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Hearing Secret Harmonies

Anthony Powell




  Book 12

  A Dance to the Music of Time



  DUCK, FLYING IN FROM THE SOUTH, ignored four or five ponderous explosions over at the quarry. The limestone cliff, dominant oblong foreground structure, lateral storeyed platforms, all coral-pink in evening sunlight, projected towards the higher ground on misty mornings a fading mirage of Babylonian terraces suspended in haze above the mere; the palace, with its hanging gardens, distantly outlined behind a group of rather woodenly posed young Medes (possibly young Persians) in Mr Deacon’s Boyhood of Cyrus, the picture’s recession equally nebulous in the shadows of the Walpole-Wilsons’ hall. Within this hollow bed of the stream the whole range of the quarry was out of sight, except for where the just visible peak of an escarpment of spoil shelved up to the horizon’s mountainous coagulations of floating cottonwool, a density of white cloud perforated here and there by slowly opening and closing loopholes of the palest blue light. It was a warm windy afternoon. Midday thunder had not brought back rain. Echoes of the blasting, counterfeiting a return of the storm, stirred faintly smouldering wartime embers; in conjunction with the duck, recalling an argument between General Bobrowski and General Philidor about shooting wildfowl. The angular formation taken by the birds (mimed by Pole and Frenchman with ferocious gestures) was now neatly exhibited, as the flight spiralled down deliberately, almost vertically, settling among reeds and waterlilies at the far end of the pool. Two columns of smoke rose above a line of blue-black trees thickly concentrated together beyond the dusty water, scrawling slate-coloured diagonals across the ceiling of powdered grit, inert and translucent, that swam above the screened workings. Metallic odours, like those of a laboratory, drifted down from a westerly direction, overlaying a nearer-by scent of fox.

  ‘Here’s one,’ said Isobel. ‘At least he’s considering the matter.’After the dredging of crevices lower down the brook, expectation was almost at an end. The single crayfish emerging from under the stones was at once followed by two more. Luck had come at last. The three crayfish, swart miniature lobsters of macabrely knowing demeanour, hung about doubtfully in a basin of mud below the surface. The decision was taken by the crayfish second to enter. He led the way with fussy self-importance, the other two bustling along behind. The three of them clawed a hold on to opposite sides of the outer edge of the iron rim supporting the trap’s circle of wire-netting submerged at the water’s edge, all at the same moment hurrying across the expanse of mesh towards a morsel of flyblown meat fastened at the centre.

  ‘Do you want to hold the string, Fiona?’ asked Isobel. ‘Wait a second. A fourth has appeared.’

  ‘Give it to me.’

  The dark young man spoke with authority. Presented under the name of Scorpio Murtlock, he was by definition established as bossing the other three. As Fiona made no attempt, either as woman or niece, to assert prior right, Isobel handed him the lengths of twine from which the trap dangled. His status, known on arrival, required observation to take in fully. The age was hard to estimate. He could be younger than Barnabas Henderson, the other young man, thought to be in his later twenties. Fiona herself was twenty-one, so far as I could remember. The girl introduced as Rusty (no surname attached) looked a battered nineteen. I felt relieved that crayfish, as such, had not proved illusory, a mere crazy fancy, recognizable from the start as typical of those figments of a superannuated imagination older people used to put forward when one was oneself young. Four crayfish had undeniably presented themselves, whether caught or not hardly mattered. In any case the occasion had been elevated, by what had been said earlier, to a level above that of a simple sporting event. This higher meaning had to be taken into consideration too.

  ‘The trap must be hauled up gently, or they walk off again,’ said Isobel. ‘The frustration of the Old Man and the Sea is nothing to it.’

  Murtlock, still holding the strings, gathered round him the three-quarter-length bluish robe he wore, a kind of smock or kaftan, not too well adapted to country pursuits. He went down on one knee by the bank. Sweeping out of his eyes handfuls of uncared-for black hair, he leant forward at a steep angle to inspect the crustaceans below, somehow conveying the posture of a priest engaged in the devotions of a recondite creed. He was small in stature, but impressive. The shining amulet, embossed with a hieroglyph, that hung round his throat from a necklace of beads, splashed into the water. He allowed it to remain for a second below the surface, while he gazed fixedly into the depths. Then, having waited for the fourth crayfish to become radically committed to the decomposing snack, he carefully lifted the circle of wire, outward and upward as instructed, from where it rested among pebbles and weed under the projecting lip of the bank.

  ‘The bucket, Barnabas – the gloves, one of you.’

  The order was sternly given, like all Murtlock’s biddings.

  Barnabas Henderson fumbled with the bucket. Fiona held out the gardening gloves. Rusty, grinning to herself uneasily, writhed her body about in undulating motions and hummed. Murtlock snatched a glove. Fitting on the fingers adroitly, without setting down the trap, by now dripping over his vestment-like smock, he picked a crayfish off the wire, dropping the four of them one by one into a pail already prepared quarter-full with water. His gestures were deft, ritualistic. He was totally in charge.

  This gift of authority, ability to handle people, was the characteristic attributed by hearsay. At first the outward trappings, suggesting no more than a contemporary romantic vagabondage, had put that reputation in doubt. Now one saw the truth of some at least of what had been reported of him; that the vagabond style could include ability to control companions – notably Fiona – as well as crayfish and horses; the last skill demonstrated when they had arrived earlier that day in a small horse-drawn caravan. Murtlock’s rather run-of-the-mill outlandishness certainly comprised something perceptibly priestly about it. That was over and above the genuflexion at the water’s edge. There was an essentially un-sacerdotal side, one that suggested behaviour dubious, if not actively criminal. That aspect, too, was allied to a kind of fanaticism. Such distinguishing features, more or less, were to be expected after stories about him. A novice in a monastery of robber monks might offer not too exaggerated a definition. His eyes, pale, cold, unblinking, could not be denied a certain degree of magnetism.

  Barnabas Henderson was another matter. He was similarly dressed in a blue robe, somewhat more ultramarine in shade, a coin-like object hanging from his neck too, hair in ringlets to the shoulder, with the addition of a Chinese magician’s moustache. His spectacles, large and square, were in yellow plastic. The combination of moustache and spectacles created an effect not unlike those one-piece cardboard contraptions to be bought in toyshops, moustache and spectacles held together by a false nose. That was unfair. Henderson was not a badlooking young man, if lacking Murtlock’s venturesome bearing, as well as his tactile competence. Henderson’s garments, no less eclectically chosen, were newer, a trifle cleaner, less convincingly part of himself. The genre was carried off pretty well by Murtlock, justly heralded as handsome. Henderson’s milder features remained a trifle apologetic, his personality, in contrast, not by nature suited to the apparent intent. He was alleged to have abandoned a promising career as an art-dealer to follow this less circumscribed way of life. Perhaps that was a wrong identification, the new life desirable because additionally circumscribed, rather than less so. There could be little doubt that Henderson owned the caravan, painted yellow, its woodwork dilapidated, but drawn by a sound pair of greys. Probably Henderson was paying for the whole jaunt.

  The girls, too, were dressed
predominantly in blue. Rusty, whose air was that of a young prostitute, had a thick crop of dark red hair and deep liquid eyes. These were her good points. She was tall, sallow-skinned, hands large and coarse, her collar-bones projecting. Having maintained total silence since arrival, except for intermittent humming, she could be assessed only by looks, which certainly suggested extensive sexual experience.

  Fiona, daughter of Isobel’s sister Susan and Roddy Cutts, was a pretty girl (‘Fiona has a touch of glamour,’ her first cousin, Jeremy Warminster, had said), small, fair-skinned, baby-faced, with her father’s sandy hair. Otherwise she more resembled her mother, without the high spirits (an asset throughout her husband’s now closed political career) brought out in Susan by any gathering that showed signs of developing into a party. Susan Cutts’s occasional bouts of melancholy seemed latterly to have descended on her daughter in the form of an innate lugubriousness, which had taken the place of Fiona’s earlier tomboy streak.

  The upper halves of both girls were sheathed in T-shirts, inscribed with the single word HARMONY. Rusty wore jeans, Fiona a long skirt that swept the ground. Dragging its flounces across the damp grass, she looked like a mediaeval lady from the rubric of an illuminated Book of Hours, a remote princess engaged in some now obsolete pastime. The appearance seemed to demand the addition of a wimple and pointed cap. This antique air of Fiona’s could have played a part in typecasting Murtlock as a reprobate boy-monk. Equally viewed as whimsical figures in a Tennysonian-type Middle Age, the rôles of Rusty and Henderson were indeterminate; Rusty perhaps a recreant knight’s runaway mistress disguised as a page; Henderson, an unsuccessful troubadour, who had mislaid his lute. This fanciful imagery was not entirely disavowed by the single word motto each girl bore on her breast, a lettered humour that could well have featured in the rubric of a mediaeval manuscript, inscribed on banner or shield of a small figure in the margin. The feet of all four were bare, and – another mediaeval touch – long unwashed.

  Fiona (whose birth commemorated her parents’ reconciliation after Roddy Cutts’s misadventure with the cipherine during war service in Persia) had given a fair amount of trouble since her earliest years. This was in contrast with her two elder brothers: Jonathan, married, several children, rising rapidly in a celebrated firm of fine arts auctioneers; Sebastian, still unmarried, much addicted to girlfriends, though no less ambitious than his brother, ‘in computers’. Both the Cutts sons were tireless conversationalists in their father’s manner, uncheckable, informative, sagacious, on the subject of their respective jobs. Fiona, who had run away from several schools (been required to leave at least one), had strengthened her status as a difficult subject by catching typhoid abroad when aged fourteen or fifteen, greatly alarming everyone by her state. Abandonment of boisterous forms of rebellion, in favour of melancholic opposition, dated from the unhappy incident with the electrician, handsome and good-natured, but married and not particularly young. Since then nothing had gone at all well. Fiona’s educational dislodgements had not impaired education sufficiently to prevent her from getting a living on the outskirts of ‘glossy’ journalism.

  No one seemed to know where exactly Fiona had run across Scorpio Murtlock, nor the precise nature of this most recent association. It was assumed – anyway by her parents – to include cohabitation. Her uncle, Isobel’s brother, Hugo Tolland, cast doubts on that. Hugo’s opinions on that sort of subject were often less than reliable, a taste for exaggeration marring the accuracy that is always more interesting than fantasy. In this case, Hugo coming down on the side of scepticism – on grounds that, if Murtlock liked sex at all, he preferred his own – the view had to be taken into consideration. How Murtlock lived seemed as unknowable as his sexual proclivities. The Cutts parents, Roddy and Susan, always very ‘good’ about their daughter’s vagaries, continued to be so, accepting the Murtlock regime with accustomed resignation.

  The member of the family best equipped to speak with anything like authority of Fiona, and her friends, was Isobel’s unmarried sister, Blanche Tolland, who had, in fact, rung up to ask if we were prepared to harbour a small caravan in our field for one night, its destination unspecified. The easygoing unambitious nature that had caused Blanche, in early days, to be regarded – not wholly without reason – as rather dotty, had latterly given her a certain status in dealing with a generation considerably younger than her own; Blanche’s unemphatic personality providing a diplomatic contact, an agency through which dealings could be negotiated by either side without prejudice or loss of face. This good nature, allied to a deep-seated taste for taking trouble in often uncomfortable circumstances, led to employment in an animal sanctuary, a job that had occupied Blanche for a long time by now.

  ‘Blanchie meets the animals on their own terms,’ said her sister, Norah, also unmarried. ‘The young people too. She really runs a sanctuary for both.’

  ‘Do you mean the young people think of Blanchie as an animal, or as another young person?’ asked her brother.

  ‘Which do you suppose, Hugo?’ said Norah sharply. ‘It’s true they might easily mistake you for an ape.’

  Hugo, rather a sad figure after the death of his partner, Sam, could still arouse the mood in Norah that had caused her to observe he would ‘never find a place for himself in the contemporary world’. Working harder than ever in the antique shop, now he was on his own, Hugo’s career could be regarded, in general, as no less contemporary than anyone else’s. Sam (said to have begun life as a seaman) had remained surnameless (like Rusty) to the end, so far as most of the family were concerned. It was during this exchange in Norah’s Battersea flat that I first heard the name of Scorpio Murtlock.

  ‘Blanchie says Fiona’s turned over a new leaf under the influence of this new young man, Scorp Murtlock. Sober, honest, and an early riser, not to mention meditations. No hint of a drug. It’s a kind of cult. Religious almost. Harmony’s the great thing. They have a special greeting they give one another. I can’t remember the exact words. Quite impressive. They don’t wash much, but then none of the Cutts family ever did much washing.’

  ‘How did he come to be christened Scorp?’ I asked.

  ‘Short for Scorpio, his Zodiac sign.’

  ‘What’s he like?’

  ‘Blanche says attractive, but spooky.’

  At this point Hugo showed unexpected knowledge.

  ‘I didn’t know Fiona’s latest was Scorpio Murtlock. I’ve never met him, but I used to hear about him several years ago, when he was working in the antique business. Two fellow antique dealers told me they had engaged a very charming young assistant.’

  Norah was not prepared for Hugo to take over entirely in the Murtlock field.

  ‘Blanchie says he has a creepy side too.’

  ‘You can be creepy and attractive. There are different forms of creepiness, just as there are different forms of attractiveness.’

  ‘The antique dealers are presumably queers?’

  ‘Even so, that’s hardly the point. Murtlock made himself immensely useful in the business – which ranges from garden furniture to vintage cars – so useful that the owners suddenly found they were being relegated to a back place themselves. Murtlock was slowly but surely elbowing them out.’

  ‘Did their passion remain unsatisfied?’

  ‘I’m not sure.’

  ‘Unlike you, Hugo, not to be sure about that sort of thing.’

  ‘One of them implied he’d brought off something. That was not the rather nervy one. The nervy one complained he had begun to feel like a man bewitched. Those were his own words. The unnervy one agreed after a while that there was something uncomfortable about Murtlock. They were wondering how best to solve their problem, when Murtlock himself gave notice. He’d found someone more profitable to work over. His new patron – a man of some age, even older than oneself, if that can be imagined – was apparently more interested in what Blanchie calls Murtlock’s spooky side than in his sex appeal. They met during some business deal.’

p; ‘Murtlock doesn’t sound a particularly desirable friend for Fiona.’

  ‘Blanche says he makes her behave herself.’

  ‘Even so.’

  ‘Susan and Roddy are thankful for small mercies.’

  ‘Taking exercise, meditation, no alcohol, sound quite large ones.’

  ‘They sound to me like the good old Simple Life,’ said Hugo. ‘Still it’s a relief one won’t catch one’s foot in a hypodermic when next at Blanchie’s cottage.’

  ‘You always talk about your nephews and nieces in the way Aunt Molly used to talk about you,’ said Norah.

  Hugo was not at all discomposed by the comparison.

  ‘And you, Norah dear – and you. Think how Aunt Molly used to go on about you and Eleanor Walpole-Wilson. As a matter of fact, I quite agree I’ve turned into Aunt Molly. I’d noticed it myself. Old age might have transformed one into something much worse. Everybody liked her. I flatter myself I’m much what she’d have been had she remained unmarried.’

  ‘I shall begin to howl, Hugo, if you talk like that about poor Eleanor.’

  The Norah Tolland/Eleanor Walpole-Wilson manage had not been revived after the war, their ways dividing, though they remained friends. Norah, never so fulfilled as during her years as driver in one of the women’s services, had taken a job with a small car-hire firm, where she continued to wear a peaked cap and khaki uniform. Later she became one of the directors of the business, which considerably enlarged itself in scope, Norah always remaining available to drive, especially if a long continental trip were promised. Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, for her part, securing a seat on the Urban District Council, became immersed in local politics. Of late years she had embarked on a close relationship with a Swedish woman-doctor. Staying with this friend in Stockholm, Eleanor had been taken ill and died, bequeathing to Norah, with a small legacy, a pair of short-tempered pugs. Sensing mention of their former distress, this couple now began to rush about the flat, snuffling and barking.