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Hearing Secret Harmonies, Page 2

Anthony Powell

  ‘Oh, shut up, pugs,’ said Norah.

  The commendation accorded to Scorpio Murtlock – that he could keep Fiona in order – limited in compass, was not to be lightly regarded, if valid. It was reiterated by Blanche, when she rang up about the caravan party. Never very capable of painting word pictures, she was unable to add much additional information about Murtlock, nor did she know anything, beyond her name, of the girl Rusty. Barnabas Henderson, on the other hand, possessed certain conventional aspects, notably a father killed in the war, who had left enough money for his son to buy a partnership in a small picture-dealing business; a commercial venture abandoned to follow Murtlock into the wilderness.

  Blanche’s assurance of comparatively austere behaviour – what Hugo called the good old Simple Life – had been to some extent borne out, on the arrival of Fiona and her friends, by refusal of all offers of food and drink. Provided with a bivouac under some trees, on the side of the field away from the house, they at once set about various minor tasks relative to settling in caravan and horses, behaviour that seemed to confirm the ascription of a severe standard of living. When, early in the afternoon, Isobel and I went to see how they were getting on, they had come to the end of these dispositions. Earlier negotiations about siting the caravan had been carried out with Fiona, Murtlock standing in silence with folded arms. Now he showed more sign of emerging as the strong personality he had been billed.

  ‘Is there anything you’d all like to do?’

  Fiona had been addressed. Murtlock took it upon himself to answer.

  ‘Too late in the year to leap the fires.’

  He spoke thoughtfully, without any touch of jocularity. This was evidently the line Blanche had denominated as spooky. Since we had agreed to put up the caravan, there was no reason, if kept within bounds, why Beltane should not be celebrated, or whatever it was he had in mind.

  ‘We could make a bonfire.’

  ‘Too near the solstice.’

  ‘Something else then?’

  ‘A sacrifice.’

  ‘What sort?’

  ‘One in Harmony.’

  ‘Like Fiona’s shirt?’


  He did not laugh. He did not even smile. This affirmative somehow inhibited further comment in a frivolous tone, imposing acquiescence in not treating things lightly, even Fiona’s shirt. At the same time I was uncertain whether he was not simply teasing. On the face of it teasing seemed much more likely than all this assumed gravity. Nevertheless uncertainty remained, ambivalence of manner leaving one guessing. No doubt that was intended, after all a fairly well recognized method of establishing one sort of supremacy. The expressed aim – that things should be in Harmony – could not in itself be regarded as objectionable. It supported the contention that Fiona’s latest set of friends held to stringent moral values of one sort or another. How best to achieve an act of Harmony was another matter.

  ‘Harmony is not easy to define.’

  ‘Harmony is Power – Power is Harmony.’

  ‘That’s how you see it?’

  ‘That’s how it is.’

  He smiled. When Murtlock smiled the charm was revealed. He was a boy again, making a joke, not a fanatical young mystic. At the same time he was a boy with whom it was better to remain on one’s guard.

  ‘How are we going to bring off an act of Harmony on a Saturday afternoon?’

  ‘Through the Elements.’

  ‘What elements?’

  ‘Fire, Air, Earth, Water.’

  The question had been a foolish one. He smiled again. We discussed various possibilities, none of them very sparkling. The other three were silent throughout all this. Murtlock seemed to have transformed them into mere shadows of himself.

  ‘Is there water near here? I think so. There is the feel of water.’

  ‘A largish pond within walking distance.’

  ‘We could make a water sacrifice.’

  ‘Drown somebody?’

  He did not answer.

  ‘We could go crayfishing,’ said Isobel.

  Since demands made by improvisation at a moment’s notice of the necessary tackle for this sport were relatively onerous, the proposal marked out Isobel, too, as not entirely uninfluenced by Murtlock’s spell.

  ‘The crayfish are in the pond?’

  ‘In the pools of the brook that runs out of it.’

  He considered.

  ‘It can’t be exactly described as a blood sport,’ I added.

  I don’t know why inserting that lame qualification seemed required, except that prejudice against blood sports could easily accord with an outlook to be inferred from people dressed in their particular style. If asked to rationalize the comment, that would have been my pretext. Aggressive activities against crayfish might be, by definition, excluded from an afternoon’s programme devoted to Harmony. Who could tell? Harmony was also Power, he said. Power would be exercised over crayfish, if caught, but possibly the wrong sort of Power. He pretended to be puzzled.

  ‘You mean that without blood there is no vehicle for the spirit?’

  ‘I mean that you might not like killing.’

  ‘I do not kill, if not killed.’

  He seemed glad to have an opportunity to make that statement, gnomic to say the least. It sounded like a favourite apophthegm of a luminary of the cult to which they all belonged, the familiar ring of Shortcuts to the Infinite, Wisdom of the East, Analects of the Sages. For some reason the pronouncement seemed also one recently brought to notice. Had I read it not long before in print? The Murtlock standpoint, his domination over Fiona and the others, was becoming a little clearer in a certain sense, if remaining obscure in many others.

  ‘I don’t think we’ll be killed. Deaths crayfishing are comparatively rare.’

  ‘You spoke not of death, but of killing.’

  ‘The latter is surely apt to lead to the former?’

  ‘There is killing – death is an illusion.’

  This was no help so far as deciding how the afternoon was to be spent.

  ‘The point is whether or not you would consider the killing of crayfish to be in Harmony?’

  Once more his smile made me feel that it was I, rather than he, who was being silly.

  ‘Not all killing is opposed to Harmony.’

  ‘Let’s kill crayfish then.’

  The odd thing was that he managed never to be exactly discourteous, nor even embarrassing, when he talked in this way. It was always close to a joke, though a joke not quite brought to birth. At least you did not laugh. You accepted on its own merits what he said, unintelligible or the reverse. I wondered – had not some forty years stretched between us – whether, as a contemporary, I should have been friends with Scorpio Murtlock. Indications were at best doubtful. That negative surmise was uninfluenced by his manner of talking, mystic and imperative, still less the style of dress. Both might have been acceptable at that age in a contemporary. In any case fashions of one generation, moral or physical, are scarcely at all assessable in terms of another. They cannot be properly equated. So far as they could be equated, the obstacles set up against getting on with Murtlock were in themselves negligible.

  The objection to him, if objection there were, was the sense that he brought of something ominous. He would have been ominous – perhaps more ominous – in a City suit, the ominous side of him positively mitigated by a blue robe. His accents, liturgical, enigmatic, were also consciously rough, uncultivated. The roughness was imitated by Fiona and Henderson, when they remembered to do so. Rusty never uttered. No doubt Murtlock’s chief attraction was owed to this ominousness, something more sexually persuasive than good looks, spectacular trappings, even sententious observations. Certainly Fiona was showing an altogether uncharacteristic docility in allowing, without any sign of dispute or passive disapproval, someone else to make all the going. It might be assumed that she and Rusty were ‘in love’ with Murtlock. Probably Henderson shared that passion. Murtlock himself showed no sign of bei
ng emotionally drawn to any of them. In the light of what had been reported, it would have been surprising had he done so.

  ‘What do we need?’

  He spoke this time in a tone of practical enquiry.

  ‘A circle of wire mesh kept together by a piece of iron. Something like the rim of an old saucepan or fryingpan does well.’

  ‘The circle, figure of perfection – iron, abhorred by demons.’

  ‘Those aspects may help too.’

  ‘They will.’

  ‘Then a piece of preferably rotting meat.’

  ‘Nothing far different from a sacrifice for a summoning.’

  ‘In this case summoning crayfish.’

  ‘Crayfish our sacrifice, rather.’

  The requirements took a little time to get into order. A morsel of doubtful freshness was found among bones set aside for stock. The four of them joined in these preparations usefully, shaping the wire-netting, measuring out cords, fixing the tainted bait. When the trap was assembled Murtlock swung it gently through the air. Even in undertaking this trial of weight, which showed grasp of the sport, there was something of the swaying of a priest’s censer.

  ‘And now?’

  ‘The crayfish beds, such as they are, lie about a quarter of a mile away.’

  The brook flowed through fields of poorish pasture, tangled with undergrowth as they sloped down more steeply to the line of the stream. Once the trap was slung among its stones Murtlock seemed satisfied. If the others were bored, they did not dare show it during the long period when there was no sign of a catch. Conversation altogether flagged. Murtlock himself possessed to a marked degree that characteristic – perhaps owing something to hypnotic powers – which attaches to certain individuals; an ability to impose on others present the duty of gratifying his own whims. It seemed to matter that Murtlock should get what he wanted – in this case crayfish – while, if the others were bored, that was their affair. No particular obligation was laid on oneself to prevent it. When at last the circle of iron showed signs of possessing the supposedly magical properties he had attributed, four crayfish caught, this modest final success, obviously pleasing to Murtlock, was for some reason exceptionally pleasing to oneself too. By then afternoon was turning to evening. Again he took the initiative.

  ‘We’ll go back now. There are things to do at the caravan. Barnabas must water the horses.’

  ‘Sure you won’t dine?’


  ‘I can easily run up something,’ said Isobel.

  ‘The day is one of limited fast.’

  Fiona had not explained that when the dinner invitation had been issued some hours earlier.

  ‘Nothing else you want?’


  ‘A bottle of wine?’

  Then I remembered that they abstained from alcohol.

  ‘No – have you a candle?’

  ‘We can lend you an electric torch.’

  ‘Only for a simple fire ritual.’

  ‘Come back to the house. We’ll look for candles.’

  ‘Barnabas can fetch it, if needed. It may not be.’

  ‘Don’t start a forest fire, will you?’

  He smiled at that.

  ‘Only the suffusion of a few laurel leaves.’

  ‘As you see, laurel is available.’


  ‘There are one or two conifers up the road to the right.’

  ‘We’ll go back then. Take the bucket, Barnabas. The gloves are on the ground, Fiona. Rusty, carry the trap – no, Rusty will carry it.’

  None of them was allowed to forget for a moment that he or she was under orders. When the crayfishing paraphernalia had been brought together we climbed the banks that enclosed this length of the stream. After crossing the fields the path led through trees, the ground underfoot thick with wild garlic. At one point, above this Soho restaurant smell, the fox’s scent briefly reasserted itself. Here Murtlock stopped. Gazing towards a gap between the branches of two tall oaks, he put up a hand to shade his eyes. The others imitated his attitude. In his company they seemed to have little or no volition of their own. Murtlock’s control was absolute. The oak boughs formed a frame for one of the blue patches of sky set among clouds, now here and there flecked with pink. Against this irregular quadrilateral of light, over the meadows lying in the direction of Gauntlett’s farm a hawk hovered; then, likely to have marked down a prey, swooped off towards the pond. Murtlock lowered his arm. The others copied him.

  ‘The bird of Horus.’


  ‘Do you often see hawks round here?’

  He asked the question impatiently, almost angrily.

  ‘This particular one is always hanging about. He was near the house yesterday, and the day before. He’s a well-known local personality. Perhaps a retired kestrel from a ‘Thirties poem.’

  The allusion might be obscure to one of his age. So much the better. Obscurity could be met with obscurity. A second later, either on the hawk’s account, or from some other disturbing factor in their vicinity – the quarry end of the pond – the duck flew out again. Rising at an angle acute as their former descent, the flight took on at once the disciplined wedge-shaped configuration used in all duck transit, leader at apex, main body following behind in semblance of a fan. Mounting higher, still higher, soaring over copper and green beechwoods, the birds achieved considerable altitude before a newly communicated command wheeled them off again in a fresh direction. Adjusting again to pattern, they receded into creamy cavernous billows of distant cloud, beyond which the evening sun drooped. Into this opaque glow of fire they disappeared. To the initiated, I reflected – to ancient soothsayers – the sight would have been vaticinatory.

  ‘What message do the birds foretell?’

  Even allowing for that sort of thing being in his line, Murtlock’s question, put just at the moment when the thought was in my own mind, brought a slight sense of shock. He uttered the words softly, as if now gratified at being able to accept my train of thought as coherent, in contrast with earlier demur on the subject of death and killing. Even with intimates that sort of implied knowledge of what is going on in one’s head, recognition of unspoken thoughts passing through the mind – in its way common enough – can be a little disconcerting, much more so to be thought-read by this strange young man. The ducks’ coalescence into the muffled crimsons of sunset had been dramatic enough to invoke reflection on mysterious things, and such a subject as ornithomancy was evidently of the realm to which he aspired. The process was perhaps comparable with the intercommunication practised by the birds themselves, their unanimous change of direction, well ordered regrouping, rapid new advance, disciplined as troops drilling on the square; more appositely, aircraft obeying a radioed command.

  This well disciplined aspect of duck behaviour must have been partly what entranced the generals, when with such fervour both of them had demonstrated the triangular formation. The evening came back vividly. Duties of the day over – I had been conducting officer with a group of Allied military attaches – we had been sitting in the bar of the little Normandy auberge where we were billeted. Bobrowski had almost upset his beer in demonstrating the precise shape of the flight. Philidor was calmer. Some years after the war – he was in exile, of course, from his own country – Bobrowski had been knocked down by a taxi, and killed. Oddly enough Philidor, too, had died in a car accident – so a Frenchman at their Embassy said – having by then attained quite high rank. Perhaps such deaths were appropriate to men of action, better than a slow decline. Aware that a more than usually acute consciousness of human mortality had descended, I wondered for a moment whether Murtlock was responsible for that sensation. It was not impossible.

  ‘I was thinking of the Roman augurs too.’

  ‘They also scrutinized the entrails of animals for prophecy.’

  He added that with a certain relish.

  ‘Sometimes – as the Bard remarks – the sad augurs mocked their own pre

  One had to fight back. Murtlock made no comment. I hoped the quotation had floored him. The rest of the walk back to where the caravan was parked took place in silence and without incident. At the caravan our ways would divide, if the four of them were not to enter the house. Separation was delayed by the appearance of Mr Gauntlett advancing towards us.

  ‘Good afternoon, Mr Gauntlett.’

  Mr Gauntlett, wearing a cowslip in his buttonhole, greeted us. He showed no sign whatever of thinking our guests at all unusually dressed, nodding to them in a friendly manner, without the least curiosity as to why the males should be wearing blue robes.

  ‘Happen you’ve seen my old bitch, Daisy, this way, Mr Jenkins? Been gone these forty-eight hours, and I don’t know where she’s to.’

  ‘We haven’t, Mr Gauntlett.’

  A farmer, now retired as close on eighty, Mr Gauntlett lived in an ancient tumbledown farmhouse not far away, where – widower, childless, sole survivor of a large family – he ‘did for himself’, a life that seemed to suit him, unless rheumatics caused trouble. His house, associated by local legend with a seventeenth-century murder, was said to be haunted. Mr Gauntlett himself, though he possessed a keen sense of the past, and liked to discuss such subjects as whether the Romans brought the chestnut to Britain, always asserted that the ghosts had never inconvenienced him. This taste for history could account for a habit of allowing himself archaisms of speech, regional turns of phrase, otherwise going out of circulation. In not at all disregarding the importance of style in facing life – even consciously histrionic style – Mr Gauntlett a little resembled General Conyers. They both shared the same air of distinction, firmness, good looks that resisted age, but above all this sense of style. Mr. Gauntlett had once told me that during service (in the first war) with the Yeomanry, he had found himself riding through the Khyber Pass, a background of vast mountains, bare rocks, fierce tribesmen, that seemed for some reason not at all out of accord with his own mild manner.

  ‘Maybe Daisy’s littered in the woods round here, as she did three years gone. Then she came home again, and made a great fuss, for to bring me to a dingle down by the water, where she’d had her pups. The dogs round about knew of it. They’d been barking all night for nigh on a week to drive foxes and the like away, but I haven’t heard ‘em barking o’ nights this time.’