The Acceptance World, Page 2Anthony Powell
Mrs. Erdleigh did not come back to the room immediately. We awaited her return in an atmosphere of expectancy induced by my uncle’s unconcealed excitement. I had never before seen him in this state. He was breathing heavily. Still Mrs. Erdleigh did not appear. She must have remained away at least ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. Uncle Giles began humming to himself. I picked up one of the tattered copies of The Lady. At last the door opened once more. Mrs. Erdleigh had removed her hat, renewed the blue make-up under her eyes, and changed into a dress of sage green. She was certainly a conspicuous, perhaps even a faintly sinister figure. The cards she brought with her were grey and greasy with use. They were not a Tarot pack. After a brief discussion it was agreed that Uncle Giles should be the first to look into the future.
‘You don’t think it has been too short an interval?’ he asked, obviously with some last-moment apprehensions.
‘Nearly six months,’ said Mrs. Erdleigh, in a more matter-of-fact voice than that she had used hitherto; adding, as she began to shuffle the pack: ‘Although, of course, one should not question the cards too often, as I have sometimes warned you.’
Uncle Giles slowly rubbed his hands together, watching her closely as if to make certain there was no deception, and to ensure that she did not deliberately slip in a card that would bring him bad luck. The rite had something solemn about it: something infinitely ancient, as if Mrs. Erdleigh had existed long before the gods we knew, even those belonging to the most distant past. I asked if she always used the same pack.
‘Always the same dear cards,’ she said, smiling; and to my uncle, more seriously: ‘Was there anything special?’
‘Usually need to look ahead in business,’ he said, gruffly. ‘That would be Diamonds, I suppose. Or Clubs?’
Mrs. Erdleigh continued to smile without revealing any of her secrets, while she set the cards in various small heaps on one of the Moorish tables. Uncle Giles kept a sharp eye on her, still rubbing his hands, making me almost as nervous as himself at the thought of what the predictions could involve. There might always be grave possibilities to be faced for someone of his erratic excursion through life, however I was naturally much more interested in what she would say about myself. Indeed, I was then so far from grasping the unchanging mould of human nature that I found it even surprising that at his age he could presuppose anything to be called ‘a future’. So far as I myself was concerned, on the other hand, there seemed no reason to curb the wildest absurdity of fancy as to what might happen the very next moment.
However, when Uncle Giles’s cards were examined, their secrets did not appear to be anything like so ominous as might have been feared. There was a good deal of opposition to his ‘plans’, perhaps not surprisingly; also, it was true, much gossip, even some calumny surrounded him.
‘Don’t forget you have Saturn in the Twelfth House,’ Mrs. Erdleigh remarked in an aside. ‘Secret enemies.’
As against these threatening possibilities, someone was going to give him a present, probably money; a small sum, but acceptable. It looked as if this gift might come from a woman. Uncle Giles, whose cheeks had become furrowed at the thought of all the gossip and calumny, cheered up a little at this. He was told he had a good friend in a woman—possibly the one who was to make him a present—the Queen of Hearts, in fact. This, too, Uncle Giles accepted willingly enough.
‘That was the marriage card that turned up, wasn’t it?’ he asked at one point.
‘Other influences must be taken into consideration.’
Neither of them commented on this matter, though their words evidently had regard to a question already reconnoitred in the past. For a moment or two there was perhaps a faint sense of additional tension. Then the cards were collected and shuffled again.
‘Now let’s hear about him,’ said Uncle Giles.
He spoke more with relief that his own ordeal was over, rather than because he was seriously expressing any burning interest in my own fate.
‘I expect he wants to hear about love,’ said Mrs. Erdleigh, beginning to titter to herself again.
Uncle Giles, to show general agreement with this supposition, grunted a disapproving laugh. I attempted some formal denial, although it was perfectly true that the thought was uppermost in my mind. The situation in that quarter was at the moment confused. In fact, so far as ‘love’ was concerned, I had been living for some years past in a rather makeshift manner. This was not because I felt the matter to be of little interest, like a man who hardly cares what he eats provided hunger is satisfied, or one prepared to discuss painting, should the subject arise, though never tempted to enter a picture gallery. On the contrary, my interest in love was keen enough, but the thing itself seemed not particularly simple to come by. In that direction, other people appeared more easily satisfied than myself. That at least was how it seemed to me. And yet, in spite of some show of picking and choosing, my experiences, on subsequent examination, were certainly no more admirable than those to which neither Templer nor Barnby, for example, would have given a second thought; they were merely fewer in number. I hoped the cards would reveal nothing too humiliating to my own self-esteem.
‘There is a link between us,’ said Mrs. Erdleigh, as she set out the little heaps. ‘At present I cannot see what it is—but there is a link.’
This supposed connexion evidently puzzled her. ‘You are musical?’
‘Then you write—I think you have written a book?’
‘You live between two worlds,’ she said. ‘Perhaps even more than two worlds. You cannot always surmount your feelings.’
I could think of no possible reply to this indictment. ‘You are thought cold, but you possess deep affections, sometimes for people worthless in themselves. Often you are at odds with those who might help you. You like women, and they like you, but you often find the company of men more amusing. You expect too much, and yet you are also too resigned. You must try to understand life.’
Somewhat awed by this searching, even severe analysis, I promised I would do better in future.
‘People can only be themselves,’ she said. ‘If they possessed the qualities you desire in them, they would be different people.”
‘That is what I should like them to be.’
‘Sometimes you are too serious, sometimes not serious enough.’
‘So I have been told.’
‘You must make a greater effort in life.’
‘I can see that.’
These strictures certainly seemed just enough; and yet any change of direction would be hard to achieve. Perhaps I was irrevocably transfixed, just as she described, half-way between dissipation and diffidence. While I considered the matter, she passed on to more circumstantial things. It turned out that a fair woman was not very pleased with me; and a dark one almost equally vexed. Like my uncle—perhaps some family failing common to both of us—I was encompassed by gossip.
‘They do not signify at all,’ said Mrs. Erdleigh, referring thus rather ruthlessly to the women of disparate colouring. ‘This is a much more important lady—medium hair, I should say—and I think you have run across her once or twice before, though not recently. But there seems to be another man interested, too. He might even be a husband. You don’t like him much. He is tallish, I should guess. Fair, possibly red hair. In business. Often goes abroad.’
I began to turn over in my mind every woman I had ever met.
‘There is a small matter in your business that is going to cause inconvenience,’ she went on. ‘It has to do with an elderly man—and two young ones connected with him.’
‘Are you sure it is not two elderly men and one young man?’
It had immediately struck me that she might be en rapport with my firm’s growing difficulties regarding St. John Clarke’s introduction to The Art of Horace Isbister. The elderly men would be St. John Clarke and Isbister themselves—or perh
aps St. John Clarke and one of the partners—and the young man was, of course, St. John Clarke’s secretary, Mark Members.
‘I see the two young men quite plainly,’ she said. ‘Rather a troublesome couple, I should say.’
This was all credible enough, including the character sketch, though perhaps not very interesting. Such trivial comment, mixed with a few home truths of a personal nature, provide, I had already learnt, the commonplaces of fortune-telling. Such was all that remained in my mind of what Mrs. Erdleigh prophesied on that occasion. She may have foretold more. If so, her words were forgotten by me. Indeed, I was not greatly struck by the insight she had shown; although she impressed me as a woman of dominant, even oddly attractive personality, in spite of a certain absurdity of demeanour. She herself seemed well pleased with the performance.
At the end of her sitting it was time to go. I was dining that evening with Barnby, picking him up at his studio. I rose to say good-bye, thanking her for the trouble she had taken.
‘We shall meet again.’ ‘I hope so.’
‘In about a year from now.’
‘No,’ she said, smiling with the complacence of one to whom the secrets of human existence had been long since occultly revealed. ‘Not before.’
I did not press the point. Uncle Giles accompanied me to the hall. He had by then returned to the subject of money, the mystique of which was at least as absorbing to him as the rites upon which we had been engaged.
‘… and then one could not foresee that San Pedro Warehouses Deferred would become entirely valueless,’ he was saying. ‘The expropriations were merely the result of a liberal dictator coming in—got to face these changes. There was one of those quite natural revulsions against foreign capital…’
He broke off. Supposing our meeting now at an end, I turned from him, and made preparations to plunge through the opaque doors into the ocean of streets, in the grey ebb and flow of which the Ufford floated idly upon the swell. Uncle Giles put his hand on my arm.
‘By the way,’ he said, ‘I don’t think I should mention to your parents the matter of having your fortune told. I don’t want them to blame me for leading you into bad habits, superstitious ones, I mean. Besides, they might not altogether approve of Myra Erdleigh.’
His brown, wrinkled face puckered slightly. He still retained some vestige of good looks, faintly military in character. Perhaps this hint, increased with age, of past regimental distinction in some forgotten garrison town was what Mrs. Erdleigh admired in him. Neither my parents, nor any of the rest of/Uncle Giles’s relations, were likely to worry about his behaviour if the worst he ever did was to persuade other members of the family to have their fortunes told. However, recognising that silence upon the subject of Mrs. Erdleigh might be a reasonable request, I assured him that I would not speak of our meeting.
I was curious to know what their relationship might be. Possibly they were planning marriage. The ‘marriage card’ had clearly been of interest to my uncle. There was something vaguely ‘improper’ about Mrs. Erdleigh, almost deliberately so; but impropriety of an unremembered, Victorian kind: a villa in St. John’s Wood, perhaps, and eccentric doings behind locked doors and lace curtains on sultry summer afternoons. Uncle Giles was known to possess a capacity for making himself acceptable to ladies of all sorts, some of whom had even been rumoured to contribute at times a trifle towards his expenses; those many expenses to which he was subject, and never tired of detailing. Mrs. Erdleigh looked not so much ‘well off’ as eminently capable of pursuing her own interests effectively. Possibly Uncle Giles considered her a good investment. She, on her side, no doubt had her uses for him. Apart from material considerations, he was obviously fascinated by her occult powers, with which he seemed almost religiously preoccupied. Like all such associations, this one probably included a fierce struggle of wills. It would be interesting to see who won the day. On the whole, my money was on Mrs. Erdleigh. I thought about the pair of them for a day or two, and then they both passed from my mind.
As I made my way towards the neighbourhood of Fitzroy Square, experiencing as usual that feeling of release that always followed parting company with Uncle Giles, I returned to the subject of future business difficulties foretold in the cards. These, as I have said, had seemed to refer to St. John Clarke’s introduction to The Art of Horace Isbister, already a tiresome affair, quite likely to pass from bad to worse. The introduction had been awaited for at least a year now, and we seemed no nearer getting the manuscript. The delay caused inconvenience at the office, since blocks had been made for a series of forty-eight monochrome plates and four three-colour half-tones; to which St. John Clarke was to add four or five thousand words of biographical reminiscence.
Isbister himself had been ill, on and off, for some little time, so that it had not been possible through him to bring pressure to bear on St. John Clarke, although the painter was the novelist’s old friend. They may even have been at school together. Isbister had certainly executed several portraits of St. John Clarke, one of them (the sitter in a high, stiff collar and limp spotted bow tie) showing him as quite a young man. The personal legend of each, for publicity purposes, took the form of a country lad who had ‘made good’, and they would occasionally refer in print to their shared early struggles. St. John Clarke, in the first instance, had positively gone out of his way to arrange that the introduction should be written by himself, rather than by some suitable hack from amongst the Old Guard of the art critics, several of whom were in much more need of the fee, not a very princely one, that my firm was paying for the work.
That a well-known novelist should take on something that seemed to call in at least a small degree for an accredited expert on painting was not so surprising as might at first sight have appeared, because St. John Clarke, although certainly quieter of late years, had in the past often figured in public controversy regarding the arts. He had been active, for example, in the years before the war in supporting the erection of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens: a dozen years later, vigorously opposing the establishment of Rima in the bird sanctuary of the same neighbourhood. At one of the Walpole-Wilsons’ dinner parties I could remember talk of St. John Clarke’s intervention in the question of the Haig memorial, then much discussed. These examples suggest a special interest in sculpture, but St. John Clarke often expressed himself with equal force regarding painting and music. He had certainly been associated with opposition to the Post-Impressionists in 1910: also in leading some minor skirmish in operatic circles soon after the Armistice.
I myself could not have denied a taste for St. John Clarke’s novels at about the period when leaving school. In fact Le Bas, my housemaster, finding me reading one of them, had taken it from my hand and glanced through the pages.
‘Rather morbid stuff, isn’t it?’ he had remarked. It was a statement rather than a question, though I doubt whether Le Bas had ever read any of St. John Clarke’s novels himself. He merely felt, in one sense correctly, that there was something wrong with them. At the same time he made no attempt to disallow, or confiscate, the volume. However, I had long preferred to forget the days when I had regarded St. John Clarke’s work as fairly daring. In fact I had become accustomed to refer to him and his books with the savagery which, when one is a young man, seems—perhaps rightly—the only proper and serious attitude towards anyone, most of all an older person, practising the arts in an inept or outworn manner. Although a few years younger than the generation of H. G. Wells and J. M. Barrie, St. John Clarke was connected in my mind with those two authors, chiefly because I had once seen a snapshot of the three of them reproduced in the memoirs of an Edwardian hostess. The photograph had probably been taken by the lady herself. The writers were standing in a group on the lawn of a huge, rather gracelessly pinnacled country seat. St. John Clarke was a little to one side of the picture. A tall, cadaverous man, with spectacles and long hair, a panama hat at the back of his head, he leant on a stick, surveyin
g his more diminutive fellow guests with an expression of uneasy interest; rather as if he were an explorer or missionary, who had just coaxed from the jungle these powerful witch-doctors of some neighbouring, and on the whole unfriendly, tribe. He seemed, by his expression, to feel that constant supervision of the other two was necessary to foil misbehaviour or escape. There was something of the priest about his appearance.
The picture had interested me because, although I had already read books by these three writers, all had inspired me with the same sense that theirs was not the kind of writing I liked. Later, as I have said, I came round for a time to St. John Clarke with that avid literary consumption of the immature which cannot precisely be regarded either as enjoyment or the reverse. The flavour of St. John Clarke’s novels is hard to describe to those unfamiliar with them, perhaps on account of their own inexactitudes of thought and feeling. Although no longer looked upon as a ‘serious’ writer, I believe he still has his readers in number not to be disregarded. In his early years he had been treated with respect by most of the eminent critics of his time, and to the day of his death he hoped in vain for the Nobel Prize. Mark Members, his secretary, used to say that once, at least, that award had seemed within his grasp.
We had never met, but I had seen him in Bond Street, walking with Members. Though his hair was by then white and straggling, he still looked remarkably like his picture in the book of memoirs. He was wearing a grey soft hat, rather high in the crown with a band of the same colour, a black suit and buff double-breasted waistcoat. As he strolled along he glanced rather furtively about him, seeming scarcely aware of Members, sauntering by his side. His features bore that somewhat exasperated expression that literary men so often acquire in middle life. For a second I had been reminded of my old acquaintance, Mr. Deacon, but a Mr. Deacon far more capable of coping with the world. Members, in his black homburg, swinging a rolled umbrella, looked quite boyish beside him.