加拿大28顺子概率

加拿大28顺子概率加拿大28顺子概率

加拿大28顺子概率

Late that autumn his posting came through. He was somewhat surprised to rind himself accredited to the Mission in Prague, as he had been given to understand that after his lengthy refresher in Arabic he might expect to find himself a lodgement somewhere in the Levant Consular where his special knowledge would prove of use. Yet despite an initial dismay he accepted his fate with good grace and joined in the elaborate game of musical chairs which the Foreign Office plays with such eloquent impersonality. The only consolation, a meagre one, was to find that everyone in his first mission knew as little as he did about the language and politics of the country. His Chancery consisted of two Japanese experts and three specialists in Latin American affairs. They all twisted their faces in melancholy unison over the vagaries of the Czech language and gazed out from their office windows on snow-lit landscapes: they felt full of a solemn Slav foreboding. He was in the Service now. He had only managed to see Leila half a dozen times in Alexandria — meetings made more troubling and incoherent than thrilling by the enforced secrecy which surrounded them. He ought to have felt like a young dog — but in fact he felt rather a cad. He only returned to the Hosnani lands once, for a spell of three days’ leave — and here at any rate the old spiteful magic of circumstance and place held him; but so briefly — like a fugitive afterglow from the conflagration of the previous spring. Leila appeared to be somehow fading, receding on the curvature of a world moving in time, detaching herself from his own memories of her. The foreground of his new life was becoming crowded with the expensive coloured toys of his professional life — banquets and anniversaries and forms of behaviour new to him. His concentration was becoming dispersed. For Leila, however, it was a different matter; she was already so intent upon the recreation of herself in the new role she had planned that she rehearsed it every day to herself, in her own private mind, and to her astonishment realized that she was waiting with actual impatience for the parting to become final, for the old links to snap. As an actor uncertain of a new part might wait in a fever of anxiety for his cue to be spoken. She longed for what she most dreaded, the word ‘Good-bye’. But with his first sad letter from Prague, she felt something like a new sense of elation rising in her, for now at last she would be free to possess Mountolive as she wished — greedily in her mind. The difference in their ages — widening like the chasms in floating pack-ice — were swiftly carrying their bodies out of reach of each other, out of touch. There was no permanence in any of the records to be made by the flesh with its language of promises and endearments, these were all already compromised by a beauty no longer in its first flower. But she calculated that her inner powers were strong enough to keep him to herself in the one special sense most dear to maturity, if only she could gain the courage to substitute mind for heart. Nor was she wrong in realizing that had they been free to indulge passion at will, their relationship could not have survived more than a twelvemonth. But the distance and the necessity to transfer their commerce to new ground had the effect of refreshing their images in one another. For him the image of Leila did not dissolve but suffered a new and thrilling mutation as it took shape on paper. She kept pace with his growth in those long, well-written, ardent letters which betrayed only the hunger which is as poignant as anything the flesh is called upon to cure: the hunger for friendship, the fear of being forgotten. From Prague, Oslo, Berne, this correspondence flowed backwards and forwards, the letters swelling or diminishing in size but always remaining constant to the mind directing it — the lively, dedicated mind of Leila. Mountolive, growing, found these long letters in warm English or concise French an aid to the process, a provocation. She planted ideas beside him in the soft ground of a professional life which demanded little beyond charm and reserve — just as a gardener will plant sticks for a climbing sweet-pea. If the one love died, another grew up in its place. Leila became his only mentor and confidant, his only source of encouragement. It was to meet these demands of hers that he taught himself to write well in English and French. Taught himself to appreciate things which normally would have been outside the orbit of his interests — painting and music. He informed himself in order to inform her. ‘You say you will be in Zagreb next month. Please visit and describe to me …’ she would write, or ‘How lucky you will be in passing through Amsterdam; there is a retrospective Klee which has received tremendous notices in the French press. Please pay it a visit and describe your impressions honestly to me, even if unfavourable. I have never seen an original myself.’ This was Leila’s parody of love, a flirtation of minds, in which the roles were now reversed; for she was deprived of the riches of Europe and she fed upon his long letters and parcels of books with the double gluttony. The young man strained every nerve to meet these demands, and suddenly found the hitherto padlocked worlds of paint, architecture, music and writing opening on every side of him. So she gave him almost a gratuitous education in the world which he would never have been able to compass by himself. And where the old dependence of his youth slowly foundered, the new one grew. Mountolive, in the strictest sense of the words, had now found a woman after his own heart. The old love was slowly metamorphosed into admiration, just as his physical longing for her (so bitter at first) turned into a consuming and depersonalized tenderness which fed upon her absence instead of dying from it. In a few years she was able to confess: ‘I feel somehow nearer to you today, on paper, than I did before we parted. Why is this?’ But she knew only too well. Yet she added at once, for honesty’s sake: ‘Is this feeling a little unhealthy perhaps? To outsiders it might even seem a little pathetic or ludicrous — who can say? And these long long letters, David — are they the bitter-sweet of a Sanseverina’s commerce with her nephew Fabrizio? I often wonder if they were lovers — their intimacy is so hot and close? Stendhal never actually says so. I wish I knew Italy. Has your lover turned aunt in her old age? Don’t answer even if you know the truth. Yet it is lucky in a way that we are both solitaries, with large blank unfilled areas of heart — like the early maps of Africa? — and need each other still. I mean, you as an only child with only your mother to think of, and I — of course, I have many cares, but live within a very narrow cage. Your description of the ballerina and your love-affair was amusing and touching; thank you for telling me. Have a care, dear friend, and do not wound yourself.’ It was a measure of the understanding which had grown up between them that he was now able to confide in her without reserve details of the few personal histories which occupied him: the love-affair with Grishkin which almost entangled him in a premature marriage; his unhappy passion for an Ambassador’s mistress which exposed him to a duel, and perhaps disgrace. If she felt any pangs, she concealed them, writing to advise and console him with the warmth of an apparent detachment. They were frank with each other, and sometimes her own deliberate exchanges all but shocked him, dwelling as they did upon the self-examinations which people transfer to paper only when there is no one to whom they can talk. As when she could write: ‘It was a shock, I mean, to suddenly see Nessim’s naked body floating in the mirror, the slender white back so like yours and the loins. I sat down and, to my own surprise, burst into tears, because I wondered suddenly whether my attachment for you wasn’t lodged here somehow among the feeble incestuous desires of the inner heart, I know so little about the penetralia of sex which they are exploring so laboriously, the doctors. Their findings fill me with misgivings. Then I also wondered whether there wasn’t a touch of the vampire about me, clinging so close to you for so long, always dragging at your sleeve when by now you must have outgrown me quite. What do you think? Write and reassure me, David, even while you kiss little Grishkin, will you? Look, I am sending you a recent photo so you can judge how much I have aged. Show it to her, and tell her that I fear nothing so much as her unfounded jealousy. But one glance will set her heart at rest. I must not forget to thank you for the telegram on my birthday — it gave me a sudden image of you sitting on the balcony talking to Nessim. He is now so rich and independent that he hardly ever bothers to visit the land. He is too occupied with great affairs in the city. Yet … he feels the depth of my absence as I would wish you to; more strongly than if we were living in each other’s laps. We write often and at length; our minds understudy each other, yet we leave our hearts free to love, to grow. Through him I hope that one day we Copts will regain our place in Egypt — but no more of this now….’ Clear-headed, self-possessed and spirited the words ran on in that tall fluent hand upon different-coloured stationery, letters that he would open eagerly in some remote Legation garden, reading them with an answer half-formulated in his mind which must be written and sealed up in time to catch the outgoing bag. He had come to depend on this friendship which still dictated, as a form, the words ‘My dearest love’ at the head of letters concerned solely with, say, art, or love (his love) or life (his life). And for his part, he was scrupulously honest with her — as for instance in writing about his ballerina: ‘It is true that I even considered at one time marrying her. I was certainly very much in love. But she cured me in time. You see, her language which I did not know, effectively hid her commonness from me. Fortunately she once or twice risked a public familiarity which froze me; once when the whole ballet was invited to a reception I got myself seated next to her believing that she would behave with discretion since none of my colleagues knew of our liaison. Imagine their amusement and my horror when all of a sudden while we were seated at supper she passed her hand up the back of my head to ruffle my hair in a gesture of coarse endearment! It served me right. But I realized the truth in time, and even her wretched pregnancy when it came seemed altogether too transparent a ruse. I was cured.’ When at last they parted Grishkin taunted him saying: ‘You are only a diplomat. You have no politics and no religion!’ But it was to Leila that he turned for an elucidation of this telling charge. And it was Leila who discussed it with him with the blithe disciplined tenderness of an old lover. So in her skilful fashion she held him year by year until his youthful awkwardness gave place to a maturity which matched her own. Though it was only a dialect of love they spoke, it sufficed her and absorbed him; yet it remained for him impossible to classify or analyse. And punctually now as the calendar years succeeded each other, as his posts changed, so the image of Leila was shot through with the colours and experiences of the countries which passed like fictions before his eyes: cherry-starred Japan, hook-nosed Lima. But never Egypt, despite all his entreaties for postings which he knew were falling or had fallen vacant. It seemed that the Foreign Office would never forgive him for having learned Arabic, and even deliberately selected posts from which leave taken in Egypt was difficult or impossible. Yet the link held. Twice he met Nessim in Paris, but that was all. They were delighted with each other, and with their own worldliness. In time his annoyance gave place to resignation. His profession which valued only judgement, coolness and reserve, taught him the hardest lesson of all and the most crippling — never to utter the pejorative thought aloud. It offered him too something like a long Jesuitical training in self-deception which enabled him to present an ever more highly polished surface to the world without deepening his human experience. If his personality did not become completely diluted it was due to Leila; for he lived surrounded by his ambitious and sycophantic fellows who taught him only how to excel in forms of address, and the elaborate kindnesses which, in pleasing, pave the way to advancement. His real life became a buried stream, flowing on underground, seldom emerging into that artificial world in which the diplomat lives — slowly suffocating like a cat in an air-pump. Was he happy or unhappy? He hardly knew any longer. He was alone, that was all. And several times, encouraged by Leila, he thought to solace his solitary concentration (which was turning to selfishness) by marrying. But somehow, surrounded as he was by eligible young women, he found that his only attraction lay among those who were already married, or who were much older than himself. Foreigners were beyond consideration for even at that time mixed marriages were regarded as a serious bar to advancement in the service. In diplomacy as in everything else there is a right and a wrong kind of marriage. But as the time slipped by he found himself climbing the slow gyres — by expediency, compromise and hard work — towards the narrow anteroom of diplomatic power: the rank of councillor or minister. Then one day the whole bright mirage which lay buried and forgotten reawoke, re-emerged, substantial and shining from the past; in the fullness of his powers he woke one day to learn that the coveted ‘K’ was his, and something else even more desirable — the long-denied Embassy to Egypt…. But Leila would not have been a woman had she not been capable of one moment of weakness which all but prejudiced the whole unique pattern of their relationship. It came with her husband’s death. But it was swiftly followed by a romantic punishment which drove her further back into the solitude which, for one wild moment, she dreamed of abandoning. It was perhaps as well, for everything might have been lost by it. There was a silence after her telegram announcing Faltaus’ death; and then a letter unlike anything she had written before, so full of hesitations and ambiguities was it. ‘My indecision has become to my surprise such an agony. I am really quite distraught. I want you to think most carefully about the proposal I am about to make. Analyse it, and if the least trace of disgust arises in your mind, the least reservation, we will banish it and never speak of it again. David! Today as I looked in my mirror, as critically and cruelly as I could, I found myself entertaining a thought which for years now I have rigorously excluded. The thought of seeing you again. Only I could not for the life of me see the terms and conditions of such a meeting. My vision of it was covered by a black cloud of doubt. Now that Faltaus is dead and buried the whole of that part of my life has snapped off short. I have no other except the one I shared with you — a paper life. Crudely, we have been like people drifting steadily apart in age as each year passed. Subconsciously I must have been waiting for Faltaus’ death, though I never wished it, for how else should this hope, this delusion suddenly rise up in me now? It suddenly occurred to me last night that we might still have six months or a year left to spend together before the link snaps for good in the old sense. Is this rubbish? Yes! Would I in fact only encumber you, embarrass you by arriving in Paris as I plan to do in two months’ time? For goodness’ sake write back at once and dissuade me from my false hopes, from such folly — for I recognize deep within myself that it is a folly. But … to enjoy you for a few months before I return here to take up this life: how hard it is to abandon the hope. Scotch it, please, at once; so that when I do come I will be at peace, simply regarding you (as I have all these years) as something more than my closest friend.’ She knew it was unfair to put him in such a position; but she could not help herself. Was it fortunate then that fate prevented him from having to make such an elaborate decision — for her letter arrived on his desk in the same post as Nessim’s long telegram announcing the onset of her illness? And while he was still hesitating between a choice of answers there came her post-card, written in a new sprawling hand, which absolved him finally by the words: ‘Do not write again until I can read you; I am bandaged from head to foot. Something very bad, very definitive has happened.’ During the whole of that hot summer the confluent smallpox — invented perhaps as the cruellest remedy for human vanity — dragged on, melting down what remained of her once celebrated beauty. It was useless to pretend even to herself that her whole life would not be altered by it. But how? Mountolive waited in an agony of indecision until their correspondence could be renewed, writing now to Nessim, now to Narouz. A void had suddenly opened at his feet. Then: ‘It is an odd experience to look upon one’s own features full of pot-holes and landslides — like a familiar landscape blown up. I fear that I must get used to the new sensation of being a hag. But by my own force. Of course, all this may strengthen other sides of my character — as acids can — I’ve lost the metaphor! Ach! what sophistry it is, for there is no way out. And how bitterly ashamed I am of the proposals contained in my last long letter. This is not the face to parade through Europe, nor would one dare to shame you by letting it claim your acquaintance at close range. Today I ordered a dozen black veils such as the poor people of my religion still wear! But it seemed so painful an act that I ordered my jeweller to come and measure me afresh for some new bracelets and rings. I have become so thin of late. A reward for bravery too, as children are bribed with a sweet for facing a nasty medicine. Poor little Hakim. He wept bitterly as he showed me his wares. I felt his tears on my fingers. Yet somehow, I was able to laugh. My voice too has changed. I have been so sick of lying in darkened rooms. The veils will free me. Yes, and of course I have been debating suicide — who does not at such times? No, but if I live on it won’t be to pity myself. Or perhaps woman’s vanity is not, as we think, a mortal matter — a killing business? I must be confident and strong. Please don’t turn solemn and pity me. When you write, let your letters be gay as always, will you?’ But thereafter came a silence before their correspondence was fully resumed, and her letters now had a new quality — of bitter resignation. She had retired, she wrote, to the land once more, where she lived alone with Narouz. ‘His gentle savagery makes him an ideal companion. Besides, at times I am troubled in mind now, not quite compos mentis, and then I retire for days at a time to the little summer-house, remember? At the end of the garden. There I read and write with only my snake — the genius of the house these days is a great dusty cobra, tame as a cat. It is company enough. Besides, I have other cares now, other plans. Desert without and desert within! ‘The veil’s a fine and private place: But none, I think, do there embrace. ‘If I should write nonsense to you during the times when the afreet has bewitched my mind (as the servants say) don’t answer. These attacks only last a day or two at most.’ And so the new epoch began. For years she sat, an eccentric and veiled recluse in Karm Abu Girg, writing those long marvellous letters, her mind still ranging freely about the lost worlds of Europe in which he still found himself a traveller. But there were fewer imperatives of the old eager kind. She seldom looked outward now towards new experiences, but mostly backwards into the past as one whose memory of small things needed to be refreshed. Could one hear the cicadas on the Tour Magne? Was the Seine corn-green at Bougival? At the Pallio of Siena were the costumes of silk? The cherry-trees of Navarra…. She wanted to verify the past, to look back over her shoulder, and patiently Mountolive undertook these reassurances on every journey. Rembrandt’s little monkey — had she seen or only imagined it in his canvases? No, it existed, he told her sadly. Very occasionally a request touching the new came up. ‘My interest has been aroused by some singular poems in Values (Sept) signed Ludwig Purse-warden. Something new and harsh here. As you are going to London next week, please enquire about him for me. Is he German? Is he the novelist who wrote those two strange novels about Africa? The name is the same.’ It was this request which led directly to Mountolive’s first meeting with the poet who later was to play a part of some importance in his life. Despite the almost French devotion he felt (copied from Leila) for artists, he found Pursewarden’s name an awkward, almost comical one to write upon the postcard which he addressed to him care of his publishers. For a month he heard nothing; but as he was in London on a three-months’ course of instruction he could afford to be patient. When his answer came it was surprisingly enough, written upon the familiar Foreign Office notepaper; his post, it appeared, was that of a junior in the Cultural Department! He telephoned him at once and was agreeably surprised by the pleasant, collected voice. He had half-expected someone aggressively underbred, and was relieved to hear a civilized note of self-collected humour in Pursewarden’s voice. They agreed to meet for a drink at the ‘Compasses’ near Westminster Bridge that evening, and Mountolive looked forward to the meeting as much for Leila’s sake as his own, for he intended to write her an account of it, carefully describing her artist for her. It was snowing with light persistence, the snow melting as it touched the pavements, but lingering longer on coat-collars and hats. (A snowflake on the eyelash suddenly bursts the world asunder into the gleaming component colours of the prism.) Mountolive bent his head and came round the corner just in time to see a youthful-looking couple turn into the bar of the ‘Compasses’. The girl, who turned to address a remark to her companion over her shoulder as the door opened, wore a brilliant tartan shawl with a great white brooch. The warm lamplight splashed upon her broad pale face with its helmet of dark curling hair. She was strikingly beautiful with a beauty whose somehow shocking placidity took Mountolive a full second to analyse. Then he saw that she was blind, her face slightly upcast to her companion’s in the manner of those whose expressions never fully attain their target — the eyes of another. She stayed thus a full second before her companion said something laughingly and pressed her onwards into the bar. Mountolive entered on their heels and found himself at once grasping the warm steady hand of Pursewarden. The blind girl, it seemed, was his sister. A few moments of awkwardness ensued while they disposed themselves by the blazing coke fire in the corner and ordered drinks. Pursewarden, though in no way a striking person, seemed agreeably normal. He was of medium height and somewhat pale in colouring with a trimmed moustache which made a barely noticeable circumflex above a well-cut mouth. He was, however, so completely unlike his sister in colouring that Mountolive concluded that the magnificent dark hair of the sightless girl must perhaps be dyed, though it seemed natural enough, and her slender eyebrows were also dark. Only the eyes might have given one a clue to the secret of this Mediterranean pigmentation, and they, of course, were spectacularly missing. It was the head of a Medusa, its blindness was that of a Greek statue — a blindness perhaps brought about by intense concentration through centuries upon sunlight and blue water? Her expression, however, was not magistral but tender and appealing. Long silken fingers curled and softened at the butts like the fingers of a concert pianist moved softly upon the oaken table between them, as if touching, confirming, certifying — hesitating to ascribe qualities to his voice. At times her own lips moved softly as if she were privately repeating the words they spoke to herself in order to recapture their resonance and meaning; then she was like someone following music with a private score. ‘Liza, my darling?’ said the poet. ‘Brandy and soda.’ She replied with her placid blankness in a voice at once clear and melodious — a voice which might have given some such overtone to the words ‘Honey and nectar’. They seated themselves somewhat awkwardly while the drinks were dispensed. Brother and sister sat side by side, which gave them a somewhat defensive air. The blind girl put one hand in the brother’s pocket. So began, in rather a halting fashion, the conversation which lasted them far into the evening and which he afterwards transcribed so accurately to Leila, thanks to his formidable memory. ‘He was somewhat shy at first and took refuge in a pleasant diffidence. I found to my surprise that he was earmarked for a Cairo posting next year and told him a little about my friends there, offering to give him a few letters of introduction, notably to Nessim. He may have been a little intimidated by my rank but this soon wore off; he hasn’t much of a head for drinks and after the second began to talk in a most amusing and cutting fashion. A rather different person now emerged — odd and equivocal as one might expect an artist to be — but with pronounced views on a number of subjects, some of them not at all to my taste. But they had an oddly personal ring. One felt they were deduced from experience and not worked out simply to épater. He is, for example, rather an old-fashioned reactionary in his outlook, and is consequently rather mal vu by his brother craftsmen who suspect him of Fascist sympathies; the prevailing distemper of left-wing thought, indeed all radicalism is repugnant to him. But his views were expressed humorously and without heat. I could not, for example, rouse him on the Spanish issue. (“All those little beige people trooping off to die for the Left Book Club!”)’ Mountolive had indeed been rather shocked by opinions as clear-cut as they were trenchant, for he at the time shared the prevailing egalitarian sympathies of the day — albeit in the anodyne liberalized form then current in The Office. Pursewarden’s royal contempts made him rather a formidable person. ‘I confess’ Mountolive wrote ‘that I did not feel I had exactly placed him in any one category. But he expressed views rather than attitudes, and I must say he said a number of striking things which I memorized for you, as: “The artist’s work constitutes the only satisfactory relationship he can have with his fellow-men since he seeks his real friends among the dead and the unborn. That is why he can’t dabble in politics, it isn’t his job. He must concentrate on values rather than policies. Today it all looks to me like a silly shadow-play, for ruling is an art, not a science, just as a society is an organism, not a system. Its smallest unit is the family and really royalism is the right structure for it — for a Royal Family is a mirror image of the human, a legitimate idolatry. I mean, for us, the British, with our essentially quixotic temperament and mental sloth. I don’t know about the others. As for capitalism, its errors and injustices are all remediable, by fair taxation. We should be hunting not for an imaginary equality among men, but simply for a decent equity. But then Kings should be manufacturing a philosophy of sorts, as they did in China; and absolute Monarchy is hopeless for us today because the philosophy of kingship is at a low ebb. The same goes for a dictatorship. ‘ “As for Communism, I can see that is hopeless too; the analysis of man in terms of economic behaviourism takes all the fun out of living, and to divest him of a personal psyche is madness.” And so on. He has visited Russia for a month with a cultural delegation and did not like what he felt there; other boutades like “Sad Jews on whose faces one could see all the melancholia of a secret arithmetic; I asked an old man in Kiev if Russia was a happy place. He drew his breath sharply and after looking around him furtively said: ‘We say that once Lucifer had good intentions, a change of heart. He decided to perform a good act for a change — just one. So hell was born on earth, and they named it Soviet Russia.’ ” ‘In all this, his sister played no part but sat in eloquent silence with her fingers softly touching the table, curling like tendrils of vine, smiling at his aphorisms as if at private wickednesses. Only once, when he had gone out for a second, she turned to me and said: “He shouldn’t concern himself with these matters really. His one job is to learn how to submit to despair.” I was very much struck by this oracular phrase which fell so naturally from her lips and did not know what to reply. When he returned he resumed his place and the conversation at one and the same time as if he had been dunking it over by himself. He said “No, they are a biological necessity, Kings. Perhaps they mirror the very constitution of the psyche? We have compromised so admirably with the question of their divinity that I should hate to see them replaced by a dictator or a Workers’ Council and a firing squad.” I had to protest at this preposterous view, but he was quite serious. “I assure you that this is the way the left-wing tends; its object is civil war, though it does not realize it — thanks to the cunning with which the sapless puritans like Shaw and company have presented their case. Marxism is the revenge of the Irish and the Jews!” I had to laugh at this, and so — to do him justice — did he. “But at least it will explain why I am mal vu” he said, “and why I am always glad to get out of England to countries where I feel no moral responsibility and no desire to work out such depressing formulations. After all, what the hell! I am a writer!” ‘By this time he had had several drinks and was quite at his ease. “Let us leave this barren field! Oh, how much I want to get away to the cities which were created by their women; a Paris or Rome built in response to the female lusts. I never see old Nelson’s soot-covered form in Trafalgar Square without thinking: poor Emma had to go all the way to Naples to assert the right to be pretty, feather-witted and d’une splendeur in bed. What am I, Pursewarden, doing here among people who live in a frenzy of propriety? Let me wander where people have come to terms with their own human obscenity, safe in the poet’s cloak of invisibility. I want to learn to respect nothing while despising nothing — crooked is the path of the initiate!” ‘ “My dear, you are tipsy!” cried Liza with delight. ‘ “Tipsy and sad. Sad and tipsy. But joyful, joyful!” ‘I must say this new and amusing vein in his character seemed to bring me much nearer to the man himself. “Why the stylized emotions? Why the fear and trembling? All those gloomy lavatories with mackintoshed policewomen waiting to see if one pees straight or not? Think of all the passionate adjustment of dress that goes on in the kingdom! the keeping off the grass: is it any wonder that I absent-mindedly take the entrance marked Aliens Only whenever I return?” ‘ “You are tipsy” cried Liza again. ‘ “No. I am happy.” He said it seriously. “And happiness can’t be induced. You must wait and ambush it like a quail or a girl with tired wings. Between art and contrivance there is a gulf fixed!” ‘On he went in this new and headlong strain; and I must confess that I was much taken by the effortless play of a mind which was no longer conscious of itself. Of course, here and there I stumbled against a coarseness of expression which was boorish, and looked anxiously at his sister, but she only smiled her blind smile, indulgent and uncritical. ‘It was late when we walked back together towards Trafalgar Square in the falling snow. There were few people about and the snowflakes deadened our footsteps. In the Square itself your poet stopped to apostrophize Nelson Stylites in true calf-killing fashion. I have forgotten exactly what he said, but it was sufficiently funny to make me laugh very heartily. And then he suddenly changed his mood and turning to his sister said: “Do you know what has been upsetting me all day, Liza? Today is Blake’s birthday. Think of it, the birthday of codger Blake. I felt I ought to see some signs of it on the national countenance, I looked about me eagerly all day. But there was nothing. Darling Liza, let us celebrate the old b …’s birthday, shall we? You and I and David Mountolive here — as if we were French or Italian, as if it meant something.” The snow was falling fast, the last sodden leaves lying in mounds, the pigeons uttering their guttural clotted noises. “Shall we, Liza?” A spot of bright pink had appeared in each of her cheeks. Her lips were parted. Snowflakes like dissolving jewels in her dark hair. “How?” she said. “Just how?” ‘ “We will dance for Blake” said Pursewarden, with a comical look of seriousness on his face, and taking her in his arms he started to waltz, humming the Blue Danube. Over his shoulder, through the falling snowflakes, he said: “This is for Will and Kate Blake.” I don’t know why I felt astonished and rather touched. They moved in perfect measure gradually increasing in speed until they were skimming across the square under the bronze lions, hardly heavier than the whiffs of spray from the fountains. Like pebbles skimming across a smooth lake or stones across an icebound pond…. It was a strange spectacle. I forgot my cold hands and the snow melting on my collar as I watched them. So they went, completing a long gradual ellipse across the open space, scattering the leaves and the pigeons, their breath steaming on the night-air. And then, gently, effortlessly spinning out the arc to bring them back to me — to where I stood now with a highly doubtful-looking policeman at my side. It was rather amusing. “What’s goin’ on ’ere?” said the bobby, staring at them with a distrustful admiration. Their waltzing was so perfect that I think even he was stirred by it. On they went and on, magnificently in accord, the dark girl’s hair flying behind her, her sightless face turned up towards the old admiral on his sooty perch. “They are celebrating Blake’s birthday” I explained in rather a shamefaced fashion, and the officer looked a shade more relieved as he followed them with an admiring eye. He coughed and said “Well, he can’t be drunk to dance like that, can he? The things people get up to on their birthdays!” ‘At long last they were back, laughing and panting and kissing one another. Pursewarden’s good humour seemed to be quite restored now, and he bade me the warmest of good-nights as I put them both in a taxi and sent them on their way. There! My dear Leila, I don’t know what you will make of all this. I learned nothing of his private circumstances or background, but I shall be able to look him up; and you will be able to meet him when he comes to Egypt. I am sending you a small printed collection of his newest verses which he gave me. They have not appeared anywhere as yet.’ In the warm central heating of the club bedroom, he turned the pages of the little book, more with a sense of duty than one of pleasure. It was not only modern poetry which bored him, but all poetry. He could never get the wave-length, so to speak, however hard he tried. He was forced to reduce the words to paraphrase in his own mind, so that they stopped their dance. This inadequacy in himself (Leila had taught him to regard it as such) irritated him. Yet as he turned the pages of the little book he was suddenly interested by a poem which impinged upon his memory, filling him with a sudden chill of misgiving. It was inscribed to the poet’s sister and was unmistakingly a love-poem to ‘a blind girl whose hair is painted black’. At once he saw the white serene face of Liza Pursewarden rising up from the text. Greek statues with their bullet holes for eyes Blinded as Eros by surprise, The secrets of the foundling heart disguise, Lover and loved…. It had a kind of savage deliberate awkwardness of surface; but it was the sort of poem a modern Catullus might have written. It made Mountolive extremely thoughtful. Swallowing, he read it again. It had the simple beauty of shamelessness. He stared gravely at the wall for a long time before slipping the book into an envelope and addressing it to Leila. There were no further meetings during that month, though once or twice Mountolive tried to telephone to Pursewarden at his office. But each time he was either on leave or on some obscure mission in the north of England. Nevertheless he traced the sister and took her out to dinner on several occasions, finding her a delightful and somehow moving companion. Leila wrote in due course to thank him for his information, adding characteristically: ‘The poems were splendid. But of course I would not wish to meet an artist I admired. The work has no connection with the man, I think. But I am glad he is coming to Egypt. Perhaps Nessim can help him — perhaps he can help Nessim? We shall see.’ Mountolive did not know what the penultimate phrase meant. The following summer, however, his leave coincided with a visit to Paris by Nessim, and the two friends met to enjoy the galleries and plan a painting holiday in Brittany. They had both recently started to try their hands at painting and were full of the fervour of amateurs in a new medium. It was here in Paris that they ran into Pursewarden. It was a happy accident, and Mount-olive was delighted at the chance of making his path smooth for him by this lucky introduction. Pursewarden himself was quite transfigured and in the happiest of moods, and Nessim seemed to like him immensely. When the time came to say good-bye, Mount-olive had the genuine conviction that a friendship had been established and cemented over all this good food and blithe living. He saw them off at the station and that very evening reported to Leila on the notepaper of his favourite café: ‘It was a real regret to put them on the train and to think that this week I shall be back in Russia! My heart sinks at the thought. But I have grown to like P. very much, to understand him better. I am inclined to put down his robust scolding manners not to boorishness as I did, but to a profoundly hidden shyness, almost a feeling of guilt. His conversation this time was quite captivating. You must ask Nessim. I believe he liked him even more than I did. And so … what? An empty space, a long frozen journey. Ah! my dear Leila, how much I miss you — what you stand for. When will we meet again, I wonder? If I have enough money on my next leave I may fly down to visit you….’ He was unaware that quite soon he would once more find his way back to Egypt — the beloved country to which distance and exile lent a haunting brilliance as of tapestry. Could anything as rich as memory be a cheat? He never asked himself the question.Yes, this alas is where I come in again, for it must have been approximately now that Justine came to my lecture on Cavafy and thence carried me off to meet the gentle Nessim; simple ‘as an axe falling’ — cleaving my life in two! It is inexpressibly bitter today to realize that she was putting me to a considered purpose of her own, the monster, trailing me before Nessim as a bullfighter trails a cloak, and simply to screen her meetings with a man with whom she herself did not even wish to sleep! But I have already desscribed it all, so painfully, and in such great detail — trying to omit no flavour or crumb which would give the picture the coherence I felt it should possess. And yet, even now I can hardly bring myself to feel regret for the strange ennobling relationship into which she plunged me — presumably herself feeling nothing of its power — and from which I myself was to learn so much. Yes, truly it enriched me, but only to destroy Melissa. We must look these things in the face. I wonder why only now I have been told all this? My friends must all have known all along. Yet nobody breathed a word. But of course, the truth is that nobody ever does breathe a word, nobody interferes, nobody whispers while the acrobat is on the tight-rope; they just sit and watch the spectacle, waiting only to be wise after the event. But then, from another point of view, how would I, blindly and passionately in love with Justine, have received such unwelcome truths at the time? Would they have deflected me from my purpose? I doubt it. I suppose that in all this Justine had surrendered to me only one of the many selves she possessed and inhabited — to this timid and scholarly lover with chalk on his sleeve! Where must one look for justifications? Only I think to the facts themselves; for they might enable me to see now a little further into the central truth of this enigma called ‘love’. I see the image of it receding and curling away from me in an infinite series like the waves of the sea; or, colder than a dead moon, rising up over the dreams and illusions I fabricated from it — but like the real moon, always keeping one side of the truth hidden from me, the nether side of a beautiful dead star. My ‘love’ for her, Melissa’s ‘love’ for me, Nessim’s ‘love’ for her, her ‘love’ for Pursewarden — there should be a whole vocabulary of adjectives with which to qualify the noun — for no two contained the same properties; yet all contained the one indefinable quality, one common unknown in treachery. Each of us, like the moon, had a dark side — could turn the lying face of ‘unlove’ towards the person who most loved and needed us. And just as Justine used my love, so Nessim used Melissa’s…. One upon the back of the other, crawling about ‘like crabs in a basket’. It is strange that there is not a biology of this monster which lives always among the odd numbers, though by all the romances we have built around it it should inhabit the evens: the perfect numbers the hermetics use to describe marriage! ‘What protects animals, enables them to continue living? A certain attribute of organic matter. As soon as one finds life one finds it, it is inherent in life. Like most natural phenomena it is polarized — there is always a negative and a positive pole. The negative pole is pain, the positive pole sex…. In the ape and man we find the first animals, excluding tame animals, in which sex can be roused without an external stimulus…. The result is that the greatest of all natural laws, periodicity, is lost in the human race. The periodic organic condition which should rouse the sexual sense has become an absolutely useless, degenerate, pathological manifestation.’* (Pursewarden brooding over the monkey-house at the Zoo! Capodistria in his tremendous library of pornographic books, superbly bound! Balthazar at his occultism! Nessim facing rows and rows of figures and percentages!) And Melissa? Of course, she was ill, indeed seriously ill, so that in a sense it is melodramatic in me to say that I killed her, or that Justine killed her. Nevertheless, nobody can measure the weight of the pain and neglect which I directly caused her. I remember now one day that Amaril came to see me, sentimental as a great dog. Balthazar had sent Melissa to him for X-rays and treatment. Amaril was an original man in his way and a bit of a dandy withal. The silver duelling-pistols, the engraved visiting-cards in their superb case, clothes cut in all the elegance of the latest fashions. His house was full of candles and he wrote for preference on black paper with white ink. For him the most splendid thing in the world was to possess a fashionable woman, a prize greyhound, or a pair of invincible fighting-cocks. But he was an agreeable man and not without sensibility as a doctor, despite these romantic foibles. His devotion to women was the most obvious thing about him; he dressed for them. Yet it was accompanied by a delicacy, almost a pudicity, in his dealings with them — at least in a city where a woman was, as provender, regarded as something like a plateful of mutton; a city where women cry out to be abused. But he idealized them, built up romances in his mind about them, dreamed always of a complete love, a perfect understanding with one of the tribe. Yet all this was in vain. Ruefully he would explain to Pombal or to myself: ‘I cannot understand it. Before my love has a chance to crystallize, it turns into a deep, a devouring friendship. These devotions are not for you womanizers, you wouldn’t understand. But once this happens, passion flies out of the window. Friendship consumes us, paralyses us. Another sort of love begins. What is it? I don’t know. A tenderness, a tendresse, something melting. Fondante.’ Tears come into his eyes. ‘I am really a woman’s man and women love me. But —’ shaking his handsome head and blowing the smoke from his cigarette upwards to the ceiling he adds smiling, but without self-pity, ‘I alone among men can say that while all women love me no one woman ever has. Not properly. I am as innocent of love (not sexual love, of course) as a virgin. Poor Amaril!’ It is all true. It was his very devotion to women which dictated his choice in medicine — gynaecology. And women gravitate to him as flowers do to the sunlight. He teaches them what to wear and how to walk; chooses their scents for them, dictates the colour of their lipsticks. Moreover, there is not a woman in Alexandria who is not proud to be seen out on his arm; there is not one who if asked (but he never asks) would not be glad to betray her husband or her lover for him. And yet … and yet…. A connecting thread has been broken somewhere, a link snapped. Such desires as he knows, the stifling summer desires of the body in the city of sensuality, are stifled among shop-girls, among his inferiors. Clea used to say ‘One feels a special sort of fate in store for Amaril. Dear Amaril!’ Yes. Yes. But what? What sort of fate lies in store for such a romantic — such a devoted, loving, patient student of women? These are the questions I ask myself as I see him, elegantly gloved and hatted, driving with Balthazar to the hospital for an operation…. He described to me Melissa’s condition adding only: ‘It would help her very much if she could be loved a bit.’ A remark which filled me with shame. It was that very night that I had borrowed the money from Justine to send her to a clinic in Palestine much against her own will. We walked together to the flat after having spent a few minutes in the public gardens discussing her case. The palms looked brilliant in the moonlight and the sea glittered under the spring winds. It seemed so out of place — serious illness — in this scheme of things. Amaril took my arms as we climbed the stairs and squeezed them gently. ‘Life is hard’ he said. And when we entered the bedroom once more to find her lying there in a trance with her pallid little face turned to the ceiling and the hashish pipe beside her on the table, he added, taking up his hat: ‘It is always … don’t think I blame you … no, I envy you Justine … yet it is always in extremis that we doctors make the last desperate prescription for a woman patient — when all the resources of science have failed. Then we say “If only she could be loved!” He sighed and shook his handsome head. There are always a hundred ways of justifying oneself but the sophistries of paper logic cannot alter the fact that after this kind of information in the Interlinear, the memory of those days haunts me afresh, torments me with guilts which I might never have been aware of before! I walk now beside the child which Melissa had by Nessim during that brief love-affair (was it ‘love’ again, or was he trying to use her to find out all he could about his wife? Perhaps one day I shall discover): I walk beside the child I say on these deserted beaches like a criminal, going over and over these fragments of the white city’s life with regrets too deep to alter the tone of voice in which I talk to her. Where does one hunt for the key to such a pattern? But it is clear that I was not alone in feeling such guilt: Purse-warden himself must have been feeling guilty — how else can I explain the money he left me in his will with the express request that it should be spent with Melissa? That at least is one problem solved. Clea too, I know, felt the guilt of the wound we were all of us causing Melissa — though she felt it, so to speak, on behalf of Justine. She took it, so to speak, upon herself — appalled at the mischief which her lover was causing to us both for so little cause. It was she who now became Melissa’s friend, champion and counsellor and who remained her closest confidante until she died. The selfless and innocent Clea, another fool! It does not pay to be honest in love! She said of Melissa: ‘It is terrible to depend so utterly on powers that do not wish you well. To see someone always in your thoughts, like a stain upon reality….’ I think she was also thinking, perhaps, of Justine, up there in the big house among the tall candles and the oil-paintings by forgotten masters. Melissa also said to her of me: ‘With his departure everything in nature disappeared.’ This was when she was dying. But nobody has the right to occupy such a place in another’s life, nobody! You can see now upon what raw material I work in these long and passionate self-communings over a winter sea. ‘She loved you’ said Clea again ‘because of your weakness — this is what she found endearing in you. Had you been strong you would have frightened away so timid a love.’ And then lastly, before I bang the pages of my manuscript shut with anger and resentment, one last remark of Clea’s which burns like a hot iron: ‘Melissa said: “You have been my friend, Clea, and I want you to love him after I am gone. Do it with him, will you, and think of me? Never mind all this beastly love business. Cannot a friend make love on another’s behalf? I ask you to sleep with him as I would ask the Panaghia to come down and bless him while he sleeps — like in the old ikons.” ’ How purely Melissa, how Greek! On Sundays we would walk down together to visit Scobie, I remember; Melissa in her bright cotton frock and straw hat, smiling and eager at the thought of a full holiday from the dusty cabaret. Along the Grande Corniche with the waves dancing and winking across the bar, and the old horse-drawn cabs with their black jarveys in red flowerpots driving their dilapidated and creaking ‘taxis-of-love’; and as we walked past they would call ‘Lovetaxi sir, madam. Only ten piastres an hour. I know a quiet place. …’ And Melissa would giggle and turn away as we walked to watch the minarets glisten like pearls upon the morning light and the bright children’s kites take the harbour wind. Scobie usually spent Sundays in bed, and in winter nearly always contrived to have a cold. He would he between the coarse linen sheets after having made Abdul give him what he called ‘a cinnamon rub’ (I never discovered what this was); with some formality, too, he would have a brick heated and placed at his feet to keep them warm. He had a small knitted cap on his head. As he read very little, he carried, like an ancient tribe, all his literature in his head and would, when alone, recite to himself for hours. He had quite an extensive repertoire of ballads which he thundered out with great energy, marking the beat with his hand. ‘The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed’ brought real tears to his good eye, as did ‘The harp that once through Tara’s Halls’; while among the lesser-known pieces was an astonishing poem the metre of which by its galloping quality virtually enabled him to throw himself out of bed and half-way across the room if recited at full gale force. I once made him write it out for me in order to study its construction closely: ‘By O’Neil close beleaguered, the spirits might droop Of the Saxon three hundred shut up in their coop Till Bagnal drew forth his Toledo and swore On the sword of a soldier to succour Portmore. His veteran troops in the foreign wars tried, Their features how bronzed and how haughty their stride, Step’t steadily on; Ah! ’twas thrilling to see That thunder-cloud brooding o’er Beal-an-atha-Buidh! Land of Owen Aboo! and the Irish rushed on. The foe fired one volley — their gunners are gone. Before the bare bosoms the steel coats have fled, Or despite casque and corslet, lie dying or dead. And the Irish got clothing, coin, colours, great store, Arms, forage, and provender — plunder go leor. They munched the white manchets, they champed the brown chine, Fuliluah! for that day how the natives did dine!’ Disappointingly, he could tell me nothing about it; it had lain there in his memory for half a century like a valuable piece of old silver which is only brought out on ceremonial occasions and put on view. Among the few other such treasures which I recognized was the passage (which he always declaimed with ardour) which ends: ‘Come the four corners of the world in arms, We’ll shock ’em. Trust Joshua Scobie to shock ’em!’ Melissa was devoted to him and found him extraordinarily quaint in his sayings and mannerisms. He for his part was fond of her — I think chiefly because she always gave him his full rank and title — Bimbashi Scobie — which pleased him and made him feel of consequence to her as a ‘high official’. But I remember one day when we found him almost in tears. I thought perhaps he had moved himself by a recital of one of his more powerful poems (‘We Are Seven’ was another favourite); but no. ‘I’ve had a quarrel with Abdul — for the first time’ he admitted with a ludicrous blink. ‘You know what, old man, he wants to take up circumcision.’ It was not hard to understand: to become a barber-surgeon rather than a mere cutter and shaver was a normal enough step for someone like Abdul to want to take; it was like getting one’s Ph.D. But of course, I knew too Scobie’s aversion to circumcision. ‘He’s gone and bought a filthy great pot of leeches’ the old man went on indignantly. ‘Leeches! Started opening veins, he has. I said to him I said “If you think, my boy, that I set you up in business so as you could spend your time hyphenating young children for a piastre a time you’re wrong,” I said to him I said.’ He paused for breath, obviously deeply affected by this development. ‘But Skipper’ I protested, ‘it seems very natural for him to want to become a barber-surgeon. After all, circumcision is practised everywhere, even in England now.’ Ritual circumcision was such a common part of the Egyptian scene that I could not understand why he should be so obviously upset by the thought. He pouted, tucked his head down, and ground his false teeth noisily. ‘No’ he said obstinately. ‘I won’t have it.’ Then he suddenly looked up. and said ‘D’you know what? He’s actually going to study under Mahmoud Enayet Allah — that old butcher!’ I could not understand his concern; at every festival or mulid the circumcision booth was a regular part of the festivities. Huge coloured pictures, heavily beflagged with the national colours, depicting barber-surgeons with pen-knives at work upon wretched youths spread out in dentists’ chairs were a normal if bizarre feature of the side-shows. The doyen of the guild was Mahmoud himself, a large oval man, with a long oiled moustache, always dressed in full fig and apart from his red tarbush conveying the vague impression of some French country practitioner on French leave. He always made a resounding speech in classical Arabic offering circumcision free to the faithful who were too poor to meet the cost of it. Then, when a few candidates were forthcoming, pushed forward by eager parents, his two negro clowns with painted faces and grotesque clothes used to gambol out to amuse and distract the boys, inveigling them by this means into the fatal chair where they were, in Scobie’s picturesque phrase, ‘hyphenated’, their screams being drowned by the noise of the crowd, almost before they knew what was happening. I could not see what was amiss in Abdul’s wanting to learn all he could from this don, so to speak, of hyphenation. Then I suddenly understood as Scobie said ‘It’s not the boy — they can do him for all I care. It’s the girl, old man. I can’t bear to think of that little creature being mutilated. I’m an Englishman, old man, you’ll understand my feelings. I WON’T HAVE IT.’ Exhausted by the force of his own voice, he sank back upon his pillow and went on. ‘And what’s more, I told Abdul so in no uncertain terms. “Lay a finger on the girl” I said “and I’ll get you run in — see if I don’t.” But of course, it’s heart-breaking, old man, ‘cause they’ve been such friends, and the poor coon doesn’t understand. He thinks I’m mad!’ He sighed heavily twice. ‘Their friendship was the best I ever had with anyone except Budgie, and I’m not exaggerating, old man. It really was. And now they’re puzzled. They don’t understand an Englishman’s feelings. And I hate using the Influence of My Position.’ I wondered what this exactly meant. He went on. ‘Only last month we ran Abdel Latif in and got him closed down, with six months in chokey for unclean razors. He was spreading syphilis, old man. I had to do it, even though he was a friend. My duty. I warned him countless times to dip his razor. No, he wouldn’t do it. They’ve got a very poor sense of disinfection here, old man. You know, they use styptic — shaving styptic for the circumcisions. It’s considered more modern than the old mixture of black gunpowder and lemon-juice. Ugh! No sense of disinfection. I don’t know how they don’t all die of things, really I don’t. But they were quite scared when we ran Abdel Latif in and Abdul has taken it to heart. I could see him watching me while I was telling him off. Measuring my words, like.’ But the influence of company always cheered the old man up and banished his phantoms, and it was not long before he was talking in his splendid discursive vein about the life history of Toby Mannering. ‘It was he who put me on to Holy Writ, old man, and I was looking at The Book yesterday when I found a lot about circumcision in it. You know? The Amalekites used to collect foreskins like we collect stamps. Funny, isn’t it?’ He gave a sudden snort of a chuckle like a bull-frog. ‘I must say they were ones! I suppose they had dealers, assorted packets, a regular trade, eh? Paid more for perforations!’ He made a straight face for Melissa who came into the room at this moment. ‘Ah well’ he said, still shaking visibly at his own jest. ‘I must write to Budgie tonight and tell him all the news.’ Budgie was his oldest friend. ‘Lives in Horsham, old man, makes earth-closets. He’s collected a regular packet from them, has old Budgie. He’s an FRZS, I don’t quite know what it means, but he had it on his notepaper. Charles Donahue Budgeon FRZS. I write to him every week. Punctual. Always have done, always will do. Staunch, that’s me. Never give up a friend.’ It was to Budgie, I think, the unfinished letter which was found in his rooms after his death and which read as follows: ‘Dear old pal, The whole world seems to have turned against me since I last wrote. I should have’ Scobie and Melissa! In the golden light of those Sundays they live on, bright still with the colours that memory gives to those who enrich our lives by tears or by laughter — unaware themselves that they have given us anything. The really horrible thing is that the compulsive passion which Justine fit in me was quite as valuable as it would have been had it been ‘real’; Melissa’s gift was no less an enigma — what could she have offered me, in truth, this pale waif of the Alexandrian littoral? Was Clea enriched or beggared by her relations with Justine? Enriched — immeasurably enriched, I should say. Are we then nourished only by fictions, by lies? I recall the words Balthazar wrote down somewhere in his tall grammarian’s handwriting: ‘We live by selected fictions’ and also: ‘Everything is true of everybody….’ Were these words of Pursewarden’s quarried from his own experience of men and women, or simply from a careful observation of us, our behaviours and their result? I don’t know. A passage comes to mind from a novel in which Pursewarden speaks about the role of the artist in life. He says something like this: ‘Aware of every discord, of every calamity in the nature of man himself, he can do nothing to warn his friends, to point, to cry out in time and to try to save them. It would be useless. For they are the deliberate factors of their own unhappiness. All the artist can say as an imperative is: “Reflect and weep.” ’ Was it consciousness of tragedy irremediable contained — not in the external world which we all blame — but in ourselves, in the human conditions, which finally dictated his unexpected suicide in that musty hotel-room? I like to think it was, but perhaps I am in danger of putting too much emphasis on the artist at the expense of the man. Balthazar writes: ‘Of all things his suicide has remained for me an extraordinary and quite inexplicable freak. Whatever stresses and strains he may have been subjected to I cannot quite bring myself to believe it. But then I suppose we live in the shallows of one another’s personalities and cannot really see into the depths beneath. Yet I should have said this was surprisingly out of character. You see, he was really at rest about his work which most torments the artists, I suppose, and really had begun to regard it as “divinely unimportant” — a characteristic phrase. I know this for certain because he once wrote me out on the back of an envelope an answer to the question “What is the object of writing?” His answer was this: “The object of writing is to grow a personality which in the end enables man to transcend art.” ‘He had odd ideas about the constitution of the psyche. For example, he said “I regard it as completely unsubstantial as a rainbow — it only coheres into identifiable states and attributes when attention is focused on it. The truest form of right attention is of course love. Thus ‘people’ are as much of an illusion to the mystic as ‘matter’ to the physicist when he is regarding it as a form of energy.” ‘He never failed to speak most slightingly of my own interests in the occult, and indeed in the work of the Cabal whose meetings you attended yourself. He said of this “Truth is a matter of direct apprehension — you can’t climb a ladder of mental concepts to it.” ‘I can’t get away from the feeling that he was at his most serious when he was most impudent. I heard him maintaining to Keats that the best lines of English poetry ever written were by Coventry Patmore. They were: The truth is great and will prevail When none care whether it prevail or not. ‘And then, having said this, he added: “And their true beauty resides in the fact that Patmore when he wrote them did not know what he meant. Sich lassen!” You can imagine how this would annoy Keats. He also quoted with approval a mysterious phrase of Stendhal, namely: “The smile appears on the skin outside.” ‘Are we to assume from all this the existence of a serious person underneath the banter? I leave the question to you — your concern is a direct one. ‘At the time when we knew him he was reading hardly anything but science. This for some reason annoyed Justine who took him to task for wasting his time in these studies. He defended himself by saying that the Relativity proposition was directly responsible for abstract painting, atonal music, and formless (or at any rate cyclic forms in) literature. Once it was grasped they were understood, too. He added: “In the Space and Time marriage we have the greatest Boy meets Girl story of the age. To our great-grandchildren this will be as poetical a union as the ancient Greek marriage of Cupid and Psyche seems to us. You see, Cupid and Psyche were facts to the Greeks, not concepts. Analogical as against analytical thinking! But the true poetry of the age and its most fruitful poem is the mystery which begins and ends with an n.” ‘ “Are you serious about all this?” ‘ “Not a bit.” ‘Justine protested: “The beast is up to all sorts of tricks, even in his books.” She was thinking of the famous page with the asterisk in the first volume which refers one to a page in the text which is mysteriously blank. Many people take this for a printer’s error. But Pursewarden himself assured me that it was deliberate. “I refer the reader to a blank page in order to throw him back upon his own resources — which is where every reader ultimately belongs.” ‘You speak about the plausibility of our actions — and this does us an injustice, for we are all living people and have the right as such to take refuge in the suspended judgement of God if not the reader. So, while I think of it, let me tell you the story of Justine’s laughter! You will admit that you yourself never heard it, not once, I mean in a way that was not mordant, not wounded. But Purse-warden did — at the tombs in Saqarra! By moonlight, two days after Sham el Nessim. They were there among a large party of sightseers, a crowd under cover of which they had managed to talk a little, like the conspirators they were: already at this time Purse-warden had put an end to her private visitations to his hotel-room. So it gave them a forbidden pleasure, this exchange of a few hoarded secret words; and at last this evening they came by chance to be alone, standing together in one of those overbearing and overwhelming mementoes to a specialized sense of death: the tombs. ‘Justine had laddered her stockings and filled her shoes with sand. She was emptying them, he was lighting matches and gazing about him, and sniffing. She whispered she had been terribly worried of late by a new suspicion that Nessim had discovered something about her lost child which he would not tell her. Purse-warden was absently listening when suddenly he snapped his fingers which he had burnt on a match and said: “Listen, Justine — you know what? I re-read Moeurs again last week for fun and I had an idea; I mean if all the song and dance about Freud and your so-called childhood rape and so on are true — are they? I don’t know. You could easily make it all up. But since you knew who the man in the wretched eyepiece was and refused to reveal his name to the wretched army of amateur psychologists headed by Arnauti, you must have had a good reason for it. What was it? It puzzles me. I won’t tell anyone, I promise. Or is it all a lie?” She shook her head, “No.” ‘They walked out in a clear milk-white moonlight while Justine thought quietly. Then she said slowly: “It wasn’t just shyness or an unwillingness to be cured as they called it — as he called it in the book. The thing was, he was a friend of ours, of yours, of all of us.” Pursewarden looked at her curiously. “The man in the black patch?” he said. She nodded. They lit cigarettes and sat down on the sand to wait for the others. Feeling that everything she confided in him was absolutely secure she said quietly: “Da Capo.” There was a long silence. “Well, stap me! The old Porn himself!” (He had coined this nickname from the word “pornographer”.) And then very quietly and tentatively, Pursewarden went on: “I suddenly had the idea on re-reading all that stuff, you know, that if I had been in your shoes and the whole damn thing wasn’t just a lie to make yourself more interesting to the psychopomps — I’d … well, I’d bloody well try and sleep with him again and try to lay the image that way. The idea suddenly came to me.” ‘This betrays, of course, his total ignorance of psychology. Indeed, it was a fatal step to suggest. But here, to his own surprise, she began to laugh — the first effortless, musical laugh he had ever heard her give. “I did” she said, now laughing almost too much for speech, “I did. You’ll never guess what an effort it cost me, hanging about in the dark road outside his house, trying to pluck up courage to ring the bell. Yes, it occurred to me too. I was desperate. What would he say? We had been friends for years — with never of course a reference to this event. He had never referred to Moeurs and, you know, I don’t believe he has read it ever. Perhaps he preferred, I always thought, to disregard the whole thing — to bury it tactfully.” ‘Laughter again overtook her, shaking her body so much that Pursewarden took her arm anxiously, not to let her interrupt the recital. She borrowed his handkerchief to mop her eyes and continued: “I went in at last. He was there in his famous library! I was shaking like a leaf. You see, I didn’t know what note to strike, something dramatic, something pathetic? It was like going to the dentist. Really, it was funny, Pursewarden. I said at last ‘Dear Da Capo, old friend, you have been my demon for so long that I have come to ask you to exorcise me once and for all. To take away the memory of a horrible childhood event. You must sleep with me!’ You should have seen Da Capo’s face. He was terribly thrown off guard and stammered: ‘Mais voyons, Justine, je suis un ami de Nessim!’ and so on. He gave me a whisky and offered me an aspirin — sure that I had gone out of my mind. ‘Sit down’ he said, putting out a chair for me with shaking hands and sitting nervously down opposite me with a comical air of alarm — like a small boy accused of stealing apples.” Her side was hurting and she pressed her hand to it, laughing with such merriment that it infected him and involuntarily he began to laugh too. “Poor Da Capo” she said, “he was so terribly shocked and alarmed to be told he had raped me when I was a street arab, a child. I have never seen a man more taken aback. He had completely forgotten, it is clear, and completely denied the whole thing from start to finish. In fact, he was outraged and began to protest. I wish you could have seen his face! Do you know what slipped out in the course of his self-justifications? A marvellous phrase ‘Il y a quinze ans que je n’ai pas fait .a!’ ” She threw herself now face downward on to Pursewarden’s lap and stayed a moment, still shaking with laughter; and then she raised her head once more to wipe her eyes. She said “I finished my whisky at last and left, much to his relief; as I was at the door he called after me ‘Remember you are both dining with me on Wednesday. Eight for eight-fifteen, white tie’, as he had done these past few years. I went back home in a daze and drank half a bottle of gin. And you know, I had a strange thought that night in bed — perhaps you will find it shockingly out of place; a thought about Da Capo forgetting so completely an act which had cost me so many years of anxiety and indeed mental illness and had made me harm so many people. I said to myself ‘This is perhaps the very way God himself forgets the wrongs he does to us in abandoning us to the mercies of the world.’ ” She threw back her smiling head and stood up. ‘She saw now that Pursewarden was looking at her with tears of admiration in his eyes. Suddenly he embraced her warmly, kissing her more passionately perhaps than he had ever done. When she was telling me all this, with a pride unusual in her, she added: “And you know, Balthazar, that was better than any lover’s kiss, it was a real reward, an accolade. I saw then that if things had been different I had it in me to make him love me — perhaps for the very defects in my character which are so obvious to everyone.” ‘Then the rest of the party came chattering up among the tombs and … I don’t know what. I suppose they all drove back to the Nile and ended up at a night-club. What the devil am I doing scribbling all these facts down for you? Lunacy! You will only hate me for telling you things you would prefer not to know as a man and prefer perhaps to ignore as an artist…. These obstinate little dispossessed facts, the changelings of our human existence which one can insert like a key into a lock — or a knife into an oyster: will there be a pearl inside? Who can say? But somewhere they must exist in their own right, these grains of a truth which “just slipped out”. Truth is not what is uttered in full consciousness. It is always what “just slips out” — the typing error which gives the whole show away. Do you understand me, wise one? But I have not done. I shall never have the courage to give you these papers, I can see. I shall finish the story for myself alone. ‘So from all this you will be able to measure the despair of Justine when that wretched fellow Pursewarden went and killed himself. In the act of being annoyed with him I find myself smiling, so little do I believe in his death as yet. She found this act as completely mysterious, as completely unforeseen as I myself did; but she poor creature had organized her whole careful deception around the idea of his living on! There was nobody except myself in whom to confide now; and you whom, if she did not love, God knows she did not hate, were in great danger. It was too late to do anything except make plans to go away. She was left with the “decoy”! Does one learn anything from these bitter truths? Throw all this paper into the sea, my dear boy, and read no more of the Interlinear. But I forget. I am not going to let you see it, am I? I shall leave you content with the fabrications of an art which “reworks reality to show its significant side.” What significant side could she turn, for example, to Nessim, who at that time had become a prey to those very preoccupations which made him appear to everyone — himself included — mentally unstable? Of his more serious preoccupations at this time I could write a fair amount, for I have in the interval learned a good deal about his affairs and his political concerns. They will explain his sudden changeover into a great entertainer — the crowded house which you describe so well, the banquets and balls. But here … the question of censorship troubles me, for if I were to send you this and if you were, as you might, to throw this whole disreputable jumble of paper into the water, the sea might float it back to Alexandria perhaps directly into the arms of the Police. Better not. I will tell you only what seems politic. Perhaps later on I shall tell you the rest. ‘Pursewarden’s face in death reminded me very much of Melissa’s; they both had the air of just having enjoyed a satisfying private joke and of having fallen off to sleep before the smile had fully faded from the corners of the mouth. Some time before he had said to Justine: “I am ashamed of one thing only: because I have disregarded the first imperative of the artist, namely, create and starve. I have never starved, you know. Kept afloat doing little jobs of one sort or another: caused as much harm as you and more.” ‘That night, Nessim was already there in the hotel-room sitting with the body when I arrived, looking extraordinarily composed and calm but as if deafened by an explosion. Perhaps the impact of reality had dazed him? He was at this time going through that period of horrible dreams of which he had a transcript made, some of which you reproduce in your MS. They are strangely like echoes of Leila’s dreams of fifteen years ago — she had a bad period after her husband died and I attended her at Nessim’s request. Here again in judging him you trust too much to what your subjects say about themselves — the accounts they give of their own actions and their meaning. You would never make a good doctor. Patients have to be found out — for they always lie. Not that they can help it, it is part of the defence-mechanism of the illness — just as your MS. betrays the defence-mechanism of the dream which does not wish to be invaded by reality! Perhaps I am wrong? I do not wish to judge anyone unjustly or intrude upon your private territory. Will all these notes of mine cost me your friendship? I hope not, but I fear it. ‘What was I saying? Yes, Pursewarden’s face in death! It had the same old air of impudent contrivance. One felt he was playacting — indeed, I still do, so alive does he seem to me. ‘It was Justine first who alerted me. Nessim sent her to me with the car and a note which I did not let her read. It was clear that Nessim had either learned of the intention or the fact before any of us — I suspect a telephone call by Pursewarden himself. At any rate, my familiarity with suicide cases — I have handled any number for Nimrod’s night-patrol — made me cautious. Suspecting perhaps barbiturates or some other slow compound, I took the precaution of carrying my little stomach-pump with me among my antidotes. I confess that I thought with pleasure of my friend’s expression when he woke up in hospital. But it seems I misjudged both his pride and his thoroughness for he was thoroughly and conclusively dead when we arrived. ‘Justine raced ahead of me up the staircases of the gaunt hotel which he had loved so much (indeed, he had christened it Mount Vulture Hotel — I presume from the swarm of whores who fluttered about in the street outside it, like vultures). ‘Nessim had locked himself into the room — we had to knock and he let us in with a certain annoyance, or so it seemed to me. The place was in the greatest disorder you can imagine. Drawers turned out, clothes and manuscripts and paintings everywhere; Pursewarden was lying on the bed in the corner with his nose pointing aloofly at the ceiling. I paused to unpack my big-intestine kit — method is everything in moments of stress — while Justine went unerringly across to the bottle of gin on the corner by the bed and took a long swig. I knew that this might contain the poison but said nothing — at such times there is little to say. The minute you get hysterical you have to take this kind of chance. I simply unpacked and unwound my aged stomach-pump which has saved more useless lives (lives impossible to live, shed like ill-fitting garments) than any such other instrument in Alexandria. Slowly, as befits a third-rate doctor, I unwound it, and with method, which is all a third-rate doctor has left to face the world with…. ‘Meanwhile Justine turned to the bed and leaning down said audibly: “Pursewarden, wake up.” Then she put her palms to the top of her head and let out a long pure wail like an Arab woman — a sound abruptly shut off, confiscated by the night in that hot airless little room. Then she began to urinate in little squirts all over the carpet. I caught her and pushed her into the bathroom. It gave me the respite I needed to have a go at his heart. It was silent as the Great Pyramid. I felt angry about it, because it was clear he had resorted to some beastly cyanide preparation — favoured, by the way, by your famous Secret Service. I was so exasperated that I clipped him over the ear — a blow he had long merited! ‘All this time I had been aware that Nessim was suddenly active, but now I recovered, so to speak, and could turn my attention to him. He was turning out drawers and desks and cupboards like a maniac, examining manuscripts and papers, tossing things aside and picking things up with a complete lack of his usual phlegm. “What the hell are you doing?” I said angrily, to which he replied “There must be nothing for the Egyptian Police to find.” And then he stopped as if he had said too much. Every mirror bore a soap-inscription. Nessim had partly obliterated one. I could only make out the letters OHEN … PALESTINE…. ‘It was not long before there came the familiar knocking at the door and the faces and tumult inseparable from such scenes everywhere in the world. Men with notebooks, and journalists, and priests — Father Paul of all people turned up. At this, I half-expected the corpse to rise up and throw something … but no; Pursewarden remained with his nose cocked to the ceiling, in his amused privacy. ‘We stumbled out together, the three of us, and drove back to the studio where the great failed paintings soothed us, and where whisky gave us new courage to continue living. Justine said not a word. Not a mortal word.’THE GOD ABANDONS ANTONYChapter VIIJustine (1957) Part III Chapter 5Justine (1957) Part I Chapter 4 加拿大28顺子概率 Landscape-tones: brown to bronze, steep skyline, low cloud, pearl ground with shadowed oyster and violet reflections. The lion-dust of desert: prophets’ tombs turned to zinc and copper at sunset on the ancient lake. Its huge sand-faults like watermarks from the air; green and citron giving to gunmetal, to a single plum-dark sail, moist, palpitant: sticky-winged nymph. Taposiris is dead among its tumbling columns and seamarks, vanished the Harpoon Men … Mareotis under a sky of hot lilac. summer: buff sand, hot marble sky. autumn: swollen bruise-greys, winter: freezing snow, cool sand. clear sky panels, glittering with mica. washed delta greens. magnificent starscapes. And spring? Ah! there is no spring in the Delta, no sense of refreshment and renewal in things. One is plunged out of winter into: wax effigy of a summer too hot to breathe. But here, at least, in Alexandria, the sea-breaths save us from the tideless weight of summer nothingness, creeping over the bar among the warships, to flutter the striped awnings of the cafés upon the Grande Corniche. I would never have … ***** The city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory. Why must I return to it night after night, writing here by the fire of carob-wood while the Aegean wind clutches at this island house, clutching and releasing it, bending back the cypresses like bows? Have I not said enough about Alexandria? Am I to be reinfected once more by the dream of it and the memory of its inhabitants? Dreams I had thought safely locked up on paper, confided to the strong-rooms of memory! You will think I am indulging myself. It is not so. A single chance factor has altered everything, has turned me back upon my tracks. A memory which catches sight of itself in a mirror. Justine, Melissa, Clea…. There were so few of us really — you would have thought them easily disposed of in a single book, would you not? So would I, so did I. Dispersed now by time and circumstance, the circuit broken forever…. I had set myself the task of trying to recover them in words, reinstate them in memory, allot to each his and her position in my time. Selfishly. And with that writing complete, I felt that I had turned a key upon the doll’s house of our actions. Indeed, I saw my lovers and friends no longer as living people but as coloured transfers of the mind; inhabiting my papers now, no longer the city, like tapestry figures. It was difficult to concede to them any more common reality than to the words I had used about them. What has recalled me to myself? But in order to go on, it is necessary to go back: not that anything I wrote about them is untrue, far from it. Yet when I wrote, the full facts were not at my disposal. The picture I drew was a provisional one — like the picture of a lost civilization deduced from a few fragmented vases, an inscribed tablet, an amulet, some human bones, a gold smiling death-mask. ***** ‘We live’ writes Pursewarden somewhere ‘lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time — not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.’ Something of this order…. And as for human characters, whether real or invented, there are no such animals. Each psyche is really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion — but a necessary illusion if we are to love! As for the something that remains constant … the shy kiss of Melissa is predictable, for example (amateurish as an early form of printing), or the frowns of Justine, which cast a shadow over those blazing dark eyes — orbits of the Sphinx at noon. ‘In the end’ says Pursewarden ‘everything will be found to be true of everybody. Saint and Villain are co-sharers.’ He is right. I am making every attempt to be matter-of-fact….these memorials of an unforgotten cityChapter VIIIChapter XIVBalthazar (1958) Part III Chapter 2 They were to stay like this for many weeks now, the actors: as if trapped once and for all in postures which might illustrate how incalculable a matter naked providence can be. To Mountolive, more than the others, came a disenchanting sense of his own professional inadequacy, his powerlessness to act now save as an instrument (no longer a factor), so strongly did he feel himself gripped by the gravitational field of politics. Private humours and impulses were alike disinherited, counting for nothing. Did Nessim also feel the mounting flavour of stagnation in everything? He thought back bitterly and often to the casually spoken words of Sir Louis as he was combing his hair in the mirror. ‘The illusion that you are free to act!’ He suffered from excruciating headaches now from time to time and his teeth began to give him trouble. For some reason or another he took the fancy that this was due to over-smoking and tried to abandon the habit unsuccessfully. The struggle with tobacco only increased his misery. Yet if he himself were powerless, now, how much more so the others? Like the etiolated projections of a sick imagination, they seemed, drained of meaning, empty as suits of clothes; taking up emplacements in this colourless drama of contending wills. Nessim, Justine, Leila — they had an unsubstantial air now — as of dream projections acting in a world populated by expressionless waxworks. It was difficult to feel that he owed them even love any longer. Leila’s silence above all suggested, even more clearly, the guilt of her complicity. Autumn drew to an end and still Nur could produce no proof of action. The life-lines which tied Mountolive’s Mission to London became clogged with longer and longer telegrams full of the shrewish iterations of minds trying to influence the operation of what Mountolive now knew to be not merely chance, but in fact destiny. It was interesting, too, in a paradoxical sort of way, this first great lesson which his profession had to teach him; for outside the circumscribed area of his personal fears and hesitations, he watched the whole affair with a kind of absorbed attention, with almost a sense of dreadful admiration. But it was like some fretful mummy that he now presented himself to the gaze of Nur, almost ashamed of the splendours of that second-hand uniform, so clearly was it intended to admonish or threaten the Minister. The old man was full of a feverish desire to accommodate him; he was like a monkey jumping enthusiastically on the end of a chain. But what could he do? He made faces to match his transparent excuses. The investigations undertaken by Memlik were not as yet complete. It was essential to verify the truth. The threads were still being followed up. And so forth. Mountolive did what he had never done before in his official life, colouring up and banging the dusty table between them with friendly exasperation. He adopted the countenance of a thundercloud and predicted a rupture of diplomatic relations. He went so far as to recommend Nur for a decoration … realizing that this was his last resort. But in vain. The broad contemplative figure of Memlik squatted athwart the daylight, promising everything, performing nothing; immovable, imperturbable, and only faintly malign. Each was now pressing the other beyond the point of polite conciliation: Maskelyne and the High Commissioner were pressing London for action; London, full of moralizing grandeurs, pressed Mountolive; Mountolive pressed Nur, overwhelming the old man with a sense of his own ineffectuality, for he too was powerless to grapple with Memlik without the help of the King: and the King was ill, very ill. At the bottom of this pyramid sat the small figure of the Minister for Interior, with his priceless collection of Korans locked away in dusty cupboards. Constrained nevertheless to keep up the diplomatic pressure, Mountolive was now irradiated by an appalling sense of futility as he sat (like some ageing jeune premier) and listened to the torrent of Nur’s excuses, drinking the ceremonial coffee and prying into those ancient and imploring eyes. ‘But what more evidence do you need, Pasha, than the papers I brought you?’ The Minister’s hands spread wide, smoothing the air between them as if he were rubbing cold-cream into it; he exuded a conciliatory and apologetic affection, like an unguent. ‘He is going into the matter’ he croaked helplessly. ‘There is more than one Hosnani, to begin with’ he added in desperation. Backwards and forwards moved the tortoise’s wrinkled head, regular as a pendulum. Mountolive groaned inside himself as he thought of those long telegrams following one another, endless as a tapeworm. Nessim had now, so to speak, wedged himself neatly in between his various adversaries, in a position where neither could reach him — for the time being. The game was in baulk. Donkin alone derived a quizzical amusement from these exchanges — so characteristic of Egypt. His own affection for the Moslem had taught him to see clearly into his motives, to discern the play of childish cupidities underneath the histrionic silence of a Minister, under his facile promises. Even Mountolive’s gathering hysteria in the face of these checks was amusing for a junior secretary. His Chief had become a puffy and petulant dignitary, under all this stress. Who could have believed such a change possible? The observation that there was more than one Hosnani was a strange one, and it was a fruit of the prescient Rafael’s thought as he quietly shaved his master one morning, according to custom; Memlik paid great attention to what the barber said — was he not a European? While the little barber shaved him in the morning they discussed the transactions of the day. Rafael was full of ideas and opinions, but he uttered them obliquely, simplifying them so that they presented themselves in readily understandable form. He knew that Memlik had been troubled by Nur’s insistence, though he had not shown it; he knew, moreover, that Memlik would act only if the King recovered enough to grant Nur an audience. It was a matter of luck and time; meanwhile, why not pluck Hosnani as far as possible? It was only one of a dozen such matters which lay gathering dust (and perhaps bribes) while the King was ill. One fine day His Majesty would feel much better under his new German doctors and would grant audience once again. He would send for Nur. That is the manner in which the matter would fall out. The next thing: the old goose-necked telephone by the yellow divan would tingle and the old man’s voice (disguising its triumphant tone) would say, ‘I am Nur, speaking from the very Divan of the Very King, having received audience. That matter of which we spoke concerning the British Government. It must now be advanced and go forward. Give praise to God!’ ‘Give praise to God!’ and from this point forward Memlik’s hands would be tied. But for the moment he was still a free agent, free to express his contempt for the elder Minister by inaction. ‘There are two brothers, Excellence,’ Rafael had said, putting on a story-book voice and casting an expression of gloomy maturity upon his little doll’s face. ‘Two brothers Hosnani, not one, Excellence.’ He sighed as his white fingers took up small purses of Memlik’s dark skin for the razor to work upon. He proceeded slowly, for to register an idea in a Moslem mind is like trying to paint a wall: one must wait for the first coat to dry (the first idea) before applying a second. ‘Of the two brothers, one is rich in land, and the other rich in money — he of the Koran. Of what good are lands to my Excellence? But one whose purse is fathomless….’ His tone suggested all the landless man’s contempt for good ground. ‘Well, well, but….’ said Memlik with a slow, unemphatic impatience, yet without moving his lips under the kiss of the crisp razor. He was impatient for the theme to be developed. Rafael smiled and was silent for a moment. ‘Indeed’ he said thoughtfully, ‘the papers you received from his Excellence were signed Hosnani — in the family name. Who is to say which brother signed them, which is guilty and which innocent? If you were wise in deed would you sacrifice a moneyed man to a landed one? I not, Excellence, I not.’ ‘What would you do, my Rafael?’ ‘For people like the British it could be made to seem that the poor one was guilty, not the rich. I am only thinking aloud, Excellence, a small man among great affairs.’ Memlik breathed quietly through his mouth, keeping his eyes shut. He was skilled in never showing surprise. Yet the thought, suspended idly in his mind, filled him with a reflective astonishment. In the last month he had received three additions to his library which had left in little doubt the comparative affluence of his client, the elder Hosnani. It was getting on for the Christian Christmastide. He pondered heavily. To satisfy both the British and his own cupidity…. That would be very clever! Not eight hundred yards away from the chair in which Memlik sprawled, across the brown Nile water, sat Mountolive at his papers. On the polished desk before him lay the great florid invitation card which enjoined his participation in one of the great social events of the year — Nessim’s annual duckshoot on Lake Mareotis. He propped it against his inkwell in order to read it again with an expression of fugitive reproach. But there was another communication of even greater importance; even after this long silence he recognized Leila’s nervous handwriting on the lined envelope smelling of chypre. But inside it he found a page torn from an exercise book scrawled over with words and phrases set down anyhow, as if in great haste. ‘David, I am going abroad, perhaps long perhaps short, I cannot tell; against my will. Nessim insists. But I must see you before I leave. I must take courage and meet you the evening before. Don’t fail. I have something to ask, something to tell. “This business”! I knew nothing about it till carnival I swear; now only you can save….’ So the letter ran on pell-mell; Mountolive felt a queer mixture of feelings — an incoherent relief which somehow trembled on the edge of indignation. After all this time she would be waiting for him after dark near the Auberge Bleue in an old horse-drawn cab pulled back off the road among the palms! That plan was at least touched with something of her old fantasy. For some reason Nessim was not to know of this meeting — why should he disapprove? But the information that she at least had had no part in the conspiracies fostered by her son — that flooded him with relief and tenderness. And all this time he had been seeing Leila as a hostile extension of Nessim, had been training himself to hate her! ‘My poor Leila’ he said aloud, holding the envelope to his nose to inhale the fragrance of chypre. He picked up the phone and spoke softly to Errol: ‘I suppose the whole Chancery has been invited to the Hosnani shoot? Yes? I agree, he has got rather a nerve at such a time…. I shall, of course, have to decline, but I would like you chaps to accept and apologize for me. To keep up a public appearance of normality merely. Will you then? Thank you very much. Now one more thing. I shall go up the evening before the shoot for private business and return the next day — we shall probably pass each other on the desert road. No, I’m glad you fellows have the chance. By all means, and good hunting.’ The next ten days passed in a sort of dream, punctuated only by the intermittent stabbings of a reality which was no longer a drug, a dissipation which gagged his nerves; his duties were a torment of boredom. He felt immeasurably expended, used-up, as he confronted his face in the bathroom mirror, presenting it to the razor’s edge with undisguised distaste. He had become quite noticeably grey now at the temples. From somewhere in the servants’ quarters a radio burred and scratched out the melody of an old song which had haunted a whole Alexandrian summer: ‘Jamais de la vie’. He had come to loathe it now. This new epoch — a limbo filled with the dispersing fragments of habit, duty and circumstance — filled him with a gnawing impatience; underneath it all he was aware that he was gathering himself together for this long-awaited meeting with Leila. Somehow it would determine, not the physical tangible meaning of his return to Egypt so much as the psychic meaning of it in relation to his inner life. God! that was a clumsy way to put it — but how else could one express these things? It was a sort of barrier in himself which had to be crossed, a puberty of the feelings which had to be outgrown. He drove up across the crackling desert in his pennoned car, rejoicing in the sweet whistle of its cooled engine, and the whickering of wind at the side-screens. It had been some time since he had been able to travel across the desert alone like this — it reminded him of older and happier journeys. Flying across the still white air with the speedometer hovering in the sixties, he hummed softly to himself, despite his distaste, the refrain: Jamais de la vie, Jamais dans la nuit Quand ton coeur se démange de chagrin…. How long was it since he had caught himself singing like this? An age. It was not really happiness, but an overmastering relief of mind. Even the hateful song helped him to recover the lost image of an Alexandria he had once found charming. Would it, could it be so again? It was already late afternoon by the time he reached the desert fringe and began the slow in-curving impulse which would lead him to the city’s bristling outer slums. The sky was covered with clouds. A thunderstorm was breaking over Alexandria. To the east upon the icy green waters of the lake poured a rainstorm — flights of glittering needles pocking the waters; he could dimly hear the hush of rain above the whisper of the car. He glimpsed the pearly city through the dark cloud-mat, its minarets poked up against the cloud bars of an early sunset; linen soaked in blood. A sea-wind chaffered and tugged at the sea-limits of the estuary. Higher still roamed packages of smoking, blood-stained cloud throwing down a strange radiance into the streets and squares of the white city. Rain was a rare and brief winter phenomenon in Alexandria. Presently the sea-wind would rise, alter inclination, and peel the sky clear in a matter of minutes, rolling up the heavy cumulus like a carpet. The glassy freshness of the winter sky would resume its light, polishing the city once more till it glittered against the desert like quartz, like some beautiful artifact. He was no longer impatient. Dusk was beginning to swallow the sunset. As he neared the ugly ribbons of cabins and warehouses by the outer harbour, his tyres began to smoke and seethe upon the wet tarmac, its heat now slaked by a light rain. Time to throttle down…. He entered the penumbra of the storm slowly, marvelling at the light, at the horizon drawn back like a bow. Odd gleams of sunshine scattered rubies upon the battleships in the basin (squatting under their guns like horned toads). It was the ancient city again; he felt its pervading melancholy under the rain as he crossed it on his way to the Summer Residence. The brilliant unfamiliar lighting of the thunder-storm re-created it, giving it a spectral, story-book air — broken pavements made of tinfoil, snail-shells, cracked horn, mica; earth-brick buildings turned to the colour of ox-blood; the lovers wandering in Mohammed Ali Square, disoriented by the unfamiliar rain, disconsolate as untuned instruments; the clicking of violet trams along the sea-front among the tatting of palm-fronds. The desuetude of an ancient city whose streets were plastered with the wet blown dust of the surrounding desert. He felt it all anew, letting it extend panoramically in his consciousness — the moan of a liner edging out towards the sunset bar, or the trains which flowed like a torrent of diamonds towards the interior, their wheels chattering among the shingle ravines and the powder of temples long since abandoned and silted up…. Mountolive saw it all now with a world-weariness which he at last recognized as the stripe which maturity lays upon the shoulders of an adult — the stigma of the experiences which age one. The wind spouted in the harbour. The corridors of wet rigging swayed and shook like the foliage of some great tree. Now the tears were trickling down the windscreen under the diligent and noiseless wipers…. A little period in this strange contused darkness, fitfully lit by lightning, and then the wind would come — the magistral north wind, punching and squeezing the sea into its own characteristic plumage of white crests, knocking open the firmament until the faces of men and women once more reflected the open winter sky. He was in plenty of time. He drove to the Summer Residence to make sure that the staff had been warned of his arrival; he intended to stay the night and return to Cairo on the morrow. He let himself into the front door with his own key, having pressed the bell, and stood listening for the shuffle of Ali. And as he heard the old man’s step approaching, the north wind arrived with a roar, stiffening the windows in their frames, and the rain stopped abruptly as if it had been turned off. He had still an hour or so before the rendezvous: comfortable time in which to have a bath and change his clothes. To his own surprise, he felt perfectly at ease now, no longer tormented by doubts or elated by a sense of relief. He had put himself unreservedly in the hands of chance. He ate a sandwich and drank two strong whiskies before setting out and letting the great car slide softly down the Grande Corniche towards the Auberge Bleue which lay towards the outskirts of the town, fringed by patches of dune and odd clusters of palm. The sky was clear again now and the whitecaps were racing ashore to bang themselves in showers of spray upon the metal piers of Chatby. At the horizon’s edge flickered the intermittent lightning still, but dimly. These faint gleams suggested perhaps the gun flashes of distant warships in a naval engagement. He edged the car softly off the road and into the deserted car park of the Auberge, switching off the side-lamps as he did so. He sat for a moment, accustoming himself to the bluish dusk. The Auberge was empty — it was still too early for dancers and diners to throng its elegant floor and bars. Then he saw it. Just off the road, on the opposite side of the park, there was a bare patch of sand-dune with a few leaning palms. A gharry stood there. Its old-fashioned oil-lamps were alight and wallowed feebly like fireflies in the light sea-airs. There was a dim figure on the jarvey’s box in a tarbush — apparently asleep. He crossed the gravel with a light and joyous step, hearing it squeak under his shoes, and as he neared the gharry called, in a soft voice: ‘Leila!’ He saw the silhouette of the driver turn against the sky and register attention; from inside the cab he heard a voice — Leila’s voice — say something like: ‘Ah! David, so at last we meet. I have come all this way to tell you….’ He leaned forward with a puzzled air, straining his eyes, but could not see more than the vague shape of someone in the far corner of the cab. ‘Get in’ she cried imperiously. ‘Get in and we shall talk.’ And it was here that a sense of unreality overtook Mount-olive; he could not exactly fathom why. But he felt as one does in dreams when one walks without touching the ground, or else appears to rise deliberately through the air like a cork through water. His feelings, like antennae, were reaching out towards the dark figure, trying to gather and assess the meaning of these tumbling phrases and to analyse the queer sense of disorientation which they carried, buried in them, like a foreign intonation creeping into familiar voices; somewhere the whole context of his impressions foundered. The thing was this: he did not quite recognize the voice. Or else, to put it another way, he could identify Leila but not quite believe in the evidence of his own ears. It was, so to speak, not the precious voice which, in his imagination, had lived on, inhabiting the remembered figure of Leila. She spoke now with a sort of gobbling inconsistency, an air of indiscretion, in a voice which had a slightly clipped edge on it. He supposed this to be the effect of excitement and who knows what other emotions? But … phrases which petered out, only to start again in the middle, phrases which lapsed and subsided in the very act of joining two thoughts? He frowned to himself in the darkness as he tried to analyse this curious unreal quality of distraction in the voice. It was not the voice that belonged to Leila — or was it? Presently, a hand fell upon his arm and he was able to study it eagerly in the puddle of soft light cast by the oil-lamp in the brass holder by the cabby’s box. It was a chubby and unkempt little hand, with short, unpainted fingernails and unpressed cuticles. ‘Leila — is it really you?’ he asked almost involuntarily, still invaded by this sense of unreality, of disorientation; as of two dreams overlapping, displacing one another. ‘Get in’ said the new voice of an invisible Leila. As he obeyed and stepped forward into the swaying cab he smelt her strange confusion of scents on the night air — again a troubling departure from the accepted memory. But orange-water, mint, Eau de Cologne, and sesame; she smelt like some old Arab lady! And then he caught the dull taint of whisky. She too had had to string her nerves for the meeting with alcohol! Sympathy and indecision battled within him; the old image of the brilliant, resourceful and elegant Leila refused somewhere to fix itself in the new. He simply must see her face. As if she read his thoughts, she said: ‘So I came at last, unveiled, to meet you.’ He suddenly thought, bringing himself up with a start, ‘My God! I simply haven’t stopped to think how old Leila might be!’ She made a small sign and the old jarvey in the tarbush drew his nag slowly back on to the lighted macadam of the Grande Corniche and set the gharry moving at walking pace. Here the sharp blue street-lamps came, up one after the other to peer into the cab, and with the first of these intrusive gleams of light Mountolive turned to gaze at the woman beside him. He could very dimly recognize her. He saw a plump and square-faced Egyptian lady of uncertain years, with a severely pock-marked face and eyes drawn grotesquely out of true by the antimony-pencil. They were the mutinous sad eyes of some clumsy cartoon creature: a cartoon of animals dressed up and acting as human beings. She had indeed been brave enough to unveil, this stranger who sat facing him, staring at him with the painted eye one sees in frescoes with a forlorn and pitiable look of appeal. She wore an air of unsteady audacity as she confronted her lover, though her lips trembled and her large jowls shook with every vibration of the solid rubber tyres on the road. They stared at each other for a full two seconds before the darkness swallowed the light again. Then he raised her hand to his lips. It was shaking like a leaf. In the momentary light he had seen her uncombed and straggly hair hanging down the back of her neck, her thoughtless and disordered black dress. Her whole appearance had a rakish and improvised air. And the dark skin, so cruelly botched and cicatriced by the smallpox, looked coarse as the skin of an elephant. He did not recognize her at all! ‘Leila!’ he cried (it was almost a groan) pretending at last to identify and welcome the image of his lover (now dissolved or shattered forever) in this pitiable grotesque — a fattish Egyptian lady with all the marks of eccentricity and age written upon her appearance. Each time the lamps came up he looked again, and each time he saw himself confronting something like an animal cartoon figure — an elephant, say. He could hardly pay attention to her words, so intent was he upon his racing feelings and memories. ‘I knew we should meet again some day. I knew it.’ She pressed his hand, and again he tasted her breath, heavy with sesame and mint and whisky. She was talking now and he listened uneasily, but with all the attention one gives to an unfamiliar language; and each time the street lamps came up to peer at them, he gazed at her anxiously — as if to see whether there had been any sudden and magical change in her appearance. And then he was visited by another thought: ‘What if I too have changed as much as she has — if indeed this is she?’ What indeed? Sometime in the distant past they had exchanged images of one another like lockets; now his own had faded, changed. What might she see upon his face — traces of the feebleness which had overrun his youthful strength and purpose? He had now joined the ranks of those who compromise gracefully with life. Surely his ineffectuality, his unmanliness must be written all over his foolish, weak, good-looking face? He eyed her mournfully, with a pitiful eagerness to see whether she indeed really recognized him. He had forgotten that women will never surrender the image of their hearts’ affections; no, she would remain forever blinded by the old love, refusing to let it be discountenanced by the new. ‘You have not changed by a day’ said this unknown woman with the disagreeable perfume. ‘My beloved, my darling, my angel.’ Mountolive flushed in the darkness at such endearments coming from the lips of an unknown personage. And the known Leila? He suddenly realized that the precious image which had inhabited his heart for so long had now been dissolved, completely wiped out! He was suddenly face to face with the meaning of love and time. They had lost forever the power to fecundate each other’s minds! He felt only self-pity and disgust where he should have felt love! And these feelings were simply not permissible. He swore at himself silently as they went up and down the dark causeway by the winter sea, like invalids taking the night air, their hands touching each other, in the old horse-drawn cab. She was talking faster, now, vaguely, jumping from topic to topic. Yet it all seemed an introduction to the central statement which she had come to make. She was to leave tomorrow evening: ‘Nessim’s orders. Justine will come back from the lake and pick me up. We are disappearing together. At Kantara we’ll separate and I shall go on to Kenya to the farm. Nessim won’t say, can’t say for how long as yet. I had to see you. I had to speak to you once. Not for myself — never for myself, my own heart. It was what I learned about Nessim at the carnival time. I was on the point of coming to meet you; but what he told me about Palestine! My blood ran cold. To do something against the British! How could I! Nessim must have been mad. I didn’t come because I would not have known what to say to you, how to face you. But now you know all.’ She had begun to draw her breath sharply now, to hurry onward as if all this were introductory matter to her main speech. Then suddenly she came out with it. ‘The Egyptians will harm Nessim, and the British are trying to provoke them to do so. David, you must use your power to stop it. I am asking you to save my son. I am asking you to save him. You must listen, must help me. I have never asked you a favour before.’ The tear- and crayon-streaked cheeks made her look even more of a stranger in the street-lights. He began to stammer. She cried aloud: ‘I implore you to help’ and suddenly, to his intense humiliation, began to moan and rock like an Arab, pleading with him. ‘Leila!’ he cried. ‘Stop it!’ But she swayed from side to side repeating the words ‘Only you can save him now’ more, it seemed, to herself, than to anyone else. Then she showed some disposition to go down on her knees in the cab and kiss his feet. By this time Mountolive was trembling with anger and surprise and disgust. They were passing the Auberge for the tenth time. ‘Unless you stop at once’ he cried angrily, but she wailed once more and he jumped awkwardly down into the road. It was hateful to have to end their interview like this. The cab drew to a halt. He said, feeling stupid, and in a voice which seemed to come from far away and to have no recognizable expression save a certain old-fashioned waspishness: ‘I cannot discuss an official matter with a private person.’ Could anything be more absurd than these words? He felt bitterly ashamed as he uttered them. ‘Leila, good-bye’ he said hurriedly under his breath, and squeezed her hand once more before he turned. He took to his heels. He unlocked his car and climbed into it panting and overcome by a sense of ghastly folly. The cab moved off into the darkness. He watched it curve slowly along the Corniche and disappear. Then he lit a cigarette and started his engine. All of a sudden there seemed nowhere in particular to go. Every impulse, every desire had faltered and faded out. After a long pause, he drove slowly and carefully back to the Summer Residence, talking to himself under his breath. The house was in darkness and he let himself in with his key. He walked from room to room switching on all the lights, feeling all of a sudden quite light-headed with loneliness; he could not accuse the servants of desertion since he had already told Ali that he would be dining out. But he walked up and down the drawingroom with his hands in his pockets for a long time. He smelt the damp unhealed rooms around him; the blank reproachful face of the clock told him that it was only just after nine. Abruptly, he went over to the cocktail cabinet and poured himself a very strong whisky and soda which he drank in one movement — gasping as if it were a dose of fruit salts. His mind was humming now like a high-tension wire. He supposed that he would have to go out and have some dinner by himself. But where? Suddenly the whole of Alexandria, the whole of Egypt, had become distasteful, burdensome, wearisome to his spirit. He drank several more whiskies, enjoying the warmth they brought to his blood — so unused was he to spirits which usually he drank very sparingly. Leila had suddenly left him face to face with a reality which, he supposed, had always lain lurking behind the dusty tapestry of his romantic notions. In a sense, she had been Egypt, his own private Egypt of the mind; and now this old image had been husked, stripped bare. ‘It would be intemperate to drink any more’ he told himself as he drained his glass. Yes, that was it! He had never been intemperate, never been natural, outward-going in his attitude to life. He had always hidden behind measure and compromise; and this defection had somehow lost him the picture of the Egypt which had nourished him for so long. Was it, then, all a lie? He felt as if somewhere inside himself a dam were threatened, a barrier was on the point of giving way. It was with some idea of restoring this lost contact with the life of this embodied land that he hit upon the idea of doing something he had never done since his youth: he would go out and dine in the Arab quarter, humbly and simply, like a small clerk in the city, like a tradesman, a merchant. Somewhere in a small native restaurant he would eat a pigeon and some rice and a plate of sweetmeats; the food would sober and steady him while the surroundings would restore in him the sense of contact with reality. He could not remember ever having felt so tipsy and leaden-footed before. His thoughts were awash with inarticulate self-reproaches. Still with this incoherent, half-rationalized desire in mind he suddenly went out to the hall cupboard to unearth the red felt tarbush which someone had left behind after a cocktail party last summer. He had suddenly remembered it. It lay among a litter of golf-clubs and tennis racquets. He put it on with a chuckle. It transformed his appearance completely. Looking at himself unsteadily in the hall mirror, he was quite surprised by the transformation : he was confronting not a distinguished foreign visitor to Egypt now, but — un homme quelconque: a Syrian business-man, a broker from Suez, an airline representative from Tel Aviv. Only one thing was necessary to lay claim to the Middle East properly — dark glasses, worn indoors, in winter! There was a pair of them in the top drawer of the writing desk. He drove the car slowly down to the little square by Ramleh Station, quite absurdly pleased by his fancy dress, and eased it neatly into the car park by the Cecil Hotel; then he locked it and walked quietly off with the air of someone abandoning a lifetime’s habit — walked with a new and quite delightful feeling of self-possession towards the Arab quarters of the town where he might find the dinner he sought. As he skirted the Corniche he had one moment of unpleasant fear and doubt — for he saw a familiar figure cross the road further down and walk towards him along the sea-wall. It was impossible to mistake Balthazar’s characteristic prowling walk; Mountolive was overcome with a sheepish sense of shame, but he held his course. To his delight, Balthazar glanced once at him and looked away without recognizing his friend. They passed each other in a flash, and Mountolive expelled his breath loudly with relief; it was really odd the anonymity conferred by this ubiquitous red flower-pot of a hat, which so much altered the outlines of the human face. And the dark glasses! He chuckled quietly as he turned away from the sea-front, choosing the tangle of little lanes which might lead him towards the Arab bazaars and the eating houses round the commercial port. Hereabouts it would be a hundred to one that he would ever be recognized — for few Europeans ever came into this part of the city. The quarter lying beyond the red lantern belt, populated by the small traders, money-lenders, coffee-speculators, ships’ chandlers, smugglers; here in the open street one had the illusion of time spread out flat — so to speak — like the skin of an ox; the map of time which one could read from one end to the other, filling it in with known points of reference. This world of Moslem time stretched back to Othello and beyond — cafés sweet with trilling of singing birds whose cages were full of mirrors to give them the illusion of company. The love-songs of birds to companions they imagined — which were only reflections of themselves! How heartbreakingly they sang, these illustrations of human love! Here too in the ghastly breath of the naphtha flares the old eunuchs sat at trictrac, smoking the long narguilehs which at every drawn breath loosed a musical bubble of sound like a dove’s sob; the walls of the old cafés were stained by the sweat from the tarbushes hanging on the pegs; their collections of coloured narguilehs were laid up in rows in a long rack, like muskets, for which each tobacco-drinker brought his cherished personal holder. Here too the diviners, cartomancers — or those who would deftly fill your palm with ink and for half a piastre scry the secrets of your inmost life. Here the pedlars carried magic loads of variegated and dissimilar objects of vertu from the thistle-soft carpets of Shiraz and Baluchistan to the playing cards of the Marseilles Tarot; incense of the Hejaz, green beads against the evil eye, combs, seeds, mirrors for birdcages, spices, amulets and paper fans … the list was endless; and each, of course, carried in his private wallet — like a medieval pardoner — the fruit of the world’s great pornographies in the form of handkerchiefs and post-cards on which were depicted, in every one of its pitiful variations, the one act we human beings most dream of and fear. Mysterious, underground, the ever-flowing river of sex, trickling easily through the feeble dams set up by our fretful legislation and the typical self-reproaches of the unpleasure-loving … the broad underground river flowing from Petronius to Frank Harris. (The drift and overlap of ideas in Mountolive’s fuddled mind, rising and disappearing in pretty half-formulated figures, iridescent as soap-bubbles.) He was perfectly at his ease, now; he had come to terms with his unfamiliar state of befuddlement and no longer felt that he was drunk; it was simply that he had become inflated now by a sense of tremendous dignity and self-importance which gave him a grandiose deliberation of movement. He walked slowly, like a pregnant woman nearing term, drinking in the sights and sounds. At long last he entered a small shop which took his fancy because of its flaring ovens from which great draughts of smoke settled in parcels about the room; the smell of thyme, roasting pigeon and rice gave him a sudden stab of hunger. There were only one or two other diners, hardly to be seen through the clouds of smoke. Mountolive sat down with the air of someone making a grudging concession to the law of gravity and ordered a meal in his excellent Arabic, though he still kept his dark glasses and tarbush on. It was clear now that he could pass easily for a Moslem. The café owner was a great bald Tartar-faced Turk who served his visitor at once and without comment. He also set up a tumbler beside Mountolive’s plate and without uttering a word filled it to the brim with the colourless arak made from the mastic-tree which is called mastika. Mountolive choked and spluttered a bit over it, but he was highly delighted — for it was the first drink of the Levant he had ever tasted and he had forgotten its existence for years now. Forgetting also how strong it was, and overcome with nostalgia, he ordered himself a second glass to help him finish the excellent hot pilaff and the pigeon (so hot from the spit that he could hardly bear to pick it up with his fingers). But he was in the seventh heaven of delight now. He was on the way to recovering, to restoring the blurred image of an Egypt which the meeting with Leila had damaged or somehow stolen from him. The street outside was full of the shivering of tambourines and the voices of children raised in a chanting sort of litany; they were going about the shops in groups, repeating the same little verse over and over again. After three repetitions he managed to disentangle the words. Of course! Lord of the shaken tree Of Man’s extremity Keep thou our small leaves firm On branches free from harm For we thy little children be! ‘Well I’m damned’ he said, swallowing a fiery mouthful of arak and smiling as the meaning of the little processions became clear. There was a venerable old sheik sitting opposite by the window and smoking a long-shanked narguileh. He waved towards the din with his graceful old hand and cried: ‘Allah! The noise of the children!’ Mountolive smiled back at him and said: ‘Inform me if I err, sir, but it is for El Sird they cry, is it not?’ The old man’s face lit up and he nodded, smiling his saintly smile. ‘You have guessed it truly, sir.’ Mountolive was pleased with himself and filled ever more deeply with nostalgia for those half-forgotten years. ‘Tonight then’ he said ‘it must be mid-Shaaban and the Tree of Extremity is to be shaken. Is that not so?’ Once more a delighted nod. ‘Who knows’ said the old sheik ‘but that both our names may be written on the falling leaves?’ He puffed softly and contentedly, like a toy train. ‘Allah’s will be done.’ The belief is that on the eve of mid-Shaaban the Lote Tree of Paradise is shaken, and the falling leaves of the tree bear the names of all who will die in the coming year. This is called the Tree of Extremity in some texts. Mountolive was so pleased by the identification of the little song that he called for a final glass of arak which he drank standing up as he paid his reckoning. The old sheik abandoned his pipe and came slowly towards him through the smoke. He said: ‘Effendi mine, I understand your purpose here. What you seek will be revealed to you by me.’ He placed two brown fingers on Mountolive’s wrist, speaking modestly and softly, as one who had secrets to impart. His face had all the candour and purity of some desert saint. Mountolive was delighted by him. ‘Honoured sheik’ he said ‘divulge your sense, then, to an unworthy Syrian visitor.’ The old man bowed twice, looked circumspectly round the place, and then said: ‘Be good enough to follow me, honoured sir.’ He kept his two fingers on Mountolive’s wrist as a blind man might. They stepped into the street together; Mountolive’s romantic heart was beating wildly — was he now to be vouchsafed some mystical vision of religious truth? He had so often heard stories of the bazaars and the religious men who lurked there, waiting to fulfil secret missions on behalf of that unseen world, the numinous, carefully guarded world of the hermetic doctors. They walked in a soft cloud of unknowing with the silent sheik swaying and recovering himself at every few paces and smiling a maudlin smile of beatitude. They passed together at this slow pace through the dark streets — now turned by the night to long shadowy tunnels or shapeless caverns, still dimly echoing to muffled bagpipe music or skirmishing voices muted by thick walls and barred windows. Mountolive’s heightened sense of wonder responded to the beauty and mystery of this luminous township of shadows carved here and there into recognizable features by a single naphtha lamp or an electric bulb hanging from a frail stalk, rocking in the wind. They turned at last down a long street spanned with coloured banners and thence into a courtyard which was completely dark where the earth smelt vaguely of the stale of camels and jasmine. A house loomed up, set within thick walls; one caught a glimpse of its silhouette on the sky. They entered a sort of rambling barrack of a place passing through a tall door which was standing ajar, and plunged into a darkness still more absolute. Stood breathing for half a second in silence. Mountolive felt rather than saw the worm-eaten staircases which climbed the walls to the abandoned upper floors, heard the chirrup and scramble of the rats in the deserted galleries, together with something else — a sound vaguely reminiscent of human beings, but in what context he could not quite remember. They shuffled slowly down a long corridor upon woodwork so rotten that it rocked and swayed under their feet, and here, in a doorway of some sort, the old sheik said kindly: ‘That our simple satisfactions should not be less than those of your homeland, effendi mine, I have brought you here.’ He added in a whisper, ‘Attend me here a moment, if you will.’ Mountolive felt the fingers leave his wrist and the breath of the door closing at his shoulder. He stayed in composed and trustful silence for a moment or two. Then all at once the darkness was so complete that the light, when it did come, gave him the momentary illusion of something taking place very far away, in the sky. As if someone had opened and closed a furnace-door in Heaven. It was only the spark of a match. But in the soft yellow flap he saw that he was standing in a gaunt high chamber with shattered and defaced walls covered in graffiti and the imprint of dark palms — signs which guard the superstitious against the evil eye. It was empty save for an enormous broken sofa which lay in the centre of the floor, like a sarcophagus. A single window with all the panes of glass broken was slowly printing the bluer darkness of the starry sky upon his sight. He stared at the flapping, foundering light, and again heard the rats chirping and the other curious susurrus composed of whispers and chuckles and the movement of bare feet on boards. … Suddenly he thought of a girls’ dormitory at a school: and as if invented by the very thought itself, through the open door at the end of the room trooped a crowd of small figures dressed in white soiled robes, like defeated angels. He had stumbled into a house of child prostitutes, he realized with a sudden spasm of disgust and pity. Their little faces were heavily painted, their hair scragged in ribbons and plaits. They wore green beads against the evil eye. Such little creatures as one has seen incised on Greek vases — floating out of tombs and charnel houses with the sad air of malefactors fleeing from justice. It was the foremost of the group who carried the light — a twist of string burning in a saucer of olive oil. She stooped to place this feeble will-o-the-wisp on the floor in the corner and at once the long spiky shadows of these children sprawled on the ceiling like an army of frustrated wills. ‘No, by Allah’ said Mountolive hoarsely, and turned to grope at the closed door. There was a wooden latch with no means of opening it on his side. He put his face to a hole in the panel and called softly ‘O sheik, where are you?’ The little figures had advanced and surrounded him now, murmuring the pitiable obscenities and endearments of their trade in the voices of heartbroken angels; he felt their warm nimble fingers on his shoulders, picking at the sleeves of his coat. ‘O sheik’ he called again, shrinking up, ‘it was not for this.’ But there was a silence beyond the door. He felt the children’s sharp arms twining round his waist like lianas in a tropical jungle, their sharp little fingers prying for the buttons of his coat. He shook them off and turned his pale face to them, making a half-articulate sound of protest. And now someone inadvertently kicked over the saucer with its floating wick and in the darkness he felt the tension of anxiety sweep through them like a fire through brushwood. His protests had made them fear the loss of a lucrative client. Anxiety, anger and a certain note of terror were in their voices now as they spoke to him, wheedling and half-threatening; heaven only knew what punishments might attend them if he escaped! They began to struggle, to attack him; he felt the concussion of their starved little bodies as they piled round him, panting and breathless with importunity, but determined that he should not retreat. Fingers roved over him like ants — indeed, he had a sudden memory, buried from somewhere back in his remembered reading, of a man staked down upon the burning sand over a nest of white ants which would soon pick the flesh from his very bones. ‘No’ he cried incoherently again; some absurd inhibition prevented him from striking out, distributing a series of brutal cuffs which alone might have freed him. (The smallest were so very small.) They had his arms now, and were climbing on his back — absurd memories intruded of pillow fights in a dark dormitory at school. He banged wildly on the door with his elbow, and they redoubled their entreaties in whining voices. Their breath was as hot as wood-smoke. ‘O Effendi, patron of the poor, remedy for our affliction….’ Mountolive groaned and struggled, but felt himself gradually being borne to the ground; gradually felt his befuddled knees giving way under this assault which had gathered a triumphant fury now. ‘No!’ he cried in an anguished voice, and a chorus of voices answered ‘Yes. Yes, by Allah!’ They smelt like a herd of goats as they swarmed upon him. The giggles, the obscene whispers, the cajoleries and curses mounted up to his brain. He felt as if he were going to faint. Then suddenly everything cleared — as if a curtain had been drawn aside — to reveal him sitting beside his mother in front of a roaring fire with a picture-book open on his knee. She was reading aloud and he was trying to follow the words as she pronounced them; but his attention was always drawn away to the large colour-plate which depicted Gulliver when he had fallen into the hands of the little people of Lilliput. It was fascinating in its careful detail. The heavy-limbed hero lay where he had fallen, secured by a veritable cobweb of guy-ropes which had been wound around him pinioning him to the ground while the ant-people roved all over his huge body securing and pegging more and more guy-ropes against which every struggle of the colossus would be in vain. There was a malign scientific accuracy about it all: wrists, ankles and neck pinioned against movement; tent-pegs driven between the fingers of his huge hand to hold each individual finger down. His pigtails were neatly coiled about tiny spars which had been driven into the ground beside him. Even the tails of his surtout were skilfully pinned to the ground through the folds. He lay there staring into the sky with expressionless wonder, his blue eyes wide open, his lips pursed. The army of Lilliputians wandered all over him with wheelbarrows and pegs and more rope; their attitudes suggested a feverish ant-like frenzy of capture. And all the time Gulliver lay there on the green grass of Lilliput, in a valley full of microscopic flowers, like a captive balloon…. He found himself (though he had no idea how he had finally escaped) leaning upon the icy stone embankment of the Corniche with the dawn sea beneath him, rolling its slow swell up the stone piers, gushing softly into the conduits. He could remember only running in dazed fashion down twisted streets in darkness and stumbling across the road and on to the seafront. A pale rinsed dawn was breaking across the long sea-swell and a light sea-wind brought him the smell of tar and the sticky dampness of salt. He felt like some merchant sailor cast up helpless in a foreign port at the other end of the world. His pockets had been turned inside out like sleeves. He was clad in a torn shirt and trousers. His expensive studs and cuff-links and tie-pin had gone, his wallet had vanished. He felt deathly sick. But as he gradually came to his senses he realized where he was from the glimpse of the Goharri Mosque as it stood up to take the light of dawn among its clumps of palms. Soon the blind muezzin would be coming out like ancient tortoises to recite the dawn-praise of the only living God. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile to where he had left the car. Denuded now of his tarbush and dark glasses, he felt as if he had been stripped naked. He started off at a painful trot along the stony embankments, glad that there was nobody about to recognize him. The deserted square outside the Hotel was just waking to life with the first tram. It clicked away towards Mazarita, empty. The keys to his car had also disappeared and he now had the ignominious task of breaking the door-catch with a spanner which he took from the boot — terrified all the time that a policeman might come and question or perhaps even arrest him on suspicion. He was seething with self-contempt and disgust and he had a splitting headache. At last he broke the door and drove off wildly — fortunately, the chauffeur’s keys were in the car — in the direction of Rushdi through the deserted streets. His latchkey too had disappeared in the melee and he was forced to burst open one of the window-catches in the drawing-room in order to get into the house. He thought at first that he would spend the morning asleep in bed after he had bathed and changed his clothes, but standing under the hot shower he realized that he was too troubled in mind; his thoughts buzzed like a swarm of bees and would not let him rest. He decided suddenly that he would leave the house and return to Cairo before even the servants were up. He felt that he could not face them. He changed his clothes furtively, gathered his belongings together, and set off across the town towards the desert road, leaving the city hurriedly like a common thief. He had come to a decision in his own mind. He would ask for a posting to some other country. He would waste no more time upon this Egypt of deceptions and squalor, this betraying landscape which turned emotions and memories to dust, which beggared friendship and destroyed love. He did not even think of Leila now; tonight she would be gone across the border. But already it was as if she had never existed. There was plenty of petrol in the tank for the ride back. As he turned through the last curves of the road outside the town he looked back once, with a shudder of disgust at the pearly mirage of minarets rising from the smoke of the lake, the dawn mist. A train pealed somewhere, far away. He turned on the radio of the car at full blast to drown his thoughts as he sped along the silver desert highway to the winter capital. From every side, like startled hares, his thoughts broke out to run alongside the whirling car in a frenzy of terror. He had, he realized, reached a new frontier in himself; life was going to be something completely different from now on. He had been in some sort of bondage all this time; now the links had snapped. He heard the soft hushing of strings and the familiar voice of the city breaking in upon him once again with its perverted languors, its ancient wisdoms and terrors. Jamais de la vie, Jamais dans ton lit Quand ton coeur se démange de chagrin…. With an oath he snapped the radio shut, choked the voice, and drove frowning into the sunlight as it ebbed along the shadowy flanks of the dunes. He made very good time and drew up before the Embassy to find Errol and Donkin loading the latter’s old touring car with all the impedimenta of professional hunters — gun-cases and cartridge bags, binoculars and thermos flasks. He walked slowly and shamefacedly towards them. They both greeted him cheerfully. They were due to start for Alexandria at midday. Donkin was excited and blithe. The newspapers that morning had carried reports that the King had made a good recovery and that audiences were to be granted at the week-end. ‘Now, sir’ said Donkin, ‘is Nur’s chance to make Memlik act. You’ll see.’ Mountolive nodded dully; the news fell flatly on his ear, toneless and colourless and without presage. He no longer cared what was going to happen. His decision to ask for a transfer of post seemed to have absolved him in a curious way from any further personal responsibility as regards his own feelings. He walked moodily into the Residence and ordered his breakfast tray to be brought into the drawing-room. He felt irritable and abstracted. He rang for his despatch box to see what personal mail there might be. There was nothing of great interest: a long chatty letter from Sir Louis who was happily sunning himself in Nice; it was full of amusing and convivial gossip about mutual friends. And of course the inevitable anecdote of a famous raconteur to round off the letter: ‘I hope, dear boy, that the uniform still fits you. I thought of you last week when I met Claudel, the French poet who was also an Ambassador, for he told me an engaging anecdote about his uniform. It was while he was serving in Japan. Out for a walk one day, he turned round to see that the whole residence was a sheet of flame and blazing merrily; his family was with him so he did not need to fear for their safety. But his manuscripts, his priceless collection of books and letters — they were all in the burning house. He hurried back in a state of great alarm. It was clear that the house would be burned to the ground. As he reached the garden he saw a small stately figure walking towards him — the Japanese butler. He walked slowly and circumspectly towards the Ambassador with his arms held out before him like a sleepwalker; over them was laid the dress uniform of the poet. The butler said proudly and sedately: “There is no cause for alarm, sir. I have saved the only valuable object.” And the half-finished play, and the poems lying upstairs on the burning desk? I suddenly thought of you, I don’t know why.’ He read on sighing and smiling sadly and enviously; what would he not give to be retired in Nice at this moment? There was a letter from his mother, a few bills from his London tradesmen, a note from his broker, and a short letter from Pursewarden’s sister…. Nothing of any real importance. There was a knock and Donkin appeared. He looked somewhat crestfallen. ‘The M.F.A.’ he said ‘have been on the line with a message from Nur’s office to say that he will be seeing the King at the weekend. But … Gabr hinted that our case is not supported by Memlik’s own investigations.’ ‘What does he mean by that?’ ‘He says, in effect, that we have got the wrong Hosnani. The real culprit is a brother of his who lives on a farm somewhere outside Alexandria.’ ‘Narouz’ said Mountolive with astonishment and incredulity. ‘Yes. Well apparently he ——’ They both burst out laughing with exasperation. ‘Honestly’ said Mountolive, banging his fist into his palm, ‘the Egyptians really are incredible. Now how on earth have they arrived at such a conclusion? One is simply baffled.’ ‘Nevertheless, that is Memlik’s case. I thought you’d like to know, sir. Errol and I are just off to Alex. There isn’t anything else, is there?’ Mountolive shook his head. Donkin closed the door softly behind him. ‘So now they are going to turn on Narouz. What a muddle of conflicting policies and diversions.’ He sank despairingly into a chair and frowned at his own fingers for a long moment before pouring himself out another cup of tea. He felt incapable now of thought, of making the smallest decision. He would write to Kenilworth and the Foreign Secretary this very morning about his transfer. It was something he should have considered long since. He sighed heavily. There came another and more diffident rap at the door. ‘Come in’ he called wearily. It opened and a dispirited-looking sausage-dog waddled into the room followed by Angela Errol who said, in a tone of strident heartiness not untouched by a sort of aggressive archness, ‘Forgive the intrusion, but I came on behalf of the Chancery wives. We thought you seemed rather lonely so we decided to put our heads together. Fluke is the result.’ Dog and man looked at each other in a dazed and distrustful silence for a moment. Mountolive struggled for words. He had always loathed sausage-dogs with legs so short that they appeared to flop along like toads rather than walk. Fluke was such an animal, already panting and slavering from its exertions. It sat down at last and, as if to express once and for all its disenchantment with the whole sum of canine existence, delivered itself of a retromingent puddle on the beautiful Shiraz. ‘Isn’t he jolly?’ cried the wife of the Head of Chancery. It cost Mountolive something of an effort to smile, to appear to be overcome with pleasure, to express the appropriate thanks due to a gesture so thoughtful. He was wild with vexation. ‘He looks charming’ he said, smiling his handsome smile, ‘really charming. I am most awfully grateful, Angela. It was a kind thought.’ The dog yawned lazily. ‘Then I shall tell the wives that the gift has met with approval’ she said briskly, and moved towards the door. ‘They will be delighted. There is no companionship like that of a dog, is there?’ Mountolive shook his head seriously. ‘None’ he said. He tried to look as if he meant it. As the door closed behind her he sat down once more and raised his cup of tea to his lips as he stared unwinkingly and with distaste into the dog’s lustreless eyes. The clock chimed softly on the mantelpiece. It was time to be going to the office. There was much to be done. He had promised to finish the definitive economic report in time for this week’s bag. He must bully the bag room about that portrait of himself. He must…. Yet he sat on looking at the dispirited little creature on the mat and feeling suddenly as if he had been engulfed in a tidal wave of human contumely — so expressed by his admirers in this unwanted gift. He was to be garde-malade, a male nurse to a short-legged lap dog. Was this now the only way left of exorcizing his sadness…? He sighed, and sighing pressed the bell…***** In the last letter which reached me from Balthazar he wrote: ‘I think of you often and not without a certain grim humour. You have retired to your island, with, as you think, all the data about us and our lives. No doubt you are bringing us to judgement on paper in the manner of writers. I wish I could see the result. It must fall very far short of truth: I mean such truths as I could tell you about us all — even perhaps about yourself. Or the truths Clea could tell you (she is in Paris on a visit and has stopped writing to me recently). I picture you, wise one, poring over Moeurs, the diaries of Justine, Nessim, etc., imagining that the truth is to be found in them. Wrong! Wrong! A diary is the last place to go if you wish to seek the truth about a person. Nobody dares to make the final confession to themselves on paper: or at least, not about love. Do you know whom Justine really loved? You believed it was yourself, did you not? Confess!’ My only answer was to send him the huge bundle of paper which had grown up so stiffly under my slow pen and to which I had loosely given her name as a title — though Cahiers would have done just as well. Months passed after this — a blessed silence indeed, for it suggested that my critic had been satisfied, silenced. I cannot say that I forgot the city, but I let the memory of it sleep. Yet of course, it was always there, as it always will be, hanging in the mind like the mirage which travellers so often see. Pursewarden has described the phenomenon in the following words: ‘We were still almost a couple of hours’ steaming distance before land could possibly come into sight when suddenly my companion shouted and pointed at the horizon. We saw, inverted in the sky, a full-scale mirage of the city, luminous and trembling, as if painted on dusty silk: yet in the nicest detail. From memory I could clearly make out its features, Ras El Tin Palace, the Nebi Daniel Mosque and so forth. The whole representation was as breath-taking as a masterpiece painted in fresh dew. It hung there in the sky for a considerable time, perhaps twenty-five minutes, before melting slowly into the horizon mist. An hour later, the real city appeared, swelling from a smudge to the size of its mirage.’ ***** The two or three winters we have spent in this island have been lonely ones — dour and windswept winters and hot summers. Luckily, the child is too young to feel as I do the need for books, for conversation. She is happy and active. Now in the spring come the long calms, the tideless, scentless days of premonition. The sea tames itself and becomes attentive. Soon the cicadas will bring in their crackling music, background to the shepherd’s dry flute among the rocks. The scrambling tortoise and the lizard are our only companions. I should explain that our only regular visitant from the outside world is the Smyrna packet which once a week crosses the headland to the south, always at the same hour, at the same speed, just after dusk. In winter, the high seas and winds make it invisible, but now — I sit and wait for it. You hear at first only the faint drumming of engines. Then the creature slides round the cape, cutting its line of silk froth in the sea, brightly lit up in the moth-soft darkness of the Aegean night — condensed, but without outlines, like a cloud of fireflies moving. It travels fast, and disappears all too soon round the next headland, leaving behind it perhaps only the half-uttered fragment of a popular song, or the skin of a tangerine which I will find next day, washed up on the long pebbled beach where I bathe with the child. The little arbour of oleanders under the planes — this is my writing-room. After the child has gone to bed, I sit here at the old sea-stained table, waiting for the visitant, unwilling to light the paraffin lamp before it has passed. It is the only day of the week I know by name here — Thursday. It sounds silly, but in an island so empty of variety, I look forward to the weekly visit like a child to a school treat. I know the boat brings letters for which I shall have to wait perhaps twenty-four hours. But I never see the little ship vanish without regret. And when it has passed, I light the lamp with a sigh and return to my papers. I write so slowly, with such pain. Pursewarden once, speaking about writing, told me that the pain that accompanied composition was entirely due, in artists, to the fear of madness; ‘force it a bit and tell yourself that you don’t give a damn if you do go mad, and you’ll find it comes quicker, you’ll break the barrier.’ (I don’t know how true this all is. But the money he left me in his will has served me well, and I still have a few pounds between me and the devils of debt and work.) I describe this weekly diversion in some detail because it was into this picture that Balthazar intruded one June evening with a suddenness that surprised me — I was going to write ‘deafened’ — there is no one to talk to here — but ‘surprised me’. This evening something like a miracle happened. The little steamer, instead of disappearing as usual, turned abruptly through an arc of 150 degrees and entered the lagoon, there to lie in a furry cocoon of its own light: and to drop into the centre of the golden puddle it had created the long slow anchor-chain whose symbol itself is like a search for truth. It was a moving sight to one who, like myself, had been landlocked in spirit as all writers are — indeed, become like a ship in a bottle, sailing nowhere — and I watched as an Indian must perhaps have watched the first white man’s craft touch the shores of the New World. The darkness, the silence, were broken now by the uneven lap-lap of oars; and then, after an age, by the chink of city-shod feet upon shingle. A hoarse voice gave a direction. Then silence. As I lit the lamp to set the wick in trim and so deliver myself from the spell of this departure from the norm, the grave dark face of my friend, like some goat-like apparition from the Underworld, materialized among the thick branches of myrtle. We drew a breath and stood smiling at each other in the yellow light: the dark Assyrian ringlets, the beard of Pan. ‘No — I am real!’ said Balthazar with a laugh and we embraced furiously. Balthazar! The Mediterranean is an absurdly small sea; the length and greatness of its history makes us dream it larger than it is. Alexandria indeed — the true no less than the imagined — lay only some hundreds of sea-miles to the south. ‘I am on my way to Smyrna’ said Balthazar, ‘from where I was going to post you this.’ He laid upon the scarred old table the immense bundle of manuscript I had sent him — papers now seared and starred by a massive interlinear of sentences, paragraphs and question-marks. Seating himself opposite with his Mephistophelean air, he said in a lower, more hesitant tone: ‘I have debated in myself very long about telling you some of the things I have put down here. At times it seemed a folly and an impertinence. After all, your concern — was it with us as real people or as “characters”? I didn’t know. I still don’t. These pages may lose me your friendship without adding anything to the sum of your knowledge. You have been painting the city, touch by touch, upon a curved surface — was your object poetry or fact? If the latter, then there are things which you have a right to know.’ He still had not explained his amazing appearance before me, so anxious was he about the central meaning of the visitation. He did so now, noticing my bewilderment at the cloud of fire-flies in the normally deserted bay. He smiled. ‘The ship is delayed for a few hours with engine trouble. It is one of Nessim’s. The captain is Hasim Kohly, an old friend: perhaps you remember him? No. Well, I guessed from your description roughly where you must be living; but to be landed on your doorstep like this, I confess!’ His laughter was wonderful to hear once more. But I hardly listened, for his words had plunged me into a ferment, a desire to study his interlinear, to revise — not my book (that has never been of the slightest importance to me for it will never even be published), but my view of the city and its inhabitants. For my own personal Alexandria had become, in all this loneliness, as dear as a philosophy of introspection, almost a monomania. I was so filled with emotion I did not know what to say to him. ‘Stay with us, Balthazar —’ I said, ‘stay awhile….’ ‘We leave in two hours’ he said, and patting the papers before him: ‘This may give you visions and fevers’ he added doubtfully. ‘Good’ I said — ‘I ask for nothing better.’ ‘We are all still real people’ he said, ‘whatever you try and do to us — those of us who are still alive. Melissa, Pursewarden — they can’t answer back because they are dead. At least, so one thinks.’ ‘So one thinks. The best retorts always come from beyond the grave.’ We sat and began to talk about the past, rather stiffly to be sure. He had already dined on board and there was nothing I could offer him beyond a glass of the good island wine which he sipped slowly. Later he asked to see Melissa’s child, and I led him back through the clustering oleanders to a place from which we could both look into the great firelit room where she lay looking beautiful and grave, asleep there with her thumb in her mouth. Balthazar’s dark cruel eye softened as he watched her, lightly breathing. ‘One day’ he said in a low voice ‘Nessim will want to see her. Quite soon, mark. He has begun to talk about her, be curious. With old age coming on, he will feel he needs her support, mark my words.’ And he quoted in Greek: ‘First the young, like vines, climb up the dull supports of their elders who feel their fingers on them, soft and tender; then the old climb down the lovely supporting bodies of the young into their proper deaths.’ I said nothing. It was the room itself which was breathing now — not our bodies. ‘You have been lonely here’ said Balthazar. ‘But splendidly, desirably lonely.’ ‘Yes, I envy you. But truthfully.’ And then his eye caught the unfinished portrait of Justine which Clea in another life had given me. ‘That portrait’ he said ‘which was interrupted by a kiss. How good to see that again — how good!’ He smiled. ‘It is like hearing a loved and familiar statement in music which leads one towards an emotion always recapturable, never-failing.’ I did not say anything. I did not dare. He turned to me. ‘And Clea?’ he said at last, in the voice of someone interrogating an echo. I said: ‘I have heard nothing from her for ages. Time doesn’t count here. I expect she has married, has gone away to another country, has children, a reputation as a painter … everything one would wish her,’ He looked at me curiously and shook his head. ‘No’ he said; but that was all. It was long after midnight when the seamen called him from the dark olive groves. I walked to the beach with him, sad to see him leave so soon. A rowboat waited at the water’s edge with a sailor standing to his oars in it. He said something in Arabic. The spring sea was enticingly warm after a day’s sunshine and as Balthazar entered the boat the whim seized me to swim out with him to the vessel which lay not two hundred yards away from the shore. This I did and hovered to watch him climb the rail, and to watch the boat drawn up. ‘Don’t get caught in the screw’ he called, and ‘Go back before the engines start’ — ‘I will’ — ‘But wait — before you go —’ He ducked back into a stateroom to reappear and drop something into the water beside me. It fell with a soft splash. ‘A rose from Alexandria’ he said, ‘from the city which has everything but happiness to offer its lovers.’ He chuckled. ‘Give it to the child.’ ‘Balthazar, good-bye!’ ‘Write to me — if you dare!’ Caught like a spider between the cross mesh of lights, and turning towards those yellow pools which still lay between the dark shore and myself, I waved and he waved back. I put the precious rose between my teeth and dog-paddled back to my clothes on the pebble beach, talking to myself. And there, lying upon the table in the yellow lamplight, lay the great interlinear to Justine — as I had called it. It was crosshatched, crabbed, starred with questions and answers in differentcoloured inks, in typescript. It seemed to me then to be somehow symbolic of the very reality we had shared — a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or her individual traces, layer by layer. Must I now learn to see it all with new eyes, to accustom myself to the truths which Balthazar has added? It is impossible to describe with what emotion I read his words — sometimes so detailed and sometimes so briefly curt — as for example in the list he had headed ‘Some Fallacies and Misapprehensions’ where he said coldly: ‘Number 4. That Justine “loved” you. She “loved”, if anyone, Pursewarden. “What does that mean”? She was forced to use you as a decoy in order to protect him from the jealousy of Nessim whom she had married. Pursewarden himself did not care for her at all — supreme logic of love!’ In my mind’s eye the city rose once more against the flat mirror of the green lake and the broken loins of sandstone which marked the desert’s edge. The politics of love, the intrigues of desire, good and evil, virtue and caprice, love and murder, moved obscurely in the dark corners of Alexandria’s streets and squares, brothels and drawing-rooms — moved like a great congress of eels in the slime of plot and counter-plot. It was almost dawn before I surrendered the fascinating mound of paper with its comments upon my own real (inner) life and like a drunkard stumbled to my bed, my head aching, echoing with the city, the only city left where every extreme of race and habit can meet and marry, where inner destinies intersect. I could hear the dry voice of my friend repeating as I fell asleep: ‘How much do you care to know … how much more do you care to know?’ — ‘I must know everything in order to be at last delivered from the city’ I replied in my dream.Justine (1957) Part II Chapter 3Mountolive (1958) Part I Chapter 1Justine (1957) Part I Chapter 8 ***** Mountolive studied this document with great care. He found the tone annoying and the information mildly disturbing. But then, every mission was riven with faction; personal annoyances, divergent opinions, they were always coming to the fore. For a moment he wondered whether it would not be wiser to allow Pursewarden the transfer he desired; but he restrained the thought by allowing another to overlap it. If he was to act, he should not at this stage show irresolution — even with Kenilworth. He walked about in that wintry landscape waiting for events to take definite shape around his future. Finally, he composed a tardy note to Pursewarden, the fruit of much rewriting and thought, which he despatched through the bag room. My dear P., I must thank you for your letter with the interesting data. I feel I cannot make any decisions before my own arrival. I don’t wish to prejudge issues. I have however decided to keep you attached to the Mission for another year. I shall ask for a greater attention to discipline than your Chancery appears to do; and I know you won’t fail me however disagreeable the prospect of staying seems to you. There is much to do this end, and much to decide before I leave. Yours sincerely, David Mountolive. It conveyed, he hoped, the right mixture of encouragement and censure. But of course, Pursewarden would not have written flippantly had he visualized serving under him. Nevertheless, if his career was to take the right shape he must start at the beginning. But in his own mind he had already planned upon getting Maskelyne transferred and Pursewarden elevated in rank as his chief political adviser. Nevertheless a hint of uneasiness remained. But he could not help smiling when he received a postcard from the incorrigible. ‘My dear Ambassador’ it read. ‘Your news has worried me. You have so many great big bushy Etonians to choose from…. Nevertheless. At your service.’So many years have I been hereJustine (1957) Part IV Chapter 3She stood at the very top of the long outer staircase looking down into the dark courtyard like a sentinel and holding in her right hand a branch of candles which threw a frail circle of light around her. Very still, as if taking part in a tableau vivant. It seemed to me that the tone in which she first uttered my name had been deliberately made flat and unemphatic, copied perhaps from some queer state of mind which she had imposed upon herself. Or perhaps, uncertain that it was I, she was merely interrogating the darkness, trying to unearth me from it like some obstinate and troublesome memory which had slipped out of place. But the familiar voice was to me like the breaking of a seal. I felt like someone at last awakened from a sleep which had lasted centuries and as I walked slowly and circumspectly up the creaking wooden stairway I felt, hovering over me, the breath of a new self-possession. I was halfway up when she spoke again, sharply this time, with something almost comminatory in her tone. ‘I heard the horses and went all-overish suddenly. I’ve spilt scent all over my dress. I stink, Darley. You will have to forgive me.’ She seemed to have become very much thinner. Holding the candle high she advanced a step to the stairhead, and after gazing anxiously into my eyes placed a small cold kiss upon my right cheek. It was as cold as an obituary, dry as leather. As she did so I smelt the spilt perfume. She did indeed give off overpowering waves of it. Something in the enforced stillness of her attitude suggested an inner unsteadiness and the idea crossed my mind that perhaps she had been drinking. I was a trifle shocked too to see that she had placed a bright patch of rouge on each cheek-bone which showed up sharply against a dead white, overpowdered face. If she was beautiful still it was the passive beauty of some Propertian mummy which had been clumsily painted to give the illusion of life, or a photograph carelessly colour-tinted. ‘You must not look at my eye’ she next said, sharply, imperatively: and I saw that her left eyelid drooped slightly, threatening to transform her expression into something like a leer — and most particularly the welcoming smile which she was trying to adopt at this moment. ‘Do you understand?’ I nodded. Was the rouge, I wondered, designed to distract attention from the drooping eyelid? ‘I had a small stroke’ she added under her breath, as if explaining to herself. And as she still stood before me with the raised branch of candles she seemed to be listening to some other sound. I took her hand and we stood together for a long moment thus, staring at one another. ‘Have I changed very much?’ ‘Not at all.’ ‘Of course I have. We all have.’ She spoke now with a contemptuous shrillness. She raised my hand briefly and put it to her cheek. Then nodding with a puzzled air she turned and drew me towards the balcony, walking with a stiff proud step. She was clad in a dress of dark taffeta which whispered loudly at every movement. The candlelight jumped and danced upon the walls. We stopped before a dark doorway and she called out ‘Nessim’ in a sharp tone which shocked me, for it was the tone in which one would call a servant. After a moment Nessim appeared from the shadowy bedroom, obedient as a djinn. ‘Darley’s here’ she said, with the air of someone handing over a parcel, and placing the candles on a low table reclined swiftly in a long wicker chair and placed her hand over her eyes. Nessim had changed into a suit of a more familiar cut, and he came nodding and smiling towards me with the accustomed expression of affection and solicitude. Yet it was somehow different again; he wore a faintly cowed air, shooting little glances sideways and downwards towards the figure of Justine, and speaking softly as one might in the presence of someone asleep. A constraint had suddenly fallen upon us as we seated ourselves on that shadowy balcony and lit cigarettes. The silence locked like a gear which would not engage. ‘The child is in bed, delighted with the palace as she calls it, and the promise of a pony of her own. I think she will be happy.’ Justine suddenly sighed deeply and without uncovering her eyes said slowly: ‘He says we have not changed.’ Nessim swallowed and continued as if he had not heard the interruption in the same low voice: ‘She wanted to stay awake till you came but she was too tired.’ Once again the reclining figure in the shadowy corner interrupted to say: ‘She found Narouz’ little circumcision cap in the cupboard. I found her trying it on.’ She gave a short sharp laugh like a bark, and I saw Nessim wince suddenly and turn away his face. ‘We are short of servants’ he said in a low voice, hastily as if to cement up the holes made in the silence by her last remark. His air of relief was quite patent when Ali appeared and bade us to dinner. He picked up the candles and led us into the house. It had a somewhat funereal flavour — the white-robed servant with his scarlet belt leading, holding aloft the candles in order to light Justine’s way. She walked with an air of preoccupation, of remoteness. I followed next with Nessim close behind me. So we went in Indian file down the unlighted corridors, across high-ceilinged rooms with their walls covered in dusty carpets, their floors of rude planks creaking under our feet. And so we came at last to a supper-room, long and narrow, and suggesting a forgotten sophistication which was Ottoman perhaps; say, a room in a forgotten winter palace of Abdul Hamid, its highly carved window-screens of filigree looking out upon a neglected rose-garden. Here the candlelight with its luminous shadows was ideal as an adjunct to furnishings which were, in themselves, strident. The golds and the reds and the violets would in full light have seemed unbearable. By candle-light they had a subdued magnificence. We seated ourselves at the supper-table and once more I became conscious of the almost cowed expression of Nessim as he gazed around him. It is perhaps not the word. It was as if he expected some sudden explosion, expected some unforeseen reproach to break from her lips. He was mentally prepared to parry it, to fend it off with a tender politeness. But Justine ignored us. Her first act was to pour out a glass of red wine. This she raised to the light as if to verify its colour. Then she dipped it ironically to each of us in turn like a flag and drank it off all in one motion before replacing the glass on the table. The touches of rouge gave her an enflamed look which hardly matched the half-drowsy stupefaction of her glance. She was wearing no jewellery. Her nails were painted with gold polish. Putting her elbows on the table she propped her chin for a long moment as she studied us keenly, first one and then the other. Then she sighed, as if replete, and said: ‘Yes, we have all changed’, and turning swiftly like an accuser she stabbed her finger at her husband and said: ‘He has lost an eye.’ Nessim pointedly ignored this, passing some item of table fare towards her as if to distract her from so distressing a topic. She sighed again and said: ‘Darley, you look much better, but your hands are cracked and calloused. I felt it on my cheek.’ ‘Wood-cutting, I expect.’ ‘Ah. So! But you look well, very well.’ (A week later she would telephone Clea and say: ‘Dear God, how coarse he has become. What little trace of sensibility he had has been swamped by the peasant.’) In the silence Nessim coughed nervously and fingered the black patch over his eye. Clearly he misliked the tone of her voice, distrusted the weight of the atmosphere under which one could feel, building up slowly like a wave, the pressure of a hate which was the newest element among so many novelties of speech and manner. Had she really turned into a shrew? Was she ill? It was difficult to disinter the memory of that magical dark mistress of the past whose every gesture, however ill-advised and ill-considered, rang with the newly minted splendour of complete generosity. (‘So you come back’ she was saying harshly ‘and find us all locked up in Karm. Like old figures in a forgotten account book. Bad debts, Darley. Fugitives from justice, eh Nessim?’) There was nothing to be said in answer to such bitter sallies. We ate in silence under the quiet ministration of the Arab servant. Nessim addressed an occasional hurried remark to me on some neutral topic, brief, monosyllabic. Unhappily we felt the silence draining out around us, emptying like some great reservoir. Soon we should be left there, planted in our chairs like effigies. Presently the servant came in with two charged thermos flasks and a package of food which he placed at the end of the table. Justine’s voice kindled with a kind of insolence as she said: ‘So you are going back tonight?’ Nessim nodded shyly and said: ‘Yes, I’m on duty again.’ Clearing his throat he added to me: ‘It is only four times a week. It gives me something to do.’ ‘Something to do’ she cried clearly, derisively. ‘To lose his eye and his finger gives him something to do. Tell the truth, my dear, you would do anything to get away from this house.’ Then leaning forward towards me she said: ‘To get away from me, Darley. I drive him nearly mad with my scenes. That is what he says.’ It was horribly embarrassing in its vulgarity. The servant came in with his duty clothes carefully pressed and ironed, and Nessim rose, excusing himself with a word and a wry smile. We were left alone. Justine poured out a glass of wine. Then, in the act of raising it to her lips she surprised me with a wink and the words: ‘Truth will out.’ ‘How long have you been locked up here?’ I asked. ‘Don’t speak of it.’ ‘But is there no way….?’ ‘He has managed to partly escape. Not me. Drink, Darley, drink your wine.’ I drank in silence, and in a few minutes Nessim appeared once more, in uniform and evidently ready for his night journey. As if by common consent we all rose, the servant took up the candles and once more conducted us back to the balcony in lugubrious procession. During our absence one corner had been spread with carpets and divans while extra candlesticks and smoking materials stood upon inlaid side-tables. The night was still, and almost tepid. The candle-flames hardly moved. Sounds of the great lake came ebbing in upon us from the outer darkness. Nessim said a hurried good-bye and we heard the diminishing clip of his horse’s hoofs gradually fade as he took the road to the ford. I turned my head to look at Justine. She was holding up her wrists at me, her face carved into a grimace. She held them joined together as if by invisible manacles. She exhibited these imaginary handcuffs for a long moment before dropping her hands back into her lap, and then, abruptly, swift as a snake, she crossed to the divan where I lay and sat down at my feet, uttering as she did so, in a voice vibrating with remorseful resentment, the words: ‘Why, Darley? Oh why?’ It was as if she were interrogating not merely destiny or fate but the very workings of the universe itself in these thrilling poignant tones. Some of the old beauty almost flashed out in this ardour to trouble me like an echo. But the perfume! At such close quarters the spilled perfume was overpowering, almost nauseating. Yet suddenly now all our constraint vanished and we were at last able to talk. It was as if this outburst had exploded the bubble of listlessness in which we had been enveloped all evening. ‘You see a different me’ she cried in a voice almost of triumph. ‘But once again the difference lies in you, in what you imagine you see!’ Her words rattled down like a hail of sods on an empty coffin. ‘How is it that you can feel no resentment against me? To forgive such treachery so easily — why, it is unmanly. Not to hate such a vampire? It is unnatural. Nor could you ever understand my sense of humiliation at not being able to regale, yes regale you, my dear, with the treasures of my inner nature as a mistress. And yet, in truth, I enjoyed deceiving you, I must not deny it. But also there was regret in only offering you the pitiful simulacrum of a love (Ha! that word again!) which was sapped by deceit. I suppose this betrays the bottomless female vanity again: to desire the worst of two worlds, of both words — love and deceit. Yet it is strange that now, when you know the truth, and I am free to offer you affection, I feel only increased self-contempt. Am I enough of a woman to feel that the real sin against the Holy Ghost is dishonesty in love? But what pretentious rubbish — for love admits of no honesty by its very nature.’ So she went on, hardly heeding me, arguing my life away, moving obsessively up and down the cobweb of her own devising, creating images and beheading them instantly before my eyes. What could she hope to prove? Then she placed her head briefly against my knee and said: ‘Now that I am free to hate or love it is comical to feel only fury at this new self-possession of yours! You have escaped me somewhere. But what else was I to expect?’ In a curious sort of way this was true. To my surprise I now felt the power to wound her for the first time, even to subjugate her purely by my indifference! ‘Yet the truth’ I said ‘is that I feel no resentment for the past. On the contrary I am full of gratitude because an experience which was perhaps banal in itself (even disgusting for you) was for me immeasurably enriching!’ She turned away saying harshly: ‘Then we should both be laughing now.’ Together we sat staring out into the darkness for a long while. Then she shivered, lighted a cigarette and resumed the thread of her interior monologue. ‘The post-mortems of the undone! What could you have seen in it all, I wonder? We are after all totally ignorant of one another, presenting selected fictions to each other! I suppose we all observe each other with the same immense ignorance. I used, in my moments of guilt long afterwards, to try and imagine that we might one day become lovers again, on a new basis. What a farce! I pictured myself making it up to you, expiating my deceit, repaying my debt. But … I knew that you would always prefer your own mythical picture, framed by the five senses, to anything more truthful. But now, then, tell me — which of us was the greater liar? I cheated you, you cheated yourself.’ These observations, which at another time, in another context, might have had the power to reduce me to ashes, were now vitally important to me in a new way. ‘However hard the road, one is forced to come to terms with truth at last’ wrote Purse-warden somewhere. Yes, but unexpectedly I was discovering that truth was nourishing — the cold spray of a wave which carried one always a little further towards self-realization. I saw now that my own Justine had indeed been an illusionist’s creation, raised upon the faulty armature of misinterpreted words, actions, gestures. Truly there was no blame here; the real culprit was my love which had invented an image on which to feed. Nor was there any question of dishonesty, for the picture was coloured after the necessities of the love which invented it. Lovers, like doctors, colouring an unpalatable medicine to make it easier for the unwary to swallow! No, this could not have been otherwise, I fully realized. Something more, fully as engrossing: I also saw that lover and loved, observer and observed, throw down a field about each other (‘Perception is shaped like an embrace — the poison enters with the embrace’ as Pursewarden writes). They then infer the properties of their love, judging it from this narrow field with its huge margins of unknown (‘the refraction’), and proceed to refer it to a generalized conception of something constant in its qualities and universal in its operation. How valuable a lesson this was, both to art and to life! I had only been attesting, in all I had written, to the power of an image which I had created involuntarily by the mere act of seeing Justine. There was no question of true or false. Nymph? Goddess? Vampire? Yes, she was all of these and none of them. She was, like every woman, everything that the mind of a man (let us define ‘man’ as a poet perpetually conspiring against himself) — that the mind of man wished to imagine. She was there forever, and she had never existed! Under all these masks there was only another woman, every woman, like a lay figure in a dressmaker’s shop, waiting for the poet to clothe her, breathe life into her. In understanding all this for the first time I began to realize with awe the enormous reflexive power of woman — the fecund passivity with which, like the moon, she borrows her second-hand light from the male sun. How could I help but be grateful for such vital information? What did they matter, the lies, deceptions, follies, in comparison to this truth? Yet while this new knowledge compelled my admiration for her more than ever — as symbol of woman, so to speak — I was puzzled to explain the new element which had crept in here: a flavour of disgust for her personality and its attributes. The scent! Its cloying richness half sickened me. The touch of the dark head against my knee stirred dim feelings of revulsion in me. I was almost tempted to embrace her once more in order to explore this engrossing and inexplicable novelty of feeling further! Could it be that a few items of information merely, facts like sand trickling into the hour-glass of the mind, had irrevocably altered the image’s qualities — turning it from something once desirable to something which now stirred disgust? Yes, the same process, the very same love-process, I told myself. This was the grim metamorphosis brought about by the acid-bath of truth — as Pursewarden might say. Still we sat together on that shadowy balcony, prisoners of memory, still we talked on: and still it remained unchanged, this new disposition of selves, the opposition of new facts of mind. At last she took a lantern and a velvet cloak and we walked about for a while in that tideless night, coming at last to a great nubk tree whose branches were loaded with votive offerings. Here Nessim’s brother had been found dead. She held the lantern high to light the tree, reminding me that the ‘nubk’ forms the great circular palisade of trees which encircles the Moslem Paradise. ‘As for Narouz, his death hangs heavy on Nessim because people say that he ordered it himself — the Copts say so. It has become like a family curse to him. His mother is ill, but she will never return to this house, she says. Nor does he wish her to. He gets quite cold with rage when I speak of her. He says he wishes she would die! So here we are cooped up together. I sit all night reading — guess what? — a big bundle of love-letters to her which she left behind! Mountolive’s love-letters! More confusion, more unexplored corners!’ She raised the lantern and looked closely into my eyes: ‘Ah, but this unhappiness is not just ennui, spleen. There is also a desire to swallow the world. I have been experimenting with drugs of late, the sleep-givers!’ And so back in silence to the great rustling house with its dusty smells. ‘He says we will escape one day and go to Switzerland where at least he still has money. But when, but when? And now this war! Pursewarden said that my sense of guilt was atrophied. It is simply that I have no power to decide things now, any more. I feel as if my will had snapped. But it will pass.’ Then suddenly, greedily she grasped my hand and said: ‘But thank God, you are here. Just to talk is a soulagement. We spend whole weeks together without exchanging a word.’ We were seated once more on the clumsy divans by the light of candles. She lit a silver-tipped cigarette and smoked with short decisive inspirations as the monologue went on, unrolling on the night, winding away in the darkness like a river. ‘When everything collapsed in Palestine, all our dumps discovered and captured, the Jews at once turned on Nessim accusing him of treachery, because he was friendly with Mountolive. We were between Memlik and the hostile Jews, in disgrace with both. The Jews expelled me. This was when I saw Clea again; I so badly needed news and yet I couldn’t confide in her. Then Nessim came over the border to get me. He found me like a mad woman. I was in despair! And he thought it was because of the failure of our plans. It was, of course, it was; but there was another and deeper reason. While we were conspirators, joined by our work and its dangers, I could feel truly passionate about him. But to be under house-arrest, compelled to idle away my time alone with him, in his company…. I knew I should die of boredom. My tears, my lamentations were those of a woman forced against her will to take the veil. Ah but you will not understand, being a northerner. How could you? To be able to love a man fully, but only in a single posture, so to speak. You see, when he does not act, Nessim is nothing; he is completely flavourless, not in touch with himself at any point. Then he has no real self to interest a woman, to grip her. In a word he is really a pure idealist. When a sense of destiny consumes him he becomes truly splendid. It was as an actor that he magnetized me, illuminated me for myself. But as a fellow prisoner, in defeat — he predisposes to ennui, migraine, thoughts of utter banality like suicide! That is why from time to time I drive my claws into his flesh. In despair!’ ‘And Pursewarden?’ ‘Ah! Pursewarden. That is something different again. I cannot think of him without smiling. There my failure was of a totally different order. My feeling for him was — how shall I say? — almost incestuous, if you like; like one’s love for a beloved, an incorrigible elder brother. I tried so hard to penetrate into his confidences. He was too clever, or perhaps too egotistical. He defended himself against loving me by making me laugh! Yet I achieved with him, even so very briefly, a tantalizing inkling that there might be other ways of living open to me if only I could find them. But he was a tricky one. He used to say “An artist saddled with a woman is like a spaniel with a tick in its ear; it itches, it draws blood, one cannot reach it. Will some kindly grown-up please….?” Perhaps he was utterly lovable because quite out of reach? It is hard to say these things. One word “love” has to do service for so many different kinds of the same animal. It was he, too, who reconciled me to that whole business of the rape, remember? All that nonsense of Arnauti’s in Moeurs, all those psychologists! His single observation stuck like a thorn. He said: “Clearly you enjoyed it, as any child would, and probably even invited it. You have wasted all this time trying to come to terms with an imaginary conception of damage done to you. Try dropping this invented guilt and telling yourself that the thing was both pleasurable and meaningless. Every neurosis is made to measure!” It was curious that a few words like this, and an ironic chuckle, could do what all the others could not do for me. Suddenly everything seemed to lift, get lighter, move about. Like cargo shifting in a vessel. I felt faint and rather sick, which puzzled me. Then later on a space slowly cleared. It was like feeling creeping back into a paralysed hand again.’ She was silent for a moment before going on. ‘I still do not quite know how he saw us. Perhaps with contempt as the fabricators of our own misfortunes. One can hardly blame him for clinging to his own secrets like a limpet. Yet he hardly kept them, for he had a so-called Check hardly less formidable than mine, something which had plucked and gutted all sensation for him; so really in a way perhaps his strength was really a great weakness! You are silent, have I wounded you? I hope not, I hope your self-esteem is strong enough to face these truths of our old relationship. I should like to get it all off my chest, to come to terms with you — can you understand? To confess everything and wipe the slate clean. Look, even that first, that very first afternoon when I came to you — remember? You told me once how momentous it was. When you were ill in bed with sunburn, remember? Well, I had just been kicked out of his hotel-room against my will and was quite beside myself with fury. Strange to think that every word I then addressed to you was spoken mentally to him, to Pursewarden! In your bed it was he I embraced and subjugated in my mind. And yet again, in another dimension, everything I felt and did then was really for Nessim. At the bottom of my rubbish heap of a heart there was really Nessim, and the plan. My innermost life was rooted in this crazy adventure. Laugh now, Darley! Let me see you laugh for a change. You look rueful, but why should you? We are all in the grip of the emotional field which we throw down about one another — you yourself have said it. Perhaps our only sickness is to desire a truth which we cannot bear rather than to rest content with the fictions we manufacture out of each other.’ She suddenly uttered a short ironic laugh and walked to the balcony’s edge to drop the smouldering stub of her cigarette out into the darkness. Then she turned, and standing in front of me with a serious face, as if playing a game with a child, she softly patted her palms together, intoning the names, ‘Pursewarden and Liza, Darley and Melissa, Mountolive and Leila, Nessim and Justine, Narouz and Clea…. Here comes a candle to light them to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off their heads. The sort of pattern we make should be of interest to someone; or is it just a meaningless display of coloured fireworks, the actions of human beings or of a set of dusty puppets which could be hung up in the corner of a writer’s mind? I suppose you ask yourself the question.’ ‘Why did you mention Narouz?’ ‘After he died I discovered some letters to Clea; in his cupboard along with the old circumcision cap there was a huge nosegay of wax flowers and a candle the height of a man. As you know a Copt proposes with these. But he never had the courage to send them! How I laughed!’ ‘You laughed?’ ‘Yes, laughed until the tears ran down my cheeks. But I was really laughing at myself, at you, at all of us. One stumbles over it at every turn of the road, doesn’t one; under every sofa the same corpse, in every cupboard the same skeleton? What can one do but laugh?’ It was late by now, and she lighted my way to the gaunt guest-bedroom where I found a bed made up for me, and placed the candles on the old-fashioned chest of drawers. I slept almost at once. It must have been at some time not far off dawn when I awoke to find her standing beside the bed naked, with her hands joined in supplication like an Arab mendicant, like some beggar-woman of the streets. I started up. ‘I ask nothing of you’ she said, ‘nothing at all but only to he in your arms for the comfort of it. My head is bursting tonight and the medicines won’t bring sleep. I do not want to be left to the mercies of my own imagination. Only for the comfort, Darley. A few strokes and endearments, that is all I beg you.’ I made room for her listlessly, still half asleep. She wept and trembled and muttered for a long time before I was able to quieten her. But at last she fell asleep with her dark head on the pillow beside me. I lay awake for a long time to taste, with perplexity and wonder, the disgust that had now surged up in me, blotting out every other feeling. From where had it come? The perfume! The unbearable perfume and the smell of her body. Some lines from a poem of Pursewarden’s drifted through my mind. Delivered by her to what drunken caresses, Of mouths half eaten like soft rank fruit, From which one takes a single bite A mouthful of the darkness where we bleed. The once magnificent image of my love lay now in the hollow of my arm, defenceless as a patient on an operating table, hardly breathing. It was useless even to repeat her name which once held so much fearful magic that it had the power to slow the blood in my veins. She had become a woman at last, lying there, soiled and tattered, like a dead bird in a gutter, her hands crumpled into claws. It was as if some huge iron door had closed forever in my heart. I could hardly wait for that slow dawn to bring me release. I could hardly wait to be gone.Chapter III Justine (1957) Part IV Chapter 1Chapter XVIOf the common mind? Wherever now I lookJustine (1957) Part I Chapter 3Justine (1957) Part I Chapter 6 加拿大28顺子概率 Chapter XIIRavishing music of invisible choirs —Chapter III‘A‘Ahundred times I’ve asked you not to use my razor’ said Pombal plaintively ‘and you do so again. You know I am afraid of syphilis. Who knows what spots, when you cut them, begin to leak?’ ‘Mon cher collègue’ said Pursewarden stiffly (he was shaving his lip), and with a grimace which was somewhat intended to express injured dignity, ‘what can you mean? I am British. Hein?’ He paused, and marking time with Pombal’s cut-throat declaimed solemnly: ‘The British who perfected the horseless carriage Are now working hard on the sexless marriage. Soon the only permissible communion Will be by agreement with one’s Trade union.’ ‘Your blood may be infected’ said his friend between grunts as he ministered to a broken suspender with one fat calf exposed upon the bidet. ‘You never know, after all.’ ‘I am a writer’ said Pursewarden with further and deeper dignity. ‘And therefore I do know. There is no blood in my veins. Plasma’ he said darkly, wiping his ear-tip, ‘that is what flows in my veins. How else would I do all the work I do? Think of it. On the Spectator I am Ubique, on the New Statesman I am Mens Sana. On the Daily Worker I sign myself as Corpore Sano. I am also Paralysis Agitans on The Times and Ejaculatio Praecox in New Verse. I am …’ But here his invention failed him. ‘I never see you working’ said Pombal. ‘Working little, I earn less. If my work earned more than one hundred pounds a year I should not be able to take refuge in being misunderstood.’ He gave a strangled sob. ‘Compris. You have been drinking. I saw the bottle on the hall table as I came in. Why so early?’ ‘I wished to be quite honest about it. It is your wine, after all. I wished to hide nothing. I have drunk a tot or so.’ ‘Celebration?’ ‘Yes. Tonight, my dear Georges, I am going to do something rather unworthy of myself. I have disposed of a dangerous enemy and advanced my own position by a large notch. In our service, this would be regarded as something to crow about. I am going to offer myself a dinner of self-congratuladon.’ ‘Who will pay it?’ ‘I will order, eat and pay for it myself.’ ‘That is not much good.’ Pursewarden made an impatient face in the mirror. ‘On the contrary’ he said. ‘A quiet evening is what I most need. I shall compose a few more fragments of my autobiography over the good oysters at Diamandakis.’ ‘What is the title?’ ‘Beating about the Bush. The opening words are “I first met Henry James in a brothel in Algiers. He had a naked houri on each knee.” ‘Henry James was a pussy, I think.’ Pursewarden turned the shower on full and stepped into it crying: ‘No more literary criticism from the French, please.’ Pombal drove a comb through his dark hair with a laborious impatience and then consulted his watch. ‘Merde’ he said, ‘I am going to be retarded again.’ Pursewarden gave a shriek of delight. They adventured freely in each other’s languages, rejoicing like schoolboys in the mistakes which cropped up among their conversations. Each blunder was greeted with a shout, was turned into a war-cry. Pursewarden hopped with pleasure and shouted happily above the hissing of the water: ‘Why not stay in and enjoy a nice little nocturnal emission on the short hairs?’ (Pombal had described a radio broadcast thus the day before and had not been allowed to forget it.) He made a round face now to express mock annoyance. ‘I did not say it’ he said. ‘You bloody well did.’ ‘I did not say “the short hairs” but the “short undulations”— des ondes courtes.’ ‘Equally dreadful. You Quai d’Orsay people shock me. Now my French may not be perfect, but I have never made a ——’ ‘If I begin with your mistakes — ha! ha!’ Pursewarden danced up and down in the bath, shouting ‘Nocturnal emissions on the short hairs’. Pombal threw a rolled towel at him and lumbered out of the bathroom before he could retaliate effectively. Their abusive conversation was continued while the Frenchman made some further adjustments to his dress in the bedroom mirror. ‘Will you go down to Etoile later for the floor-show?’ ‘I certainly will’ said Pursewarden. ‘I shall dance a Fox-Macabre with Darley’s girl-friend or Sveva. Several Fox-Macabres, in fact. Then, later on, like an explorer who has run out of pemmican, purely for body-warmth, I shall select someone and conduct her to Mount Vulture. There to sharpen my talons on her flesh.’ He made what he imagined to be the noise a vulture makes as it feeds upon flesh — a soft, throaty croaking. Pombal shuddered. ‘Monster’ he cried. ‘I go — good-bye.’ ‘Good-bye. Toujours la maladresse!’ ‘Toujours.’ It was their war-cry. Left alone, Pursewarden whistled softly as he dried himself in the torn bath-towel and completed his toilet. The irregularities in the water system of the Mount Vulture Hotel often drove him across the square to Pombal’s flat in search of a leisurely bath and a shave. From time to time too, when Pombal went on leave, he would actually rent the place and share it, somewhat uneasily, with Darley who lived a furtive life of his own in the far corner of it. It was good from time to time to escape from the isolation of his hotel-room, and the vast muddle of paper which was growing up around his next novel. To escape — always to escape…. The desire of a writer to be alone with himself — ‘the writer, most solitary of human animals’; ‘I am quoting from the great Purse-warden himself’ he told his reflection in the mirror as he wrestled with his tie. Tonight he would dine quietly, self-indulgently, alone! He had gracefully refused a halting dinner invitation from Errol which he knew would involve him in one of those gauche, haunting evenings spent in playing imbecile paper-games or bridge. ‘My God’ Pombal had said, ‘your compatriots’ methods of passing the time! Those rooms which they fill with their sense of guilt! To express one idea is to stop a dinner party dead in its tracks and provoke an awkwardness,a silence…. I try my best, but always feel I’ve put my foot in it. So I always automatically send flowers the next morning to my hostess…. What a nation you are! How intriguing for us French because how repellent is the way you live!’ Poor David Mountolive! Pursewarden thought of him with compassion and affection. What a price the career diplomat had to pay for the fruits of power! ‘His dreams must forever be awash with the memories of fatuities endured — deliberately endured in the name of what was most holy in the profession, namely the desire to please, the determination to captivate in order to influence. Well! It takes all sorts to unmake a world.’ Combing his hair back he found himself thinking of Maskelyne, who must at this moment be sitting in the Jerusalem express jogging stiffly, sedately down among the sand-dunes and orange-groves, sucking a long pipe; in a hot carriage, fly-tormented without and roasted within by the corporate pride of a tradition which was dying…. Why should it be allowed to die? Maskelyne, full of the failure, the ignominy of a new post which carried advancement with it. The final cruel thrust. (The idea gave him a twinge of remorse for he did not underestimate the character of the unself-seeking soldier.) Narrow, acid, desiccated as a human being, nevertheless the writer somewhere treasured him while the man condemned him. (Indeed, he had made extensive notes upon him — a fact which would certainly have surprised Maskelyne had he known.) His way of holding his pipe, of carrying his nose high, his reserves…. It was simply that he might want to use him one day. ‘Are real human beings becoming simply extended humours capable of use, and does this cut one off from them a bit? Yes. For observation throws down a field about the observed person or object. Yes. Makes the unconditional response more difficult — the response to the common ties, affections, love and so on. But this is not only the writer’s problem — it is everyone’s problem. Growing up means separation in the interests of a better, more lucid joining up…. Bah!’ He was able to console himself against his furtive sympathy with Maskelyne by recalling a few of the man’s stupidities. His arrogance! ‘My dear fellow, when you’ve been in “I” as long as I have you develop intuition. You can see things a mile off.’ The idea of anyone like Maskelyne developing intuition was delightful. Pursewarden gave a long crowing laugh and reached for his coat. He slipped lightly downstairs into the dusky street, counting his money and smiling. It was the best hour of the day in Alexandria — the streets turning slowly to the metallic blue of carbon paper but still giving off the heat of the sun. Not all the lights were on in the town, and the large mauve parcels of dusk moved here and there, blurring the outlines of everything, repainting the hard outlines of buildings and human beings in smoke. Sleepy cafés woke to the whine of mandolines which merged in the shrilling of heated tyres on the tarmac of streets now crowded with life, with white-robed figures and the scarlet dots of tarbushes. The window-boxes gave off a piercing smell of slaked earth and urine. The great limousines soared away from the Bourse with softly crying horns, like polished flights of special geese. To be half-blinded by the mauve dusk, to move lightly, brushing shoulders with the throng, at peace, in that dry inspiriting air … these were the rare moments of happiness upon which he stumbled by chance, by accident. The pavements still retained their heat just as water-melons did when you cut them open at dusk; a damp heat slowly leaking up through the thin soles of one’s shoes. The sea-winds were moving in to invest the upper town with their damp coolness, but as yet one only felt them spasmodically. One moved through the dry air, so full of static electricity (the crackle of the comb in his hair), as one might swim through a tepid summer sea full of creeping cold currents. He walked towards Baudrot slowly through little isolated patches of smell — a perfume shed by a passing woman, or the reek of jasmine from a dark archway — knowing that the damp sea air would soon blot them all out. It was the perfect moment for an apéritif in the half-light. The long wooden outer balconies, lined with potted plants which exhaled the twilight smell of watered earth, were crowded now with human beings, half melted by the mirage into fugitive cartoons of gestures swallowed as soon as made. The coloured awnings trembled faintly above the blue veils which shifted uneasily in the darkening alleys, like the very nerves of the lovers themselves who hovered here, busy on the assignations, their gestures twinkling like butterflies full of the evening promises of Alexandria. Soon the mist would vanish and the lights would blaze up on cutlery and white cloth, on ear-rings and flashing jewellery, on sleek oiled heads and smiles made brilliant by their darkness, brown skins slashed by white teeth. Then the cars would begin once more to slide down from the upper town with their elegant precarious freight of diners and dancers…. This was the best moment of the day. Sitting here, with his back against a wooden trellis, he could gaze sleepily into the open street, unrecognized and ungreeted. Even the figures at the next table were unrecognizable, the merest outlines of human beings. Their voices came lazily to him in the dusk, the mauve-veiled evening voices of Alexandrians uttering stockyard quotations or the lazy verses from Arabic love-poems — who could tell? How good the taste of Dubonnet with a zeste de citron, with its concrete memory of a Europe long-since abandoned yet living on unforgotten below the surface of this unsubstantial life in Alexander’s shabby capital! Tasting it he thought enviously of Pombal, of the farmhouse in Normandy to which his friend hoped one day to return heart-whole. How marvellous it would be to feel the same assured relations with his own country, the same certainty of return! But his gorge rose at the mere thought of it; and at the same time the pain and regret that it should be so. (She said: ‘I have read the books so slowly — not because I cannot read fast as yet in Braille; but because I wanted to surrender to the power of each word, even the cruelties and the weaknesses, to arrive at the grain of the thought.’) The grain! It was a phrase which rang in one’s ear like the whimper of a bullet which passes too close. He saw her — the marble whiteness of the sea-goddess’ face, hair combed back upon her shoulders, staring out across the park where the dead autumn leaves and branches flared and smoked; a Medusa among the snows, dressed in her old tartan shawl. The blind spent all day in that gloomy subterranean library with its pools of shadow and light, their fingers moving like ants across the perforated surfaces of books engraved for them by a machine. (‘I so much wanted to understand, but I could not.’) Good, this is where you break into a cold sweat; this is where you turn through three hundred and sixty-five degrees, a human earth, to bury your face in your pillow with a groan! (The lights were coming on now, the veils were being driven upwards into the night, evaporating. The faces of human beings….) He watched them intently, almost lustfully, as if to surprise their most inward intentions, their basic designs in moving here, idle as fireflies, walking in and out of the bars of yellow light; a finger atwinkle with rings, a flashing ear, a gold tooth set firmly in the middle of an amorous smile. ‘Waiter, kaman waked, another please.’ And the half-formulated thoughts began to float once more across his mind (innocent, purged by the darkness and the alcohol): thoughts which might later dress up, masquerade as verses…. Visitants from other lives. Yes, he would do another year — one more whole year, simply out of affection for Mountolive. He would make it a good one, too. Then a transfer — but he averted his mind from this, for it might result in disaster. Ceylon? Santos? Something about this Egypt, with its burning airless spaces and its unrealized vastness — the grotesque granite monuments to dead Pharaohs, the tombs which became cities — something in all this suffocated him. It was no place for memory — and the strident curt reality of the day-world was almost more than a human being could bear. Open sores, sex, perfumes, and money. They were crying the evening papers in a soup-language which was deeply thrilling — Greek, Arabic, French were the basic ingredients. The boys ran howling through the thoroughfares like winged messengers from the underworld, proclaiming … the fall of Byzantium? Their white robes were tucked up about their knees. They shouted plaintively, as if dying of hunger. He leaned from his wooden porch and bought an evening paper to read over his solitary meal. Reading at meals was another self-indulgence which he could not refuse himself. Then he walked quietly along the arcades and through the street of the cafés, past a mauve mosque (sky-floating), a library, a temple (grilled: ‘Here once lay the body of the great Alexander’); and so down the long curving inclines of the street which took one to the seashore. The cool currents were still nosing about hereabouts, tantalizing to the cheek. He suddenly collided with a figure in a mackintosh and belatedly recognized Darley. They exchanged confused pleasantries, weighed down by a mutual awkwardness. Their politenesses got them, so to speak, suddenly stuck to each other, suddenly stuck to the street as if it had turned to flypaper. Then at last Darley managed to break himself free and turn back down the dark street saying: ‘Well, I mustn’t keep you. I’m dead tired myself. Going home for a wash.’ Pursewarden stood still for a moment looking after him, deeply puzzled by his own confusion and smitten by the memory of the damp bedraggled towels which he had left lying about Pombal’s bathroom, and the rim of shaving-soap grey with hairs around the washbasin…. Poor Darley! But how was it that, liking and respecting the man, he could not feel natural in his presence? He at once took on a hearty, unnatural tone with him purely out of nervousness. This must seem rude and contemptuous. The brisk hearty tone of some country medico rallying a patient … damn! He must some time take him back to the hotel for a solitary drink and try to get to know him a little. And yet, he had tried to get to know him on several occasions on those winter walks together. He rationalized his dissatisfaction by saying to himself ‘But the poor bastard is still interested in literature.’ But his good humour returned when he reached the little Greek oyster-tavern by the sea whose walls were lined with butts and barrels of all sizes, and from whose kitchens came great gusts of smoke and smell of whitebait and octopus frying in olive oil. Here he sat, among the ragged boatmen and schooner-crews of the Levant, to eat his oysters and dip into the newspaper, while the evening began to compose itself comfortably around him, untroubled by thought or the demands of conversation with its wicked quotidian platitudes. Later he might be able to relate his ideas once more to the book which he was trying to complete so slowly, painfully, in these hard-won secret moments stolen from an empty professional life, stolen even from the circumstances which he built around himself by virtue of laziness, of gregariousness. (‘Care for a drink?’ — ‘Don’t mind if I do.’ How many evenings had been lost like this?) And the newspapers? He dwelt mostly upon the Faits Divers — those little oddities of human conduct which mirrored the true estate of man, which lived on behind the wordier abstractions, pleading for the comic and miraculous in lives made insensitive by drabness, by the authority of bald reason. Beside a banner headline which he would have to interpret in a draft despatch for Mountolive the next day — ARAB union APPEALS AGAIN — he could find the enduring human frailties in GREAT RELIGIOUS LEADER TRAPPED IN LIFT or LUNATIC BREAKS MONTE CARLO BANK which reflected the macabre unreason of fate and circumstance. Later, under the influence of the excellent food at the Coin de France he began to smoke his evening more enjoyably still — like a pipe of opium. The inner world with its tensions unwound its spools inside him, flowing out and away in lines of thought which flickered intermittently into his consciousness like morse. As if he had become a real receiving apparatus — these rare moments of good dictation! At ten he noted on the back of a letter from his bank a few of the gnomic phrases which belonged to his book. As ‘Ten. No attacks by the hippogriff this week. Some speeches for Old Parr?’ And then, below it, disjointedly, words which, condensing now in the mind like dew, might later be polished and refashioned into the armature of his characters’ acts. (a) With every advance from the known to the unknown, the mystery increases. (b) Here I am, walking about on two legs with a name — the whole intellectual history of Europe from Rabelais to de Sade. (c) Man will be happy when his Gods perfect themselves. (d) Even the Saint dies with all his imperfections on his head. (e) Such a one as might be above divine reproach, beneath human contempt. (f) Possession of a human heart — disease without remedy. (g) All great books are excursions into pity. (h) The yellow millet dream is everyman’s way. Later these oracular thoughts would be all brushed softly into the character of Old Parr, the sensualist Tiresias of his novel, though erupting thus, at haphazard, they offered no clue as to the order in which they would really be placed finally. He yawned. He was pleasantly tipsy after his second Armagnac. Outside the grey awnings, the city had once more assumed the true pigmentation of night. Black faces now melted into blackness; one saw apparently empty garments walking about, as in The Invisible Man. Red pill-boxes mounted upon cancelled faces, the darkness of darkness. Whistling softly, he paid his bill and walked lightly down to the Corniche again to where, at the end of a narrow street, the green bubble of the Etoile flared and beckoned; he dived into the narrow bottleneck staircase to emerge into an airless ballroom, half blinded now by the incandescent butcher’s light and pausing only to let Zoltan take his mackintosh away to the cloakroom. For once he was not irked by the fear of his unpaid drink-chits — for he had drawn a substantial advance upon his new salary. ‘Two new girls’ said the little waiter hoarsely in his ear, ‘both from Hungary.’ He licked his lips and grinned. He looked as if he had been fried very slowly in olive oil to a rich dark brown. The place was crowded, the floor-show nearly over. There were no familiar faces to be seen around, thank God. The lights went down, turned blue, black — and then with a shiver of tambourines and the roll of drums threw up the last performer into a blinding silver spot. Her sequins caught fire as she turned, blazing like a Viking ship, to jingle down the smelly corridor to the dressing-rooms. He had seldom spoken to Melissa since their initial meeting months before, and her visits to Pombal’s flat now rarely if ever coincided with his. Darley too was painstakingly secretive — perhaps from jealousy, or shame? Who could tell? They smiled and greeted one another in the street when their paths crossed, that was all. He watched her reflectively now as he drank a couple of whiskies and slowly felt the lights beginning to burn more brightly inside him, his feet respond to the dull sugared beat of the nigger jazz. He enjoyed dancing, enjoyed the comfortable shuffle of the four-beat bar, the rhythms that soaked into the floor under one’s toes. Should he dance? But he was too good a dancer to be adventurous, and holding Melissa in his arms thus he hardly bothered to do more than move softly, lightly round the floor, humming to himself the tune of Jamais de la vie. She smiled at him and seemed glad to see a familiar face from the outer world. He felt her narrow hand with its slender wrist resting upon his shoulder, fingers clutching his coat like the claw of a sparrow. ‘You are en forme’ she said. ‘I am en forme’ he replied. They exchanged the meaningless pleasantries suitable to the time and place. He was interested and attracted by her execrable French. Later she came across to his table and he stood her a couple of coupes de champagne — the statutory fee exacted by the management for private conversations. She was on duty that night, and each dance cost the dancer a fee; therefore this interlude won her gratitude, for her feet were hurting her. She talked gravely, chin on hand, and watching her he found her rather beautiful in an etiolated way. Her eyes were good — full of small timidities which recorded perhaps the shocks which too great an honesty exacts from life? But she looked, and clearly was, ill. He jotted down the words: ‘The soft bloom of phthisis.’ The whisky had improved his sulky good humour, and his few jests were rewarded by an unforced laughter which, to his surprise, he found delightful. He began to comprehend dimly what Darley must see in her — the gamine appeal of the city, of slenderness and neatness: the ready street-arab response to a hard world. Dancing again he said to her, but with drunken irony: ‘Melissa, comment vous défendez-vous contre la foule?’ Her response, for some queer reason, cut him to the heart. She turned upon him an eye replete with all the candour of experience and replied softly: ‘Monsieur, je ne me défends plus.’ The melancholy of the smiling face was completely untouched by self-pity. She made a little gesture, as if indicating a total world, and said ‘Look’ — the shabby wills and desires of the Etoile’s patrons, clothed in bodily forms, spread around them in that airless cellar. He understood and suddenly felt apologetic for never having treated her seriously. He was furious at his own complacency. On an impulse, he pressed his cheek to hers, affectionately as a brother. She was completely natural! A human barrier dissolved now and they found that they could talk freely to each other, like old friends. As the evening wore on he found himself dancing with her more and more often. She seemed to welcome this, even though on the dance-floor itself he danced silently now, relaxed and happy. He made no gestures of intimacy, yet he felt somehow accepted by her. Then towards midnight a fat and expensive Syrian banker arrived and began to compete seriously for her company. Much to his annoyance, Pursewarden felt his anxiety rise, form itself almost into a proprietary jealousy. This made him swear under his breath! But he moved to a table near the floor the better to be able to claim her as soon as the music started. Melissa herself seemed oblivious to this fierce competition. She was tired. At last he asked her ‘What will you do when you leave here? Will you go back to Darley tonight?’ She smiled at the name, but shook her head wearily. ‘I need some money for — never mind’ she said softly, and then abruptly burst out, as if afraid of not being taken for sincere, with ‘For my winter coat. We have so little money. In this business, one has to dress. You understand?’ Pursewarden said: ‘Not with that horrible Syrian?’ Money! He thought of it with a pang. Melissa looked at him with an air of amused resignation. She said in a low voice, but without emphasis, without shame: ‘He has offered me 500 piastres to go home with him. I say no now, but later — I expect I shall have to.’ She shrugged her shoulders. Pursewarden swore quietly. ‘No’ he said. ‘Come with me. I shall give you 1,000 if you need it.’ Her eyes grew round at the mention of so great a sum of money. He could see her telling it over coin by coin, fingering it, as if on an abacus, dividing it up into food, rent and clothes. ‘I mean it’ he said sharply. And added almost at once: ‘Does Darley know?’ ‘Oh yes’ she said quietly. ‘You know, he is very good. Our life is a struggle, but he knows me. He trusts me. He never asks for any details. He knows that one day when we have enough money to go away I will stop all this. It is not important for us.’ It sounded quaint, like some fearful blasphemy in the mouth of a child. Pursewarden laughed. ‘Come now’ he said suddenly; he was dying to possess her, to cradle and annihilate her with the disgusting kisses of a false compassion. ‘Come now, Melissa darling’ he said, but she winced and turned pale at the word and he saw that he had made a mistake, for any sexual transaction must be made strictly outside the bounds of her personal affection for Darley. He was disgusted by himself and yet rendered powerless to act otherwise; ‘I tell you what’ he said ‘I shall give Darley a lot of money later this month — enough to take you away.’ She did not seem to be listening. ‘I’ll get my coat’ she said in a small mechanical voice ‘and meet you in the hall.’ She went to make her peace with the manager, and Pursewarden waited for her in an agony of impatience. He had hit upon the perfect way to cure these twinges of a puritan conscience which lurked on underneath the carefree surface of an amoral life. Several weeks before, he had received through Nessim a short note from Leila, written in an exquisite hand, which read as follows: Dear Mr. Pursewarden, I am writing to ask you to perform an unusual service for me. A favourite uncle of mine has just died. He was a great lover of England and the English language which he knew almost better than his own; in his will he left instructions that an epitaph in English should be placed upon his tomb, in prose or verse, and if possible original. I am anxious to honour his memory in this most suitable way and to carry out his last wishes, and this is why I write: to ask you if you would consider such an undertaking, a common one for poets to perform in ancient China, but uncommon today. I would be happy to commission you in the sum of £500 for such a work. The epitaph had been duly delivered and the money deposited in his bank, but to his surprise he found himself unable to touch it. Some queer superstition clung to him. He had never written poetry to order before, and never an epitaph. He smelt something unlucky almost about so large a sum. It had stayed there in his bank, untouched. Now he was suddenly visited by the conviction that he must give it away to Darley! It would, among other things, atone for his habitual neglect of his qualities, his clumsy awkwardness. She walked back to the hotel with him, pressed as close as a scabbard to his thigh — the professional walk of a woman of the streets. They hardly spoke. The streets were empty. The old dirty lift, its seats trimmed with dusty brown braid and its mirrors with rotting lace curtains, jerked them slowly upwards into the cobwebbed gloom. Soon, he thought to himself, he would drop through the trap-door feet first, arms pinioned by arms, lips by lips, until he felt the noose tighten about his throat and the stars explode behind his eyeballs. Surcease, forgetfulness, what else should one seek from an unknown woman’s body? Outside the door he kissed her slowly and deliberately, pressing into the soft cone of her pursed lips until their teeth met with a slight click and a jar. She neither responded to him nor withdrew, presenting her small expressionless face to him (sightless in the gloom) like a pane of frosted glass. There was no excitement in her, only a profound and consuming world-weariness. Her hands were cold. He took them in his own, and a tremendous melancholy beset him. Was he to be left once more alone with himself? At once he took refuge in a comic drunkenness which he well knew how to simulate, and which would erect a scaffolding of words about reality, to disorder and distemper it. ‘Viens, viens!’ he cried sharply, reverting almost to the false jocularity he assumed with Darley, and now beginning to feel really rather drunk again. ‘Le ma.tre vous invite.’ Unsmiling, trustful as a lamb, she crossed the threshold into the room, looking about her. He groped for the bed-lamp. It did not work. He lit a candle which stood in a saucer on the night-table and turned to her with the dark shadows dancing in his nostrils and in the orbits of his eyes. They looked at one another while he conducted a furious mercenary patter to disguise his own unease. Then he stopped, for she was too tired to smile. Then, still unspeaking and unsmiling, she began to undress, item by item, dropping her clothes about her on the ragged carpet. For a long moment he lay, simply exploring her slender body with its slanting ribs (structure of ferns) and the small, immature but firm breasts. Troubled by his silence, she sighed and said something inaudible. ‘Laissez. Laissez parler les doigts … comme .a’ he whispered to silence her. He would have liked to say some simple and concrete word. In the silence he felt her beginning to struggle against the luxurious darkness and the growing powers of his lust, straggling to compartment her feelings, to keep them away from her proper life among the bare transactions of existence. ‘A separate compartment’ he thought; and ‘Is it marked Death?’ He was determined to exploit her weakness, the tenderness he felt ebbing and flowing in her veins, but his own moral strength ebbed now and guttered. He turned pale and lay with his bright feverish eyes turned to the shabby ceiling, seeing backwards into time. A clock struck coarsely somewhere, and the sound of the hours woke Melissa, driving away her lassitude, replacing it once more with anxiety, with a desire to be done, to be poured back into the sleep with which she struggled. They played with each other, counterfeiting a desultory passion which mocked its own origins, could neither ignite nor extinguish itself. (You can lie with lips apart, legs apart, for numberless eternities, telling yourself it is something you have forgotten, it is on the tip of your tongue, the edge of your mind. For the life of you you cannot remember what it is, the name, the town, the day, the hour … the biological memory fails.) She gave a small sniff, as if she were crying, holding him in those pale, reflective fingers, tenderly as one might hold a fledgling fallen from the nest. Expressions of doubt and anxiety flitted across her face — as if she were herself guilty for the failure of the current, the broken communication. Then she groaned — and he knew that she was thinking of the money. Such a large sum! His improvidence could never be repeated by other men! And now her crude solicitude, her roughness began to make him angry. ‘Chéri.’ Their embraces were like the dry conjunction of waxworks, of figures modelled in gesso for some classical tomb. Her hands moved now charmlessly upon the barrel-vaulting of his ribs, his loins, his throat, his cheek; her fingers pressing here and there in darkness, linger of the blind seeking a secret panel in a wall, a forgotten switch which would slide back, illuminate another world, out of time. It was useless, it seemed. She gazed wildly around her. They lay under a nightmarish window full of sealight, against which a single curtain moved softly like a sail, reminding her of Darley’s bed. The room was full of the smell of stale joss, decomposing manuscripts, and the apples he ate while he worked. The sheets were dirty. As usual, at a level far below the probings of self-disgust or humiliation, he was writing, swiftly and smoothly in his clear mind. He was covering sheet upon sheet of paper. For so many years now he had taken to writing out his life in his own mind — the living and the writing were simultaneous. He transferred the moment bodily to paper as it was lived, warm from the oven, naked and exposed…. ‘Now’ she said angrily, determined not to lose the piastres which in her imagination she had already spent, already owed, ‘now I will make you La Veuve’ and he drew his breath in an exultant literary thrill to hear once more this wonderful slang expression stolen from the old nicknames of the French guillotine, with its fearful suggestion of teeth reflected in the concealed metaphor for the castration complex. La Veuve! The shark-infested seas of love which closed over the doomed sailor’s head in a voiceless paralysis of the dream, the deep-sea dream which dragged one slowly downwards, dismembered and dismembering … until with a vulgar snick the steel fell, the clumsy thinking head (‘use your loaf) smacked dully into the basket to spurt and wriggle like a fish…. ‘Mon coeur’ he said hoarsely, ‘mon ange’; simply to taste the commonest of metaphors, hunting through them a tenderness lost, torn up, cast aside among the snows. ‘Mon ange.’ A sea-widow into something rich and strange! Suddenly she cried out in exasperation: ‘Ah God! But what is it? You do not want to?’ her voice ending almost in a wail. She took his soft rather womanish hand upon her knee and spread it out like a book, bending over it a despairing curious face. She moved the candle the better to study the lines, drawing up her thin legs. Her hair fell about her face. He touched the rosy light on her shoulder and said mockingly ‘You tell fortunes.’ But she did not look up. She answered shortly ‘Everyone in the city tells fortunes.’ They stayed like this, like a tableau, for a long moment. ‘The caput mortuum of a love-scene’ he thought to himself. Then Melissa sighed, as if with relief, and raised her head. ‘I see now’ she said quietly. ‘You are all closed in, your heart is closed in, completely so.’ She joined index finger to index finger, thumb to thumb in a gesture such as one might use to throttle a rabbit. Her eyes flashed with sympathy. ‘Your life is dead, closed up. Not like Darley’s. His is wide … very wide … open.’ She spread her arms out for a moment before dropping them to her knee once more. She added with the tremendous unconscious force of veracity: ‘He can still love.’ He felt as if he had been hit across the mouth. The candle flickered. ‘Look again’ he said angrily. ‘Tell me some more.’ But she completely missed the anger and the chagrin in his voice and bent once more to that enigmatic white hand. ‘Shall I tell you everything?’ she whispered, and for a minute his breath stopped. ‘Yes’ he said curtly. Melissa smiled a stranger, private smile. ‘I am not very good’ she said softly, ‘I’ll tell you only what I see.’ Then she turned her candid eyes to him and added: ‘I see death very close.’ Pursewarden smiled grimly. ‘Good’ he said. Melissa drew her hair back to her ear with a finger and bent to his hand once more. ‘Yes, very close. You will hear about it in a matter of hours. What rubbish!’ She gave a little laugh. And then, to his complete surprise she went on to describe his sister. ‘The blind one — not your wife.’ She closed her eyes and spread her repellent arms out before her like a sleep-walker. ‘Yes’ said Pursewarden, ‘that is her. That is my sister.’ ‘Your sister?’ Melissa was astounded. She dropped his hand. She had never in playing this game made an accurate prediction before. Pursewarden told her gravely: ‘She and I were lovers. We shall never be able to love other people.’ And now, with the recital begun he suddenly found it easy to tell the rest, to tell her everything. He was completely master of himself and she gazed at him with pity and tenderness. Was it easy because they spoke French? In French the truth of passion stood up coldly and cruelly to the scrutiny of human experience. In his own curious phrase he had always qualified it as ‘an unsniggerable language’. Or was it simply that the fugitive sympathy of Melissa made these events easy to speak of? She herself did not judge, everything was known, had been experienced. She nodded gravely as he spoke of his love and his deliberate abandoning of it, of his attempt at marriage, of its failure. Between pity and admiration they kissed, but passionately now, united by the ties of recorded human experience, by the sensation of having shared something. ‘I saw it in the hand’ she said, ‘in your hand.’ She was somewhat frightened by the unwonted accuracy of her own powers. And he? He had always wanted someone to whom he could speak freely — but it must be someone who could not fully understand! The candle flickered. On the mirror with shaving soap he had written the mocking verses for Justine which began: Oh Dreadful is the check! Intense the agony. When the ear begins to hear And the eye begins to see! He repeated them softly to himself, in the privacy of his own mind, as he thought of the dark composed features which he had seen here, by candle-light — the dark body seated in precisely the pose which Melissa now adopted, watching him with her chin on her knee, holding his hand with sympathy. And as he went on in his quiet voice to speak of his sister, of his perpetual quest for satisfactions which might be better than those he could remember, and which he had deliberately abandoned, other verses floated through his mind; the chaotic commentaries thrown up by his reading no less than by his experiences. Even as he saw once again the white marble face with its curling black hair thrown back about the nape of a slender neck, the ear-points, chin cleft by a dimple — a face which led him back always to those huge empty eye-sockets — he heard his inner mind repeating: Amors par force vos demeine! Combien durra vostre folie? Trop avez mené ceste vie. He heard himself saying things which belonged elsewhere. With a bitter laugh, for example: ‘The Anglo-Saxons invented the word “fornication” because they could not believe in the variety of love.’ And Melissa, nodding so gravely and sympathetically, began to look more important — for here was a man at last confiding in her things she could not understand, treasures of that mysterious male world which oscillated always between sottish sentimentality and brutish violence! ‘In my country almost all the really delicious things you can do to a woman are criminal offences, grounds for divorce.’ She was frightened by his sharp, cracked laugh. Of a sudden he looked so ugly. Then he dropped his voice again and continued pressing her hand to his cheek softly, as one presses upon a bruise; and inside the inaudible commentary continued: ‘What meaneth Heaven by these diverse laws? Eros, Agape — self-division’s cause?’ Locked up there in the enchanted castle, between the terrified kisses and intimacies which would never now be recovered, they had studied La Lioba! What madness! Would they ever dare to enter the lists against other lovers? Jurata fornicatio — those verses dribbling away in the mind; and her body, after Rudel, ‘gras, delgat et gen’. He sighed, brushing away the memories like a cobweb and saying to himself: ‘Later, in search of an askesis he followed the desert fathers to Alexandria, to a place between two deserts, between the two breasts of Melissa. O morosa delectatio. And he buried his face there among the dunes, covered by her quick hair.’ Then he was silent, staring at her with his clear eyes, his trembling lips closing for the first time about endearments which were now alight, now truly passionate. She shivered suddenly, aware that she would not escape him now, that she would have to submit to him fully. ‘Melissa’ he said triumphantly. They enjoyed each other now, wisely and tenderly, like friends long sought for and found among the commonplace crowds which thronged the echoing city. And here was a Melissa he had planned to find — eyes closed, warm open breathing mouth, torn from sleep with a kiss by the rosy candle-light. ‘It is time to go.’ But she pressed nearer and nearer to his body, whimpering with weariness. He gazed down fondly at her as she lay in the crook of his arm. ‘And the rest of your prophecy?’ he said gaily. ‘Rubbish, all rubbish’ she answered sleepily. ‘I can sometimes learn a character from a hand — but the future! I am not so clever.’ The dawn was breaking behind the window. On a sudden impulse he went to the bathroom and turned on the bathwater. It flowed boiling hot, gushing into the bath with a swish of steam! How typical of the Mount Vulture Hotel, to have hot bathwater at such an hour and at no other. Excited as a schoolboy he called her. ‘Melissa, come and soak the weariness out of your bones or I’ll never get you back to your home.’ He thought of ways and means of delivering the five hundred pounds to Darley in such a way as to disguise the source of the gift. He must never know that it came from a rival’s epitaph on a dead Copt! ‘Melissa’ he called again, but she was asleep. He picked her up bodily and carried her into the bathroom. Lying snugly in the warm bath, she woke up, uncurled from sleep like one of those marvellous Japanese paper-flowers which open in water. She paddled the warmth luxuriously over her shallow pectorals and glowed, her thighs beginning to turn pink. Purse-warden sat upon the bidet with one hand in the warm water and talked to her as she woke from sleep..’You mustn’t take too long’ he said, ‘or Darley will be angry.’ ‘Darley! Bah! He was out with Justine again last night.’ She sat up and began to soap her breasts, breathing in the luxury of soap and water like someone tasting a rare wine. She pronounced her rival’s name with small cringing loathing that seemed out of character. Pursewarden was surprised. ‘Such people — the Hosnanis’ she said with contempt. ‘And poor Darley believes in them, in her. She is only using him. He is too good, too simple.’ ‘Using him?’ She turned on the shower and revelling in the clouds of steam nodded a small pinched-up face at him. ‘I know all about them.’ ‘What do you know?’ He felt inside himself the sudden stirring of a discomfort so pronounced that it had no name. She was about to overturn his world as one inadvertently knocks over an inkpot or a goldfish-bowl. Smiling a loving smile all the time. Standing there in the clouds of steam like an angel emerging from heaven in some seventeenth-century engraving. ‘What do you know?’ he repeated. Melissa examined the cavities in her teeth with a handmirror, her body still wet and glistening. ‘I’ll tell you. I used to be the mistress of a very important man, Cohen, very important and very rich.’ There was something pathetic about such boasting. ‘He was working with Nessim Hosnani and told me things. He also talked in his sleep. He is dead now. I think he was poisoned because he knew so much. He was helping to take arms into the Middle East, into Palestine, for Nessim Hosnani. Great quantities. He used to say “Pour faire sauter les Anglais!” ’ She ripped out the words vindictively, and all of a sudden, after a moment’s thought added: ‘He used to do this.’ It was grotesque, her imitation of Cohen bunching up his fingers to kiss them and then waving them in a gesture as he said ‘Tout à toi, John Bull!’ Her face crumpled and screwed up into an imitation of the dead man’s malice. ‘Dress now’ said Pursewarden in a small voice. He went into the other room and stood for a moment gazing distractedly at the wall above the bookshelf. It was as if the whole city had crashed down about his ears. ‘That is why I don’t like the Hosnanis’ cried Melissa from the bathroom in a new, brassy fishwife’s voice. ‘They secretly hate the British.’ ‘Dress’ he called sharply, as if he were speaking to a horse. ‘And get a move on.’ Suddenly chastened she dried herself and tiptoed out of the bathroom saying ‘I am ready immediately.’ Pursewarden stood quite still staring at the wall with a fixed, dazed expression. He might have fallen there from some other planet. He was so still that his body might have been a statue cast in some heavy metal. Melissa shot small glances at him as she dressed. ‘What is it?’ she said. He did not answer. He was thinking furiously. When she was dressed he took her arm and together they walked in silence down the staircase and into the street. The dawn was beginning to break. There were still street-lamps alight and they still cast shadows. She looked at his face from time to time, but it was expressionless. Punctually as they approached each light their shadows lengthened, grew narrower and more contorted, only to disappear into the half-light before renewing their shape. Purse-warden walked slowly, with a tired, deliberate trudge, still holding her arm. In each of these elongated capering shadows he saw now quite clearly the silhouette of the defeated Maskelyne. At the corner by the square he stopped and with the same abstracted expression on his face said: ‘Tiens! I forgot. Here is the thousand I promised you.’ He kissed her upon the cheek and turned back towards the hotel without a word.Ravishing music of invisible choirs —To London he always returned with the tremulous eagerness of a lover who has been separated a long time from his mistress; he returned, so to speak, upon a note of interrogation. Had life altered? Had anything been changed? Perhaps the nation had, after all, woken up and begun to live? The thin black drizzle over Trafalgar Square, the soot-encrusted cornices of Whitehall, the slur of rubber tyres spinning upon macadam, the haunting conspiratorial voice of river traffic behind the veils of mist — they were both a reassurance and a threat. He loved it inarticulately, the melancholy of it, though he knew in his heart he could no longer live here permanently, for his profession had made an expatriate of him. He walked in the soft clinging rain towards Downing Street, muffled in his heavy overcoat, comparing himself from time to time, not without a certain complacence, to the histrionic Grand Duke who smiled at him from the occasional hoardings advertising De Reszke cigarettes. He smiled to himself as he remembered some of Pursewarden’s acid strictures on their native capital, repeating them in his own mind with pleasure, as compliments almost. Pursewarden transferring his sister’s hand from one elbow to another in order to complete a vague gesture towards the charred-looking figure of Nelson under its swarming troops of pigeons befluffed against the brute cold. ‘Ah, Mountolive! Look at it all. Home of the eccentric and the sexually disabled. London! Thy food as appetizing as a barium meal, thy gloating discomforts, thy causes not lost but gone before.’ Mountolive had protested laughingly. ‘Never mind, It is our own — and it is greater than the sum of its defects.’ But his companion had found such sentiments uncongenial. He smiled now as he remembered the writer’s wry criticisms of gloom, discomfort and the native barbarism. As for Mountolive, it nourished him, the gloom; he felt something like the fox’s love for its earth. He listened with a comfortable smiling indulgence while his companion perorated with mock fury at the image of his native island, saying: ‘Ah, England! England where the members of the R.S.P.C.A. eat meat twice a day and the nudist devours imported fruit in the snow. The only country which is ashamed of poverty.’ Big Ben struck its foundering plunging note. Lamps had begun to throw out their lines of prismatic light. Even in the rain there was the usual little cluster of tourists and loungers outside the gates of Number Ten. He turned sharply away and entered the silent archways of the Foreign Office, directing his alien steps to the bag-room, virtually deserted now, where he declared himself and gave instructions about the forwarding of his mail, and left an order for the printing of new and more resplendent invitation cards. Then in a somewhat more thoughtful mood, and a warier walk to match it, he climbed the cold staircase smelling of cobwebs and reached the embrasures in the great hall patrolled by the uniformed janitors. It was late, and most of the inhabitants of what Pursewarden always called the ‘Central Dovecot’ had surrendered their tagged keys and vanished. Here and there in the great building were small oases of light behind barred windows. The clink of teacups sounded somewhere out of sight. Someone fell over a pile of scarlet despatch boxes which had been stacked in a corridor against collection. Mountolive sighed with familiar pleasure. He had deliberately chosen the evening hours for his first few interviews because there was Kenilworth to be seen and … his ideas were not very precise upon the point; but he might atone for his dislike of the man by taking him to his club for a drink? For somewhere along the line he had made an enemy of him, he could not guess how, for it had never been marked by any open disagreement. Yet it was there, like a knot in wood. They had been near-contemporaries at school and university, though never friends. But while he, Mountolive, had climbed smoothly and faultlessly up the ladder of promotion the other had been somehow faulted, had always missed his footing; had drifted about among the departments of little concern, collecting the routine honours, but never somehow catching a favourable current. The man’s brilliance and industry were undeniable. Why had he never succeeded? Mountolive asked himself the question fretfully, indignantly. Luck? At any rate here was Kenilworth now heading the new department concerned with Personnel, innocuous enough, to be sure, but his failure embarrassed Mountolive. For a man of his endowment it was really a shame to be merely in charge of one of those blank administrative constructs which offered no openings into the worlds of policy. A dead end. And if he could not develop positively he would soon develop the negative powers of obstruction which always derive from a sense of failure. As he was thinking this he was climbing slowly to the third floor to report his presence to Granier, moving through the violet crepuscule towards the tall cream doors behind which the Under-Secretary sat in a frozen bubble of green light, incising designs on his pink blotter with a paper-knife. Congratulations weighed something here, for they were spiced with professional envy. Granier was a clever, witty and good-tempered man with some of the mental agility and drive of a French grandmother. It was easy to like him. He spoke rapidly and confidently, marking his sentences with little motions of the ivory paper-weight. Mount-olive fell in naturally with the charm of his language — the English of fine breeding and polish which carried those invisible diacritical marks, the expression of its caste. ‘You looked in on the Berlin mission, I gather? Good. Anyway, if you’ve been following P.E. you will see the shape of things to come perhaps, and be able to judge the extent of our preoccupations with your own appointment. Eh?’ He did not like to use the word ‘war’. It sounded theatrical. ‘If the worst comes to the worst we don’t need to emphasize a concern for Suez — indeed, for the whole Arab complex of states. But since you’ve served out there I won’t pretend to lecture you about it. But we’ll look forward to your papers with interest. And moreover as you know Arabic’ ‘My Arabic has all gone, rusted away.’ ‘Hush’ said Granier, ‘not too loud. You owe your appointment in a very large measure to it. Can you get it back swiftly?’ ‘If I am allowed the leave I have accrued.’ ‘Of course. Besides, now that the Commission is wound up, we shall have to get agrément and so on. And of course the Secretary of State will want to confer when he gets back from Washington. Then what about investiture, and kissing hands and all that? Though we regard every appointment of the sort as urgent … well, you know as well as I do the mandarin calm of F.O. movements’ He smiled his clever and indulgent smile, lighting a Turkish cigarette. ‘I’m not so sure it isn’t a good philosophy either’ he went on. ‘At any rate, as a bias for policy. After all, we are always facing the inevitable, the irremediable; more haste, more muddle! More panic and less confidence. In diplomacy one can only propose, never dispose. That is up to God, don’t you think?’ Granier was one of those worldly Catholics who regarded God as a congenial club-member whose motives are above question. He sighed and was silent for a moment before adding: ‘No, we’ll have to set the chessboard up for you properly. It’s not everyone who’d consider Egypt a plum. All the better for you.’ Mountolive was mentally unrolling a map of Egypt with its green central spine bounded by deserts, the dusty anomalies of its peoples and creeds; and then watching it fade in three directions into incoherent desert and grassland; to the north Suez like a caesarian section through which the East was untimely ripped; then again the sinuous complex of mountains and dead granite, orchards and plains which were geographically distributed about the map at hazard, boundaries marked by dots…. The metaphor from chess was an apposite one. Cairo lay to the centre of this cobweb. He sighed and took his leave, preparing a new face with which to greet the unhappy Kenilworth. As he walked thoughtfully back to the janitors on the first floor he noted with alarm that he was already ten minutes late for his second interview and prayed under his breath that this would not be regarded as a deliberate slight. ‘Mr. Kenilworth has phoned down twice, sir. I told him where you were.’ Mountolive breathed more freely and addressed himself once more to the staircase, only to turn right this time and wind down several cold but odourless corridors to where Kenilworth waited, tapping his rimless pince-nez against a large and shapely thumb. They greeted one another with a grotesque effusion which effectively masked a reciprocal distaste. ‘My dear David’…. Was it, Mountolive wondered, simply an antipathy to a physical type? Kenilworth was of a large and porcine aspect, over two hundred pounds of food-and-culture snob. He was prematurely grey. His fat, well-manicured fingers held a pen with a delicacy suggesting incipient crewel-work or crochet. ‘My dear David!’ They embraced warmly. All the fat on Kenilworth’s large body hung down when he stood up. His flesh was knitted in a heavy cable stitch. ‘My dear Kenny’ said Mountolive with apprehension and self-disgust. ‘What splendid news. I flatter myself Kenilworth put on an arch expression ‘that I may have had something, quite small, quite insignificant, to do with it. Your Arabic weighed with the S. of S. and it was I who remembered it! A long memory. Paper work.’ He chuckled confusedly and sat down motioning Mount-olive to a chair. They discussed commonplaces for a while and at last Kenilworth joined his fingers into a gesture reminiscent of a pout and said: ‘But to our moutons, dear boy. I’ve assembled all the personal papers for you to browse over. It is all in order. It’s a well-found mission, you’ll find, very well-found. I’ve every confidence in your Head of Chancery, Errol. Of course, your own recommendations will weigh. You will look into the staff structure, won’t you, and let me know? Think about an A.D.C. too, eh? And I don’t know how you feel about a P.A. unless you can rob the typists’ pool. But as a bachelor, you’ll need someone for the social side, won’t you? I don’t think your third secretary would be much good.’ ‘Surely I can do all this on the spot?’ ‘Of course, of course. I was just anxious to see you settled in as comfortably as possible.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘There is only one change I was contemplating on my own. That was Pursewarden as first political.’ ‘Pursewarden?’ said Mountolive with a start. ‘I am transferring him. He has done statutory time, and he isn’t really happy about it. Needs a change in my view.’ ‘Has he said so?’ ‘Not in so many words.’ Mountolive’s heart sank. He took out the cigarette holder which he only used in moments of perplexity, charged it from the silver box on the desk, and sat back in the heavy old-fashioned chair. ‘Have you any other reasons?’ he asked quietly. ‘Because I should personally like to keep him, at least for a time.’ Kenilworth’s small eyes narrowed. His heavy neck became contused by the blush of annoyance which was trying to find its way up to his face. ‘To be frank with you, yes’ he said shortly. ‘Do tell me.’ ‘You will find a long report on him by Errol in the papers I’ve assembled. I don’t think he is altogether suitable. But then contract officers have never been as dependable as officers of the career. It’s a generalization, I know. I won’t say that our friend isn’t faithful to the firm — far from it. But I can say that he is opinionated and difficult. Well, soit! He’s a writer, isn’t he?’ Kenilworth ingratiated himself with the image of Pursewarden by a brief smile of unconscious contempt. ‘There has been endless friction with Errol. You see, since the gradual break-up of the High Commission after the signing of the Treaty, there has been a huge gap created, a hiatus; all the agencies which have grown up there since 1918 and which worked to the Commission have been cut adrift now that the parent body is giving place to an Embassy. There will be some thorough-going decisions for you to make. Everything is at sixes and sevens. Suspended animation has been the keynote of the last year and a half — and unsuspended hostilities between an Embassy lacking a Chief, and all these parentless bodies struggling against their own demise. Do you see? Now Pursewarden may be brilliant but he has put a lot of backs up — not only in the mission; people like Maskelyne, for example, who runs the War Office I.C. Branch and has this past five years. They are at each other’s throats.’ ‘But what has an I. Branch to do with us?’ ‘Exactly, nothing. But the High Commissioner’s Political Section depended on Maskelyne’s Intelligence reports. I.C. Intelligence Collation was the central agency for the Middle East Central Archives and all that sort of thing.’ ‘Where’s the quarrel?’ ‘Pursewarden as political feels that the Embassy has also in a way inherited Maskelyne’s department from the Commission. Maskelyne refuses to countenance this. He demands parity or even complete freedom for his show. It is military after all.’ ‘Then set it under a military attaché for the time being.’ ‘Good, but Maskelyne refuses to agree to become part of your mission as his seniority is greater than your attaché designate’s.’ ‘What rubbish all this is. What is his rank?’ ‘Brigadier. You see, since the end of the ’18 show, Cairo has been the senior post office of the intelligence network and all intelligence was funnelled through Maskelyne. Now Pursewarden is trying to appropriate him, bring him to heel. Battle royal, of course. Poor Errol, who I admit is rather weak in some ways, is flapping between them like a loose sail. That is why I thought your task would be easier if you shed Pursewarden.’ ‘Or Maskelyne.’ ‘Good, but he’s a War Office body. You couldn’t. At any rate, he is most eager for you to arrive and arbitrate. He feels sure you will establish his complete autonomy.’ ‘I can’t tolerate an autonomous War Office Agency in a territory to which I am accredited, can I?’ ‘I agree. I agree, my dear fellow.’ ‘What does the War Office say?’ ‘You know the military! They will stand by any decision you choose to make. They’ll have to. But they have been dug in there for years now. Own staff branches and their transmitter up in Alexandria. I think they would like to stay.’ ‘Not independently. How could I?’ ‘Exactly. That is what Pursewarden maintains. Good, but someone will have to go in the interests of equity. We can’t have all this pin-pricking.’ ‘What pin-pricking?’ ‘Well, Maskelyne withholding reports and being forced to disgorge them to Political Branch. Then Pursewarden criticizing their accuracy and questioning the value of I.C. Branch. I tell you, real fireworks. No joke. Better shed the fellow. Besides, you know, he’s something of a…, keeps odd company. Errol is troubled about his security. Mind you, there is nothing against Pursewarden. It’s simply that’s he’s, well … a bit of a vulgarian, would you say? I don’t know how to qualify it. It’s Errol’s paper.’ Mountolive sighed. ‘It’s surely only the difference between, say, Eton and Worthing, isn’t it?’ They stared at one another. Neither thought the remark was funny. Kenilworth shrugged his shoulders with obvious pique. ‘My dear chap’ he said, ‘if you propose to make an issue of it with the S. of S. I can’t help it; you will get my proposals overruled. But my views have gone on record now. You’ll forgive me if I let them stay like that, as a comment upon Errol’s reports. After all, he has been running the show.’ ‘I know.’ ‘It is hardly fair on him.’ Stirring vaguely in his subconscious Mountolive felt once more the intimations of power now available to him — a power to take decisions in factors like these which had hitherto been left to fate, or the haphazard dictation of mediating wills; factors which had been unworth the resentments and doubts which their summary resolution by an act of thought would have bred. But if he was ever to claim the world of action as his true inheritance he must begin somewhere. A Head of Mission had the right to propose and sponsor the staff of his choice. Why should Pursewarden suffer through these small administrative troubles, endure the discomfort of a new posting to some uncongenial place? ‘I’m afraid the F.O. will lose him altogether if we play about with him’ he said unconvincingly; and then, as if to atone for a proposition so circuitous, added crisply: ‘At any rate, I propose to keep him for a while.’ The smile on Kenilworth’s face was one in which his eyes played no part. Mountolive felt the silence close upon them like the door of a vault. There was nothing to be done about it. He rose with an exaggerated purposefulness and extruded his cigarette-end into the ugly ashtray as he said: ‘At any rate, those are my views; and I can always send him packing if he is no use to me.’ Kenilworth swallowed quietly, like a toad under a stone, his expressionless eyes fixed upon the neutral wall-paper. The quiet susurrus of the London traffic came welling up between them. ‘I must go’ said Mountolive, by now beginning to feel annoyed with himself. ‘I am collecting all the files to take down to the country tomorrow evening. Today and tomorrow I’ll clear off routine interviews, and then … some leave I hope. Good-bye, Kenny.’ ‘Good-bye.’ But he did not move from his desk. He only nodded smilingly at the door as Mountolive closed it; then he turned back with a sigh to Errol’s neatly-typed memoranda which had been assembled in the grey file marked Attention of Ambassador Designate. He read a few lines, and then looked up wearily at the dark window before crossing the room to draw the curtains and pick up the phone. ‘Give me Archives, please.’ It would be wiser for the moment not to press his view. This trifling estrangement, however, had the effect of making Mountolive set aside his plan to take Kenilworth back to his club with him. It was in its way a relief. He rang up Liza Pursewarden instead and took her out to dinner. It was only two hours down to Dewford Mallows but once they were outside London it was clear that the whole countryside was deeply under snow. They had to slow down to a crawl which delighted Mountolive but infuriated the driver of the duty-car. ‘We’ll be there for Christmas, sir’ he said, ‘if at all!’ Ice-Age villages, their thatched barns and cottages perfected by the floury whiteness of snow, glistening as if from the tray of an expert confectioner; curving white meadows printed in cuneiform with the small footmarks of birds or otters, or the thawing blotches of cattle. The car windows sealing up steadily, gummed by the frost. They had no chains and no heater. Three miles from the village they came upon a wrecked lorry with a couple of villagers and an A.A. man standing idly about it, blowing on their perished fingers. The telegraph poles were down hereabouts. There was a dead bird lying on the glittering grey ice of Newton’s Pond — a hawk. They would never get over Parson’s Ridge, and Mountolive took pity on his driver and turned him back summarily on to the main road by the foot-bridge. ‘I live just over the hill’ he said. ‘It’ll take me just twenty-five minutes to walk it.’ The man was glad to turn back and unwilling to accept the tip Mountolive offered. Then he reversed slowly and turned the car away northward, while his passenger stepped forward into the brilliance, his condensing breath rising before him in a column. He followed the familiar footpath across fields which tilted ever more steeply away towards an invisible sky-line, describing (his memory had to do duty for his eyesight) something as perfected in its simplicity as Cavendish’s first plane. A ritual landscape made now overwhelmingly mysterious by the light of an invisible sun, moving somewhere up there behind the opaque screens of low mist which shifted before him, withdrawing and closing. It was a walk full of memories — but in default of visibility he was forced to imagine the two small hamlets on the hill-crown, the intent groves of beeches, the ruins of a Norman castle. His shoes cut a trembling mass of raindrops from the lush grass at every scythe-like step, until the bottoms of his trousers were soaked and his ankles turned to ice. Out of the invisible marched shadowy oaks, and suddenly there came a rattling and splattering — as if their teeth were chattering with the cold; the thawing snow was dripping down upon the carpet of dead leaves from the upper branches. Once over the crown all space was cut off. Rabbits lobbed softly away on all sides. The tall plumed grass had been starched into spikes by frost. Here and there came glimpses of a pale sun, its furred brilliance shining through the mist like a gas mantle burning brightly but without heat. And now he heard the click of his own shoes upon the macadam of the second-class road as he hastened his pace towards the tall gates of the house. Hereabouts the oaks were studded with brilliants; as he passed two fat pigeons rushed out of them and disappeared with the sharp wingflap of a thousand closing books. He was startled and then amused. There was the ‘form’ of a hare in the paddock, quite near the house. Fingers of ice tumbled about the trees with a ragged clatter — a thousand broken wineglasses. He groped for the old Yale key and smiled again as he felt it turn, admitting him to an unforgotten warmth which smelt of apricots and old books, polish and flowers; all the memories which led him back unerringly towards Piers Plowman, the pony, the fishing-rod, the stamp album. He stood in the hall and called her name softly. His mother was sitting by the fire, just as he had last left her with a book open upon her knees, smiling. It had become a convention between them to disregard his disappearance and returns: to behave as if he had simply absented himself for a few moments from this companionable room where she spent her life, reading or painting or knitting before the great fireplace. She was smiling now with the same smile — designed to cement space and time, and to anneal the loneliness which beset her while he was away. Mountolive put down his heavy briefcase and made a funny little involuntary gesture as he stepped towards her. ‘Oh dear’ he said, ‘I can see from your face that you’ve heard. I was so hoping to surprise you with my news!’ They were both heartbroken by the fact; and as she kissed him she said: ‘The Graniers came to tea last week. Oh, David, I’m so sorry. I did so want you to have your surprise. But I pretend so badly.’ Mountolive felt an absurd disposition towards tears of sheer vexation: he had invented the whole scene in his mind, and made up question and answer. It was like tearing up a play into which one had put a lot of imagination and hard work. ‘Damn’ he said, ‘how thoughtless of them!’ ‘They were trying to please me — and of course it did. You can imagine how much, can’t you?’ But from this point he stepped once more, lightly and effortlessly back into the current of memories which the house evoked around her and which led back almost to his eleventh birthday, the sense of well-being and plenitude as the warmth of the fire came out to greet him. ‘Your father will be pleased,’ she said later, in a new voice, sharper for being full of an unrealized jealousy — tidemarks of a passion which had long since refunded itself into an unwilling acquiescence. ‘I put all your mail in his study for you.’ ‘His’ study — the study which his father had never seen, never inhabited. The defection of his father stood always between them as their closest bond, seldom discussed yet somehow always there — the invisible weight of his private existence, apart from them both, in another corner of the world: happy or unhappy, who can say? ‘For those of us who stand upon the margins of the world, as yet unsolicited by any God, the only truth is that work itself is Love.’ An odd, a striking phrase for the old man to embed in a scholarly preface to a Pali text! Mountolive had turned the green volume over and over in his hands, debating the meaning of the words and measuring them against the memory of his father — the lean brown figure with the spare bone-structure of a famished sea-bird: dressed in an incongruous pith-helmet. Now, apparently he wore the robes of an Indian fakir! Was one to smile? He had not seen his father since his departure from India on his eleventh birthday; he had become like someone condemned in absentia for a crime … which could not be formulated. A friendly withdrawal into the world of Eastern scholarship on which his heart had been set for many years. It was perplexing. Mountolive senior had belonged to the vanished India, to the company of its rulers whose common devotion to their charge had made them a caste; but a caste which was prouder of a hostage given to Buddhist scholarship than of one given to an Honours List. Such disinterested devotions usually ended by a passionate self-identification with the subject of them — this sprawling subcontinent with its castes and creeds, its monuments and faiths and ruins. At first he had been simply a judge in the service, but within a few years he had become pre-eminent in Indian scholarship, an editor and interpreter of rare and neglected texts. The young Mountolive and his mother had been comfortably settled in England on the understanding that he would join them on retirement; to this end had this pleasant house been furnished with the trophies, books and pictures of a long working career. If it now had something of the air of a museum, it was because it had been deserted by its real author who had decided to stay on in India to complete the studies which (they both now recognized) would last him the rest of his life. This was not an uncommon phenomenon among the officials of the now vanished and disbanded corps. But it had come gradually. He had deliberated upon it for years before arriving at the decision, so that the letter he wrote announcing it all had the air of a document long meditated. It was in fact the last letter either of them received from him. From time to time, however, a passer-by who had visited him in the Buddhist Lodge near Madras to which he had retired, brought a kindly message from him. And of course the books themselves arrived punctually, one after the other, resplendent in their rich uniforms and bearing the grandiose imprints of University Presses. The books were, in a way, both his excuse and his apology. Mountolive’s mother had respected this decision; and nowadays hardly ever spoke of it. Only now and again the invisible author of their joint lives here in this snowy island emerged thus in a reference to ‘his’ study; or in some other remark like it which, uncommented upon, evaporated back into the mystery (for them) of a life which represented an unknown, an unresolved factor. Mountolive could never see below the surface of his mother’s pride in order to judge how much this defection might have injured her. Yet a common passionate shyness had grown up between them on the subject, for each secretly believed the other wounded. Before dressing for dinner that evening, Mountolive went into the book-lined study, which was also a gun-room, and took formal possession of ‘his father’s’ desk which he used whenever he was at home. He locked his files away carefully and sorted out his mail. Among the letters and postcards was a bulky envelope with a Cyprus stamp addressed to him in the unmistakable hand of Pursewarden. It suggested a manuscript at first and he cracked the seal with his finger in some perplexity. ‘My dear David’ it read. ‘You will be astonished to get a letter of such length from me, I don’t doubt. But the news of your appointment only reached me lately in rumoured form, and there is much you should know about the state of affairs here which I could not address to you formally as Ambassador Designate (Confidential: Under Flying Seal) ahem!’ There would be time enough, thought Mountolive with a sigh, to study all this accumulation of memoranda, and he unlocked the desk again to place it with his other papers. He sat at the great desk for a while in the quietness, soothed by the associations of the room with its bric-à-brac; the mandala paintings from some Burmese shrine, the Lepcha flags, the framed drawings for the first edition of the Jungle Book, the case of Emperor moths, the votive objects left at some abandoned temple. Then the rare books and pamphlets — early Kipling bearing the imprint of Thacker and Spink, Calcutta, Edwards Thompson’s fascicules, Younghusband, Mallows, Derby…. Some museum would be glad of them one day. Under a pressmark they would revert back to anonymity. He picked up the old Tibetan prayer-wheel which lay on the desk and twirled it once or twice, hearing the faint scrape of the revolving drum, still stuffed with the yellowing fragments of paper on which devout pens had long ago scribbled the classical invocation Om Mani Padme Hum. This had been an accidental parting gift. Before the boat left he had pestered his father for a celluloid aeroplane and together they had combed the bazaar for one without avail. Then his father had suddenly stopped at a pedlar’s stall and bought the wheel for a few rupees, thrusting it into his unwilling fingers as a substitute. It was late. They had to rush. Their good-byes had been perfunctory. Then after that, what? A tawny river-mouth under a brazen sun, the iridescent shimmer of heat blurring the faces, the smoke from the burning ghats, the dead bodies of men, blue and swollen, floating down the estuary…. That was as far as his memory went. He put down the heavy wheel and sighed. The wind shook the windows, whirling the snow against them, as if to remind him where he was. He took out his bundle of Arabic primers and the great dictionary. These must live beside his bed for the next few months. That night he was once more visited by the unaccountable affliction with which he always celebrated his return home — a crushing ear-ache which rapidly reduced him to a shivering pain-racked ghost of himself. It was a mystery, for no doctor had so far managed to allay — or even satisfactorily to diagnose — this onslaught of the petit mal. It never attacked him save when he was at home. As always, his mother overheard his groans and knew from old experience what they meant; she materialized out of the darkness by his bed bringing the comfort of ancient familiarity and the one specific which, since childhood, she had used to combat his distress. She always kept it handy now, in the cupboard beside her bed. Salad oil, warmed in a teaspoon over a candle-flame. He felt the warmth of the oil penetrate and embalm his brain, while his mother’s voice upon the darkness soothed him with its promises of relief. In a little while the tide of agony receded to leave him, washed up so to speak, on the shores of sleep — a sleep stirred vaguely by those comforting memories of childhood illnesses which his mother had always shared — they fell ill together, as if by sympathy. Was it so that they might lie in adjoining rooms talking to each other, reading to each other, sharing the luxury of a common convalescence? He did not know. He slept. It was a week before he addressed himself to his official papers and read the letter from Pursewarden. The invisible company passing, the clear voices,My dear David, You will be astonished to get a letter of such length from me, I don’t doubt. But the news of your appointment only reached me lately in rumoured form, and there is much you should know about the state of affairs here which I could not address to you formally as Ambassador Designate (Confidential: Under Flying Seal) ahem! Ouf! What a bore! I hate writing letters as you well know. And yet … I myself shall almost certainly be gone by the time you arrive, for I have taken steps to get myself transferred. After a long series of calculated wickednesses I have at last managed to persuade poor Errol that I am unsuitable for the Mission which I have adorned these past months. Months! A lifetime! And Errol himself is so good, so honest, so worthy; a curious goat-like creature who nevertheless conveys the impression of being a breech-delivery! He has put in his paper against me with the greatest reluctance. Please do nothing to countermand the transfer which will result from it, as it squares with my own private wishes. I implore you. The deciding factor has been my desertion of my post for the past five weeks which has caused grave annoyance and finally decided Errol. I will explain everything. Do you remember, I wonder, the fat young French diplomat of the Rue du Bac? Nessim took us round once for drinks? Pombal by name? Well, I have taken refuge with him — he is serving here. It is really quite gay chez lui. The summer over, the headless Embassy retired with the Court to winter in Cairo, but this time without Yours Truly. I went underground. Nowadays we rise at eleven, turn out the girls, and after having a hot bath play backgammon until lunchtime; then an arak at the Café Al Aktar with Balthazar and Amaril (who send their love) and lunch at the union Bar. Then perhaps we call on Clea to see what she is painting, or go to a cinema. Pombal is doing all this legitimately; he is on local leave. I am en retraite. Occasionally the exasperated Errol rings up long distance in an attempt to trace me and I answer him in the voice of a poule from the Midi. It rattles him badly because he guesses it is me, but isn’t quite sure. (The point about a Wykehamist is that he cannot risk giving offence.) We have lovely, lovely conversations. Yesterday I told him that I, Pursewarden, was under treatment for a glandular condition chez Professor Pombal but was now out of danger. Poor Errol! One day I shall apologize to him for all the trouble I have caused him. Not now. Not until I get my transfer to Siam or Santos. All this is very wicked of me, I know, but … the tedium of this Chancery with all these un-grown-up people! The Errols are formidably Britannic. They are, for example, both economists. Why both, I ask myself? One of them must feel permanently redundant. They make love to two places of decimals only. Their children have all the air of vulgar fractions! Well. The only nice ones are the Donkins; he is clever and high-spirited, she rather common and fast-looking with too much rouge. But … poor dear, she is over-compensating for the fact that her little husband has grown a beard and turned Moslem! She sits with a hard aggressive air on his desk, swinging her leg and smoking swiftly. Mouth too red. Not quite a lady and hence insecure? Her husband is a clever youth but far too serious. I do not dare to ask if he intends to put in for the extra allowance of wives to which he is entitled. But let me tell you in my laboured fashion what lies behind all this nonsense. I was sent here, as you know, under contract, and I fulfilled my original task faithfully — as witness the giant roll of paper headed (in a lettering usually reserved for tomb-stones) Instruments for a Cultural Pact Between the Governments of His Britannic Majesty etc. Blunt instruments indeed — for what can a Christian culture have in common with a Moslem or a Marxist? Our premises are hopelessly opposed. Never mind! I was told to do it and I done it. And much as I love what they’ve got here I don’t understand the words in relation to an educational system based on the abacus and a theology which got left behind with Augustine and Aquinas. Personally I think we both have made a mess of it, and I have no parti-pris in the matter. And so on. I just don’t see what D. H. Lawrence has to offer a pasha with seventeen wives, though I believe I know which one of them is happiest…. However, I done it, the Pact I mean. This done I found myself rapidly sent to the top of the form as a Political and this enabled me to study papers and evaluate the whole Middle Eastern complex as a coherent whole, as a policy venture. Well, let me say that after prolonged study I have come to the reluctant conclusion that it is neither coherent nor even a policy — at any rate a policy capable of withstanding the pressures which are being built up here. These rotten states, backward and venal as they are, must be seriously thought about; they cannot be held together just by encouraging what is weakest and most corrupt in them, as we appear to be doing. This approach would presuppose another fifty years of peace and no radical element in the electorate at home: that given, the status quo might be maintained. But given this prevailing trend, can England be as short-sighted as this? Perhaps. I don’t know. It is not my job to know these things, as an artist; as a political I am filled with misgiving. To encourage Arab unity while at the same time losing the power to use the poison-cup seems to me to be a very dubious thing: not policy but lunacy. And to add Arab unity to all the other currents which are running against us seems to me to be an engaging folly. Are we still beset by the doleful dream of the Arabian Nights, fathered on us by three generations of sexually disoriented Victorians whose subconscious reacted wholeheartedly to the thought of more than one legal wife? Or the romantic Bedouin-fever of the Bells and Lawrences? Perhaps. But the Victorians who fathered this dream on us were people who believed in fighting for the value of their currency; they knew that the world of politics was a jungle. Today the Foreign Office appears to believe that the best way to deal with the jungle is to turn Nudist and conquer the wild beast by the sight of one’s nakedness. I can hear you sigh. ‘Why can’t Pursewarden be more precise. All these boutades!’ Very well. I spoke of the pressures. Let us divide them into internal and external, shall we, in the manner of Errol? My views may seem somewhat heretical, but here they are. Well then, first, the abyss which separates the rich from the poor — it is positively Indian. In Egypt today, for example, six per cent of the people own over three-quarters of the land, thus leaving under a feddan a head for the rest to live on. Good! Then the population is doubling itself every second generation — or is it third? But I suppose any economic survey will tell you this. Meanwhile there is the steady growth of a vocal and literate middle-class whose sons are trained at Oxford among our comfy liberalisms — and who find no jobs waiting for them when they come back here. The babu is growing in power, and the dull story is being repeated here as elsewhere. ‘Intellectual coolies of the world unite.’ To these internal pressures we are gracefully adding by direct encouragement, the rigour of a nationalism based in a fanatical religion. I personally admire it, but never forget that it is a fighting religion with no metaphysics, only an ethic. The Arab union, etc…. My dear chap, why are we thinking up these absurd constructs to add to our own discomfiture — specially as it is clear to me that we have lost the basic power to act which alone would ensure that our influence remained paramount here? These tottering backward-looking feudalisms could only be supported by arms against these disintegrating elements inherent in the very nature of things today; but to use arms, ‘to preach with the sword’ in the words of Lawrence, one must have a belief in one’s own ethos, one’s own mystique of life. What does the Foreign Office believe? I just don’t know. In Egypt, for example, very little has been done beyond keeping the peace; the High Commission is vanishing after a rule of — since 1888? — and will not leave behind even the vestiges of a trained civil service to stabilize this rabble-ridden grotesque which we now apparently regard as a sovereign state. How long will fair words and courtly sentiments prevail against the massive discontents these people feel? One can trust a treaty king only as long as he can trust his people. How long remains before a flashpoint is reached? I don’t know — and to be frank I don’t much care. But I should say that some unforeseen outside pressure like a war would tumble over these scarecrow principalities at a breath. Anyway, these are my general reasons for wanting a change. I believe we should reorient policy and build Jewry into the power behind the scenes here. And quick. Now for the particular. Very early in my political life I ran up against a department of the War Office specializing in general intelligence, run by a Brigadier who resented the idea that his office should bow the knee to us. A question of rank, or allowances, or some such rot; under the Commission he had been allowed more or less a free hand. Incidentally, this is the remains of the old Arab Bureau left over from 1918 which has been living on quietly like a toad buried under a stone! Obviously in the general re-alignment, his show must (it seemed to me) integrate with somebody. And now there was only an embryonic Embassy in Egypt. As he had worked formerly to the High Commission’s Political Branch, I thought he should work to me — and indeed, after a series of sharp battles, bent if not broke him — Maskelyne is the creature’s name. He is so typical as to be rather interesting and I have made extensive notes on him for a book in my usual fashion. (One writes to recover a lost innocence!) Well, since the Army discovered that imagination is a major factor in producing cowardice they have trained the Maskelyne breed in the virtues of counter-imagination: a sort of amnesia which is almost Turkish. The contempt for death has been turned into a contempt for life and this type of man accepts life only on his own terms. A frozen brain alone enables him to keep up a routine of exceptional boredom. He is very thin, very tall, and his skin has been tanned by Indian service to the colour of smoked snakeskin, or a scab painted with iodine. His perfect teeth rest as lightly as a feather upon his pipestem. There is a peculiar gesture he has — I wish I could describe it, it interests me so much — of removing his pipe slowly before speaking, levelling his small dark eyes at one, and almost whispering: ‘Oh, do you really think so?’ The vowels drawing themselves out infinitely into the lassitude, the boredom of the silence which surrounds him. He is gnawed by the circumscribed perfection of a breeding which makes him uncomfortable in civilian clothes, and indeed he walks about in his well-cut cavalry coat with a Noli me tangere air. (Breed for type and you always get anomalies of behaviour.) He is followed everywhere by his magnificent red pointer Nell (named after his wife?) who sleeps on his feet while he works at his files, and on his bed at night. He occupies a room in a hotel in which there is nothing personal — no books, no photographs, no papers. Only a set of silver-backed brushes, a bottle of whisky and a newspaper. (I imagine him sometimes brushing the silent fury out of his own scalp, furiously brushing his dark shiny hair back from the temples, faster and faster. Ah, that’s better — that’s better!) He reaches his office at eight having bought his day-late copy of the Daily Telegraph. I have never seen him read anything else. He sits at his huge desk, consumed with a slow dark contempt for the venality of the human beings around him, perhaps the human race as a whole; imperturbably he examines and assorts their differing corruptions, their maladies, and outlines them upon marble minute-paper which he always signs with his little silver pen in a small awkward fly’s handwriting. The current of his loathing flows through his veins slowly, heavily, like the Nile at flood. Well, you can see what a numéro he is. He lives purely in the military imagination for he never sees or meets the subjects of most of his papers; the information he collates comes in from suborned clerks, or discontented valets, or pent-up servants. It does not matter. He prides himself on his readings of it, his I.A. (intelligence appreciation), just like an astrologer working upon charts belonging to unseen, unknown subjects. He is judicial, proud as the Calif, unswerving, I admire him very much. Honestly I do. Maskelyne has set up two marks between which (as between degree-signs on a calibrated thermometer) the temperatures of his approval and disapproval are allowed to move, expressed in the phrases: ‘A good show for the Raj’ and ‘Not such a good show for the Raj’. He is too single-minded of course, ever to be able to imagine a really Bad Show for the Bloody Raj. Such a man seems unable to see the world around him on open sights; but then his profession and the need for reserve make him a complete recluse, make him inexperienced in the ways of the world upon which he sits in judgement…. Well, I am tempted to go on and frame the portrait of our spycatcher, but I will desist. Read my next novel but four, it should also include a sketch of Telford, who is Maskelyne’s Number Two — a large blotchy ingratiating civilian with ill-fitting dentures who manages to call one ‘old fruit’ a hundred times a second between nervous guffaws. His worship of the cold snaky soldier is marvellous to behold. ‘Yes, Brigadier’, ‘No, Brigadier’, falling over a chair in his haste to serve; you would say he was completely in love with his boss. Maskelyne sits and watches his confusion coldly, his brown chin, cleft by a dark dimple, jutting like an arrow. Or he will lean back in his swivel-chair and tap softly on the door of the huge safe behind him with the faintly satisfied air of a gourmet patting his paunch as he says: ‘You don’t believe me? I have it all in here, all in here.’ Those files, you think, watching this superlative, all-comprehending gesture, must contain material enough to indict the world! Perhaps they do. Well, this is what happened: one day I found a characteristic document from Maskelyne on my desk headed Nessim Hosnani, and sub-titled A Conspiracy Among the Copts which alarmed me somewhat. According to the paper, our Nessim was busy working up a large and complicated plot against the Egyptian Royal House. Most of the data were rather questionable I thought, knowing Nessim, but the whole paper put me in a quandary for it carried the bland recommendation that the details should be transmitted by the Embassy to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs! I can hear you draw your breath sharply. Even supposing this were true, such a course would put Nessim’s life in the greatest danger. Have I explained that one of the major characteristics of Egyptian nationalism is the gradually growing envy and hate of the ‘foreigners’ — the half-million or so of non-Moslems here? And that the moment full Egyptian sovereignty was declared the Moslems started in to bully and expropriate them? The brains of Egypt, as you know, is its foreign community. The capital which flowed into the land while it was safe under our suzerainty, is now at the mercy of these paunchy pashas. The Armenians, Greeks, Copts, Jews — they are all feeling the sharpening edge of this hate; many are wisely leaving, but most cannot. These huge capital investments in cotton, etc., cannot be abandoned overnight. The foreign communities are living from prayer to prayer and from bribe to bribe. They are trying to save their industries, their life-work from the gradual encroachment of the pashas. We have literally thrown them to the lions! Well, I read and re-read this document, as I say, in a state of considerable anxiety. I knew that if I gave it to Errol he would run bleating with it to the King. So I went into action myself to test the weak points in it — mercifully it was not one of Maskelyne’s best papers — and succeeded in throwing doubt upon many of his contentions. But what infuriated him was that I actually suspended the paper — I had to in order to keep it out of Chancery’s hands! My sense of duty was sorely strained, but then there was no alternative; what would those silly young schoolboys next door have done? If Nessim was really guilty of the sort of plot Maskelyne envisaged, well and good; one could deal with him later according to his lights. But … you know Nessim. I felt that I owed it to him to be sure before passing such a paper upwards. But of course Maskelyne was furious, though he had the grace not to show it. We sat in his office with the conversational temperature well below zero and still falling while he showed me his accumulated evidence and his agents’ reports. For the most part they were not as solid as I had feared. ‘I have this man Selim suborned’ Maskelyne kept croaking ‘and I’m convinced his own secretary can’t be wrong about it. There is this small secret society with the regular meetings — Selim has to wait with the car and drive them home. Then there is this curious cryptogram which goes out all over the Middle East from Balthazar’s clinic, and then the visits to arms manufacturers in Sweden and Germany….’ I tell you, my brain was swimming! I could see all our friends neatly laid out on a slab by the Egyptian Secret Police, being measured for shrouds. I must say too, that circumstantially the inferences which Maskelyne drew appeared to hold water. It all looked rather sinister; but luckily a few of the basic points would not yield to analysis — things like the so-called cipher which friend Balthazar shot out once every two months to chosen recipients in the big towns of the Middle East. Maskelyne was still trying to follow these up. But the data were far from complete and I stressed this as strongly as I could, much to the discomfort of Telford, though Maskelyne is too cool a bird of prey to be easily discountenanced. Nevertheless I got him to agree to pend the paper until something more substantial was forthcoming to broaden the basis of the doctrine. He hated me but he swallowed it, and so I felt that I had gained at least a temporary respite. The problem was what to do next — how to use the time to advantage? I was of course convinced that Nessim was innocent of these grotesque charges. But I could not, I admit, supply explanations as convincing as those of Maskelyne. What, I could not help wondering, were they really up to? If I was to deflate Maskelyne, I must find out for myself. Very annoying, and indeed professionally improper — but que faire? Little Ludwig must turn himself into a private investigator, a Sexton Blake, in order to do the job! But where to begin? Maskelyne’s only direct lead on Nessim was through the suborned secretary, Selim; through him he had accumulated quite a lot of interesting though not intrinsically alarming data about the Hosnani holdings in various fields — the land bank, shipping line, ginning mills, and so on. The rest was largely gossip and rumour, some of it damaging, but none of it more than circumstantial. But piled up in a heap it did make our gentle Nessim sound somewhat sinister. I felt that I must take it all apart somehow. Specially as a lot of it concerned and surrounded his marriage — the acid gossip of the lazy and envious, so typical of Alexandria — or anywhere else for that matter. In this, of course, the unconscious moral judgements of the Anglo-Saxon were to the fore — I mean in the value-judgements of Maskelyne. As for Justine — well, I know her a bit, and I must confess I rather admire her surly magnificence. Nessim haunted her for some time before getting her to consent, I am told; I cannot say I had misgivings about it all exactly, but … even today their marriage feels in some curious way uncemented. They make a perfect pair, but never seem to touch each other; indeed, once I saw her very slightly shrink as he picked a thread from her fur. Probably imagination. Is there perhaps a thundercloud brooding there behind the dark satin-eyed wife? Plenty nerves, certainly. Plenty hysteria. Plenty Judaic melancholy. One recognizes her vaguely as the girl-friend of the man whose head was presented on a charger…. What do I mean? Well, Maskelyne says with his dry empty contempt: ‘No sooner does she marry than she starts an affair with another man, and a foreigner to boot.’ This of course is Darley, the vaguely amiable bespectacled creature who inhabits Pombal’s box-room at certain times. He teaches for a living and writes novels. He has that nice round babyish back to the head which one sees in cultural types; slight stoop, fair hair, and the shyness that goes with Great Emotions imperfectly kept under control. A fellow-romantic quotha! Looked at hard, he starts to stammer. But he’s a good fellow, gentle and resigned … I confess that he seems unlikely material for someone as dashing as Nessim’s wife to work upon. Can it be benevolence in her, or simply a perverse taste for innocence? There is a small mystery here. Anyway, it was Darley and Pombal who introduced me to the current Alexandrian livre de chevet which is a French novel called Moeurs (a swashing study in the grand manner of nymphomania and psychic impotence) written by Justine’s last husband. Having written it he wisely divorced her and decamped but she is popularly supposed to be the central subject of the book and is regarded with grave sympathy by society. I must say, when you think that everyone is both polymorph and perverse here, it seems hard luck to be singled out like this as the main character in a roman vache. Anyway, this lies in the past, and now Nessim has carried her into the ranks of le monde where she acquits herself with a sharply defined grace and savagery. They suit her looks and the dark but simple splendours of Nessim himself. Is he happy? But wait, let me put the question another way. Was he ever happy? Is he unhappier now than he was? Hum! I think he could do a lot worse, for the girl is neither too innocent nor too unintelligent. She plays the piano really well, albeit with a sulky emphasis, and reads widely. Indeed, the novels of Yours Truly are much admired — with a disarming wholeheartedness. (Caught! Yes, this is why I am disposed to like her.) On the other hand, what she sees in Darley I cannot credit. The poor fellow flutters on a slab like a skate at her approach; he and Nessim are, however, great frequenters of each other, great friends. These modest British types — do they all turn out to be Turks secretly? Darley at any rate must have some appeal because he has also got himself regally entangled with a rather nice little cabaret dancer called Melissa. You would never think, to look at him, that he was capable of running a tandem, so little self-possession does he appear to have. A victim of his own fine sentiment? He wrings his hands, his spectacles steam up, when he mentions either name. Poor Darley! I always enjoy irritating him by quoting the poem by his minor namesake to him: O blest unfabled Incense Tree That burns in glorious Araby, With red scent chalking the air, Till earth-life grows Elysian there. He pleads with me blushingly to desist, though I cannot tell which Darley he is blushing for; I continue in magistral fashion: Half-buried in her flaming breast In this bright tree she makes her nest Hundred-sunned Phoenix! When she must Crumble at length to hoary dust! It is not a bad conceit for Justine herself. ‘Stop’ he always cries. Her gorgeous death-bed! Her rich pyre Burn up with aromatic fire! Her urn, sight-high from spoiler men! Her birth-place when self-born again! ‘Please. Enough.’ ‘What’s wrong with it? It’s not such a bad poem, is it?’ And I conclude with Melissa, disguised as an 18th Century Dresden China shepherdess. The mountainless green wilds among, Here ends she her unechoing song With amber tears and odorous sighs Mourned by the desert where she dies! So much for Darley! But as for Justine’s part in the matter I can find no rhyme, no reason, unless we accept one of Pombal’s epigrams at its face value. He says, with fat seriousness: ‘Les femmes sont fidèles au fond, tu sais? Elles ne trompent que les autres femmes!’ But it seems to me to offer no really concrete reason for Justine wishing to tromper the pallid rival Melissa. This would be infra dig for a woman with her position in society. See what I mean? Well, then, it is upon Darley that our Maskelyne keeps his baleful ferret’s eyes fixed; apparently Selim tells us that all the real information on Nessim is kept in a little wall-safe at the house and not in the office. There is only one key to this safe which Nessim always carries on his person. The private safe, says Selim, is full of papers. But he is vague as to what the papers can be. Love letters? Hum. At any rate, Selim has made one or two attempts to get at the safe, but without any luck. One day the bold Maskelyne himself decided to examine it at close range and take, if necessary, a wax squeeze. Selim let him in and he climbed the back stairs — and nearly ran into Darley, our cicisbeo, and Justine in the bedroom! He just heard their voices in time. Never tell me after this that the English are puritans. Some time later I saw a short story Darley published in which a character exclaims: ‘In his arms I felt mauled, chewed up, my fur coated with saliva, as if between the paws of some great excited cat.’ I reeled. ‘Crumbs!’ I thought. ‘This is what Justine is doing to the poor bugger — eating him alive!’ I must say, it gave me a good laugh. Darley is so typical of my compatriots — snobbish and parochial in one. And so good! He lacks devil. (Thank God for the Irishman and the Jew who spat in my blood.) Well, why should I take this high and mighty line? Justine must be awfully good to sleep with, must kiss like a rainbow and squeeze out great sparks — yes. But out of Darley? It doesn’t hold water. Nevertheless ‘this rotten creature’ as Maskelyne calls her is certainly his whole attention, or was when I was last there. Why? All these factors were tumbling over and over in my mind as I drove up to Alexandria, having secured myself a long duty week-end which even the good Errol found unexceptionable. I never dreamed then, that within a year you might find yourself engaged by these mysteries. I only knew that I wanted, if possible, to demolish the Maskelyne thesis and stay the Chancery’s hand in the matter of Nessim. But apart from this I was somewhat at a loss. I am no spy, after all; was I to creep about Alexandria dressed in a pudding-basin wig with concealed earphones, trying to clear the name of our friend? Nor could I very well present myself to Nessim and, clearing my throat, say nonchalantly: ‘Now about this spy-net you’ve got here….’ However, I drove steadily and thoughtfully on. Egypt, flat and unbosomed, flowed back and away from me on either side of the car. The green changed to blue, the blue to peacock’s eye, to gazelle-brown, to panther-black. The desert was like a dry kiss, a flutter of eyelashes against the mind. Ahem! The night became horned with stars like branches of almond-blossom. I gibbered into the city after a drink or two under a new moon which felt as if it were drawing half its brilliance from the open sea. Everything smelt good again. The iron band that Cairo puts round one’s head (the consciousness of being completely surrounded by burning desert?) dissolved, relaxed — gave place to the expectation of an open sea, an open road leading one’s mind back to Europe…. Sorry. Off the point. I telephoned the house, but they were both out at a reception; feeling somewhat relieved I betook myself to the Café Al Aktar in the hope of finding congenial company and found: only our friend Darley. I like him. I like particularly the way he sits on his hands with excitement when he discusses art, which he insists on doing with Yours Truly — why? I answer as best I can and drink my arak. But this generalized sort of conversation puts me out of humour. For the artist, I think, as for the public, no such thing as art exists; it only exists for the critics and those who live in the forebrain. Artist and public simply register, like a seismograph, an electromagnetic charge which can’t be rationalized. One only knows that a transmission of sorts goes on, true or false, successful or unsuccessful, according to chance. But to try to break down the elements and nose them over — one gets nowhere. (I suspect this approach to art is common to all those who cannot surrender themselves to it!) Paradox. Anyway. Darley is in fine voice this eve, and I listen to him with grudging pleasure. He really is a good chap, and a sensitive one. But it is with relief that I hear Pombal is due to appear shortly after a visit to the cinema with a young woman he is besieging. I am hoping he will offer to put me up as hotels are expensive and I can then spend my travel allowance on drink. Well, at last old P. turns up, having had his face smacked by the girl’s mother who caught them in the foyer. We have a splendid evening and I stay chez him as I had hoped. The next morning I was up betimes though I had decided on nothing, was still bedevilled in mind about the whole issue. However, I thought I could at least visit Nessim in his office as I had so often done, to pass the time of day and cadge a coffee. Whispering up in the huge glass lift, so like a Byzantine sarcophagus, I felt confused. I had prepared no conversation for the event. The clerks and typists were all delighted and showed me straight through into the great domed room where he sat…. Now here is the curious thing. He not only seemed to be expecting me, but to have divined my reasons for calling! He seemed delighted, relieved and full of an impish sort of serenity. ‘I’ve been waiting for ages’ he said with dancing eyes, ‘wondering when you were finally going to come and beard me, to ask me questions. At last! What a relief!’ Everything melted between us after this and I felt I could take him on open sights. Nothing could exceed the warmth and candour of his answers. They carried immediate conviction with me. The so-called secret society, he told me, was a student lodge of the Cabala devoted to the customary mumbo-jumbo of parlour mysticism. God knows, this is the capital of superstition. Even Clea has her horoscope cast afresh every morning. Sects abound. Was there anything odd in Balthazar running such a small band of would-be hermetics — a study group? As for the cryptogram it was a sort of mystical calculus — the old boustrophedon no less — with the help of which the lodge-masters all over the Middle East could keep in touch. Surely no more mysterious than a stock-report or a polite exchange between mathematicians working on the same problem? Nessim drew one for me and explained roughly how it was used. He added that all this could be effectively checked by consulting Darley who had taken to visiting these meetings with Justine to suck up hermetical lore. He would be able to say just how subversive they were! So far so good. ‘But I can’t disguise from you’ he went on ‘the existence of another movement, purely political, with which I am directly concerned. This is purely Coptic and is designed simply to rally the Copts — not to revolt against anyone (how could we?) but simply to band themselves together; to strengthen religious and political ties in order that the community can find its way back to a place in the sun. Now that Egypt is free from the Copt-hating British, we feel freer to seek high offices for our people, to get some Members of Parliament elected and so on. There is nothing in all this which should make an intelligent Moslem tremble. We seek nothing illegitimate or harmful; simply our rightful place in our own land as the most intelligent and able community in Egypt.’ There was a good deal more about the back history of the Coptic community and its grievances — I won’t bore you with it as you probably know it all. But he spoke it all with a tender shy fury which interested me as being so out of keeping with the placid Nessim we both knew. Later, when I met the mother, I understood; she is the driving force behind this particular minority-dream, or so I believe. Nessim went on: ‘Nor need France and Britain fear anything from us. We love them both. Such modern culture as we have is modelled on both. We ask for no aid, no money. We think of ourselves as Egyptian patriots, but knowing how stupid and backward the Arab National element is, and how fanatical we do not think it can be long before there are violent differences between the Egyptians and yourselves. They are already flirting with Hitler. In the case of a war … who can tell? The Middle East is slipping out of the grasp of England and France day by day. We minorities see ourselves in peril as the process goes on. Our only hope is that there is some respite, like a war, which will enable you to come back and retake the lost ground. Otherwise, we will be expropriated, enslaved. But we still place our faith in you both. Now, from this point of view, a compact and extremely rich little group of Coptic bankers and businessmen could exercise an influence out of all proportion to its numbers. We are your fifth column in Egypt, fellow Christians. In another year or two, when the movement is perfected, we could bring immediate pressure to bear on the economic and industrial life of the country — if it served to push through a policy which you felt to be necessary. That is why I have been dying to tell you about us, for England should see in us a bridgehead to the East, a friendly enclave in an area which daily becomes more hostile, to you.’ He lay back, quite exhausted, but smiling. ‘But of course I realize’ he said ‘that this concerns you as an official. Please treat the matter as a secret, for friendship’s sake. The Egyptians would welcome any chance to expropriate us Copts — confiscate the millions which we control: perhaps even kill some of us. They must not know about us. That is why we meet secretly, have been building up the movement so slowly, with such circumspection. There must be no slips, you see. Now my dear Pursewarden. I fully realize that you cannot be expected to take all I tell you on trust, without proof. So I am going to take a rather unusual step. Day after tomorrow is Sitna Damiana and we are having a meeting in the desert. I would like you to come with me so that you can see everything, hear the proceedings and have your mind quite clear about our composition and our intentions. Later we may be of the greatest service to Britain here; I want to drive the fact home. Will you come?’ Would I come! I went. It was really a great experience which made me realize that I had hardly seen Egypt — the true Egypt underlying the fly-tormented airless towns, the drawing-rooms of commerce, the bankers’ sea-splashed villas, the Bourse, the Yacht Club, the Mosque…. But wait. We set off in a cold mauve dawn and drove a little way down the Aboukir road before turning inland; thence across dust roads and deserted causeways, along canals and abandoned trails which the pashas of old had constructed to reach their hunting-boxes on the lake. At last we had to abandon the car, and here the other brother was waiting with horses — the troglodyte with the gueule cassée, Narouz of the broken face. What a contrast, this black peasant, compared to Nessim! And what power! I was much taken by him. He was caressing a swashing great hippo’s backbone made into a whip — the classical kurbash. Saw him pick dragon-flies off the flowers at fifteen paces with it; later in the desert he ran down a wild dog and cut it up with a couple of strokes. The poor creature was virtually dismembered in a couple of blows, by this toy! Well, we rode sombrely along to the house. You went there ages ago, didn’t you? I had a long session with the mother, an odd imperious bundle of a woman in black, heavily veiled, who spoke arresting English in a parched voice which had the edge of hysteria in it. Nice, somehow, but queer and somewhat on edge — voice of a desert father or desert sister? I don’t know. Apparently the two sons were to take me across to the monastery in the desert. Apparently Narouz was due to speak. It was his maiden over — his first try at it. I must say, I couldn’t see this hirsute savage being able to. Jaws working all the time pressing the muscles around his temples! He must, I reflected, grind his teeth in sleep. But somehow also the shy blue eyes of a girl. Nessim was devoted to him. And God what a rider! Next morning we set off with a bundle of Arab horses which they rode sweetly and a train of shuffle-footed camels which were a present for the populace from Narouz — they were to be cut up and devoured. It was a long exhausting trek with the heat mirages playing havoc with concentration and eyesight and the water tepid and horrible in the skins, and yours truly feeling baleful and fatigued. The sun upon one’s brainpan! My brains were sizzling in my skull by the time we came upon the first outcrop of palms — the jumping and buzzing image of the desert monastery where poor Damiana had her Diocletian head struck from her shoulders for the glory of our Lord. By the time we reached it dusk had fallen, and here one entered a brilliantly-coloured engraving which could have illustrated … what? Vathek! A huge encampment of booths and houses had grown up for the festival. There must have been six thousand pilgrims camped around in houses of wattle and paper, of cloth and carpet. A whole township had grown up with its own lighting and primitive drainage — but a complete town, comprising even a small but choice brothel quarter. Camels pounded everywhere in the dusk, lanterns and cressets flapped and smoked. Our people pitched us a tent under a ruined arch where two grave bearded dervishes talked, under gonfalons folded like the brilliant wings of moths, and by the light of a great paper lantern covered in inscriptions. Dense darkness now, but brilliantly lit sideshows with all the fun of the fair. I was itching to have a look round and this suited them very well as they had things to arrange within the church, so Nessim gave me a rendezvous at the home tent in an hour and a half. He nearly lost me altogether, I was so enraptured by this freak town with its mud streets, and long avenues of sparkling stalls — food of every sort, melons, eggs, bananas, sweets, all displayed in that unearthly light. Every itinerant pedlar from Alexandria must have trekked out across the sand to sell to the pilgrims. In the dark corners were the children playing and squeaking like mice, while their elders cooked food in huts and tents, lit by tiny puffing candles. The sideshows were going full blast with their games of chance. In one booth a lovely prostitute sang heart-breakingly, chipped quartertones and plangent head-notes as she turned in her sheath of spiral sequins. She had her price on the door. It was not excessive, I thought, being a feeble-minded man, and I rather began to curse my social obligations. In another corner a story-teller was moaning out the sing-song romance of El Zahur. Drinkers of sherbet, of cinnamon, were spread at ease on the seats of makeshift cafés in these beflagged and lighted thoroughfares. From within the walls of the monastery came the sound of priests chanting. From without the unmistakable clatter of men playing at single-stick with the roar of the crowd acclaiming every stylish manoeuvre. Tombs full of flowers, watermelons shedding a buttery light, trays of meat perfuming the air — sausages and cutlets and entrails buzzing on spits. The whole thing welded into one sharply fused picture of light and sound in my brain. The moon was coming up hand over fist. In the Ringa-booths there were groups of glistening mauve abstracted Sudanese dancing to the odd music of the wobbling little harmonium with vertical keys and painted gourds for pipes; but they took their step from a black buck who banged it out with a steel rod upon a section of railway line hanging from the tent-pole. Here I ran into one of Cervoni’s servants who was delighted to see me and pressed upon me some of the curious Sudanese beer they call merissa. I sat and watched this intent, almost maniacal form of dance — the slow revolutions about a centre and the queer cockroach-crushing steps, plunging the toe down and turning it in the earth. Until I was woken by the ripple of drums and saw a dervish pass holding one of the big camel-drums — a glowing hemisphere of copper. He was black — a Rifiya — and as I had never seen them do their fire-walking, scorpion-eating act, I thought I might follow him and see it tonight. (It was touching to hear Moslems singing religious songs to Damiana, a Christian saint; I heard voices ululating the words ‘Ya Sitt Ya Bint El Wali’ over and over again. Isn’t that odd? ‘O Lady, Lady of the Viceroy’.) Across the darkness I tracked down a group of dervishes in a lighted corner between two great embrasures. It was the end of a dance and they were turning one of their number into a human chandelier, covered in burning candles, the hot wax dripping all over him. His eyes were vague and tranced. Last of all comes an old boy and drives a huge dagger through both cheeks. On each end of the dagger he hoists a candlestick with a branch of lighted candles in each. Transfixed thus the boy rises slowly to his toes and revolves in a dance — like a tree on fire. After the dance, they simply whipped the sword out of his jaw and the old man touched his wounds with a finger moistened with spittle. Within a second there was the boy standing there smiling again with nothing to show for his pains. But he looked awake now. Outside all this — the white desert was turning under the moon to a great field of skulls and mill-stones. Trumpets and drums sounded and there came a rush of horsemen in conical hats waving wooden swords and shrieking in high voices, like women. The camel-and-horse races were due to start. Good, thought I, I shall have a look at that; but treading unwarily I came upon a grotesque scene which I would gladly have avoided if I had been able. The camels of Narouz were being cut up for the feast. Poor things, they knelt there peacefully with their forelegs folded under them like cats while a horde of men attacked them with axes in the moonlight. My blood ran cold, yet I could not tear myself away from this extraordinary spectacle. The animals made no move to avoid the blows, uttered no cries as they were dismembered. The axes bit into them, as if their great bodies were made of cork, sinking deep under every thrust. Whole members were being hacked off as painlessly, it seemed, as when a tree is pruned. The children were dancing about in the moonlight picking up the fragments and running off with them into the lighted town, great gobbets of bloody meat. The camels stared hard at the moon and said nothing. Off came the legs, out came the entrails; lastly the heads would topple under the axe like statuary and lie there in the sand with open eyes. The men doing the axeing were shouting and bantering as they worked. A huge soft carpet of black blood spread into the dunes around the group and the barefoot boys carried the print of it back with them into the township. I felt frightfully ill of a sudden and retired back to the lighted quarter for a drink; and sitting on a bench watched the passing show for a while to recover my nerve. Here at last Nessim found me and together we walked inside the walls, past the grouped cells called ‘combs’. (Did you know that all early religions were built up on a cell pattern, imitating who-knows-what biological law? …) So we came at last to the church. Wonderfully painted sanctuary screen, and ancient candles with waxen beards burning on the gold lectern, the light now soft and confused by incense to the colour of pollen; and the deep voices running like a river over the gravel-bottomed Liturgy of St Basil. Moving softly from gear to gear, pausing and resuming, starting lower down the scale only to be pressed upwards into the throats and minds of these black shining people. The choir passed across us like swans, breath-catching in their high scarlet helmets and white robes with scarlet crossbands. The light on their glossy black curls and sweating faces! Enormous frescoed eyes with whites gleaming. It was pre-Christian, this; each of these young men in his scarlet biretta had become Rameses the Second. The great chandeliers twinkled and fumed, puffs of snowy incense rose. Outside you could hear the noises of the camel-racing crew, inside only the grumble of the Word. The long hanging lamps had ostrich-eggs suspended under them. (This has always struck me as being worth investigating.) I thought that this was our destination but we skirted the crowd and went down some stairs into a crypt. And this was it at last. A series of large beehive rooms, lime-washed white and spotless. In one, by candlelight, a group of about a hundred people sat upon rickety wooden benches waiting for us. Nessim pressed my arm and pushed me to a seat at the very back among a group of elderly men who gave me place. ‘First I will talk to them,’ he whispered, ‘and then Narouz is to speak to them — for the first time.’ There was no sign of the other brother as yet. The men next to me were wearing robes but some of them had European suits on underneath. Some had their heads wrapped in wimples. To judge by their well-kept hands and nails, none were workmen. They spoke Arabic but in low tones. No smoking. Now the good Nessim rose and addressed them with the cool efficiency of someone taking a routine board meeting. He spoke quietly and as far as I could gather contented himself with giving them details about recent events, the election of certain people to various committees, the arrangements for trust funds and so on. He might have been addressing shareholders. They listened gravely. A few quiet questions were asked which he answered concisely. Then he said: ‘But this is not all, these details. You will wish to hear something about our nation and our faith, something that even our priests cannot tell you. My brother Narouz, who is known to you, will speak a little now.’ What on earth could the baboon Narouz have to tell them, I wondered? It was most interesting. And now, from the outer darkness of the cell next door came Narouz, dressed in a white robe and looking pale as ashes. His hair had been smeared down on his forehead in an oiled quiff, like a collier on his day off. No, he looked like a terrified curate in a badly-ironed surplice; huge hands joined on his chest with the knuckles squeezed white. He took his place at a sort of wooden lectern with a candle burning on it, and stared with obvious wild terror at his audience, squeezing the muscles out all over his arms and shoulders. I thought he was going to fall down. He opened his clenched jaws but nothing came. He appeared to be paralysed. There came a stir and a whisper, and I saw Nessim looking somewhat anxiously at him, as if he might need help. But Narouz stood stiff as a javelin, staring right through us as if at some terrifying scene taking place behind the white walls at our backs. The suspense was making us all uncomfortable. Then he made a queer motion with his mouth, as if his tongue were swollen, or as if he was surreptitiously swallowing a soft palate, and a hoarse cry escaped him. ‘Meded! Meded!’ It was the invocation for divine strength you sometimes hear desert preachers utter before they fall into a trance — the dervishes. His face worked. And then came a change — all of a sudden it was as if an electric current had begun to pour into his body, into his muscles, his loins. He relaxed his grip on himself and slowly, pantingly began to speak, roiling those amazing eyes as if the power of speech itself was half-involuntary and causing him physical pain to support. … It was a terrifying performance, and for a moment or two I could not understand anything, he was articulating so badly. Then all of a sudden he broke through the veil and his voice gathered power, vibrating in the candle-light like a musical instrument. ‘Our Egypt, our beloved country’ drawing out the words like toffee, almost crooning them. It was clear that he had nothing prepared to say — it was not a speech, it was an invocation uttered extempore such as one has sometimes heard — the brilliant spontaneous flight of drunkards, ballad singers, or those professional mourners who follow burial processions with their shrieks of death-divining poetry. The power and the tension flooded out of him into the room; all of us were electrified, even myself whose Arabic was so bad! The tone, the range and the bottled ferocity and tenderness his words conveyed hit us, sent us sprawling, like music. It didn’t seem to matter whether we understood them or nor. It does not even now. Indeed, it would have been impossible to paraphrase the matter. ‘The Nile … the green river flowing in our hearts hears its children. They will return to her. Descendants of the Pharaohs, children of Ra, offspring of St Mark. They will find the birthplace of light.’ And so on. At times the speaker closed his eyes, letting the torrent of words pour on unhindered. Once he set his head back, smiling like a dog, still with eyes closed, until the light shone upon his back teeth. That voice! It went on autonomously, rising to a roar, sinking to a whisper, trembling and crooning and wailing. Suddenly snapping out words like chainshot, or rolling them softly about like honey. We were absolutely captured — the whole lot of us. But it was something comical to see Nessim’s concern and wonder. He had expected nothing like this apparently for he was trembling like a leaf and quite white. Occasionally he was swept away himself by the flood of rhetoric and I saw him dash away a tear from his eye almost impatiently. It went on like this for about three-quarters of an hour and suddenly, inexplicably, the current was cut off, the speaker was snuffed out. Narouz stood there gasping like a fish before us — as if thrown up by the tides of inner music on to a foreign shore. It was as abrupt as a metal shutter coming down — a silence impossible to repair again. His hands knotted again. He gave a startled groan and rushed out of the place with his funny scrambling motion. A tremendous silence fell — the silence which follows some great performance by an actor or orchestra — the germinal silence in which you can hear the very seeds in the human psyche stirring, trying to move towards the light of self-recognition. I was deeply moved and utterly exhausted. Fecundated! At last Nessim rose and made an indefinite gesture. He too was exhausted and walked like an old man; took my hand and led me up into the church again, where a wild hullabaloo of cymbals and bells had broken out. We walked through the great puffs of incense which now seemed to blow up at us from the centre of the earth — the angel and demon-haunted spaces below the world of men. In the moonlight he kept repeating: ‘I never knew, I never guessed this of Narouz. He is a preacher. I asked him only to talk of our history — but he made it …’ He was at a loss for words. Nobody had apparently suspected the existence of this spell-binder in their midst — the man with the whip! ‘He could lead a great religious movement’ I thought to myself. Nessim walked wearily and thoughtfully by my side among the palms. ‘He is a preacher, really’ he said with amazement. ‘That is why he goes to see Taor.’ He explained that Narouz often rode into the desert to visit a famous woman saint (alleged by the way to have three breasts) who lives in a tiny cave near Wadi Natrun; she is famous for her wonder-working cures, but won’t emerge from obscurity. ‘When he is away’ said Nessim, ‘he has either gone to the island to fish with his new gun or to see Taor. Always one or the other.’ When we got back to the tent the new preacher was lying wrapped in his blanket sobbing in a harsh voice like a wounded she-camel. He stopped when we entered, though he went on shaking for a while. Embarrassed, we said nothing and turned in that night in a heavy silence. A momentous experience indeed! I couldn’t sleep for quite a while, going over it all in my mind. The next morning we were up at dawn (bloody cold for May — the tent stiff with frost) and in the saddle by the earliest light. Narouz had completely come to himself. He twirled his whip and played tricks on the factors in a high good humour. Nessim was rather thoughtful and withdrawn, I thought. The long ride galled our minds and it was a relief to see the crested palms grow up again. We rested and spent the night again at Karm Abu Girg. The mother was not available at first and we were told to see her in the evening. Here an odd scene took place for which Nessim appeared as little prepared as I. As the three of us advanced through the rose-garden towards her little summerhouse, she came to the door with a lantern in her hand and said: ‘Well, my sons, how did it go?’ At this Narouz fell upon his knees, reached out his arms to her. Nessim and I were covered with confusion. She came forward and put her arms round this snorting and sobbing peasant, at the same time motioning us to leave. I must say I was relieved when Nessim sneaked off into the rose-garden and was glad to follow him. ‘This is a new Narouz’ he kept repeating softly, with genuine mystification. ‘I did not know of these powers.’ Later Narouz came back to the house in the highest of spirits and we all played cards and drank arak. He showed me, with immense pride, a gun he had had made for him in Munich. It fires a heavy javelin under water and is worked by compressed air. He told me a good deal of this new method of fishing under water. It sounded a thrilling game and I was invited to visit his fishing island with him one week-end to have a pot. The preacher had vanished altogether by now; the simple-minded second son had returned. Ouf! I am trying to get all the salient detail down as it may be of use to you later when I am gone. Sorry if it is a bore. On the way back to the town I talked at length to Nessim and got all the facts clear in my head. It did seem to me that from the policy point of view the Coptic group might be of the greatest use to us; and I was certain that this interpretation of things would be swallowed if properly explained to Maskelyne. High hopes! So I rode back happily to Cairo to rearrange the chess-board accordingly. I went to see Maskelyne and tell him the good news. To my surprise he turned absolutely white with rage, the corners of his nose pinched in, his ears moving back about an inch like a greyhound. His voice and eyes remained the same. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you have tried to supplement a secret intelligence paper by consulting the subject of it? It goes against every elementary rule of intelligence. And how can you believe a word of so obvious a cover story? I have never heard of such a thing. You deliberately suspend a War Office paper, throw my fact-finding organization into disrepute, pretend we don’t know our jobs, etc….’ You can gather the rest of the tirade. I began to get angry. He repeated dryly: ‘I have been doing this for fifteen years. I tell you it smells of arms, of subversion. You won’t believe my I.A. and I think yours is ridiculous. Why not pass the paper to the Egyptians and let them find out for themselves?’ Of course I could not afford to do this, and he knew it. He next said that he had asked the War Office to protest in London and was writing to Errol to ask for ‘redress’. All this, of course, was to be expected. But then I tackled him upon another vector. ‘Look here’ I said. ‘I have seen all your sources. They are all Arabs and as such unworthy of confidence. How about a gentlemen’s agreement? There is no hurry — we can investigate the Hosnanis at leisure — but how about choosing a new set of sources — English sources? If the interpretations still match, I promise you I’ll resign and make a full recantation. Otherwise I shall fight this thing right through.’ ‘What sort of sources do you have in mind?’ ‘Well, there are a number of Englishmen in the Egyptian Police who speak Arabic and who know the people concerned. Why not use some of them?’ He looked at me for a long time. ‘But they are as corrupt as the Arabs. Nimrod sells his information to the press. The Globe pay him a retainer of twenty pounds a month for confidential information.’ ‘There must be others.’ ‘By God there are. You should see them!’ ‘And then there’s Darley who apparently goes to these meetings which worry you so much. Why not ask him to help?’ ‘I won’t compromise my net by introducing characters like that. It is not worth it. It is not secure.’ ‘Then why not make a separate net — let Telford build it up. Specially for this group, for no other. And having no access to your main organization. Surely you could do that?’ He stared at me slowly, drop by drop. ‘I could if I chose to’ he admitted. ‘And if I thought it would get us anywhere. But it won’t.’ ‘At any rate, why not try? Your own position here is rather equivocal until an Ambassador comes to define it and arbitrate between us. Suppose I do pass this paper out and this whole group gets swept up?’ ‘Well, what?’ ‘Supposing it is, as I believe it to be, something which could help British policy in this area, you’ll get no thanks for having allowed the Egyptians to nip it in the bud. And indeed, if that did prove to be the case, you would find….’ ‘I’ll think about it.’ He had no intention of doing so, I could see, but he must have. He changed his mind; next day he rang up and said he was doing as I suggested, though ‘without prejudice’; the war was still on between us. Perhaps he had heard of your appointment and knew we were friends. I don’t know. Ouf! that is about as much as I can tell you; for the rest, the country is still here — everything that is heteroclyte, devious, polymorph, anfractuous, equivocal, opaque, ambiguous, many-branched, or just plain dotty. I wish you joy of it when I am far away! I know you will make your first mission a resounding success. Perhaps you won’t regret these tags of information from Yours sincerely, Earwig van Beetfield.Autumn has settled at last into the clear winterset. High seas flogging the blank panels of stone along the Corniche. The migrants multiplying on the shallow reaches of Mareotis. Waters moving from gold to grey, the pigmentation of winter. The parties assemble at Nessim’s house towards twilight — a prodigious collection of cars and shooting-brakes. Here begins the long packing and unpacking of wicker baskets and gun-bags, conducted to the accompaniment of cocktails and sandwiches. Costumes burgeon. Comparison of guns and cartridges, conversation inseparable from a shooter’s life, begin now, rambling, inconsequent, wise. The yellowish moonless dusk settles: the angle of the sunlight turns slowly upwards into the vitreous lilac of the evening sky. It is brisk weather, clear as waterglass. Justine and I are moving through the spiderweb of our preoccupations like people already parted. She wears the familiar velveteen costume — the coat with its deeply cut and slanted pockets: and the soft velours hat pulled down over her brows — a schoolgirl’s hat: leather jack-boots. We do not look directly at each other any more, but talk with a hollow impersonality. I have a splitting headache. She has urged upon me her own spare gun — a beautiful stout twelve by Purdey, ideal for such an unpractised hand and eye as mine. There is laughter and clapping as lots are drawn for the makeup of the various parties. We will have to take up widely dispersed positions around the lake, and those who draw the western butts will have to make a long detour by road through Mex and the desert fringes. The leaders of each party draw paper strips in turn from a hat, each with a guest’s name written upon it. Nessim has already drawn Capodistria who is clad in a natty leather jerkin with velvet cuffs, khaki gaberdine plus-fours and check socks. He wears an old tweed hat with a cock-pheasant’s feather in it, and is festooned with bandoliers full of cartridges. Next comes Ralli the old Greek general, with ash-coloured bags under his eyes and darned riding-breeches; Pallis the French Chargé d’Affaires in a sheepskin coat; lastly myself. Justine and Pombal are joining Lord Errol’s party. It is clear now that we are to be separated. All of a sudden, for the first time, I feel real fear as I watch the expressionless glitter of Nessim’s eyes. We take our various places in the shooting-brakes. Selim is doing up the straps of a heavy pigskin gun-case. His hands tremble. With all the dispositions made the cars start up with a roar of engines, and at this signal a flock of servants scamper out of the great house with glasses of champagne to offer us a stirrup-cup. This diversion enables Justine to come across to our car and under the pretext of handing me a packet of smokeless cartridges to press my arm once, warmly, and to fix me for a half-second with those expressive black eyes shining now with an expression I might almost mistake for relief. I try to form a smile with my lips. We move off steadily with Nessim at the wheel and catch the last rays of the sunset as we clear the town to run along the shallow dunelands towards Aboukir. Everyone is in excellent spirits, Ralli talking nineteen to the dozen and Capodistria keeping us entertained with anecdotes of his fabulous mad father. (‘His first act on going mad was to file a suit against his two sons accusing them of wilful and persistent illegitimacy.’) From time to time he raises a finger to touch the cotton compress which is held in position over his left eye by the black patch. Pallis has produced an old deerstalker with large ear-flaps which make him look like a speculative Gallic rabbit. From time to time in the driving mirror I catch Nessim’s eye and he smiles. The dusk has settled as we come to the shores of the lake. The old hydroplane whimpers and roars as it waits for us. It is piled high with decoys. Nessim assembles a couple of tall duck-guns and tripods before joining us in the shallow punt to set off across the reed-fringed wilderness of the lake to the desolate lodge where we are to spend the night. All horizons have been abruptly cut off now as we skirt the darkening channels in our noisy craft, disturbing the visitants of the lake with the roar of our engines; the reeds tower over us, and everywhere the sedge hassocks of islands rise out, of the water with their promise of cover. Once or twice a long vista of water opens before us and we catch sight of the flurry of birds rising — mallard trailing their webs across the still surface. Nearer at hand the hither-and-thithering cormorants keep a curiosity-shop with their long slave-to-appetite beaks choked with sedge. All round us now, out of sight the teeming colonies of the lake are settling down for the night. When the engines of the hydroplane are turned off the silence is suddenly filled with groaning and gnatting of duck. A faint green wind springs up and ruffles the water round the little wooden hut on the balcony of which sit the loaders waiting for us. Darkness has suddenly fallen, and the voices of the boatmen sound hard, sparkling, gay. The loaders are a wild crew; they scamper from island to island with shrill cries, their galabeahs tucked up round their waists, impervious to the cold. They seem black and huge, as if carved from the darkness. They pull us up to the balcony one by one and then set off in shallow punts to lay their armfuls of decoys while we turn to the inner room where paraffin lamps have already been lit. From the little kitchen comes the encouraging smell of food which we sniff appreciatively as we divest ourselves of our guns and bandoliers, and kick off our boots. Now the sportsmen fall to backgammon or tric-trac and bag-andshot talk, the most delightful and absorbing masculine conversation in the world. Ralli is rubbing pigsfat into his old much-darned boots. The stew is excellent and the red wine has put everyone in a good humour. By nine however most of us are ready to turn in; Nessim is busy in the darkness outside giving his last instructions to the loaders and setting the rusty old alarm clock for three. Capodistria alone shows no disposition to sleep. He sits, as if plunged in reflection, sipping his wine and smoking a cheroot. We speak for a while about trivialities; and then all of a sudden he launches into a critique of Pursewarden’s third volume which has just appeared in the bookshops. ‘What is astonishing’ he says ‘is that he presents a series of spiritual problems as if they were commonplaces and illustrates them with his characters. I have been thinking over the character of Parr the sensualist. He resembles me so closely. His apology for a voluptuary’s life is fantastically good — as in the passage where he says that people only see in us the contemptible skirt-fever which rules our actions but completely miss the beauty-hunger underlying it. To be so struck by a face sometimes that one wants to devour it feature by feature. Even making love to the body beneath it gives no surcease, no rest. What is to be done with people like us?’ He sighs and abruptly begins to talk about Alexandria in the old days. He speaks with a new resignation and gentleness about those far-off days across which he sees himself moving so serenely, so effortlessly as a youth and a young man. ‘I have never got to the bottom of my father. His view of things was mordant, and yet it is possible this his ironies concealed a wounded spirit. One is not an ordinary man if one can say things so pointed that they engage the attention and memory of others. As once in speaking of marriage he said “In marriage they legitimized despair,” and “Every kiss is the conquest of a repulsion.” He struck me as having a coherent view of life but madness intervened and all I have to go on is the memory of a few incidents and sayings. I wish I could leave behind as much.’ I lie awake in the narrow wooden bunk for a while thinking over what he has been saying: all is darkness now and silence save for the low rapid voice of Nessim on the balcony outside talking to the loaders. I cannot catch the words. Capodistria sits for a while in the darkness to finish his cheroot before climbing heavily into the bunk under the window. The others are already asleep to judge by the heavy snoring of Ralli. My fear has given place to resignation once more; now at the borders of sleep I think of Justine again for a moment before letting the memory of her slide into the limbo which is peopled now only with far-away sleepy voices and the rushing sighing waters of the great lake. It is pitch-dark when I awake at the touch of Nessim’s gentle hand shaking my shoulder. The alarm clock has failed us. But the room is full of stretching yawning figures climbing from their bunks. The loaders have been curled up asleep like sheep-dogs on the balcony outside. They busy themselves in lighting the paraffin lamps whose unearthly glare is to light our desultory breakfast of coffee and sandwiches. I go down the landing stage and wash my face in the icy lake water. Utter blackness all around. Everyone speaks in low voices, as if weighed down by the weight of the darkness. Snatches of wind make the little lodge tremble, built as it is on frail wooden stilts over the water. We are each allotted a punt and a gun-bearer. ‘You’ll take Faraj’ says Nessim. ‘He’s the most experienced and reliable of them.’ I thank him. A black barbaric face under a soiled white turban, unsmiling, spiritless. He takes my equipment and turns silently to the dark punt. With a whispered farewell I climb in and seat myself. With a lithe swing of the pole Faraj drives us out into the channel and suddenly we are scoring across the heart of a black diamond. The water is full of stars, Orion down, Capella tossing out its brilliant sparks. For a long while now we crawl upon this diamond-pointed star-floor in silence save for the suck and lisp of the pole in the mud. Then we turn abruptly into a wider channel to hear a string of wavelets pattering against our prow while draughts of wind fetch up from the invisible sea-line tasting of salt. Premonitions of the dawn are already in the air as we cross the darkness of this lost world. Now the approaches to the empty water ahead are shivered by the faintest etching of islands, sprouts of beard, reeds and sedge. And on all sides now comes the rich plural chuckle of duck and the shrill pinched note of the gulls to the seaboard. Faraj grunts and turns the punt towards a nearby island. Reaching out upon the darkness my hands grasp the icy rim of the nearest barrel into which I laboriously climb. The butts consist merely of a couple of dry wood-slatted barrels tied together and festooned with tall reeds to make them invisible. The loader holds the punt steady while I disembarrass him of my gear. There is nothing to do now but to sit and wait for the dawn which is rising slowly somewhere, to be born from this black expressionless darkness. It is bitterly cold now and even my heavy greatcoat seems to offer inadequate protection. I have told Faraj that I will do my own loading as I do not want him handling my spare gun and cartridges in the next barrel. I must confess to a feeling of shame as I do so, but it sets my nerves at rest. He nods with an expressionless face and stands off with the punt in the next cluster of reeds, camouflaged like a scarecrow. We wait now with our faces turned towards the distant reaches of the lake — it seems for centuries. Suddenly at the end of the great couloir my vision is sharpened by a pale disjunctive shudder as a bar of buttercup-yellow thickening gradually to a ray falls slowly through the dark masses of cloud to the east. The ripple and flurry of the invisible colonies of birds around us increases. Slowly, painfully, like a half-open door the dawn is upon us, forcing back the darkness. A minute more and a stairway of soft kingcups slides smoothly down out of heaven to touch in our horizons, to give eye and mind an orientation in space which it has been lacking. Faraj yawns heavily and scratches himself. Now rose-madder and warm burnt gold. Clouds move to green and yellow. The lake has begun to shake off its sleep. I see the black silhouette of teal cross my vision eastward. ‘It is time’ murmurs Faraj; but the minute hand of my wrist watch shows that we still have five minutes to go. My bones feel as if they have been soaked in the darkness. I feel suspense and inertia struggling for possession of my sleepy mind. By agreement there is to be no shooting before four-thirty. I load slowly and dispose my bandolier across the butt next me within easy reach. ‘It is time’ says Faraj more urgently. Nearby there is a plop and a scamper of some hidden birds. Out of sight a couple of coot squat in the middle of the lake pondering. I am about to say something when the first chapter of guns opens from the south — like the distant click of cricket-balls. Now solitaries begin to pass, one, two, three. The light grows and waxes, turning now from red to green. The clouds themselves are moving to reveal enormous cavities of sky. They peel the morning like a fruit. Four separate arrowheads of duck rise and form two hundred yards away. They cross me trimly at an angle and I open up with a tentative right barrel for distance. As usual they are faster and higher than they seem. The minutes are ticking away in the heart. Guns open up nearer to hand, and by now the lake is in a general state of alert. The duck are coming fairly frequently now in groups, three, five, nine: very low and fast. Their wings purr, as they feather the sky, their necks reach. Higher again in mid-heaven there travel the clear formations of mallard, grouped like aircraft against the light, ploughing a soft slow flight. The guns squash the air and harry them as they pass, moving with a slow curling bias towards the open sea. Even higher and quite out of reach come chains of wild geese, their plaintive honking sounding clearly across the now sunny waters of Mareotis. There is hardly time to think now: for teal and wigeon like flung darts whistle over me and I begin to shoot slowly and methodically. Targets are so plentiful that it is often difficult to choose one in the split second during which it presents itself to the gun. Once or twice I catch myself taking a snap shot into a formation. If hit squarely a bird staggers and spins, pauses for a moment, and then sinks gracefully like a handkerchief from a lady’s hand. Reeds close over the brown bodies, but now the tireless Faraj is out poling about like mad to retrieve the birds. At times he leaps into the water with his galabeah tucked up to his midriff. His features blaze with excitement. From time to time he gives a shrill whoop. They are coming in from everywhere now, at every conceivable angle and every speed. The guns bark and jumble in one’s ears as they drive the birds backwards and forwards across the lake. Some of the flights though nimble are obviously war-weary after heavy losses; other solitaries seem quite out of their minds with panic. One young and silly duck settles for a moment by the punt, almost within reach of Faraj’s hands, before it suddenly sees danger and spurts off in a slither of foam. In a modest way I am not doing too badly though in all the excitement it is hard to control oneself and to shoot deliberately. The sun is fairly up now and the damps of the night have been dispersed. In an hour I shall be sweating again in these heavy clothes. The sun shines on the ruffled waters of Mareotis where the birds still fly. The punts by now will be full of the sodden bodies of the victims, red blood running from the shattered beaks on to the floor-boards, marvellous feathers dulled by death. I eke out my remaining ammunition as best I can but already by quarter past eight I have fired the last cartridge; Faraj is still at work painstakingly tracking down stragglers among the reeds with the single-mindedness of a retriever. I light a cigarette, and for the first time feel free from the shadow of omens and premonitions — free to breathe, to compose my mind once more. It is extraordinary how the prospect of death closes down upon the free play of the mind, like a steel shutter, cutting off the future which alone is nourished by hopes and wishes. I feel the stubble on my unshaven chin and think longingly of a hot bath and a warm breakfast. Faraj is still tirelessly scouting the islands of sedge. The guns have slackened, and in some quarters of the lake are already silent. I think with a dull ache of Justine, somewhere out there across the sunny water. I have no great fear for her safety for she has taken as her own gun-bearer my faithful servant Hamid. I feel all at once gay and light-hearted as I shout to Faraj to cease his explorations and bring back the punt. He does so reluctantly and at last we set off across the lake, back through the channels and corridors of reed towards the lodge. ‘Eight brace no good’ says Faraj, thinking of the large professional bags we will have to face when Ralli and Capodistria return. ‘For me it is very good’ I say. ‘I am a rotten shot. Never done as well.’ We enter the thickly sown channels of water which border the lake like miniature canals. At the end, against the light, I catch sight of another punt moving towards us which gradually defines itself into the familiar figure of Nessim. He is wearing his old moleskin cap with the ear-flaps up and tied over the top. I wave but he does not respond. He sits abstractedly in the prow of the punt with his hands clasped about his knees. ‘Nessim’ I shout. ‘How did you do? I got eight brace and one lost.’ The boats are nearly abreast now, for we are heading towards the mouth of the last canal which leads to the lodge. Nessim waits until we are within a few yards of each other before he says with a curious serenity, ‘Did you hear? There’s been an accident. Capodistria …’ and all of a sudden my heart contracts in my body. ‘Capodistria?’ I stammer. Nessim still has the curious impish serenity of someone resting after a great expenditure of energy. ‘He’s dead’ he says, and I hear the sudden roar of the hydroplane engines starting up behind the wall of reeds. He nods towards the sound and adds in the same still voice: ‘They are taking him back to Alexandria.’ A thousand conventional commonplaces, a thousand conventional questions spring to my mind, but for a long time I can say nothing. On the balcony the others have assembled uneasily, almost shamefacedly; they are like a group of thoughtless schoolboys for whom some silly prank has ended in the death of one of their fellows. The furry cone of noise from the hydroplane still coats the air. In the middle distance one can hear shouts and the noise of car-engines starting up. The piled bodies of the duck, which would normally be subject matter for gloating commentaries, he about the lodge with anachronistic absurdity. It appears that death is a relative question. We had only been prepared to accept a certain share of it when we entered the dark lake with our weapons. The death of Capodistria hangs in the still air like a bad smell, like a bad joke. Ralli had been sent to get him and had found the body lying face down in the shallow waters of the lake with the black eye-patch floating near him. It was clearly an accident. Capodistria’s loader was an elderly man, thin as a cormorant, who sits now hunched over a mess of beans on the balcony. He cannot give a coherent account of the business. He is from Upper Egypt and has the weary half-crazed expression of a desert father. Ralli is extremely nervous and is drinking copious draughts of brandy. He retells his story for the seventh time, simply because he must talk in order to quieten his nerves. The body could not have been long in the water, yet the skin was like the skin of a washerwoman’s hands. When they lifted it to get it into the hydroplane the false teeth slipped out of the mouth and crashed on to the floor-boards frightening them all. This incident seems to have made a great impression on him. I suddenly feel overcome with fatigue and my knees start to tremble. I take a mug of hot coffee and, kicking off my boots, crawl into the nearest bunk with it. Ralli is still talking with deafening persistence, his free hand coaxing the air into expressive shapes. The others watch him with a vague and dispirited curiosity, each plunged in his own reflections. Capodistria’s loader is still eating noisily like a famished animal, blinking in the sunlight. Presently a punt comes into view with three policemen perched precariously in it. Nessim watches their antics with an imperturbability flavoured ever so slightly with satisfaction; it is as if he were smiling to himself. The clatter of boots and musket-butts on the wooden steps, and up they come to take down our depositions in their note-books. They bring with them a grave air of suspicion which hovers over us all. One of them carefully manacles Capodistria’s loader before helping him into the punt. The servant puts out his wrists for the iron cuffs with a bland uncomprehending air such as one sees on the faces of old apes when called upon to perform a human action which they have learned but not understood. It is nearly one o’clock before the police have finished their business. The parties will all have ebbed back from the lake by now to the city where the news of Capodistria’s death will be waiting for them. But this is not to be all. One by one we straggle ashore with our gear. The cars are waiting for us, and now begins a long chaffering session with the loaders and boatmen who must be paid off; guns are broken up and the bag distributed; in all this incoherence I see my servant Hamid advancing timidly through the crowd with his good eye screwed up against the sunlight. I think he must be looking for me but no: he goes up to Nessim and hands him a small blue envelope. I want to describe this exactly. Nessim takes it absently with his left hand while his right is reaching into the car to place a box of cartridges in the glove-box. He examines the superscription once thoughtlessly and then once more with marked attention. Then keeping his eyes on Hamid’s face he takes a deep breath and opens the envelope to read whatever is written on the half sheet of note-paper. For a minute he studies it and then replaces the letter in the envelope. He looks about him with a sudden change of expression, as if he suddenly felt sick and was looking about for a place where he might be so. He makes his way through the crowd and putting his head against a corner of mud wall utters a short panting sob, as of a runner out of breath. Then he turns back to the car, completely controlled and dry-eyed, to complete his packing. This brief incident goes completely unremarked by the rest of his guests. Clouds of dust rise now as the cars begin to draw away towards the city; the wild gang of boatmen shout and wave and treat us to carved water-melon smiles studded with gold and ivory. Hamid opens the car door and climbs in like a monkey. ‘What is it?’ I say, and folding his small hands apologetically towards me in an attitude of supplication which means ‘Blame not the bearer of ill tidings’ he says in a small conciliatory voice: ‘Master, the lady has gone. There is a letter for you in the house.’ It is as if the whole city had crashed about my ears: I walk slowly to the flat, aimlessly as survivors must walk about the streets of their native city after an earthquake, surprised to find how much that had been familiar has changed, Rue Piroua, Rue de France, the Terbana Mosque (cupboard smelling of apples), Rue Sidi Abou El Abbas (water-ices and coffee), Anfouchi, Ras El Tin (Cape of Figs), Ikingi Mariut (gathering wild flowers together, convinced she cannot love me), equestrian statue of Mohammed Ali in the square…. General Earle’s comical little bust, killed Sudan 1885…. An evening multitudinous with swallows … the tombs at Kom El Shugafa, darkness and damp soil, both terrified by the darkness…. Rue Fuad as the old Canopic Way, once Rue Rosette…. Hutchinson disturbed the whole water-disposition of the city by cutting the dykes…. The scene in Moeurs where he tries to read her the book he is writing about her. ‘She sits in the wicker chair with her hands in her lap, as if posing for a portrait, but with a look of ever-growing horror on her face. At last I can stand it no longer, and I throw down the manuscript in the fireplace, crying out: “What are they worth, since you understand nothing, these pages written from a heart pierced to the quick?” ’ In my mind’s eye I can see Nessim racing up the great staircase to her room to find a distraught Selim contemplating the empty cupboards and a dressing table swept clean as if by a blow from a leopard’s paw. In the harbour of Alexandria the sirens whoop and wail. The screws of ships crush and crunch the green oil-coated waters of the inner bar. Idly bending and inclining, effortlessly breathing as if in the rhythm of the earth’s own systole and diastole, the yachts turn their spars against the sky. Somewhere in the heart of experience there is an order and a coherence which we might surprise if we were attentive enough, loving enough, or patient enough. Will there be time?They were to stay like this for many weeks now, the actors: as if trapped once and for all in postures which might illustrate how incalculable a matter naked providence can be. To Mountolive, more than the others, came a disenchanting sense of his own professional inadequacy, his powerlessness to act now save as an instrument (no longer a factor), so strongly did he feel himself gripped by the gravitational field of politics. Private humours and impulses were alike disinherited, counting for nothing. Did Nessim also feel the mounting flavour of stagnation in everything? He thought back bitterly and often to the casually spoken words of Sir Louis as he was combing his hair in the mirror. ‘The illusion that you are free to act!’ He suffered from excruciating headaches now from time to time and his teeth began to give him trouble. For some reason or another he took the fancy that this was due to over-smoking and tried to abandon the habit unsuccessfully. The struggle with tobacco only increased his misery. Yet if he himself were powerless, now, how much more so the others? Like the etiolated projections of a sick imagination, they seemed, drained of meaning, empty as suits of clothes; taking up emplacements in this colourless drama of contending wills. Nessim, Justine, Leila — they had an unsubstantial air now — as of dream projections acting in a world populated by expressionless waxworks. It was difficult to feel that he owed them even love any longer. Leila’s silence above all suggested, even more clearly, the guilt of her complicity. Autumn drew to an end and still Nur could produce no proof of action. The life-lines which tied Mountolive’s Mission to London became clogged with longer and longer telegrams full of the shrewish iterations of minds trying to influence the operation of what Mountolive now knew to be not merely chance, but in fact destiny. It was interesting, too, in a paradoxical sort of way, this first great lesson which his profession had to teach him; for outside the circumscribed area of his personal fears and hesitations, he watched the whole affair with a kind of absorbed attention, with almost a sense of dreadful admiration. But it was like some fretful mummy that he now presented himself to the gaze of Nur, almost ashamed of the splendours of that second-hand uniform, so clearly was it intended to admonish or threaten the Minister. The old man was full of a feverish desire to accommodate him; he was like a monkey jumping enthusiastically on the end of a chain. But what could he do? He made faces to match his transparent excuses. The investigations undertaken by Memlik were not as yet complete. It was essential to verify the truth. The threads were still being followed up. And so forth. Mountolive did what he had never done before in his official life, colouring up and banging the dusty table between them with friendly exasperation. He adopted the countenance of a thundercloud and predicted a rupture of diplomatic relations. He went so far as to recommend Nur for a decoration … realizing that this was his last resort. But in vain. The broad contemplative figure of Memlik squatted athwart the daylight, promising everything, performing nothing; immovable, imperturbable, and only faintly malign. Each was now pressing the other beyond the point of polite conciliation: Maskelyne and the High Commissioner were pressing London for action; London, full of moralizing grandeurs, pressed Mountolive; Mountolive pressed Nur, overwhelming the old man with a sense of his own ineffectuality, for he too was powerless to grapple with Memlik without the help of the King: and the King was ill, very ill. At the bottom of this pyramid sat the small figure of the Minister for Interior, with his priceless collection of Korans locked away in dusty cupboards. Constrained nevertheless to keep up the diplomatic pressure, Mountolive was now irradiated by an appalling sense of futility as he sat (like some ageing jeune premier) and listened to the torrent of Nur’s excuses, drinking the ceremonial coffee and prying into those ancient and imploring eyes. ‘But what more evidence do you need, Pasha, than the papers I brought you?’ The Minister’s hands spread wide, smoothing the air between them as if he were rubbing cold-cream into it; he exuded a conciliatory and apologetic affection, like an unguent. ‘He is going into the matter’ he croaked helplessly. ‘There is more than one Hosnani, to begin with’ he added in desperation. Backwards and forwards moved the tortoise’s wrinkled head, regular as a pendulum. Mountolive groaned inside himself as he thought of those long telegrams following one another, endless as a tapeworm. Nessim had now, so to speak, wedged himself neatly in between his various adversaries, in a position where neither could reach him — for the time being. The game was in baulk. Donkin alone derived a quizzical amusement from these exchanges — so characteristic of Egypt. His own affection for the Moslem had taught him to see clearly into his motives, to discern the play of childish cupidities underneath the histrionic silence of a Minister, under his facile promises. Even Mountolive’s gathering hysteria in the face of these checks was amusing for a junior secretary. His Chief had become a puffy and petulant dignitary, under all this stress. Who could have believed such a change possible? The observation that there was more than one Hosnani was a strange one, and it was a fruit of the prescient Rafael’s thought as he quietly shaved his master one morning, according to custom; Memlik paid great attention to what the barber said — was he not a European? While the little barber shaved him in the morning they discussed the transactions of the day. Rafael was full of ideas and opinions, but he uttered them obliquely, simplifying them so that they presented themselves in readily understandable form. He knew that Memlik had been troubled by Nur’s insistence, though he had not shown it; he knew, moreover, that Memlik would act only if the King recovered enough to grant Nur an audience. It was a matter of luck and time; meanwhile, why not pluck Hosnani as far as possible? It was only one of a dozen such matters which lay gathering dust (and perhaps bribes) while the King was ill. One fine day His Majesty would feel much better under his new German doctors and would grant audience once again. He would send for Nur. That is the manner in which the matter would fall out. The next thing: the old goose-necked telephone by the yellow divan would tingle and the old man’s voice (disguising its triumphant tone) would say, ‘I am Nur, speaking from the very Divan of the Very King, having received audience. That matter of which we spoke concerning the British Government. It must now be advanced and go forward. Give praise to God!’ ‘Give praise to God!’ and from this point forward Memlik’s hands would be tied. But for the moment he was still a free agent, free to express his contempt for the elder Minister by inaction. ‘There are two brothers, Excellence,’ Rafael had said, putting on a story-book voice and casting an expression of gloomy maturity upon his little doll’s face. ‘Two brothers Hosnani, not one, Excellence.’ He sighed as his white fingers took up small purses of Memlik’s dark skin for the razor to work upon. He proceeded slowly, for to register an idea in a Moslem mind is like trying to paint a wall: one must wait for the first coat to dry (the first idea) before applying a second. ‘Of the two brothers, one is rich in land, and the other rich in money — he of the Koran. Of what good are lands to my Excellence? But one whose purse is fathomless….’ His tone suggested all the landless man’s contempt for good ground. ‘Well, well, but….’ said Memlik with a slow, unemphatic impatience, yet without moving his lips under the kiss of the crisp razor. He was impatient for the theme to be developed. Rafael smiled and was silent for a moment. ‘Indeed’ he said thoughtfully, ‘the papers you received from his Excellence were signed Hosnani — in the family name. Who is to say which brother signed them, which is guilty and which innocent? If you were wise in deed would you sacrifice a moneyed man to a landed one? I not, Excellence, I not.’ ‘What would you do, my Rafael?’ ‘For people like the British it could be made to seem that the poor one was guilty, not the rich. I am only thinking aloud, Excellence, a small man among great affairs.’ Memlik breathed quietly through his mouth, keeping his eyes shut. He was skilled in never showing surprise. Yet the thought, suspended idly in his mind, filled him with a reflective astonishment. In the last month he had received three additions to his library which had left in little doubt the comparative affluence of his client, the elder Hosnani. It was getting on for the Christian Christmastide. He pondered heavily. To satisfy both the British and his own cupidity…. That would be very clever! Not eight hundred yards away from the chair in which Memlik sprawled, across the brown Nile water, sat Mountolive at his papers. On the polished desk before him lay the great florid invitation card which enjoined his participation in one of the great social events of the year — Nessim’s annual duckshoot on Lake Mareotis. He propped it against his inkwell in order to read it again with an expression of fugitive reproach. But there was another communication of even greater importance; even after this long silence he recognized Leila’s nervous handwriting on the lined envelope smelling of chypre. But inside it he found a page torn from an exercise book scrawled over with words and phrases set down anyhow, as if in great haste. ‘David, I am going abroad, perhaps long perhaps short, I cannot tell; against my will. Nessim insists. But I must see you before I leave. I must take courage and meet you the evening before. Don’t fail. I have something to ask, something to tell. “This business”! I knew nothing about it till carnival I swear; now only you can save….’ So the letter ran on pell-mell; Mountolive felt a queer mixture of feelings — an incoherent relief which somehow trembled on the edge of indignation. After all this time she would be waiting for him after dark near the Auberge Bleue in an old horse-drawn cab pulled back off the road among the palms! That plan was at least touched with something of her old fantasy. For some reason Nessim was not to know of this meeting — why should he disapprove? But the information that she at least had had no part in the conspiracies fostered by her son — that flooded him with relief and tenderness. And all this time he had been seeing Leila as a hostile extension of Nessim, had been training himself to hate her! ‘My poor Leila’ he said aloud, holding the envelope to his nose to inhale the fragrance of chypre. He picked up the phone and spoke softly to Errol: ‘I suppose the whole Chancery has been invited to the Hosnani shoot? Yes? I agree, he has got rather a nerve at such a time…. I shall, of course, have to decline, but I would like you chaps to accept and apologize for me. To keep up a public appearance of normality merely. Will you then? Thank you very much. Now one more thing. I shall go up the evening before the shoot for private business and return the next day — we shall probably pass each other on the desert road. No, I’m glad you fellows have the chance. By all means, and good hunting.’ The next ten days passed in a sort of dream, punctuated only by the intermittent stabbings of a reality which was no longer a drug, a dissipation which gagged his nerves; his duties were a torment of boredom. He felt immeasurably expended, used-up, as he confronted his face in the bathroom mirror, presenting it to the razor’s edge with undisguised distaste. He had become quite noticeably grey now at the temples. From somewhere in the servants’ quarters a radio burred and scratched out the melody of an old song which had haunted a whole Alexandrian summer: ‘Jamais de la vie’. He had come to loathe it now. This new epoch — a limbo filled with the dispersing fragments of habit, duty and circumstance — filled him with a gnawing impatience; underneath it all he was aware that he was gathering himself together for this long-awaited meeting with Leila. Somehow it would determine, not the physical tangible meaning of his return to Egypt so much as the psychic meaning of it in relation to his inner life. God! that was a clumsy way to put it — but how else could one express these things? It was a sort of barrier in himself which had to be crossed, a puberty of the feelings which had to be outgrown. He drove up across the crackling desert in his pennoned car, rejoicing in the sweet whistle of its cooled engine, and the whickering of wind at the side-screens. It had been some time since he had been able to travel across the desert alone like this — it reminded him of older and happier journeys. Flying across the still white air with the speedometer hovering in the sixties, he hummed softly to himself, despite his distaste, the refrain: Jamais de la vie, Jamais dans la nuit Quand ton coeur se démange de chagrin…. How long was it since he had caught himself singing like this? An age. It was not really happiness, but an overmastering relief of mind. Even the hateful song helped him to recover the lost image of an Alexandria he had once found charming. Would it, could it be so again? It was already late afternoon by the time he reached the desert fringe and began the slow in-curving impulse which would lead him to the city’s bristling outer slums. The sky was covered with clouds. A thunderstorm was breaking over Alexandria. To the east upon the icy green waters of the lake poured a rainstorm — flights of glittering needles pocking the waters; he could dimly hear the hush of rain above the whisper of the car. He glimpsed the pearly city through the dark cloud-mat, its minarets poked up against the cloud bars of an early sunset; linen soaked in blood. A sea-wind chaffered and tugged at the sea-limits of the estuary. Higher still roamed packages of smoking, blood-stained cloud throwing down a strange radiance into the streets and squares of the white city. Rain was a rare and brief winter phenomenon in Alexandria. Presently the sea-wind would rise, alter inclination, and peel the sky clear in a matter of minutes, rolling up the heavy cumulus like a carpet. The glassy freshness of the winter sky would resume its light, polishing the city once more till it glittered against the desert like quartz, like some beautiful artifact. He was no longer impatient. Dusk was beginning to swallow the sunset. As he neared the ugly ribbons of cabins and warehouses by the outer harbour, his tyres began to smoke and seethe upon the wet tarmac, its heat now slaked by a light rain. Time to throttle down…. He entered the penumbra of the storm slowly, marvelling at the light, at the horizon drawn back like a bow. Odd gleams of sunshine scattered rubies upon the battleships in the basin (squatting under their guns like horned toads). It was the ancient city again; he felt its pervading melancholy under the rain as he crossed it on his way to the Summer Residence. The brilliant unfamiliar lighting of the thunder-storm re-created it, giving it a spectral, story-book air — broken pavements made of tinfoil, snail-shells, cracked horn, mica; earth-brick buildings turned to the colour of ox-blood; the lovers wandering in Mohammed Ali Square, disoriented by the unfamiliar rain, disconsolate as untuned instruments; the clicking of violet trams along the sea-front among the tatting of palm-fronds. The desuetude of an ancient city whose streets were plastered with the wet blown dust of the surrounding desert. He felt it all anew, letting it extend panoramically in his consciousness — the moan of a liner edging out towards the sunset bar, or the trains which flowed like a torrent of diamonds towards the interior, their wheels chattering among the shingle ravines and the powder of temples long since abandoned and silted up…. Mountolive saw it all now with a world-weariness which he at last recognized as the stripe which maturity lays upon the shoulders of an adult — the stigma of the experiences which age one. The wind spouted in the harbour. The corridors of wet rigging swayed and shook like the foliage of some great tree. Now the tears were trickling down the windscreen under the diligent and noiseless wipers…. A little period in this strange contused darkness, fitfully lit by lightning, and then the wind would come — the magistral north wind, punching and squeezing the sea into its own characteristic plumage of white crests, knocking open the firmament until the faces of men and women once more reflected the open winter sky. He was in plenty of time. He drove to the Summer Residence to make sure that the staff had been warned of his arrival; he intended to stay the night and return to Cairo on the morrow. He let himself into the front door with his own key, having pressed the bell, and stood listening for the shuffle of Ali. And as he heard the old man’s step approaching, the north wind arrived with a roar, stiffening the windows in their frames, and the rain stopped abruptly as if it had been turned off. He had still an hour or so before the rendezvous: comfortable time in which to have a bath and change his clothes. To his own surprise, he felt perfectly at ease now, no longer tormented by doubts or elated by a sense of relief. He had put himself unreservedly in the hands of chance. He ate a sandwich and drank two strong whiskies before setting out and letting the great car slide softly down the Grande Corniche towards the Auberge Bleue which lay towards the outskirts of the town, fringed by patches of dune and odd clusters of palm. The sky was clear again now and the whitecaps were racing ashore to bang themselves in showers of spray upon the metal piers of Chatby. At the horizon’s edge flickered the intermittent lightning still, but dimly. These faint gleams suggested perhaps the gun flashes of distant warships in a naval engagement. He edged the car softly off the road and into the deserted car park of the Auberge, switching off the side-lamps as he did so. He sat for a moment, accustoming himself to the bluish dusk. The Auberge was empty — it was still too early for dancers and diners to throng its elegant floor and bars. Then he saw it. Just off the road, on the opposite side of the park, there was a bare patch of sand-dune with a few leaning palms. A gharry stood there. Its old-fashioned oil-lamps were alight and wallowed feebly like fireflies in the light sea-airs. There was a dim figure on the jarvey’s box in a tarbush — apparently asleep. He crossed the gravel with a light and joyous step, hearing it squeak under his shoes, and as he neared the gharry called, in a soft voice: ‘Leila!’ He saw the silhouette of the driver turn against the sky and register attention; from inside the cab he heard a voice — Leila’s voice — say something like: ‘Ah! David, so at last we meet. I have come all this way to tell you….’ He leaned forward with a puzzled air, straining his eyes, but could not see more than the vague shape of someone in the far corner of the cab. ‘Get in’ she cried imperiously. ‘Get in and we shall talk.’ And it was here that a sense of unreality overtook Mount-olive; he could not exactly fathom why. But he felt as one does in dreams when one walks without touching the ground, or else appears to rise deliberately through the air like a cork through water. His feelings, like antennae, were reaching out towards the dark figure, trying to gather and assess the meaning of these tumbling phrases and to analyse the queer sense of disorientation which they carried, buried in them, like a foreign intonation creeping into familiar voices; somewhere the whole context of his impressions foundered. The thing was this: he did not quite recognize the voice. Or else, to put it another way, he could identify Leila but not quite believe in the evidence of his own ears. It was, so to speak, not the precious voice which, in his imagination, had lived on, inhabiting the remembered figure of Leila. She spoke now with a sort of gobbling inconsistency, an air of indiscretion, in a voice which had a slightly clipped edge on it. He supposed this to be the effect of excitement and who knows what other emotions? But … phrases which petered out, only to start again in the middle, phrases which lapsed and subsided in the very act of joining two thoughts? He frowned to himself in the darkness as he tried to analyse this curious unreal quality of distraction in the voice. It was not the voice that belonged to Leila — or was it? Presently, a hand fell upon his arm and he was able to study it eagerly in the puddle of soft light cast by the oil-lamp in the brass holder by the cabby’s box. It was a chubby and unkempt little hand, with short, unpainted fingernails and unpressed cuticles. ‘Leila — is it really you?’ he asked almost involuntarily, still invaded by this sense of unreality, of disorientation; as of two dreams overlapping, displacing one another. ‘Get in’ said the new voice of an invisible Leila. As he obeyed and stepped forward into the swaying cab he smelt her strange confusion of scents on the night air — again a troubling departure from the accepted memory. But orange-water, mint, Eau de Cologne, and sesame; she smelt like some old Arab lady! And then he caught the dull taint of whisky. She too had had to string her nerves for the meeting with alcohol! Sympathy and indecision battled within him; the old image of the brilliant, resourceful and elegant Leila refused somewhere to fix itself in the new. He simply must see her face. As if she read his thoughts, she said: ‘So I came at last, unveiled, to meet you.’ He suddenly thought, bringing himself up with a start, ‘My God! I simply haven’t stopped to think how old Leila might be!’ She made a small sign and the old jarvey in the tarbush drew his nag slowly back on to the lighted macadam of the Grande Corniche and set the gharry moving at walking pace. Here the sharp blue street-lamps came, up one after the other to peer into the cab, and with the first of these intrusive gleams of light Mountolive turned to gaze at the woman beside him. He could very dimly recognize her. He saw a plump and square-faced Egyptian lady of uncertain years, with a severely pock-marked face and eyes drawn grotesquely out of true by the antimony-pencil. They were the mutinous sad eyes of some clumsy cartoon creature: a cartoon of animals dressed up and acting as human beings. She had indeed been brave enough to unveil, this stranger who sat facing him, staring at him with the painted eye one sees in frescoes with a forlorn and pitiable look of appeal. She wore an air of unsteady audacity as she confronted her lover, though her lips trembled and her large jowls shook with every vibration of the solid rubber tyres on the road. They stared at each other for a full two seconds before the darkness swallowed the light again. Then he raised her hand to his lips. It was shaking like a leaf. In the momentary light he had seen her uncombed and straggly hair hanging down the back of her neck, her thoughtless and disordered black dress. Her whole appearance had a rakish and improvised air. And the dark skin, so cruelly botched and cicatriced by the smallpox, looked coarse as the skin of an elephant. He did not recognize her at all! ‘Leila!’ he cried (it was almost a groan) pretending at last to identify and welcome the image of his lover (now dissolved or shattered forever) in this pitiable grotesque — a fattish Egyptian lady with all the marks of eccentricity and age written upon her appearance. Each time the lamps came up he looked again, and each time he saw himself confronting something like an animal cartoon figure — an elephant, say. He could hardly pay attention to her words, so intent was he upon his racing feelings and memories. ‘I knew we should meet again some day. I knew it.’ She pressed his hand, and again he tasted her breath, heavy with sesame and mint and whisky. She was talking now and he listened uneasily, but with all the attention one gives to an unfamiliar language; and each time the street lamps came up to peer at them, he gazed at her anxiously — as if to see whether there had been any sudden and magical change in her appearance. And then he was visited by another thought: ‘What if I too have changed as much as she has — if indeed this is she?’ What indeed? Sometime in the distant past they had exchanged images of one another like lockets; now his own had faded, changed. What might she see upon his face — traces of the feebleness which had overrun his youthful strength and purpose? He had now joined the ranks of those who compromise gracefully with life. Surely his ineffectuality, his unmanliness must be written all over his foolish, weak, good-looking face? He eyed her mournfully, with a pitiful eagerness to see whether she indeed really recognized him. He had forgotten that women will never surrender the image of their hearts’ affections; no, she would remain forever blinded by the old love, refusing to let it be discountenanced by the new. ‘You have not changed by a day’ said this unknown woman with the disagreeable perfume. ‘My beloved, my darling, my angel.’ Mountolive flushed in the darkness at such endearments coming from the lips of an unknown personage. And the known Leila? He suddenly realized that the precious image which had inhabited his heart for so long had now been dissolved, completely wiped out! He was suddenly face to face with the meaning of love and time. They had lost forever the power to fecundate each other’s minds! He felt only self-pity and disgust where he should have felt love! And these feelings were simply not permissible. He swore at himself silently as they went up and down the dark causeway by the winter sea, like invalids taking the night air, their hands touching each other, in the old horse-drawn cab. She was talking faster, now, vaguely, jumping from topic to topic. Yet it all seemed an introduction to the central statement which she had come to make. She was to leave tomorrow evening: ‘Nessim’s orders. Justine will come back from the lake and pick me up. We are disappearing together. At Kantara we’ll separate and I shall go on to Kenya to the farm. Nessim won’t say, can’t say for how long as yet. I had to see you. I had to speak to you once. Not for myself — never for myself, my own heart. It was what I learned about Nessim at the carnival time. I was on the point of coming to meet you; but what he told me about Palestine! My blood ran cold. To do something against the British! How could I! Nessim must have been mad. I didn’t come because I would not have known what to say to you, how to face you. But now you know all.’ She had begun to draw her breath sharply now, to hurry onward as if all this were introductory matter to her main speech. Then suddenly she came out with it. ‘The Egyptians will harm Nessim, and the British are trying to provoke them to do so. David, you must use your power to stop it. I am asking you to save my son. I am asking you to save him. You must listen, must help me. I have never asked you a favour before.’ The tear- and crayon-streaked cheeks made her look even more of a stranger in the street-lights. He began to stammer. She cried aloud: ‘I implore you to help’ and suddenly, to his intense humiliation, began to moan and rock like an Arab, pleading with him. ‘Leila!’ he cried. ‘Stop it!’ But she swayed from side to side repeating the words ‘Only you can save him now’ more, it seemed, to herself, than to anyone else. Then she showed some disposition to go down on her knees in the cab and kiss his feet. By this time Mountolive was trembling with anger and surprise and disgust. They were passing the Auberge for the tenth time. ‘Unless you stop at once’ he cried angrily, but she wailed once more and he jumped awkwardly down into the road. It was hateful to have to end their interview like this. The cab drew to a halt. He said, feeling stupid, and in a voice which seemed to come from far away and to have no recognizable expression save a certain old-fashioned waspishness: ‘I cannot discuss an official matter with a private person.’ Could anything be more absurd than these words? He felt bitterly ashamed as he uttered them. ‘Leila, good-bye’ he said hurriedly under his breath, and squeezed her hand once more before he turned. He took to his heels. He unlocked his car and climbed into it panting and overcome by a sense of ghastly folly. The cab moved off into the darkness. He watched it curve slowly along the Corniche and disappear. Then he lit a cigarette and started his engine. All of a sudden there seemed nowhere in particular to go. Every impulse, every desire had faltered and faded out. After a long pause, he drove slowly and carefully back to the Summer Residence, talking to himself under his breath. The house was in darkness and he let himself in with his key. He walked from room to room switching on all the lights, feeling all of a sudden quite light-headed with loneliness; he could not accuse the servants of desertion since he had already told Ali that he would be dining out. But he walked up and down the drawingroom with his hands in his pockets for a long time. He smelt the damp unhealed rooms around him; the blank reproachful face of the clock told him that it was only just after nine. Abruptly, he went over to the cocktail cabinet and poured himself a very strong whisky and soda which he drank in one movement — gasping as if it were a dose of fruit salts. His mind was humming now like a high-tension wire. He supposed that he would have to go out and have some dinner by himself. But where? Suddenly the whole of Alexandria, the whole of Egypt, had become distasteful, burdensome, wearisome to his spirit. He drank several more whiskies, enjoying the warmth they brought to his blood — so unused was he to spirits which usually he drank very sparingly. Leila had suddenly left him face to face with a reality which, he supposed, had always lain lurking behind the dusty tapestry of his romantic notions. In a sense, she had been Egypt, his own private Egypt of the mind; and now this old image had been husked, stripped bare. ‘It would be intemperate to drink any more’ he told himself as he drained his glass. Yes, that was it! He had never been intemperate, never been natural, outward-going in his attitude to life. He had always hidden behind measure and compromise; and this defection had somehow lost him the picture of the Egypt which had nourished him for so long. Was it, then, all a lie? He felt as if somewhere inside himself a dam were threatened, a barrier was on the point of giving way. It was with some idea of restoring this lost contact with the life of this embodied land that he hit upon the idea of doing something he had never done since his youth: he would go out and dine in the Arab quarter, humbly and simply, like a small clerk in the city, like a tradesman, a merchant. Somewhere in a small native restaurant he would eat a pigeon and some rice and a plate of sweetmeats; the food would sober and steady him while the surroundings would restore in him the sense of contact with reality. He could not remember ever having felt so tipsy and leaden-footed before. His thoughts were awash with inarticulate self-reproaches. Still with this incoherent, half-rationalized desire in mind he suddenly went out to the hall cupboard to unearth the red felt tarbush which someone had left behind after a cocktail party last summer. He had suddenly remembered it. It lay among a litter of golf-clubs and tennis racquets. He put it on with a chuckle. It transformed his appearance completely. Looking at himself unsteadily in the hall mirror, he was quite surprised by the transformation : he was confronting not a distinguished foreign visitor to Egypt now, but — un homme quelconque: a Syrian business-man, a broker from Suez, an airline representative from Tel Aviv. Only one thing was necessary to lay claim to the Middle East properly — dark glasses, worn indoors, in winter! There was a pair of them in the top drawer of the writing desk. He drove the car slowly down to the little square by Ramleh Station, quite absurdly pleased by his fancy dress, and eased it neatly into the car park by the Cecil Hotel; then he locked it and walked quietly off with the air of someone abandoning a lifetime’s habit — walked with a new and quite delightful feeling of self-possession towards the Arab quarters of the town where he might find the dinner he sought. As he skirted the Corniche he had one moment of unpleasant fear and doubt — for he saw a familiar figure cross the road further down and walk towards him along the sea-wall. It was impossible to mistake Balthazar’s characteristic prowling walk; Mountolive was overcome with a sheepish sense of shame, but he held his course. To his delight, Balthazar glanced once at him and looked away without recognizing his friend. They passed each other in a flash, and Mountolive expelled his breath loudly with relief; it was really odd the anonymity conferred by this ubiquitous red flower-pot of a hat, which so much altered the outlines of the human face. And the dark glasses! He chuckled quietly as he turned away from the sea-front, choosing the tangle of little lanes which might lead him towards the Arab bazaars and the eating houses round the commercial port. Hereabouts it would be a hundred to one that he would ever be recognized — for few Europeans ever came into this part of the city. The quarter lying beyond the red lantern belt, populated by the small traders, money-lenders, coffee-speculators, ships’ chandlers, smugglers; here in the open street one had the illusion of time spread out flat — so to speak — like the skin of an ox; the map of time which one could read from one end to the other, filling it in with known points of reference. This world of Moslem time stretched back to Othello and beyond — cafés sweet with trilling of singing birds whose cages were full of mirrors to give them the illusion of company. The love-songs of birds to companions they imagined — which were only reflections of themselves! How heartbreakingly they sang, these illustrations of human love! Here too in the ghastly breath of the naphtha flares the old eunuchs sat at trictrac, smoking the long narguilehs which at every drawn breath loosed a musical bubble of sound like a dove’s sob; the walls of the old cafés were stained by the sweat from the tarbushes hanging on the pegs; their collections of coloured narguilehs were laid up in rows in a long rack, like muskets, for which each tobacco-drinker brought his cherished personal holder. Here too the diviners, cartomancers — or those who would deftly fill your palm with ink and for half a piastre scry the secrets of your inmost life. Here the pedlars carried magic loads of variegated and dissimilar objects of vertu from the thistle-soft carpets of Shiraz and Baluchistan to the playing cards of the Marseilles Tarot; incense of the Hejaz, green beads against the evil eye, combs, seeds, mirrors for birdcages, spices, amulets and paper fans … the list was endless; and each, of course, carried in his private wallet — like a medieval pardoner — the fruit of the world’s great pornographies in the form of handkerchiefs and post-cards on which were depicted, in every one of its pitiful variations, the one act we human beings most dream of and fear. Mysterious, underground, the ever-flowing river of sex, trickling easily through the feeble dams set up by our fretful legislation and the typical self-reproaches of the unpleasure-loving … the broad underground river flowing from Petronius to Frank Harris. (The drift and overlap of ideas in Mountolive’s fuddled mind, rising and disappearing in pretty half-formulated figures, iridescent as soap-bubbles.) He was perfectly at his ease, now; he had come to terms with his unfamiliar state of befuddlement and no longer felt that he was drunk; it was simply that he had become inflated now by a sense of tremendous dignity and self-importance which gave him a grandiose deliberation of movement. He walked slowly, like a pregnant woman nearing term, drinking in the sights and sounds. At long last he entered a small shop which took his fancy because of its flaring ovens from which great draughts of smoke settled in parcels about the room; the smell of thyme, roasting pigeon and rice gave him a sudden stab of hunger. There were only one or two other diners, hardly to be seen through the clouds of smoke. Mountolive sat down with the air of someone making a grudging concession to the law of gravity and ordered a meal in his excellent Arabic, though he still kept his dark glasses and tarbush on. It was clear now that he could pass easily for a Moslem. The café owner was a great bald Tartar-faced Turk who served his visitor at once and without comment. He also set up a tumbler beside Mountolive’s plate and without uttering a word filled it to the brim with the colourless arak made from the mastic-tree which is called mastika. Mountolive choked and spluttered a bit over it, but he was highly delighted — for it was the first drink of the Levant he had ever tasted and he had forgotten its existence for years now. Forgetting also how strong it was, and overcome with nostalgia, he ordered himself a second glass to help him finish the excellent hot pilaff and the pigeon (so hot from the spit that he could hardly bear to pick it up with his fingers). But he was in the seventh heaven of delight now. He was on the way to recovering, to restoring the blurred image of an Egypt which the meeting with Leila had damaged or somehow stolen from him. The street outside was full of the shivering of tambourines and the voices of children raised in a chanting sort of litany; they were going about the shops in groups, repeating the same little verse over and over again. After three repetitions he managed to disentangle the words. Of course! Lord of the shaken tree Of Man’s extremity Keep thou our small leaves firm On branches free from harm For we thy little children be! ‘Well I’m damned’ he said, swallowing a fiery mouthful of arak and smiling as the meaning of the little processions became clear. There was a venerable old sheik sitting opposite by the window and smoking a long-shanked narguileh. He waved towards the din with his graceful old hand and cried: ‘Allah! The noise of the children!’ Mountolive smiled back at him and said: ‘Inform me if I err, sir, but it is for El Sird they cry, is it not?’ The old man’s face lit up and he nodded, smiling his saintly smile. ‘You have guessed it truly, sir.’ Mountolive was pleased with himself and filled ever more deeply with nostalgia for those half-forgotten years. ‘Tonight then’ he said ‘it must be mid-Shaaban and the Tree of Extremity is to be shaken. Is that not so?’ Once more a delighted nod. ‘Who knows’ said the old sheik ‘but that both our names may be written on the falling leaves?’ He puffed softly and contentedly, like a toy train. ‘Allah’s will be done.’ The belief is that on the eve of mid-Shaaban the Lote Tree of Paradise is shaken, and the falling leaves of the tree bear the names of all who will die in the coming year. This is called the Tree of Extremity in some texts. Mountolive was so pleased by the identification of the little song that he called for a final glass of arak which he drank standing up as he paid his reckoning. The old sheik abandoned his pipe and came slowly towards him through the smoke. He said: ‘Effendi mine, I understand your purpose here. What you seek will be revealed to you by me.’ He placed two brown fingers on Mountolive’s wrist, speaking modestly and softly, as one who had secrets to impart. His face had all the candour and purity of some desert saint. Mountolive was delighted by him. ‘Honoured sheik’ he said ‘divulge your sense, then, to an unworthy Syrian visitor.’ The old man bowed twice, looked circumspectly round the place, and then said: ‘Be good enough to follow me, honoured sir.’ He kept his two fingers on Mountolive’s wrist as a blind man might. They stepped into the street together; Mountolive’s romantic heart was beating wildly — was he now to be vouchsafed some mystical vision of religious truth? He had so often heard stories of the bazaars and the religious men who lurked there, waiting to fulfil secret missions on behalf of that unseen world, the numinous, carefully guarded world of the hermetic doctors. They walked in a soft cloud of unknowing with the silent sheik swaying and recovering himself at every few paces and smiling a maudlin smile of beatitude. They passed together at this slow pace through the dark streets — now turned by the night to long shadowy tunnels or shapeless caverns, still dimly echoing to muffled bagpipe music or skirmishing voices muted by thick walls and barred windows. Mountolive’s heightened sense of wonder responded to the beauty and mystery of this luminous township of shadows carved here and there into recognizable features by a single naphtha lamp or an electric bulb hanging from a frail stalk, rocking in the wind. They turned at last down a long street spanned with coloured banners and thence into a courtyard which was completely dark where the earth smelt vaguely of the stale of camels and jasmine. A house loomed up, set within thick walls; one caught a glimpse of its silhouette on the sky. They entered a sort of rambling barrack of a place passing through a tall door which was standing ajar, and plunged into a darkness still more absolute. Stood breathing for half a second in silence. Mountolive felt rather than saw the worm-eaten staircases which climbed the walls to the abandoned upper floors, heard the chirrup and scramble of the rats in the deserted galleries, together with something else — a sound vaguely reminiscent of human beings, but in what context he could not quite remember. They shuffled slowly down a long corridor upon woodwork so rotten that it rocked and swayed under their feet, and here, in a doorway of some sort, the old sheik said kindly: ‘That our simple satisfactions should not be less than those of your homeland, effendi mine, I have brought you here.’ He added in a whisper, ‘Attend me here a moment, if you will.’ Mountolive felt the fingers leave his wrist and the breath of the door closing at his shoulder. He stayed in composed and trustful silence for a moment or two. Then all at once the darkness was so complete that the light, when it did come, gave him the momentary illusion of something taking place very far away, in the sky. As if someone had opened and closed a furnace-door in Heaven. It was only the spark of a match. But in the soft yellow flap he saw that he was standing in a gaunt high chamber with shattered and defaced walls covered in graffiti and the imprint of dark palms — signs which guard the superstitious against the evil eye. It was empty save for an enormous broken sofa which lay in the centre of the floor, like a sarcophagus. A single window with all the panes of glass broken was slowly printing the bluer darkness of the starry sky upon his sight. He stared at the flapping, foundering light, and again heard the rats chirping and the other curious susurrus composed of whispers and chuckles and the movement of bare feet on boards. … Suddenly he thought of a girls’ dormitory at a school: and as if invented by the very thought itself, through the open door at the end of the room trooped a crowd of small figures dressed in white soiled robes, like defeated angels. He had stumbled into a house of child prostitutes, he realized with a sudden spasm of disgust and pity. Their little faces were heavily painted, their hair scragged in ribbons and plaits. They wore green beads against the evil eye. Such little creatures as one has seen incised on Greek vases — floating out of tombs and charnel houses with the sad air of malefactors fleeing from justice. It was the foremost of the group who carried the light — a twist of string burning in a saucer of olive oil. She stooped to place this feeble will-o-the-wisp on the floor in the corner and at once the long spiky shadows of these children sprawled on the ceiling like an army of frustrated wills. ‘No, by Allah’ said Mountolive hoarsely, and turned to grope at the closed door. There was a wooden latch with no means of opening it on his side. He put his face to a hole in the panel and called softly ‘O sheik, where are you?’ The little figures had advanced and surrounded him now, murmuring the pitiable obscenities and endearments of their trade in the voices of heartbroken angels; he felt their warm nimble fingers on his shoulders, picking at the sleeves of his coat. ‘O sheik’ he called again, shrinking up, ‘it was not for this.’ But there was a silence beyond the door. He felt the children’s sharp arms twining round his waist like lianas in a tropical jungle, their sharp little fingers prying for the buttons of his coat. He shook them off and turned his pale face to them, making a half-articulate sound of protest. And now someone inadvertently kicked over the saucer with its floating wick and in the darkness he felt the tension of anxiety sweep through them like a fire through brushwood. His protests had made them fear the loss of a lucrative client. Anxiety, anger and a certain note of terror were in their voices now as they spoke to him, wheedling and half-threatening; heaven only knew what punishments might attend them if he escaped! They began to struggle, to attack him; he felt the concussion of their starved little bodies as they piled round him, panting and breathless with importunity, but determined that he should not retreat. Fingers roved over him like ants — indeed, he had a sudden memory, buried from somewhere back in his remembered reading, of a man staked down upon the burning sand over a nest of white ants which would soon pick the flesh from his very bones. ‘No’ he cried incoherently again; some absurd inhibition prevented him from striking out, distributing a series of brutal cuffs which alone might have freed him. (The smallest were so very small.) They had his arms now, and were climbing on his back — absurd memories intruded of pillow fights in a dark dormitory at school. He banged wildly on the door with his elbow, and they redoubled their entreaties in whining voices. Their breath was as hot as wood-smoke. ‘O Effendi, patron of the poor, remedy for our affliction….’ Mountolive groaned and struggled, but felt himself gradually being borne to the ground; gradually felt his befuddled knees giving way under this assault which had gathered a triumphant fury now. ‘No!’ he cried in an anguished voice, and a chorus of voices answered ‘Yes. Yes, by Allah!’ They smelt like a herd of goats as they swarmed upon him. The giggles, the obscene whispers, the cajoleries and curses mounted up to his brain. He felt as if he were going to faint. Then suddenly everything cleared — as if a curtain had been drawn aside — to reveal him sitting beside his mother in front of a roaring fire with a picture-book open on his knee. She was reading aloud and he was trying to follow the words as she pronounced them; but his attention was always drawn away to the large colour-plate which depicted Gulliver when he had fallen into the hands of the little people of Lilliput. It was fascinating in its careful detail. The heavy-limbed hero lay where he had fallen, secured by a veritable cobweb of guy-ropes which had been wound around him pinioning him to the ground while the ant-people roved all over his huge body securing and pegging more and more guy-ropes against which every struggle of the colossus would be in vain. There was a malign scientific accuracy about it all: wrists, ankles and neck pinioned against movement; tent-pegs driven between the fingers of his huge hand to hold each individual finger down. His pigtails were neatly coiled about tiny spars which had been driven into the ground beside him. Even the tails of his surtout were skilfully pinned to the ground through the folds. He lay there staring into the sky with expressionless wonder, his blue eyes wide open, his lips pursed. The army of Lilliputians wandered all over him with wheelbarrows and pegs and more rope; their attitudes suggested a feverish ant-like frenzy of capture. And all the time Gulliver lay there on the green grass of Lilliput, in a valley full of microscopic flowers, like a captive balloon…. He found himself (though he had no idea how he had finally escaped) leaning upon the icy stone embankment of the Corniche with the dawn sea beneath him, rolling its slow swell up the stone piers, gushing softly into the conduits. He could remember only running in dazed fashion down twisted streets in darkness and stumbling across the road and on to the seafront. A pale rinsed dawn was breaking across the long sea-swell and a light sea-wind brought him the smell of tar and the sticky dampness of salt. He felt like some merchant sailor cast up helpless in a foreign port at the other end of the world. His pockets had been turned inside out like sleeves. He was clad in a torn shirt and trousers. His expensive studs and cuff-links and tie-pin had gone, his wallet had vanished. He felt deathly sick. But as he gradually came to his senses he realized where he was from the glimpse of the Goharri Mosque as it stood up to take the light of dawn among its clumps of palms. Soon the blind muezzin would be coming out like ancient tortoises to recite the dawn-praise of the only living God. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile to where he had left the car. Denuded now of his tarbush and dark glasses, he felt as if he had been stripped naked. He started off at a painful trot along the stony embankments, glad that there was nobody about to recognize him. The deserted square outside the Hotel was just waking to life with the first tram. It clicked away towards Mazarita, empty. The keys to his car had also disappeared and he now had the ignominious task of breaking the door-catch with a spanner which he took from the boot — terrified all the time that a policeman might come and question or perhaps even arrest him on suspicion. He was seething with self-contempt and disgust and he had a splitting headache. At last he broke the door and drove off wildly — fortunately, the chauffeur’s keys were in the car — in the direction of Rushdi through the deserted streets. His latchkey too had disappeared in the melee and he was forced to burst open one of the window-catches in the drawing-room in order to get into the house. He thought at first that he would spend the morning asleep in bed after he had bathed and changed his clothes, but standing under the hot shower he realized that he was too troubled in mind; his thoughts buzzed like a swarm of bees and would not let him rest. He decided suddenly that he would leave the house and return to Cairo before even the servants were up. He felt that he could not face them. He changed his clothes furtively, gathered his belongings together, and set off across the town towards the desert road, leaving the city hurriedly like a common thief. He had come to a decision in his own mind. He would ask for a posting to some other country. He would waste no more time upon this Egypt of deceptions and squalor, this betraying landscape which turned emotions and memories to dust, which beggared friendship and destroyed love. He did not even think of Leila now; tonight she would be gone across the border. But already it was as if she had never existed. There was plenty of petrol in the tank for the ride back. As he turned through the last curves of the road outside the town he looked back once, with a shudder of disgust at the pearly mirage of minarets rising from the smoke of the lake, the dawn mist. A train pealed somewhere, far away. He turned on the radio of the car at full blast to drown his thoughts as he sped along the silver desert highway to the winter capital. From every side, like startled hares, his thoughts broke out to run alongside the whirling car in a frenzy of terror. He had, he realized, reached a new frontier in himself; life was going to be something completely different from now on. He had been in some sort of bondage all this time; now the links had snapped. He heard the soft hushing of strings and the familiar voice of the city breaking in upon him once again with its perverted languors, its ancient wisdoms and terrors. Jamais de la vie, Jamais dans ton lit Quand ton coeur se démange de chagrin…. With an oath he snapped the radio shut, choked the voice, and drove frowning into the sunlight as it ebbed along the shadowy flanks of the dunes. He made very good time and drew up before the Embassy to find Errol and Donkin loading the latter’s old touring car with all the impedimenta of professional hunters — gun-cases and cartridge bags, binoculars and thermos flasks. He walked slowly and shamefacedly towards them. They both greeted him cheerfully. They were due to start for Alexandria at midday. Donkin was excited and blithe. The newspapers that morning had carried reports that the King had made a good recovery and that audiences were to be granted at the week-end. ‘Now, sir’ said Donkin, ‘is Nur’s chance to make Memlik act. You’ll see.’ Mountolive nodded dully; the news fell flatly on his ear, toneless and colourless and without presage. He no longer cared what was going to happen. His decision to ask for a transfer of post seemed to have absolved him in a curious way from any further personal responsibility as regards his own feelings. He walked moodily into the Residence and ordered his breakfast tray to be brought into the drawing-room. He felt irritable and abstracted. He rang for his despatch box to see what personal mail there might be. There was nothing of great interest: a long chatty letter from Sir Louis who was happily sunning himself in Nice; it was full of amusing and convivial gossip about mutual friends. And of course the inevitable anecdote of a famous raconteur to round off the letter: ‘I hope, dear boy, that the uniform still fits you. I thought of you last week when I met Claudel, the French poet who was also an Ambassador, for he told me an engaging anecdote about his uniform. It was while he was serving in Japan. Out for a walk one day, he turned round to see that the whole residence was a sheet of flame and blazing merrily; his family was with him so he did not need to fear for their safety. But his manuscripts, his priceless collection of books and letters — they were all in the burning house. He hurried back in a state of great alarm. It was clear that the house would be burned to the ground. As he reached the garden he saw a small stately figure walking towards him — the Japanese butler. He walked slowly and circumspectly towards the Ambassador with his arms held out before him like a sleepwalker; over them was laid the dress uniform of the poet. The butler said proudly and sedately: “There is no cause for alarm, sir. I have saved the only valuable object.” And the half-finished play, and the poems lying upstairs on the burning desk? I suddenly thought of you, I don’t know why.’ He read on sighing and smiling sadly and enviously; what would he not give to be retired in Nice at this moment? There was a letter from his mother, a few bills from his London tradesmen, a note from his broker, and a short letter from Pursewarden’s sister…. Nothing of any real importance. There was a knock and Donkin appeared. He looked somewhat crestfallen. ‘The M.F.A.’ he said ‘have been on the line with a message from Nur’s office to say that he will be seeing the King at the weekend. But … Gabr hinted that our case is not supported by Memlik’s own investigations.’ ‘What does he mean by that?’ ‘He says, in effect, that we have got the wrong Hosnani. The real culprit is a brother of his who lives on a farm somewhere outside Alexandria.’ ‘Narouz’ said Mountolive with astonishment and incredulity. ‘Yes. Well apparently he ——’ They both burst out laughing with exasperation. ‘Honestly’ said Mountolive, banging his fist into his palm, ‘the Egyptians really are incredible. Now how on earth have they arrived at such a conclusion? One is simply baffled.’ ‘Nevertheless, that is Memlik’s case. I thought you’d like to know, sir. Errol and I are just off to Alex. There isn’t anything else, is there?’ Mountolive shook his head. Donkin closed the door softly behind him. ‘So now they are going to turn on Narouz. What a muddle of conflicting policies and diversions.’ He sank despairingly into a chair and frowned at his own fingers for a long moment before pouring himself out another cup of tea. He felt incapable now of thought, of making the smallest decision. He would write to Kenilworth and the Foreign Secretary this very morning about his transfer. It was something he should have considered long since. He sighed heavily. There came another and more diffident rap at the door. ‘Come in’ he called wearily. It opened and a dispirited-looking sausage-dog waddled into the room followed by Angela Errol who said, in a tone of strident heartiness not untouched by a sort of aggressive archness, ‘Forgive the intrusion, but I came on behalf of the Chancery wives. We thought you seemed rather lonely so we decided to put our heads together. Fluke is the result.’ Dog and man looked at each other in a dazed and distrustful silence for a moment. Mountolive struggled for words. He had always loathed sausage-dogs with legs so short that they appeared to flop along like toads rather than walk. Fluke was such an animal, already panting and slavering from its exertions. It sat down at last and, as if to express once and for all its disenchantment with the whole sum of canine existence, delivered itself of a retromingent puddle on the beautiful Shiraz. ‘Isn’t he jolly?’ cried the wife of the Head of Chancery. It cost Mountolive something of an effort to smile, to appear to be overcome with pleasure, to express the appropriate thanks due to a gesture so thoughtful. He was wild with vexation. ‘He looks charming’ he said, smiling his handsome smile, ‘really charming. I am most awfully grateful, Angela. It was a kind thought.’ The dog yawned lazily. ‘Then I shall tell the wives that the gift has met with approval’ she said briskly, and moved towards the door. ‘They will be delighted. There is no companionship like that of a dog, is there?’ Mountolive shook his head seriously. ‘None’ he said. He tried to look as if he meant it. As the door closed behind her he sat down once more and raised his cup of tea to his lips as he stared unwinkingly and with distaste into the dog’s lustreless eyes. The clock chimed softly on the mantelpiece. It was time to be going to the office. There was much to be done. He had promised to finish the definitive economic report in time for this week’s bag. He must bully the bag room about that portrait of himself. He must…. Yet he sat on looking at the dispirited little creature on the mat and feeling suddenly as if he had been engulfed in a tidal wave of human contumely — so expressed by his admirers in this unwanted gift. He was to be garde-malade, a male nurse to a short-legged lap dog. Was this now the only way left of exorcizing his sadness…? He sighed, and sighing pressed the bell… How long, how long must I be hereIn the early summer I received a long letter from Clea with which this brief introductory memorial to Alexandria may well be brought to a close. ‘You may perhaps be interested in my account of a brief meeting with Justine a few weeks ago. We had, as you know, been exchanging occasional cards from our respective countries for some time past, and hearing that I was due to pass through Palestine into Syria she herself suggested a brief meeting. She would come, she said, to the border station where the Haifa train waits for half an hour. The settlement in which she works is somewhere near at hand, she could get a lift. We might talk for a while on the platform. To this I agreed. ‘At first I had some difficulty in recognizing her. She has gone a good deal fatter in the face and has chopped off her hair carelessly at the back so that it sticks out in rats’ tails. I gather that for the most part she wears it done up in a cloth. No trace remains of the old elegance or chic. Her features seem to have broadened, become more classically Jewish, lip and nose inclining more towards each other. I was shocked at first by the glittering eyes and the quick incisive way of breathing and talking — as if she were feverish As you can imagine we were both mortally shy of each other. ‘We walked out of the station along the road and sat down on the edge of a dry ravine, a wadi, with a few terrified-looking spring flowers about our feet. She gave the impression of already having chosen this place for our interview: perhaps as suitably austere. I don’t know. She did not mention Nessim or you at first but spoke only about her new life. She had achieved, she claimed, a new and perfect happiness through “community-service”; the air with which she said this suggested some sort of religious conversion. Do not smile. It is hard, I know, to be patient with the weak. In all the back-breaking sweat of the Communist settlement she claimed to have achieved a “new humility”. (Humility! The last trap that awaits the ego in search of absolute truth. I felt disgusted but said nothing.) She described the work of the settlement coarsely, unimaginatively, as a peasant might. I noticed that those once finely-tended hands were calloused and rough. I suppose people have a right to dispose of their bodies as they think fit, I said to myself, feeling ashamed because I must be radiating cleanliness and leisure, good food and baths. By the way, she is not a Marxist as yet — simply a work-mystic after the manner of Panayotis at Abousir. Watching her now and remembering the touching and tormenting person she had once been for us all I found it hard to comprehend the change into this tubby little peasant with the hard paws. ‘I suppose events are simply a sort of annotation of our feelings — the one might be deduced from the other. Time carries us (boldly imagining that we are discrete egos modelling our own personal futures) — time carries us forward by the momentum of those feelings inside us of which we ourselves are least conscious. Too abstract for you? Then I have expressed the idea badly. I mean, in Justine’s case, having become cured of the mental aberrations brought about by her dreams, her fears, she has been deflated like a bag. For so long the fantasy occupied the foreground of her life that now she is dispossessed of her entire stock-in-trade. It is not only that the death of Capodistria has removed the chief actor in this shadow-play, her chief gaoler. The illness itself had kept her on the move, and when it died it left in its place total exhaustion. She has, so to speak, extinguished with, her sexuality her very claims on life, almost her reason. People driven like this to the very boundaries of freewill are forced to turn somewhere for help, to make absolute decisions. If she had not been an Alexandrian (i.e. sceptic) this would have taken the form of religious conversion. How is one to say these things? It is not a question of growing to be happy or unhappy. A whole block of one’s life suddenly falls into the sea, as perhaps yours did with Melissa. But (this is how it works in life, the retributive law which brings good for evil and evil for good) her own release also released Nessim from the inhibitions governing his passional life. I think he always felt that so long as Justine lived he would never be able to endure the slightest human relationship with anyone else. Melissa proved him wrong, or at least so he thought; but with Justine’s departure the old heartsickness cropped up and he was filled with overwhelming disgust for what he had done to her — to Melissa. ‘Lovers are never equally matched — do you think? One always overshadows the other and stunts his or her growth so that the overshadowed one must always be tormented by a desire to escape, to be free to grow. Surely this is the only tragic thing about love? ‘So that if from another point of view Nessim did plan Capodistria’s death (as has been widely rumoured and believed) he could not have chosen a more calamitous path. It would indeed have been wiser to kill you. Perhaps he hoped in releasing Justine from the succubus (as Arnauti before him) he would free her for himself. (He said so once — you told me.) But quite the opposite has happened. He has granted her a sort of absolution, or poor Capodistria unwittingly did — with the result that she thinks of him now not as a lover but as a sort of arch-priest. She speaks of him with a reverence which would horrify him to hear. She will never go back, how could she? And if she did he would know at once that he had lost her forever — for those who stand in a confessional relationship to ourselves can never love us, never truly love us. ‘(Of you Justine said simply, with a slight shrug: “I had to put him out of my mind”.) ‘Well, these are some of the thoughts that passed through my mind as the train carried me down through the orange groves to the coast; they were thrown into sharp relief by the book I had chosen to read on the journey, the penultimate volume of God is a Humorist. How greatly Pursewarden has gained in stature since his death! It was before as if he stood between his own books and our understanding of them. I see now that what we found enigmatic about the man was due to a fault in ourselves. An artist does not live a personal life as we do, he hides it, forcing us to go to his books if we wish to touch the true source of his feelings. Underneath all his preoccupations with sex, society, religion, etc. (all the staple abstractions which allow the forebrain to chatter) there is, quite simply, a man tortured beyond endurance by the lack of tenderness in the world. ‘And all this brings me back to myself, for I too have been changing in some curious way. The old self-sufficient life has transformed itself into something a little hollow, a little empty. It no longer answers my deepest needs. Somewhere deep inside a tide seems to have turned in my nature. I do not know why but it is towards you, my dear friend, that my thoughts have turned more and more of late. Can one be frank? Is there a friendship possible this side of love which could be sought and found? I speak no more of love — the word and its conventions have become odious to me. But is there a friendship possible to attain which is deeper, even limitlessly deep, and yet wordless, idealess? It seems somehow necessary to find a human being to whom one can be faithful, not in the body (I leave that to the priests) but in the culprit mind? But perhaps this is not the sort of problem which will interest you much these days. Once or twice I have felt the absurd desire to come to you and offer my services in looking after the child perhaps. But it seems clear now that you do not really need anybody any more, and that you value your solitude above all things….’ There are a few more lines and then the affectionate superscription.MY FATHER***** At this time he had already begun to experience that great cycle of historical dreams which now replaced the dreams of his childhood in his mind, and into which the City now threw itself — as if at last it had found a responsive subject through which to express the collective desires, the collective wishes, which informed its culture. He would wake to see the towers and minarets printed on the exhausted, dust-powdered sky, and see as if en montage on them the giant footprints of the historical memory which lies behind the recollections of individual personality, its mentor and guide: indeed its inventor, since man is only an extension of the spirit of place. These disturbed him for they were not at all the dreams of the night-hours. They overlapped reality and interrupted his waking mind as if the membrane of his consciousness had been suddenly torn in places to admit them. Side by side with these giant constructions — Palladian galleries of images drawn from his reading and meditation on his own past and the city’s — there came sharper and sharper attacks of unreasoning hatred against the very Justine he had so seldom known, the comforting friend and devoted lover. They were of brief duration but of such fierceness that, rightly regarding them as the obverse of the love he felt for her, he began to fear not for her safety but for his own. He became afraid of shaving in the sterile white bathroom every morning. Often the little barber noticed tears in the eyes of his subject as he noiselessly spread the white apron over him. But while the gallery of historical dreams held the foreground of his mind the figures of his friends and acquaintances, palpable and real, walked backwards and forwards among them, among the ruins of classical Alexandria, inhabiting an amazing historical space-time as living personages. Laboriously, like an actuary’s clerk he recorded all he saw and felt in his diaries, ordering the impassive Selim to type them out. He saw the Mouseion, for example, with its sulky, heavily-subsidized artists working to a mental fashion-plate of its founders: and later among the solitaries and wise men the philosopher), patiently wishing the world into a special private state useless to anyone but himself — for at each stage of development each man resumes the whole universe and makes it suitable to his own inner nature: while each thinker, each thought fecundates the whole universe anew. The inscriptions on the marbles of the Museum murmured to him as he passed like moving lips. Balthazar and Justine were there waiting for him. He had come to meet them, dazzled by the moonlight and drenching shadow of the colonnades. He could hear their voices in the darkness and thought, as he gave the low whistle which Justine would always recognize as his: ‘It is mentally vulgar to spend one’s time being so certain of first principles as Balthazar is.’ He heard the elder man saying: ‘And morality is nothing if it is merely a form of good behaviour.’ He walked slowly down through the arches towards them. The marble stones were barred with moonlight and shadow like a zebra. They were sitting on a marble sarcophagus-lid while somewhere in the remorseless darkness of the outer court someone was walking up and down on the springy turf lazily whistling a phrase from an aria of Donizetti. The gold cigales at Justine’s ears transformed her at once into a projection from one of his dreams and indeed he saw them both dressed vaguely in robes carved heavily of moonlight. Balthazar in a voice tortured by the paradox which lies at the heart of all religion was saying: ‘Of course in one sense even to preach the gospel is evil. This is one of the absurdities of human logic. At least it is not the gospel but the preaching which involves us with the powers of darkness. That is why the Cabal is so good for us; it posits nothing beyond a science of Right Attention.’ They had made room for him on their marble perch but here again, before he could reach them the fulcrum of his vision was disturbed and other scenes gravely intervened, disregarding congruence and period, disregarding historic time and common probability. He saw so clearly the shrine the infantry built to Aphrodite of the Pigeons on that desolate alluvial coast. They were hungry. The march had driven them all to extremities, sharpening the vision of death which inhabits the soldier’s soul until it shone before them with an unbearable exactness and magnificence. Baggage-animals dying for lack of fodder and men for lack of water. They dared not pause at the poisoned spring and wells. The wild asses, loitering so exasperatingly just out of bowshot, maddened them with the promise of meat they would never secure as the column evolved across the sparse vegetation of that thorny coast. They were supposed to be marching upon the city despite the omens. The infantry marched in undress though they knew it to be madness. Their weapons followed them in carts which were always lagging. The column left behind it the sour smell of unwashed bodies — sweat and the stale of oxen: Macedonian slingers-of-theline farting like goats. Their enemies were of a breath-taking elegance — cavalry in white armour which formed and dissolved across the route of their march like clouds. At close range one saw they were men in purple cloaks, embroidered tunics and narrow silk trousers. They wore gold chains round their intricate dark necks and bracelets on their javelin-arms. They were as desirable as a flock of women. Their voices were high and fresh. What a contrast they offered to the slingers, case-hardened veterans of the line, conscious only of winters which froze their sandals to their feet or summers whose sweat dried the leather underfoot until it became as hard as dry marble. A gold bounty and not passion had entrained them in this adventure which they bore with the stoicism of all wage-earners. Life had become a sexless strap sinking deeper and ever deeper into the flesh. The sun had parched and cured them and the dust had rendered them voiceless. The brave plumed helmets with which they had been issued were too hot to wear at midday. Africa, which they had somehow visualized as an extension of Europe — an extension of terms, of references to a definitive past — had already asserted itself as something different: a forbidding darkness where the croaking ravens matched the dry exclamations of spiritless men, and rationed laughter fashioned from breath simply the chittering of baboons. Sometimes they captured someone — a solitary frightened man out hunting hares — and were amazed to see that he was human like themselves. They stripped his rags and stared at human genitals with an elaborate uncomprehending interest. Sometimes they despoiled a township or a rich man’s estate in the foothills, to dine on pickled dolphin in jars (drunken soldiers feasting in a barn among the oxen, unsteadily wearing garlands of wild nettles and drinking from captured cups of gold or horn). All this was before they even reached the desert…. Where the paths had crossed they had sacrificed to Heracles (and in the same breath murdered the two guides, just to be on the safe side); but from that moment everything had begun to go wrong. Secretly they knew they would never reach the city and invest it. And God! Never let that winter bivouac in the hills be repeated. The fingers and noses lost by frostbite! The raids! In his memory’s memory he could still hear the squeaking munching noise of the sentry’s footsteps all winter in the snow. In this territory the enemy wore fox-skins on their heads in a ravenous peak and long hide tunics which covered their legs. They were silent, belonging uniquely as the vegetation did to these sharp ravines and breath-stopping paths of the great watershed. With a column on the march memory becomes an industry, manufacturing dreams which common ills unite in a community of ideas based on privation. He knew that the quiet man there was thinking of the rose found in her bed on the day of the Games. Another could not forget the man with the torn ear. The wry scholar pressed into service felt as dulled by battle as a chamberpot at a symposium. And the very fat man who retained the curious personal odour of a baby: the joker, whose sallies kept the vanguard in a roar? He was thinking of a new depilatory from Egypt, of a bed trade-marked Heracles for softness, of white doves with clipped wings fluttering round a banqueting table. All his life he had been greeted at the brothel door by shouts of laughter and a hail of slippers. There were others who dreamed of less common pleasures — hair dusty with white lead, or else schoolboys in naked ranks marching two abreast at dawn to the school of the Harpmaster, through falling snow as thick as meal. At vulgar country Dionysia they carried amid roars the giant leather phallus, but once initiated took the proffered salt and the phallus in trembling silence. Their dreams proliferated in him, and hearing them he opened memory to his consciousness royally, prodigally, as one might open a major artery. It was strange to move to Justine’s side in that brindled autumn moonlight across such an unwholesome tide of memories: he felt his physical body displacing them by its sheer weight and density. Balthazar had moved to give him room and he was continuing to talk to his wife in low tones. (They drank the wine solemnly and sprinkled the lees on their garments. The generals had just told them they would never get through, never find the city.) And he remembered so vividly how Justine, after making love, would sit cross-legged on the bed and begin to lay out the little pack of Tarot cards which were always kept on the shelf among the books — as if to compute the degree of good fortune left them after this latest plunge into the icy underground river of passion which she could neither subdue nor slake. (‘Minds dismembered by their sexual part’ Balthazar had said once ‘never find peace until old age and failing powers persuade them that silence and quietness are not hostile.’) Was all the discordance of their lives a measure of the anxiety which they had inherited from the city or the age? ‘Oh my God’ he almost said. ‘Why don’t we leave this city, Justine, and seek an atmosphere less impregnated with the sense of deracination and failure?’ The words of the old poet came into his mind, pressed down like the pedal of a piano, to boil and reverberate around the frail hope which the thought had raised from its dark sleep.* ‘My problem’ he said to himself quietly, feeling his forehead to see if he had a fever ‘is that the woman I loved brought me a faultless satisfaction which never touched her own happiness’: and he thought over all the delusions which were now confirming themselves in physical signs. I mean: he had beaten Justine, beaten her until his arm ached and the stick broke in his hands. All this was a dream of course. Nevertheless on waking he had found his whole arm aching and swollen. What could one believe when reality mocked the imagination by its performance? At the same time, of course, he fully recognized that suffering, indeed all illness, was itself an acute form of self-importance, and all the teachings of the Cabal came like a following wind to swell his self-contempt. He could hear, like the distant reverberations of the city’s memory, the voice of Plotinus speaking, not of flight away from intolerable temporal conditions but towards a new light, a new city of Light. ‘This is no journey for the feet, however. Look into yourself, withdraw into yourself and look.’ But this was the one act of which he now knew himself for ever incapable. It is astonishing for me, in recording these passages, to recall how little of all this interior change was visible on the surface of his life — even to those who knew him intimately. There was little to put one’s finger on — only a sense of hollowness in the familiar — as of a well-known air played slightly out of key. It is true that at this period he had already begun to entertain with a prodigality hitherto unknown to the city, even among the richest families. The great house was never empty now. The great kitchen-quarters where we so often boiled ourselves an egg or a glass of milk after a concert or a play — dusty and deserted then — were now held, by a permanent garrison of cooks, surgical and histrionic, capped in floury steeples. The upper rooms, tall staircase, galleries and salons echoing to the mournful twining of clocks were patrolled now by black slaves who moved as regally as swans about important tasks. Their white linen, smelling of the goose-iron, was spotless — robes divided by scarlet sashes punctuated at the waist by clasps of gold fashioned into turtles’ heads: the rebus Nessim had chosen for himself. Their soft porpoise eyes were topped by the conventional scarlet flower-pots, their gorilla hands were cased in white gloves. They were as soundless as death itself. If he had not so far outdone the great figures of Egyptian society in lavishness he might have been thought to be competing with them for advancement. The house was perpetually alive to the cool fern-like patterns of a quartet, or to the foundering plunge of saxophones crying to the night like cuckolds. The long beautiful reception-rooms had been pierced with alcoves and unexpected corners to increase their already great seating-capacity and sometimes as many as two or three hundred guests sat down to elaborate and meaningless dinners — observing their host lost in the contemplation of a rose lying upon an empty plate before him. Yet his was not a remarkable distraction for he could offer to the nonentities of common conversation a smile — surprising as one who removes an upturned glass to show, hidden by it, some rare entomological creature whose scientific name he had not learned. What else is there to add? The small extravagances of his dress were hardly noticeable in one whose fortune had always seemed oddly matched against a taste for old flannel trousers and tweed coats. Now in his ice-smooth sharkskin with the scarlet cummerbund he seemed only what he should always have been — the richest and most handsome of the city’s bankers: those true foundlings of the gut. People felt that at last he had come into his own. This was how someone of his place and fortune should live. Only the diplomatic corps smelt in this new prodigality a run of hidden motives, a plot perhaps to capture the King, and began to haunt his drawing-room with their studied politenesses. Under the slothful or foppish faces one was conscious of curiosity stirring, a desire to study Nessim’s motives and designs, for nowadays the King was a frequent visitor to the great house. Meanwhile all this advanced the central situation not at all. It was as if the action which Nessim had been contemplating grew with such infinite slowness, like a stalactite, that there was time for all this to fill the interval — the rockets ploughing their furrows of sparks across the velvet sky, piercing deeper and ever deeper into the night where Justine and I lay, locked in each other’s arms and minds. In the still water of the fountains one saw the splash of human faces, ignited by these gold and scarlet stars as they rose hissing into heaven like thirsty swans. In the darkness, the warm hand on my arm, I could watch the autumn sky thrown into convulsions of coloured light with the calm of someone for whom the whole unmerited pain of the human world had receded and diffused itself — as pain does when it goes on too long, spreading from a specific member to flood a whole area of the body or the mind. The lovely grooves of the rockets upon the dark sky filled us only with the sense of a breath-taking congruence to the whole nature of the world of love which was soon to relinquish us. This particular night was full of a rare summer lightning: and hardly had the display ended when from the desert to the east a thin crust of thunder formed like a scab upon the melodious silence. A light rain fell, youthful and refreshing, and all at once the darkness was full of figures hurrying back into the shelter of the lamplit houses, dresses held ankle-high and voices raised in shrill pleasure. The lamps printed for a second their bare bodies against the transparent materials which sheathed them. For our part we turned wordlessly into the alcove behind the sweet-smelling box-hedges and lay down upon the stone bench carved in the shape of a swan. The laughing chattering crowd poured across the entrance of the alcove towards the light; we lay in the cradle of darkness feeling the gentle prickle of the rain upon our faces. The last fuses were being defiantly lit by men in dinner-jackets and through her hair I saw the last pale comets gliding up into the darkness. I tasted, with the glowing pleasure of the colour in my brain, the warm guiltless pressure of her tongue upon mine, her arms upon mine. The magnitude of this happiness — we could not speak but gazed abundantly at each other with eyes full of unshed tears. From the house came the dry snap of champagne-corks and the laughter of human beings. ‘Never an evening alone now.’ ‘What is happening to Nessim?’ ‘I no longer know. When there is something to hide one becomes an actor. It forces all the people round one to act as well.’ The same man, it was true, walked about on the surface of their common life — the same considerate, gentle punctual man: but in a horrifying sense everything had changed, he was no longer there. ‘We’ve abandoned each other’ she said in a small expiring whisper and drawing herself closer pressed to the very hilt of sense and sound the kisses which were like summaries of all we had shared, held precariously for a moment in our hands, before they should overflow into the surrounding darkness and forsake us. And yet it was as if in every embrace she were saying to herself: ‘Perhaps through this very thing, which hurts so much and which I do not want ever to end — maybe through this I shall find my way back to Nessim.’ I was filled suddenly by an intolerable depression. Later, walking about in the strident native quarter with its jabbing lights and flesh-wearing smells, I wondered as I had always wondered, where time was leading us. And as if to test the validity of the very emotions upon which so much love and anxiety could base themselves I turned into a lighted booth decorated by a strip of cinema poster — the huge half-face of a screen-lover, meaningless as the belly of a whale turned upwards in death — and sat down upon the customer’s stool, as one might in a barber’s shop, to wait my turn. A dirty curtain was drawn across the inner door and from behind it came faint sounds, as of the congress of creatures unknown to science, not specially revolting — indeed interesting as the natural sciences are for those who have abandoned any claims of cultivating a sensibility. I was of course drunk by this time and exhausted — drunk as much on Justine as upon the thinpaper-bodied Pol Roget. There was a tarbush lying upon the chair beside me and absently I put it on my head. It was faintly warm and sticky inside and the thick leather lining clung to my forehead. ‘I want to know what it really means’ I told myself in a mirror whose cracks had been pasted over with the trimmings of postage stamps. I meant of course the whole portentous scrimmage of sex itself, the act of penetration which could lead a man to despair for the sake of a creature with two breasts and le croissant as the picturesque Levant slang has it. The sound within had increased to a sly groaning and squeaking — a combustible human voice adding itself to the jostling of an ancient wooden-slatted bed. This was presumably the identical undifferentiated act which Justine and I shared with the common world to which we belonged. How did it differ? How far had our feelings carried us from the truth of the simple, devoid beast-like act itself? To what extent was the treacherous mind — with its interminable catalogue raisonné of the heart — responsible? I wished to answer an unanswerable question; but I was so desperate for certainty that it seemed to me that if I surprised the act in its natural state, motivated by scientific money and not love, as yet undamaged by the idea, I might surprise the truth of my own feelings and desires. Impatient to deliver myself from the question I lifted the curtain and stepped softly into the cubicle which was fitfully lighted by a buzzing staggering paraffin lamp turned down low. The bed was inhabited by an indistinct mass of flesh moving in many places at once, vaguely stirring like an ant-heap. It took me some moments to define the pale and hairy limbs of an elderly man from those of his partner — the greenish-hued whiteness of convex woman with a boa constrictor’s head — a head crowned with spokes of toiling black hair which trailed over the edges of the filthy mattress. My sudden appearance must have suggested a police raid for it was followed by a gasp and complete silence. It was as if the ant-hill had suddenly become deserted. The man gave a groan and a startled half-glance in my direction and then as if to escape detection buried his head between the immense breasts of the woman. It was impossible to explain to them that I was investigating nothing more particular than the act upon which they were engaged. I advanced to the bed firmly, apologetically, and with what must have seemed a vaguely scientific air of detachment I took the rusty bed-rail in my hands and stared down, not upon them for I was hardly conscious of their existence, but upon myself and Melissa, myself and Justine. The woman turned a pair of large gauche charcoal eyes upon me and said something in Arabic. They lay there like the victims of some terrible accident, clumsily engaged, as if in some incoherent experimental fashion they were the first partners in the history of the human race to think out this peculiar means of communication. Their posture, so ludicrous and ill-planned, seemed the result of some early trial which might, after centuries of experiment, evolve into a disposition of bodies as breathlessly congruent as a ballet-position. But nevertheless I recognized that this had been fixed immutably, for all time — this eternally tragic and ludicrous position of engagement. From this sprang all those aspects of love which the wit of poets and madmen had used to elaborate their philosophy of polite distinctions. From this point the sick, the insane started growing; and from here too the disgusted and dispirited faces of the long-married, tied to each other back to back, so to speak, like dogs unable to disengage after coupling. The peal of soft cracked laughter I uttered surprised me, but it reassured my specimens. The man raised his face a few inches and listened attentively as if to assure himself that no policeman could have uttered such a laugh. The woman re-explained me to herself and smiled. ‘Wait one moment’ she cried, waving a white blotched hand in the direction of the curtain, ‘I will not be long.’ And the man, as if reprimanded by her tone, made a few convulsive movements, like a paralytic attempting to walk — impelled not by the demands of pleasure but by the purest courtesy. His expression betrayed an access of politeness — as of someone rising in a crowded tram to surrender his place to a mutilé de la guerre. The woman grunted and her fingers curled up at the edges. Leaving them there, fitted so clumsily together, I stepped laughing out into the street once more to make a circuit of the quarter which still hummed with the derisive, concrete life of men and women. The rain had stopped and the damp ground exhaled the tormentingly lovely scent of clay, bodies and stale jasmine. I began to walk slowly, deeply bemused, and to describe to myself in words this whole quarter of Alexandria for I knew that soon it would be forgotten and revisited only by those whose memories had been appropriated by the fevered city, clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of Memory. The narrow street was of baked and scented terra cotta, soft now from rain but not wet. Its whole length was lined with the coloured booths of prostitutes whose thrilling marble bodies were posed modestly each before her doll’s house, as before a shrine. They sat on three-legged stools like oracles wearing coloured slippers, out in the open street. The originality of the lighting gave the whole scene the colours of deathless romance, for instead of being lit from above by electric light the whole street was lit by a series of stabbing carbide-lamps standing upon the ground: throwing thirsty, ravishing violet shadows upwards into the nooks and gables of the dolls’ houses, into the nostrils and eyes of its inhabitants, into the unresisting softness of that furry darkness. I walked slowly among these extraordinary human blooms, reflecting that a city like a human being collects its predispositions, appetites and fears. It grows to maturity, utters its prophets, and declines into hebetude, old age or the loneliness which is worse than either. Unaware that their mother city was dying, the living still sat there in the open street, like caryatids supporting the darkness, the pains of futurity upon their very eyelids; sleeplessly watching, the immortality-hunters, throughout the whole fatidic length of time. Here was a painted booth entirely decorated by fleur-de-lis carefully and correctly drawn upon a peach-coloured ground in royal blue. At its door sat a giant bluish child of a negress, perhaps eighteen years of age, clad in a red flannel nightgown of a vaguely mission-house allure. She wore a crown of dazzling narcissus on her black woollen head. Her hands were gathered humbly in her lap — an apron full of chopped fingers. She resembled a heavenly black bunny sitting at the entrance of a burrow. Next door a woman fragile as a leaf, and next her one like a chemical formula rinsed out by anaemia and cigarette smoke. Everywhere on these brown flapping walls I saw the basic talisman of the country — imprint of a palm with outspread fingers, seeking to ward off the terrors which thronged the darkness outside the lighted town. As I walked past them now they uttered, not human monetary cries, but the soft cooing propositions of doves, their quiet voices filling the street with a cloistral calm. It was not sex they offered in their monotonous seclusion among the yellow flares, but like the true inhabitants of Alexandria, the deep forgetfulness of parturition, compounded of physical pleasures taken without aversion. The dolls’ houses shivered and reeled for a second as the wind of the sea intruded, pressing upon loose fragments of cloth, unfastened partitions. One house lacked any backcloth whatever and staring through the door one caught a glimpse of a courtyard with a stunted palm-tree. By the light thrown out from a bucket of burning shavings three girls sat on stools, dressed in torn kimonos, talking in low tones and extending the tips of their fingers to the elf-light. They seemed as rapt, as remote as if they had been sitting around a camp fire on the steppes. (In the back of my mind I could see the great banks of ice — snowdrifts in which Nessim’s champagne-bottles lay, gleaming bluish-green like aged carp in a familiar pond. And as if to restore my memory I smelt my sleeves for traces of Justine’s perfume.) I turned at last into an empty café where I drank coffee served by a Saidi whose grotesque squint seemed to double every object he gazed upon. In the far corner, curled up on a trunk and so still that she was invisible at first sat a very old lady smoking a narguileh which from time to time uttered a soft air-bubble of sound like the voice of a dove. Here I thought the whole story through from beginning to end, starting in the days before I ever knew Melissa and ending somewhere soon in an idle pragmatic death in a city to which I did not belong; I say that I thought it through, but strangely enough I thought of it not as a personal history with an individual accent so much as part of the historical fabric of the place. I described it to myself as part and parcel of the city’s behaviour, completely in keeping with everything that had gone before, and everything that would follow it. It was as if my imagination had become subtly drugged by the ambience of the place and could not respond to personal, individual assessments. I had lost the capacity to feel even the thrill of danger. My sharpest regret, characteristically enough, was for the jumble of manuscript notes which might be left behind. I had always hated the incomplete, the fragmentary. I decided that they at least must be destroyed before I went a step further. I rose to my feet — only to be struck by a sudden realization that the man I had seen in the little booth had been Mnemjian. How was it possible to mistake that misformed back? This thought occupied me as I recrossed the quarter, moving towards the larger thoroughfares in the direction of the sea. I walked across this mirage of narrow intersecting alleys as one might walk across a battlefield which had swallowed up all the friends of one’s youth; yet I could not help in delighting at every scent and sound — a survivor’s delight. Here at one corner stood a flame-swallower with his face turned up to the sky, spouting a column of flame from his mouth which turned black with flapping fumes at the edges and bit a hole in the sky. From time to time he took a swig at a bottle of petrol before throwing back his head once more and gushing flames six feet high. At every corner the violet shadows fell and foundered, striped with human experience — at once savage and tenderly lyrical. I took it as a measure of my maturity that I was filled no longer with despairing self-pity but with a desire to be claimed by the city, enrolled among its trivial or tragic memories — if it so wished. It was equally characteristic that by the time I reached the little flat and disinterred the grey exercise books in which my notes had been scribbled I thought no longer of destroying them. Indeed I sat there in the lamp-light and added to them while Pombal discoursed on life from the other easy chair. ‘Returning to my room I sit silent, listening to the heavy tone of her scent: a smell perhaps composed of flesh, faeces and herbs, all worked into the dense brocade of her being. This is a peculiar type of love for I do not feel that I possess her — nor indeed would wish to do so. It is as if we joined each other only in self-possession, became partners in a common stage of growth. In fact we outrage love, for we have proved the bonds of friendship stronger. These notes, however they may be read, are intended only as a painstaking affectionate commentary on a world into which I have been born to share my most solitary moments — those of coitus — with Justine. I can get no nearer to the truth. ‘Recently, when it had been difficult to see her for one reason or another, I found myself longing so much for her that I went all the way down to Pietrantoni to try and buy a bottle of her perfume. In vain. The good-tempered girl-assistant dabbed my hands with every mark she had in stock and once or twice I thought that I had discovered it. But no. Something was always missing — I suppose the flesh which the perfume merely costumed. The undertow of the body itself was the missing factor. It was only when in desperation I mentioned Justine’s name that the girl turned immediately to the first perfume we had tried. “Why did you not say so at first?” she asked with an air of professional hurt; everyone, her tone implied, knew the perfume Justine used except myself. It was unrecognizable. Nevertheless I was surprised to discover that Jamais de la vie was not among the most expensive or exotic of perfumes.’ (When I took home the little bottle they found in Cohen’s waistcoat-pocket the wraith of Melissa was still there, imprisoned. She could still be detected.) Pombal was reading aloud the long terrible passage from Moeurs which is called ‘The Dummy Speaks’. ‘In all these fortuitous collisions with the male animal I had never known release, no matter what experience I had submitted my body to. I always see in the mirror the image of an ageing fury crying: “J’ai raté mon propre amour — mon amour à moi. Mon amour-propre, mon propre amour. Je l’ai raté. Je n’ai jamais souffert, jamais eu de joie simple et candide.”’ He paused only to say: ‘If this is true you are only taking advantage of an illness in loving her,’ and the remark struck me like the edge of an axe wielded by someone of enormous and unconscious strength.Balthazar (1958) Part IV Chapter 2 For some considerable time I heard nothing of Pursewarden’s sister, though I knew that she was still up at the summer legation. As for Mountolive, his visits were recorded among the office memoranda, so that I knew he came up from Cairo for the night about every ten days. For a while I half expected a signal from him, but as time wore on I almost began to forget his existence as presumably he had forgotten mine. So it was that her voice, when first it floated over the office telephone, came as an unexpected intrusion — a surprise in a world where surprises were few and not unwelcome. A curiously disembodied voice which might have been that of uncertain adolescence, saying: ‘I think you know of me. As a friend of my brother I would like to talk to you.’ The invitation to dinner the following evening she described as ‘private, informal and unofficial’ which suggested to me that Mountolive himself would be present. I felt the stirring of an unusual curiosity as I walked up the long drive with its very English hedges of box, and through the small coppice of pines which encircled the summer residence. It was an airless hot night — such as must presage the gathering of a khamseen somewhere in the desert which would later roll its dust clouds down the city’s streets and squares like pillars of smoke. But as yet the night air was harsh and clear. I rang the bell twice without result, and was beginning to think that perhaps it might be out of order when I heard a soft swift step inside. The door opened and there stood Liza with an expression of triumphant eagerness on her blind face. I found her extraordinarily beautiful at first sight, though a little on the short side. She wore a dress of some dark soft stuff with a collar cut very wide, out of which her slender throat and head rose as if out of the corolla of a flower. She stood before me with her face thrown upwards, forwards — with an air of spectral bravery — as if presenting her lovely neck to an invisible executioner. As I uttered my own name she smiled and nodded and repeated it back to me in a whisper tense as a thread. ‘Thank goodness, at last you have come’ she said, as though she had lived in the expectation of my visit for years! As I stepped forward she added quickly ‘Please forgive me if I…. It is my only way of knowing.’ And I suddenly felt her soft warm fingers on my face, moving swiftly over it as if spelling it out, I felt a stirring of some singular unease, composed of sensuality and disgust, as these expert fingers travelled over my cheeks and lips. Her hands were small and well-shaped; the fingers conveyed an extraordinary impression of delicacy, for they appeared to turn up slightly at the ends to present their white pads, like antennae, to the world. I had once seen a world-famous pianist with just such fingers, so sensitive that they appeared to grow into the keyboard as he touched it. She gave a small sigh, as if of relief, and taking me by the wrist drew me across the hall and into the living-room with its expensive and featureless official furniture where Mountolive stood in front of the fireplace with an air of uneasy concern. Somewhere a radio softly played. We shook hands and in his handclasp I felt something infirm, indecisive which was matched by the fugitive voice in which he excused his long silence. ‘I had to wait until Liza was ready’ he said, rather mysteriously. Mountolive had changed a good deal, though he still bore all the marks of the superficial elegance which was a prerequisite for his work, and his clothes were fastidiously chosen — for even (I thought grimly) informal undress is still a uniform for a diplomat. His old kindness and attentiveness were still there. Yet he had aged. I noticed that he now needed reading-glasses, for they lay upon a copy of The Times beside the sofa. And he had grown a moustache which he did not trim and which had altered the shape of his mouth, and emphasized a certain finely bred feebleness of feature. It did not seem possible to imagine him ever to have been in the grip of a passion strong enough to qualify the standard responses of an education so definitive as his. Nor now, looking from one to the other, could I credit the suspicions which Clea had voiced about his love for this strange blind witch who now sat upon the sofa staring sightlessly at me, with her hands folded in her lap — those rapacious, avaricious hands of a musician. Had she coiled herself, like a small hateful snake, at the centre of his peaceful life? I accepted a drink from his fingers and found, in the warmth of his smile, that I remembered having liked and admired him. I did so still. ‘We have both been eager to see you, and particularly Liza, because she felt that you might be able to help her. But we will talk about all that later.’ And with an abrupt smoothness he turned away from the real subject of my visit to enquire whether my post pleased me, and whether I was happy in it. An exchange of courteous pleasantries which provoked the neutral answers appropriate to them. Yet here and there were gleams of new information. ‘Liza was quite determined you should stay here; and so we got busy to arrange it!’ Why? Simply that I should submit to a catechism about her brother, who in truth I could hardly claim to have known, and who grew more and more mysterious to me every day — less important as a personage, more and more so as an artist? It was clear that I must wait until she chose to speak her mind. Yet it was baffling to idle away the time in the exchange of superficialities. Yet these smooth informalities reigned, and to my surprise the girl herself said nothing — not a word. She sat there on the sofa, softly and attentively, as if on a cloud. She wore, I noticed, a velvet ribbon on her throat. It occurred to me that her pallor, which had so much struck Clea, was probably due to not being able to make-up in the mirror. But Clea had been right about the shape of her mouth, for once or twice I caught an expression, cutting and sardonic, which was a replica of her brother’s. Dinner was wheeled in by a servant, and still exchanging small talk we sat down to eat it; Liza ate swiftly, as if she were hungry, and quite unerringly, from the plate which Mountolive filled for her. I noticed when she reached for her wineglass that her expressive fingers trembled slightly. At last, when the meal was over, Mountolive rose with an air of scarcely disguised relief and excused himself. ‘I’m going to leave you alone to talk shop to Liza. I shall have to do some work in the Chancery this evening. You will excuse me, won’t you?’ I saw an apprehensive frown shadow Liza’s face for a moment, but it vanished almost at once and was replaced by an expression which suggested something between despair and resignation. Her fingers picked softly, suggestively at the tassel of a cushion. When the door had closed behind him she still sat silent, but now preternaturally still, her head bent downwards as if she were trying to decipher a message written in the palm of her hand. At last she spoke in a small cold voice, pronouncing the words incisively as if to make her meaning plain. ‘I had no idea it would be difficult to explain when first I thought of asking your help. This book….’ There was a long silence. I saw that little drops of perspiration had come out on her upper lip and her temples looked as if they had tightened under stress. I felt a certain compassion for her distress and said: ‘I can’t claim to have known him well, though I saw him quite frequently. In truth, I don’t think we liked each other very much.’ ‘Originally’ she said sharply, cutting across my vagueness with impatience ‘I thought I might persuade you to do the book about him. But now I see that you will have to know everything. It is not easy to know where to begin. I myself doubt whether the facts of his life are possible to put down and publish. But I have been driven to think about the matter, first because his publishers insist on it — they say there is a great public demand; but mostly because of the book which this shabby journalist is writing, or has written. Keats.’ ‘Keats’ I echoed with surprise. ‘He is here somewhere I believe; but I do not know him. He has been put up to the idea by my brother’s wife. She hated him, you know, after she found out; she thought that my brother and I had between us ruined her life. Truthfully I am afraid of her. I do not know what she has told Keats, or what he will write. I see now that my original idea in having you brought here was to get you to write a book which would … disguise the truth somehow. It only became clear to me just now when I was confronted by you. It would be inexpressibly painful to me if anything got out which harmed my brother’s memory.’ Somewhere to the east I heard a grumble of thunder. She stood up with an air of panic and after a moment’s hesitation crossed to the grand piano and struck a chord. Then she banged the cover down and turned once more to me, saying: ‘I am afraid of thunder. Please may I hold your hand in a firm grip.’ Her own was deathly cold. Then, shaking back her black hair she said: ‘We were lovers, you know. That is really the meaning of his story and mine. He tried to break away. His marriage foundered on this question. It was perhaps dishonest of him not to have told her the truth before he married her. Things fall out strangely. For many years we enjoyed a perfect happiness, he and I. That it ended tragically is nobody’s fault I suppose. He could not free himself from my inside hold on him, though he tried and struggled. I could not free myself from him, though truthfully I never wished to until … until the day arrived which he had predicted so many years before when the man he always called “the dark stranger” arrived. He saw him so clearly when he gazed into the fire. It was David Mountolive. For a little while I did not tell him that I had fallen in love, the fated love. (David would not let me. The only person we told was Nessim’s mother. David asked my permission.) But my brother knew it quite unerringly and wrote after a long silence asking me if the stranger had come. When he got my letter he seemed suddenly to realize that our relationship might be endangered or crushed in the way his had been with his wife — not by anything we did, no, but by the simple fact of my existence. So he committed suicide. He explained it all so clearly in his last letter to me. I can recite it by heart. He said: “For so many years I have waited in anguished expectation for your letter. Often, often I wrote it for you in my own head, spelling it out word by magical word. I knew that in your happiness you would at once turn to me to express a passionate gratitude for what I had given you — for learning the meaning of all love through mine: so that when the stranger came you were ready…. And today it came! this long-awaited message, saying that he had read the letters, and I knew for the first time a sense of inexpressible relief as I read the lines. And joy — such joy as I never hoped to experience in my life — to think of you suddenly plunging into the full richness of life at last, no longer tied, manacled to the image of your tormented brother! Blessings tumbled from my lips. But then, gradually, as the cloud lifted and dispersed I felt the leaden tug of another truth, quite unforeseen, quite unexpected. The fear that, so long as I was still alive, still somewhere existing in the world, you would find it impossible truly to escape from the chains in which I have so cruelly held you all these years. At this fear my blood has turned chill — for I know that truthfully something much more definitive is required of me if you are ever to renounce me and start living. I must really abandon you, really remove myself from the scene in a manner which would permit no further equivocation in our vacillating hearts. Yes, I had anticipated the joy, but not that it would bring with it such a clear representation of certain death. This was a huge novelty! Yet it is the completest gift I can offer you as a wedding present! And if you look beyond the immediate pain you will see how perfect the logic of love seems to one who is ready to die for it.” ’ She gave a short clear sob and hung her head. She took the handkerchief from the breast pocket of my coat and pressed it to her trembling lip. I felt stupefied by the sad weight of all this calamitous information. I felt, in the ache of pity for Pursewarden, a new recognition of him growing up, a new enlightenment. So many things became clearer. Yet there were no words of consolation or commiseration which could do justice to so tragic a situation. She was talking again. ‘I will give you the private letters to read so that you can advise me. These are the letters which I was not to open but was to keep until David came. He would read them to me and we would destroy them — or so he said. Is it strange — his certainty? The other ordinary letters were of course read to me in the usual way; but these private letters, and they are very many, were all pierced with a pin in the top left-hand corner. So that I could recognize them and put them aside. They are in that suitcase over there. I would like you to take them away and study them. Oh, Darley, you have not said a word. Are you prepared to help me in this dreadful predicament? I wish I could read your expression.’ ‘Of course I will help you. But just how and in what sense?’ ‘Advise me what to do! None of this would have arisen had not this shabby journalist intervened and been to see his wife.’ ‘Did your brother appoint a literary executor?’ ‘Yes. I am his executor.’ ‘Then you have a right to refuse to allow any of his unsold writings to be published while they’re in copyright. Besides, I do not see how such facts could be made public without your own permission, even in an unauthorized biography. There is no cause whatsoever to worry. No writer in his senses could touch such material; no publisher in the world would undertake to print it if he did. I think the best thing I can do is to try and find out something about this book of Keats’s. Then at least you will know where you stand.’ ‘Thank you, Darley. I could not approach Keats myself because I knew he was working for her. I hate and fear her — perhaps unjustly. I suppose too that I have a feeling of having wronged her without wishing it. It was a deplorable mistake on his part not to tell her before their marriage; I think he recognized it, too, for he was determined that I should not make the same mistake when at last David appeared. Hence the private letters, which leave no one in doubt. Yet it all fell out exactly as he had planned it, had prophesied it. That very first night when I told David I took him straight home to read them. We sat on the carpet in front of the gas-fire and he read them to me one by one in that unmistakable voice — the stranger’s voice.’ She gave a queer blind smile at the memory and I had a sudden compassionate picture of Mountolive sitting before the fire, reading these letters in a slow faltering voice, stunned by the revelation of his own part in this weird masque, which had been planned for him years before, without his knowing. Liza sat beside me, lost in deep thought, her head hanging. Her lips moved slowly as if she were spelling something out in her own mind, following some interior recitation. I shook her hand softly as if to waken her. ‘I should leave you now’ I said softly. ‘And why should I see the private letters at all? There is no need.’ ‘Now that you know the worst and best I would like you to advise me about destroying them. It was his wish. But David feels that they belong to his writings, and that we have a duty to preserve them. I cannot make up my mind about this. You are a writer. Try and read them as a writer, as if you had written them, and then tell me whether you would wish them preserved or not. They are all together in that suitcase. There are one or two other fragments which you might help me edit if you have time or if you think them suitable. He always puzzled me — except when I had him in my arms.’ A sudden expression of savage resentment passed across her white face. As if she had been goaded by a sudden disagreeable memory. She passed her tongue over her dry lips and as we stood up together she added in a small husky voice: ‘There is one thing more. Since you have seen so far into our lives why should you not look right to the bottom? I always keep this close to me.’ Reaching down into her dress she took out a snapshot and handed it to me. It was faded and creased. A small child with long hair done up in ribbons sat upon a park bench, gazing with a melancholy and wistful smile at the camera and holding out a white stick. It took me a moment or so to identify those troubling lines of mouth and nose as the features of Pursewarden himself and to realize that the little girl was blind. ‘Do you see her?’ said Liza in a thrilling whisper that shook the nerves by its strange tension, its mixture of savagery, bitterness and triumphant anguish. ‘Do you see her? She was our child. It was when she died that he was overcome with remorse for a situation which had brought us nothing but joy before. Her death suddenly made him guilty. Our relationship foundered there; and yet it became in another way even more intense, closer. We were united by our guilt from that moment. I have often asked myself why it should be so. Tremendous unbroken happiness and then … one day, like an iron shutter falling, guilt.’ The word dropped like a falling star and expired in the silence. I took this unhappiest of all relics and pressed it into her cold hands. ‘I will take the letters’ I said. ‘Thank you’ she replied with an air now of dazed exhaustion. ‘I knew we had a friend in you. I shall count on your help.’ As I softly closed the front door behind me I heard a chord struck upon the piano — a single chord which hung in the silent air, its vibrations diminishing like an echo. As I crossed among the trees I caught a glimpse of Mountolive sneaking towards the side door of the house. I suddenly divined that he had been walking up and down outside the house in an agony of apprehension, with the air of a schoolboy waiting outside his housemaster’s study to receive a beating. I felt a pang of sympathy for him, for his weakness, for the dreadful entanglement in which he had, found himself. I found to my surprise that it was still early. Clea had gone to Cairo for the day and was not expected back. I took the little suitcase to her flat and sitting on the floor unpacked it. In that quiet room, by the light of her candles, I began to read the private letters with a curious interior premonition, a stirring of something like fear — so dreadful a thing is it to explore the inmost secrets of another human being’s life. Nor did this feeling diminish as I proceeded, rather it deepened into a sort of terror almost a horror of what might be coming next. The letters! Ferocious, sulky, brilliant, profuse — the torrent of words in that close hand flowed on and on endlessly, studded with diamond-hard images, a wild self-analytical frenzy of despair, remorse and passion. I began to tremble as one must in the presence of a great master, to tremble and mutter. With an interior shock I realized that there was nothing in the whole length and breadth of our literature with which to compare them! Whatever other masterpieces Pursewarden may have written these letters outshone them all in their furious, unpremeditated brilliance and prolixity. Literature, I say! But these were life itself, not a studied representation of it in a form — life itself, the flowing undivided stream of life with all its pitiable will-intoxicated memories, its pains, terrors and submissions. Here illusion and reality were fused in one single blinding vision of a perfect incorruptible passion which hung over the writer’s mind like a dark star — the star of death! The tremendous sorrow and beauty which this man expressed so easily — the terrifying abundance of his gifts — filled me with helpless despair and joy at once. The cruelty and the richness! It was as if the words poured from every pore in his body — execrations, groans, mixed tears of joy and despair — all welded to the fierce rapid musical notation of a language perfected by its purpose. Here at last the lovers confronted one another, stripped to the bone, stripped bare. In this strange and frightening experience I caught a glimpse, for a moment, of the true Pursewarden — the man who had always eluded me. I thought with shame of the shabby passages in the Justine manuscript which I had devoted to him — to my image of him! I had, out of envy or unconscious jealousy, invented a Pursewarden to criticize. In everything I had written there I had accused him only of my own weaknesses — even down to completely erroneous estimates of qualities like social inferiorities which were mine, had never been his. It was only now, tracing out the lines written by that rapid unfaltering pen, that I realized that poetic or transcendental knowledge somehow cancels out purely relative knowledge, and that his black humours were simply ironies due to his enigmatic knowledge whose field of operation was above, beyond that of the relative fact-finding sort. There was no answer to the questions I had raised in very truth. He had been quite right. Blind as a mole, I had been digging about in the graveyard of relative fact piling up data, more information, and completely missing the mythopoeic reference which underlies fact. I had called this searching for truth! Nor was there any way in which I might be instructed in the matter — save by the ironies I had found so wounding. For now I realized that his irony was really tenderness turned inside out like a glove! And seeing Purse-warden thus, for the first time, I saw that through his work he had been seeking for the very tenderness of logic itself, of the Way Things Are; not the logic of syllogism or the tide-marks of emotions, but the real essence of fact-finding, the naked truth, the Inkling … the whole pointless Joke. Yes, Joke! I woke up with a start and swore. If two or more explanations of a single human action are as good as each other then what does action mean but an illusion — a gesture made against the misty backcloth of a reality made palpable by the delusive nature of human division merely? Had any novelist before Pursewarden considered this question? I think not. And in brooding over these terrible letters I also suddenly stumbled upon the true meaning of my own relationship to Pursewarden, and through him to all writers. I saw, in fact, that we artists form one of those pathetic human chains which human beings form to pass buckets of water up to a fire, or to bring in a lifeboat. An uninterrupted chain of humans born to explore the inward riches of the solitary life on behalf of the unheeding unforgiving community; manacled together by the same gift. I began to see too that the real ‘fiction’ lay neither in Arnauti’s pages nor Pursewarden’s — nor even my own. It was life itself that was a fiction — we were all saying it in our different ways, each understanding it according to his nature and gift. It was now only that I began to see how mysteriously the configuration of my own life had taken its shape from the properties of those elements which lie outside the relative life — in the kingdom which Pursewarden calls the ‘heraldic universe’. We were three writers, I now saw, confided to a mythical city from which we were to draw our nourishment, in which we were to confirm our gifts. Arnauti, Pursewarden, Darley — like Past, Present and Future tense! And in my own life (the staunchless stream flowing from the wounded side of Time!) the three women who also arranged themselves as if to represent the moods of the great verb, Love: Melissa, Justine and Clea. And realizing this I was suddenly afflicted by a great melancholy and despair at recognizing the completely limited nature of my own powers, hedged about as they were by the limitations of an intelligence too powerful for itself, and lacking in sheer word-magic, in propulsion, in passion, to achieve this other world of artistic fulfilment. I had just locked those unbearable letters away and was sitting in melancholy realization of this fact when the door opened and Clea walked in, radiant and smiling. ‘Why, Darley, what are you doing sitting in the middle of the floor in that rueful attitude? And my dear there are tears in your eyes.’ At once she was down beside me on her knees, all tenderness. ‘Tears of exasperation’ I said, and then, embracing her, ‘I have just realized that I am not an artist at all. There is not a shred of hope of my ever being one.’ ‘What on earth have you been up to?’ ‘Reading Pursewarden’s letters to Liza.’ ‘Did you see her?’ ‘Yes. Keats is writing some absurd book ——’ ‘But I just ran into him. He’s back from the desert for the night.’ I struggled to my feet. It seemed to me imperative that I should find him and discover what I could about his project. ‘He spoke’ said Clea ‘about going round to Pombal’s for a bath. I expect you’ll find him there if you hurry.’ Keats! I thought to myself as I hurried down the street towards the flat; he was also to play his part in this shadowy representation, this tableau of the artist’s life. For it is always a Keats that is chosen to interpret, to drag his trail of slime over the pitiful muddled life of which the artist, with such pain, recaptures these strange solitary jewels of self-enlightenment. After those letters it seemed to me more than ever necessary that people like Keats if possible be kept away from interfering in matters beyond their normal concerns. As a journalist with a romantic story (suicide is the most romantic act for an artist) he doubtless felt himself to be in the presence of what he, in the old days, would have called ‘A stunner. A Story in a Million’. I thought that I knew my Keats — but of course once more I had completely forgotten to take into account the operations of Time, for Keats had changed as we all had, and my meeting with him turned out to be as unexpected as everything else about the city. I had mislaid my key and had to ring for Hamid to open the door for me. Yes, he said, Mr. Keats was there, in the bath. I traversed the corridor and tapped at the door behind which came the sound of rushing water and a cheerful whistling. ‘By God, Darley, how splendid’ he shouted in answer to my call. ‘Come in while I dry. I heard you were back.’ Under the shower stood a Greek god! I was so surprised at the transformation that I sat down abruptly on the lavatory and studied this … apparition. Keats was burnt almost black, and his hair had bleached white. Though slimmer, he looked in first-class physical condition. The brown skin and ashen hair had made his twinkling eyes bluer than ever. He bore absolutely no resemblance to my memories of him! ‘I just sneaked off for the night’ he said, speaking in a new rapid and confident voice. ‘I’m developing one of those blasted desert sores on my elbow, so I got a chit and here I am. I don’t know what the hell causes them, nobody does; perhaps all the tinned muck we eat up there in the desert! But two days in Alex and an injection and presto! The bloody thing dears up again! I say, Darley, what fun to meet again. There’s so much to tell you. This war!’ He was bubbling over with high spirits. ‘God, this water is a treat. I’ve been revelling.’ ‘You look in tremendous shape.’ ‘I am. I am.’ He smacked himself exuberantly on the buttocks ‘Golly though, it is good to come into Alex. Contrasts make you appreciate things so much better. Those tanks get so hot you feel like frying whitebait. Reach my drink, there’s a good chap.’ On the floor stood a tall glass of whisky and soda with an ice cube in it. He shook the glass, holding it to his ear like a child. ‘Listen to the ice tinkling’ he cried in ecstasy. ‘Music to the soul, the tinkle of ice.’ He raised his glass, wrinkled up his nose at me and drank my health. ‘You look in quite good shape, too’ he said, and his blue eyes twinkled with a new mischievous light. ‘Now for some clothes and then … my dear chap, I’m rich. I’ll give you a slap-up dinner at the Petit Coin. No refusals, I’ll not be baulked. I particularly wanted to see you and talk to you. I have news.’ He positively skipped into the bedroom to dress and I sat on Pombal’s bed to keep him company while he did so. His high spirits were quite infectious. He seemed hardly able to keep still. A thousand thoughts and ideas bubbled up inside him which he wanted to express simultaneously. He capered down the stairs into the street like a schoolboy, taking the last flight at a single bound. I thought he would break into a dance along Rue Fuad. ‘But seriously’ he said, squeezing my elbow so hard that it hurt. ‘Seriously, life is wonderful’ and as if to illustrate his seriousness he burst into ringing laughter. ‘When I think how we used to brood and worry.’ Apparently he included me in this new euphoric outlook on life. ‘How slowly we took everything, I feel ashamed to remember it!’ At the Petit Coin we secured a corner table after an amiable altercation with a naval lieutenant, and he at once took hold of Menotti and commanded champagne to be brought. Where the devil had he got this new laughing authoritative manner which instantly commanded sympathetic respect without giving offence? ‘The desert!’ he said, as if in answer to my unspoken question. ‘The desert, Darley, old boy. That is something to be seen.’ From a capacious pocket he produced a copy of the Pickwick Papers. ‘Damn!’ he said. ‘I mustn’t forget to get this copy replaced. Or the crew will bloody well fry me.’ It was a sodden, dog-eared little book with a bullet hole in the cover, smeared with oil. ‘It’s our only library, and some bastard must have wiped himself on the middle third. I’ve sworn to replace it. Actually there’s a copy at the flat. I don’t suppose Pombal would mind my pinching it. It’s absurd. When there isn’t any action we he about reading it aloud to one another, under the stars! Absurd, my dear chap, but then everything is more absurd. More and more absurd every day.’ ‘You sound so happy’ I said, not without a certain envy. ‘Yes’ he said in a smaller voice, and suddenly, for the first time, became relatively serious. ‘I am. Darley, let me make you a confidence. Promise not to groan.’ ‘I promise.’ He leaned forward and said in a whisper, his eyes twinkling, ‘I’ve become a writer at last!’ Then suddenly he gave his ringing laugh. ‘You promised not to groan’ he said. ‘I didn’t groan.’ ‘Well, you looked groany and supercilious. The proper response would have been to shout “Hurrah!” ’ ‘Don’t shout so loud or they’ll ask us to leave.’ ‘Sorry. It came over me.’ He drank a large bumper of champagne with the air of someone toasting himself and leaned back in his chair, gazing at me quizzically with the same mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes. ‘What have you written?’ I asked. ‘Nothing’ he said, smiling. ‘Not a word as yet. It’s all up here.’ He pointed a brown finger at his temple. ‘But now at least I know it is. Somehow whether I do or don’t actually write isn’t important — it isn’t, if you like, the whole point about becoming a writer at all, as I used to think.’ In the street outside a barrel organ began playing with its sad hollow iteration. It was a very ancient English barrel organ which old blind Arif had found on a scrap heap and had fixed up in a somewhat approximate manner. Whole notes misfired and several chords were hopelessly out of tune. ‘Listen’ said Keats, with deep emotion, ‘just listen to old Arif.’ He was in that delicious state of inspiration which only comes when champagne supervenes upon a state of fatigue — a melancholy tipsiness which is wholly inspiriting. ‘Gosh!’ he went on in rapture, and began to sing in a very soft husky whisper, marking time with his finger, ‘Taisez-vous, petit babouin’. Then he gave a great sigh of repletion, and chose himself a cigar from Menotti’s great case of specimens, sauntering back to the table where he once more sat before me, smiling rapturously. ‘This war’ he said at last, ‘I really must tell you…. It is quite different to what I imagined it must be like.’ Under his champagne-bedizened tipsiness he had become relatively grave all at once. He said: ‘Nobody seeing it for the first time could help crying out with the whole of his rational mind in protest at it: crying out “It must stop!” My dear chap, to see the ethics of man at his norm you must see a battlefield. The general idea may be summed up in the expressive phrase: “If you can’t eat it or **** it, then **** on it.” Two thousand years of civilization! It peels off in a flash. Scratch with your little finger and you reach the woad or the ritual war paint under the varnish! Just like that!’ He scratched the air between us languidly with his expensive cigar. ‘And yet — you know what? The most unaccountable and baffling thing. It has made a man of me, as the saying goes. More, a writer! My soul is quite clear, I suppose you could regard me as permanently disfigured! I have begun it at last, that bloody joyful book of mine. Chapter by chapter it is forming in my old journalist’s noodle — no, not a journalist’s any more, a writer’s.’ He laughed again as if at the preposterous notion. ‘Darley, when I look around that … battlefield at night, I stand in an ecstasy of shame, revelling at the coloured lights, the flares wallpapering the sky, and I say: “All this had to be brought about so that poor Johnny Keats could grow into a man.” That’s what. It is a complete enigma to me, yet I am absolutely certain of it. No other way would have helped me because I was too damned stupid, do you see?’ He was silent for a while and somewhat distrait, drawing on his cigar. It was as if he were going over this last piece of conversation in his mind to consider its validity, word by word, as one tests a piece of machinery. Then he added, but with care and caution, and a certain expression of bemused concentration, like a man handling unfamiliar terms: ‘The man of action and the man of reflection are really the same man, operating on two different fields. But to the same end! Wait, this is beginning to sound silly.’ He tapped his temple reproachfully and frowned. After a moment’s thought he went on, still frowning: ‘Shall I tell you my notion about it … the war? What I have come to believe? I believe the desire for war was first lodged in the instincts as a biological shock-mechanism to precipitate a spiritual crisis which couldn’t be done any other how in limited people. The less sensitive among us can hardly visualize death, far less live joyfully with it. So the powers that arranged things for us felt they must concretize it, in order to lodge death in the actual present. Purely helpfully, if you see what I mean!’ He laughed again, but ruefully this time. ‘Of course it is rather different now that the bystander is getting hit harder than the front-line bloke. It is unfair to the men of the tribe who would like to leave the wife and kids in relative safety before stumping off to this primitive ordination. For my part I think the instinct has somewhat atrophied, and may be on the way out altogether; but what will they put in its place — that’s what I wonder? As for me, Darley, I can only say that no half-dozen French mistresses, no travels round the globe, no adventures in the peacetime world we knew could have grown me up so thoroughly in half the time. You remember how I used to be? Look, I’m really an adult now — but of course ageing fast, altogether too fast! It will sound damn silly to you, but the presence of death out there as a normal feature of life — only in full acceleration so to speak — has given me an inkling of Life Everlasting! And there was no other way I could have grasped it, damn it. Ah! well, I’ll probably get bumped off up there in full possession of my imbecility, as you might say.’ He burst out laughing once more, and gave himself three noiseless cheers, raising his cigar-hand ceremoniously at each cheer. Then he winked carefully at me and filled his glass once more, adding with an air of vagueness the coda: ‘Life only has its full meaning to those who co-opt death!’ I could see that he was rather drunk by now, for the soothing effects of the hot shower had worn off and the desert-fatigue had begun to reassert itself. ‘And Pursewarden?’ I said, divining the very moment at which to drop his name, like a hook, into the stream of our conversation. ‘Pursewarden!’ he echoed on a different note, which combined a melancholy sadness and affection. ‘But my dear Darley, it was something like this that he was trying to tell me, in his own rather bloody way. And I? I still blush with shame when I think of the questions I asked him. And yet his answers, which seemed so bloody enigmatic then, make perfect sense to me now. Truth is double-bladed, you see. There is no way to express it in terms of language, this strange bifurcated medium with its basic duality! Language! What is the writer’s struggle except a struggle to use a medium as precisely as possible, but knowing fully its basic imprecision? A hopeless task, but none the less rewarding for being hopeless. Because the task itself, the act of wrestling with an insoluble problem, grows the writer up! This was what the old bastard realized. You should read his letters to his wife. For all their brilliance how he whined and cringed, how despicably he presented himself — like some Dostoievskian character beset by some nasty compulsion neurosis! It is really staggering what a petty and trivial soul he reveals there.’ This was an amazing insight into the tormented yet wholly complete being of the letters which I myself had just read! ‘Keats’ I said, ‘for goodness’ sake tell me. Are you writing a book about him?’ Keats drank slowly and thoughtfully and replaced his glass somewhat unsteadily before saying: ‘No.’ He stroked his chin and fell silent. ‘They say you are writing something’ I persisted. He shook his head obstinately and contemplated his glass with a blurred eye. ‘I wanted to’ he admitted at last, slowly. ‘I did a long review of the novels once for a small mag. The next thing I got a letter from his wife. She wanted a book done. A big rawboned Irish girl, very hysterical and sluttish: handsome in a big way, I suppose. Always blowing her nose in an old envelope. Always in carpet slippers. I must say I felt for him. But I tumbled straight into a hornets’ nest there. She loathed him, and there seemed to be plenty to loathe, I must say. She gave me a great deal of information, and simply masses of letters and manuscripts. Treasure trove all right. But, my dear chap, I couldn’t use this sort of stuff. If for no other reason than that I respect his memory and his work. No. No. I fobbed her off. Told her she would never get such things published. She seemed to want to be publicly martyred in print just to get back at him — old Pursewarden! I couldn’t do such a thing. Besides the material was quite hair-raising! I don’t want to talk about it. Really, I would never repeat the truth to a soul.’ We sat looking thoughtfully, even watchfully at each other, for a long moment before I spoke again. ‘Have you ever met his sister, Liza?’ Keats shook his head slowly. ‘No. What was the point? I abandoned the project right away, so there was no need to try and hear her story. I know she has a lot of manuscript stuff, because the wife told me so. But…. She is here isn’t she?’ His lip curled with the faintest suggestion of disgust. ‘Truthfully I don’t want to meet her. The bitter truth of the matter seems to me that the person old Pursewarden most loved — I mean purely spiritually — did not at all understand the state of his soul, so to speak, when he died: or even have the vaguest idea of the extent of his achievement. No, she was busy with a vulgar intrigue concerned with legalizing her relations with Mountolive. I suppose she feared that her marriage to a diplomat might be imperilled by a possible scandal. I may be wrong, but that is the impression I gathered. I believe she was going to try and get a whitewashing book written. But now, in a sense, I have my own Pursewarden, my own copy of him, if you like. It’s enough for me. What do the details matter, and why should I meet his sister? It is his work and not his life which is necessary to us — which offers one of the many meanings of the word with four faces!’ I had an impulse to cry out ‘Unfair’, but I restrained it. It is impossible in this world to arrange for full justice to be done to everyone. Keats’s eyelids drooped. ‘Come’ I said, calling for the bill, ‘It’s time you went home and got some sleep.’ ‘I do feel rather tired’ he mumbled. ‘Avanti.’ There was an old horse-drawn gharry in a side-street which we were glad to find. Keats protested that his feet were beginning to hurt and his arm to pain him. He was in a pleasantly exhausted frame of mind, and slightly tipsy after his potations. He lay back in the smelly old cab and closed his eyes. ‘D’you know, Darley’ he said indistinctly, ‘I meant to tell you but forgot. Don’t be angry with me, old fellow-bondsman, will you. I know that you and Clea, … Yes, and I’m glad. But I have the most curious feeling that one day I am going to marry her. Really. Don’t be silly about it. Of course I would never breathe a word, and it would happen years after this silly old war. But somewhere along the line I feel I’m bound to hitch up with her.’ ‘Now what do you expect me to say?’ ‘Well, there are a hundred courses open. Myself I would start yelling and screaming at once if you said such a thing to me. I’d knock your block off, push you out of the cab, anything. I’d punch me in the eye.’ The gharry drew up with a jolt outside the house. ‘Here we are’ I said, and helped my companion down into the road. ‘I’m not as drunk as all that’ he cried cheerfully, shaking off my help, ‘ ’tis but fatigue, dear friend.’ And while I argued out the cost of the trip with the driver he went round and held a long private confabulation with the horse, stroking its nose. ‘I was giving it some maxims to live by’ he explained as we wound our weary way up the staircase. ‘But the champagne had muddled up my quotation-box. What’s that thing of Shakespeare’s about the lover and the cuckold all compact, seeking the bubble reputation e’en in the cannon’s mouth.’ The last phrase he pronounced in the strange (man-sawing-wood) delivery of Churchill. ‘Or something about swimmers into cleanness leaping — a pre-fab in the eternal mind no less!’ ‘You are murdering them both.’ ‘Gosh I’m tired. And there seems to be no bombardment tonight.’ ‘They are getting less frequent.’ He collapsed on his bed fully dressed, slowly untying his suede desert boots and wriggling with his toes until they slid slowly off and plopped to the floor. ‘Did you ever see Pursewarden’s little book called select Prayers for English Intellectuals? It was funny. “Dear Jesus, please keep me as eighteenth century as possible — but without the cd….” ’ He gave a sleepy chuckle, put his arms behind his head and started drifting into smiling sleep. As I turned out the light he sighed deeply and said: ‘Even the dead are overwhelming us all the time with kindnesses.’ I had a sudden picture of him as a small boy walking upon the very brink of precipitous cliffs to gather seabirds’ eggs. One slip…. But I was never to see him again. Vale!Justine (1957) Part IV Chapter 1Despite the season the seafront of the city was gay with light — the long sloping lines of the Grande Corniche curving away to a low horizon; a thousand lighted panels of glass in which, like glorious tropical fish, the inhabitants of the European city sat at glittering tables stocked with glasses of mastic, aniseed or brandy. Watching them (I had eaten little lunch) my hunger overcame me, and as there was some time in hand before my meeting with Justine, I turned into the glittering doors of the Diamond Sutra and ordered a ham sandwich and a glass of whisky. Once again, as always when the drama of external events altered the emotional pattern of things, I began to see the city through new eyes — to examine the shapes and contours made by human beings with the detachment of an entomologist studying a hitherto unknown species of insect. Here it was, the race, each member of it absorbed in the solution of individual preoccupations, loves, hates and fears. A woman counting money on to a glass table, an old man feeding a dog, an Arab in a red flowerpot drawing a curtain. Aromatic smoke poured from the small sailor taverns along the seafront where the iron spits loaded with a freight of entrails and spices turned monotonously back and forth, or bellied from under the lids of shining copper cauldrons, giving off hot gusts of squid, cuttlefish and pigeon. Here one drank from the blue cans and ate with one’s fingers as they do in the Cyclades even today. I picked up a decrepit horse-cab and jogged along by the sighing sea towards the Aurore, drinking in the lighted darkness with regrets and fears so fugitive as to be beyond analysis; but underneath (like a toad under a cool stone, the surface airs of night) I still felt the stirrings of horror at the thought that Justine herself might be endangered by the love which ‘we bore one another’. I turned the thought this way and that in my mind, like a prisoner pressing with all his weight upon doors which denied him an exit from an intolerable bondage, trying to devise an issue from a situation which, it seemed, might as well end in her death as in mine. The great car was waiting, drawn up off the road in the darkness under the pepper-trees. She opened the door for me silently and I got in, spellbound by my fears. ‘Well’ she said at last, and giving a little groan which expressed everything, sank into my arms and pressed her warm mouth on mine. ‘Did you go? Is it over?’ ‘Yes.’ She let in the clutch and the driving wheels spurned the gravel as the car moved out into the pearly nightfall and began to follow the coast road to the outer desert. I studied her harsh Semitic profile in the furry light flung back by the headlights from the common objects of the roadside. It belonged so much to the city which I now saw as a series of symbols stretching away from us on either side — minarets, pigeons, statues, ships, coins, camels and palms; it lived in a heraldic relation to the exhausted landscapes which enclosed it — the loops of the great lake: as proper to the scene as the Sphinx was to the desert. ‘My ring’ she said. ‘You brought it?’ ‘Yes.’ I polished it once more on my tie and slipped it back once more on to its appropriate finger. Involuntarily I said now: ‘Justine, what is to become of us?’ She gave me a wild frowning look like a Bedouin woman, and then smiled that warm smile. ‘Why?’ ‘Surely you see? We shall have to stop this altogether. I can’t bear to think you might be in danger…. Or else I should go straight to Nessim and confront him with….’ With what? I did not know. ‘No’ she said softly, ‘no. You could not do it. You are an Anglo-Saxon … you couldn’t step outside the law like that, could you? You are not one of us. Besides, you could tell Nessim nothing he does not guess if not actually know…. Darling’ she laid her warm hand upon mine, ‘simply wait … simply love, above all … and we shall see.’ It is astonishing now for me to realize, as I record this scene, that she was carrying within her (invisible as the already conceived foetus of a child) Pursewarden’s death: that her kisses were, for all I know, falling upon the graven image of my friend — the death-mask of the writer who himself did not love her, indeed regarded her with derision. But such a demon is love that I would not be surprised if in a queer sort of way his death actually enriched our own love-making, filling it with the deceits on which the minds of women feed — the compost of secret pleasures and treacheries which are an inseparable part of every human relation. Yet what have I to complain of? Even this half-love filled my heart to overflowing. It is she, if anyone, who had cause for complaint. It is very hard to understand these things. Was she already planning her flight from Alexandria then? ‘The power of woman is such’ writes Pursewarden ‘that a single kiss can paraphrase the reality of man’s life and turn it …’ but why go on? I was happy sitting beside her, feeling the warmth of her hand as it lay in mine. The blue night was hoary with stars and the attentive desert stretched away on either side with its grotesque amphitheatres — like the empty rooms in some great cloud-mansion. The moon was late and wan tonight, the air still, the dunes wind-carved. ‘What are you thinking?’ said my lover. What was I thinking? Of a passage in Proclus which says that Orpheus ruled over the silver race, meaning those who led a ‘silver’ life; on Balthazar’s mantelpiece presumably among the pipe-cleaners and the Indian wood-carving of monkeys which neither saw, spoke nor heard evil, under a magic pentacle from Pythagoras. What was I thinking? The foetus in its waxen wallet, the locust squatting in the horn of the wheat, an Arab quoting a proverb which reverberated in the mind. ‘The memory of man is as old as misfortune.’ The quails from the burst cage spread upon the ground softly like honey, having no idea of escape. In the Scent Bazaar the flavour of Persian lilac. ‘Fourteen thousand years ago’ I said aloud, ‘Vega in Lyra was the Pole Star. Look at her where she burns.’ The beloved head turned with its frowning deep-set eyes and once more I see the long boats drawing in to the Pharos, the tides running, the minarets a-glitter with dew; noise of the blind Hodja crying in the voice of a mole assaulted by sunlight; a shuffle-pad of a camel-train clumping to a festival carrying dark lanterns. An Arab woman makes my bed, beating the pillows till they fluff out like white egg under a whisk; a passage in Pursewarden’s book which reads: ‘They looked at each other, aware that there was neither youth nor strength enough between them to prevent their separation.’ When Melissa was pregnant by Nessim Amaril could not perform the abortion Nessim so much desired because of her illness and her weak heart. ‘She may die anyway’ he said, and Nessim nodded curtly and took up his overcoat. But she did not die then, she bore the child…. Justine is quoting something in Greek which I do not recognize: Sand, dog-roses and white rocks Of Alexandria, the mariner’s sea-marks, Some sprawling dunes falling and pouring Sand into water, water into sand, Never into the wine of exile Which stains the air it is poured through; Or a voice which stains the mind, Singing in Arabic: ‘A ship without a sail Is a woman without breasts.’ Only that. Only that. We walked hand in hand across the soft sand-dunes, laboriously as insects, until we reached Taposiris with its rumble of shattered columns and capitals among the ancient weather-eroded sea-marks. (‘Reliques of sensation’ says Coleridge ‘may exist for an indefinite time in a latent state in the very same order in which they were impressed.’) Yes, but the order of the imagination is not that of memory. A faint wind blew off the sea from the Grecian archipelago. The sea was smooth as a human cheek. Only at the edges it stirred and sighed. Those warm kisses remain there, amputated from before and after, existing in their own right like the frail transparencies of ferns or roses pressed between the covers of old books — unique and unfading as the memories of the city they exemplified and evoked: a plume of music from a forgotten carnival-guitar echoing on in the dark streets of Alexandria for as long as silence lasts…. I see all of us not as men and women any longer, identities swollen with their acts of forgetfulness, follies, and deceits — but as beings unconsciously made part of place, buried to the waist among the ruins of a single city, steeped in its values; like those creatures of whom Empedocles wrote ‘Solitary limbs wandered, seeking for union with one another,’ or in another place, ‘So it is that sweet lays hold of sweet, bitter rushes to bitter, acid comes to acid, warm couples with warm.’ All members of a city whose actions lay just outside the scope of the plotting or conniving spirit: Alexandrians. Justine, lying back against a fallen column at Taposiris, dark head upon the darkness of the sighing water, one curl lifted by the sea-winds, saying: ‘In the whole of English only one phrase means something to me, the words “Time Immemorial”.’ Seen across the transforming screens of memory, how remote that forgotten evening seems. There was so much as yet left for us all to live through until we reached the occasion of the great duckshoot which so abruptly, concisely, precipitated the final change — and the disappearance of Justine herself. But all this belongs to another Alexandria — one which I created in my mind and which the great Interlinear of Balthazar has, if not destroyed, changed out of all recognition. ‘To intercalate realities’ writes Balthazar ‘is the only way to be faithful to Time, for at every moment in Time the possibilities are endless in their multiplicity. Life consists in the act of choice. The perpetual reservations of judgement and the perpetual choosing.’ From the vantage-point of this island I can see it all in its doubleness, in the intercalation of fact and fancy, with new eyes; and re-reading, re-working reality in the light of all I now know, I am surprised to find that my feelings themselves have changed, have grown, have deepened even. Perhaps then the destruction of my private Alexandria was necessary (‘the artifact of a true work of art never shows a plane surface’); perhaps buried in all this there lies the germ and substance of a truth — time’s usufruct — which, if I can accommodate it, will carry me a little further in what is really a search for my proper self. We shall see.Justine (1957) Part IV Chapter 1Justine (1957) Part III Chapter 1 加拿大28顺子概率 ***** Thinking of that summer when Pombal decided to let his flat to Pursewarden, much to my annoyance. I disliked this literary figure for the contrast he offered to his own work — poetry and prose of real grace. I did not know him well but he was financially successful as a novelist which made me envious, and through years of becoming social practice had developed a sort of savoir faire which I felt should never become part of my own equipment. He was clever, tallish and blond and gave the impression of a young man lying becalmed in his mother. I cannot say that he was not kind or good, for he was both — but the inconvenience of living in the flat with someone I did not like was galling. However it would have involved greater inconvenience to move so I accepted the box-room at the end of the corridor at a reduced rent, and did my washing in the grimy little scullery. Pursewarden could afford to be convivial and about twice a week I was kept up by the noise of drinking and laughter from the flat. One night quite late there came a knock at the door. In the corridor stood Pursewarden, looking pale and rather perky — as if he had just been fired out of a gun into a net. Beside him stood a stout naval stoker of unprepossessing ugliness — looking like all naval stokers; as if he had been sold into slavery as a child. ‘I say’ said Pursewarden shrilly, ‘Pombal told me you were a doctor; would you come and take a look at somebody who is ill?’ I had once told Georges of the year I spent as a medical student with the result that for him I had become a fully-fledged doctor. He not only confided all his own indispositions to my care — which included frequent infestations of body-crabs — but he once went so far as to try and persuade me to perform an abortion for him on the dining-room table. I hastened to tell Pursewarden that I was certainly not a doctor, and advised him to telephone for one: but the phone was out of order, and the boab could not be roused from his sleep: so more in the spirit of disinterested curiosity than anything I put on a mackintosh over my pyjamas and made my way along the corridor. This was how we met! Opening the door I was immediately blinded by the glare and smoke. The party did not seem to be of the usual kind, for the guests consisted of three or four maimed-looking naval cadets, and a prostitute from Golfo’s tavern, smelling of briny paws and taphia* Improbably enough, too, she was bending over a figure seated on the end of a couch — the figure which I now recognize as Melissa, but which then seemed like a catastrophic Greek comic mask. Melissa appeared to be raving, but soundlessly for her voice had gone — so that she looked like a film of herself without a sound-track. Her features were a cave. The older woman appeared to be panic-sticken, and was boxing her ears and pulling her hair; while one of the naval cadets was splashing water rather inexpertly upon her from a heavily decorated chamber-pot which was one of Pombal’s dearest treasures and which bore the royal arms of France on its underside. Somewhere out of sight someone was being slowly, unctuously sick. Pursewarden stood beside me surveying the scene, looking rather ashamed of himself. Melissa was pouring with sweat, and her hair was glued to her temples; as we broke the circle of her tormentors she sank back into an expressionless quivering silence, with this permanently engraved shriek on her face. It would have been wise to try and find out where she had been and what she had been eating and drinking, but a glance at the maudlin, jabbering group around me showed that it would be impossible to get any sense out of them. Nevertheless, seizing the boy nearest me I started to interrogate him when the hag from Golfo’s, who was herself in a state of hysterics, and was only restrained by a naval stoker (who had her pinioned from behind), began to shout in a hoarse chewed voice. ‘Spanish fly. He gave it to her.’ And darting out of the arms of her captor like a rat she seized her handbag and fetched one of the sailors a resounding crack over the head. The bag must have been full of nails for he went down swimming and came up with fragments of shattered crockery in his hair. She now began to sob in a voice which wore a beard and call for the police. Three sailors converged upon her with blunt fingers extended advising, exhorting, imploring her to desist. Nobody wanted a brush with the naval police. But neither did anyone relish a crack from that Promethean handbag, bulging with french letters and belladonna bottles. She retreated carefully step by step. (Meanwhile I took Melissa’s pulse, and ripping off her blouse listened to her heart. I began to be alarmed for her, and indeed for Purse-warden who had taken up a strategic position behind an armchair and was making eloquent gestures at everyone.) By now the fun had started, for the sailors had the roaring girl cornered — but unfortunately against the decorative Sheraton cupboard which housed Pombal’s cherished collection of pottery. Reaching behind her for support her hands encountered an almost inexhaustible supply of ammunition, and letting go her handbag with a hoarse cry of triumph she began to throw china with a single-mindedness and accuracy I have never seen equalled. The air was all at once full of Egyptian and Greek tear-bottles, Ushabti, and Sèvres. It could not be long now before there came the familiar and much-dreaded banging of hob-nailed boots against the door-lintels, as lights were beginning to go on all round us in the building. Pursewarden’s alarm was very marked indeed; as a resident and moreover a famous one he could hardly afford the sort of scandal which the Egyptian press might make out of an affray like this. He was relieved when I motioned to him and started to wrap the by now almost insensible figure of Melissa in the soft Bukhara rug. Together we staggered with her down the corridor and into the blessed privacy of my box-room where, like Cleopatra, we unrolled her and placed her on the bed. I had remembered the existence of an old doctor, a Greek, who lived down the street, and it was not long before I managed to fetch him up the dark staircase, stumbling and swearing in a transpontine demotic, dropping catheters and stethoscopes all the way. He pronounced Melissa very ill indeed but his diagnosis was ample and vague — in the tradition of the city. ‘It is everything’ he said, ‘malnutrition, hysteria, alcohol, hashish, tuberculosis, Spanish fly help yourself’ and he made the gesture of putting his hand in his pocket and fetching it out full of imaginary diseases which he offered us to choose from. But he was also practical, and proposed to have a bed ready for her in the Greek Hospital next day. Meanwhile she was not to be moved. I spent that night and the next on the couch at the foot of the bed. While I was out at work she was confided to the care of one-eyed Hamid, the gentlest of Berberines. For the first twelve hours she was very ill indeed, delirious at times, and suffered agonizing attacks of blindness — agonizing because they made her so afraid. But by being gently rough with her we managed between us to give her courage enough to surmount the worst, and by the afternoon of the second day she was well enough to talk in whispers. The Greek doctor pronounced himself satisfied with her progress. He asked her where she came from and a haunted expression came into her face as she replied ‘Smyrna’; nor would she give the name and address of her parents, and when he pressed her she turned her face to the wall and tears of exhaustion welled slowly out of her eyes. The doctor took up her hand and examined the wedding-finger. ‘You see’ he said to me with a clinical detachment, pointing out the absence of a ring, ‘that is why. Her family has disowned her and turned her out of doors. It is so often these days …’ and he shook a shaggy commiserating head over her. Melissa said nothing, but when the ambulance came and the stretcher was being prepared to take her away she thanked me warmly for my help, pressed Hamid’s hand to her cheek, and surprised me by a gallantry to which my life had unaccustomed me: ‘If you have no girl when I come out, think of me. If you call me I will come to you.’* I do not know how to reduce the gallant candour of the Greek to English. So I had lost sight of her for a month or more; and indeed I did not think of her, having many other preoccupations at this time. Then, one hot blank afternoon, when I was sitting at my window watching the city unwrinkle from sleep I saw a different Melissa walk down the street and turn into the shadowy doorway of the house. She tapped at my door and walked in with her arms full of flowers, and all at once I found myself separated from that forgotten evening by centuries. She had in her something of the same diffidence with which I later saw her take up a collection for the orchestra in the night-club. She looked like a statue of pride hanging its head. A nerve-racking politeness beset me. I offered her a chair and she sat upon the edge of it. The flowers were for me, yes, but she had not the courage to thrust the bouquet into my arms, and I could see her gazing distractedly around for a vase into which she might put them. There was only an enamel washbasin full of half-peeled potatoes. I began to wish she had not come. I would have liked to offer her some tea but my electric ring was broken and I had no money to take her out — at this time I was sliding ever more steeply into debt. Besides, I had sent Hamid out to have my only summer suit ironed and was clad in a torn dressing-gown. She for her part looked wonderfully, intimidatingly smart, with a new summer frock of a crisp vine-leaf pattern and a straw hat like a great gold bell. I began to pray passionately that Hamid would come back and create a diversion. I would have offered her a cigarette but my packet was empty and I was forced to accept one of her own from the little filigree cigarette-case she always carried. This I smoked with what I hoped was an air of composure and told her that I had accepted a new job near Sidi Gabr, which would mean a little extra money. She said she was going back to work; her contract had been renewed: but they were giving her less money. After a few minutes of this sort of thing she said that she must be leaving as she had a tea-appointment. I showed her out on the landing and asked her to come again whenever she wished. She thanked me, still clutching the flowers which she was too timid to thrust upon me and walked slowly downstairs. After she had gone I sat on the bed and uttered every foul swear-word I could remember in four languages — though it was not clear to me whom I was addressing. By the time one-eyed Hamid came shuffling in I was still in a fury and turned my anger upon him. This startled him considerably: it was a long time since I had lost my temper with him, and he retired into the scullery muttering and shaking his head and invoking the spirits to help him. After I had dressed and managed to borrow some money from Pursewarden — while I was on my way to post a letter — I saw Melissa again sitting in the corner of a coffee shop, alone, with her hands supporting her chin. Her hat and handbag lay beside her and she was staring into her cup with a wry reflective air of amusement. Impulsively I entered the place and sat down beside her. I had come, I said, to apologize for receiving her so badly, but … and I began to describe the circumstances which had preoccupied me, leaving nothing out. The broken electric-ring, the absence of Hamid, my summer-suit. As I began to enumerate the evils by which I was beset they began to seem to me slightly funny, and altering my angle of approach I began to recount them with a lugubrious exasperation which coaxed from her one of the most delightful laughs I have ever heard. On the subject of my debts I frankly exaggerated, though it was certainly a fact that since the night of the affray Pursewarden was always ready to lend me small sums of money without hesitation. And then to cap it all, I said, she had appeared while I was still barely cured of a minor but irritating venereal infection — the fruit of Pombal’s solicitude — contracted no doubt from one of the Syrians he had thoughtfully left behind him. This was a he but I felt impelled to relate it in spite of myself. I had been horrified I said at the thought of having to make love again before I was quite well. At this she put out her hand and placed it on mine while she laughed, wrinkling up her nose: laughing with such candour, so lightly and effortlessly, that there and then I decided to love her. We idled arm in arm by the sea that afternoon, our conversations full of the debris of lives lived without forethought, without architecture. We had not a taste in common. Our characters and predispositions were wholly different, and yet in the magical ease of this friendship we felt something promised us. I like, also, to remember that first kiss by the sea, the wind blowing up a flake of hair at each white temple — a kiss broken off by the laughter which beset her as she remembered my account of the trials I was enduring. It symbolized the passion we enjoyed, its humour and lack of intenseness: its charity.Balthazar (1958) Part II Chapter 1There’s no new land, my friend, noThe invisible company passing, the clear voices,When suddenly at darkest midnight heard, THE CITYCapitally, what is this city of ours? What is resumed in the word Alexandria? In a flash my mind’s eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today — and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either. Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body — for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying — I think he was quoting — that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets — I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.Clea (1960) To MY FATHERchapter IV