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Books Do Furnish a Room, Page 3

Anthony Powell

  ‘Of course,’ said Sillery. ‘One of Vernon Gainsborough’s jeux d’esprit. I can’t remember, Leonard, whether you’ve met our latest Fellow. He’s a German – or rather was – a “good” German, of course, called Werner Guggenbühl, but Gainsborough’s better, we all agree. Of patrician background, but turned early to the Left.’

  ‘You’re interested in German literature, Miss Leintwardine?’ asked Short.

  He must have hoped to gloss over Sillery’s rather malicious reference to ‘eligible bachelors’, but notably failed in this attempt to guide conversation into intellectual channels.

  ‘We were talking of old friends like Mark,’ said Sillery. ‘J. G. Quiggin, Bill Truscott, all names with which you are familiar from my reminiscing, Ada. Conversation led from them to that interesting couple the Widmerpools, about whom you were speaking when we last met. How goes that union? Well, I hope.’

  These last sentences put an end to doubt, explaining Sillery’s momentary uncertainty at Ada Leintwardine’s arrival. He was well satisfied at the surprise she caused, the confirmation by her presence that he numbered ‘young ladies’ amongst his acquaintance, but at the same time he had been faced with the decision whether or not to reveal her as his source of Widmerpool information. It was in the Sillery tradition to brag of a great spy network, while keeping secret the names of individual agents. At the same time, with an audience like Short and myself, fullest advantage might be derived from Miss Leintwardine by admitting her as fount of that information, now she was on the spot. That at any rate was what happened. Sillery had decided the veil of mystery was not worth sustaining, especially as Miss Leintwardine herself might at any moment give the show away. However, it turned out she was well aware that contacts with the Widmerpool ménage were too profitable to be squandered in casual enquiry. She was giving nothing away that evening. This attitude was probably due also to other matters connected with her relationship with Sillery which only came to light some minutes later.

  ‘They’re both all right so far as I know, Sillers.’

  ‘Leonard here lives in the same block of flats.’

  ‘Oh, do you?’

  She spoke politely, no more.

  ‘You were saying Mrs W finds the place rather poky,’ persisted Sillery.

  Miss Leintwardine did not choose to answer that one. Instead, she addressed herself to me.

  ‘I think you know Pam and Kenneth, Mr Jenkins. They spoke of you. Like so many people, Pam’s been having rather a painful reaction now the war’s over. Tired, I mean, and listless. Always ill. We’ve been friends since we were in the ATS together.’

  ‘She was a driver in the ATS when I first met her.’

  ‘Then we both went into secret shows, different ones, and always kept in touch – but for God’s sake don’t let’s talk about the war. Such a boring subject.’

  Sillery shouted assent to that, showing distinct signs of displeasure at this interchange. What was the good of presenting Ada Leintwardine as a woman of mystery, if she shared a crowd of acquaintances in common with another guest? Besides, long experience of extracting information out of people must have warned him she was not prepared to furnish anything of great interest that evening, unless matters took an unexpected turn. Grasp of the fact was to Sillery’s credit, in some degree justifying the respect paid him in such traffickings by Short and others. He rose once more from his chair, again throwing himself to the floor with surprising suppleness of movement, to scrabble further at the stuff in the cupboard.

  ‘You’re sure you’ve got the right notebooks now, Ada? I’m putting away the ones you brought back, ere worse befall. Don’t want to lose them, do we?’

  Miss Leintwardine chose this moment of Sillery’s comparative detachment on the floor to announce something probably intended to take a less abrupt form. Possibly she had even paid the visit for this purpose, the diaries only an excuse. Since she had not found Sillery alone, she had to take the best opportunity available.

  ‘Talking of J. G. Quiggin, you’ve heard about this new publishing firm of his?’

  She spoke rather self-consciously. Sillery, swivelling round where he squatted orientally on a hole in the carpet, was attentive to this.

  ‘Have you any piquant details, Ada? I should like to know more of JG’s publishing venture.’

  ‘I’m rather committed myself. Perhaps you heard that too, Sillers?’

  Whatever this meant, clearly Sillery had not heard. He sat up sharply. Miss Leintwardine’s manner of asking the question strongly suggested he had been given no opportunity to hear anything of the sort

  ‘How so, Ada?’

  ‘As it happens, I’m joining the firm myself. I’ve been reading manuscripts for them since they started. I thought I told you.’

  ‘No, Ada, no. You never told me.’

  ‘I thought I had.’

  This showed Sillery in the plainest terms he was not the only one to discharge bombshells. He took it pretty well, though there could be no doubt he was shaken. His eyes showed that.

  ‘Craggs brought in the goodwill of Boggis & Stone, together with such Left-Wing steadies as survive. Of course the new firm won’t be nearly so limited as Boggis & Stone. We’re hoping to get the young writers. We’ve signed up X. Trapnel, for example.’

  She spoke all this quickly, more than a little embarrassed, even upset, at having to break the news to Sillery. He did not say anything. She continued in the same hurried tone.

  ‘I was wondering whether the possibility wasn’t worth exploring for publication of your own Journal, Sillers. You haven’t decided on a publisher yet, have you? There’s often something to be said for new and enterprising young firms.’

  Sillery did not pledge himself on that point.

  ‘Does this mean you’re going to live in London, Ada?’

  ‘I suppose so, Sillers. I can’t very well commute from here. Of course it won’t make any difference to my work for you. I shall always have time for that. I do think it should be an interesting job, don’t you?’

  Again Sillery made no pronouncement on such expectations. His face provisionally suggested that the future for those entering publishing offices was anything but optimistic. There could be no doubt the whole matter was intensely displeasing to him. His annoyance, together with Miss Leintwardine’s now very definitely troubled manner, confirmed that in a peculiar way they must have been having some sort of flirtation, an hypothesis scarcely to be guessed by even the most seasoned Sillery experts. The girl’s nervousness now confession had been made, well illustrated that odd contradictory feminine lack of assurance so typical of the moment when victory has been won – for there could be little doubt that progression on to the staff of Quiggin & Craggs represented a kind of victory over Sillery on her part, escape from his domination. It looked as if she had half dreaded telling him, half hoped to cause him to suffer. Sillery had been made the object of a little affectionate feminine sadomasochism. That was the grotesque presumption. She jumped up.

  ‘I must go now, Sillers. I’ve got an awful lot of work waiting at home. I thought I’d just bring those wrong notebooks along as they were worrying me.’

  She laughed, almost as though near tears. This time Sillery made no effort to detain her.

  ‘Goodnight, Ada.’

  ‘Goodnight, Mr Short. Goodnight, Mr Jenkins. Goodnight, Sillers.’

  However much put out by her unexpected arrival, refusal to discuss the Widmerpools, final news that she was abandoning him, Sillery’s usual resilience, his unyielding capacity for making the best of things, was now displayed, though he could not conceal relief at this withdrawal. He grinned at Short and myself after the door closed, shaking his head whimsically to show he still retained a sense of satisfaction in knowing such a wench. Short, on the other hand, was anxious to forget about Miss Leintwardine as soon as possible.

  ‘Tell us something about your diaries, Sillers. I’m more interested than I can say.’

  Sillery, anyway at that momen
t, did not want to talk about the diaries. Ada Leintwardine was still his chosen theme. If she had displeased him, all the more reason to get full value out of her as an attendant personality of what remained of the Sillery court.

  ‘Local doctor’s daughter. Clever girl. Keen on making a career in – what shall we say? – the world of letters. Writing a novel herself. All that sort of thing. Just the person I was looking for. Does the work splendidly. Absolutely reliable. We mustn’t have pre-publication leaks, must we? That would never do. I hope she’s aware of Howard Craggs’s little failings. Just as bad as ever, even at the age he’s reached, so I’m told. All sorts of stories. She must know. Everyone knows that.’

  His manner of enunciating the remark about pre-publication leaks made one suspect Sillery meant the opposite to what he said. Pre-publication leaks were what he aimed at, Miss Leintwardine the ideal medium for titbits proffered to stimulate interest. The Diary was to be Sillery’s last bid for power, imposing his personality on the public, as an alternative to the real thing. However, he had no wish to talk to Short about this. If the Journal was of interest, it was likely Sillery would have published its contents, at least a selection, before now. Even if the interest were moderate, there would be excitement in preparation and advance publicity, whetting the appetite of the public. When, in due course, Short and I left the rooms – Sillery admitted he went to bed now earlier than formerly – it was only after solemn assurances we would call again. Outside, the night was mild for the time of year.

  ‘I’m staying in college,’ said Short. ‘Sillers is always talking of my becoming an Honorary Fellow, I don’t know how serious he is. I’ll walk with you as far as the gate. Sillers is wonderful, isn’t he? What did you make of that young woman? I didn’t much care for her style. Too florid. Still, Sillers must need a secretary if he has all that diary material to weld into order. Rather inconsiderate of her to give up work for him, as she seems to be doing. Interesting your knowing Widmerpool. I wouldn’t have thought you’d much in common. I believe myself he’s got a future. You must lunch with me one day at the Athenaeum, Nicholas. I’m rather full of work at the moment, but I’ll tell my secretary to make a note.’

  ‘Is she as pretty as Miss Leintwardine?’

  Short accepted that pleasantry in good part, leaving the question in the air.

  ‘Brightman calls Sillers the last of the Barons. Pity there’ll be no heir to that ancient line, he says. Brightman’s wit, as Sillers remarked, can be a shade cruel. Nice to have met in these peaceful surroundings again.’

  Traversing obscure byways on the way back to my own college, I had to admit the evening had been enjoyable, although there was a kind of relief in escaping from the company of Sillery and Short, into the silent night. One had to concur, too, in judging Sillery ‘wonderful’; wonderful anyway in categorical refusal to allow neither age nor anything else to deflect him from the path along which he had chosen to approach life. That was impressive, to be honoured: at least something the world honoured, capacity for sticking to your point, whatever it might be, through thick and thin.

  ‘There have never been any real salons in England,’ Moreland once said. ‘Everyone here thinks a salon is a place for a free meal. A true salon is conversation – nothing to eat and less to drink.’

  Sillery bore out the definition pretty well. The following day I was to knock off Burton, and go back to London. That was a cheering thought. When I reached my own college there was a telegram at the porter’s lodge. It was from Isobel. Erridge, her eldest brother, had died suddenly.

  This was a contingency altogether unexpected, not only dispersing from the mind further speculation about Sillery and his salon, but necessitating reconsideration of all immediate plans.

  Erridge, a subject for Burton if ever there was one, had often complained of his health, in this never taken very seriously by the rest of his family. Lately, little or nothing had been heard of him. He lived in complete seclusion. The inter-service organization, a secret one, which had occupied Thrubworth during the earlier years of the war had been later moved, or disbanded, the place remaining requisitioned, but converted into a camp for German prisoners-of-war. Administrative staff and stores occupied most of the rooms, except the small wing at the back of the building that Erridge, on succeeding his father, had adapted for his own use; quarters where his sister Blanche had later joined him to keep house. This suited Blanche well enough, because she preferred a quiet life. She undertook, when feasible, the many local duties unwelcome to Erridge himself whose dedication to working for the public good never mitigated an unwillingness to burden himself with humdrum obligations. This disinclination to play a part in local affairs owed something to his innate uneasiness in dealing with people, together with an aversion from personal argument and opposition, unless such contentiousness was ‘on paper’. What Erridge disliked was having to wrangle with a lot of not very well-informed adversaries face to face. In these attitudes poor health may well have played a part, for even unhampered by ‘pacifist’ convictions, his physical state would never have allowed any very active participation in the war.

  However much recognized as, anyway in his own eyes, living in a more or less chronic convalescence, Erridge was certainly not expected to die in his middle-forties. George Tolland, next brother in point of age, was another matter. George, badly wounded in the Middle East, had long been too ill to be brought home. From the first, it seemed unlikely he would survive. Back in England, he made some sort of recovery, then had a relapse, almost predictable from the manner in which Death had already cast an eye on him. The funeral had been only a few months before. George’s wife Veronica, pregnant at the time, had not yet given birth. The question of the baby’s sex, in the light of inheritance, added another uncertainty to the present situation.

  The following morning I set out for London. The train was late. Waiting for it like myself was a man in a blue-grey mackintosh, who strolled rather furtively up and down the platform. His movements suggested hope to avoid recognition, while a not absolutely respectable undertaking was accomplished. At first the drooping moustache disguised him. It was an adjunct not at all characteristic. Then, a minute or two after, the nervous swinging walk gave this figure away. There could be no doubt. It was Books-do-furnish-a-room Bagshaw.

  The cognomen dated back to the old Savoy Hill days of the BBC, though we had not known each other in that very remote period. A year or two older than myself, Bagshaw had been an occasional drinking companion of Moreland’s. They shared a taste for white port. Possibly Bagshaw had even served a brief stint as music critic. The memory persisted – at our first encounter – of Bagshaw involved in an all but disastrous incident on top of a bus, when we were going home after Moreland had been conducting a performance of Pelleas and Melisande. If Bagshaw, at no moment in his past, had ever written music criticism, that must have been the sole form of journalism he had omitted to tackle. We had never seen much of each other, nor met for seven or eight years. Bagshaw’s war turned out to have been waged in the Public Relations branch of the RAF. He had grown the moustache in India. Like a lot of acquaintances encountered at this period, his talk had become noticeably more authoritative in tone, product of the war itself and its demands, or just the ponderous onset of middle age. At the same time he had surrendered none of his old wheedling, self-deprecatory manner, which had procured him a wide variety of jobs, extracted him from equally extensive misadventures. He was in the best of spirits.

  ‘The subcontinent has its moments, Nicholas. It was a superlative experience, in spite of the Wingco’s foul temper. I had to tell that officer I was not prepared to be the Gunga Din of Royal Air Force Public Relations in India, even at the price of being universally accepted as the better man. There were a lot of rows, but never mind. There was much to amuse too.’

  This clearcut vignette of relations with his Wing-Commander defined an important aspect of Bagshaw’s character, one of which he was very proud.

a professional rebel, Bagshaw,’ some boss-figure had remarked when sacking him.

  That was true in a sense, though not in such an entirely simple sense as might be supposed at first sight. All the same, Bagshaw had obtained more than one subsequent job merely on the strength of repeating that estimate of himself. The label gave potential employers an enjoyable sense of risk. Some of them lived to regret their foolhardiness.

  ‘After all, I warned him at the start,’ Bagshaw used to say.

  The roots of this revolutionary spirit lay a long way back. Did he not boast that on school holidays he had plastered the public lavatories of Cologne with anti-French stickers at the time of the occupation of the Rhineland? There were all sorts of later insurgent activities, ‘chalkings’, marchings, making policemen’s horses shy at May Day celebrations, exertions which led, logically enough, to association with Gypsy Jones. Bagshaw was even reckoned to have been engaged to Gypsy at one time. His own way of life, the fact that she herself was an avowed Party Member, made it likely he too had been ‘CP’ in his day, possibly up to the Spanish Civil War. At that period Quiggin used to talk a lot about him, and had probably learnt a good deal from him Then Bagshaw was employed on some sort of eyewitness reporting assignment in Spain. Things went wrong. No one ever knew quite what happened. There had been one of Bagshaw’s rows. He came back. Some people said he was lucky to get home. Politically speaking, life was never the same again. Bagshaw had lost his old enthusiasms. Afterwards, when drunk, he would attempt to expound his changed standpoint, never with great clarity, though he would go on by the hour together to friends like Moreland, who detested talking politics.

  ‘There was a chap called Max Stirner … You’ve probably none of you ever heard of Der Einzige und sein Eigentum … You know, The Ego and his Own … Well, I don’t really know German either, but Stirner believed it would be all right if only we could get away from the tyranny of abstract ideas… He taught in a girls’ school. Probably what gave him the notion. Abstract ideas not a bit of use in a girls’ school…’