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Authors: Gerald Bullet

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‘Youngish,' said Mr Pryde. ‘Fair side of forty, I should say.'

‘And what sort of a customer
is
he?'

‘Customer?' echoed Mr Pryde. ‘Oh, I see. You don't mean customer. You mean in a manner of speaking. You mean person.'

‘He means doctor,' Matthew put in.

‘Funny you saying customer though,' said the landlord, laughing shortly. ‘There's no doubt he's a good customer to some folks. That's just the trouble p'raps.'

‘It's like that, is it?' said Roger sagaciously, though in fact he did not as yet understand these dark sayings. ‘Is he clever?'

‘Clever they do call him,' said the landlord. ‘And it's not for me to say more than that. Not me in my position.'

‘Come,' said Roger, coaxingly, ‘we're all friends here! Mum's the word and no bones broken.'

‘There is such a thing,' remarked Mr Pryde, ‘as libel actions. And win or lose they don't do a house any good.'

‘Ah yes,' said Roger.

Matthew nodded his agreement. ‘Very true.'

‘Not but what,' said the landlord. And stopped abruptly. The sentence hung fire. ‘Not but what it's common knowledge,' he finally brought out. I'm not,' he went on, ‘a man to talk against drinking, now am I? Provided it's done in reason and respectability, am I? You know that, Mr Elderbrook. You know that, Mr Haslam. But when doctors arrive at confinements in no fit state, and bring babies into the world breathing their last, it makes you wonder. Now I've named no names, have I?'

‘You certainly have not,' said Roger firmly.

‘Ask anyone,' the landlord urged him. ‘Don't rely on me. Pleasant-spoken little fellow, full of his fun they say. But there's two things you can't have in a doctor. One's a glass too much, and the other's women. As to women I say nothing. It wouldn't be right, because I don't know. And nothing beyond these four walls, gentlemen. Eh?'

‘That's right,' said Roger.

Matthew remarked thoughtfully: ‘Babies do die sometimes, of course, even with the soberest doctor.'

‘True enough,' said Mr Pryde. ‘True enough.'

He gave Matthew a hooded searching look, wondering whether he had touched him on a sore spot. The anxiety was groundless. Matthew and Ann had lost no child. In their five years of marriage there had been no sign of one.

§ 13

The internal telephone rang. Miss Trimmer lifted her receiver.

‘Mr Elderbrook's office? … Yes? Yes. Does he wish to speak on the telephone? … Very well. In his room.'

‘What is it, Miss Trimmer? Didn't you tell them I was engaged?'

‘The Minister would like a word with Mr Elderbrook in his room,' said Miss Trimmer, imitating the somewhat too precise articulation of the Minister's personal secretary. ‘Not Mr Elderbrook's room, the Minister's,' she explained.

‘Now?' said Guy.

‘This very minute, Mr Elderbrook,' said Miss Trimmer sweetly.

She half-shut her eyes, the better to enjoy her fancy that she, for once, was commanding her commander. She was a thin-lipped and not very young woman with tea-rose colouring and eyebrows so fair as to be almost invisible. Her small bald brow resembled a human knee. She was extremely efficient, worked like a slave for unreasonably long hours, and did not consistently hate her Mr Elderbrook in spite of the ferocious busyness he imposed upon her. The tincture of irony in her attitude was not lost on him; nor in general did it displease him; so long as she did his work accurately his secretary was welcome to her whims.

Except on conference days, which were part of the routine,
Lord Vogue did not often require a personal visit: ordinarily he said what he had to say by telephone or memorandum. Today's summons was sufficiently unusual, therefore, to give Guy a moment's mild curiosity. Miss Trimmer was aware of this, and his air of lordly disinterest delighted her. He will not get up at once, she said to herself. Won't he, Nellie? What will he do then? You'll see, dear. To establish his independence, and show that Lord Vogue is not everyone, he'll pretend to be concentrated on a piece of work for three minutes, then break off with a start, stretch himself a little, rise from his chair, and lope casually out of the room…. There you are. There he goes. What did I tell you? … These scraps of dialogue between Miss Trimmer and herself were a great solace to her. Sometimes, in the seclusion of the ladies' lavatory, she performed them aloud for the entertainment of the other girls, to applause which made it almost worth while being Mr Elderbrook's secretary, a position not eagerly sought after.

As if unconsciously to offset his youthfulness of face and figure, Guy had acquired in recent years a certain deliberation in his movements and a certain sonorousness in his manner of speaking. He walked, on official occasions, not indeed with a stoop, but with head forward, shoulders slightly hunched, and arms slowly purposefully swinging: a cross between a pugilist and a panther, said Miss Trimmer indulgently, but rather sweet, you must admit, dear. For the beauty of Mr Elderbrook was that these acquired mannerisms, which by their suggestion of formidable power and stern resolve were calculated to make a woman's flesh creep, and which incidentally were in marked contrast to Lord Vogue's carefully erect bearing, could be cast off in a trice, and the aloof important personage, known in the ladies' lavatory as Pomp and Circumstance, give place to a debonair young man as full of wit and charm as of self-esteem. Still other and more artless sides of his personality were in evidence at home, 23 Whitehall Avenue: Mrs Macfarlane's house, but newly furnished according to Nora's young fancy, and with
Mrs Macfarlane unobtrusively occupying only the top floor. For seven disturbing and revealing months Nora had been his wife and Mrs MacFarlane his landlady-guest. In all these arrangements, the marriage, the choice of residence, and the befriending of Charlie's mother, kindness and self-interest had conveniently pointed the same way. When the war ended no doubt there would have to be a change to something more consonant with his enlarging dignity; but the war showed no sign of ending yet, and meanwhile it was pleasant for Nora to have Mrs Macfarlane at hand, and pleasant for Mrs Macfarlane to have Nora's expected baby to think about and make clothes
for
.

The war showed no sign of ending, and the Minister had sent for him. Why?

‘Ah yes,' said Lord Vogue. ‘Come in, Elderbrook. Sit down.' He nodded to his secretary. ‘That'll do for the moment.'

The secretary retired, leaving the potentates to their conference.

Lord Vogue was a large, full-bodied man in his late fifties. The wide high brow surmounting his somewhat heavy, fleshy face carried a specious suggestion of intellectual power which, with industriousness, amiable manners, and a definite modicum of talent, had served him well in both his commercial and his political career. He had worked hard for his success, and worked others hard; and now, beginning to feel his age at last, he cherished the illusion that he was at heart an unworldly man who wanted nothing so much as to retire to the country, cultivate his garden, and perhaps write his memoirs. Hard in business dealing and agile in political manoeuvre, he was kindly and often generous in personal relationships; and he had a paternal liking for young Elderbrook, as young Elderbrook very well knew.

‘Something has occurred,' said Lord Vogue.

Guy could well believe it. Something was always occurring, both inside the department and on the larger stage of history:
meatless days; munition-workers buying pianos; an American liner torpedoed; war loan campaigns; new and better recruiting schemes; national registration; food queues; industrial strikes; an English nurse executed by the Germans; Gallipoli; rebellion in Ireland; changes in the Allied command; and, on the western front, life for ever draining away in victories that were never victory and defeats that were never defeat. But it could hardly be things of this sort that Lord Vogue had in mind, for they were public knowledge, one had them for breakfast every morning. Yet a Minister, even though not a member of the War Cabinet, might well have advance information: Lord Vogue was in touch, and had need to be, with numerous advisory committees and military tribunals. More than twelve months had passed since the summer of 1916 when the bitterly defended voluntary system of recruitment breathed its last, and all men between eighteen and forty-one became, by Act of Parliament, liable for compulsory service. Guy was thirty-four.

‘Indeed, sir?' said Guy.

‘I don't wish it to be generally known,' said Lord Vogue, ‘but between ourselves, Mr Dymott is leaving us.'

‘I'm sorry,' said Guy, in a hushed voice well matched to his look of sympathetic concern.

‘Yes, I'm sure you are,' said Lord Vogue, without irony. ‘For my own part I shall miss him very much. Poor Percy! But he has not—let's face it—he has not been quite himself lately. His health … isn't what it was.'

‘Quite,' said Guy, aware that Mr Dymott and his chief had been at loggerheads for some time.

‘He has thought it right to offer me his resignation, on a point (as he sees it) of principle. And after very careful—I might almost say prayerful—thought, I have felt it my duty to let him go. The position he occupies here, as you know, is one of very considerable authority and importance. And as the work of this Ministry becomes better known to the public, that importance is likely to increase rather than, ah, diminish. Publicity cannot always be avoided, and publicity—let's face
it—does open the door to criticism. You take my point, I think?'

‘Perfectly,' said Guy.

‘In a nutshell it's this. The man who succeeds Mr Dymott in his high office—I think that isn't putting it too strongly? …'

‘Not at all, sir,' said Guy.

‘… must possess not only Mr Dymott's technical qualifications and unimpeachable, quite unimpeachable, personal integrity, if you follow me. He must also possess—how shall I put it?—something that for want of a better term I will call
tact
. Tact and a certain, ah, mental
flexibility
, don't you know? An indefinable something which in moments of crisis and testing, such as must come to all of us from time to time, will enable him to place loyalty to the Ministry, I won't say to the Minister, above fine-drawn, hair-splitting scruples which, while they may look very well on paper, very well indeed, belong rather to the realm of visionary idealism than to this poor old workaday world of ours. Vision we must have. Indeed we must. I'll not have a word said against vision,
but …'

Lord Vogue paused, in search of inspiration. He paused long enough for Guy to disburden himself of a phrase which had been haunting his mind throughout this interview, and which he felt sure the Minister was groping for.

‘You mean, sir,' he ventured, ‘it isn't practical politics.'

‘Exactly,' said Lord Vogue. ‘Exactly, my boy,' he repeated, with the delight of one saluting an epigram.

After an appreciative silence he spoke again.

‘You may be wondering, Elderbrook, why I tell you all this, and with such unbridled candour. But I shall come to the reason in a minute. The point I'm making at the moment is twofold: that Mr Dymott's going will create a vacancy, and that we must be very, very careful who we put' into it. Right. What next? Well, the next thing is this. As you probably know, for I've noticed you have a knack of knowing things, the Treasury is perpetually urging upon us the necessity, the imperative necessity, of retrenchment and, ah, economy.
They would like—let's face it—to see our salary-aggregate reduced. Now any man who steps into Mr Dymott's shoes from, shall we say, a lower official grading will naturally expect a substantial increment; and to concede him that would be no more than justice. But, frankly, I should not feel justified in offering a younger man, a considerably younger man, the figure Mr Dymott has been drawing. Which figure,' said Lord Vogue, with a sudden sharp look, surprisingly at variance with his former blandness, ‘I fancy you know as well as I do, young man.'

Guy smiled. Staff salaries were in theory a jealously guarded secret of the Accounts Department. But it was true that secrets had a habit of straying into his possession, and he did not trouble to disavow this one.

‘Taking up your point about economy, sir, it seems to me,' said Guy, looking at once modest and noble, ‘that no young or youngish man working in this Ministry, while other men are dying in France, could have the face to look twice at his salary.'

Lord Vogue looked solemn and sympathetic. ‘I'm glad you feel like that, Elderbrook. And I'm pretty confident you won't be the loser by it.'

‘It's more than a feeling,' said Guy, with sudden tragic fire. ‘I ought to tell you, I've been wanting to tell you, that I'm far from happy about my position here. I mean, of course, in relation to the war. I'm young and I'm—reasonably fit, so far as I know. Our work here … I'm not denying its importance. It
is
important, and one has tried to … make one's little contribution, but … putting it brutally, haven't I been a starred man long enough? Isn't it time I shouldered a gun or learnt to pilot an aeroplane?'

‘Yes, yes,' said Lord Vogue. ‘I know how you feel, my boy. But my answer, and I'm speaking now as a responsible Minister of the Crown, my answer is that I can't spare you. Your place, your work, is
here
. Your particular combination of talents is … precisely what I need
here
. That's my first answer. My second answer,' said Lord Vogue, with a
dawning smile, ‘is to tell you that I've found just the man for Mr Dymott's job.'

He suddenly stood up, and held out his hand across the table.

‘Let
me
be the first to congratulate you, Elderbrook.'

§ 14

FOR months Ann's misery went on. And then for more months. Dr Waterhouse was called in. He came, listened, looked wise. He went away, breezy with promises of medicine, and Ann continued to drag herself painfully about the house, from bed to board, from chair to sofa, like the bewildered animal she was. Her body was an ill-packed parcel that had to be lugged with her wherever she went, had to be pushed and pulled and manoeuvred round corners and through narrow ways. But it was also a seat of pain: it demanded humouring, so that she could not repudiate it entirely and tell it to go to the devil, as her impatience prompted. Angry and impatient she often was, on the surface: below was a deep dumb resolve to suffer what must be suffered with as little outcry as possible.

BOOK: The Elderbrook Brothers
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