‘Darling,’ Margery Herrick greeted her husband, ‘you look simply done in.’ She helped him with his coat. ‘You’re not coming down with something, are you? There’s a horrid cold going around; the Dean’s wife and two boys caught it and were laid up for ten days straight—’
‘No, thank you, I’m all right. It’s been a fairly trying day.’
Margery frowned. It was out of character for Richard to interrupt; almost unheard of for him to interrupt a woman.
‘Anyway, something to cheer you up. David arrived this afternoon! He came from town a whole week early, because he missed us so much, fancy that. He says he can stay until after Christmas if you should like it too; he’s beginning a new book, and he means it to be a sort of twentieth-century Chronicles of Barsetshire, so we’re to be observed and fictionalised, isn’t it thrilling? I can’t imagine what he’ll write about,’ she added mischievously, ‘we’re all so placid and good-humoured, but he’s very good at spotting those quirky details.’
Richard’s smile lit his face into the nearest it ever came to good looks. He and David Blaize had known one another as undergraduates at Cambridge, both having been members of the society called the Sanhedrin, though, separated by two years’ difference in age, they had not been close. They met again towards the end of the War—the First War—in the hospital where Richard was being treated for wounds to his shoulder and thigh and David for a shattered kneecap, and became nearly inseparable; Richard’s marriage to Margery Blaize four years later seemed a natural extension of the friendship.
David was sprawled on the sofa in the drawing room: aged fifty-seven, with the sort of fair hair that keeps its gold into middle age, he still had an adolescent unreserve in posture and movement that Richard had not possessed even at fifteen, and found unutterably touching. He lurched to his feet and crushed Richard’s hand between both of his, releasing him with an amicable shake of his good shoulder.
‘How do you do? Come and sit beside me, won’t you—Margery can take the armchair, there, look—’
Richard sat down; David flung one long arm across the back of the sofa and both legs before him, the game right one crookedly, forming a palisade of handsome floridity around his brother-in-law.
‘David—how delightful to have you early. You must stay into the New Year if you can.’
‘Oh, ripping. Margery said I might, and you should be glad, but I did want to hear it from you too—since you're so busy with this extra work at the girls’ school—what on earth is all that about?’
‘A long story, I'm afraid,' Richard sighed. 'Are we dressing in David’s honour, Margery?’
‘Don’t dream of it.’ David answered. ‘All that’s absolutely gone out since the last lot.’
‘Well, then, I think we should most certainly have sherry, and all your news, before I embark upon my adventures at Kingscote.’
David’s news, delivered with the mixture of unsparing acuity and jovial affection that put his novels on every station bookstall from Penzance to Wick, took up all of sherry and most of dinner. It was not until coffee and liqueurs in the drawing room that David remarked, ‘But Dickon, you promised us your tale of nefarious goings-on at the seminary for young ladies.’
‘Oh dear. All these years, and I still haven’t the sense not to try and follow your stories, David.’
‘Rot. I should never have learned to tell a story at all without your example.’ It was a typical kind half-truth, but in both men provoked a shiver of the kind associated in superstition with a step on one’s graveplot.
Richard began quickly, ‘Did you know Anderson? He was at Caius in our time—I didn’t, as it happens.’
‘Sandy moustache, big feet and frenetic energy?’
‘Well, he’s shaved.’
David laughed, as he always did, more generously than the remark warranted, but with no appearance of strain or falsity.
‘Only bishop ever to have served in all three armed forces, former Navy chaplain, proponent of a Christianity so muscular it has its own Lonsdale belt.’
‘Dickon gets on with him much better than he's making out, David. He’s really rather a pet.’
‘He’s concerned about dwindling congregations, particularly among the young, and after passing through the umpteenth committee, that pressing social problem found a solution in asking the Kingscote girls to perform their Nativity Play in the Minster. What could be more charming than well-bred, clean-limbed young women displaying their startlingly adequate musical and dramatic talents to the greater glory of God, after all?’
‘I can think of a few things—’
‘Quite. According to his several ability, though. Anderson has an—idiosyncratic understanding of the verb to volunteer, so before I knew it, I found myself seconded to amplify this simple, spontaneous, sincere offering into something that might fill the nave.’
‘He really oughtn’t to have: you've more than enough work as it is.' Margery said. ‘Another, David?’
‘Mmm, yes please. Tastes like medicine.’
‘Well, I actually rather fancied myself as Busby Berkeley for about five minutes, darling. And then I met Edith Keith. Margery had warned me.’
‘I handled some of the paperwork for children evacuated there during the war, you see.’
‘Five foot ten of Morningside sandstone and levelling resentment. Ghastly woman.’
‘Her brother’s Ben Keith, David, the painter: you know, abstract things; white geometrical forms on white backgrounds and so on. One feels her talents were probably sacrificed to—well, the Benjamin of the family.’
‘Luckily for me, I don’t see much of her: I deal mainly with the senior English mistress, who produces all their plays, a Miss Kempe, and the music woman, Miss Ussher. But her influence is—pervasive. Apparently the play was written about twenty years ago by a Sixth Former who had a gift for skits, but then La Keith got her hands on it and decided it was—’ Richard shuddered, folding the words delicately but firmly as he did scraps of discarded manuscript paper before dropping them into the bin, ‘an act of worship.’
‘But I thought you rather did yourself,’ David said, suddenly shy and boyish. ‘When you play, I mean.’
‘Quaint of me, I know. All sincere efforts are equal in the ears of the Almighty, I’m sure, but I think we owe it to our fellow men to make nice noises and not nasty ones.’
‘Oh. I’m beginning to see the difficulty.’
‘She casts the play according to her assessment of the girls’ moral fibre—’
‘Choir as well?’
‘Choir as well.’
‘Ouch. But why did the Bish. imagine this was going to be a jolly thing to have in the Minster? Hadn’t he heard it?’
‘Conspicuous gallantry on a flying boat somewhere off the Scillies. D.S.C., I believe.' Margery interjected. 'Something went off a bit close to his head.’
‘I've done my best with the choir. The acting—well, that isn't my business, though the girl they had playing Gabriel would thunder upstage during the Magnificat—she had to go.’
Richard realised he was digging his right thumbnail really quite hard into his left palm, and hurriedly reached for his glass.
‘She's one of my discoveries: the Magnificat soloist, that is. A very self-possessed contralto who taught herself plainsong just for the fun of it—she’s in the Sixth and they’ve never made use of her before—extraordinary.’
‘What had she done to deserve the outer darkness? Smoking? Cat-fighting? Cribbing from Bohn?’
‘Not joining in some sort of work party in the last year of the war, I believe. Miss Ussher was telling me, but I was distracted by the wretched Scotch girl they had playing the Shepherd Boy. It’s a bigger part than it sounds; he's meant to grow up to be St Stephen. It always makes me smile, that bit, the thought of a long-ago schoolgirl playwright thrilled silly at her own cleverness. Anyhow, the reluctant wee actress, obviously brought up towards the straiter end of the Kirk, was simply squirming at the whole idea of barnstorming in church. So dire she was compelling: I’ve seen more mobile and expressive teak sideboards.’
‘Richard! You are merciless when you get going.’
‘But Margery, my dear, it only gets worse. Her father’s taken a posting in South Africa and they’re shipping out before Christmas. Miss Kempe said she thought she might be able to talk Miss Keith into casting a replacement who’s really very talented, something quite special apparently, and as keen as mustard to act the part. But this afternoon I discovered that Miss Keith had insisted—immovably—upon her twin sister instead, who just happens to be the best of the sopranos: the soloist who opens and closes the whole show. Kempe and Ussher were mortified. They spend more time trying to anticipate her next bout of lunacy than they do instructing the poor girls, I think. I'll do what I can, but it’s going to be a perfectly gruesome disaster. One for your Scenes of Clerical Life, David.’
David, who had been gently sounding his appreciation throughout, now broke into the Treble Bob Major of his unrestrained mirth. Encouraged by the warmth of his esteem and single malt atop dinner claret and pre-prandial sherry, Richard continued, ‘The queerest part of the whole thing is that I’d heard her before—the soloist turned Shepherd Boy, I mean. I adjudicated at the Colebridge and District Festival in the summer, and she was the best in her class by some distance. But she dried up halfway through—’ He realised his dreadful mistake, but was committed.
‘Halfway through what?’ David asked, noting his friend's stricken expression with concern.
‘F—fear no more the heat o’ the sun.’
David closed his eyes and composed his face.
‘I’m astonished she got as far as that,’ Margery said in an attempt at rescue. ‘I can’t make it past chimney-sweepers without being in absolute floods.’
The conversation recovered itself, but stumbled rather for the quarter-hour before Margery cleared the coffee cups and retired.
‘David, I’m so sorry. I got carried away—I deserve to be shot. Of all the weeks of the year.’
David reached for Richard’s hand. ‘Piffle. It’s been thirty—thirty years. I might be a bit—fragile on Thursday though—just to give you fair warning. Your hands aren’t a bit like organists’ are supposed to be,’ he mused, turning it over feelingly.
‘They don’t have to be anything but flexible, really. Span helps, but I’ve got that too. Bottled spider with a long reach. Look, I’m fearfully sorry I can’t come on Sunday. Margery’ll drive you.’
‘I asked her not to, actually.’
‘You know Mrs Maddox died in the summer.’
‘She must have been a great age.’
‘Close to ninety, I believe. I’ve got to get used to going alone, anyway. And it’s not as bad now it’s on the Sunday instead of—the day itself—or the day after, I always think of it.’
‘I’m sure you do. And I don’t believe you for an instant.’
David smiled wanly. ‘No. But I’ll keep on saying it in hope that it comes true.’
Richard entwined his fingers in David’s, squeezed briefly, and broke the caress. His mouth filled with nervous saliva and his head pounded as if in intimation of the slight hangover he was probably going to have tomorrow. ‘Sure and certain hope, my dear. Cleave to it.’
David looked quickly into the lowering fire. Richard’s eyes sought a point in the room that would neither oblige him to meet a tearful gaze nor seem obviously to be avoiding one. He had often examined his conscience on this point, and always found it reprobate. He loved David, loved him chastely but 2 Samuel 1:26, he substituted swiftly, not wanting even to think the treacherous, bewraying words, though he knew Margery knew, and with her instinct for the hard logic of love, accepted it. But Richard's lack of sorrow for Frank Maddox, drowned when his ship was torpedoed the day before the Armistice, was not, and could never be, Christian resignation to the will of God; it was the bestial triumph of a weak man victorious by sheer chance over a rival stronger and better than he, it was total and insuperable, and in it was his damnation.