New Canadian Library by McClelland & Stewart

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The Stone Angel

Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.

Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.

Her wings in winter were pitted by the snow and in summer by the blown grit. She was not the only angel in the Manawaka cemetery, but she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest. The others, as I recall, were a lesser breed entirely, petty angels, cherubim with pouting stone mouths, one holding aloft a stone heart, another strumming in eternal silence upon a small stone stringless harp, and yet another pointing with ecstatic leer to an inscription. I remember that inscription because we used to laugh at it when the stone was first placed there.
Rest in peace.
From toil, surcease.
Regina Weese.
So much for sad Regina, now forgotten in Manawaka — as I, Hagar, am doubtless forgotten. And yet I always felt she had only herself to blame, for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out. When Regina died, from some obscure and maidenly disorder, the old disreputable lady rose from sick-smelling sheets and lived, to the despair of her married sons, another full ten years. No need to say God rest her soul, for she must be laughing spitefully in hell, while virginal Regina sighs in heaven.

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.

I used to walk there often when I was a girl. There could not have been many places to walk primly in those days, on paths, where white kid boots and dangling skirts would not be torn by thistles or put in unseemly disarray. How anxious I was to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness, like prissy Pippa as she passed. But sometimes through the hot rush of disrespectful wind that shook the scrub oak and the coarse couchgrass encroaching upon the dutifully cared-for habitations of the dead, the scent of the cowslips would rise momentarily. They were tough-rooted, these wild and gaudy flowers, and although they were held back at the cemetery’s edge, torn out by loving relatives determined to keep the plots clear and clearly civilized, for a second or two a person walking there could catch the faint, musky, dusttinged smell of things that grew untended and had grown always, before the portly peonies and the angels with rigid wings, when the prairie bluffs were walked through only by Cree with enigmatic faces and greasy hair.

Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past — that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such people as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this — it’s my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, “Mother’s having one of her days.” Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.

Oh, my lost men. No, I will not think of that. What a disgrace to be seen crying by that fat Doris. The door of my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night, and then how could they get in to tend me (tend — as though I were a crop, a cash crop). So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing. It’s because neither are human to the middling ones, those in their prime, as they say, like beef.

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The Edible Woman

I know I was all right on Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual. When I went out to the kitchen to get breakfast Ainsley was there, moping: she said she had been to a bad party the night before. She swore there had been nothing but dentistry students, which depressed her so much she had consoled herself by getting drunk.
“You have no idea how soggy it is,” she said, “having to go through twenty conversations about the insides of peoples’ mouths. The most reaction I got out of them was when I described an abscess I once had. They positively drooled. And most men look at something besides your teeth, for god’s sake.”
She had a hangover, which put me in a cheerful mood – it made me feel so healthy – and I poured her a glass of tomato juice and briskly fixed her an Alka- Seltzer, listening and making sympathetic noises while she complained.
“As if I didn’t get enough of that at work,” she said. Ainsley has a job as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes for an electric toothbrush company: a temporary job. What she is waiting for is an opening in one of those little art galleries, even though they don’t pay well: she wants to meet the artists. Last year, she told me, it was actors, but then she actually met some. “It’s an absolute fixation. I expect they all carry those bent mirrors around in their coat pockets and peer into their own mouths every time they go to the john to make sure they’re still cavity- free.” She ran one hand reflectively through her hair, which is long and red, or rather auburn. “Could you imagine kissing one? He’d say ‘Open wide’ beforehand. They’re so bloody one- track.”
“It must have been awful,” I said, refilling her glass. “Couldn’t you have changed the topic?”
Ainsley raised her almost non- existent eyebrows, which hadn’t been coloured in yet that morning. “Of course not,” she said. “I pretended to be terribly interested. And naturally I didn’t let on what my job was: those professional men get so huffy if you know anything about their subject. You know, like Peter.”
Ainsley tends to make jabs at Peter, especially when she isn’t feeling well. I was magnanimous and didn’t respond. “You’d better eat something before you go to work,” I said, “it’s better when you’ve got something on your stomach.”
“Oh god,” said Ainsley, “I can’t face it. Another day of machines and mouths. I haven’t had an interesting one since last month, when that lady sent back her toothbrush because the bristles were falling off. We found out she’d been using Ajax.”
I got so caught up in being efficient for Ainsley’s benefit while complimenting myself on my moral superiority to her that I didn’t realize how late it was until she reminded me. At the electric toothbrush company they don’t care what time you breeze in, but my company thinks of itself as punctual. I had to skip the egg and wash down a glass of milk and a bowl of cold cereal which I knew would leave me hungry long before lunchtime. I chewed through a piece of bread while Ainsley watched me in nauseated silence and grabbed up my purse, leaving Ainsley to close the apartment door behind me.
We live on the top floor of a large house in one of the older and more genteel districts, in what I suppose used to be the servants’ quarters. This means there are two flights of stairs between us and the front door, the higher flight narrow and slippery, the lower one wide and carpeted but with stair rods that come loose. In the high heels expected by the office I have to go down sideways, clutching the bannister. That morning I made it safely past the line of pioneer brass warming- pans strung on the wall of our stairway, avoided catching myself on the many- pronged spinning wheel on the second-floor landing, and sidestepped quickly down past the ragged regimental flag behind glass and the row of oval- framed ancestors that guard the first stairway. I was relieved to see there was no one in the downstairs hall. On level ground I strode towards the door, swerving to avoid the rubber plant on one side and the hall table with the écru doily and the round brass tray on the other. Behind the velvet curtain to the right I could hear the child performing her morning penance at the piano. I thought I was safe.
But before I reached the door it swung silently inward upon its hinges, and I knew I was trapped. It was the lady down below. She was wearing a pair of spotless gardening gloves and carrying a trowel. I wondered who she’d been burying in the garden.
“Good morning, Miss MacAlpin,” she said.
“Good morning.” I nodded and smiled. I can never remember her name, and neither can Ainsley; I suppose we have what they call a mental block about it. I looked past her towards the street, but she didn’t move out of the doorway.
“I was out last night,” she said. “At a meeting.” She has an indirect way of going about things. I shifted from one foot to the other and smiled again, hoping she would realize I was in a hurry. “The child tells me there was another fire.”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly a fire,” I said. The child had taken this mention of her name as an excuse to stop practising, and was standing now in the velvet doorway of the parlour, staring at me. She is a hulking creature of fifteen or so who is being sent to an exclusive private girls’ school, and she has to wear a green tunic with knee-socks to match. I’m sure she’s really quite normal, but there’s something cretinous about the hair- ribbon perched up on top of her gigantic body.
The lady down below took off one of her gloves and patted her chignon. “Ah,” she said sweetly. “The child says there was a lot of smoke.”
“Everything was under control,” I said, not smiling this time. “It was just the pork chops.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “Well, I do wish you would tell Miss Tewce to try not to make quite so much smoke in future. I’m afraid it upsets the child.” She holds Ainsley alone responsible for the smoke, and seems to think she sends it out of her nostrils like a dragon. But she never stops Ainsley in the hall to talk about it: only me. I suspect she’s decided Ainsley isn’t respectable, whereas I am. It’s probably the way we dress: Ainsley says I choose clothes as though they’re a camouflage or a protective colouration, though I can’t see anything wrong with that. She herself goes in for neon pink.
Of course I missed the bus: as I crossed the lawn I could see it disappearing across the bridge in a cloud of air pollution. While I was standing under the tree – our street has many trees, all of them enormous – waiting for the next bus, Ainsley came out of the house and joined me. She’s a quick- change artist; I could never put myself together in such a short time. She was looking a lot healthier – possibly the effects of makeup, though you can never tell with Ainsley – and she had her red hair piled up on top of her head, as she always does when she goes to work. The rest of the time she wears it down in straggles. She had on her orange and pink sleeveless dress, which I judged was too tight across the hips. The day was going to be hot and humid; already I could feel a private atmosphere condensing around me like a plastic bag. Maybe I should have worn a sleeveless dress too.
“She got me in the hall,” I said. “About the smoke.”
“The old bitch,” said Ainsley. “Why can’t she mind her own business?” Ainsley doesn’t come from a small town as I do, so she’s not as used to people being snoopy; on the other hand she’s not as afraid of it either. She has no idea about the consequences.
“She’s not that old,” I said, glancing over at the curtained windows of the house; though I knew she couldn’t hear us. “Besides, it wasn’t her who noticed the smoke, it was the child. She was at a meeting.”
“Probably the W.C.T.U.,” Ainsley said. “Or the I.O.D.E. I’ll bet she wasn’t at a meeting at all; she was hiding behind that damn velvet curtain, wanting us to think she was at a meeting so we’d really do something. What she wants is an orgy.”
“Now Ainsley,” I said, “you’re being paranoid.” Ainsley is convinced that the lady down below comes upstairs when we aren’t there and looks round our apartment and is silently horrified, and even suspects her of ruminating over our mail, though not of going so far as to open it. It’s a fact that she sometimes answers the front door for our visitors before they ring the bell. She must think she’s within her rights to take precautions: when we first considered renting the apartment she made it clear to us, by discreet allusions to previous tenants, that whatever happened the child’s innocence must not be corrupted, and that two young ladies were surely more to be depended upon than two young men.
“I’m doing my best,” she had said, sighing and shaking her head. She had intimated that her husband, whose portrait in oils hung above the piano, had not left as much money as he should have. “Of course you realize your apartment has no private entrance?” She had been stressing the drawbacks rather than the advantages, almost as though she didn’t want us to rent. I said we did realize it; Ainsley said nothing. We had agreed I would do the talking and Ainsley would sit and look innocent, something she can do very well when she wants to – she has a pink- and- white blunt baby’s face, a bump for a nose, and large blue eyes she can make as round as ping- pong balls. On this occasion I had even got her to wear gloves.
The lady down below shook her head again. “If it weren’t for the child,” she said, “I would sell the house. But I want the child to grow up in a good district.”
I said I understood, and she said that of course the district wasn’t as good as it used to be: some of the larger houses were too expensive to keep up and the owners had been forced to sell them to immigrants (the corners of her mouth turned gently down) who had divided them up into rooming houses. “But that hasn’t reached our street yet,” she said. “And I tell the child exactly which streets she can walk on and which she can’t.” I said I thought that was wise. She had seemed much easier to deal with before we had signed the lease. And the rent was so low, and the house was so close to the bus stop. For this city it was a real find.
“Besides,” I added to Ainsley, “they have a right to be worried about the smoke. What if the house was on fire? And she’s never mentioned the other things.”
“What other things? We’ve never done any other things.”
“Well . . .” I said. I suspected the lady down below had taken note of all the bottle- shaped objects we had carried upstairs, though I tried my best to disguise them as groceries. It was true she had never specifically forbidden us to do anything – that would be too crude a violation of her law of nuance – but this only makes me feel I am actually forbidden to do everything.
“On still nights,” said Ainsley as the bus drew up, “I can hear her burrowing through the woodwork.”
We didn’t talk on the bus; I don’t like talking on buses, I would rather look at the advertisements. Besides, Ainsley and I don’t have much in common except the lady down below. I’ve only known her since just before we moved in: she was a friend of a friend, looking for a room mate at the same time I was, which is the way these things are usually done. Maybe I should have tried a computer; though on the whole it’s worked out fairly well. We get along by a symbiotic adjustment of habits and with a minimum of that pale- mauve hostility you often find among women. Our apartment is never exactly clean, but we keep it from gathering more than a fine plum- bloom of dust by an unspoken agreement: if I do the breakfast dishes, Ainsley does the supper ones; if I sweep the living- room floor, Ainsley wipes the kitchen table. It’s a see- saw arrangement and we both know that if one beat is missed the whole thing will collapse. Of course we each have our own bedroom and what goes on in there is strictly the owner’s concern. For instance Ainsley’s floor is covered by a treacherous muskeg of used clothes with ashtrays scattered here and there on it like stepping- stones, but though I consider it a fire hazard I never speak to her about it. By such mutual refrainings – I assume they are mutual since there must be things I do that she doesn’t like – we manage to preserve a reasonably frictionless equilibrium.
We reached the subway station, where I bought a package of peanuts. I was beginning to feel hungry already. I offered some to Ainsley, but she refused, so I ate them all on the way downtown.
We got off at the second- last stop south and walked a block together; our office buildings are in the same district.
“By the way,” said Ainsley as I was turning off at my street, “have you got three dollars? We’re out of scotch.” I rummaged in my purse and handed over, not without a sense of injustice: we split the cost but rarely the contents. At the age of ten I wrote a temperance essay for a United Church Sunday- school competition, illustrating it with pictures of car crashes, diagrams of diseased livers, and charts showing the effects of alcohol upon the circulatory system; I expect that’s why I can never take a second drink without a mental image of a warning sign printed in coloured crayons and connected with the taste of tepid communion grape juice. This puts me at a disadvantage with Peter; he likes me to try and keep up with him.
As I hurried towards my office building, I found myself envying Ainsley her job. Though mine was better- paying and more interesting, hers was more temporary: she had an idea of what she wanted to do next. She could work in a shiny new air- conditioned office building, whereas mine was dingy brick with small windows. Also, her job was unusual. When she meets people at parties they are always surprised when she tells them she’s a tester of defective electric toothbrushes, and she always says, “What else do you do with a B.A. these days?” Whereas my kind of job is only to be expected. I was thinking too that really I was better equipped to handle her job than she is. From what I see around the apartment, I’m sure I have much more mechanical ability than Ainsley.
By the time I finally reached the office I was three- quarters of an hour late. None commented but all took note.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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As for Me and My House

Saturday Evening, April 8
Philip has thrown himself across the bed and fallen asleep, his clothes on still, one of his long legs dangling to the floor. . . .

He looks old and worn-out tonight; and as I stood over him a little while ago his face brought home to me how he shrinks from another town, how tired he is, and heartsick of it all. I ran my fingers through his hair, then stooped and kissed him. Lightly, for that is of all things what I mustn’t do, let him ever suspect me of being sorry. He’s a very adult, selfsufficient man, who can’t bear to be fussed or worried over; and sometimes, broodless old woman that I am, I get impatient being just his wife, and start in trying to mother him too.

His sermon for tomorrow is spread out on the little table by the bed, the text that he always uses for his first Sunday. As For Me and My House We Will Serve the Lord. It’s a stalwart, four-square, Christian sermon. It nails his colors to the mast. It declares to the town his creed, lets them know what they may expect. The Word of God as revealed in Holy Writ — Christ Crucified — salvation through His Grace — those are the things that Philip stands for.

And as usual he’s been drawing again. I turned over the top sheet, and sure enough on the back of it there was a little Main Street sketched. It’s like all the rest, a single row of smug, false-fronted stores, a loiterer or two, in the distance the prairie again. And like all the rest there’s something about it that hurts. False fronts ought to be laughed at, never understood or pitied. They’re such outlandish things, the front of a store built up to look like a second storey. They ought always to be seen that way, pretentious, ridiculous, never as Philip sees them, stricken with a look of self-awareness and futility.

That’s Philip, though, what I must recognize and acknowledge as the artist in him. Sermon and drawing together, they’re a kind of symbol, a summing up. The smalltown preacher and the artist — what he is and what he nearly was — the failure, the compromise, the going-on — it’s all there — the discrepancy between the man and the little niche that holds him.

And that hurt too, made me slip away furtively and stand a minute looking at the dull bare walls, my shoulders drawn up round my ears to resist their cold damp stillness. And huddling there I wished for a son again, a son that I might give back a little of what I’ve taken from him, that I might at least believe I haven’t altogether wasted him, only postponed to another generation his fulfillment. A foolish, sentimental wish that I ought to have outgrown years ago — that drove me outside at last, to stand on the doorstep shivering, my lips locked, a spatter of rain in my face.

It’s an immense night out there, wheeling and windy. The lights on the street and in the houses are helpless against the black wetness, little unilluminating glints that might be painted on it. The town seems huddled together, cowering on a high, tiny perch, afraid to move lest it topple into the wind. Close to the parsonage is the church, black even against the darkness, towering ominously up through the night and merging with it. There’s a soft steady swish of rain on the roof, and a gurgle of eavestroughs running over. Above, in the high cold night, the wind goes swinging past, indifferent, liplessly mournful. It frightens me, makes me feel lost, dropped on this little perch of town and abandoned. I wish Philip would waken.

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Where Nests the Water Hen

Luzina Takes A Holiday

Deep within the Canadian province of Manitoba, remote in its melancholy region of lakes and wild waterfowl, there lies a tiny village barely noticeable amidst its skimpy fir trees. On the map you will find it called Meadow Portage, but it is known to the people who live thereabouts as Portage des Prés. To reach it you must cover a full thirty-two miles of jolty road beyond Rorke ton, the terminus of the branch railroad and the nearest town. In all, it contains a chapel, visited three or four times a year by an aged missionary, polyglot and loqua cious; a boxlike structure built of new planks and serving as school for the handful of white children in the area; and another building, also of boards but a bit larger, the most important in the settlement, since it houses at once the store, the post office, and the telephone. Somewhat farther away you can see, in a clearing among the birches, two other dwellings which, together with the store-post-office, shelter all Portage des Prés’s inhabitants. But I nearly forgot: in front of the largest structure, at the edge of the rough track leading to Rorketon, proudly stands a lone gasoline pump, complete with its large glass globe, ever awaiting the arrival of electricity. Beyond these few things, a wilderness of grass and wind. One of the houses, indeed, possesses a front door, inserted at the level of its second floor, yet since no one has bothered to build for it either a landing or a flight of steps, nothing could better express the idea of utter uselessness. Across the façade of the large building are painted the words bessette’s general store. And that is absolutely all there is at Portage des Prés. It is the image of the final jumping-off place. And yet the Tousignant family lived, some twenty years ago, even beyond this outpost.
To reach their home from Portage des Prés, you had to continue straight on beyond the gas pump, following the same crude road; at first glance you could scarcely make it out, but finally you saw how it ran thanks to two parallel bands of grass which remained a trifle flattened by the passage of the Indians’ light buckboards. Only an old resident or a half-breed guide could find his way along it, for at several points this track divided, and secondary tracks led through the brush to some trapper’s cabin two or three miles away and invisible from the main trail.
You had, then, to stick closely to the most direct road. And a few hours later, if you were riding in a buggy – a little sooner if travelling in one of those ancient Fords which still operate in those parts – you should reach the Big Water Hen River.
There you left Ford or buggy behind.
The Tousignants had a canoe to cross the river. Were it on the farther shore, someone would have to swim over to get it. You then continued downstream, wholly wrapped in such silence as is seldom found on earth – or rather, in the rustle of sedges, the beat of wings, in the thousands of tiny, hidden, secret, timid sounds, producing an effect in some way as restful as silence itself. Big prairie chickens, almost too heavy to fly, heaved themselves above the river’s brush-covered banks and tumbled back to earth, already tired by their listless efforts.
Clambering out on the opposite shore, you crossed on foot an island half a mile wide, covered with thick, uneven grass, mud holes and, in summer, enormous and famished mosquitoes swarming up by the million from the spongy ground.
You then reached another river. It was the Little Water Hen. The people of the region had had no great trouble in naming its geographical features – always in honour of its senior inhabitant, that small grey fowl which epitomized all its tedium and all its quietness. Apart from the two rivers already mentioned, there was the Water Hen – unqualified – there was Lake Water Hen. Moreover, the area itself was known as the Water Hen Country. And it was endlessly peaceful, there, to watch of an evening the aquatic birds rising up everywhere from among the reeds and circling together in one sector of the heavens which they darkened with their multitude.
When you had crossed the Little Water Hen, you landed on a fair-sized island with few trees. A large flock of sheep were at pasture there, completely free and unfenced; had it not been for them, you would have thought the island uninhabited.
But there was a house built upon it.
Built of unsquared logs, level with the ground, longer than it was wide, its windows set low, it stood upon a very slight elevation on the island’s surface, bare to the four winds of heaven.
Here it was that the Tousignants lived.
Of their eight handsome children, shy yet tractable, one alone had journeyed as far as the village of Sainte Rose du Lac to be treated for a very bad earache. This was the nearest French settlement in the area; it was situated even farther away than Rorketon, on the local railway which in some measure linked all this bush to the little town of Dauphin. A few of the other children had from time to time accompanied their father when, two or three times a year, he journeyed to Portage des Prés to get his orders from the owner of the ranch under his management.
It was the mother who travelled the most. Almost every year she of necessity went to Sainte Rose du Lac. If there were the slightest hitch, you could spend days getting there; all the same, since she quit her island approximately but once a year, this long, hard trip, frequently hazardous, always exhausting, had come to be regarded by Luzina Tousignant as her annual holiday. Never did she refer to it far in advance before the children, for they were, you might say, too attached to their mother, very tender, very affectionate, and it was a painful business for them to let her go; they would cling fast to her skirts, begging her not to leave. So it was better not to arouse this grief any sooner than necessary. To her husband alone one fine day she would announce, with an odd look half laughter and half sorrow, “My holiday is not far off.” Then she would depart. And in this changeless existence, it was the great, the sole adventure.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Diviners

The Diviners

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The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river-watching.

The dawn mist had lifted, and the morning air was filled with swallows, darting so low over the river that their wings sometimes brushed the water, then spiralling and pirouetting upward again. Morag watched, trying to avoid thought, but this ploy was not successful.

Pique had gone away. She must have left during the night. She had left a note on the kitchen table, which also served as Morag’s desk, and had stuck the sheet of paper into the typewriter, where Morag would be certain to find it.

Now please do not get all uptight, Ma. I can look after myself. Am going west. Alone, at least for now. If Gord phones, tell him I’ve drowned and gone floating down the river, crowned with algae and dead minnows, like Ophelia.

Well, you had to give the girl some marks for style of writing. Slightly derivative, perhaps, but let it pass. Oh jesus, it was not funny. Pique was eighteen. Only. Not dry behind the ears. Yes, she was, though. If only there hadn’t been that other time when Pique took off, that really bad time. That wouldn’t happen again, not like before. Morag was pretty sure it wouldn’t. Not sure enough, probably.

I’ve got too damn much work in hand to fret over Pique. Lucky me. I’ve got my work to take my mind off my life. At forty-seven that’s not such a terrible state of affairs. If I hadn’t been a writer, I might’ve been a first-rate mess at this point. Don’t knock the trade.

Morag read Pique’s letter again, made coffee and sat looking out at the river, which was moving quietly, its surface wrinkled by the breeze, each crease of water outlined by the sun. Naturally, the river wasn’t wrinkled or creased at all — wrong words, implying something unfluid like skin, something unenduring, prey to age. Left to itself, the river would probably go on like this, flowing deep, for another million or so years. That would not be allowed to happen. In bygone days, Morag had once believed that nothing could be worse than killing a person. Now she perceived river-slaying as something worse. No wonder the kids felt themselves to be children of the apocalypse.

No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie. Seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.

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Deep Hollow Creek

Deep Hollow Creek

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Her eyes, Stella thought, were the colour of Spanish mahogany, but they lacked the lustre of organic fibre. The soul had gone out of the wood, had dissipated. What was life, she asked herself, that the soul could escape so. She had come into the valley to find life for herself. It is not difficult, she thought, to recall all the fine things which have been written about life. She could summon to witness Taylor’s rose, Browne’s flame, and Harvey’s micro cosmic sun, the palpitating radiance of the life-streak seen with the naked eye in the egg of a barnyard fowl. With inevitable logic her mind pursued the theme from generation to decay, for aboutdeath, too, fine things had been written. But death – short as  the circuit between cradle and grave – presumed life; and the flame, however thin, must be lit before it can be blown out by the thousand unsuspected gusts noted by the compilers and annotators, and amassers of vital statistics within the universal bills of mortality.
Rose stood at the door with a jug of hot water.
You get this every morning, she said. You use cold at night.
Stella took the jug and placed it in the grey-white basin. The room was completely square. Beside the iron bedstead Rose’s husband had placed the trunk and the box of books Stella had brought with her to eke out the experience she hoped to have. At the end of the bed was a purple quilt come fresh from the hands of Eaton’s or Simpsons packers. On a wooden table stood a coal-oil lamp. Stella pulled the trunk across the six-inch floor boards to make a seat at the window. The window was a narrow oblong pane set vertically in a hinged frame which hooked up to the low ceiling. The trunk dragged under it provided a seat from which she could smell the air sharp with sage – no more. She could see nothing. The house was set under the hill and between the window and the gravel bank there was a space only a few feet wide – a narrow track – wide enough to trap a cow or to let the house dog slink through to the brow of the hill.
From beyond the wooden door came the noise of the family at breakfast – the clink of the frying-pan, the scraping of benches, the ring of spoon or fork on plate, an occasional grunt or the quick querulous voice of a child and the sudden silence following a half-audible hist.
You can have yours, Rose had said to Stella, when they get out.
No doubt Stella’s being there, despite the tenacity with which Sam, the husband, had fought for the privilege, had complicated the ordinary domestic routine. Sam had been quite frank. The privilege was a matter of board. Arriving at the station to fetch Stella the day before, he had made his announcement with toneless finality:
When Mockett said to me you haven’t got the room you got six children, I said it’s my turn and I’m not going to be fooled any longer. You had the last and you had the one before that and the girl that married old Buzzard’s foreman. I’ve had none since Mr. Jones. It’s my turn to have her – and here I am to get you. The kids are sleeping up and Mrs. Sam Flower, he mentioned the name defiantly, has got the room all fixed. I brought her down for the ride. Don’t believe what he tells you. He’s one of hers at the stopping house and she makes a fool of him and Bill and the whole lot of them. Come with me.
Are you the brother the school secretary wrote about, Stella asked, looking at the grey curls which reached tendrils from under the inner edge of the brim of his small black felt hat.
His thin features tightened.
If he wrote against me that’s me – if he said that you could stay at the stopping house that’s Bill and her and him too and the others.
It was Rose’s eyes that Stella had first noticed. Between the shocks of stiff brown hair, which branched from under the circle of an orange tam-o’-shanter, lay the eyes. Only the tamo’-shanter glowed in the sunlight, with mock vitality. Rose was standing at the edge of the dusty road waiting to be picked up. She wore a blue cotton dress, brown cotton stockings, and a pair of flat-heeled rubber-soled shoes.
It’s her, Sam said, as she climbed into the back seat of the car, pulling by the hand a child in a white organdy dress. The child’s face was hidden by its roughly cut hair. Its feet, cased in black patent leather slippers, shuffled on the step.
Stella had looked about as the car crossed the bridge, which was balanced like a plank across the river. The hill rose on the other side – brown banks, dust-greyed sagebrush, and yellowed grass on the sheering, off-rolling hills.
This here, said Sam, was the old stage road. Freight went up and down here, hauled by horses. Then they brought camels, they did.
He glared defiance.
Shod ’em, he went on. The beasts should of done in the dry heat. They should of done, but they didn’t. Couldn’t stand the stones and lonesomeness.
Mrs. Sam said nothing.
We ran the first cars here, he said. We ran them – me and my brother-in-law, him as was husband to my sister before she left him and began to live with him who lives now with Bill and her at the stopping house.
They were fine cars too, he said, but that’s not the point now. It’s trucks. I just get my truck and he writes to the government and takes the contract for hauling mail and other things away for themselves. Now they live fine at the House.
High up the road wound. Below on the left the river flowed between reddish banks – flat to the eye’s sheer vertical. To the right stretched sand and sagebrush and gilded lifeless grass. Around the corner, over the bank – this way and that – balls of withered Russian thistle crept in the warm breeze like giant spiders.
Tumble-weed – snorted Sam Flower, as he flattened out a ball with his wheel. Made by the Almighty with the prime and only purpose of scaring a finicky mare.
The rest had been silence. Up hill – the road crumbling away at the shoulder – they climbed, close into the bank, with a sudden jerk of the wheel as the red hood of a truck rounded the corner wheels close to the inner bank. All else tended to the river-like artery which twisted below as the land sloped off – fell off roughly – tumbled stones down. All things converged to it. Only the car climbed tenaciously up the slope, challenging God’s providence and the laws of gravitation.
Breakfast was obviously over. The door slammed, feet rounded the corner of the house. There was a tap on the door.
You can have yours now, Rose said. I didn’t get it, not knowing what you’d want.
Stella scanned the domestic debris – greasy plates streaked with egg, bits of scorched fried potato.
Toast, she said. All I ever have is toast.
Rose cut slices off the loaf. Stella could see only the browned crust. When she ate she knew that something had gone wrong with the working of the yeast. The bread had soured in the bottle. The bread was cold and grey and sour. Only the surface had been charred a little on the flat rack over the flame.
Every morning as Stella washed she heard the scraping in the kitchen. Every morning she ate her toast while Rose stood behind her at the stove fingering the handle of the granite coffee pot. Every morning when she had finished her breakfast Rose swept up the crumbs and threw them to the chickens and cut more bread to pack in pails for the lunches. Every day at noon the children unpacked their pails in the space behind the partition in the schoolhouse. They accepted the bread as they accepted what Stella taught them, with out comment.
The bread, Stella thought, was Rose’s peculiar emblem – the emblem of a failure which Rose’s sister-in-law Mamie Flower let no one forget.
Can the validity of this emblem – or of any other emblem – she wondered, be assessed. I see the hand, the compass, the dragon when the book falls open. The hand reaches over the ledge spilling one knows not what of essence or substance into the narrow cleft. Through Sassetta’s eyes or Edmund Spenser’s I see in the shadow of Limbo the red cross – and they see it because the light glances off and reflects from the fire which warms their shoulders as they work. I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.
Any day looking from Sam’s house on the hill, Stella could see the angled roof of the stopping house diagonally to the right against the downfalling drop of the land which she thought seemed to contract and fall into the narrow valley from the flat outreaching land above. Only with difficulty, she thought, can I raise my eyes. They focus inevitably on the stopping house – the inn at which, after the fashion of the country, one may stop for the payment of a fee – one may stop, she thought, if one is merely a traveller or a salesman with his commodity and not, in the nature of the now and here, more than a momentary commodity himself.
Over at the stopping house Rose’s sister-in-law would shake a knowing head. Arranging and rearranging the folds of black crepe to show a slim city-bred ankle, Mamie Flower measured Rose’s failure by her own success.
Mamie tells her story, Stella thought, with the abandoned fluency of the lady of quality in Smollett’s – or was it in Defoe’s tale.
Sam married one of the local girls, Mamie would say. A peculiar lot they were – she and those before her. Poor Rose, she would say, she knowing no more than to let Sam have her. And that’s how she came here and that’s how she’s lived. Sam was a fine boy. Old Pa Flower intended him for me, he being the oldest. When he wrote mother, he said, send the girlie for a visit. All the way from Hull it was. Old Ma Flower had gone to school with my mother long ago and after Pa Flower had made his way here with Ma Flower he brought her back to Hull for a visit, collecting tracts, picking up this and that to off set the way Pa made his money with the bar and the credit and the men herded along the river panning out gold and thinking of the New Jerusalem. I was brought up with chapel folk, too, but I plagued my mother till she let me learn to dance, and it was my dancing and my littleness, not five feet – patting her blonde curled hair, tightening a pearl bob in her ear – it was my dancing and littleness that made Bill gape.
He was the youngest, she said, of Adam Flower’s three boys. He wasn’t intended in the invitation. But I knew he would mould more easily than Sam. Sam had his cars and had had his girls before – and the threat of Rose’s father, though I didn’t know then. It’s to be Bill, I decided, and we can take his share of Pa’s money and go back to London and in London the money and Bill’s six feet of handsome muscle will go a long way. Sam, she said, was smaller and thin. I’ll brush Bill and comb him and take him out of his dungarees and put him in good blue Yorkshire woven serge, Sunday and weekday the like.
That was when Sam was running the taxis for the men. There was money everywhere – creeks vomiting money, men throwing it in heaps on the counter, too lazy to count it. Bill’s sister had just been married here to the bank clerk from the Rock. Pa had sent hands out on horses all over the country asking people to come. Minnie’s husband, Bernard, had given up banking and had started his own business with the cars – he and Sam. Mockett was Pa’s clerk – worth anything to him in the store, weighing out the tea, sending for supplies, adding up the bills. Mockett never liked Bernard but he did like Minnie. I’ll stand behind her, he said, when that porcupine sheds his quills; and he did and he had his neck broken for the doing. But that’s another story. Dick Mockett was my own sister-in-law’s so-called husband for a while and now she’s gone to eat her bread in bitterness and Dick’s still here weighing out tea, cooking when I can’t get a girl from the reserve, milking the cow, and Sam’s sold out to us and he has the prick of his Rose always in his thumb.
I was only the daughter of Ma Flower’s friend then – asked here because Ma Flower’s conscience was heavy under the thought of what whisky money might do to her boys. When Pa wrote, she wrote too. Send Mamie, she wrote, so that Sam can marry a God-fearing chapel girl, daughter to a friend of my blessed youth. Send a light into Egypt – to this heathen continent – to light the delusion of my first born.
My mother was a little uneasy. I wasn’t the straight burning flame that Ma Flower wanted. There was my dancing to account for. My sister, Hannah, would have been a better choice but she was already married to a man of some means. Despite her chapel ways Hannah had married a man with a big house and a grand piano. I played the piano too and danced, and my mother thought that the money she had spent on me would bring better returns in a foreign market. So little Mamie was sent across the Atlantic – across a whole vacant continent to marry a man on the outer rim. As I said, I didn’t intend to stay in this deep hollow valley after I married – but I didn’t have my whole way then.
I married Bill and Pa didn’t make the same fuss as he had for Minnie or as he would have for Sam. I was married, a stranger in a strange country, and I’ve been here ever since – not like the rest.
Just after I married Bill, Sam came creeping home with Rosie. Bernard had gone and there was nothing but debt on the cars. Pa Flower took it well enough. Take your share, he said to Sam, the middle half of the whole long stretch. Your brother Reg has taken his share by the river. Take your stretch and build your house and raise your get. But Ma thought of how the Lord’s hand was heavy because of the whisky money.
Things everywhere were beginning to crack. The men weren’t buying as they did. We couldn’t go to England just then, Pa Flower said. He’d only Bill now to depend on. Pa gave Bill money though and we went to the coast for our honeymoon.
I used to dance for Bill in the evenings and he would lie on the bed staring as if he somehow had got a thing too precious to touch. Mamie’s so little, he used to say. Mamie’s so little – why she’s the littlest woman in the whole goddam country. Sam’s Rosie was big-boned and dull. Sam took her off quietly in one of the cars he’d salvaged so that the baby could be born out of Ma’s sight. The doctor told Sam then that she was twisted inside as she was flat and square-boned out. Take my advice, he said, and let it be the last. But there were five more and each time Sam took her out.
Apart from that, she said to Stella, she’s not been off the place except when he took her this time to pick you up. Why, only Sam knows. He said to Bill, She’s not been off the place for some time. Since it’s my turn certain I’ll take her to see her sister.
Always the story came. The variations were only those inspired by the moment. The story was part of the fabric of their lives.
Rosie, Mamie Flower would say compassionately, is not really quite right here – her little hand with its pink nails resting near the tight curled fringe from under which her eyes moved greenly, restlessly.
Poor girl, she would say. I’d do anything to make life easier for her but she won’t have anything to do with me. Somehow you’d think I’d hurt her. Her children, now, come here often. They find it pleasant here. Gladys doesn’t like being at home; there’s nothing pretty there.
She would gaze at the white woodwork in the private parlour, the gleaming nickel on the Franklin heater, the chintz and lace on the windows, the orange and green fantasy on the polished linoleum floor.
My men change for dinner, she would say, white shirts all of them – even Mockett, out of his apron into his white shirt. Even a girl like Gladys can see the difference. I told Sam to get her things at the Rock. I taught her how to file her nails and I trimmed her hair for her. Rose doesn’t like it. She sent her back with a lace blouse I gave her. But it’s all here, she said to Stella, raising her hand, keeping it raised to tighten the bob on her ear. Like little shells, she said. Bill says they’re like little shells. Bill says he has the littlest woman and the biggest place on the whole creek.
Everyone comes here, she would say, rocking a little in her chair. What Sam wanted to do digging himself up into the hill I don’t know. There was to be another house later, he said; but there wasn’t and there won’t be. Every cent he gets he spends on cows and horses – every cent.
No one goes to see Rose, she would say. No one.
Round the valley the hills crowded. Rà’tltem the Shuswaps had called their village there; they were the people of the deep hollow. In the jack-pine the dusky grouse, the ruffed grouse, the sharp-tailed grouse hid away from the hunters in the autumn. On the branches, in the pools of light on the bleached and terra cotta hillside, the red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens sat unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot. Crossing the rock pile, with a rattle of quilts, the porcupine stripped bark from the trees. Antoine Billy’s boy saw a cougar in a canyon. Sometimes a moose crossed the creek with a great breaking and cracking of twigs – a face solemn and bearded as a patriarch thrust through the brittle branches. Out from the edge of the hill the land rolled in ridges dotted and streaked with the white rimmed alkali lakes. Out on the range hills the cattle moved – Bill’s with Sam’s, Sam’s with Reg’s. Only the brand made the distinction when, in the fall, the brothers joined forces from necessity to round them up, herding them here into the corral, cutting them out there, driving them off to their separate feed lots.
In the valley all things moved to a point. The road ran into the creek both ways to the stopping house – though, if one stood on the hill where the water broke in the spring, one could see the road winding like a thread the whole length of the valley. No one stood on the hill. In the valley one spoke of the road running up or down, into or out of the centre. The private parlour, and the public parlour where the Indians stood shuffling their feet waiting patiently for Mockett to take off his apron, to come from his cow, to fold up his copy of the Manchester Guardian and to unlock the store, weighing out tea, weighing out flour, pouring out coal-oil, sorting out mail – here was the centre. Here people came from choice or necessity. Here came the proud and the meek. Here came everyone except Rose.
I would starve on this hill, Rose said one day to Stella, rather than go there. Thank God Sam built up here – up under the hill. If you go up to the top, she said, you can look down away from it – down to the river, across to the great folds and twists on the other side.
What did she tell you? she asked, her glance thrusting for a moment down to the house in the valley, cutting through the logs, searching out Mamie. What did she say down there?
The quilt, she went on sullenly, I sent for to Eaton’s. There’s something soft about purple-coloured quilts. She won’t stay with you, Bill said to Sam about you. Even your kids like it best down here. Did she show you something when Sam took you down? she asked. Did she show you the room Mr. Thompson had? I said to Sam the table would make a good big desk. I told him you can’t hope to do it. I pay the most taxes, he said, I have the most kids.
Mockett writes to the government, she said. He says we have ten kids – three from the river, two of hers, and five of ours ready. If it wasn’t for our five there wouldn’t be a school and her boys could do like the rest. So the government says it’s a school and Mockett has himself made secretary and we have to send our five. If I don’t board the teacher, Sam says, I’ll take my five out and see what happens to the school. Then Mr. Duke, the inspector, comes down from the Rock and says, Sam it’s no use, if you don’t send your five the law will exact it of you. There’s fines and there’s punishments and penalties for such. Mockett’s a good fellow, he says. He’s got brains. He knows what’s best. That’s the only time Duke came here. Every year he comes. Every year he eats and plays down there. Only once he came to tell Sam that the law could make him pay the most taxes because he had the most kids. I wouldn’t go near the place, she said, not even if I starved. You can’t keep the kids away. It’s natural they want to go.
She emptied the pan of dishwater into the flume. Chickens came round the corner of the house, pecked and jostled, balanced on the edge of the trough, dipped for this, fluttered in and scratched automatically on the greasy boards. The water gurgled away over the little dip, leaving a trail of slime behind it.
I’ve got some nice things too, she said. But I’m not putting them for everyone to see. I’ve got some boudoir shoes, she said, and I’m not beholding to Sam for them either. My aunt gave me the money for my birthday a long time ago. I had it put by for a long time. Then I saw them in the catalogue. They’re purple, she said, like the quilt and they got feathers on the front like a curl of ostrich plumes.
She wiped her hands on the sides of her cotton dress as she went towards a box high up on the shelf in the corner – behind the box of shoeing nails, the pile of horseshoes tied together with a piece of rope, the box of buckles, the box of rivets.
The only trouble, she said, the only thing – when they did send them they had to go and send a pair that didn’t fit, and somehow I just never got time to send them back.
Rose’s eyes were dull cork. Even her branching hair resisted the morning light.
No animating fire within, no reflection of the sun outside, Stella thought, yet somewhere there is life – somewhere there must be fire burning inward, letting the ash drop on the source of fire itself. But still, she thought, what is this fire. And again – by what refraction can one know flame . . .
I like to go places too, Rose said. Six times Sam took me out – six times from here to the hospital. Reg’s wife had hers by the river without anyone – Reg saying nothing, going in the snow to get old Susannah from the reserve, passing right by her own sister’s door, mine, going round the hill to avoid the stopping house, Rose said – jerking her head towards the valley – then arriving back too late. Six times Sam took me out to have his kids respectable in a hospital bed. Up to the Rock she goes – her glance turned to the house in the valley – the littlest woman in the whole country, to the stampede dance, to sit in the shop to have her hair frizzed, playing the piano and dancing and coming back in a fainting condition, all wore out so that Mockett has to carry her up to bed, sitting in bed all winter in her lace negligee with Bill in a clean shirt holding her hand. So little and so weak, he told Sam, just like a doll propped up on her pillows – Mockett emptying her slop pail, the honour of emptying it all his own.
I never asked Sam to take me anywhere, she said, except once. They’d all been. Every one of them had been to Green Lake. It’s up on the hill about eighteen miles from here. In the spring they go to picnics there. I asked Sam, she said, to take me there too. I asked him, she said, and he did. But then, she said – looking at Stella steadily – but then he had to go and take me when the leaves was off the trees.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich

The Mausoleum Club stands on the quietest corner of the best residential street in the City. It is a Grecian building of white stone. About it are great elm trees with birds – the most expensive kind of birds – singing in the branches.
The street in the softer hours of the morning has an almost reverential quiet. Great motors move drowsily along it, with solitary chauffeurs returning at 10.30 after conveying the earlier of the millionaires to their down- town offices. The sunlight flickers through the elm trees, illuminating expensive nursemaids wheeling valuable children in little perambulators. Some of the children are worth millions and millions. In Europe, no doubt, you may see in the Unter den Linden avenue or the Champs Elysées a little prince or princess go past with a clattering military guard to do honour. But that is nothing. It is not half so impressive, in the real sense, as what you may observe every morning on Plutoria Avenue beside the Mausoleum Club in the quietest part of the city. Here you may see a little toddling princess in a rabbit suit who owns fifty distilleries in her own right. There, in a lacquered perambulator, sails past a little hooded head that controls from its cradle an entire New Jersey corporation. The United States attorney- general is suing her as she sits, in a vain attempt to make her dissolve herself into constituent companies. Near by is a child of four, in a khaki suit, who represents the merger of two trunk line railways. You may meet in the flickered sunlight any number of little princes and princesses far more real than the poor survivals of Europe. Incalculable infants wave their fifty- dollar ivory rattles in an inarticulate greeting to one another. A million dollars of preferred stock laughs merrily in recognition of a majority control going past in a go- cart drawn by an imported nurse. And through it all the sunlight falls through the elm- trees, and the birds sing and the motors hum, so that the whole world as seen from the boulevard of Plutoria Avenue is the very pleasantest place imaginable.
Just below Plutoria Avenue, and parallel with it, the trees die out and the brick and stone of the City begins in earnest. Even from the Avenue you see the tops of the sky- scraping buildings in the big commercial streets, and can hear or almost hear the roar of the elevated railway, earning dividends. And beyond that again the City sinks lower, and is choked and crowded with the tangled streets and little houses of the slums.
In fact, if you were to mount to the roof of the Mausoleum Club itself on Plutoria Avenue you could almost see the slums from there. But why should you? And on the other hand, if you never went up on the roof, but only dined inside among the palm- trees, you would never know that the slums existed – which is much better.
There are broad steps leading up to the club, so broad and so agreeably covered with matting that the physical exertion of lifting oneself from one’s motor to the door of the club is reduced to the smallest compass. The richer members are not ashamed to take the steps one at a time, first one foot and then the other; and at tight money periods, when there is a black cloud hanging over the Stock Exchange, you may see each and every one of the members of the Mausoleum Club dragging himself up the steps after this fashion, his restless eyes filled with the dumb pathos of a man wondering where he can put his hand on half a million dollars.
But at gayer times, when there are gala receptions at the club, its steps are all buried under expensive carpet, soft as moss and covered over with a long pavilion of red and white awning to catch the snowflakes; and beautiful ladies are poured into the club by the motorful. Then indeed it is turned into a veritable Arcadia; and for a beautiful pastoral scene, such as would have gladdened the heart of a poet who understood the cost of things, commend me to the Mausoleum Club on just such an evening. Its broad corridors and deep recesses are filled with shepherdesses such as you never saw, dressed in beautiful shimmering gowns, and wearing feathers in their hair that droop off sideways at every angle known to trigonometry. And there are shepherds too with broad white waistcoats and little patent leather shoes and heavy faces and congested cheeks. And there is dancing and conversation among the shepherds and shepherdesses, with such brilliant flashes of wit and repartee about the rise in Wabash and the fall in Cement that the soul of Louis Quatorze would leap to hear it. And later there is supper at little tables, when the shepherds and shepherdesses consume preferred stocks and gold- interest bonds in the shape of chilled champagne and iced asparagus, and great platefuls of dividends and special quarterly bonuses are carried to and fro in silver dishes by Chinese philosophers dressed up to look like waiters.
But on ordinary days there are no ladies in the club, but only the shepherds. You may see them sitting about in little groups of two and three under the palm- trees drinking whiskey and soda; though of course the more temperate among them drink nothing but whiskey and Lithia water, and those who have important business to do in the afternoon limit themselves to whiskey and Radnor, or whiskey and Magi water. There are as many kinds of bubbling, gurgling, mineral waters in the caverns of the Mausoleum Club as ever sparkled from the rocks of Homeric Greece. And when you have once grown used to them, it is as impossible to go back to plain water as it is to live again in the forgotten house in a side street that you inhabited long before you became a member.
Thus the members sit and talk in undertones that float to the ear through the haze of Havana smoke. You may hear the older men explaining that the country is going to absolute ruin, and the younger ones explaining that the country is forging ahead as it never did before; but chiefly they love to talk of great national questions, such as the protective tariff and the need of raising it, the sad decline of the morality of the working man, the spread of syndicalism and the lack of Christianity in the labour class, and the awful growth of selfishness among the mass of the people.
So they talk, except for two or three that drop off to directors’ meetings, till the afternoon fades and darkens into evening, and the noiseless Chinese philosophers turn on soft lights here and there among the palm- trees. Presently they dine at white tables glittering with cut glass and green and yellow Rhine wines; and after dinner they sit again among the palm- trees, half hidden in the blue smoke, still talking of the tariff and the labour class and trying to wash away the memory and the sadness of it in floods of mineral waters. So the evening passes into night, and one by one the great motors come throbbing to the door, and the Mausoleum Club empties and darkens till the last member is borne away and the Arcadian day ends in well- earned repose.
“I want you to give me your opinion very, very frankly,” said Mr. Lucullus Fyshe on one side of the luncheon table to the Rev. Fareforth Furlong on the other.
“By all means,” said Mr. Furlong.
Mr. Fyshe poured out a wineglassful of soda and handed it to the rector to drink.
“Now tell me very truthfully,” he said, “is there too much carbon in it?”
“By no means,” said Mr. Furlong.
“And – quite frankly – not too much hydrogen?”
“Oh, decidedly not.”
“And you would not say that the percentage of sodium bicarbonate was too great for the ordinary taste?”
“I certainly should not,” said Mr. Furlong, and in this he spoke the truth.
“Very good then,” said Mr. Fyshe, “I shall use it for the Duke of Dulham this afternoon.”
He uttered the name of the Duke with that quiet, democratic carelessness which meant that he didn’t care whether half a dozen other members lunching at the club could hear or not. After all, what was a duke to a man who was president of the People’s Traction and Suburban Co. and the Republican Soda and Siphon Co- operative, and chief director of the People’s District Loan and Savings? If a man with a broad basis of popular support like that was proposing to entertain a duke, surely there could be no doubt about his motives? None at all.
Naturally, too, if a man manufactures soda himself, he gets a little over- sensitive about the possibility of his guests noticing the existence of too much carbon in it.
In fact, ever so many of the members of the Mausoleum Club manufacture things, or cause them to be manufactured, or – what is the same thing – merge them when they are manufactured. This gives them their peculiar chemical attitude towards their food. One often sees a member suddenly call the head waiter at breakfast to tell him that there is too much ammonia in the bacon; and another one protest at the amount of glucose in the olive oil; and another that there is too high a percentage of nitrogen in the anchovy. A man of distorted imagination might think this tasting of chemicals in the food a sort of nemesis of fate upon the members. But that would be very foolish, for in every case the head waiter, who is the chief of the Chinese philosophers mentioned above, says that he’ll see to it immediately and have the percentage removed. And as for the members themselves, they are about as much ashamed of manufacturing and merging things as the Marquis of Salisbury is ashamed of the founders of the Cecil family.
What more natural therefore than that Mr. Lucullus Fyshe, before serving the soda to the Duke, should try it on somebody else? And what better person could be found for this than Mr. Furlong, the saintly young rector of St. Asaph’s, who had enjoyed the kind of expensive college education calculated to develop all the faculties. Moreover, a rector of the Anglican Church who has been in the foreign mission field is the kind of person from whom one can find out, more or less incidentally, how one should address and converse with a duke, and whether you call him, “Your Grace,” or “His Grace,” or just “Grace,” or “Duke,” or what. All of which things would seem to a director of the People’s Bank and the president of the Republican Soda Co. so trivial in importance that he would scorn to ask about them.
So that was why Mr. Fyshe had asked Mr. Furlong to lunch with him, and to dine with him later on in the same day at the Mausoleum Club to meet the Duke of Dulham. And Mr. Furlong, realising that a clergyman must be all things to all men and not avoid a man merely because he is a duke had accepted the invitation to lunch, and had promised to come to dinner, even though it meant postponing the Willing Workers’ Tango Class of St. Asaph’s until the following Friday.
Thus it had come about that Mr. Fyshe was seated at lunch, consuming a cutlet and a pint of Moselle in the plain, downright fashion of a man so democratic that he is practically a revolutionary socialist, and doesn’t mind saying so; and the young rector of St. Asaph’s was sitting opposite to him in a religious ecstasy over a salmi of duck.
“The Duke arrived this morning, did he not?” said Mr. Furlong.
“From New York,” said Mr. Fyshe; “he is staying at the Grand Palaver. I sent a telegram through one of our New York directors of the Traction, and his Grace has very kindly promised to come over here to dine.”
“Is he here for pleasure?” asked the rector.
“I understand he is –” Mr. Fyshe was going to say “about to invest a large part of his fortune in American securities,” but he thought better of it. Even with the clergy it is well to be careful. So he substituted “is very much interested in studying American conditions.”
“Does he stay long?” asked Mr. Furlong.
Had Mr. Lucullus Fyshe replied quite truthfully, he would have said, “Not if I can get his money out of him quickly,” but he merely answered, “That I don’t know.”
“He will find much to interest him,” went on the rector in a musing tone. “The position of the Anglican Church in America should afford him an object of much consideration. I understand,” he added, feeling his way, “that his Grace is a man of deep piety.”
“Very deep,” said Mr. Fyshe.
“And of great philanthropy?”
“Very great.”
“And I presume,” said the rector, taking a devout sip of the unfinished soda, “that he is a man of immense wealth?”
“I suppose so,” answered Mr. Fyshe quite carelessly; “all these fellows are.” – Mr. Fyshe generally referred to the British aristocracy as “these fellows” – “Land, you know, feudal estates; sheer robbery, I call it. How the working class, the proletariat, stand for such tyranny is more than I can see. Mark my words, Furlong, some day they’ll rise and the whole thing will come to a sudden end.”
Mr. Fyshe was here launched upon his favourite topic; but he interrupted himself, just for a moment, to speak to the waiter.
“What the devil do you mean,” he said, “by serving asparagus half cold?”
“Very sorry, sir,” said the waiter, “shall I take it out?”
“Take it out? Of course take it out, and see that you don’t serve me stuff of that sort again, or I’ll report you.”
“Very sorry, sir,” said the waiter.
Mr. Fyshe looked at the vanishing waiter with contempt upon his features. “These pampered fellows are getting unbearable,” he said. “By Gad, if I had my way I’d fire the whole lot of them: lock ’em out, put ’em on the street. That would teach ’em. Yes, Furlong, you’ll live to see it that the whole working class will one day rise against the tyranny of the upper classes, and society will be overwhelmed.”
But if Mr. Fyshe had realised that at that moment, in the kitchen of the Mausoleum Club, in those sacred precincts themselves, there was a walking delegate of the Waiters’ International Union leaning against a sideboard, with his bowler hat over one corner of his eye, and talking to a little group of the Chinese philosophers, he would have known that perhaps the social catastrophe was a little nearer than even he suspected.
“Are you inviting any one else to- night?” asked Mr. Furlong.
“I should have liked to ask your father,” said Mr. Fyshe, “but unfortunately he is out of town.”
What Mr. Fyshe really meant was, “I am extremely glad not to have to ask your father, whom I would not introduce to the Duke on any account.”
Indeed, Mr. Furlong, senior, the father of the rector of St. Asaph’s, who was President of the New Amalgamated Hymnal Corporation, and Director of the Hosanna Pipe and Steam Organ, Limited, was entirely the wrong man for Mr. Fyshe’s present purpose. In fact, he was reputed to be as smart a man as ever sold a Bible. At this moment he was out of town, busied in New York with the preparation of the plates of his new Hindu Testament (copyright); but had he learned that a duke with several millions to invest was about to visit the city, he would not have left it for the whole of Hindustan.
“I suppose you are asking Mr. Boulder,” said the rector.
“No,” answered Mr. Fyshe very decidedly, dismissing the name absolutely.
Indeed, there was even better reason not to introduce Mr. Boulder to the Duke. Mr. Fyshe had made that sort of mistake once, and never intended to make it again. It was only a year ago, on the occasion of the visit of young Viscount FitzThistle to the Mausoleum Club, that Mr. Fyshe had introduced Mr. Boulder to the Viscount and had suffered grievously thereby. For Mr. Boulder had no sooner met the Viscount than he invited him up to his hunting- lodge in Wisconsin, and that was the last thing known of the investment of the FitzThistle fortune.
This Mr. Boulder of whom Mr. Fyshe spoke might indeed have been seen at that moment at a further table of the lunch room eating a solitary meal, an oldish man with a great frame suggesting broken strength, with a white beard and with falling under- eyelids that made him look as if he were just about to cry. His eyes were blue and far away, and his still, mournful face and his great bent shoulders seemed to suggest all the power and mystery of high finance.
Gloom indeed hung over him. For, when one heard him talk of listed stocks and cumulative dividends, there was as deep a tone in his quiet voice as if he spoke of eternal punishment and the wages of sin.
Under his great hands a chattering viscount, or a sturdy duke, or a popinjay Italian marquis was as nothing.
Mr. Boulder’s methods with titled visitors investing money in America were deep. He never spoke to them of money, not a word. He merely talked of the great American forest – he had been born sixty- five years back, in a lumber state – and, when he spoke of primeval trees and the howl of the wolf at night among the pines, there was the stamp of reality about it that held the visitor spellbound; and when he fell to talking of his hunting- lodge far away in the Wisconsin timber, duke, earl, or baron that had ever handled a double-barrelled express rifle listened and was lost.
“I have a little place,” Mr. Boulder would say in his deep tones that seemed almost like a sob, “a sort of shooting box, I think you’d call it, up in Wisconsin; just a plain place” – he would add, almost crying – “made of logs.”
“Oh, really,” the visitor would interject, “made of logs. By Jove, how interesting!”
All titled people are fascinated at once with logs, and Mr. Boulder knew it – at least subconsciously.
“Yes, logs,” he would continue, still in deep sorrow; “just the plain cedar, not squared, you know, the old original timber; I had them cut right out of the forest.”
By this time the visitor’s excitement was obvious. “And is there game there?” he would ask.
“We have the timber wolf,” said Mr. Boulder, his voice half choking at the sadness of the thing, “and of course the jack wolf and the lynx.”
“And are they ferocious?”
“Oh, extremely so – quite uncontrollable.”
On which the titled visitor was all excitement to start for Wisconsin at once, even before Mr. Boulder’s invitation was put in words.
And when he returned a week later, all tanned and wearing bush- whackers’ boots, and covered with wolf bites, his whole available fortune was so completely invested in Mr. Boulder’s securities that you couldn’t have shaken twenty- five cents out of him upside down.
Yet the whole thing had been done merely incidentally – round a big fire under the Wisconsin timber, with a dead wolf or two lying in the snow.
So no wonder that Mr. Fyshe did not propose to invite Mr. Boulder to his little dinner. No, indeed. In fact, his one aim was to keep Mr. Boulder and his log house hidden from the Duke.
And equally no wonder that as soon as Mr. Boulder read of the Duke’s arrival in New York, and saw by the Commercial Echo and Financial Undertone that he might come to the City looking for investments, he telephoned at once to his little place in Wisconsin – which had, of course, a primeval telephone wire running to it – and told his steward to have the place well aired and good fires lighted; and he especially enjoined him to see if any of the shanty men thereabouts could catch a wolf or two, as he might need them.
“Is no one else coming then?” asked the rector.
“Oh yes. President Boomer of the University. We shall be a party of four. I thought the Duke might be interested in meeting Boomer. He may care to hear something of the archaeological remains of the continent.”
If the Duke did so care, he certainly had a splendid chance in meeting the gigantic Dr. Boomer, the president of Plutoria University.
If he wanted to know anything of the exact distinction between the Mexican Pueblo and the Navajo tribal house, he had his opportunity right now. If he was eager to hear a short talk – say half an hour – on the relative antiquity of the Neanderthal skull and the gravel deposits of the Missouri, his chance had come. He could learn as much about the stone age and the bronze age, in America, from President Boomer, as he could about the gold age and the age of paper securities from Mr. Fyshe and Mr. Boulder.
So what better man to meet a duke than an archaeological president?
And if the Duke should feel inclined, as a result of his American visit (for Dr. Boomer, who knew everything, understood what the Duke had come for) inclined, let us say, to endow a chair in Primitive Anthropology, or do any useful little thing of the sort, that was only fair business all round; or if he even was willing to give a moderate sum towards the general fund of Plutoria University – enough, let us say, to enable the president to dismiss an old professor and hire a new one – that surely was reasonable enough.
The president, therefore, had said yes to Mr. Fyshe’s invitation with alacrity, and had taken a look through the list of his more incompetent professors to refresh his memory.
The Duke of Dulham had landed in New York five days before and had looked round eagerly for a field of turnips, but hadn’t seen any. He had been driven up Fifth Avenue and had kept his eyes open for potatoes, but there were none. Nor had he seen any shorthorns in Central Park, nor any Southdowns on Broadway. For the Duke, of course, like all dukes, was agricultural from his Norfolk jacket to his hobnailed boots.
At his restaurant he had cut a potato in two and sent half of it to the head waiter to know if it was Bermudian. It had all the look of an early Bermudian, but the Duke feared from the shading of it that it might be only a late Trinidad. And the head waiter sent it to the chef, mistaking it for a complaint, and the chef sent it back to the Duke with a message that it was not a Bermudian but a Prince Edward Island. And the Duke sent his compliments to the chef, and the chef sent his compliments to the Duke. And the Duke was so pleased at learning this that he had a similar potato wrapped up for him to take away, and tipped the head waiter twenty- five cents, feeling that in an extravagant country the only thing to do is to go the people one better. So the Duke carried the potato round for five days in New York and showed it to everybody. But beyond this he got no sign of agriculture out of the place at all. No one who entertained him seemed to know what the beef that they gave him had been fed on; no one, even in what seemed the best society, could talk rationally about preparing a hog for the breakfast table. People seemed to eat cauliflower without distinguishing the Denmark variety from the Oldenburg, and few, if any, knew Silesian bacon even when they tasted it. And when they took the Duke out twenty- five miles into what was called the country, there were still no turnips, but only real estate, and railway embankments, and advertising signs; so that altogether the obvious and visible decline of American agriculture in what should have been its leading centre saddened the Duke’s heart. Thus the Duke passed four gloomy days. Agriculture vexed him, and still more, of course, the money concerns which had brought him to America.
Money is a troublesome thing. But it has got to be thought about even by those who were not brought up to it. If, on account of money matters, one has been driven to come over to America in the hope of borrowing money, the awkwardness of how to go about it naturally makes one gloomy and preoccupied. Had there been broad fields of turnips to walk in and Holstein cattle to punch in the ribs, one might have managed to borrow it in the course of gentlemanly intercourse, as from one cattle- man to another. But in New York, amid piles of masonry and roaring street- traffic and glittering lunches and palatial residences, one simply couldn’t do it.
Herein lay the truth about the Duke of Dulham’s visit and the error of Mr. Lucullus Fyshe. Mr. Fyshe was thinking that the Duke had come to lend money. In reality he had come to borrow it. In fact, the Duke was reckoning that by putting a second mortgage on Dulham Towers for twenty thousand sterling, and by selling his Scotch shooting and leasing his Irish grazing and sub- letting his Welsh coal rent he could raise altogether a hundred thousand pounds. This, for a duke, is an enormous sum. If he once had it he would be able to pay off the first mortgage on Dulham Towers, buy in the rights of the present tenant of the Scotch shooting and the claim of the present mortgagee of the Irish grazing, and in fact be just where he started. This is ducal finance, which moves always in a circle.
In other words the Duke was really a poor man – not poor in the American sense, where poverty comes as a sudden blighting stringency, taking the form of an inability to get hold of a quarter of a million dollars, no matter how badly one needs it, and where it passes like a storm- cloud and is gone, but poor in that permanent and distressing sense known only to the British aristocracy. The Duke’s case, of course, was notorious, and Mr. Fyshe ought to have known of it. The Duke was so poor that the Duchess was compelled to spend three or four months every year at a fashionable hotel on the Riviera simply to save money, and his eldest son, the young Marquis of Beldoodle, had to put in most of his time shooting big game in Uganda, with only twenty or twenty- five beaters, and with so few carriers and couriers and such a dearth of elephant men and hyena boys that the thing was a perfect scandal. The Duke indeed was so poor that a younger son, simply to add his efforts to those of the rest, was compelled to pass his days in mountain climbing in the Himalayas, and the Duke’s daughter was obliged to pay long visits to minor German princesses, putting up with all sorts of hardship. And while the ducal family wandered about in this way – climbing mountains, and shooting hyenas, and saving money, the Duke’s place or seat, Dulham Towers, was practically shut up, with no one in it but servants and housekeepers and gamekeepers and tourists; and the picture galleries, except for artists and visitors and villagers, were closed; and the town house, except for the presence of servants and tradesmen and secretaries, was absolutely shut. But the Duke knew that rigid parsimony of this sort, if kept up for a generation or two, will work wonders, and this sustained him; and the Duchess knew it, and it sustained her; in fact, all the ducal family, knowing that it was only a matter of a generation or two, took their misfortune very cheerfully.
The only thing that bothered the Duke was borrowing money. This was necessary from time to time when loans or mortgages fell in, but he hated it. It was beneath him. His ancestors had often taken money, but had never borrowed it, and the Duke chafed under the necessity. There was something about the process that went against the grain. To sit down in pleasant converse with a man, perhaps almost a gentleman, and then lead up to the subject and take his money from him, seemed to the Duke’s mind essentially low. He could have understood knocking a man over the head with a fire shovel and taking his money, but not borrowing it.
So the Duke had come to America, where borrowing is notoriously easy. Any member of the Mausoleum Club, for instance, would borrow fifty cents to buy a cigar, or fifty thousand dollars to buy a house, or five millions to buy a railroad with complete indifference, and pay it back, too, if he could, and think nothing of it. In fact, ever so many of the Duke’s friends were known to have borrowed money in America with magical ease, pledging for it their seats or their pictures, or one of their daughters – anything.
So the Duke knew it must be easy. And yet, incredible as it may seem, he had spent four days in New York, entertained everywhere, and made much of, and hadn’t borrowed a cent. He had been asked to lunch in a Riverside palace, and, fool that he was, had come away without so much as a dollar to show for it. He had been asked to a country house on the Hudson, and, like an idiot – he admitted it himself – hadn’t asked his host for as much as his train fare. He had been driven twice round Central Park in a motor and had been taken tamely back to his hotel not a dollar the richer. The thing was childish, and he knew it. But to save his life the Duke didn’t know how to begin. None of the things that he was able to talk about seemed to have the remotest connection with the subject of money. The Duke was able to converse reasonably well over such topics as the approaching downfall of England (they had talked of it at Dulham Towers for sixty years), or over the duty of England towards China, or the duty of England to Persia, or its duty to aid the Young Turk Movement, and its duty to check the Old Servia agitation. The Duke became so interested in these topics and in explaining that while he had never been a Little Englander he had always been a Big Turk, and that he stood for a Small Bulgaria and a Restricted Austria, that he got further and further away from the topic of money, which was what he really wanted to come to; and the Duke rose from his conversations with a look of such obvious distress on his face that everybody realised that his anxiety about England was killing him.
And then suddenly light had come. It was on his fourth day in New York that he unexpectedly ran into the Viscount Belstairs (they had been together as young men in Nigeria, and as middle- aged men in St. Petersburg), and Belstairs, who was in abundant spirits and who was returning to England on the Gloritania at noon the next day, explained to the Duke that he had just borrowed fifty thousand pounds, on security that wouldn’t be worth a halfpenny in England.
And the Duke said with a sigh, “How the deuce do you do it, Belstairs?”
“Do what?”
“Borrow it,” said the Duke. “How do you manage to get people to talk about it? Here I am wanting to borrow a hundred thousand, and I’m hanged if I can even find an opening.”
At which the Viscount had said, “Pooh, pooh! you don’t need any opening. Just borrow it straight out – ask for it across a dinner table, just as you’d ask for a match; they think nothing of it here.”
“Across the dinner table?” repeated the Duke, who was a literal man.
“Certainly,” said the Viscount. “Not too soon, you know – say after a second glass of wine. I assure you it’s absolutely nothing.”
And it was just at that moment that a telegram was handed to the Duke from Mr. Lucullus Fyshe, praying him, as he was reported to be visiting the next day the City where the Mausoleum Club stands, to make acquaintance with him by dining at that institution.
And the Duke, being as I say a literal man, decided that just as soon as Mr. Fyshe should give him a second glass of wine, that second glass should cost Mr. Fyshe a hundred thousand pounds sterling.
And oddly enough, at about the same moment, Mr. Fyshe was calculating that provided he could make the Duke drink a second glass of the Mausoleum champagne, that glass would cost the Duke about five million dollars.
So the very morning after that the Duke had arrived on the New York express in the City; and being an ordinary, democratic, commercial sort of place, absorbed in its own affairs, it made no fuss over him whatever. The morning edition of the Plutopian Citizen simply said, “We understand that the Duke of Dulham arrives at the Grand Palaver this morning,” after which it traced the Duke’s pedigree back to Jock of Ealing in the twelfth century and let the matter go at that; and the noon edition of the People’s Advocate merely wrote, “We learn that Duke Dulham is in town. He is a relation of Jack Ealing.” But the Commercial Echo and Financial Undertone, appearing at four o’clock, printed in its stock market columns the announcement: “We understand that the Duke of Dulham, who arrives in town to- day, is proposing to invest a large sum of money in American Industrials.”
And of course that announcement reached every member of the Mausoleum Club within twenty minutes.
The Duke of Dulham entered the Mausoleum Club that evening at exactly seven of the clock. He was a short, thick man with a shaven face, red as a brick, and grizzled hair, and from the look of him he could have got a job at sight in any lumber camp in Wisconsin. He wore a dinner jacket, just like an ordinary person, but even without his Norfolk coat and his hobnailed boots there was something in the way in which he walked up the long main hall of the Mausoleum Club that every imported waiter in the place recognised in an instant.
The Duke cast his eye about the club and approved of it. It seemed to him a modest, quiet place, very different from the staring ostentation that one sees too often in a German hof or an Italian palazzo. He liked it.
Mr. Fyshe and Mr. Furlong were standing in a deep alcove or bay where there was a fire and india- rubber trees and pictures with shaded lights and a whiskey- and- soda table. There the Duke joined them. Mr. Fyshe he had met already that afternoon at the Palaver, and he called him “Fyshe” as if he had known him forever; and indeed, after a few minutes he called the rector of St. Asaph’s simply “Furlong,” for he had been familiar with the Anglican clergy in so many parts of the world that he knew that to attribute any peculiar godliness to them, socially, was the worst possible taste.
“By Jove,” said the Duke, turning to tap the leaf of a rubber- tree with his finger, “that fellow’s a Nigerian, isn’t he?”
“I hardly know,” said Mr. Fyshe, “I imagine so”; and he added, “You’ve been in Nigeria, Duke?”
“Oh, some years ago,” said the Duke, “after big game, you know – fine place for it.”
“Did you get any?” asked Mr. Fyshe.
“Not much,” said the Duke; “a hippo or two.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Fyshe.
“And, of course, now and then a giro,” the Duke went on, and added, “My sister was luckier, though; she potted a rhino one day, straight out of a doolie; I call that rather good.”
Mr. Fyshe called it that too.
“Ah, now here’s a good thing,” the Duke went on, looking at a picture. He carried in his waist- coat pocket an eye- glass that he used for pictures and for Tamworth hogs, and he put it to his eye with one hand, keeping the other in the left pocket of his jacket; “and this – this is a very good thing.”
“I believe so,” said Mr. Fyshe.
“You really have some awfully good things here,” continued the Duke. He had seen far too many pictures in too many places ever to speak of “values” or “compositions” or anything of that sort. The Duke merely looked at a picture and said, “Now here’s a good thing,” or “Ah! here now is a very good thing,” or “I say, here’s a really good thing.”
No one could get past this sort of criticism. The Duke had long since found it bullet- proof.
“They showed me some rather good things in New York,” he went on, “but really the things you have here seem to be awfully good things.”
Indeed, the Duke was truly pleased with the pictures, for something in their composition, or else in the soft, expensive light that shone on them, enabled him to see in the distant background of each a hundred thousand sterling. And that is a very beautiful picture indeed.
“When you come to our side of the water, Fyshe,” said the Duke, “I must show you my Botticelli.”
Had Mr. Fyshe, who knew nothing of art, expressed his real thought, he would have said, “Show me your which?” But he only answered, “I shall be delighted to see it.”
In any case there was no time to say more, for at this moment the portly figure and the great face of Dr. Boomer, president of Plutoria University, loomed upon them. And with him came a great burst of conversation that blew all previous topics into fragments. He was introduced to the Duke, and shook hands with Mr. Furlong, and talked to both of them, and named the kind of cocktail that he wanted, all in one breath, and in the very next he was asking the Duke about the Babylonian hieroglyphic bricks that his grandfather, the thirteenth Duke, had brought home from the Euphrates, and which every archaeologist knew were preserved in the Duke’s library at Dulham Towers. And though the Duke hadn’t known about the bricks himself, he assured Dr. Boomer that his grandfather had collected some really good things, quite remarkable.
And the Duke, having met a man who knew about his grandfather, felt in his own element. In fact, he was so delighted with Dr. Boomer and the Nigerian rubber- tree and the shaded pictures and the charm of the whole place and the certainty that half a million dollars was easily findable in it, that he put his eye- glass back in his pocket and said,
“A charming club you have here, really most charming.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Fyshe, in a casual tone, “a comfortable place, we like to think.”
But if he could have seen what was happening below in the kitchens of the Mausoleum Club, Mr. Fyshe would have realised that just then it was turning into a most uncomfortable place.
For the walking delegate with his hat on sideways, who had haunted it all day, was busy now among the assembled Chinese philosophers, writing down names and distributing strikers’ cards of the International Union and assuring them that the “boys” of the Grand Palaver had all walked out at seven, and that all the “boys” of the Commercial and the Union and of every restaurant in town were out an hour ago.
And the philosophers were taking their cards and hanging up their waiters’ coats and putting on shabby jackets and bowler hats, worn sideways, and changing themselves by a wonderful transformation from respectable Chinese to slouching loafers of the lowest type.
But Mr. Fyshe, being in an alcove and not in the kitchens, saw nothing of these things. Not even when the head waiter, shaking with apprehension, appeared with cocktails made by himself, in glasses that he himself had had to wipe, did Mr. Fyshe, absorbed in the easy urbanity of the Duke, notice that anything was amiss.
Neither did his guests. For Dr. Boomer, having discovered that the Duke had visited Nigeria, was asking him his opinion of the famous Bimbaweh remains of the lower Niger. The Duke confessed that he really hadn’t noticed them, and the Doctor assured him that Strabo had indubitably mentioned them (he would show the Duke the very passage), and that they apparently lay, if his memory served him, about half- way between Oohat and Ohat; whether above Oohat and below Ohat or above Ohat and below Oohat he would not care to say for a certainty; for that the Duke must wait till the president had time to consult his library.
And the Duke was fascinated forthwith with the president’s knowledge of Nigerian geography, and explained that he had once actually descended from below Timbuctoo to Oohat in a doolie manned only by four swats.
So presently, having drunk the cocktails, the party moved solemnly in a body from the alcove towards the private dining- room upstairs, still busily talking of the Bimbaweh remains, and the swats, and whether the doolie was, or was not, the original goatskin boat of the book of Genesis.
And when they entered the private dining- room with its snow- white table and cut glass and flowers (as arranged by a retreating philosopher now heading towards the Gaiety Theatre with his hat over his eyes), the Duke again exclaimed,
“Really, you have a most comfortable club – delightful.”
So they sat down to dinner, over which Mr. Furlong offered up a grace as short as any that are known even to the Anglican clergy. And the head waiter, now in deep distress – for he had been sending out telephone messages in vain to the Grand Palaver and the Continental, like the captain of a sinking ship – served oysters that he had opened himself and poured Rhine wine with a trembling hand. For he knew that unless by magic a new chef and a waiter or two could be got from the Palaver, all hope was lost.
But the guests still knew nothing of his fears. Dr. Boomer was eating his oysters as a Nigerian hippo might eat up the crew of a doolie, in great mouthfuls, and commenting as he did so upon the luxuriousness of modern life.
And in the pause that followed the oysters he illustrated for the Duke with two pieces of bread the essential difference in structure between the Mexican pueblo and the tribal house of the Navajos, and lest the Duke should confound either or both of them with the adobe hut of the Bimbaweh tribes he showed the difference at once with a couple of olives.
By this time, of course, the delay in the service was getting noticeable. Mr. Fyshe was directing angry glances towards the door, looking for the reappearance of the waiter, and growling an apology to his guests. But the president waved the apology aside.
“In my college days,” he said, “I should have considered a plate of oysters an ample meal. I should have asked for nothing more. We eat,” he said, “too much.”
This, of course, started Mr. Fyshe on his favourite topic. “Luxury!” he exclaimed, “I should think so! It is the curse of the age. The appalling growth of luxury, the piling up of money, the ease with which huge fortunes are made” (Good! thought the Duke, here we are coming to it), “these are the things that are going to ruin us. Mark my words, the whole thing is bound to end in a tremendous crash. I don’t mind telling you, Duke – my friends here, I am sure, know it already – that I am more or less a revolutionary socialist. I am absolutely convinced, sir, that our modern civilisation will end in a great social catastrophe. Mark what I say” – and here Mr. Fyshe became exceedingly impressive – “a great social catastrophe. Some of us may not live to see it, perhaps; but you, for instance, Furlong, are a younger man; you certainly will.”
But here Mr. Fyshe was understating the case. They were all going to live to see it, right on the spot.
For it was just at this moment, when Mr. Fyshe was talking of the social catastrophe and explaining with flashing eyes that it was bound to come, that it came; and when it came it lit, of all places in the world, right there in the private dining- room of the Mausoleum Club.
For the gloomy head waiter re- entered and leaned over the back of Mr. Fyshe’s chair and whispered to him.
“Eh? what?” said Mr. Fyshe.
The head waiter, his features stricken with inward agony, whispered again.
“The infernal, damn scoundrels!” said Mr. Fyshe, starting back in his chair. “On strike: in this club! It’s an outrage!”
“I’m very sorry, sir. I didn’t like to tell you, sir. I’d hoped I might have got help from the outside, but it seems, sir, the hotels are all the same way.”
“Do you mean to say,” said Mr. Fyshe, speaking very slowly, “that there is no dinner?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” moaned the waiter. “It appears the chef hadn’t even cooked it. Beyond what’s on the table, sir, there’s nothing.”
The social catastrophe had come.
Mr. Fyshe sat silent with his fist clenched. Dr. Boomer, with his great face transfixed, stared at the empty oystershells, thinking perhaps of his college days. The Duke, with his hundred thousand dashed from his lips in the second cup of champagne that was never served, thought of his politeness first and murmured something about taking them to his hotel.
But there is no need to follow the unhappy details of the unended dinner. Mr. Fyshe’s one idea was to be gone: he was too true an artist to think that finance could be carried on over the table- cloth of a second- rate restaurant, or on an empty stomach in a deserted club. The thing must be done over again; he must wait his time and begin anew.
And so it came about that the little dinner- party of Mr. Lucullus Fyshe dissolved itself into its constituent elements, like broken pieces of society in the great cataclysm portrayed by Mr. Fyshe himself.
The Duke was bowled home in a snorting motor to the brilliant rotunda of the Grand Palaver, itself waiterless and supperless.
The rector of St. Asaph’s wandered off home to his rectory, musing upon the contents of its pantry.
And Mr. Fyshe and the gigantic Doctor walked side by side homewards along Plutoria Avenue, beneath the elm trees.
Nor had they gone any great distance before Dr. Boomer fell to talking of the Duke.
“A charming man,” he said, “delightful. I feel extremely sorry for him.”
“No worse off, I presume, than any of the rest of us,” growled Mr. Fyshe, who was feeling in the sourest of democratic moods; “a man doesn’t need to be a duke to have a stomach.”
“Oh, pooh, pooh!” said the president, waving the topic aside with his hand in the air; “I don’t refer to that. Oh, not at all. I was thinking of his financial position – an ancient family like the Dulhams; it seems too bad altogether.”
For, of course, to an archaeologist like Dr. Boomer an intimate acquaintance with the pedigree and fortunes of the greater ducal families from Jock of Ealing downwards was nothing. It went without saying. As beside the Neanderthal skull and the Bimbaweh ruins it didn’t count.
Mr. Fyshe stopped absolutely still in his tracks. “His financial position?” he questioned, quick as a lynx.
“Certainly,” said Dr. Boomer; “I had taken it for granted that you knew. The Dulham family are practically ruined. The Duke, I imagine, is under the necessity of mortgaging his estates; indeed, I should suppose he is here in America to raise money.”
Mr. Fyshe was a man of lightning action. Any man accustomed to the Stock Exchange learns to think quickly.
“One moment!” he cried; “I see we are right at your door. May I just run in and use your telephone? I want to call up Boulder for a moment.”
Two minutes later Mr. Fyshe was saying into the telephone, “Oh, is that you, Boulder? I was looking for you in vain to- day – wanted you to meet the Duke of Dulham, who came in quite unexpectedly from New York; felt sure you’d like to meet him. Wanted you at the club for dinner, and now it turns out that the club’s all upset – waiters’ strike or some such rascality – and the Palaver, so I hear, is in the same fix. Could you possibly –”
Here Mr. Fyshe paused, listening a moment and then went on, “Yes, yes; an excellent idea – most kind of you. Pray do send your motor to the hotel and give the Duke a bite of dinner. No, I won’t join you, thanks. Most kind. Good- night –”
And within a few minutes more the motor of Mr. Boulder was rolling down from Plutoria Avenue to the Grand Palaver Hotel.
What passed between Mr. Boulder and the Duke that evening is not known. That they must have proved congenial company to one another there is no doubt. In fact, it would seem that, dissimilar as they were in many ways, they found a common bond of interest in sport. And it is quite likely that Mr. Boulder may have mentioned that he had a hunting- lodge – what the Duke would call a shooting- box – in Wisconsin woods, and that it was made of logs, rough cedar logs not squared, and that the timber wolves and others which surrounded it were of a ferocity without parallel.
Those who know the Duke best could measure the effect of that upon his temperament.
At any rate, it is certain that Mr. Lucullus Fyshe at his breakfast- table next morning chuckled with suppressed joy to read in the Plutopian Citizen the item:
“We learn that the Duke of Dulham, who has been paying a brief visit to the City, leaves this morning with Mr. Asmodeus Boulder for the Wisconsin woods. We understand that Mr. Boulder intends to show his guest, who is an ardent sportsman, something of the American wolf.”
And so the Duke went whirling westwards and northwards with Mr. Boulder in the drawing- room end of a Pullman car, that was all littered up with double- barrelled express rifles and leather game bags, and lynx catchers and wolf traps and Heaven knows what. And the Duke had on his very roughest sporting suit, made, apparently, of alligator hide; and as he sat there with a rifle across his knees, while the train swept onward through open fields and broken woods, the real country at last, towards the Wisconsin forest, there was such a light of genial happiness in his face that had not been seen there since he had been marooned in the mud jungles of Upper Burmah.
And opposite, Mr. Boulder looked at him with fixed, silent eyes, and murmured from time to time some renewed information of the ferocity of the timber wolf.
But of wolves other than the timber wolf, and fiercer still, into whose hands the Duke might fall in America, he spoke never a word.
Nor is it known in the record what happened in Wisconsin, and to the Mausoleum Club the Duke and his visit remained only as a passing and a pleasant memory.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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