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A Buyer's Market, Page 3

Anthony Powell

  To these sentiments was no doubt added the self-inflicted embarrassment implicit in the paraphernalia of launching a daughter—and, if it could be remarked without unkindness, “what a daughter”—on to an obdurate world; not to mention grappling with purely hypothetical questions, such as the enigma, universally insoluble, of what other mothers would think of the manner in which she herself, as a mother, was sustaining this load of care. In this last affliction Sir Gavin’s attitude was often of no great help, and it is hard to say whether either of them really believed that Eleanor, who had always been more or less of a “problem”—there were endless stories of nose-bleeds and headaches—would ever find a husband. Eleanor had always disliked feminine pursuits. When we had met in Paris before either of us had grown up, she had told me that she would at that moment much prefer to be staying with her cousins in Oxfordshire: an attitude of mind that had culminated in detestation of dances. This resentment, since I had known her in those early days, did not seem as strange to me as to many of the young men who encountered her for the first time at the dinner-table, where she could be both abrupt and sulky. Barbara used to say: “Eleanor should never have been removed from the country. It is cruelty to animals.” She was also fond of remarking: “Eleanor is not a bad old girl when you get to know her,” a statement unquestionably true; but, since human life is lived largely at surface level, that encouraging possibility, true or false, did not appreciably lighten the burden of Eleanor’s partners.

  The Walpole-Wilsons, accordingly, provided not only the foundation, but frequently the immediate locality, also, for my association with Barbara, whom I used to meet fairly often at dances, after our walk together in the park. Sometimes we even saw a film together, or went to a matinée. That was in the summer. When she came to London for a few weeks before Christmas, we met again. By the opening of the following May I was beginning to wonder how the situation was to be resolved. Such scuffles as had, once in a way, taken place between us, on the comparatively rare occasions When we found ourselves alone together, were not exactly encouraged by her; in fact she seemed only to like an intermittent attack for the pleasure of repulsing it Certainly such aggression carried neither of us any farther. She liked ragging; but ragging—and nothing more—these rough-and-tumbles remained. “Don’t get sentimental,” she used to say; and so far as it went, avoidance of sentiment—as much as avoidance of sentimentality—appeared, on her side, a genuine inclination.

  This affair with Barbara, although taking up less than a year, seemed already to have occupied a substantial proportion of my life; because nothing establishes the timeless ness of Time like those episodes of early experience seen, on re-examination at a later period, to have been crowded together with such unbelievable closeness in the course of a few years; yet equally giving the illusion of being so infinitely extended during the months when actually taking place. My frame of mind—perhaps I should say the state of my heart—remained unchanged, and dances seemed pointless unless Barbara was present. During that summer Boyhood of Cyrus developed its mystic significance, representing on my arrival in front of it a two-to-one chance of seeing Barbara at dinner. If we both ate at the Walpole-Wilsons’, she was at least under my eye. She herself was always quite unaware of the sentimental meaning thus attached to Mr. Deacon’s picture. When first asked about it, she could not for a long time make out what picture I spoke of; and once, when we were both in the hall at the same time and I drew her attention to where it hung, she assured me that she had never before noticed its existence. Eleanor was equally vague on the subject.

  “Are they going bathing?” she had asked. “I don’t care for it.”

  This matter of being able to establish Barbara’s whereabouts for a specific number of hours brought at least limited relief from agonies of ignorance as to what her movements might be, with consequent inability to exercise control over her in however slight a degree; for love of that sort—the sort where the sensual element has been reduced to a minimum—must after all, largely if not entirely, resolve itself to the exercise of power: a fact of which Barbara was, of course, more aware than I.

  These torments, as I have said, continued for a number of months, sometimes with great severity; and then one afternoon, when I was correcting proofs in the office, Barbara rang up and asked if I would dine at Eaton Square that evening for the Huntercombes’ dance. I decided immediately that I would put off Short (my former undergraduate acquaintance, now become a civil servant), with whom, earlier in the week, I had arranged to have a meal, and at once agreed to come. I had experienced the usual feeling of excitement while talking with her on the telephone; but suddenly as I hung up the receiver—thinking that perhaps I was leaving Short rather ruthlessly in the lurch so far as his evening was concerned—I found myself wondering whether I was still in love. Barbara’s voice had sounded so peremptory, and it was clear that someone else had failed her at the last moment. In that there was, of course, nothing to be taken reasonably amiss. Obviously I could not expect to sit next to her at dinner every night of our lives—unless I married her; perhaps not even then. And yet my heart seemed a shade lighter. Was the fever passing? I was myself still barely conscious of its declension. I had not at that time met Barnby, nor had opportunity to digest one of his favourite maxims: “A woman always overplays her hand.”

  I had, naturally, given a good deal of thought at one time or another to the question of love. Barbara did not represent the first attack. There had been, for example, Peter Templer’s sister, Jean, and Madame Leroy’s niece, Suzette; but Jean and Suzette now seemed dim, if desirable, memories; and I felt, for no particular reason, more sure now of the maturity of my approach. At the same time there was certainly little to boast about in my handling of the problem of Barbara. I could not even make up my mind—should anything of the sort have been practicable—whether or not I really wanted to marry her. Marriage appeared something remote and forbidding, with which desire for Barbara had little or no connection. She seemed to exist merely to disturb my rest: to be possessed neither by lawful nor unlawful means: made of dreams, yet to be captured only by reality. Such, at least, were the terms in which I thought of her as I approached the Walpole-Wilsons’ that evening.

  Taxis were drawing up in the late sunshine before several of the houses in the square, and young men in tails and girls in evening dress, looking rather selfconscious in the bright daylight, were paying fares or ringing front-door bells. It was that stagnant London weather without a breath of air. One might almost have been in the Tropics. Even Archie Gilbert, who had immediately preceded me in the hall—he had never been known to be late for dinner—looked that night as if he might be feeling the heat a little. His almost invisibly fair moustache suggested the same pique material as the surface of his stiff shirt; and, as usual, he shed about him an effect of such unnatural cleanliness that some secret chemical process seemed to have been applied, in preparation for the party, both to himself and his clothes: making body and its dazzling integument, sable and argent rather than merely black and white, proof against smuts and dust. Shirt, collar, tie, waistcoat, handkerchief, and gloves were like snow: all these trappings, as always apparently assumed for the first time: even though he himself looked a shade pinker than usual in the face owing to the oppressive climatic conditions.

  His whole life seemed so irrevocably concentrated on “debutante dances” that it was impossible to imagine Archie Gilbert finding any tolerable existence outside a tailcoat. I could never remember attending any London dance that could possibly be considered to fall within the category named, at which he had not also been present for at least a few minutes; and, if two or three balls were held on the same evening, it always turned out that he had managed to look in at each one of them. During the day he was said to “do something in the City”—the phrase “non-ferrous metals” had once been hesitantly mentioned in my presence as applicable, in some probably remote manner to his daily employment. He himself never referred to any such subordinat
ion, and I used sometimes to wonder whether this putative job was not, in reality, a polite fiction, invented on his own part out of genuine modesty, of which I am sure he possessed a great deal, in order to make himself appear a less remarkable person than in truth he was: even a kind of superhuman ordinariness being undesirable, perhaps, for true perfection in this role of absolute normality which he had chosen to play with such éclat. He was unthinkable in everyday clothes; and he must, in any case, have required that rest and sleep during the hours of light which his nocturnal duties could rarely, if ever, have allowed him. He seemed to prefer no one woman—débutante or chaperone—to another; and, although not indulging in much conversation, as such, he always gave the impression of being at ease with, or without, words; and of having danced at least once with every one of the three or four hundred girls who constituted, in the last resort, the final cause, and only possible justification, of that social organism. He appeared also to be known by name, and approved, by the mother of each of these girls: in a general way, as I have said, getting on equally well with mothers and daughters.

  Even Eleanor’s consistently severe manner with young men was modified appreciably for Archie Gilbert, and we had hardly arrived in the drawing-room before she was asking him to help her in the forcible return of Sultan to the huge wicker hutch, occupying one complete corner of the room, in which the labrador had his being. Together Archie Gilbert and Eleanor dragged back the dog, while Sultan thumped his tail noisily on the carpet, and Lady Walpole-Wilson protested a little that the struggle would mar the beauty of Archie Gilbert’s clothes.

  Her own eagerness of manner always suggested that Lady Walpole-Wilson would have enjoyed asking congenial people to her parties if only she could have found people who were, indeed, congenial to her; and she was, of course, not the only hostess who must, from time to time, have suffered a twinge of misgiving on account of more than one of the young men who formed the shifting male population of the London ballrooms. Supposing most other people to live a more amusing life than herself, her humility in this respect was combined with a trust, never entirely relinquished, that with a different collection of guests in the house things might take a turn for the better. This inward condition, in which hope and despair constantly gave place to one another, undeniably contributed to a lack of ease in her drawing-room.

  Sir Gavin was moving about dramatically, even rather tragically, in the background. He was, as I have suggested, inclined to affect a few mild eccentricities of dress. That evening, for example, he was wearing an old-fashioned straight-ended white tie like a butler’s: his large, almost square horn-rimmed spectacles, tanned complexion, and moustache, bristling, but at the same time silky, giving him a rather fierce expression, like that of an angry rajah. Although deeper-chested and more weather-beaten, he certainly recalled Uncle Giles. Walking, as he did at times, with a slight limp, the cause of which was unknown to me—possibly it was assumed to indicate a certain state of mind—he took my arm almost fiercely, rather as if acting in an amateur production of Shakespeare; and, no doubt because he prided himself on putting young men at their ease, drew my attention to another guest, already arrived in the room before Archie Gilbert and myself. This person was standing under Lavery’s portrait of Lady Walpole-Wilson, painted at the time of her marriage, in a white dress and blue sash, a picture he was examining with the air of one trying to fill in the seconds before introductions begin to take place, rather than on account of a deep interest in art.

  “Have you met Mr. Widmerpool?” asked Sir Gavin, disconsolately, suddenly dropping his energetic demeanour, as if suffering all at once from unaccountable foreboding about the whole party.

  Widmerpool’s advent in Eaton Square that night did not strike me at the time as anything more than a matter of chance. He had cropped up in my life before, and, if I considered him at all as a recurrent factor, I should have been prepared to admit that he might crop up again. I did not, however, as yet see him as one of those symbolic figures, of whom most people possess at least one example, if not more, round whom the past and the future have a way of assembling. We had not met for years; since the summer after I had left school, when both of us had been trying to learn French staying with the Leroys in Touraine—the place, in fact, where I had supposed myself in love with Suzette. I had hardly thought of him since the moment when he had climbed ponderously into the grognard’s taxi, and coasted in a cloud of white dust down the hill from La Grenadière. Now he had exchanged his metal-edged glasses for spectacles with a tortoise-shell frame, similar, though of lesser proportions, to those worn by his host, and in general smartened up his personal appearance. True to the old form, there was still something indefinably odd about the cut of his white waistcoat; while he retained that curiously piscine cast of countenance, projecting the impression that he swam, rather than walked, through the rooms he haunted.

  Just as the first sight of Boyhood of Cyrus, by its association with Mr. Deacon and life before the war, had brought back memories of childhood, the sight of Widmerpool called up in a similar manner—almost like some parallel scene from Mr. Deacon’s brush entitled Boyhood of Widmerpool—all kind of recollections of days at school. I remembered the interest once aroused in me by Widmerpool’s determination to become a success in life, and the brilliance with which Stringham used to mimic his movements and manner of speech. Indeed, Widmerpool’s presence in the flesh seemed even now less real than Stringham’s former imitations of him: a thought that had often struck me before, now renewed unexpectedly in the Walpole-Wilson’s drawing-room. Widmerpool still represented to my mind a kind of embodiment of thankless labour and unsatisfied ambition. When we had met at La Grenadière, he had talked of his activities in London, but somehow I had never been able to picture his life as an adult; idly fancying him, if thought of at all, for ever floundering towards the tape in races never won. Certainly it had not once occurred to me that I should meet him at a dinner-party given for a dance, although I recalled now that he had talked of dances; and, when I came to consider the matter, there was not the smallest reason why he should not turn up upon an occasion such as this—at the Walpole-Wilson’s house or anywhere else. That had to be admitted without question. He seemed in the best of spirits. We were immediately left together by Sir Gavin, who wandered off muttering to himself in a dissatisfied undertone about some impenetrable concerns of his own.

  “Good gracious, Jenkins,” said Widmerpool, in that thick voice of his which remained quite unchanged, “I had no idea that you were a dancing man.”

  “I had formed the same wrong impression about yourself.”

  “But I have never seen you anywhere before.” He sounded rather aggrieved.

  “We must be asked to different parties.”

  This reply, made on the spur of the moment without any suggestion of seriousness—certainly not intended to discredit the dances frequented by Widmerpool—must, for some reason, have sounded caustic to his ears. Perhaps I had inadequately concealed surprise felt on learning from his manner that he evidently regarded himself as a kind of standard “spare man”: in short something closely akin to Archie Gilbert. Whatever the cause, the words had obviously given offence. He went red in the face, and made one of those awkward jerks of the body which Stringham used to imitate so deftly.

  “As a matter of fact, I have been about very little this summer,” he said, frowning. “I found I had been working a shade too hard, and had to—well—give myself a bit of a rest.”

  I remembered the interest he had always taken, even while still a schoolboy, in his own health and its diurnal changes In France it had been the same. A whole afternoon had been spent in Tours trying to find the right medicine to adjust the effect on him of the local wine, of which the Leroys’ vintage, drunk the night before, had been of disastrously recent growth.

  “Then, the year before, I got jaundice in the middle of the season,”

  “Are you fit again now?”

  “I am better.”

sp; He spoke with gravity.

  “But I intend to take care of myself,” he added. “My mother often tells me I go at things too hard. Besides, I don’t really get enough air and exercise—without which one can never be truly robust.”

  “Do you still go down to Barnes and drive golf-balls into a net?”

  “Whenever feasible.”

  He made not the smallest acknowledgment of the feat of memory on my part—with which, personally, I felt rather satisfied—that had called to mind this detail (given years before at the Leroys’) of his athletic exercises in outer London. The illusion that egoists will be pleased, or flattered, by interest taken in their habits persists throughout life; whereas, in fact, persons like Widmerpool, in complete subjection to the ego, are, by the nature of that infirmity, prevented from supposing that the minds of others could possibly be occupied by any subject far distant from the egoist’s own affairs.