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Dance to the Music of Time, Volume 1, Page 2

Anthony Powell

  ‘I bought some sausages.’

  ‘Borrow the frying-pan again. We can do them over the fire.’

  The room contained two late eighteenth-century coloured prints of racehorses (Trimalchio and The Pharisee, with blue-chinned jockeys) which hung above a picture, cut out of one of the illustrated weeklies and framed in passe-partout, of Stringham’s sister at her wedding: the bridegroom in khaki uniform with one sleeve pinned to his tunic. Over the fireplace was a large, and distinctly florid, photograph of Stringham’s mother, with whom he lived, a beauty, and an heiress, who had remarried the previous year after parting from Stringham’s father She was a South African. Stuck in the corner of the frame was a snapshot of the elder Stringham, an agreeable-looking man in an open shirt, smoking a pipe with the sun in his eyes. He, too, had remarried, and taken his second, and younger, wife, a Frenchwoman, to Kenya. Stringham did not often talk about his home, and in those days that was all I knew about his family; though Templer had once remarked that ‘in that direction there was a good deal of money available’, adding that Stringham’s parents moved in circles that lived ‘at a fairly rapid pace’.

  I had been so struck by the conception of Widmerpool, disclosed almost as a new incarnation, shortly before on the road in front of the house, that I described, while the sausages cooked, the manner in which he had materialised in a series of jerks out of the shadows, bearing with him such tokens of despondency. Stringham listened, perforating each of the sausages with the scimitar. He said slowly: ‘Widmerpool suffers—or suffered—from contortions of the bottom. Dickinson told me that, in the days when the fags used to parade in the library at tea-time, they were all standing by the wall one evening when suddenly there were inarticulate cries. Owing to this infirmity of his, Widmerpool’s legs had unexpectedly given way beneath him.’

  ‘Did he fall?’

  ‘He clung to the moulding of the wall, his feet completely off the ground.’

  ‘What next?’

  ‘He was carted off.’

  ‘I see. Have we any mustard?’

  ‘Now I’ll tell you what I saw happen last summer,’ Stringham went on, smiling to himself, and continuing to pierce the sausages. ‘Peter Templer and I had—for an unaccountable reason—been watching the tail-end of some cricket, and had stopped for a drink on the way back. We found Widmerpool standing by himself with a glass of lemonade in front of him. Some of the Eleven were talking and ragging at the far end of the counter and a skinned banana was thrown. This missed its target and hit Widmerpool. It was a bull’s-eye. The banana was over-ripe and it burst all over his face, knocking his spectacles sideways. His cap came off and he spilt most of the lemonade down the front of his clothes.’

  ‘Characteristic of the Eleven’s throwing-in.’

  ‘Budd himself was responsible. Widmerpool took out his handkerchief and began to clean up the mess. Budd came down the shop, still laughing, and said: “Sorry, Widmerpool. That banana wasn’t intended for you.” Widmerpool was obviously astonished to hear himself addressed by name, and so politely, by no less a person than the Captain of the Eleven—who could only have known what Widmerpool was called on account of the famous overcoat. Budd stood there smiling, showing a lot of those film-star teeth of his, and looking more than ever like the hero of an adventure story for boys.’

  ‘That noble brow.’

  ‘It doesn’t seem to help him to pile up runs,’ said Stringham, ‘any more than do those fine cutting shots of his which photograph so well.’

  He paused and shook his head, apparently in sadness at the thought of Budd’s deficiencies as a cricketer; and then continued: ‘Anyway, Budd—exuding charm at every pore—said: “I’m afraid I’ve made you in a bit of a mess, Widmerpool,” and he stood there inspecting the havoc he had just caused. Do you know an absolutely slavish look came into Widmerpool’s face. “I don’t mind,” he said, “I don’t mind at all, Budd. It doesn’t matter in the least.”’

  Stringham’s dexterity at imitating the manner in which Widmerpool talked was remarkable. He stopped the narrative to put some bread into the fat in which the sausages were frying, and, when this was done, said: ‘It was as if Widmerpool had experienced some secret and awful pleasure. He had taken off his spectacles and was wiping them, screwing up his eyes, round which there were still traces of banana. He began to blow on the glasses and to rub them with a great show of good cheer. The effect was not at all what might have been hoped. In fact all this heartiness threw the most appalling gloom over the shop. Budd went back to his friends and finished whatever he was eating, or drinking, in deathly silence. The other members of the Eleven—or whoever they were—stopped laughing and began to mutter self-consciously to themselves about future fixtures. All the kick had gone out of them. I have never seen anything like it. Then Budd picked up his bat and pads and gloves and other belongings, and said: “I must be getting along now. I’ve got the Musical Society tonight,” and there was the usual business of “Good-night, Bill, good-night——”’

  ‘“Good-night, Guy . . . good-night, Stephen . . . good-night, John . . . good-night, Ronnie . . . good-night, George . . .”’

  ‘Exactly,’ said Stringham. ‘“Good-night, Eddie . . . good-night, Simon . . . good-night, Robin . . .” and so on and so forth until they had all said good-night to each other collectively and individually, and shuffled off together, arm-in-arm. Templer wanted to move because he had to go down-town before lock-up; so we left Widmerpool to himself. He had put on his spectacles again, and straightened his cap, and as we went through the door he was rubbing his gritty little knuckles together, still smiling at his great encounter with Budd.’

  The account of this incident, illustrating another of Widmerpool’s aspects, did not at that moment make any deep impression on me. It was like a number of other anecdotes on the subject that circulated from time to time, differing only in the proficiency with which Stringham told his stories. My own renewed awareness of Widmerpool’s personality seemed to me closer and more real. Stringham, however, had not finished with the matter. He said: ‘As we walked past the fives courts, Templer remarked: “I’m glad that ass Widmerpool fielded a banana with his face.” I asked why he did not like him—for after all there is little harm in the poor old boy—and it turned out that it was Widmerpool who got Akworth sacked.’

  Stringham paused to allow this statement to sink in, while he arranged the sausages in a new pattern. I could not recall at all clearly what Akworth’s story had been: though I remembered that he had left the school under a cloud soon after my arrival there, and that various rumours regarding his misdoings had been current at the time.

  ‘Akworth tried to set fire to his room, didn’t he? Or did he steal everything that was not nailed down?’

  ‘He well may have done both,’ said Stringham; ‘but he was principally shot out for sending a note to Peter Templer. Widmerpool intercepted the note and showed it to Le Bas. I must admit that it was news to me when Peter told me.’

  ‘And that was why Peter had taken against Widmerpool?’

  ‘Not only that but Widmerpool got hold of Peter and gave him a tremendous jaw on morals.’

  ‘That must have been very good for him.’

  ‘The jaw went on for so long, and Widmerpool came so close, that Templer said that he thought Widmerpool was going to start something himself.’

  ‘Peter always thinks that about everybody.’

  ‘I agree his conceit is invincible,’ said Stringham, turning the sausages thoughtfully, as if contemplating Templer’s vanity.

  ‘Did Widmerpool start anything?’ I asked.

  ‘It is a grim thought, isn’t it?’

  ‘What is the answer?’

  Stringham laughed. He said: ‘Peter made an absolutely typical Templer remark when I asked him the same question. He said: “No, thank God, but he moved about the room breathing heavily like my sister’s white pekinese. Did you see how pleased he was just now to be noticed by Budd? He looked as if he had
just been kissed under the mistletoe. Bloody fool. He’s so wet you could shoot snipe off him.” Can you imagine a more exquisitely Templer phrase? Anyhow, that is how poor old Widmerpool looks to our little room-mate.’

  ‘But what is he like really?’

  ‘If you are not sure what Widmerpool is like,’ said Stringham, ‘you can’t do better than have another look at him. You will have an opportunity at prayers tonight. These sausages are done.’

  He stopped speaking, and, picking up the paper-knife again, held it upright, raising his eyebrows, because at that moment there had been a kind of scuffling outside, followed by a knock on the door: in itself a surprising sound. A second later a wavering, infinitely sad voice from beyond said: ‘May I come in?’

  Obviously this was no boy: the approach sounded unlike a master’s. The hinge creaked, and, as the door began to open, a face, deprecatory and enquiring, peered through the narrow space released between the door and the wall. There was an impression of a slight moustache, grey or very fair, and a well-worn, rather sporting tweed suit. I realised all at once, not without apprehension, that my Uncle Giles was attempting to enter the room.

  I had not seen my uncle since the end of the war, when he had been wearing some sort of uniform, though not one of an easily recognisable service. This sudden appearance in Stringham’s room was an unprecedented incursion: the first time that he had found his way here. He delayed entry for a brief period, pressing the edge of the door against his head, the other side of which touched the wall: rigid, as if imprisoned in a cruel trap specially designed to catch him and his like: some ingenious snare, savage in mechanism, though at the same time calculated to preserve from injury the skin of such rare creatures. Uncle Giles’s skin was, in point of fact, not easily injured, though experience of years had made him cautious of assuming as a matter of course that his company would be welcome anywhere—anywhere, at least, where other members of his family might be gathered together. At first, therefore, he did not venture to advance farther into the room, meekly conscious that his unexpected arrival might, not unreasonably, be regarded by the occupants as creating a pivot for potential embarrassment.

  ‘I was just passing through on the way to Reading,’ he said. ‘Thought I might look you up.’

  He stood by the door and appeared a little dazed, perhaps overcome by the rich smell of sausages that permeated the atmosphere of the room: possibly reminding him of what might easily have been a scanty luncheon eaten earlier in the day. Why he should be going to Reading was unguessable. If he had come from London, this could hardly be termed ‘on the way’; but it might well be that Uncle Giles had not come from London. His locations were not, as a rule, made public. Stringham stood up and pushed the sausages on to a plate.

  ‘This is my uncle—Captain Jenkins.’

  Checking the sausages with the paper-knife, Stringham said: ‘I’ll get another cup. You’ll have tea with us, won’t you?’

  ‘Thank you, I never take tea,’ said Uncle Giles. ‘People who eat tea waste half the afternoon. Never wanted to form the habit.’ He added: ‘Of course, I’m not speaking of your sort of tea.’

  He looked round at us, as if for sympathy, a bit uncertain as to whether or not this declaration expressed a justifiable attitude towards tea; unsure—and with good reason—if an assertion that he made efforts, however small, to avoid waste of time would prove easily credible, even in the company in which he now found himself. We borrowed a hard chair from next door, and he sat down, blowing his nose into a bandana handkerchief in a series of little grunts.

  ‘Don’t let me keep you fellows from your sausages,’ he said. ‘They will be getting cold. They look damned good to me.’

  Neat, and still slightly military in appearance—though he had not held a commission for at least twenty years and ‘captain’ was probably a more or less honorary rank, gazetted to him by himself and the better disposed of his relations—my father’s brother was now about fifty. His arrival that night made it clear that he had not emigrated: a suggestion put forward at one moment to explain his disappearance for a longer period than usual from public view. There had also been some rather uneasy family jokes regarding the possibility of his having overstepped the limits set by the law in the transaction of everyday business, some slip in financial dealings that might account for an involuntary absence from the scene; for Uncle Giles had been relegated by most of the people who knew him at all well to that limbo where nothing is expected of a person, and where more than usually outrageous actions are approached, at least conversationally, as if they constituted a series of practical jokes, more or less enjoyable, according to where responsibility for clearing up matters might fall. The curious thing about persons regarding whom society has taken this largely self-defensive measure is that the existence of the individual himself reaches a pitch when nothing he does can ever be accepted as serious. If he commits suicide, or murder, only the grotesque aspects of the event dominate the circumstances: on the whole, avoidance of such major issues being an integral part of such a condition. My uncle was a good example of the action of this law; though naturally I did not in those days see him with anything like this clearness of vision. If Reading were his destination, there could be no hint of immediate intention to leave the country: and, unless on ticket-of-leave, he was evidently under no sort of legal restraint. He finished blowing his nose, pushed the handkerchief back up his sleeve, and, using without facetious implication a then popular catchword, said: ‘How’s your father?’

  ‘All right.’

  ‘And your mother?’

  ‘Very well.’

  ‘Good,’ said Uncle Giles, as if it were a relief to him personally that my parents were well, even when the rest of the world might feel differently on the same matter.

  There was a pause. I asked how his own health had been, at which he laughed scornfully.

  ‘Oh, me,’ he said, ‘I’ve been about the same. Not growing any younger. Trouble with the old duodenal. I rather wanted to get hold of your father about signing some papers. Is he still in Paris? I suppose so.’

  ‘That bit of the Conference is finished.’

  ‘Where is he?’


  ‘On leave?’


  ‘The War Office haven’t decided where they are going to send him?’


  My uncle looked put out at this piece of news. It was most unlikely, hardly conceivable, that he really intended to impose his company on my father, who had for many years discouraged close association with his brother, except when possessed with an occasional and uncontrollable desire to tell Uncle Giles to his face what he thought of him, a mood that rarely lasted more than thirty-six hours; by the end of which period of time the foredoomed inefficacy of any such contact made itself clear.

  ‘In London, is he?’ said Uncle Giles, wrinkling the dry, reddish skin at the sides of his nostrils, under which a web of small grey veins etched on his nose seemed to imply preliminary outlines for a game of noughts-and-crosses. He brought out a leather cigarette-case and—before I could prevent him—lighted a cigarette.

  ‘Visitors are not really supposed to smoke here.’

  ‘Oh, aren’t they?’ said Uncle Giles. He looked very surprised. ‘Why not?’

  ‘Well, if the place smells of smoke, you can’t tell if someone else smokes too.’

  ‘Of course you can’t,’ said Uncle Giles readily, blowing outward a long jet of smoke. He seemed puzzled.

  ‘Le Bas might think a boy had been smoking.’

  ‘Who is Le Bas?’

  ‘Our housemaster.’

  How he had managed to find the house if he were ignorant of Le Bas’s identity was mysterious: even inexplicable. It was, however, in keeping with the way my uncle conducted his life that he should reach his destination without knowing the name of the goal. He continued to take small puffs at his cigarette.

  ‘I see,’ he said.

  ‘Boys aren
’t allowed to smoke.’

  ‘Quite right. Stunts the growth. It is a great mistake to smoke before you are twenty-one.’

  Uncle Giles straightened his back and squared his shoulders. One had the impression that he was well aware that young people of the day could scarcely attempt to compete with the rigorous standards that had governed his own youth. He shook his head and flicked some ash on to one of the dirty plates.

  ‘It is a hundred to one Le Bas won’t come in,’ said Stringham. ‘I should take a chance on it.’

  ‘Take a chance on what?’ Uncle Giles asked.

  ‘On smoking.’

  ‘You mean I really ought to put this out?’

  ‘Don’t bother.’

  ‘Most certainly I shall bother,’ said Uncle Giles. ‘I should not dream of breaking a rule of that sort. Rules are made to be obeyed, however foolish they may sometimes seem. The question is where had I best put this, now that the regulation has been broken?’

  By the time my uncle had decided to extinguish the cigarette on the sole of his shoe, and throw the butt into the fire, there was not much left of it. Stringham collected the ash, which had by now found its way into several receptacles, brushing all of this also into the cinders. For the rest of tea, Uncle Giles, who, for the time being at least, had evidently dismissed from his mind the question of discussing arrangements for meeting my father, discoursed, not very lucidly, on the possibility of a moratorium in connexion with German reparations and the fall of the mark. Uncle Giles’s sympathies were with the Germans. ‘They work hard,’ he said. ‘Therefore they have my respect.’ Why he had suddenly turned up in the manner was not yet clear. When tea came to an end he muttered about wanting to discuss family matters, and, after saying good-bye—for my uncle, almost effusively—to Stringham, he followed me along the passage.

  ‘Who was that?’ he asked, when we were alone together.

  As a rule Uncle Giles took not the slightest interest in anyone or anything except himself and his own affairs—indeed was by this time all but incapable of absorbing even the smallest particle of information about others, unless such information had some immediate bearing on his own case. I was therefore surprised when he listened with a show of comparative attention to what I could tell him about Stringham’s family. When I had finished, he remarked: