Authors: Martin Armstrong
VENUS OVER LANNERY
EMILY DRYDENâthe hostess
GEORGE ELSDONâseparated from his wife
IDA BUXTEDâthe Colonel's wife
ERIC BRANDâMrs. Dryden's nephew
JOAN EMERSONâwith whom Eric is in love
NORMAN GARDNERâan attractive young man
ROGER PENNANTâan engineer
EDNAâhis fiancÃ©e: a medical student
FRANK TODDâa curate
The Afternoon was hot and they were sittingâthe old folkâunder the huge curving eaves of a copper beech on Mrs. Dryden's lawn at Lannery. For the first time since his arrival three hours ago George Elsdon felt at ease. The other guestsâinnumerable, they had seemed to him, and excessively and bewilderingly youngâhad vanished, leaving the fourâMrs. Dryden, Elsdon and the two Buxteds; all of them over sixtyâto their own devices. To Elsdon it was a great relief, and Emily Dryden must have noticed that it was, for he became aware that she was watching him with an amused smile. “Surely, George,” she said, “you're not exhausted already?”
“Already?” said Elsdon. “But it was at the beginning that I expected to be most exhausted. In the course of twenty-four hours or so I hope to become hardened.”
“Or softened, perhaps?” she remarked with a flash of her grey eyes.
“Certainly not!” he replied. “It's they, I hope, who will become softened. So far, I feel that they're
... well, not perhaps actually hostile, but very much on the defensive.”
“At least,” said Mrs. Dryden, “you were warned. I told you they were coming and I told you I thought they would be good for you.” She turned to Mrs. Buxted. “I'd noticed for some time that George was allowing himself to grow old, that he disliked the young.”
Elsdon protested. “I deny it; I deny it absolutely. I'm frightened of them, if you likeâyou see, I'm unaccustomed to young people in the massâbut as for disliking them, I find them fascinating.”
Colonel Buxted, a little old alert fox-terrier of a man, came to Elsdon's help. “We can't all be like you, my dear Emily. You happen to be ageless: the young, as well as the old, are your contemporaries. But there's no good pretending they're contemporaries of George and me, or even of Ida. They're not. They're a different race: they speak a different language, and I, for one, haven't the remotest idea what the young devils are thinking or feeling or doing.”
“Because you don't ask them, Bob,” said Mrs. Dryden serenely.
“Suppose I did,” said the Colonel; “would they tell me?”
She smilingly considered the question. “Well, it depends on how you asked them. If you asked them like a schoolmaster or a policeman, they probably wouldn't. But they tell
even before I ask them, as often as not.”
“O, you,” growled the Colonel; “you wheedle our secrets out of all of us, young and old alike, simply by dint of sitting there. You ought to have been in the Secret Service, Emily.”
Mrs. Dryden laughed, showing her beautiful teeth. “That seems to me,” she said, “a very rude remark.”
“Rude?” he said. “Why?”
“Because I, as it happens, keep the secrets that, as you put it, I wheedle out of people. But the young, as a matter of fact, don't go in much for secrets. They've shaken off most of the shames and taboos that used to be the bane of our existence.”
“Indelicate young devils!” muttered the Colonel. Mrs. Dryden sniffed scornfully. “Who wants to be delicate? A ridiculous quality!”
“Yes, I agree,” said Elsdon, “that they needn't be delicate, but I should like them to be human. Bob said just now that they belong to a different race, but I would go further. They belong to a different species. I feel as if I were in the middle of a herd of young animals, endlessly charming to observe, infallibly graceful even in the sudden foallike clumsinesses of some of them, but impossible to get at.”
“No, really, George,” said Emily Dryden; “it's you, not they, that are impossible to get at. If you treated them as you treat us, they'd respond, just as we do. You see, they take you as they find you, though they wait, of course, for some sort of approach on your part.”
“But don't I take them as I find them?”
“No,” she said, “I don't think you do. You don't take them at all. You find them different from what you think they ought to be, and you ... well, simply leave them.”
“Yes,” Elsdon admitted, “I'm afraid that's true; but I do so in a spirit of humility rather than of arrogance. Give me time, Emily. Finding them, as I do, quite charming, I should be only too glad to get into touch.”
“Yes,” came Ida Buxted's soft voice, “charming and very pathetic!”
“Pathetic?” barked her husband. “Why, God bless my soul, they've got everything. It's we poor old devils that are pathetic.”
Mrs. Dryden laughed scornfully. “We pathetic? Not a bit of it. We've had our bangs and buffets and we know what to expect. We're healthily disillusioned. But they're not, poor young creatures.”
“No,” said Elsdon. “We see not only the herd of beautiful young animals, but alsoâwe eldersâthe big-game hunter crouching in the jungle with his gun.”
“Well, no doubt he won't shoot 'em all,” said the Colonel drily.
“No,” said his wife, “but there can hardly be one that won't getâwhat do you call it?âpeppered.”
“Do 'em good,” said the Colonel. “How else are they going to grow up? We mustn't be sentimental about them, my dear.”
“Nor brutal,” observed Mrs. Dryden.
Ida Buxted smiled. “Bob's bark is worse than his bite, Emily. Actually he's much more sentimental than I am. They say, you know, that the dog that barks on the chain is always good-tempered when off it.”
Elsdon had dropped out of the conversation. Fresh from the heat and noise and confinement of London, he was savouring the delicious coolness, the quiet spaciousness of the scene before him. Across the stretch of green lawn the front of the house, with its broad flight of steps mounting to the front door, diminished to the aspect of a delicate model carved out of cream-coloured cheese, seemed to his fancy the stage-setting of a marionette show. And at that moment, as if the play had begun, two figures, a girl in pale blue and a boy in white, each carrying a tennis-racket, appeared in the doorway and began to descend the steps. At the bottom of the steps they turned left, following the path that ran parallel with the house. The girl twirled her racket as if testing the suppleness of her wrist: her head was erect. Even at that range, Elsdon seemed to perceive that her mind was set on the game before her. But the young man's attentionâit was obvious from the droop and inclination of his dark headâwas concentrated on his companion.
“Who are those two?” asked Elsdon.
Mrs. Dryden screwed up her eyes. “It's my nephew, Eric Brand; and the girl, I think ... yes, it's Joan Emersonâa nice little thing, simple in the good sense, a child of nature.”
“Child of Nietzsche, more likely!” barked the Colonel. “All the young folk nowadays are horribly sophisticated. God bless my soul, the things they discuss!”
“And a very good thing too,” said Mrs. Dryden. “Think of us, Bob, when we were their age. It was a case of God bless my soul, the things we
The two young people had reached the corner of the house when a slim, golden-headed youth ran down the steps and shouted to them. The dark young man glanced round and then at once averted his face, but the girl paused, forcing him to pause too, and the fair youth caught them up. Yes, it really was, Elsdon thought to himself, the beginning of a play, the first subtle hint of a drama to be unfolded later. But his friends under the beech-tree hadn't noticed. Mrs. Buxted's gentle, faded voice had taken up Mrs. Dryden's remark. “But I seem to remember, Emily, that you and I discussed a good many things.”
“Yes, my dear Ida, but how discreetly! And what did it all amount to? Tennyson, and music, and ... what?”
“Well, love, for instance,” said Mrs. Buxted a little bashfully.
“Love!” said Emily mockingly. “We confided to each other the kind of husbands we would like. Is that discussion? Yes, I remember that occasion, Ida; and I remember your description of your ideal husband. It couldn't by any stretch of imagination
be reconciled with Bob. Tall, slim, with large dark eyes, do you remember?”
Their laughter went up into the cool dome of the beech-tree like a sudden flutter of pigeons. “All the same,” said Elsdon, “however freely these young people discuss, I don't suppose their discussion of love amounts to very much more than yours and Ida's. After all, it's the most complicated of all subjects. You can't begin to discuss love till you're forty.”
“Fifty!” said Mrs. Dryden decisively. “And even then you've got to be extremely well equipped.”
“Equipped? What with?” barked the Colonel.
“Experiences, among other things,” said Elsdon.
“Yes, among other things: that's the point,” said Mrs. Dryden. “Experiences, hundreds of them, will do you no good unless you understand them and have meditated on them.”
Elsdon laughed. “I had forgotten, at the moment, that I was over forty when Naomi bolted with Jim Marshall. Yes, it took me at least two years to admit that it was the best thing she could have done.”
“Your pride was hurt, George,” said Mrs. Dryden.
“Yes,” Elsdon replied, “that was what prevented me from realising that actually I was simply delighted. Bless me! For months and months after she had gone I used to console myself by staging the most magnificent scenesâNaomi returning repentant and begging me to take her back, and I, perfectly cool and collected, informing her that it was out of the question, that, having tasted the joys of
widowerhood ... and so on. In actual fact, of course, Naomi knew better. She was always a practical woman.”
“Not really,” asserted Mrs. Dryden. “She was too selfish to be really practical.”
“Well,” said Elsdon reflectively, “I was selfish too in those days.”
Mrs. Dryden nodded. “Because she made you so. You weren't selfish when I first knew you, George. You were a very charming young man. When I described my ideal to Ida, I believe I described you.”
Mrs. Buxted's pale laugh fluttered across the silence. “You did, Emily,” she said. “I noticed it at the time, though of course I was too well-broughtup to mention it.”
A quartet of laughter, soprano, contralto, tenor and bass, broke from them all, and then Elsdon remarked: “I wish you'd been indiscreet enough to mention it to me, Ida.”
“No, George,” said Mrs. Dryden firmly. “We should have squabbled like cat and dog. I was a very priggish and overbearing young woman in those days.”
Elsdon did not reply. His mind had drifted into speculations on what would have happened if he had married Emily. He recalled her at the age of twentytwo, a handsome, spirited creature fresh from Girton. Overbearing? Well, it depended on
She was full of new ideas and theories, and if you disagreed she heaped scorn on you, but such
friendly and humorous scorn that surely none but the feeblest or most intolerant could fail to enjoy it. What a refreshing and fascinating creature she was, with her round, rosy face, more expressive in its quick changes than any face he had ever known, with her perfect teeth and the thick dark brows from whose shade those sparkling grey eyes watched you with amused sympathy. But Arthur Dryden was already on the scene and obviously in love with her, and as obviously Emily, though with a sort of amused impatience, accepted his homage. That was what had made it impossible for him to butt in. But suppose he had known then what Emily and Ida had just now laughingly revealed. No, even so, there was Arthur to be considered. “In those days,” reflected Elsdon, “we had more self-control, more decency in such matters.” And yet what had he got, what had they all got, in exchange for his decency towards Arthur? Emily and Arthur, by dint of that very tradition of decency and self-control, had certainly made a very creditable job of it. They had brought up two admirable children and had managed to remain good friends. Even in private, as Emily had told him years afterwards, they had never quarrelled. None the lessâin fact, probably all the more because of that forbearanceâthey had been bad for one another. His dreamy, happy-go-lucky shiftlessness, his “artistic temperament,” had cramped and irritated her. He was too much of a woman for her; and she, with her lively, practical mind and abounding energy, was altogether too much of a man for
him. When Arthur died at the age of forty it hadyes, undeniably it hadâbeen lucky for her. With Arthur alive she would never have come to full flower. Wasn't their forbearance, then, a mistake? A mistake, perhaps, for Emily and Arthur, but certainly not a mistake for the children. It had made them the admirable creatures they were, and that, for Emily, he knew, was a consideration that outweighed all others. And yetâElsdon harked back to the original questionâsuppose he had butted in. Wouldn't that have been better still? Arthur no doubt would have been deeply wounded, and he, with his old-fashioned notions of honour, would have felt an awful cad, but wouldn't it in the end have been a kindness even to Arthur? And as for himself and Emily, would they, as she had said so positively just now, have squabbled like cat and dog? He considered it seriously. Yes, he had to admit it was possible. If, as she had said, she was priggish and overbearing in those days, he was equally so, and that, possibly, might have been too much for their love and good humour. And not only that, there would have been his absurd pride. Emily had hit the nail on the head just now when she said that it was merely his pride that Naomi's disappearance had wounded. Ah, she had not merely wounded it, she had also revealed it to him and exploded it for good and all. Yes, Naomi had been a considerable education. Perhaps in the long run it had been as well that he had been attracted to Naomi, seeing in her a superficialâah, how superficial!âresemblance to
the unattainable Emily. Yes, perhaps everything had turned out as well in the end. And then, as he resigned himself to this regretful and rather lame conclusion, there flashed upon him the fact which was, quite possibly, the final reward for his decency. Quite possibly it had preserved for them both this ultimate friendship which was certainly now his most treasured possession. The thought of her, as she was now, brought him to the surface, and at the same moment her voice came to him, just beside him there, talking to the Buxtedsâthe same low, musical voice that always had for him something of the soft but reedy quality of a wood-wind instrument, the lower notes of a clarinet.