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Authors: Iris Murdoch

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BOOK: The Sandcastle
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Miss Handforth went away, coughing and sneezing, through a green baize door in
the direction of the kitchen. Mor went through to what she called the
downstairs toilet and tried to wash his hands. They were blackened, as usual,
by the ancient rubber grips on the handle-bars. Soap made little impression on
the dirt, although plenty came off on the towel. Mor, who had deduced from Miss
Handforth’s tone that she was hostile to Mr Demoyte’s other guest, decided that
he would not be, as she put it, polite, and instead he mounted the stairs and
knocked on the door of Demoyte’s dressing-room. A growl came from inside.
‘May I come in, sir?’ said Mor.
‘No,’ said Demoyte’s voice. ‘Go away. You’re infernally early. Three minutes
ago I was asleep. Now I have to make a decision about my trousers. I’m not
going to receive you in my shift. There’s a charming lady down in the
drawing-room.’
Mor turned away and went slowly downstairs again. Half thoughtfully he
straightened his tie. As he made for the drawing-room door he saw through a
vista of passages straight into the kitchen; the figure of Handy was discovered
in a listening attitude. Mor made an ambiguous gesture of complicity. Handy
replied with another gesture and a resounding snort. Mor was not sure what she
meant. He went into the drawing-room and closed the door softly behind him.
The room was full of yellow evening light and its three tall windows were wide
open on to the garden. It faced the side of the house, overlooking a long
enclosed lawn which was separated from the front drive by a brick wall. Beyond
the lawn was a thick dark yew hedge cut in the centre by a stone archway
beneath which an iron gate led into a second garden which was invisible from
the windows. This garden consisted of another lawn, with a wide herbaceous
border at either end. Beyond it and at a higher level lay a third garden which
was reached by a flight of stone steps. On either side of the steps were two
clipped holly bushes, and on either side of these a low box hedge which grew on
top of the flower-hung wall which marked the difference of level between the
two gardens. This last one was the rose garden, a triangular strip ending in an
avenue of mulberries which led towards the farthest tapering point of Demoyte’s
estate. After that there were taller trees through which in winter were
revealed the red roofs of the housing estate, but which in summer enclosed the
horizon except where at one place their line was broken by the upwardly
pointing finger, just visible from the house, of the neo-Gothic tower of St
Bride’s.
The drawing-room was empty. Mor felt some relief. He fingered his tie again,
and sat down quietly in one of the chairs. He loved this room. In his own home,
although there were few ornaments, and such as there were were chosen carefully
by Nan to harmonize with the curtains, no part of it seemed to blend into a
unity. The objects remained separate, their shapes and their colours almost invisible.
Here, on the contrary, although the room was overcrowded and its contents
extremely miscellaneous, all seemed to come together into a whirl of red and
gold wherein each thing, though contributing to the whole, became more itself.
A rich Feraghan carpet covered the floor, almost entirely obscured by equally
splendid rugs which lay edge to edge over its surface. Pieces of furniture
stood about, without plan or pattern, their only obvious intention being to
provide as many smooth surfaces as possible upon which might be placed cups,
bowls, vases, boxes, together with a variety of smaller objects made of ivory,
jade, jet, glass, and amber.
Petit-point
cushions crowded so thick upon
most of the chairs that it was quite hard to find anywhere to sit down. The
walls were papered in a gold-and-white pattern, but were rarely visible between
the most splendid of the rugs which hung upon them, stretched at various angles
between the floor and the ceiling, and glowing there with silky vitality like
the skins of fabulous animals. Mor half closed his eyes and the forms about him
became hazier and more intense. He let the colours enter into him. He rested.
Then suddenly with a strange shock of alarm he realized that upon a table at
the far end of the room a very small woman was kneeling. He had not noticed her
as he came in, since the colours of her dress faded into the background, and he
had not expected to see her at that point in space. She had her back to him,
and seemed to be examining one of the rugs which hung on the wall behind the
table.
‘I’m so sorry!’ said Mor, jumping us.‘I didn’t see you!’
The young woman turned abruptly, tilted the table with her weight, tried to
spring off it, and then fell on the floor. Mor ran forward, but she had
recovered herself before he reached her.
‘You frightened me,’ she said. ‘I didn’t hear you come in.’
They looked at each other. Mor saw a very short youthful-looking girl, with
boyishly cut dark hair, and darkly rosy cheeks, wearing a black cotton blouse,
an elaborately flowered red skirt, and a necklace of large red beads; and he
became for an instant acutely aware of what the girl was seeing: a tall
middle-aged schoolmaster, with a twisted face and the grey coming in his hair.
‘I am Rain Carter,’ said the girl.
‘I am William Mor,’ said Mor. ‘I’m so sorry I alarmed you.’
‘That’s quite all right,’ said Miss Carter. ‘I was just looking at this rug.
She spoke in a slightly prim way.
‘That’s one of Mr Demoyte’s treasures,’ said Mor. ‘I believe it’s a Shíráz.’ He
thought, how very small she is, and how like a child. Perhaps Evvy was right
after all. Her eyes were dark brown and fugitive, her nose rather broad and
tilted. A not unpleasant face.
It is a Shíráz,‘ said Miss Carter. ’Do you notice how mysteriously the colours
behave here? Each piece has its own shade, and then there is a sort of surface
colour which the whole rug has which is different, a sort of blush.‘ She spoke
with a pedantic solemnity that Mor found touching and absurd. He found himself
wondering if she could really paint. He stretched out his hand to touch the
rug, and as he moved it its lustre changed. The surface was extremely close and
smooth. He caressed it for a moment.
Before Mor could think of a suitably impressive answer to Miss Carter’s remark,
Demoyte came in. Mor turned about, and looked at Demoyte with some surprise. At
this time in the evening the old man was usually to be found wearing a frayed
velvet jacket, of a tobacco-stained red colour, and a rather limp bow tie. This
evening, however, he was wearing a grey lounge suit, which Mor had rarely seen,
and an ordinary tie. He had put a clean shirt on. He came in with head thrust
forward and bore down upon them. Though he stooped now, he was still a tall man
and with a head only just not grotesquely large for his body. His nose seemed
to have grown bigger with age. His eyes were blue and looked out between many
ridges of almost white dry skin. Scant white hairs still clung in a gentle film
to his bulging skull.
‘What!’ shouted Demoyte, ‘you haven’t given Miss Carter a drink! Mor, you are
only fit to be a country schoolmaster. Excuse our provincial habits, Miss
Carter, we don’t know any better. You will have some sherry?’ He began to pour
it out.
“Thank you,‘ said Miss Carter, ’but do not blame Mr Mor. He has only this
moment seen me. He thought I was part of a rug.‘ As Miss Carter replied to
Demoyte her primness became coyly animated. Mor looked at her again. Although
she had no accent, she spoke English as if it were not quite her native tongue.
He remembered that her mother had been French.
‘And so you might be, my dear,’ said Demoyte; ‘a flower, a bird, an antelope.’
He handed her the glass with a flourish.
Miss Handforth was discovered leaning in the doorway. ‘The dinner’s ready,’ she
said, ‘but I suppose you aren’t.’
‘Go away, Handy,’ said Demoyte. ‘You’re far too early. You all seem to want to
get the evening over quick. Mr Mor’s better half is still to come.’
‘Well, what am I to do about the dinner?’ said Miss Handforth. ‘Spoil it by
over-cooking, or let it get cold? I don’t mind which it is, but just let me
know.’
There was a knock on the outside door, and then Nan stepped into the hall. Mor
saw her head appear suddenly behind Miss Handforth.
‘Nan!’ he said, as if to protect her from the hostility of the house against
her. He went to help her off with her coat, a service which it never seemed to
occur to Demoyte or Miss Handforth to perform, and then led her back into the
drawing-room, holding her by the hand. Nan had made what she herself would call
a real social effort, and was dressed in a smart well-fitting black dress with
which she wore a pearl necklace which Mor had bought once from Tim Burke at a
reduced price as a wedding anniversary present. Her wavy hair, glossy and
impeccably set, framed the pale oval face, smoothly powdered and unmarked by
wrinkles, the long mouth and the shrewd eyes, intelligent, practical, reliable,
full of power. She looked a tall handsome woman, well dressed and confident.
Mor looked at her with approval. In any conflict with the outside world Nan was
invariably an efficient ally.
‘Nan, may I introduce Miss Carter,’ said Mor, since Do-moyte said nothing.
‘Miss Carter, my wife.’
The women smiled and greeted each other, and Nan as usual refused the glass of
sherry which Demoyte as usual poured out and offered to her.
‘As I said before, the meal is ready,’ said Miss Handforth, who was still
standing in the doorway. ‘If the ladies want to go upstairs first, they know
the way. Meanwhile I shall be bringing in the soup.’
‘Oh, shut up, Handy,’ said Demoyte. ‘Give us a moment to finish our sherry, and
don’t rush the ladies.’
Nan and Miss Carter took the opportunity to withdraw, and Miss Handforth
stumped away to the kitchen. Mor turned to Demoyte and looked him over. Demoyte
peered at Mor, his eyes gleaming and his nose wrinkled in what Mor had learnt
to recognize as a smile. Demoyte’s heavy sardonic mouth did not follow the
usual conventions about smiling.
‘Why the fancy dress, sir?’ said Mor, indicating the lounge suit.
‘Not a word!’ said Demoyte, conspiratorially. ‘Am I to be summed up by a slip
of a girl? You don’t know what I’ve suffered in these last twenty-four hours!
She wants to see pictures of my parents, pictures of me as a child, pictures of
me as a student. She wants to know what I’ve written. She practically asked if
I kept a diary. It’s like having a psychiatrist in the house. Her sense of
vocation is like a steam hammer. You wouldn’t think it to look at her, would
you? But I’m going to lead her up the garden. I’ve got her thoroughly foxed so
far. She shan’t know what I’m like if I can help it! These clothes are part of
the game. Ssh! here she comes.’ They all went in to dinner.
They had reached the dessert. Nan was methodically eating a pear and Miss
Carter was picking daintily at a branch of very small grapes. Mor was enjoying
the port. Demoyte sat at the head of the table and Mor sat at the foot with the
ladies between them. As Nan had predicted, no place had been set this evening
for Miss Handforth. This person towered over the table, often leaning upon it
as she made a remark, sneezing from time to time, and breathing down the
ladies’ necks.
Demoyte said, ‘I asked old Bledyard to come to complete the party, but he made
some excuse, obviously false. Miss Carter hasn’t met our Bledyard yet.’
Bledyard was the art master at St Bride’s, an eccentric.
‘I look forward to meeting him,’ said Miss Carter. ‘I have seen some of his
work. It is good.’
‘Really?’ said Mor. ‘I didn’t realize Bledyard ever actually painted anything!’
‘He used to, certainly,’ said Miss Carter. ‘I have seen at least three good
landscapes. But I gather now he has theories which interfere with his
painting?’
‘His head is full of cant,’ said Demoyte, ‘which he employs to excuse the fact
that he can’t paint any more. That’s how I see it. But at any rate Bledyard is
a man. He’s got some stuff inside him. Not like the pious dolls poor Evvy will
fill the place with before long. You’d better start clearing out, you infidel,’
he said to Mor.
Mor, who was anxious to skirt the dangerous subject of his clearing out, said
quickly, ‘I believe we are both to lunch with Mr Everard on Thursday, Miss
Carter. I think Bledyard has been invited too.’ He regretted this change of
subject at once, since it struck him that Everard had as usual blundered in
inviting him and failing to invite Nan. This aspect of the matter had not
struck him when Everard had mentioned the lunch that afternoon. Nan put down
her fruit knife noisily and drank some water.
‘You’ll get nothing to drink with Evvy,’ said Demoyte. ‘Better stoke up now.
Have some more wine, Miss Carter. Can’t I persuade you, Mrs Mor? See, Miss
Carter is drinking like a fish, and is more sober than any of us.’ Mor had
noticed this too.
Miss Carter did not rise to this quip. She said rather solemnly, ‘I have only
met Mr Everard once. I look forward to seeing him again.’
‘Impossible!’ said Demoyte. ‘What did you think of poor Evvy? Let’s hear Evvy
summed up!’ He winked at Mor.
Miss Carter hesitated. She cast a quick suspicious look at Demoyte. ‘I think he
has a fresh and gentle face,’ she said firmly. ‘He seems a man without any
malice in him. That is both rare and good.’

BOOK: The Sandcastle
3.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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