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Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, Page 2

Anthony Powell

  Although it was by then many years since he had set brush to canvas, and in spite of his equal disdain for all manifestations of ‘modern art’, Mr Deacon never tired of expressing contempt for Academicians and their works.

  ‘Are cinemas worse than haunting taverns on your part?’

  ‘A just rebuke,’ said Mr Deacon, delighted at this duplication of his own sententious tone, ‘infinitely just. But, you see, I have come here to transact a little business. Not only to meet les jeunes. True, I would much rather be forwarding the cause of international disarmament tonight by selling War Never Pays! outside the Albert Hall, but we must all earn our bread and butter. My poor little broadsheet would bring in nothing to me personally. Just a penny for a noble cause. For my goods I have to make a charge. You seem to forget, Nicholas, that I am just a poor antiquaire these days.’

  Mr Deacon spoke this last sentence rather unctuously. Inclined to mark his prices high, he was thought to make at least a respectable livelihood from his wares. The fact that a certain air of transgression still attached to his past added attraction in the eyes of some customers. It was a long time since the days when, as an artist of independent means living at Brighton, he had been acquainted with my parents; days before that unfortunate incident in Battersea

  Park had led to Mr Deacon’s prolonged residence abroad. A congenital taste for Greco-Roman themes, which had once found expression in his own paintings, now took the form of a pronounced weakness for buying up statuettes and medallions depicting gods and heroes of classical times. These objects, not always easily saleable, cluttered the shop, the fashion for such ornaments as an adjunct to Empire or Regency furniture having by then scarcely begun. Occasionally he would find on his hands some work of art too pagan in its acceptance of sexual licence to be openly displayed. Such dubious items were kept, according to Barnby, in a box under Mr Deacon’s bed. In the underworld through which he now moved, business and pleasure, art and politics, life – as it turned out finally – death itself, all had become a shade disreputable where Mr Deacon was concerned. However, even in these morally reduced circumstances, he preferred to regard himself as not wholly cut off from a loftier society. He still, for example, enjoyed such triumphal contacts as the afternoon when Lady Huntercombe (wearing one of her Mrs Siddons hats) had arrived unexpectedly on his doorstep; after an hour bearing away with her an inlaid tea-caddy in Tunbridge-ware, for which, in spite of creditable haggling on her own part, she had been made to pay almost as much as if purchased in Bond Street. She had promised to return – in a phrase Mr Deacon loved to repeat – ‘When my ship comes in.’

  ‘Ridiculous woman,’ he used to say delightedly, ‘as if we did not all know that the Huntercombes are as rich as Crœsus.’

  One of the persons surrounding Mr Deacon at the table in the Mortimer, a young man muffled to the ears in a manner which gave him the appearance of a taxi-driver wearing several overcoats, now broke off the energetic conversation he had been carrying on with his neighbour, a fattish person in gold-rimmed spectacles, and tapped Mr Deacon lightly on the arm with a rolled-up newspaper.

  ‘I should certainly not go near the Albert Hall if I were you, Edgar,’ he said. ‘It would be too great a risk. Someone might seize you and compel you to listen to Brahms. In fact, after the way you have been talking this evening, you would probably yield to temptation and enter of your own free will. I would not trust you an inch where Brahms is concerned, Edgar. Not an inch.’

  Letting go his glass, Mr Deacon lifted a gnarled hand dramatically, at the same time crooking one of his heavily jointed fingers.

  ‘Moreland,’ he said, ‘I wish to hear no more of your youthful prejudices – certainly no more of your sentiments regarding the orchestration of the Second Piano Concerto.’

  The young man began to laugh derisively. Although giving this impression of wearing several overcoats, he was in fact dressed only in one, a threadbare, badly stained garment, from the pockets of which protruded several more newspapers in addition to that with which he had demanded Mr Deacon’s attention.

  ‘As I was remarking, Nicholas,’ said Mr Deacon, turning once more in my own direction and giving at the same time a smile to express tolerance for youthful extremism of whatever colour, ‘I have come to this gin palace primarily to inspect an object of virtu – a classical group in some unspecified material, to be precise. I shall buy it, if its beauty satisfies me. Truth Unveiled by Time – in the Villa Borghese, you remember. I must say in the original marble Bernini has made the wench look as unpalatable as the heartless quality she represents. A reproduction of this work was found at the Caledonian Market by a young person with whom I possess a slight acquaintance. He thought I might profitably dispose of same on his behalf.’

  ‘I hope the young person is an object of virtue himself,’ said Moreland. ‘I presume the sex is masculine. We don’t want anything in the nature of Youth, rather than Truth, being unveiled by Time. Can we trust you, Edgar?’

  Mr Deacon gave one of his deep, rather stagy chuckles. He lightly twitched his shoulders.

  ‘Nothing could be more proper than my relationship with this young gentleman,’ he said. ‘I met his mother in the summer when we were both reinvigorating ourselves at the same vegetarian communal holiday – she, I think, primarily as a measure of economy rather than on account of any deeply felt anti-carnivorous convictions on her own part. A most agreeable, sensible woman I found her, quite devoted to her boy. She reminded me in some ways of my own dear Mama, laid to rest in Kensal Green this many a long year. Her lad turned up to meet her at Paddington when we travelled back together. That was how he and I first came to know one another. Does that satisfy your rapacious taste for scandal, Moreland? I hope so.’

  Mr Deacon spoke archly, rather than angrily. It was clear from his manner that he liked, even admired Moreland, from whom he seemed prepared to accept more teasing than he would ever have allowed to most of his circle.

  ‘Anyway, the lad was not here when I arrived,’ he went on, briskly turning once more towards myself, ‘so I joined this little party of music-makers sitting by their desolate stream. I have been having some musical differences with Moreland here who becomes very dictatorial about his subject. I expect you know each other already. What? No? Then I must introduce you. This is Mr Jenkins – Mr Moreland, Mr Gossage, Mr Maclintick, Mr Carolo.’

  The revolutionary bent of his political opinions had never modified the formality of Mr Deacon’s manners. His companions, on the other hand, with the exception of Gossage who gave a smirk, displayed no outward mark of conventional politeness. In fact none of the rest of them showed the smallest wish to meet anyone outside their own apparently charmed circle. All the same, I immediately liked something about Hugh Moreland. Although I had never seen him in Mr Deacon’s shop, nor in Barnby’s studio, I knew of him already as a figure of some standing in the musical world: composer: conductor: pianist: I was uncertain of his precise activities. Barnby, talking about Moreland, had spoken of incidental music for a semi-private venture (a film version of Lysistrata made in France) which Sir Magnus Donners had backed. Since music holds for me none of that hard, cold-blooded, almost mathematical pleasure I take in writing and painting, I could only guess roughly where Moreland’s work – enthusiastically received in some circles, heartily disliked in others – stood in relation to the other arts. In those days I had met no professional musicians. Later, when I ran across plenty of these through Moreland himself, I began to notice their special peculiarities, moral and physical. Several representative musical types were present, as it happened, that evening in addition to Moreland himself, Maclintick and Gossage being music critics, Carolo a violinist.

  Only since knowing Barnby had I begun to frequent such society as was collected that night in the Mortimer, which, although it soon enough absorbed me, still at that time represented a world of high adventure. The hiatus between coming down from the university and finding a place for myself in London had comprised, with some b
right spots, an eternity of boredom. I used to go out with unexciting former undergraduate acquaintances like Short (now a civil servant); less often with more dashing, if by then more remote, people like Peter Templer. Another friend, Charles Stringham, had recently risen from the earth to take me to Mrs Andriadis’s party, only to disappear again; but that night had nevertheless opened the road that led ultimately to the Mortimer: as Mr Deacon used to say of Barnby’s social activities, ‘the pilgrimage from the sawdust floor to the Aubusson carpet and back again’. At the time, of course, none of this took shape in my mind; no pattern was apparent of the kind eventually to emerge.

  Moreland, like myself, was then in his early twenties. He was formed physically in a ‘musical’ mould, classical in type, with a massive, Beethoven-shaped head, high forehead, temples swelling outwards, eyes and nose somehow bunched together in a way to make him glare at times like a High Court judge about to pass sentence. On the other hand, his short, dark, curly hair recalled a dissipated cherub, a less aggressive, more intellectual version of Folly in Bronzino’s picture, rubicund and mischievous, as he threatens with a fusillade of rose petals the embrace of Venus and Cupid; while Time in the background, whiskered like the Emperor Franz-Josef, looms behind a blue curtain as if evasively vacating the bathroom. Moreland’s face in repose, in spite of this cherubic, humorous character, was not without melancholy too; his flush suggesting none of that riotously healthy physique enjoyed by Bronzino’s – and, I suppose, everyone else’s – Folly. Moreland had at first taken little notice of Mr Deacon’s introduction; now he suddenly caught my eye, and, laughing loudly, slapped the folded newspaper sharply on the table.

  ‘Tell us more about your young friend, Edgar,’ he said, still laughing and looking across at me. ‘What does he do for a living? Are we to understand that he wholly supports himself by finding junk at the Caledonian Market and vending it to connoisseurs of beauty like yourself?’

  ‘He has stage connexions, Moreland, since you are so inquisitive,’ said Mr Deacon, still speaking with accentuated primness. ‘He was trained to dance – as he quaintly puts it – “in panto”. Drury Lane was the peg upon which he hung his dreams. Now he dares to nourish wider ambitions. I am told, by the way, that the good old-fashioned harlequinade which I used so much to enjoy as a small boy has become a thing of the past. This lad would have made a charming Harlequin. Another theatrical friend of mine – rather a naughty young man – knows this child and thinks highly of his talent.’

  ‘Why is your other friend naughty?’

  ‘You ask too many questions, Moreland.’

  ‘But I am intrigued to know, Edgar. We all are.’

  ‘I call him naughty for many reasons,’ said Mr Deacon, giving a long-drawn sigh, ‘not the least of them because some years ago at a party he introduced me to an Italian, a youth whose sole claim to distinction was his alleged profession of gondolier, who turned out merely to have worked for a short time as ticket-collector on the vaporetto. A delightfully witty pleasantry, no doubt.’

  There was some laughter at this anecdote, in which Maclintick did not join. Indeed, Maclintick had been listening to the course of conversation with unconcealed distaste. It was clear that he approved neither of Mr Deacon himself, nor of the suggestions implicit in Moreland’s badinage. Like Moreland, Maclintick belonged to the solidly built musical type, a physical heaviness already threatening obesity in early middle age. Broad-shouldered, yet somehow narrowing towards his lower extremities, his frontal elevation gave the impression of a large triangular kite about to float away into the sky upon the fumes of Irish whiskey, which, even above the endemic odours of the Mortimer and the superimposed insistence of Mr Deacon’s eucalyptus, freely emanated from the quarter in which he sat. Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance, although shabby, seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations.

  The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing upon him the air of a bad-tempered doctor. Maclintick, as I discovered in due course, was indeed bad-tempered, his manner habitually grumpy and disapproving, even with Moreland, to whom he was devoted; a congenital lack of amiability he appeared perpetually, though quite unsuccessfully, attempting to combat with copious draughts of Irish whiskey, a drink always lauded by him to the disadvantage of Scotch.

  ‘I should be careful what you handle from the Caledonian Market, Deacon,’ Maclintick said, ‘I’m told stolen goods often drift up there. I don’t expect you want a stiff sentence for receiving.’

  He spoke for the first time since I had been sitting at the table, uttering the words in a high, caustic voice.

  ‘Nonsense, Maclintick, nonsense,’ said Mr Deacon shortly.

  His tone made obvious that any dislike felt by Maclintick for himself – a sentiment not much concealed – was on his own side heartily reciprocated.

  ‘Are you suggesting our friend Deacon is really a “fence”?’ asked Gossage giggling, as if coy to admit knowledge of even this comparatively unexotic piece of thieves’ jargon. ‘I am sure he is nothing of the sort. Why, would you have us take him for a kind of modern Fagin?’

  ‘I wouldn’t go as far as that,’ said Maclintick speaking more amicably this time, probably not wanting to exacerbate Mr Deacon beyond a certain point. ‘Just warning him to take proper care of his reputation which I should not like to see tarnished.’

  He smiled a little uneasily at Moreland to show this attack on Mr Deacon (which the victim seemed rather to enjoy) was not intended to include Moreland. I learnt later how much Moreland was the object of admiration, almost of reverence, on the part of Maclintick. This high regard was not only what Maclintick himself – on that rather dreadful subsequent occasion – called ‘the proper respect of the poor interpretative hack for the true creative artist’, but also because of an affection for Moreland as a friend that surpassed ordinary camaraderie, becoming something protective, almost maternal, if that word could be used of someone who looked like Maclintick. Indeed, under his splenetic exterior Maclintick harboured all kind of violent, imperfectly integrated sentiments. Moreland, for example, impressed him, perhaps rightly, as a young man of matchless talent, ill equipped to face a materialistic world. At the same time, Maclintick’s own hag-ridden temperament also punished him for indulging in what he regarded as sentimentality. His tremendous disapproval of sexual inversion, encountered intermittently in circles he chose to frequent, was compensation for his own sense of guilt at this hero-worshipping of Moreland; his severity with Gossage, another effort to right the balance.

  ‘It’s nice when you meet someone fresh like that once in a while,’ said Gossage.

  He was a lean, toothy little man, belonging to another common musical type, whose jerky movements gave him no rest. He toyed nervously with his bow tie, pince-nez and moustache, the last of which carried little conviction of masculinity. Gossage’s voice was like that of a ventriloquist’s doll. He giggled nervously, no doubt fearing Maclintick’s castigation of such a remark.

  ‘Personal charm,’ said Mr Deacon trenchantly, ‘has unfortunately no connexion with personal altruism. However, I fully expect to be made to wait at my age. Lateness is one of the punishments justly visited by youth upon those who have committed the atrocious crime of coming to riper years. Besides, quite apart from this moral and æsthetic justification, none of the younger generation seem to know the meaning of punctuality even when the practice of that cardinal virtue is in their own interests.’

  All this time Carolo, the last member of the party to be introduced, had not opened his mouth. He sat in front of a mixed vermouth with an air of slighted genius. I thought, that evening, Carolo was about the same age as Moreland and myself, but found afterwards he was older than he appeared. His youthful aspect was perhaps in part legacy of his years as a child prodigy.

  ‘Carolo’s real name is Wilson or Wilkinson or Parker,’ Moreland told me later, ‘something rat
her practical and healthy like that. A surname felt to ring too much of plain common sense. Almost the first public performance of music I remember being taken to by my aunt was to hear Carolo play at the Wigmore Hall. I never thought then that one of these days Carolo and I would rub shoulders in the Mortimer.’

  Carolo’s face was pale and drawn, his black hair arranged in delicate waves, this consciously ‘romantic’ appearance and demeanour altogether misrepresenting his character, which was, according to Moreland, far from imaginative.

  ‘Carolo is only interested in making money,’ Moreland said, ‘and who shall blame him? Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem much good at getting it these days. He also likes the girls a bit.’

  Daydreams of wealth or women must have given Carolo that faraway look which never left him; sad and silent, he contemplated huge bank balances and voluptuous revels.

  ‘Why, there is my young friend,’ said Mr Deacon, rising to his feet. ‘If you will forgive me, Nicholas … Moreland … and the rest of you …’

  On the whole Mr Deacon was inclined to conceal from his acquaintances such minor indiscretions in which he might still, in this his later life, indulge. He seemed to regret having allowed himself to give the impression that one of his ‘petites folies’, as he liked to term them, was on foot that night. The temptation to present matters by implication in such a light had been too much for his vanity. Now, too late, he tried to be more guarded, striding forward hastily and blocking the immediate advance of the young man who had just entered the Mortimer, carrying in his arms, as if it were a baby, a large brown paper parcel.

  ‘Why,’ said Moreland, ‘after all that, Edgar’s mysterious friend turns out to be Norman. Did you ever hear such a thing?’

  By suddenly sidestepping with an artificial elegance of movement, the young man bearing the parcel avoided Mr Deacon’s attempt to exclude him from our company, and approached the table. He was lightly built, so thin that scarcely any torso seemed to exist under his coat. It was easy to see why Mr Deacon had assigned him the role of Harlequin. Sad-eyed and pert, he was an urchin with good looks of that curiously puppet-like formation which designate certain individuals as actors or dancers; anonymity of feature and flexibility of body fitting them from birth to play an assumed part.