Authors: Lawrence Durrell
White Eagles Over Serbia
The Gift of Tongues
hough Methuen usually lived at his Club whenever he was in London it was seldom that he was seen in the bar or the gaunt smoking-rooms. This afternoon in June was something of an exceptionâand he surprised himself when he found that he was crossing the marble staircase by the porter's lodge, to push open the swing doors which opened on the private lounge. He was in search of congenial company, he told himself, and added under his breath, “And I am not feeling very particular.” Four months in the jungles of Malaya had starved him for the sound of his own language and he was gladâyes, gladâto catch sight of old Archdale, the bore of bores, in one corner of the room. “You've been away a hell of a time,” said Archdale mistily, out of his gold-rimmed monocle, and Methuen warmed to the familiar greeting. “Welcome back to the camp-fire, old man.”
The camp-fire was in fact burning rather low and Methuen drew attention to it, as well as giving an order to the steward, before he sank into the arm-chair facing Archdale. They chatted idly for a while, and Archdale was really putting himself out to repay the sense of gratitude he felt for Methuen's company by retailing one of his longer stories, when the latter suddenly felt that he was being watched. He turned round in time to see the reflection of Dombey glide across the hall mirror. “O dear,” he said, “I do hope Dombey isn't looking for me.” Archdale gave a satisfied chuckle. “Well, it's not me he's after.”
Methuen drank deeply and said by way of explanation: “You see I've just left him. Just reported and was given indefinite leave after this Far East show.”
He looked nervously over his shoulder again and saw the doors open to admit the heavy dilapidated-looking figure of his chiefâDombey with the ant-eater's profile and the threadbare Old Etonian tie. He stood inside the door and pointed his long nose in Methuen's direction. “It is me,” said Methuen sadly; but in order to make sure he waggled his hands interrogatively and pointed at himself. Dombey nodded slowly, smiling, and shuffled into the far corner of the room where he settled into a chair like some great bird and folded his great hands in front of him on the mahogany table-top with a gesture of a man closing a dossier. His half-closed eyes gave him the appearance of being perpetually dozing; an innocent owlish smile played upon his features. “Damn him,” said Methuen vindictively, finishing his drink. “I'd better go and see what he wants.” Archdale gave another fatuous chuckle. “What a life you chaps in the âAwkward Shop' have. Thank God I have never been co-opted for that cloak-and-dagger stuff. Simple gunner. Suits me best.”
At that moment it would have suited Methuen as well as anyone; Malaya had heartily sickened him and he was looking forward to a fortnight's fishing on a river he knew in Ireland. Dombey hung over these plans like a shadow. “How the devil,” said Archdale testily (for he was loth to lose the only bit of company that was likely to come his way that afternoon). “How the devil do
into that damned Hush-Hushery of Dombey's, eh?” Methuen answered in a voice pre-occupied by private regrets: “A gift of tongues in my case.” “I see.” He stood up and finished his drink: “They discovered I could talk languages.” Archdale settled himself more firmly and said: “Parley you francay? Thank God I never had any languages.” Methuen coughed and braced himself: “Well, old man,” he said with genuine regrets, “so long.” Archdale made a sad little gesture and his monocle fell out. “Maybe it's nothing,” he said hopefully. “Come back afterwards and I'll finish my story. It'll amuse you.” “Thanks. If I can.” Methuen picked his way across to Dombey's table like a man walking over a mine-field. “Ah!” said Dombey sleepily, “I was looking for you.”
“I've just left your office, remember?” said Methuen acidly. Dombey nodded carefully, consolingly. “I wasn't ready to talk, then,” he said. “Sincere apologies.” Methuen lit a cigarette and said: “I'm on leave now. Remember you telling me?” Dombey made a soothing gesture in the air like a magician stroking a cat. “Yes,” he agreed. “Of course you are.” Then he fell silent for a good minute and studied his huge hands.
There was something distinctly Oriental about Dombey's personal approach to matters of business; he would skirt the subject which preoccupied him for ages before coming to the point. He would start, so to speak, at the furthest point from what he intended to say and work circuitously towards the point of impact which was always encapsulated in the phrase: “I just want you to go and have a little look.” This he uttered in the oily tones of a Pasha soothing a creditor. He would begin, for example, by saying: “Any idea what the mean summer temperature of Baffin Land is?” or else “How far would it be from Rome to Geneva for a bicyclist?”
In this case he remained silent for a long time looking at Methuen with an air of reflective sobriety before he said: “How far would it be if one walked from Belgrade to Salonika?”
Methuen was used to this approach. Despite Dombey's high rank in the unit known to a few highly placed officials as SOq or Special Operations Q Branch, he was Methuen's junior by a number of years; and it was abundantly clear that you could not have a career as meteoric as Dombey's unless you had brains to back it. The slow and tortuous approach was not that of a slow-witted man; rather it was the approach of a man whose life-work consists in the fitting together of elaborate jig-saw puzzles in which the separate pieces were made up of intrigues, follies and human lapses: of dangers and alarms which beset the stability of British policy or design.
“Belgrade to Salonika?” said Methuen. “It depends how you walk. I personally would not and if that is what you are planning for me.â¦”
Dombey began to purr. “Wait,” he said. “My dear fellow, don't rush me. Wait a second.”
“I know your tricks,” said Methuen severely, “and usually I don't mind. But really, Dombey, this last job was terribly tiring. I must have a rest.”
“I promise you,” said Dombey solemnly, “that I only want your advice.
Nothing will be wished on you.
Of course I would like you to go, I won't disguise it. But for the moment I only want your advice, see? Maybe the trip will appeal to you! How do either of us know that?” He sighed and sank back in his chair.
“What about Danny and the Professor?”
“No,” said Dombey and shook his head decisively. “Enjoyable as it is to send you off together this is no territory for the three-ringed circus you make. It's a lone job, and as far as I can see, a damned difficult one. Of course I won't have you considering it as
job. I'll assign someone else. But your advice would be invaluable.”
Life, thought Methuen to himself, was getting boring at SOq. The last three of his missions (with the exception of the Malayan one from which he had just returned) had been enlivened by the two friends he had named. Three was certainly better company than one when it came to high adventure, and the three oddly-assorted men had shared a number of exciting experiences together in various parts of the Balkans. But this was a lone job.â¦ Well, the lone jobs had to be done by some one. Behind the resentment he felt (for he could see quite clearly that Dombey was baiting the hook for him), he felt also the sluggish stirrings of curiosity. He would at any rate like to know what he was refusing. “What is it all about?” he said at last, and Dombey stood up abruptly like an angler striking. He lit himself a cigarette and stretched out his long arms. Methuen sat looking up at him soberly. “Just give me a brief outline,” he said, “and then I can clear off to a theatre.”
Dombey blew out the match and stood up, exhaling a long streamer of smoke through his nose. “I can't talk clearly unless I'm in front of a map,” he said. “Are you free now?” He must have seen the slow resentment in Methuen's eyes, for he caught his arm and said: “Let's go down to the âAwkward Shop' together. I have everything arranged there.” Methuen stood up and sighed. “One condition,” he said. “I'm not leaving for anywhere before next Friday.” Dombey made a large accommodating gesture in the air with his two arms. “But of course. But of course,” he said almost plaintively.
The two men walked slowly out into the grey London dusk, arm in arm, like bondsmen, and crossed the Mall towards Charing Cross Road, talking in desultory fashion; darkness was falling as they reached the anonymous square where, in the shadow of the Seven Dials, Special Operations Unit lived and had its being. A duty clerk sat sorting letters on a green baize table-top. The darkness had closed in by now and Methuen, gazing up for a moment at the smoke-blue night sky caught a glimpse of the battered angels which ornamented the roof of the building, riding there in the darkness like twelve ancient figure-heads. The building had once housed a Victorian insurance company, and the incidental sculptures which decorated its massive and now dirty cornices were eloquent reminders of the artistic criteria of the '90's. It was a strange flavourless barrack of a place, full of cold corridors and cramped lifts.
“Okay, sir,” said the duty clerk, setting aside the wooden hurdle and admitting them to the darkened hall where they stood for a minute while he groped in his safe for the tagged keys to Dombey's office. The lift was, as always, out of order. They walked down a long corridor, turning on the lights as they went, and thence climbed the two floors to Dombey's office in silence. Vaguely from the dark depths below them, where the radio section lived, there came the tapping of static in a receiver, knocking on the darkness with monotonous iteration like a finger-nail on the surface of a drum. From behind a half-dosed door on the first landing leaked a smear of fluorescent light which turned from purple to green and went out. Dombey fumbled with the door and threw it open with a crash.
Together they walked into the warm carpeted darkness of the room, and Methuen paused in his tracks to give his chief time to find the switch to the desk-lamp. How well he knew this room; it had been the starting-place of so many adventures. Mentally he built it up in all its detail, which the bright green desk-lamp would confirm: bookcases, the little mahogany bar, the stacks of map-cases, the camp-bed and the dictaphone with its rolls of wax stacked like ammunition on the shelf behind the desk. Dombey snapped on the light and as he did so delivered himself of the pregnant word:
Methuen groaned and fumbled for another cigarette before stretching himself out in an arm-chair. “I know,” said Dombey soothingly. “I know.”
He took off his coat and crossed the room to the wall where the thick stack of maps stood, each in its stout cellophane-covered frame, and each attached to the wall by a brass member so that the series could be turned like the pages of a book. With his large white fingers Dombey leafed his way through Austria, Istria, Slovenia, and worked his way south towards Serbia. “You know the political background, Methuen,” he said, “so I won't try and describe the Communist dictatorship of Tito. You were at Bari, weren't you, when the war ended?” Methuen nodded.