The Kindly Ones, Page 2Anthony Powell
Looking back, I take Bracey to have been younger than Albert, although, at Stonehurst, a large moustache and face shiny with frenzied scrubbing and shaving made Bracey seem the more time-worn. Unmarried, he was one of those old-fashioned regular soldiers with little or no education – scarcely able to read or write, and on that account debarred from promotion – whose years of spotless turn-out and absolute reliability in minor matters had won him a certain status, indeed, wide indulgence where his own idiosyncrasies were concerned. These idiosyncrasies could be fairly troublesome at times. Bracey was the victim of melancholia. No one seemed to know the precise origin of this affliction: some early emotional mishap; heredity; self-love allowed to get out of hand – any of these could have caused his condition. He came of a large family, greatly dispersed, most of them earning a respectable living; although I once heard Edith and Billson muttering together about a sister of Bracey’s said to have been found drowned in the Thames estuary. One brother was a bricklayer in Cardiff; another, a cabman in Liverpool. Bracey liked neither of these brothers. He told me that himself. He greatly preferred the sister-in-law at Luton, who was, I think, a widow. That was why he spent his leave there.
Bracey’s periodic vexation of spirit took the form of his ‘funny days’. Sometimes he would have a ‘funny day’ when on duty in the house. These always caused dismay. A ‘funny day’ in barracks, however trying to his comrades, could not have been equally provoking in that less intimate, more spacious accommodation. Perhaps Bracey had decided to become an officer’s servant in order that his ‘funny days’ should enjoy their full force. On one of these occasions at Stonehurst, he would sit on a kitchen chair, facing the wall, speaking to no one, motionless as a man fallen into a state of catalepsy. This would take place, of course, only after he had completed all work deputed to him, since he was by nature unyieldingly industrious. The burden of his melancholy was visited on his colleagues, rather than my parents, who had to put up with no more than a general air of incurable glumness diffused about the house, concentrated only whenever Bracey himself was addressed by one or other of them. My father would sometimes rebel against this aggressive, even contagious, depression – to which he was himself no stranger – and then there would be a row. That was rare. In the kitchen, on the other hand, they had to bear with Bracey. On such occasions, when mealtimes approached, Bracey would be asked, usually by Billson, if he wanted anything to eat. There would be silence. Bracey would not turn his head.
‘Albert has made an Irish stew,’ Billson – as reported by Edith – might say. ‘It’s a nice stew. Won’t you have a taste, Private Bracey?’
At first Bracey would not answer. Billson might then repeat the question, together with an inquiry as to whether Bracey would accept a helping of the stew, or whatever other dish was available, from her own hand. This ritual might continue for several minutes, Billson giggling, though with increased nervousness, because of the personal element involved in Bracey’s sadness. This was the fact that he was known to be ‘sweet on’ Billson herself, who refused to accept him as a suitor. Flattered by Bracey’s attentions, she was probably alarmed at the same time by his melancholic fits, especially since her own temperament was a nervous one. In any case, she was always very self-conscious about ‘men’.
‘I’ll have it, if it is my right,’ Bracey would at last answer in a voice not much above a whisper.
‘Shall I help you to a plate then, Private Bracey?’
‘If it’s my right, I’ll have a plate.’
‘Then I’ll give you some stew?’
‘If it’s my right.’
‘Only if it’s my right.’
So long as the ‘funny day’ lasted, Bracey would commit himself to no more gracious acknowledgment than those words, spoken as if reiterating some charm or magical formula. No wonder the kitchen was disturbed. Behaviour of this sort was very different from Albert’s sardonic, worldly dissatisfaction with life, his chronic complaint of persecution at the hands of women.
‘I haven’t had one of my funny days for a long time,’
Bracey, pondering his own condition, would sometimes remark.
There was usually another ‘funny day’ pretty soon after self-examination had revealed that fact. Indeed, the observation in itself could be regarded as a very positive warning that a ‘funny day’ was on the way. He was a great favourite with my father, who may have recognised in Bracey some of his own uncalm, incurious nature. From time to time, as I have said, there was an explosion: dire occasions when Bracey would be ordered back to the regiment at twenty-four hours’ notice, usually after a succession of ‘funny days’ had made kitchen society so unendurable that life in the world at large had also become seriously contaminated with nervous strain. In the end, he was always forgiven. Afterwards, for several weeks, every object upon which a lustre could possibly be imposed that fell into Bracey’s hands would be burnished brighter than ever before, reduced almost to nothingness by energetic scouring.
‘Good old Bracey,’ my father would say. ‘He has his faults, of course, but he does know the meaning of elbow-grease. I’ve never met a man who could make top-boots shine like Bracey. They positively glitter.’
‘I’m sure he would do anything for you,’ my mother would say.
She held her own, never voiced, less enthusiastic, views on Bracey.
‘He worships you,’ she would add.
‘Of course not.’
‘I say he does.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
This apparently contrary opinion of my father’s – the sequence of the sentences never varied – conveyed no strong sense of disagreement with the opinion my mother had expressed. Indeed, she probably put the case pretty justly. Bracey certainly had a high regard for my father. Verbal description of everything, however, must remain infinitely distant from the thing itself, overstatement and understatement sometimes hitting off the truth better than a flat assertion of bare fact. Bearing in mind, therefore, the all but hopeless task of attempting to express accurately the devious involutions of human character and emotions, you might equally have said with some authenticity that Billson was loved by Bracey, while Billson herself loved Albert. Albert, for his part, possessed that touch of narcissism to be found in some artists whatever their medium – for Albert was certainly an artist in cooking-and apparently loved no one but himself. To make these clumsy statements about an immensely tenuous complex of relationships without hedging them in with every kind of limitation of meaning would be to give a very wrong impression of the kitchen at Stonehurst. At the same time, the situation must basically have resolved itself to something very like these uncompromising terms: a triangular connexion which, by its own awful, eternal infelicity, could almost be regarded by those most concerned as absolutely in the nature of things. Its implications confirmed, so to speak, their worst fears, the individual inner repinings of those three, Billson, Bracey and Albert: Albert believing, with some excuse, that ‘the women were after him again’; Bracey, in his own unrequited affections, finding excuse for additional ‘funny days’; Billson, in Albert’s indifference and Bracey’s aspirations, establishing corroboration of her burning, her undying, contempt for men and their lamentable goings-on.
‘Just like a man,’ Billson used to say, in her simile for human behaviour at its lowest, most despicable.
In spite of her rapid accumulation of experience, both emotional and supernatural, while living at Stonehurst, Billson had not been with us long, two or three months perhaps. Like Albert, she must have been in her late thirties, though my mother used to say Billson looked ‘very young for her age’. Like Bracey, Billson, too, came of a large family, to whom, unlike Bracey, she was devoted. She talked without end about her relations, who lived, most of them, in Suffolk. Billson was fond of telling Edith that her people ‘thought a lot of themselves’. Fair, not bad-looking, there was something ag
eless about Billson. Even as a child, I was aware of that. She had been employed at a number of ‘good’ houses in London: the only reason, so Albert used to imply, why he was himself so indulgent of her vagaries. A ‘disappointment’ – said to have been a butler – was known to have upset her in early life, made her ‘nervy’, too much inclined to worry about her health. One of the many doctors consulted at one time or another had advised a ‘situation’ in the country, where, so the physician told her, she would be less subject to periodical attacks of nausea, feelings of faintness. London air, Billson often used to complain, did not suit her. This condition of poorish health, especially her ‘nerves’, explained Billson’s presence at Stonehurst, where maids of her experience were hard to acquire.
Behind her back (with reference to the supposed poverty of intellectual resource to be found in the county of her origin), Albert used to call Billson ‘Silly Suffolk’, and complain of her clumsiness, which was certainly notable. To her face, he was more respectful, not, I think, from chivalrous feelings, but because he feared too much badinage on his own part might be turned against himself, offering Billson indirect means of increasing their intimacy. Billson, in spite – perhaps because – of her often expressed disdain for men (even with Albert her love took a distinctly derisive shape), rated high her own capacity for raising desire in them. She would never, for example, mount a step-ladder (for some such purpose as to re-hang the drawing-room curtains) if my father, Albert or Bracey happened to be in the room. She always took care to explain afterwards that modesty – risk of exposing to a male eye even a minute area of female leg – was her reason for avoiding this physical elevation. I never learnt the precise form taken by her ‘chasing after’ Albert, about which even Edith – on the whole pretty discreet – was at times prepared to joke, nor, for that matter, the method – equally accepted by Edith – by which Bracey courted Billson. Bracey, it is true, would sometimes offer to clean the silver for her, a job he certainly performed better than she did. It was also true that Billson would sometimes tease Albert by subjecting him to her invariable, her all-embracing pessimism. She could also, of course, show pessimism about Bracey’s affairs, but in a far less interested tone.
‘Pity it’s going to rain now your afternoon off’s come round, Albert,’ she would say. ‘Not that you can want to go into Aldershot much after losing the money on that horse. Why, you must be stony broke. If you’re not quick you’ll miss the carrier again.’
To Bracey she would be more formal.
‘I expect you’ll have to go on one of those route-marches, Private Bracey, now the hot weather’s come on.’
Billson would upset Albert fairly regularly every few weeks by her fearful forebodings of ill. Once, when she saw the local constable plodding up the drive, she had rushed into the kitchen in a state of uncontrolled agitation.
‘Albert!’ she had cried, ‘what have you done? There’s a policeman coming to the door.’
Albert, as I have said, was easily frightened himself. On this occasion, so Edith reported, he ‘went as white as a sheet’. It was a relief to everyone when the subject of inquiry turned out to be nothing worse than a dog-licence. I did not, of course, know all these things at the time, certainly not the relative strength of the emotions imprisoned under the surface of passing events at Stonehurst. Even now, much remains conjectural. Edith and I, naturally, enjoyed a rather separate existence, segregated within the confines of night- and day-nursery. There was also, to take up one’s time, Miss Orchard, who – teaching all children of the neighbourhood – visited the house regularly. Edith, reasonably enough, felt the boundaries of her own domain were not to be too far exceeded by intrusion on my part into kitchen routine; while Miss Orchard’s ‘lessons’ occupied important expanses of the day. All the same, I did not propose to allow myself to be excluded utterly from a society in which life was lived with such intensity. Edith used to suffer from terrible ‘sick headaches’ every three or four weeks (not unlike Billson’s bouts of nausea), and from what she herself called ‘small aches and pains few people die of’, so that, with Edith laid low in this manner, my parents away from home, Miss Orchard teaching elsewhere, the veil would be lifted for a short space from many things usually hidden. As a child you are in some ways more acutely aware of what people feel about one another than you are when childhood has come to an end.
For that reason, I always suspected that Billson would – to use her favourite phrase – ‘get her own back’ on Albert for calling her ‘Silly Suffolk’, even though I was at the same time unaware, of course, that her aggressiveness had its roots in love. Indeed, so far was I from guessing the true situation that, with some idea of arranging the world, as then known to me, in a neat pattern, I once suggested to Billson that she should marry Bracey. She laughed so heartily (like the maid damping the Insurance stamp on Mr Lloyd George’s tongue) at this certainly very presumptuous suggestion, while assuring me with such absolute candour of her own determination to remain for ever single, that – not for the last time within similar terms of reference – I was completely taken in.
‘Anyway,’ said Billson, ‘I wouldn’t have a soldier. None of my family would ever look at a soldier. Why, they’d disown me.’
This absolute disallowance of the profession of arms as the calling of a potential husband could not have been more explicitly expressed. Indeed, Billson’s words on that occasion gave substantial grounds for the defiant shape taken by Bracey’s bouts of gloom. There was good reason to feel depression if this was what women felt about his situation. A parallel prejudice against even military companionship, much less marriage, was shared by Edith.
‘Nice girls don’t walk out with soldiers,’ she said.
‘Who says not?’
‘Everybody says not.’
‘But why not?’
‘Not even the Life Guards?’
‘Nor the Blues?’
‘Tommies are all the same.’
That seemed to settle matters finally so far as Bracey was concerned. There appeared to be no hope. There was Mercy, the housemaid, but even my own reckless projects for adjusting everyone else’s personal affairs according to my whim did not include such a fate for Bracey. I could see that was not a rational proposition. In fact, it was out of the question. There were several reasons. In the first place, Mercy herself played little or no part in the complex of personalities who inhabited the Stonehurst kitchen – no emotional part, at least. Certainly Mercy herself had no desire to do so. She was a quite young girl from one of the villages in the neighbourhood, found for my mother by Mrs Gullick. Together with her parents, Mercy belonged to a local religious sect, so small that it embraced only about twenty individuals, all related to one another.
‘They don’t believe anyone else is going to Heaven,’ Edith said of this communion.
‘No one at all?’
‘Not a single soul.’
‘They say they’re the only ones saved.’
‘Call themselves the Elect.’
‘They aren’t the only people going to Heaven.’
‘I should just about think not.’
‘They are silly to say that.’
‘Silly, no error.’
Billson went still further than Edith on the same theological issue.
‘That girl won’t be saved herself,’ she said. ‘Not if she goes about repeating such things of her neighbours. God won’t want her.’
The positivist character of Mercy’s religious beliefs, more especially in relation to the categorical damnation of the rest of mankind, was expressed outwardly in a taciturn demeanour, defined by Edith as ‘downright disobliging’, her creed no doubt discouraging frivolous graces of manner. In personal appearance, she was equally severe, almost deliberately unprepossessing.
‘Her face will never
be her fortune,’ Albert once remarked, when Mercy had left the kitchen in a huff after some difference about washing up.
Even Bracey, with all his unvoiced disapproval of Albert, was forced to laugh at the wit, the aptness of this observation. Bracey was, in any case, cheerful enough between his ‘funny days’. If his spirits, at the lowest, were very low indeed, they also rose, at other moments, to heights never attained by Albert’s. On such occasions, when he felt all comparatively well with the world, Bracey would softly hum under his breath:
‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,
May be merry and bright.
But I’m going to be married on Sunday;
Oh, I wish it was Sunday night.’
Earlier in the year, during one of these bursts of cheerfulness, Bracey had offered to take me to see a football match. This was an unexpected, a highly acceptable invitation. It always seemed to me a matter of complaint that, although my father was a soldier, we saw at Stonehurst, in practice, little or nothing of the army, that is to say, the army as such. We lived on this distant hilltop, miles away from the daily activities of troops, who were to be sighted only very occasionally on some local exercise to which summer manoeuvres had fortunately brought them. Even so much as the solitary outline of a Military Policeman was rare, jogging his horse across the heather, a heavy brushstroke of dark blue, surmounted by a tiny blob of crimson, moving in the sun through a Vuillard landscape of pinkish greys streaked with yellow and silver. I had mentioned to Bracey the sight of one of these lonely riders. He showed no warmth.