sudden swift kick of the tail and the lightning switch of my father’s strike; the ratcheting of the reel.
‘It’s nothing, old boy. Really.’
‘Of for God’s sake. What’s it matter?’
‘All damned absurd.’ The fish took the fly. ‘Actually I was out walking one day. May or June, can’t remember. Bit browned off at the school. Went over to Moutsa to swim and well, I came down, you know the place, through the trees and what did I see—not just a couple of girls. But a couple of girls in next to nothing. Quick recce. Niftiest beeline I knew how towards them, said something in Greek, and damn me they answered in English. They
English. Gorgeous creatures. Twins.’
‘Good Lord. Let me get you another gin.’
I stood at the bar waiting for the drinks and watched myself in the mirror; gave myself the smallest wink.
Well, you can imagine, I moved in
fast. Consolidated position. Found out who they were. Old boy’s godchildren up at the villa. Bang out of the top drawer, finished in Switzerland, All that. Said they were there for the summer and that the old boy would very much like to meet me, why didn’t I come up for tea. Nuff said. Off we trotted. Meet the old boy. Tea.’
He had the same old habit of stretching his neck up, as if his collar was too tight; to make himself look a man of the world.
‘This what’s-his-name spoke English?’
‘Perfect. Moved round Europe all his life, best society and all that. Well, actually I found one of the twins a shade off. Not my type. Rather marked the other for my area of ops. Okay, the old man and the not-on twin faded away after tea and this girl, June, that was her name, took me round the property.’
‘Didn’t actually get round to unarmed combat at that point, but I sort of felt she was ready and willing. You know how it was on the island. Full magazine on and nothing to shoot at.’
He flexed his arm, caressed the back of his hair. ‘Right. I trotted off back to the school. Tender farewell. Invitation to dinner the next weekend. Week passes, I present myself over there in my number ones. Other necessary equipment. Drinks, girls looking smashing. But then.’ He gave me a taut, suspenseful look. ‘Well, as a matter of fact the other girl, not June, got stinkers.’
‘I’d got her number the week before. One of these bloody intellectual girls. Pretend to be as tough as nuts, but a couple of gins put ‘em out stone cold. Well, it got pretty bloody dicey during dinner. Damned embarrassing. This Julie girl took against me. Didn’t take much notice at first. I thought, well, the girl’s a bit squiffy. Time of the month or something. But … actually she began, well she began to make fun of me in a damn silly sort of way.’
‘Oh … you know, copied my voice. Way I say things. I suppose she was quite good at it. Damned offensive all the same.’
‘But what was she saying?’
‘Oh a load of stupid cock about pacifism and the bomb. You know the type. And I just wasn’t having any.’
‘Didn’t the others join in?’
‘Hardly said a word. Too damn embarrassed. Well anyway suddenly wham this Julie girl shouted a whole string of really bloody nasty insults. Lost her temper completely. And then all hell broke loose. This other June girl got up and went for her. The old man flapped his hands like a wounded crow. Then the Julie one rushed away. Then her sister. I was left sitting there with the old man. He started talking about them being orphans. Load of guff. Sort of apology.’
‘What were these insults she shouted?’
‘Old boy, I can’t remember now. The girl was pissed.’ He dredged his memory. ‘Called me a Nazi, actually.’
‘One of the things we were rowing about was Mosley.’
‘You’re not a—’
‘Of course not, old boy. Good God.’ He laughed, then flicked a look at me. ‘But let’s face it, not all Mosley says is rot. If you ask me this country
got bloody sloppy.’ He stretched his neck. ‘Bit more discipline. National pride … ‘
‘Maybe, but Mosley?’
‘Old man, don’t get me wrong. Who the hell do you think I was fighting against in the war? It’s just that… well, take your Spain. Look what Franco’s done for Spain.’