Books Do Furnish a Room, Page 2Anthony Powell
‘Ain’t it absurd?’ he shouted. ‘As you’ll have guessed, my dear Nick, I didn’t want the dratted thing at all. Not in the least. But it looked unmannerly to refuse. Doesn’t do to look unmannerly. Literal case of noblesse oblige. So there it is. A Peer of the Realm. Who’d have prophesied that for crude young Sillers, that happy-go-lucky little fellow, in the days of yore? It certainly gave some people here furiously to think. Ah, the envies and inhumanities of the human heart. You wouldn’t believe. I keep on telling the college servants to go easy with all that my-lording. Makes me feel as if I was acting in Shakespeare. They will have it, good chaps that they are. Fact is they seem positively to enjoy addressing their old friend in that majestic way, revel in it even. Strange but true. Genuinely glad to see old Sillers a lord. Ah, when you’re my age, dear men, you’ll know what an empty thing is worldly success and human ambition – but we mustn’t say that to an important person like Leonard, must we, Nick? And of course I don’t want to seem ungrateful to the staunch movement that ennobled me, of which I remain the most loyal of supporters. Indeed, we’ve just been talking of some of Labour’s young lions, for Leonard has forgone his former Liberal allegiances in favour of Mr Attlee and his merry men.’
‘Of course, as a civil servant, I’m strictly speaking neutral,’ said Short primly. ‘I was merely talking with Sillers of my present Minister’s PPS, who happens to live in the same block of flats as myself – one Kenneth Widmerpool. You may have come across him.’
‘I have – and saw he got in at a by-election some months ago.’
‘This arose from speaking of Bill Truscott and his troubles,’ said Sillery. ‘I was telling Leonard how I always marvelled at the quietly dextrous way Mr Widmerpool had poor Bill sacked from Donners-Brebner, just at the moment Bill thought himself set for big things. Between you and me, I would myself have doubted whether Bill offered serious rivalry by that time, but, extinct volcano or not, Widmerpool accepted him as a rival, and got rid of him. It was done in the neatest manner imaginable. That was where the rot set in so far as Bill was concerned. Put him on the downward path. He never recovered his status as a coming man. All this arose because I happened to mention to Leonard that Mr Widmerpool had written to me about joining a society – in fact two societies, one political, one cultural – to cement friendship with the People’s Republic where Theodoric’s family once held sway.’
‘I ran across Widmerpool when I was on loan to the Cabinet Office from my own Ministry,’ said Short. ‘We first met when I was staying in the country one weekend with a person of some import. I won’t mention names, but say no more than that the visit was one of work rather than play. Widmerpool came down on Sunday about an official matter, bringing some highly secret papers with him. We played a game of croquet in the afternoon as a short relaxation. I always remember how Widmerpool kept his briefcase under his arm – he was in uniform, of course – throughout the game. He nearly won it, in spite of that. Our host joked with him about his high regard for security, but Widmerpool would not risk losing his papers, even when he made his stroke.’
Sillery rocked himself backwards and forwards in silent enjoyment.
‘A very capable administrator,’ said Short. ‘Of course one can’t foretell what prospects such a man can have on the floor of the House. He may not necessarily be articulate in those very special surroundings. I’ve heard it suggested Widmerpool is better in committee. His speeches are inclined to alienate sympathy. Nevertheless, I am disposed to predict success.’
Neither of them would listen to assurances that I had known Widmerpool for years, which had indeed no particular relevance to his election to the House of Commons some little time before this. The event had taken place while I was myself still submerged in the country, getting through my army gratuity. At the time, Widmerpool’s arrival in Parliament seemed just another of the many odd things taking place roundabout, no concern of mine after reading of it in the paper. Back in London, occupied with sorting out the debris, physical and moral, with which one had to contend, Widmerpool’s political fortunes – like his unexpected marriage to Pamela Flitton – had been forgotten in attempts to warm up, as it were, charred fragments left over from the pre-war larder.
‘He’d probably have become a brigadier had hostilities continued,’ said Short. ‘I’m not at all surprised by the course he’s taken. At one moment, so he told me, he had ambitions towards a colonial governorship – was interested in those particular problems – but Westminster opens wider fields. The question was getting a seat.’
Sillery dismissed such a doubt as laughable for a man of ability.
‘Elderly trade unionists die, or reap the reward of years of toil by elevation to the Upper House – better merited, I add in all humility, than others I could name. The miners can spare a seat from their largesse, those hardy crofters of Scotland show a canny instinct for the right candidate.’
‘Between ourselves, I was able to do a little liaison work in the early stages,’ said Short. ‘That was after return to my old niche. I’d been told there was room for City men who’d be sensibly co-operative, especially if of a Leftward turn to start. Widmerpool’s attitude to Cheap Money made him particularly eligible.’
‘Cheap Money! Cheap Money!’
The phrase seemed to ravish Sillery by its beauty. He continued to repeat it, like the pirate’s parrot screeching ‘Pieces of eight’, while he clenched his fist in the sign of the old Popular Front.
Then suddenly Sillery’s manner changed. He began to rub his hands together, a habit that usually indicated the launching of one of his anti-personnel weapons, some explosive item of information likely to be brought out with damaging effect to whoever had just put forward some given view. Short, still contemplating Widmerpool’s chances, showed no awareness that danger threatened.
‘I don’t think he’ll be a back-bencher long,’ he said. ‘That’s my view.’
Sillery released the charge.
‘What about his wife?’
After that question Sillery paused in one of his most characteristic attitudes, that of the Chinese executioner who has so expertly severed a human head from the neck that it remains still apparently attached to the victim’s shoulders, while the headsman himself flicks an infinitesimal, all but invisible, speck of blood from the razor-sharp blade of his sword. Short coughed. He gave the impression of being surprised by a man of such enlightened intelligence as Sillery asking that.
‘His wife, Sillers?’
Short employed a level requisitive tone, suggesting he had indeed some faint notion of what was behind the enquiry, but it was one scarcely worthy of answer. There could be little doubt that, in so treating the matter, Short was playing for time.
‘You can’t close your ears to gossip in this University, however much you try,’ said Sillery. ‘It’s rampant, I regret to say. Even at High Table in this very college. Besides, it’s always wise to know what’s being bruited abroad, even if untrue.’
He rubbed his hands over and over again, almost doubling up with laughter.
‘I haven’t the pleasure of knowing Mrs Widmerpool so well as her husband,’ said Short severely. ‘We sometimes see each other where we both live, in the hall or in the lift. I understand the Widmerpools are to move from there soon.’
‘Comely,’ said Sillery. ‘That’s what I’ve been told – comely.’
He was more convulsed than ever.
‘Certainly, certainly,’ allowed Short. ‘She is generally agreed to be good looking. I should myself describe her as a little —’
Short’s power to define feminine beauty abandoned him at this point. He simply made a gesture with his hand. Unmarried himself, he spoke as if prepared to concede that good looks in a wife, anyway the wife of a public man, might reasonably be regarded as a cause for worry.
‘I expect she’ll make a good canvasser, an admirable canvasser.’
‘Sillers, what are you getting at?’
Short spoke quite irritably. I laughed.
‘I see Nick knows what I mean,’ said Sillery.
‘What does Nick know?’
‘I met her during the war, when she was called Pamela Flitton. She was an ATS driver.’
‘What’s your story, Sillers? I see you must have a story.’
Short spoke in a tone intended to put a stop to frivolous treatment of what had been until then a serious subject, Widmerpool’s career. Being in the last resort rather afraid of Sillery, he was clearly not too sure of his ground. No doubt even Short had heard rumours, however muffled, of Pamela’s goings-on. Sillery decided to play with him a little longer.
‘My information about Mrs Widmerpool brought in a few picturesque details, Leonard. Just a few picturesque details – I say no more than that. I call her young Mrs Widmerpool because I understand she is appreciably junior to her spouse.’
‘Yes, she’s younger.’
‘The name of a certain MP on the Opposition benches has been mentioned as a frequent escort of hers.’
‘I happen to have a friend who knows Mrs W quite well.’
Sillery sniggered. Short pursed his lips.
The question seemed just worth asking.
‘No, Nick, not a man. A young lady. You didn’t think an old fogey like me knew any young ladies, did you? You were quite wrong. This little friend of mine happens also to be a friend of Mrs Widmerpool – so you see I am in a strong position to hear about her doings.’
Sillery’s own sexual tastes had, of course, been endlessly debated by generations of undergraduates and dons. It was generally agreed that their physical expression was never further implemented than by a fair amount of arm-pinching and hair-rumpling of the young men with whom he was brought in contact; not necessarily even the better-looking ones, if others had more substantial assets to offer in the power world. More ardent indiscretions charged against him had either no basis, or were long forgotten in the mists of the past. Certainly he was held never to have taken the smallest physical interest in a woman, although at the same time in no way setting his face against all truck with the opposite sex. Sillery’s attitude might in this respect be compared with the late St John Clarke’s, both equally appreciative of invitations from ladies of more or less renowned social status and usually mature age; ‘hostesses’, in short, now an extinct species, though destined to rise again like Venus from a sea of logistic impediment. Accordingly, Sillery was right to suppose his boast would cause surprise. The scandal-mongering female friend would probably turn out to be a young married woman, I thought, the wife of a don. Before Sillery had time further to develop his theme, from which he showed signs of deriving a lot of pleasure in the form of teasing Short, a knock sounded on the door.
‘Come in, come in,’ cried Sillery indulgently. ‘Who is this to be? What a night for visitors. Quite like old times.’
He must have expected another version of Short or myself to enter the room. If so, he made a big mistake. Afar more dramatic note was struck; dramatic, that is, for those used to the traditional company to be met in Sillery’s rooms, also in the light of his words immediately before. A young woman, decidedly pretty, peeped in. Leaning on the door knob, she smiled apologetically, registering a diffidence not absolutely convincing.
‘I’m sorry, Sillers. I see you’re engaged. I’ll come round in the morning. I’d quite thought you’d be alone.’
This was certainly striking confirmation of Sillery’s boast that he had contacts with young women. However, its corroboration in this manner did not seem altogether to please him. For once, a rare thing, he appeared uncertain how best to deal with this visitor: dismiss her, retain her. He grinned, but with a sagging mouth. The intrusion posed a dilemma. Short looked embarrassed too, indeed went quite pink. Then Sillery recovered himself. ‘Come in, Ada, come in. You’ve arrived at just the right moment. We all need the company of youth.’
Irresolution, in any case observable only to those accustomed to the absolute certainty of decision belonging to Sillery’s past, had only been momentary. Now he was himself again, establishing by these words that, for all practical purposes, there was no difference between his own age and that of Short and myself, anyway so far as ‘Ada’ was concerned. He settled down right away to get the last ounce out of this new puppet, if puppet she were. The girl was in her twenties, fair, with a high colour, a shade on the plump side, though only enough to suggest changes in the female figure then pending.
‘I didn’t want to disturb you, Sillers. I didn’t really, but I’m almost sure you gave me the wrong notebook yesterday. There were two years missing at least.’
Her manner, self-possessed, was also forthcoming. She smiled round at all of us, not at all displeased at finding unexpected company in Sillery’s rooms. It looked as if some twist of post-war academic administration had committed Sillery to aspects of tutoring that included the women’s colleges. In the old days that would have been much against all his known principles, but changed conditions, possibly in the line of post-graduate courses, might have brought about some such revolutionary situation in the University as now constituted.
‘Two years missing?’ said Sillery. ‘That will never do, Ada, that will never do, but I must introduce you to two old friends of mine. Mr Short, one of our most cultivated and humane of bureaucrats, and Mr Jenkins who is – you just explained to me, Nick, but I can’t recall for the minute – no, no, don’t tell me, I’ll remember in a second – come here to do some research of a very scholarly kind, something he is planning to write – Burton, yes, Burton, melancholy and all that. This is Miss Leintwardine, my – well – my secretary. That’s what you are, Ada, ain’t you? Sounds rather fast. All sorts of jokes about us, I’m sure. Sit ’ee down, Ada, sit ’ee down. I’ll look into your complaints forthwith.’
Miss Leintwardine took a chair. Clearly well used to Sillery’s ways and diction, she accepted this presentation of herself as all part of the game. In the role of secretary she was a little more explicable, though why on earth Sillery should require a secretary was by no means apparent. Perhaps a secretary went with being made a peer. Whatever it was, he now retired to a corner of the room, where, lowering himself on to the floor, he squatted on the worn carpet, while he began to rummage about amongst a lot of stuff stored away in the bottom of a cupboard. All the time he kept up a stream of comment.
‘What a way to preserve sacred memories. Isn’t that just like me? Might be a lot of old boots for all the trouble I’ve taken. Nineteen-eight… nineteen-four … here we are, I think, here we are.’
Miss Leintwardine, who had sat down as requested, showed willingness to make herself agreeable by a laudatory reference to a novel I had written before the war. She was about to expand her views on this subject, but, whatever other modifications had taken place in Sillery’s approach, tolerance of his guests’ books being discussed in front of him was not among them. Sillery’s enemies were inclined to imply that aversion to other people writing was the fruit of pure envy, but it was much more probable that talk about ‘writing’ simply bored him, unless arousing a sense of conflict. He began a loud confused monologue to put a stop to all other conversation, then suddenly found what he sought, closed the cupboard and rose without effort, holding two or three tattered exercise books. He cast these on the table.
‘Here they are. I don’t know what I can have been thinking about, Ada. Was it the nineteen-twelve volume I gave you? Let me have a look. Ah, no, I think I understand now. This is supplementary. Ada’s helping me get my old diaries in order. Not only typing them, but giving me her valuable – I should say invaluable – advice. I’m pleading as a suppliant before the inexorable tribunal of Youth. That’s what it comes to. Don’t know what I’d do without her. I’d be lost, wouldn’t I, Ada?’
‘You certainly would, Sillers.’
‘Diaries?’ said Short. ‘I didn’t know you kept a diary, Sillers?’
Sillery, laughing heartily, lowered himself again into a vast collapsed armchair in which he lay crouched.
‘Nobody did, nobody did. Strict secret. Of course it’s possible nothing will appear until old Sillers is dead and gone. That’s no reason why the diaries shouldn’t be put in proper order. Then perhaps a few selections might be published. Who can tell until Ada has done her work – and who should help make the decision better than Ada?’
‘But, Sillers, they’ll be absolutely …’
Short was again without words. Only an ingrained professional habit of avoiding superlatives, so he implied, prevented him from giving more noisy expression to welcome a Journal kept by Sillery.
‘You’ve met everybody, Sillers. They’ll be read as the most notable chronicle of our time.’
Sillery made no attempt to deny that judgment. He screwed up his eyes, laughed a great deal, blew out his moustache. Miss Leintwardine took up the exercise books from the table. She glanced through them with cold professional competence.
‘That’s better, Sillers. These are the ones. I’d better bear them away with me.’
She rose from the chair, smiling, friendly, about to leave. Sillery held up his right hand, as if to swear a solemn oath.
‘Stay, Ada. Stay and talk with us a while. You must meet people younger than myself sometimes, eligible bachelors like Mr Short. By the way, these gentlemen are contemporaries of another friend of ours, Mark Members, whom you talked of when he was up the other day lecturing on whatever it was. He’s left the Ministry of Information now.’
‘Kleist, Marx, Sartre, the Existentialist Equilibrium.’