Read The kindly ones Online

Authors: Anthony Powell

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The kindly ones

BOOK: The kindly ones
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ANTHONY POWELL

THE KINDLY ONES

A NOVEL

Book 6

A Dance to the Music of Time

HEINEMANN   :   
LONDON

1

ALBERT, FLESHY, SALLOW, BLUE CHINNED, breathing hard, sweating a little, fitted an iron bar into sockets on either side of the wooden shutters he had just closed across the final window of the stable-block. Rolled shirt-sleeves, green baize apron, conferred a misleadingly businesslike appearance, instantly dispelled by carpet-slippers of untold shabbiness which encased his large, chronically tender feet. All work except cooking abhorrent to him, he went through the required movements with an air of weariness, almost of despair. In those days he must have been in his middle to late thirties. We were on good terms, although he possessed no special liking for children. Indeed, I was supposedly helping him lock up these outbuildings for the night, a task in principle all but completely accomplished, for some unknown reason, in late afternoon. Up to that moment, it is true, I had done no more than examine a coloured picture, fastened to the wall by four rusting drawing-pins, of Mr Lloyd George, fancifully conceived as extending from his mouth an enormous scarlet tongue, on the liquescent surface of which a female domestic servant in cap and apron, laughing heartily as if she much enjoyed the contact, was portrayed vigorously moistening the gum of a Health Insurance stamp. I was still contemplating this lively image of state-aided social service – which appeared in some manner to hint at behaviour unseemly, even downright improper – when night, as if arbitrarily induced at that too early hour by Albert’s lethargic exertions, fell abruptly in the shuttered room, blurring all at once the outlines of the anonymous artist’s political allegory. Albert withdrew ponderously from the dusk now surrounding us. I followed him into the broad daylight of the yard, where tall pine trees respired on the summer air a resinous, somehow alien odour, gently disinfectant like the gardens of a sanatorium in another country than England.

‘Don’t want any of them Virgin Marys busting in and burning the place down,’ Albert said.

Aware of a faint sense of horror at the prospect of so monstrous a contingency – enigmatic, no less than unhallowed, in its heretical insistence on plurality – I asked explanation.

‘Suffragettes.’

‘But they won’t come here?’

‘Never know.’

‘Do you think they will?’

‘Can’t tell what those hussies will do next.’

I felt in agreement with Albert that the precariousness of life was infinite. I pondered his earlier phrase. It was disconcerting. Why had he called suffragettes ‘Virgin Marys’? Then I remembered a fact that might throw light on obscurity. At lessons that morning – the subject classical mythology – Miss Orchard had spoken of the manner in which the Greeks, because they so greatly feared the Furies, had named them the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – flattery intended to appease their terrible wrath. Albert’s figure of speech was no doubt employed with a similar end in view towards suffragettes. He was by nature an apprehensive man; fond, too, of speaking in riddles. I recalled Miss Orchard’s account of the Furies. They inflicted the vengeance of the gods by bringing in their train war, pestilence, dissension on earth; torturing, too, by the stings of conscience. That last characteristic alone, I could plainly see, made them sufficiently unwelcome guests. So feared were they, Miss Orchard said, that no man mentioned their names, nor fixed his eyes upon their temples. In that respect, at least, the Furies differed from the suffragettes, whose malevolence was perpetually discussed by persons like Edith and Mrs Gullick, the former of whom had even seen suffragette processions on the march under their mauve-and-green banners. At the same time, the nature of suffragette aggression seemed to bear, in other respects, worthy comparison with that of the Furies, feminine, too, so far as could be judged, equally the precursors of fire and destruction. Thought of them turned my mind to other no less awe-inspiring, in some ways even more fascinating, local terrors with which we might have to contend during the hours of darkness.

‘Has Billson seen the ghost again?’

Albert shook his head, giving the impression that the subject of spectres, generally speaking, appealed to him less than to myself. He occupied one of the two or three small rooms beyond the loose-boxes, where he slept far away from the rest of the household. The occasional intrusion of Bracey into another of the stable rooms offered small support where ghosts were concerned. Bracey’s presence was intermittent, and, in any case, there was not sufficient fellow-feeling between the two of them to create a solid resistance to such visitations. It was, therefore, reasonable enough, since he inhabited such lonely quarters, for Albert to prefer no undue emphasis to be laid on the possibilities of supernatural appearance even in the house itself. To tell the truth, there was always something a little frightening about the stable-block in daytime too. The wooden bareness of its interior enjoyably reconstructed – in my own unrestricted imagination – a log cabin or palisade, loop-holed and bullet-scarred, to be defended against Zulus or Red Indians. In such a place, after nightfall, the bravest might give way to nameless dread of the occult world; more to be feared, indeed, than any crude physical onslaught from suffragettes, whose most far-fetched manifestations of spite and perversity would scarcely extend to an incendiary attack on the Stonehurst stables.

The ‘ghosts’ of Stonehurst, on the other hand, were a recognised feature of the place, almost an amenity in my own eyes, something far more real than suffragettes. Billson, the parlourmaid, had waked at an early hour only a week or two before to find a white shape of immense height standing beside her bed, disappearing immediately before she had time to come fully to her senses. That, in itself, might have been dismissed as a wholly imaginary experience, something calling for banter rather than sympathy or interest. Billson, however, confessed she had also on an earlier occasion found herself confronted with this or another very similar apparition, a spectre unfortunately reported in much the same terms by Billson’s immediate predecessor. In short, it looked very much as if the house was undeniably ‘haunted’. Maids were, in any case, disinclined to stay in so out-of-the-way a place as Stonehurst. Ghosts were likely to be no encouragement. Perhaps it was a coincidence that two unusually ‘highly strung’ persons had followed each other in that particular maid’s bedroom. Neither Albert himself, nor Mercy, the housemaid, had at present been subjected to such an ordeal. On the other hand, my nurse, Edith (herself, before my own day, a housemaid), had from time to time heard mysterious rappings in the night-nursery, noises which could not – as first supposed – be attributed to myself. What was more, my mother admitted to a recurrent sense, sometimes even in the day, of an uncomfortable presence in her bedroom. At night, there, she had waked once or twice overwhelmed with an inexplicable feeling of doom and horror. I record these things merely as a then accepted situation. Such circumstances might have been disregarded in a more rationalistic family; in one less metaphysically flexible, they could have caused agitation. In my own, they were received without scepticism, at the same time without undue trepidation. Any discussion on the subject took place usually behind closed doors, simply in order that the house should not acquire a reputation which might dry up entirely the sources of domestic staff. No effort was made to keep such talk from my own ears. My mother – together with her sisters in their unmarried days – had always indulged a taste for investigation of the Unseen World, which even the threatened inconveniences of the Stonehurst ‘ghosts’ could not entirely quench. My father, not equally on terms with such hidden forces, was at the same time no less imbued with belief. In short, the ‘ghosts’ were an integral, an essential part of the house; indeed, its salient feature.

All the same, hauntings were scarcely to be expected in this red-tiled bungalow, which was almost capacious, or so it seemed in those days, on account of its extreme, unnatural elongation. It had been built only thirteen or fourteen years before – about 1900, in fact – by some retired soldier, anxious to preserve in his final seclusion tangible reminder of service in India, at the same time requiring nothing of architecture likely to hint too disturbingly of the exotic splendours of Eastern fable. Stonehurst, it was true, might be thought a trifle menacing in appearance, even ill-omened, but not in the least exotic. Its configuration suggested a long, low Noah’s Ark, come uncomfortably to rest on a heather-grown, coniferous spur of Mount Ararat; a Noah’s Ark, the opened lid of which would reveal myself, my parents, Edith, Albert, Billson, Mercy, several dogs and cats, and, at certain seasons, Bracey and Mrs Gullick.

‘Tell her to give over,’ said Albert, adverting to the subject of Billson and her ‘ghost’. ‘Too much cold pork and pickles. That’s all the matter. Got into trouble with the indigestion merchants, or off her nut, one or the other. She’ll find herself locked up with the loonies if she takes on so.’

‘Billson said she’d give notice if it happened again.’

‘Give notice, I don’t think.’

‘Won’t she, then?’

‘Not while I’m here she won’t give notice. Don’t you believe it.’

Albert shook off one of his ancient bedroom slippers, adjusting the thick black woollen sock at the apex of the foot, where, not over clean, the nail of a big toe protruded from a hole at the end. Albert was an oddity, an exceptional member of the household, not only in himself and his office, but in relation to the whole character of my parents’ establishment. He had started life as hall-boy – later promoted footman – in my mother’s home before her marriage. After my grandmother’s death – the dissolution, as it always seemed in Albert’s reminiscence, of an epoch – he had drifted about from place to place, for the most part unhappily. Sometimes he quarrelled with the butler; sometimes his employers made too heavy demands on his time; sometimes, worst of all, the cook, or one of the maids, fell in love with him. Love, of course, in such cases, meant marriage. Albert was not, I think, at all interested in love affairs of an irregular kind; nor, for that matter, did he in the least wish to take a wife. On that subject, he felt himself chronically persecuted by women, especially by the most determined of his tormentors (given to writing him long, threatening letters), whom he used to call ‘the girl from Bristol’. This preoccupation with the molestations of the opposite sex probably explained his fears that evening of suffragette attack.

In the end, after moving from London to the country, from the country back to London, up to Cumberland, down to Cardigan, Albert had written to my mother – habitually in touch with almost everyone who had ever worked for her – suggesting that, as she was soon to lose a cook, he himself should exchange to that profession, which had always appealed to him, the art of cooking running in his blood through both parents. He was, indeed, known, even in his days as footman, for proficiency in cooking, which had come to him almost by the light of nature. His offer was, therefore, at once accepted, though not without a few privately expressed reservations as to the possibility of Albert’s turning out a ‘handful’. ‘Handful’ to some extent he was. Certainly his cooking was no disappointment. That was soon clear. The question why he should prefer employment with a family who lived on so unpretentious a scale, when he might have found little or no difficulty in obtaining a situation as chef in much grander circumstances, with more money and greater prestige, is not easily resolved. Lack of enterprise, physical indolence, liking for the routine of a small domestic community, all no doubt played a part; as also, perhaps, did the residue from a long-forgotten past, some feudal secretion, dormant, yet never entirely defunct within his bones, which predisposed him towards a family with whom he had been associated in his early days of service. That might have been. At the same time, such sentiments, even if they existed, were certainly not to be romantically exaggerated. Albert had few, if any, illusions. For example, he was not at all keen on Stonehurst as a place of residence. The house was little to his taste. He often said so. In this opinion there was no violent dissent from other quarters. Indeed, all concerned agreed in thinking it just as well we should not have to live at Stonehurst for ever, the bungalow being rented ‘furnished’ on a short renewable lease, while my father’s battalion was stationed in the Aldershot Command.

The property stood in country partaking in general feature of the surroundings of that uniquely detestable town, although wilder, more deserted, than its own immediate outskirts. The house, built at the summit of a steep hill, was reached by a stony road – the uneven, treacherous surface of pebbles probably accounting for the name – which turned at a right-angle halfway up the slope, running between a waste of gorse and bracken, from out of which emerged an occasional ivy-strangled holly tree or withered fir: landscape of seemingly purposeful irresponsibility, intentional rejection of all scenic design. In winter, torrents of water gushed over the pebbles and down the ruts of this slippery route (perilous to those who, like General Conyers, attempted the journey in the cars of those days) which continued for two or three hundred yards at the top of the hill, passing the Stonehurst gate. The road then bifurcated, aiming in one direction towards a few barely visible roofs, clustered together on the distant horizon; in the other, entering a small plantation of pine trees, where Gullick, the Stonehurst gardener (fascinatingly described once by Edith in my unobserved presence as ‘born out of wedlock’), lived in his cottage with Mrs Gullick. Here, the way dwindled to a track, then became a mere footpath, leading across a vast expanse of heather, its greyish, pinkish tones stained all the year round with great gamboge patches of broom: country taking fire easily in hot summers.

The final limits of the Stonehurst estate, an extensive wired-in tract of desert given over to the devastations of a vast brood of much interbred chickens, bordered the heath, which stretched away into the dim distance, the heather rippling in waves like an inland sea overgrown with weed. Between the chickens and the house lay about ten acres of garden, flower beds, woodland, a couple of tennis courts. The bungalow itself was set away from the road among tall pines. Behind it, below a bank of laurel and Irish yews, espaliered roses sloped towards a kitchen-garden, where Gullick, as if gloomily contemplating the accident of his birth, was usually to be found pottering among the vegetables, foretelling a bad season for whichever crop he stood among. Beyond the white-currant bushes, wild country began again, separated from Stonehurst civilisation by only a low embankment of turf. This was the frontier of a region more than a little captivating – like the stables – on account of its promise of adventure. Dark, brooding plantations of trees; steep, sandy slopes; soft, velvet expanses of green moss, across which rabbits and weasels incessantly hurried on their urgent business: a terrain created for the eternal campaign of warring armies, whose unceasing operations justified recognition of Albert’s sleeping-quarters as the outworks of a barbican, or stockade, to be kept in a permanent state of defence. Here, among these woods and clearings, sand and fern, silence and the smell of pine brought a kind of release to the heart, together with a deep-down wish for something, something more than battles, perhaps not battles at all; something realised, even then, as nebulous, blissful, all but unattainable: a feeling of uneasiness, profound and oppressive, yet oddly pleasurable at times, at other times so painful as to be almost impossible to bear.

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