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The Acceptance World

Anthony Powell




  Book 3

  A Dance to the Music of Time



  ONCE in a way, perhaps as often as every eighteen months, an invitation to Sunday afternoon tea at the Ufford would arrive on a postcard addressed in Uncle Giles’s neat, constricted handwriting. This private hotel in Bayswater, where he stayed during comparatively rare visits to London, occupied two corner houses in a latent, almost impenetrable region west of the Queen’s Road. Not only the battleship-grey colour, but also something at once angular and top-heavy about the block’s configuration as a whole, suggested a large vessel moored in the street. Even within, at least on the ground floor, the Ufford conveyed some reminder of life at sea, though certainly of no luxuriously equipped liner; at best one of those superannuated schooners of Conrad’s novels, perhaps decorated years before as a rich man’s yacht, now tarnished by the years and reduced to ignoble uses like traffic in tourists, pilgrims, or even illegal immigrants; pervaded—to borrow an appropriately Conradian mannerism—with uneasy memories of the strife of men. That was the feeling the Ufford gave, riding at anchor on the sluggish Bayswater tides.

  To this last retrospective, and decidedly depressing, aspect of the hotel’s character, Uncle Giles himself had no doubt in a small degree contributed. Certainly he had done nothing to release the place from its air of secret, melancholy guilt. The passages seemed catacombs of a hell assigned to the subdued regret of those who had lacked in life the income to which they felt themselves entitled; this suspicion that the two houses were an abode of the dead being increased by the fact that no one was ever to be seen about, even at the reception desk. The floors of the formerly separate buildings, constructed at different levels, were now joined by unexpected steps and narrow, steeply slanting passages. The hall was always wrapped in silence; letters in the green baize board criss-crossed with tape remained yellowing, for ever unclaimed, unread, unchanged.

  However, Uncle Giles himself was attached to these quarters. ‘The old pub suits me,’ I had once heard him mutter thickly under his breath, high commendation from one so sparing of praise; although of course the Ufford, like every other institution with which he came in contact, would fall into disfavour from time to time, usually on account of some ‘incivility’ offered him by the management or staff. For example, Vera, a waitress, was an old enemy, who would often attempt to exclude him from his favourite table by the door ‘where you could get a breath of air’. At least once, in a fit of pique, he had gone to the De Tabley across the road; but sooner or later he was back again, grudgingly admitting that the Ufford, although going downhill from the days when he had first known the establishment, was undoubtedly convenient for the purposes of his aimless, uncomfortable, but in a sense dedicated life.

  Dedicated, it might well be asked, to what? The question would not be easy to answer. Dedicated, perhaps, to his own egotism; his determination to be—without adequate moral or intellectual equipment—absolutely different from everybody else. That might offer one explanation of his behaviour. At any rate, he was propelled along from pillar to post by some force that seemed stronger than a mere instinct to keep himself alive; and the Ufford was the nearest thing he recognised as a home. He would leave his luggage there for weeks, months, even years on end; complaining afterwards, when he unpacked, that dinner-jackets were not only creased but also ravaged by moth, or that oil had been allowed to soak through the top of his cane trunk and ruin the tropical clothing within; still worse—though exact proof was always lacking—that the pieces left in the hotel’s keeping had actually been reduced in number by at least one canvas valise, leather hat-box, or uniform-case in black tin.

  On most of the occasions when I visited the Ufford, halls and reception rooms were so utterly deserted that the interior might almost have been Uncle Giles’s private residence. Had he been a rich bachelor, instead of a poor one, he would probably have lived in a house of just that sort: bare: anonymous: old-fashioned: draughty: with heavy mahogany cabinets and sideboards spaced out at intervals in passages and on landings; nothing that could possibly commit him to any specific opinion, beyond general disapproval of the way the world was run.

  We always had tea in an apartment called ‘the lounge’, the back half of a large double drawing-room, the inner doors of which were kept permanently closed, thus detaching ‘the lounge’ from ‘the writing-room’, the half overlooking the street. (Perhaps, like the doors of the Temple of Janus, they were closed only in time of Peace; because, years later, when I saw the Ufford in war-time these particular doors had been thrown wide open.) The lace-curtained windows of the lounge gave on to a well; a bleak outlook, casting the gloom of perpetual night, or of a sky for ever dark with rain. Even in summer the electric light had to be switched on during tea.

  The wallpaper’s intricate floral design in blue, grey and green ran upwards from a cream-coloured lincrusta dado to a cornice also of cream lincrusta. The pattern of flowers, infinitely faded, closely matched the chintz-covered sofa and armchairs, which were roomy and unexpectedly comfortable. A palm in a brass pot with ornamental handles stood in one corner: here and there were small tables of Moorish design upon each of which had been placed a heavy white globular ash-tray, equipped with an attachment upon which to rest a cigar or cigarette. Several circular gilt looking-glasses hung about the walls, but there was only one picture, an engraving placed over the fireplace, of Landseer’s Bolton Abbey in the Olden Time. Beneath this crowded scene of medieval plenty—presenting a painful contrast with the Ufford’s cuisine—a clock, so constructed that pendulum and internal works were visible under its glass dome, stood eternally at twenty minutes past five. Two radiators kept the room reasonably warm in winter, and the coal, surrounded in the fireplace with crinkled pink paper, was never alight. No sign of active life was apparent in the room except for several much-thumbed copies of The Lady lying in a heap on one of the Moorish tables.

  ‘I think we shall have this place to ourselves,’ Uncle Giles used invariably to remark, as if we had come there by chance on a specially lucky day, ‘so that we shall be able to talk over our business without disturbance. Nothing I hate more than having some damn’d fellow listening to every word I say.’

  Of late years his affairs, in so far as his relations knew anything of them, had become to some extent stabilised, although invitations to tea were inclined to coincide with periodical efforts to extract slightly more than his agreed share from ‘the Trust’. Either his path had grown more tranquil than formerly, or crises were at longer intervals and apparently less violent. This change did not imply that he approached life itself in a more conciliatory spirit, or had altered his conviction that worldly success was a matter of ‘influence’. The country’s abandonment of the Gold Standard at about this time—and the formation of the National Government—had particularly annoyed him. He propagated contrary, far more revolutionary, economic theories of his own as to how the European monetary situation should be regulated.

  He was, however, a shade less abrupt in personal dealings. The anxiety of his relations that he might one day get into a really serious financial tangle, never entirely at rest, had considerably abated in comparison with time past; nor had there been recently any of those once recurrent rumours that he was making preparations for an unsuitable marriage. He still hovered about the Home Counties, seen intermittently at Reading, Aylesbury, Chelmsford, or Dover—and once so far afield as the Channel Islands—his ‘work’ now connected with the administration of some charitable organisation which paid a small salary and allowed a reasonably high expense account.

  I was not sure, however, in the light o
f an encounter during one of my visits to the Ufford, that Uncle Giles, although by then just about in his sixties, had wholly relinquished all thought of marriage. There were circumstances that suggested a continued interest in such a project, or at least that he still enjoyed playing with the idea of matrimony when in the company of the opposite sex.

  On that particular occasion, the three fish-paste sandwiches and slice of seed cake finished, talk about money was about to begin. Uncle Giles himself never ate tea, though he would usually remove the lid of the teapot on its arrival and comment: ‘A good sergeant-major’s brew you’ve got there,’ sometimes sending the tea back to the kitchen if something about the surface of the liquid specially displeased him. He had blown his nose once or twice as a preliminary to financial discussion, when the door of the lounge quietly opened and a lady wearing a large hat and purple dress came silently into the room.

  She was between forty and fifty, perhaps nearer fifty, though possibly her full bosom and style of dress, at a period when it was fashionable to be thin, made her seem a year or two older than her age. Dark red hair piled high on her head in what seemed to me an outmoded style, and good, curiously blurred features from which looked out immense, misty, hazel eyes, made her appearance striking. Her movements, too, were unusual. She seemed to glide rather than walk across the carpet, giving the impression almost of a phantom, a being from another world; this illusion no doubt heightened by the mysterious, sombre ambiance of the Ufford, and the fact that I had scarcely ever before seen anybody but Uncle Giles himself, or an occasional member of the hotel’s staff, inhabit its rooms.

  ‘Why, Myra,’ said Uncle Giles, rising hurriedly, and smoothing the worn herring-bone tweed of his trouser leg, ‘I thought you said you were going to be out all day.’

  He sounded on the whole pleased to see her, although perhaps a trifle put out that she should have turned up just at that moment. He would very occasionally, and with due warning, produce an odd male acquaintance for a minute or two, never longer, usually an elderly man, probably a retired accountant, said to possess ‘a very good head for business’, but never before had I seen him in the company of a woman not a member of the family. Now as usual his habitual air of hardly suppressed irritation tended to cloak any minor emotion by the strength of its cosmic resentment. All the same, a very rare thing with him, faint patches of colour showed for a moment in his cheeks, disappearing almost immediately, as he fingered his moustache with a withered, skinny hand, as if uncertain how best to approach the situation.

  ‘This is my nephew Nicholas,’ he said; and to me: ‘I don’t think you have met Mrs. Erdleigh.’

  He spoke slowly, as if, after much thought, he had chosen me from an immense number of other nephews to show her at least one good example of what he was forced to endure in the way of relations Mrs. Erdleigh gazed at me for a second or two before taking my hand, continuing to encircle its fingers even after I had made a slight effort to relax my own grasp. Her palm felt warm and soft, and seemed to exude a mysterious tremor. Scent, vaguely Oriental in its implications, rolled across from her in great stifling waves. The huge liquid eyes seemed to look deep down into my soul, and far, far beyond towards nameless, unexplored vistas of the infinite.

  ‘But he belongs to another order,’ she stated at once.

  She spoke without surprise and apparently quite decisively; indeed as if the conclusion had been the logical inference of our hands’ prolonged contact. At the same time she turned her head towards Uncle Giles, who made a deprecatory sound in his throat, though without venturing to confirm or deny her hypothesis. It was evident that he and I were placed violently in contrast together in her mind, or rather, I supposed, her inner consciousness. Whether she referred to some indefinable difference of class or bearing, or whether the distinction was in moral standards, was not at all clear. Nor had I any idea whether the comparison was in my uncle’s favour or my own. In any case I could not help feeling that the assertion, however true, was untimely as an opening gambit after introduction.

  I had half expected Uncle Giles to take offence at the words, but, on the contrary, he seemed not at all annoyed or surprised; even appearing rather more resigned than before to Mrs. Erdleigh’s presence. It was almost as if he now knew that the worst was over; that from this moment relations between the three of us would grow easier.

  ‘Shall I ring for some more tea?’ he asked, without in any way pressing the proposal by tone of voice.

  Mrs. Erdleigh shook her head dreamily. She had taken the place beside me on the sofa.

  ‘I have already had tea,’ she said softly, as if that meal had been for her indeed a wonderful experience.

  ‘Are you sure?’ asked my uncle, wonderingly; confirming by his manner that such a phenomenon was scarcely credible.


  ‘Well, I won’t, then.’

  ‘No, please, Captain Jenkins.’

  I had the impression that the two of them knew each other pretty well; certainly much better than either was prepared at that moment to admit in front of me. After the first surprise of seeing her, Uncle Giles no longer called Mrs. Erdleigh ‘Myra’, and he now began to utter a disconnected series of conventional remarks, as if to display how formal was in fact their relationship. He explained for the hundredth time how he never took tea as a meal, however much encouraged by those addicted to the habit, commented in desultory phrases on the weather, and sketched in for her information a few of the outward circumstances of my own life and employment.

  ‘Art books, is it?’ he said. ‘Is that what you told me your firm published?’

  That’s it.’

  ‘He sells art books,’ said Uncle Giles, as if he were explaining to some visitor the strange habits of the aborigines in the land where he had chosen to settle.

  ‘And other sorts too,’ I added, since he made the publication of art books sound so shameful a calling.

  In answering, I addressed myself to Mrs. Erdleigh, rather in the way that a witness, cross-questioned by counsel, replies to the judge. She seemed hardly to take in these trivialities, though she smiled all the while, quietly, almost rapturously, rather as if she were enjoying a warm bath after a trying day’s shopping. I noticed that she wore no wedding ring, carrying in its place on her third finger a large opal, enclosed by a massive gold serpent swallowing its own tail.

  ‘I see you are wondering about my opal,’ she said, suddenly catching my eye.

  ‘I was admiring the ring.’

  ‘Of course I was born in October.’

  ‘Otherwise it would be unlucky?’

  ‘But not under the Scales.’

  ‘I am the Archer.’

  I had learned that fact a week or two before from the astrological column of a Sunday newspaper. This seemed a good moment to make use of the knowledge. Mrs. Erdleigh was evidently pleased even with this grain of esoteric apprehension. She took my hand once more, and held the open palm towards the light.

  ‘You interest me,’ she said.

  ‘What do you see?”

  ‘Many things.’

  ‘Nice ones?’

  ‘Some good, some less good.’

  ‘Tell me about them.’

  ‘Shall I?’

  Uncle Giles fidgeted. I thought at first he was bored at being momentarily out of the conversation, because, in his self-contained, unostentatious way, he could never bear to be anything less than the centre of interest; even when that position might possess an unpleasant significance as sometimes happened at family gatherings. However, another matter was on his mind.

  ‘Why not put the cards out?’ he broke in all at once with forced cheerfulness. ‘That is, if you’re in the mood.’

  Mrs. Erdleigh did not reply immediately to this suggestion. She continued to smile, and to investigate the lines of my palm.

  ‘Shall I?’ she again said softly, almost to herself. ‘Shall I ask the cards about you both?’

  I added my request to my uncle’s. To have one’
s fortune told gratifies, after all, most of the superficial demands of egotism. There is no mystery about the eternal popularity of divination. All the same, I was surprised that Uncle Giles should countenance such pursuits. I felt sure he would have expressed loud contempt if anyone else had been described to him as indulging in efforts to foretell the future. Mrs. Erdleigh pondered a few seconds, then rose, still smiling, and glided away across the room. When she had shut the door we remained in silence for some minutes. Uncles Giles grunted several times. I suspected he might be feeling rather ashamed of himself for having put this request to her. I made some enquiries about his friend.

  ‘Myra Erdleigh?’ he said, as if it were strange to meet anyone unaware of Mrs. Erdleigh’s circumstances. ‘She’s a widow, of course. Husband did something out in the East. Chinese Customs, was it? Burma Police? Something of the sort.’

  ‘And she lives here?’

  ‘A wonderful fortune-teller,’ said Uncle Giles, ignoring the last question. ‘Really wonderful. I let her tell mine once in a while. It gives her pleasure, you know—and it interests me to see how often she is right. Not that I expect she will have much to promise me at my time of life.’

  He sighed; though not, I thought, without a certain self-satisfaction. I wondered how long they had known one another. Long enough, apparently, for the question of fortune-telling to have cropped up between them a number of times.

  ‘Does she tell fortunes professionally?’

  ‘Has done, I believe, in the past,’ Uncle Giles admitted. ‘But of course there wouldn’t be any question of a five guinea consultation fee this evening.”

  He gave a short, angry laugh to show that he was joking, adding rather guiltily: ‘I don’t think anyone is likely to come in. Even if they did, we could always pretend we were taking a hand at cut-throat.’

  I wondered if Mrs. Erdleigh used Tarot cards. If so, three-handed bridge might not look very convincing to an intruder; for example, should one of us try to trump ‘the drowned Phoenician Sailor’ with ‘the Hanged Man’. In any case, there seemed no reason why we should not have our fortunes told in the lounge. That would at least be employing the room to some purpose. The manner in which Uncle Giles had spoken made me think he must enjoy ‘putting the cards out’ more than he cared to acknowledge.