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The Invisible Line

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"I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk--I mean the bad evening. Father Brown said something like 'I caught him . . . with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'"

- Cordelia Flyte, Brideshead Revisited

 

It was not like with Julia, where every glance into her lovely face was a reminder. One could stare safely at Cordelia and not catch too close a resemblance of her golden brother, though traces of Brideshead lingered in the height of her cheekbones and the breadth of her forehead. Charles watched her as the steward led her across the dining room, toward the table at the back where he was seated. She wore her hair longer than she had the last time he'd seen her: seven years ago by one measure, a lifetime by another. At last she drew close to Charles's table and caught sight of him. When their eyes met, she smiled.

***

In a way it was all due to Nanny Hawkins. Despite her doubts about the matter, she did live to witness the end of the war, to see Brideshead returned from the Yeomanry and the girls home from their nursing work in Palestine, all having received medals for service to their country. Over a game of halma, not long before she died in her sleep, Nanny mentioned to Julia that Mr Ryder had been quartered at Brideshead for several months with his battalion. Julia had told Cordelia, and Cordelia had written to Charles in astonishment; through this filter the news of the Flytes still managed to reach him.

After first reading Cordelia's letter, he hesitated with it in his hand. Her handwriting had evolved from the painstaking French style she'd learned at the convent school--the loops of her script had grown broader and less tidy. She wrote briefly of their lives in Palestine, of Julia's plans to repair the soldiers' damage to the castle, and of Brideshead's wife and stepchildren, who had not improved upon closer acquaintance. There was no news of Sebastian. Cordelia had sent to him straightaway with word of Nanny's death, but so far there had been no response. Julia had discovered a letter from him among Nanny's things, dated the previous Christmas, but it said no more about him than that he sent Nanny his love.

Below her signature Cordelia had added a postscript: "You've been restored to us again, it must mean something. I do hope you'll keep in touch. I am setting up in London in the spring, but a note addressed to Brideshead will always find me."

Charles placed her letter on his writing desk, smoothing the heavy crease along the centerline of the page. He removed his spectacles to clean the lenses with the cuff of his shirt, an unnecessary gesture that had become habitual. By this time of year, the lime trees that surrounded Brideshead would be coming into leaf, and the viburnum would be bursting into great white clusters of flower. Soon the plovers would be laying, though without Sebastian present to consume vast quantities of their eggs as he once did.

Before he could regret it, Charles took up his pen and dashed off some lines about the life he was settling into after the war, asked Cordelia to call on him when she was established in London. He thought of the story Lady Marchmain had read aloud so long ago, with Father Brown's unseen hook and invisible line. Across the years, Charles felt the twitch upon the thread.

***

"It's wonderful to see you again," Cordelia said after she had been seated. "Do you know, I've never been to tea at the Ritz? This is the first I've been here since the time we had dinner. I was fifteen then."

"It's been--twenty years."

"Yes," she said, looking around to take in the marble columns and the wrought-iron chandeliers. "But this room looks the same."

She leaned across the table and whispered, "It's very ugly."

The waiter brought the tea, which Cordelia drank black. She helped herself to a cucumber sandwich, bolted it, and took another from the tray. Whatever else had changed, she had kept her appetite.

She raised her gaze from her plate, her dark eyes cool but soft, to catch Charles looking at her. In return she appraised him with her mouth full, smiling as best she could with her lips closed around her food.

"Poor Charles," she said after she had swallowed. "You're quite as altered as I am."

Charles coughed; her frankness had often startled him. "To my eye you haven't changed much. Only the Middle-Eastern sun has left you a bit browner."

"You needn't spare my feelings," she said, shaking her head. "I know I am quite depleted. It goes far beyond my complexion."

She had a grim, efficient mien, he admitted to himself; she looked as though she had suffered. She had told him once that no one could be holy without suffering, that it was the spring of love, and he wondered whether she still adhered to that doctrine.

"In any case," he said, "you are right about me."

Homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, he had told Hooper during the war, and though unlike Hooper he had survived to peacetime, in these particulars Charles was unchanged. When he had been with Sebastian, or with Julia, these things had not been true, or they had not mattered. But he had lost them, and the weak consolation that remained to Charles was the religion that had taken them both from him.

Cordelia's voice brought him back to the present. "I've had no post from Sebastian yet, though I keep hoping."

"But he is still alive."

"He must be," she said, looking anxious, "or we'd have heard something. He will be gutted about Nanny, though. I wish he'd come home."

Cordelia closed her eyes and covered them with her hands. Charles had never seen her cry, though when he'd first known her she was a child.

In the end, though, she only rubbed her eyes and reopened them. "I'm glad there's another person who loves him as I do. It makes things easier to bear."

This was something to consider for Charles, who had always borne it alone.

***

Charles and Cordelia stepped out of the restaurant into the cool spring air, and he walked with her to Green Park station. Just above the entrance, she paused, took his hands in hers, and kissed his forehead. He watched her descend the stairs, and when she had disappeared underground, he turned and walked on.

Maybe Sebastian would send to Cordelia, and the next time she wrote to Charles she could report that Sebastian was happy and well. It would be a small comfort, hardly anything, but it would be enough to keep the cord between them from severing. At the corner he crossed Piccadilly and entered the park, squinting into the sun.