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At Lady Molly's: A Novel, Page 3

Anthony Powell

  At this point I became suddenly aware that at least one of the guests present was already well known to me. This was my family’s old friend, Mrs. Conyers. Although I had not seen her at all recently, we had met from time to time—usually at intervals of several years—since the distant day when I had been taken to her flat and shown the scimitar. The last occasion had been the wedding of her daughter, Charlotte, to the lieutenant-commander. Evidently Mrs. Conyers had been dining with the Jeavonses. However, it appeared that she did not know them well, and, perhaps not greatly at ease in their society, she was clearly much relieved at finding, in myself, someone she knew of old. I was not sure that I myself was equally pleased, for, although I liked Mrs. Conyers well enough, I thought it preferable to explore new ground like the Jeavons house unobserved by old friends of my parents. However, nothing could have been less admonitory than Mrs. Conyers’s manner towards myself; if admonition properly defines the attitude threatened, when one is young, by the presence of old family friends.

  In appearance Mrs. Conyers retained, no doubt from her childhood, the harassed, uncertain expression of those who have for many years had to endure close association with persons addicted to practical joking. Like the rest of her sisters, she must have suffered in no small degree from her father’s love of horse-play. One of six daughters, she had been regarded as ‘on the shelf’ by her parents when the General proposed to her. She herself had probably abandoned thought of marriage, because she was by then devoting most of her time to attending an elderly, intractable relation, Sybil, Lady Amesbury, whose memoirs 1 mentioned earlier. One of her father’s exploits had been recorded in this book, the occasion when Lord Vowchurch, in his younger days, had loosed half a dozen monkeys wearing tail-coats and white ties at an ambassadorial ball: a casual relic of innumerable similar anecdotes that have passed into oblivion.

  Although never exactly handsome, Mrs. Conyers was not without a look of sad distinction. In public she deferred to her husband, but she was known to possess a will of her own, displayed in that foxy, almost rodent-like cast of feature, which, resembling her sister’s in its keenness, was not disagreeable. It was said that she had entirely reorganised the General’s life after he had left the army; and much for the better. When I went across the room to speak with her, she raised her eyebrows slightly to indicate, if not precise disapproval, at least a secret signal that she felt herself not altogether at home. The message read that she required any support she could get.

  Lovell had made for a red-faced, grey-moustached, elderly man, who seemed, like Mrs. Conyers, to have been a member of the dinner-party. This person possessed a curiously old-world air, suggesting an epoch considerably more remote than the war-time span conveyed by his host’s outward appearance. Although not so old, he seemed to belong more, at least in spirit, to the vintage of General Conyers. I caught the words ‘Uncle Alfred’. Lovell called so many men uncle that one could not be sure how closely related to him, if at all, any of them might be. This uncle acknowledged Lovell’s greeting fairly curtly. There was something familiar about that red face, white moustache and muffled, uneasy manner. Then I realised that he was Tolland, that lonely, derelict character accustomed to frequent the annual Old Boy dinner of Le Bas’s house. In fact, I had myself once sat next to Tolland at one of those functions: an occasion when I had made up my mind never to attend another.

  It was a surprise to find Mrs. Conyers and Tolland here, but there was no reason why they should not both be friends of Lady Molly Jeavons. Mrs. Conyers was now engaged by her hostess, and led up to a swarthy young man, also wearing a dinner-jacket, who was standing by the gramophone turning over the pages of a book of records. They all began to talk French together. At that moment my eye caught Tolland’s. He stared back, not without a certain apprehension in his look. Then he cleared his throat and advanced towards me.

  ‘I didn’t see you at the Le Bas dinner this year,’ he said.

  He spoke with reproach, as if to mention such a breach of faith was an embarrassing duty his conscience laid upon him. In these surroundings, evidently his own ground, I felt less ability to cope with his peculiarities than at the Le Bas dinners. It seemed better to conceal the decision never to attend another one.

  ‘I didn’t manage to get there.’

  ‘It went off all right,’ said Tolland slowly, as if ghastly failure had been a matter of touch and go. ‘I always accept when the card comes round. It makes a pleasant evening. Got to keep in touch. Of course Le Bas always says that in his speech.’

  Molly Jeavons, after talking for a minute or two with Mrs. Conyers and the young man with the black moustache, now rejoined Tolland and myself.

  ‘I couldn’t keep it up any longer,’ she said. ‘French is too exhausting. My governess said I was the worst pupil she’d ever had at the irregular verbs. All the same, I wanted to hear if there was anything new about Theodoric.’

  She pointed her finger at me.

  ‘Is he another of your relations, Alfred?’ she asked.

  Her tone suggested that potential relationship with Tolland might explain everything: why I had come to the house: why I looked as I did: why we were talking together. I attempted to reduce my appearance to something as negative as possible, so that no one might be unduly committed by the enquiry, which had thrown Tolland into an appalling access of embarrassment.

  ‘Really, I believe you have more relations than I have myself,’ she went on. ‘My grandfather had ninety-seven first cousins, and he was only three up on my grandmother on my mother’s side.’

  ‘No—no—no,’ said Tolland, hurriedly. ‘At least I don’t think we are, are we? Never know—perhaps I oughtn’t to have been so definite—quite on the cards, I suppose, as a matter of fact. Shouldn’t speak hastily about such things. Certainly got a lot of ’em. Some people might think too many, as you say, Molly. No—no—no. Perhaps you can tell better than me. Are we related? No? Thought not. Always try to keep track of ’em. Hard to manage sometimes. Go abroad and get married and get divorced and into debt, glad to see the back of ’em sometimes. But where you and I meet is at the Le Bas dinner. That’s where we meet.’

  He gasped a bit after all this, as if not only breathless from speaking at such length, but also overcome with confusion at the predicament into which he had been thrown by the question. Yet, even in spite of this floundering, he seemed to feel himself on much surer ground in this house than at our previous meetings. He might be temporarily at a disadvantage here with his hostess, even on guard against attack from her (a minute or two later I found he had good reason to fear that), but at least his credentials were known and freely accepted in the Jeavons drawing-room. I was by no means sure that I felt myself equally at ease. The atmosphere of the house was not exactly restful. The other persons who made up the party were nondescript enough, but there was also the feeling that one had penetrated the outskirts of a secret society. Mrs. Conyers had seemed as subject as myself to this sense of disquiet. Perhaps it was merely that she had passed on to me her own agitation; for I was sure she was agitated about something. Lovell had certainly tried to prepare me for an unusual household, but to absorb such antecedent descriptions is never easy. Molly Jeavons’s noisy, absolutely unrestrained directness of manner was of a kind that suggested both simplicity of nature and certainty of her own position: both characteristics that can stimulate that streak of social cruelty that few lack. There could be no doubt that Tolland was showing signs of preparing himself for some onslaught. The reason for his fears soon became apparent.

  ‘I didn’t know you ever met anyone but your own relations, Alfred,’ she said, evidently determined to pursue that subject. ‘You always pretend to me that you never go anywhere. I only got you here tonight because you wanted to hear from her own lips Mrs. Conyers’s story about the Empress Frederick. I believe your quiet evenings at home are all make-believe and that you live a disgracefully fast life—the gayest of gay bachelors.’

  Tolland denied this imputation emph
atically. He did not seem in the least flattered at the suggestion that he might be, so far as social life was concerned, a dark horse. He was patently without the smallest personal vanity, open or secret, on the matter of cutting a dash in life. He came at last to the end of his protests.

  ‘Alfred was talking about his family all through dinner,’ said Molly Jeavons, turning once more to me. ‘You know they are all in trouble—every blessed one of them.’

  ‘It’s too bad of you to say that, Molly. I only asked for your advice about some of my nephews and nieces.’

  Now he sounded thoroughly aggrieved, although at the same time unwilling to withdraw voluntarily from a conversation devoted to his relations.

  ‘What’s the matter with the Tollands this time, Aunt Molly?’ asked Lovell.

  He had been making a tour of the room, ending with our group.

  ‘Oh, it’s Erridge again,’ she said.

  She spoke as if the question were hardly worth asking.

  ‘What’s Erridge’s latest?’

  Lovell, for his part, spoke as one expecting to hear an enjoyable piece of gossip about a character always to be relied upon to provide a good story.

  ‘Living as a tramp,’ said Molly Jeavons. ‘So I’m told at least. Somewhere in the Midlands. Grew a beard. He has still got it, they say. I don’t think he actually slept in casual wards. The other tramps must have had an awful time if he did. As a child he used to talk in his sleep and bawl the house down with night terrors.’

  ‘Is he doing that now?’ asked Lovell. ‘Being a tramp, I mean, not bawling the house down—though I shouldn’t wonder if he doesn’t have night terrors still.’

  ‘He is back at Thrubworth. Getting cleaned up after his adventures—as much as Erry ever gets cleaned up. Smith goes back tomorrow. I am more and more coming to think that Smith is more trouble than he is worth. It’s convenient to have a manservant in the house, but I found this morning we were completely out of gin, and I know at least two inches remained in the bottle left when we went to bed last night.’

  Lovell was obviously disappointed that nothing more sensational about Erridge was to be revealed.

  ‘Feingold had some story about “a lord” who was doing “social research”,’ he said. ‘I thought it might be Erridge. I don’t expect the dumps he stopped at were any more uncomfortable than he has made Thrubworth by now. The whole place has been under dust-sheets since he succeeded, hasn’t it? Do you know Erridge, Nick? He must be about a contemporary of yours.’

  ‘He is a year or two older. I used to know him by sight. His brother, George Tolland, was nearer my age, though I didn’t know him either. But he isn’t “Erridge” any longer, is he?’

  ‘No, no, he is “Warminster” now, of course,’ said Molly Jeavons, impatiently. ‘But Alfred’s family always call their eldest son by the second title. I don’t even know what Erry’s Christian name is. Perhaps he hasn’t got one.’

  ‘Nonsense, of course he has,’ said Tolland, quite angrily. ‘His name is Alfred, like my own. You know that perfectly well, Molly. Besides, to call him “Erridge” is perfectly usual, isn’t it? In fact, off-hand, I can’t think of a single family that does differently.’

  ‘We always used to think it rather pompous,’ said Molly Jeavons. ‘I can’t imagine myself ever addressing Jumbo as “Kilkeel” when he was alive. It would sound like a racehorse.’

  ‘Well, “Jumbo” sounds like an elephant to me,’ said Tolland.

  This retort must have struck him as one of unusual subtlety, since he looked round at Lovell and myself in an appeal for applause; or at least for sympathy.

  ‘That’s just it,’ said Molly Jeavons, now speaking almost at the top of her voice. ‘My poor brother did look like an elephant. Nobody denied that, not even himself. But he did not look like a race-horse. Not one I would have put my money on, anyway.’

  ‘Bijou put her shirt on him,’ said Lovell.

  ‘Rubbish, she didn’t,’ said Molly Jeavons, beginning to laugh. ‘He put his shirt on her, you idiot—and lost it, too.’

  I remembered, then, that Tolland had spoken of ‘my nephew, Warminster’, at the Le Bas dinner where we had met; at the same time mentioning that this young man had succeeded his father some years before. Tolland had added that his nephew was ‘a funny boy’. Erridge (as it seems simplest—like his parents—to continue to call him, anyway for the time being) remained in my mind as a gloomy, cadaverous schoolboy, trudging along the road close to the wall, his hands in his pockets and a pile of books slipping from under his arm. Angular, sallow and spotty, he was usually frowning angrily to himself, weighed down with anxiety, as if all the troubles of the world rested on his shoulders. The only time I could recall seeing him in later life was, years before, at a dance given by the Huntercombes. On that occasion, Erridge had looked so hot, cross and untidy that only the fact that he was wearing a tail-coat and white tie—neither in their first freshness—prevented him from resembling, even then, a harassed young tramp. His appearance that night had certainly borne out this recent account of him. The ball at the Huntercombes’ remained always with peculiar clarity in my mind as the night Barbara Goring had poured sugar over Widmerpool’s head.

  ‘Does Erridge often do this sort of thing?’ I asked. ‘Go off on “social research”, I mean?’

  ‘Oh yes,’ said Molly Jeavons. ‘He has the oddest ideas. All your family have, haven’t they, Alfred? The whole blessed lot of them.’

  Tolland made a nervous movement with his head, as if attempting to deny the principle of the accusation while at the same time regretfully having to admit, anyway in part, some of its immediate justice.

  ‘Warminster was not like that,’ he said. ‘I’m not like that. Not in the least. Nor are Frederica and George. And I trust the younger ones will turn out different from Erridge. They all seemed all right when they were children. Ran about and made a lot of noise. Just can’t tell, I suppose. Just—can’t—tell.’

  If he expected this exhibition of philosophic resignation in some manner to appease Molly Jeavons, he was mistaken.

  ‘Certainly Frederica is not strange,’ she said, laughing uproariously at the idea. ‘Frederica is ordinary enough for anyone. Got to be in her job. Frederica is as ordinary as you like.’

  This agreement with his conclusion—the complete, the absolute ordinariness of his niece, Frederica—seemed to bring some temporary alleviation to Tolland’s feelings. He nodded several times with satisfaction. I had some vague idea as to Frederica’s identity. She had married one of the Budds, brother or cousin of a ‘beauty’ called Margaret Budd, and her husband had been killed in a hunting accident only a few years later. People had talked about his death in the days when I used to dine with the Walpole-Wilsons. I remembered Anne Stepney talking about the accident.

  As I was by then committed to this conversation about a lot of people regarding whom I knew little or nothing, I decided to take an active part by seeking further information. I asked what Frederica Budd’s job might be that required such extreme correctness of behaviour.

  ‘She is Lady-in-Waiting,’ said Molly Jeavons. ‘Or she may be an Extra Woman of the Bedchamber. Something like that. Anyway, she has to behave herself jolly well. I’m surprised you haven’t met her, if you are an old friend of Mrs. Conyers. She and Frederica are great cronies.’

  At that period, as I have said, I knew little of the Tollands, although increasingly during the past few years I had been hearing scraps of information about one or other of them, as happens when a large family, close to each other in age, begin in quick succession to appear in the world. Lovell had given some account of them at dinner. Molly Jeavons’s sister, Katherine, a childless widow, had married the late Lord Warminster as his second wife. ‘As a result,’ Lovell had said, ‘she possesses a dozen step-children.’ It turned out, in fact, that Erridge had only nine brothers and sisters. Even that number seemed preposterously large to an only child like myself. There is something overpowering, even a trif
le sinister about very large families, the individual members of which often possess in excess the characteristics commonly attributed to ‘only’ children: misanthropy: neurasthenia: an inability to adapt themselves: all the traits held to be the result of a lonely upbringing. The corporate life of large families can be lived with severity, even barbarity, of a kind unknown in smaller related communities: these savageries and distillations of egoism often rendered even less tolerable if sentimentalised outside the family circle. The Tollands, from what Lovell reported of them, sounded no exception to this prejudiced judgment.

  ‘Of course it was hard for them losing their mother—being left orphans, in fact,’ said Tolland. ‘Though of course Katherine has always done her best—been splendid, really.’

  By introducing the name of the second Lady Warminster into the conversation, he may have hoped to carry the war into the enemy’s country. By then his face was more flushed than ever. His hostess was determined to let him off nothing. I had the impression that she was teasing him, not precisely for my especial benefit, but, at the same time, that my presence as a newcomer to the house afforded a particularly favourable opportunity for the application of torments of this sort. I found later that she was indeed what is called ‘a tease’, perhaps the only outward indication that her inner life was not altogether happy; since there is no greater sign of innate misery than a love of teasing. Later, too, I understood how much that night Alfred Tolland must have been torn between a pride that made him hesitate to discuss his relations in front of a stranger, and a taste for talking about his family, too rarely satisfied in his lonely life. It was a treat to visit someone who understood the niceties of family gossip, even if Molly Jeavons required her pound of flesh by ragging him. His face, completely masculine in cast, had at the same time that air of being quite untouched by sexual passion: a look noticeable sometimes among men of his generation. Lovell explained to me later that Tolland had always had a taste for good works and had been much used by the late Lord Sleaford in connexion with his charities. He was a fine example of my friend Barnby’s observation that ‘melancholy is the curse of the upper classes’.