Trouble with lichen, p.8
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.8

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘Why, Father and Zephanie, of course.’

  ‘You mean to say they told you not to tell me?’

  ‘They did. But what’s it matter? It’s all a joke. You said so.’

  ‘You mean it isn’t a joke?’

  ‘Oh, for God’s sake! A – you’ve surely known my father long enough to know it’s not the kind of thing he’d joke about, and B – a joke is meant to be humorous. And if you can tell me anything humorous about this, I’d like to hear it.’

  ‘But why didn’t they want me to hear about it?’

  ‘It wasn’t exactly that. They wanted me to postpone telling you until there’s a course of action worked out.’

  ‘Although I’m your wife, and a member of the family?’

  ‘Well, damn it, the old man never even told Zephanie and me until yesterday.’

  ‘But surely you must have guessed. How long has it been going on?’

  ‘Since I was seventeen, and with Zeph since she was sixteen.’

  ‘And you expect me to believe that in ten years you never guessed?’

  ‘Well, you wouldn’t believe it when I told you flat, would you? Hang it, one may guess at a few things which seem to be possibilities, but what the devil would be the good of going about guessing over all the impossibilities? All that happened was this….’

  He explained about his father’s concocted story of the new immunization treatment, ending:

  ‘It healed up quickly, leaving just a bit of a bump under the skin, and that’s all there was to it. We’ve repeated it each year since. How was I to know that it wasn’t just what he said?’

  Jane regarded him dubiously.

  ‘But there must have been some effects. Didn’t you notice anything?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Paul. ‘I noticed that I don’t take colds very easily. I’ve had flu only twice, and mildly, in ten years. And that my cuts and scratches seldom fester. I noticed that because it was the kind of thing I was looking for. Why should I look for anything else?’

  Jane let that go for the moment.

  ‘Why two hundred years? Why so definite?’ she asked.

  ‘Because that’s the way it works. I don’t know the details yet, and I’d very likely not understand them, anyway, but what he told us is, roughly, that it slows down the rate of cell division and the whole metabolism to one-third of normal – which means that since it started I only get one year older in every three years that pass.’

  Jane’s eyes dwelt on him thoughtfully.

  ‘I see. So now your actual age is twenty-seven, your physical age is just over twenty. Is that what you mean?’

  Paul nodded. ‘That’s how I understand it.’

  ‘But you never noticed a little thing like that?’

  ‘Of course I noticed that I look young for my age – that’s why I grew this beard. But plenty of other people look young for their age, too.’

  Jane looked sceptically at him.

  ‘What are you up to?’ he inquired. ‘Trying to persuade yourself that I was holding out on you? Now we know, of course we can see the evidence. Why, damn it, haven’t you yourself remarked how infrequently I need a haircut, and what a devil of a time my beard took to grow, and how seldom my nails need trimming? Why didn’t you deduce it from that?’

  ‘Well,’ said Jane thoughtfully, ‘even if you didn’t guess Zephanie must have done.’

  ‘I don’t see why she should, any more than I. Less, in fact; she doesn’t have to shave,’ Paul replied.

  ‘Darling,’ Jane told him, using the word edge uppermost, ‘you don’t have to pretend to be dim with me.’

  ‘I don’t – oh, I see what you mean,’ Paul said. ‘All the same, I don’t think she did guess. There wasn’t any sign of it. Though she was a bit quicker on the uptake than me.’

  ‘She must have guessed,’ Jane repeated. ‘She goes down to Darr quite a lot. And even if she didn’t guess she must have heard from somebody who would naturally think she knew about it.’

  ‘But I’ve told you,’ Paul said patiently, ‘Nobody else did know – at least, he thought not until this cropped up.’

  Jane thought for some little time. Finally she shook her head.

  ‘How ingenuous can you be? Paul, I don’t believe you’ve even begun to consider what this implies. It’s worth millions – millions of millions. There are hundreds of men and women who would be willing to pay thousands a year to have their lives extended like that. It’s a thing that all the wealth of all the richest men in history hasn’t been able to buy before. Now, are you really expecting me to believe that your father has done simply nothing with it in fourteen years – except treat you two? For heaven’s sake, show a little common sense, Paul!’

  ‘But you don’t understand. That’s not the point at all. Oh, I don’t say there isn’t fame, and probably a great deal of money for him eventually. But that’s not what’s concerning him at the moment – why should it? Part of the thing is that it gives him lots of time to play with. He –’

  Jane interrupted suddenly.

  ‘Do you mean to say he’s been treating himself?’

  ‘Naturally. You don’t think he’d try it on us without satisfying himself about it first, do you?’

  ‘But –’ Jane’s hand on the table was clenched so that the knuckles were white, ‘– do you mean he’s going to live to be two hundred, too?’ she demanded tensely.

  ‘Well, not as long as that, of course. He started it later in life.’

  ‘But he could go on to be more than a hundred?’

  ‘Oh, easily I should think.’

  Jane regarded her husband. She opened her mouth to pursue this line of thought, but hesitated, and decided against it for the moment.

  Paul went on:

  ‘The thing at present is that he can’t see how to put it across – how it can be introduced with the least possible dislocation.’

  Jane said:

  ‘Well, I really can’t see much trouble about that. Just show me any rich man who wouldn’t give him a fortune for the treatment – and the man would keep it confidential in his own interests. What’s more, I’ll bet that’s what several of them are doing.’

  ‘Implying that my father is behaving like a kind of super-quack?’

  ‘Oh, rubbish! He is a shrewd businessman over his contracts – you’ve always said that yourself. So, I ask you, what man of business ability is going to let an opportunity like this lie idle for fourteen years? It just doesn’t make sense.’

  ‘So because this isn’t a thing you can put on the market like a detergent – it follows that he must be doing it hole-in-corner?’

  ‘What’s the use of it if it isn’t put on the market somehow or other? Sooner or later it’s bound to be. Obviously the only thing to be gained by not putting it on the open market at once is the high value you can put on carefully restricted sales. And how high! Give anyone convincing proof, and he’d beg you to take half his capital for it.’ She paused, and went on:

  ‘And where do you come in? He goes on with it for all this time, and you don’t hear a thing until there’s a leak somewhere, and he reckons the best of it’s over, and you’re likely to find out anyway, so then he tells you.

  ‘He must have been making millions out of this – and just kept it all to himself…. And he’s given himself a new lease of life. How long is it going to be before any of it comes to us – a century or so?’

  Paul looked at his wife uneasily. It was his turn to hesitate and change his mind. Catching his expression, she said:

  ‘There’s nothing wrong with facing facts. It’s natural for old people to die, and for younger people to inherit.’

  Paul did not take that up. He reverted:

  ‘But you’ve got it all wrong,’ he repeated. ‘If he wanted to be fabulously rich he wouldn’t be as he is – Darr wouldn’t be run as he runs it, in fact it would never have existed. His overriding interest is his work, and it always has been. It’s the conseqences that are worrying him. As for s
uggesting that he’d ever go about launching it like some back-street abortionist – it’s just damned nonsense. You must know him better than that.’

  ‘Every man has his price –’ Jane began.

  ‘I daresay, but it isn’t always money.’

  ‘If it isn’t, it’s power,’ said Jane. ‘Money is power. Enough money is infinite power, so it comes to the same thing.’

  ‘And he isn’t a megalomaniac, either. He’s just a very worried man, worried stiff about the effects of this thing. If you were to talk to him –’

  ‘If!’ she repeated. ‘My dear Paul, I have every intention of talking to him. I have quite a lot to say to him – starting with an inquiry as to why we have been excluded from the scheme until it shows signs of falling apart. And not only that. You don’t seem to realize what he has been doing to me – your wife, his own daughter-in-law. If all this you say is true, then he has quite deliberately let me get two years older when it need only have been eight months. He has cold-bloodedly cheated me of sixteen months of life I could have had. What have you to say to that…?’

  6

  ‘I’d like to have a go at it. There’s something there worth looking into. Sure of it,’ said Gerald Marlin.

  ‘Very U outfit, Nefertiti. Got to be damn sure of your footholds,’ responded the editor of the Sunday Prole.

  ‘Naturally. But just the kind of outfit our readers would enjoy seeing socked. High class luxury scandal stuff.’

  ‘M’m,’ said the editor dubiously.

  ‘Look, Bill,’ Gerald insisted. ‘This Wilberry woman has shaken ’em down for five thousand. Five thousand – and she’d have been lucky to get five hundred if it had gone to court. They cut her down, of course. Her first bid was ten thousand. You can’t say that doesn’t sunk.’

  ‘Classy joints like that will pay a lot to keep out of the courts. Wrong kind of publicity.’

  ‘But five thousand!’

  ‘Just an item on expenses, the Treasury pays,’ He paused. ‘Frankly, Gerald, I doubt whether there’s anything in it. The Wilberry woman just happens to have an allergy. Could happen to anyone. Frequently does. Shaking down the hair-dye people for it used to be popular at one time. God knows what they put into all the creams, lotions, rinses and what-have-you’s that they use in those places. Anything could happen. Suppose you were allergic to whales.’

  ‘If I were allergic to whales, or whale-oil, I’d not have to go to a high-priced beauty-pusher to find out.’

  ‘What I mean is if someone comes along and says: “Here is Science’s latest Homage to Beauty! Imperial Goo – rarest of Nature’s gifts – is found only during June in the left ventricle of the hunting-wasp whence it is extracted drop by precious drop by expert scientists dedicated to giving YOU new beauty!” Well, how are you going to know whether you are allergic to this particular muck or not, until you’ve tried it? Most people will be okay, anyway, but every now and then up pops the one in a hundred thousand who sort of fizzes on contact with it. If too many come over funny you have to think up a new kind of goo, but a few here and there are just a trade hazard – and the Wilberry woman happens to be one of them. She’s a calculated risk, like ullage and so on, but naturally they don’t want publicity, if they can help it.’

  ‘Yes, but –’

  ‘I don’t think you realize what the takings are in a stratospheric dump like that, old boy – with all the etceteras. I’d be surprised if it averages out at much under three hundred per annum per client.’

  ‘We’re obviously in the wrong business, Bill. But all the same there’s something fishy somewhere. That Wilberry woman would gladly have settled for three, or even two, but her solicitors held out for five, and got it. There has to be a reason – And it isn’t dope – At least, Scotland Yard’s found no evidence of that; they keep quite an eye on these places, you know.’

  ‘Well, if they’re satisfied –’

  ‘So if it’s not dope, it’s something else.’

  ‘Even so, all these places have what they like to think of as valuable trade secrets – though God knows why all women aren’t raving beauties if there’s anything in them.’

  ‘All right, then, suppose it is just a trade secret – it’s built up one hell of a successful high-class business, so why shouldn’t we try to winkle it out, and give it to our readers?’

  The editor pondered.

  ‘You may have something there,’ he admitted.

  ‘I’m sure I have. There’s something. Whether it’s funny business, or a first-class beauty recipe doesn’t greatly matter – we could run either.’

  They contemplated the prospect for a few moments.

  ‘Besides,’ Gerald went on, ‘there’s something about this Brackley woman who runs it. Not the type. Real brains, apparently – not just the usual business cunning, I mean. I’ve got a bit of preliminary dope on her.’

  He felt in his pocket, produced a couple of folded sheets of paper and handed them across.

  The editor unfolded them. They were headed: ‘Diana Priscilla Brackley – Preliminary’ and had been rattled through a typewriter by someone more concerned with speed than precision. Disregarding the mis-spellings, mishits, and doing his best with erratic contractions, the editor read:

  ‘D. P. Brackley, aged 39, but said to look much younger (will check whether fact or polite fiction, may be trade asset). A looker. Five foot ten, dark red-brown hair, good features, grey eyes. Drives a heck of a fine Rolls – cost, say, seven thousand. Lives 83 Darlington Mansions, SW1 – rent astronomical.

  ‘Father Harold Brackley dead, bank-clerk, Wessex Bank Ltd, exemplary, staunch member bank’s Repertory Company. Married Malvina, second daughter Valentine de Travers, wealthy works contractor, by elopement. V. de T. heavy father – never darken door, not a penny from me, etc.

  ‘Brackleys lived 43 Despent Road, Clapham, semi-detached, small mortgage. Subject, only child. Local private school until 11. Then St Merryn’s High School. Did well. Outstanding scholarship Cambridge. Honours, distinctions with bells on. Biochemistry. Took job three and a half years Darr House Developments, Ockinham.

  ‘Meanwhile V. de T. died. Daughter and son-in-law still unforgiven, but bequest to grand-daughter, Subject, believed to be between forty and fifty thousand, at age twenty-five. Subject turned in Darr House job six months after that age. (Note: After appears to be typical. V. level headed.) Commissioned building of house for parents near Ashford, Kent. Took round-world tour – one year.

  ‘On return bought into small beauty-business The Freshet, Mayfair somewhere. Two years later bought out partner. Next year absorbed her Freshet into the new Nefertiti Ltd (private: nom. capital $100). Has gone ahead beautifying the knobs of the nobs ever since, and not half.

  ‘Personal details scanty – in spite of scandalling habit of the trade. No marriages as far as known yet – certainly has kept maiden name throughout. Lives costly, but not flashy. Spends freely on dress. No known sidelines – though has an interest in Joynings, manufacturing chemists. No funny business known. Seems straight. Business reputation exemplary clean. All Nefertiti staff carefully vetted, no smudged characters accepted. Too good to be true? Think not. Just v. careful to maintain repute. Even bitchy rivals’ detractions insubstantial.

  ‘Love-life: no public knowledge. Seems none current, or recent, but research proceeds.’

  ‘H’m,’ said the editor as he reached the end. ‘No very human figure emerges, does it?’

  ‘That’s just a rough preliminary,’ Gerald said. ‘He’ll get more. I think it’s interesting. That Darr House job, for instance. They only have the bright ones there – it’s practically the equivalent of putting letters after your name to get taken on. So I ask myself what makes anyone of that calibre come out of higher egghead researches, and get into the age-old flummery of the beauty-racket?’

  ‘On the face of it, the desire to run a Rolls-Royce – with appropriate ensembles,’ suggested his editor.

  Gerald shook his head.

/>   ‘Not good enough, Bill. If cutting a dash were the motive, she’d be a lot better known than she is. The really big beauty-peddlers like to queen it as a rule – part of the publicity. Look at it this way. She, an outsider of a different type altogether, goes into the pulchritude jostle, all among the vitriol throwers and smilers with knives, and what happens? She not only survives, but she makes a success, a real classy success, there, and apparently without adopting the local weapons. How? There’s only one answer to that, Bill – a gimmick. She has something that the others haven’t got. Considering the report I’d say that as a scientific worker she came across something when she was at the Darr House place, and decided to cash in on it. Whether it’s shady, or not, is a different matter – but I reckon it’s worth finding out.’

  His editor continued to muse. Then he nodded.

  ‘All right, Gerry, boy, you look into it. But go canny. The Nefertiti outfit packs a lot of high-powered feminine influence. If you find anything that’s going to blow up into a big scandal there’d be some important wives involved. So just bear that in mind, will you?’

  ∗

  ‘I’ll tell madam you are here, Miss,’ said the little maid and departed, closing the door behind her.

  The room had clung to simplicities eschewing ornamentation in a way that made it slightly old-fashioned to Zephanie’s eyes, even somewhat stark, by modern standards, but it was an expensive, tasteful kind of starkness, and, after the first surprise, not unpleasing. Zephanie walked over to the window. Beyond it, and accessible by a half-glassed door, some square yards of roof were laid out as a small garden. Dwarf tulips were in bloom in several beds. On a bank in the shade of carefully clipped bushes a few violets grew. In one corner of a miniature lawn a tiny fountain played in an antique lead spout-head. Large sheets of glass coming up out of slots in a low wall screened it from the wind on one side. In front, one gazed westward over a small wrought-iron fence, across the park which seemed all newly green tree-tops, to the misty outlines of buildings beyond.

  ‘Gosh!’ said Zephanie, in honest envy.

  At the sound of the door opening, she turned. Diana stood there in a simple, beautifully cut, grey silk suit. Her only ornaments were a plain gold bracelet on her wrist, a gold pin on her lapel, and a flexible gold necklet.

 
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