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Authors: Lionel Davidson

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A Long Way to Shiloh

BOOK: A Long Way to Shiloh
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LIONEL DAVIDSON

A Long Way to Shiloh
 
 
 

To Fay

 
Prologue:
Declaring the End from the Beginning
 

The things that are not yet done
. [
Isaiah 46.10
]

 
 

I came out by the north, it has to be understood, and turned north, myself, ten men and twenty pack animals, with thirty days’ rations.

We ate frugally, each man hoping to return with his surplus, no doubt bearing in mind that former occasion when even birds’ dung had to be sold for food – at ten pieces a quarter, as history records and as we understand it.

We travelled by night, the consignment as follows: in plain terms, each beast one hundred kilograms; the total two
thousand
kilograms, all ingot, private ingot.

For the rest, the sergeants carried the OEED and the
corporals
its equipment. The private soldiers carried the
implements
, shovels, picks and crowbars.

In one hundred and five kilometres, as understood, we reached the area and buried the OEED. For the highest security, the private soldiers and myself only were parties to this
operation
. It was not witnessed. It is here: at a depth in plain terms of two metres, well-bound, covered with a layer of crushed marble, blue marble, and protected by slabs; the disposition according to the separate list.

The ingot is elsewhere, without such security, in several situations, the dispositions according to the separate lists.

After all the work we returned, more plainly myself, two officers, two sergeants, two corporals, four men. At the first halt the sergeants and corporals called aside the men in pairs and strangled them.

At the second halt, when the animals were foddered, each corporal was set to work separately, and as he worked was strangled, by the sergeants, working together; all this work with cords, and to the letter; all buried with appropriate rites.

At night in our camp, the two sergeants also, as they slept, by the officers, working together; this work by knife; all to the letter, with burial and rites.

The two officers are sworn men. No blame attaches to them.

Immediately the work was finished, we struck camp and
proceeded
, but about midnight were challenged in the dark and forced to halt while a mounted party drew up, a strong party. Their leader – a captain, identified by our own officers – was plainly of Northern Command, I repeat it, of Northern
Command
, and showed signed orders requiring us to accompany him to his command headquarters.

If I acted wrongly, it is to protect security and because of insufficient information. No one informed me Northern
Command
was concerned in this operation. I could think of no reason why this Command should be concerned. The young officer could give no reason. Further, the terms of his orders required our whole operation, the consignment and the men, to be turned over to Northern Command, which was no longer possible; although all was done legally and to the letter.

I therefore refused to recognize his authority and was
immediately
placed under arrest, and so we proceeded till two o’clock, when we reached a bivouac position amid rocks, and camped.

The young officer acted punctiliously throughout, and no blame attaches to him. He did not require me to sleep with the men, although he posted guards over me. The guards likewise showed all respect and allowed me, during the night, to go
behind
a rock with the animals to fulfil a need of nature;
whereupon
I mounted and escaped.

The alarm was immediately raised, and I was pursued; but in this difficult terrain my more intimate knowledge allowed me to elude them, and in the dark I practised a simple
strategem
, dismounting and sending the animal in one direction and myself in another.

The pursuit was properly conducted and no blame attaches. I watched it for several hours, from a height, until it was called off about mid-day and they returned and struck camp and left.

I had no food or water.

I waited till night before moving.

I was weakened by my exertions, and fell and broke my arm. The bone protruded.

I was in a fever and my condition deteriorated. I could not see my way to returning so I went in the direction of the
watering
place where the people knew me.

I descended in a feeble state, afraid of violence. They keep pickets watching. They fear guerrillas.

I lay till it was safe and entered the village secretly, and made towards a light, and saw to my joy it was the old perfumery. The watchman was tending the boiler.

He knew me from old times, a good man, not unlettered, and he is suitable. I swore him and he took me in. If my actions are illegal, no blame attaches to him.

 

 

He
said
to
write
down
the
day
he
died
so
they
will
know.
It
was
four
days
after
he
come,
the
22nd
March
he
died.
He
said
he
tell
me
what
to
do
when
I
bury
him
but
he
never,
he
was
raving,
so
I
took
him
at
night
in
the
flower
basket
and
bury
him
up
behind
the
spring.

I
said
peace
on
his
soul
and
God
be
merciful,
he
is
a
good
man,
a
priest.

He
wouldn’t
let
me
get
any
help
when
his
arm
stank,
he
wouldn’t
let
me
tell
anybody,
but
I
told
the
priest
who
come
f
or
flower
oil
and
he
said
I
said
right
when
I
bury
him,
which
I
hope,
but
he
is
not
a
real
priest,
they
keep
a
different
date.

I
wrote
twice
what
he
wrote,
I
did
my
best.
He
said
to
say
where
I
put
it.
I
put
one
in
The
Curtains,
high,
two
hundred
metres,
the
Curtain
you
cannot
see
from
here,
turned
away.
It
is
in
the
first
hole,
you
get
down
from
the
top.
I
put
another
farther
on,
down
low,
the
bottom
of
the
cliff,
beyond
as
you
go.

1 Altogether Brutish and Foolish
 

The stock is a doctrine of vanities
. [
Jeremiah 10.8
]

 
 
1

There was nobody there when I arrived, nobody except
Birkett
and his wife, that is, which was a special penance. He was eating raisins and a stick of celery, and he didn’t stop when he saw me, just nodded and continued masticating his mouthful, very slowly and thoughtfully. He was wearing his black rolltop sweater in some thin, probably nylon, material, which, together with his eyes, set rather too close together, one a little larger than the other, and his high daemonic cheekbones, gave him the appearance of a mad elderly ballet dancer.

His wife had been engaged with a similar plate at the same small oak table, but she picked hers up and said, ‘Excuse me a moment,’ and went out with it. He continued chewing,
nodding
to show it would soon be over, and then finished. He didn’t finish his meal; he just finished the mouthful, and seemed to go into neutral.

I said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve come too early.’

He didn’t say I hadn’t. He just looked at me in his earnest deranged way and said, ‘It will give us an opportunity to talk.’

‘We have to congratulate you,’ his wife said, returning with her thin grim smile.

‘Naturally,’ Birkett said, sincerely. ‘I’ve been wanting to for some time.’

‘Dr Laing is a difficult young man to get hold of. Finish your meal, dear. You’ll have a drink, Dr Laing.’

It was a statement rather than a question, and seemed to imply, in her curiously insinuating way, knowledge of some special range of characteristics of mine, such as dissoluteness, greed, opportunism.

I leaned back, already enervated. I’d caught her looking at my boots. The suede boots had seemed about right for the
way-out
lot to be expected here tonight. I’d put on a woollen checked shirt and an old tweed jacket, too; no-nonsense Laing. The effect couldn’t, I saw, have been farther out if I’d appeared in a top hat and tails. Their own brand of no-nonsense was grotesque to such a degree that any other, any other involving suede boots, looked like racy affectation. Below the table I could see
Birkett’s
small neat feet planted side by side in some no doubt relaxed Yoga position, in black plimsolls. Above them his legs were in a pair of bleached jeans. His wife wore a gym slip with brown stockings and sandals. The enormous creature quartered the room in this get-up, getting me a drink, and managing to imply at the same time some medical-type urgency for one who couldn’t do without the stuff.

She gave me a glass with about a quarter of a pint of whisky in it, no water or soda, just the bare commodity; she really was a rather loathsome woman.

‘I hope this is the way you like it.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I think I remember that you smoke, too. The cigarettes may be rather stale. We have no use for them.’ She’d sprung back from a cupboard with a china box.

‘They’ll have a bit of go in them, then.’

‘A bit of go,’ she said, and sat down, smiling grimly and
obscurely
, feeling the joke all over for spring traps and double meanings. I lit the cigarette and decided not to make any more. It was dangerous to make jokes here. It was dangerous to say anything. I took a sip of whisky and felt my teeth go on edge again; head still booming faintly from the morning’s hangover.

‘You’re having a very busy time, Dr Laing.’

‘Well. People are being amiable.’

‘They are always amiable to success.’

‘I’m sure you’re right,’ I said. It was as well to be sure of that round here.

‘A most richly deserved one,’ she said strongly. ‘That goes without saying. It’s a surprising thing, all the same, for a man of your age to be given his chair.’

‘It’s a narrow field.’

‘Perhaps,’ she said carefully. ‘And perhaps one that is also enjoying a certain fashionable interest at the moment, together with apparently almost unlimited funds. To say all this doesn’t detract from the achievement, of course.’

It did, of course. She’d seen where my guard had wavered and had come through in a flash; a skilled and experienced
performer
. She was good, this cow. The mindless euphoria of weeks dispersed in a moment. I took another sip of whisky and felt it go.

She sat smiling, hands in her lap, well limbered up now. She tried for another round.

‘I expect it’ll be a bit of a wrench, all the same.’

‘Well. After three years.’

‘Leaving the accepted disciplines of an old university for something quite – new?’

‘Oh, of course. Certainly.’

Nothing doing there, and she saw it. She moved on hungrily. ‘We have at last read a copy of your paper in support of
Professor
Gordon of Brandeis.’

‘The Eteo-Cretans, you mean.’

‘Most brilliantly argued and individual.’ (‘Flashy,
rabble-fodder
.’) ‘As I understand it, you take the position that the Cretan and Hellenic cultures share a common stock with that of the Northern Semites.’

‘Well, Gordon does. I was just able to wing in with a few thoughts on my chosen people.’

‘Your chosen people?’

‘The Northern Semites.’

‘Ah, yes. They are Jews, are they?’

‘Jews, pre-Jews, Syrians, Phoenicians. That lot.’

She said, ‘That lot,’ smile well-diluted. ‘Yes. I must say I was much more able to understand your racy and amusing
exposition
’ – (‘Clown. Popularizer!’) – ‘than Professor Gordon’s very taxing work. Although as I understand it, the position is not generally accepted.’

‘No. Well. The readings are all fairly tentative. The
daftness
has to come out early, you know. Apprentices like me are expected to fly about and make wild suppositions. Every now and again one of them might turn out to be right.’

This modesty was both pleasing and aggravating to her in roughly equal proportions. Her hands moved restlessly in her lap. She was ready for a workout and all I was showing her was the shoulder, a small target, kept well in, moving fast.

She said, ‘Perhaps we’d better not discuss it now. I know Birkett wants to talk to you about it.’

Birkett wasn’t talking to anybody at the moment; unless, possibly, himself. I’d been watching with fascination a certain rabbity movement of his upper lip, not quite in phase with his chewing, that could have been a few obligatory sutras of the Bhagavad Gita or simply some metabolism-controlling
procedure
. If he’d heard anything of the proceeding rigmarole, which was doubtful, its essential malice had certainly escaped him. An odd bird, paralysingly barmy, with his own unique facial blend reminiscent of an overwrought John Stuart Mill and a deathbed Picasso; a man courteous, mild and modest in all but his opinions, by which of course he had to make a living. He hadn’t yet made the Chair in English Literature his wife lusted after. He wasn’t ever likely to. A decidedly odd bird, and with a decidedly odd-bird coterie; for whom my boots, shirt and jacket tonight.

He finished eating and drank a glass of water and went out, gravely clearing his throat, and began to have a piddle next door. He had it apparently immediately behind my chair,
apparently
in the very centre of the bowl, at immoderate length. We sat and listened, no trace of expression crossing his wife’s face, all evidently in good and wholesome order.

‘And what exactly,’ she asked at length, ‘are you supposed to be doing now?’

I told her what I was supposed to be doing.

‘Oh, yes. I’d heard you’d run into difficulties.’

‘Expected ones. A lot of the stuff is out of print and I have to find it.’

The uproar behind me continued unabated. I began to worry that the amazing little devil might through sheer absence of mind be piddling himself away entirely.

‘When is it you take up residence at Beds?’

‘At the end of January.’

‘But that’s – what? – two months’ time.’

‘Yes. I shan’t be here all the time. I’m having a little jaunt around the private libraries.’

Behind me, to my relief, Birkett came to a tentative melodic conclusion, and a few moments later, a final one.

‘That will be your last little jaunt for some time, I suppose?’

‘I suppose it will.’

‘I imagine in one sense you will regret that. A man of your temperament likes to be out in the field.’

‘Well. You can’t do everything.’

‘Certainly not. Not without making a botch, and you mustn’t risk that. I imagine you’ll want to give yourself three or four years to get the department established.’

‘That kind of period.’

‘I’m sure your flair will survive it,’ she said.

You couldn’t really keep her off. A consistent scorer, always picking up points for aggression, very good inside, and with a dig in both fists; class. Once she’d opened you up, your only hope was to smother her as she came in. She came in now, hooking accurately.

‘I remember reading somewhere there are two distinct types in your discipline, the intuitive and the deductive, the one
becoming
activated early and somewhat spasmodically, and the other much later at some critical stage of knowledge-accretion. Rather like a nuclear pile,’ she said, humorously.

‘Or a compost heap.’ I smiled back, to show how
unconcerned
our earlier type could be at this question of flair, its periodicity and duration. She’d certainly been reading
somebody
, the cow; probably me.

The tap had been whistling as Birkett washed his hands, and he came in after a moment – in no way noticeably diminished, I noted with surprise. His wife got up and went out – as I thought, with alarm and rapidly changing my seat, for a
celebratory
piddle herself. But it wasn’t that. The sounds indicated presently that she was getting glasses for her expected guests, and shortly after, at nine, and not the eight-thirty I had
supposed
, they began to drift in.

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