The Skull and the Nightingale (3 page)

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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Later, in response to his promptings, I told him various tales of my travels, speaking, I thought, gaily and well. He listened with attention, seeming by degrees to relax his customary reserve: I could even fancy that he looked at me with approval. On occasion our dialogue all but quickened into raillery.

“I inferred from your letters,” he said with lizardlike dryness, “that throughout your travels you conducted yourself in an exemplary way.”

“It seemed appropriate, sir, to represent myself in a sober light.”

My godfather allowed himself a ghost of a smile: “I hope this sense of propriety did not circumscribe your pleasures.”

“I was at pains to resist that possibility,” said I, with a reciprocal hint of self-mockery.

He looked me directly in the eye, still faintly smiling.

“I notice a scar on the back of your hand.”

“You embarrass me, sir. It goes back to a small encounter in Florence.”

“A matter of honor?”

“Of intoxication, rather. It was a foolish incident, but no great harm was done.”

He nodded to close the subject, and then turned a sudden conversational corner.

“It is two years since last you were here. Have you perceived any differences?”

“Only that the great oak tree has gone that once stood beside the house.”

“It had become too old and brittle. It reminded me too much of myself.”

Taken by surprise, I could fashion no suitably consoling response, but my godfather did not seem to notice. He sat staring at nothing before speaking again:

“I hope you will stay for some few days, and gain a sense of my life here.”

T
wo evenings later some guests from the neighborhood came to dinner. I was curious to meet these people, since I might one day have to live on terms with them, and curious, too, to see how my reticent godfather would comport himself in company. But equally it would be my task to rise to whatever the occasion was intended to be. I should think of myself as in some sense on display.

How much the visitors would know of my situation and prospects I could not guess. I would probably be the youngest person present and the one of least social consequence. On the other hand, I was educated, gentlemanly, and had recently traveled. It would not do to be ingratiating nor yet forward. I resolved to stay out of general conversation, as far as possible, but to show myself attentive to individuals.

The loudest of the company proved to be Mr. Hurlock, a florid squire with a buxom wife. He was a rattling, rallying fellow, aggressive in his manner, with a laugh like the bray of an animal. I saw in him an aging country bully, coarse and discontented. Mr. Quentin, a dark man with a brooding gaze, conveyed more intelligence with greater sobriety of manner. Of a different cast altogether was Mr. Yardley, as lean as my godfather, with the stooped shoulders and sallow cheeks of one who devoted many hours to reading. I remembered to have heard him mentioned as a naturalist and collector. There was also Mr. Thorpe, a young parson, new to the village. He wore a propitiating smile under an alert eye.

Hurlock greeted me boisterously: “So you come here from France, young gentleman. Here in Worcestershire we turned against that country in ’45, when the Jacobites reached Derby and we felt French breath on the back of our necks.”

I soon diverted him to the subject of hunting, on which he had much to say. Eventually relieved of his company by my godfather, I escaped to Thorpe, who proved to be a former Oxford student and quizzed me amiably about university matters.

At dinner I had Mrs. Hurlock on my right hand, and found my eye taken more than once by her prominent bosom—a former attraction declined, it seemed, to a feeding apparatus, since she confided that she had borne several children. I could see that twenty years before she must have been a covetable young lady, but time and a coarse husband had diminished her assurance. “I believe you are a scholar,” she told me, “and already a man of the world. Alas, I am merely a mother.” To keep her conversing about her surviving offspring was as simple as whipping a top.

On my left sat Mrs. Quentin, another dilapidated beauty. I first saw her from behind, and fancied from her slim figure that she was hardly more than thirty. She had merely to turn round to age twenty years, her face being faded and unhappy. When I tried to converse with her over dinner, I noticed a reticence and an odd cast of expression apparently attributable to the same cause, namely her desire to keep concealed a set of blackened teeth. I talked to her in a free and lively vein to create the illusion of an exchange, but avoided provoking laughter lest she should feel obliged to join in.

The wider discussion lurched between local and national concerns. Such political comment as I heard was so fanciful that it could have concerned the government of Japan: but after all, these folk were a hundred country miles from London—two full days of travel. Hurlock blustered, Thorpe was emollient, Quentin brusque. Yardley spoke but little. My godfather was the best informed of the company and showed considerable social address. With no attempt to dominate, he yet led the conversation, his manner dry and sometimes satirical. He took in all that passed, and had a word for everybody at the table.

Certain fragments of talk stayed in my memory. At one time my attention was caught by a sudden intensity in my godfather’s voice.

“We are told,” he said, “that the Almighty requires praise. I cannot understand why. Is it not as though I should want my dogs to praise me for feeding them?”

“Perhaps, sir,” ventured Thorpe, “you are interpreting the instruction too literally. Might it not be a figure—a mode of enjoining us to an
active
appreciation of our existence in a miraculous universe?”

“You men of the cloth are all alike,” cried Hurlock through a mouthful of food. “If we question any mystery of religion, you tell us that it is no more than a damned figure. What do you leave us of substance to believe in?”

His truculence momentarily silenced the table.

“There are the commandments,” said Thorpe mildly. “Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Hurlock made to expostulate further, but Mr. Gilbert spoke up before him.

“Yes,” said he, with an emphasis that concluded the exchange, “those would seem to offer us something to steer by—and something to fear.”

When the ladies retired the conversation took a different turn. My godfather, who had drunk frugally, seeming to enjoy his sips more than Hurlock his mouthfuls, proceeded to draw out Mr. Yardley, who had hitherto been almost silent. With a little prompting he was induced to address the company on the subject of poisons. He spoke in a high, wavering voice, chuckling from time to time at the curiosities he mentioned:

“We have little understanding of susceptibility. A substance that will gratify one organism may prove fatal to another. You gentlemen drink brandy with pleasure, but it is known that a small amount of that beverage will kill a cat. Heh, heh! Sheep thrive on grass, but clover may prove fatal to them. We know that a snakebite may kill, but what shall we say when a man dies from the sting of a bee, as has happened in this very parish? Heh, heh! This is the mystery of reaction: the element introduced combines fatally with something in the constitution of the victim.”

My godfather had been listening intently: “Might not such an external element equally prove advantageous? If brandy can kill a cat, what say you to the possibility that a saucer of burgundy might transform its intelligence?”

Yardley sniggered. “The example is grotesque, but in principle your hypothesis is just. The world is young: there are a million possibilities still unexplored.”

“What possibilities?” cried Hurlock, crimson with drink. “I don’t follow you, sir.”

“For example,” said my godfather, evenly, “the possibility that when A is randomly made subject to B—A being a human being, and B a substance, a situation, or even an idea—some unpredictable outcome may result.”

This proposition being beyond Hurlock in his fuddled state, he flew into a passion.

“Then let us fly to the moon, gentlemen,” he shouted, banging his fist on the table. “Let us fly to the moon and have done!”

N
othing exceptionable had taken place during the course of the evening, yet I could not rid myself of a sense of oppression. The guests had seemed constrained by Mr. Gilbert’s presence, as though a little cowed by him. Even Hurlock’s outbursts had had a quality of nervous defiance. Might my gentlemanly godfather be intimidating?

The following day he asked my opinion of his guests. Seeking to be diplomatic without insipidity, I ventured that Hurlock had seemed not unlike a stage representation of a coarse hunting squire, that Yardley had said a number of interesting things, and that Quentin had something enigmatic about him.

“Your comments are just, as far as they go,” said my godfather. “Hurlock is a fool. Yardley is haphazardly learned.”

“And Mr. Quentin?”

My godfather reflected before replying: “I can understand why you found him enigmatic. To me he is not, because I know the answer to the riddle.” His voice lightened. “You were properly attentive to the ladies—gallantly so in the case of Mrs. Quentin, whose bad teeth, as you must have noticed, foul her breath. Time has been unkind to her: she was comely as a young woman. Mrs. Hurlock was the local beauty, eagerly courted, but she made the mistake of marrying Hurlock, who reduced her to a breeding animal. She has now ceased to breed. Perhaps neither woman has a life worth leading.”

Startled by this bluntness, I inclined my head and tried to look sagacious.

“You have now made the acquaintance of my nearest neighbors, such as they are. I contrive to remain on good terms with all of them.”

“I am sure you do, sir,” I hazarded.

Mr. Gilbert pursed his thin lips and then spoke reflectively.

“It is in their interest that we should be on good terms. All of them are in some sense in debt to me. It is remarkable how much influence moderate wealth can buy.”

He spoke without emphasis, but the passage of conversation had shown a greater astringency in him than I had ever previously witnessed. It had also reminded me of the precariousness of my own position. Perhaps that had been the intention.

O
ver the succeeding days I had a good deal of time to myself. Much of it I passed in the library, where a great fire was kept burning. I found there many publications of recent date, including the two volumes of Dr. Johnson’s great
Dictionary,
and a number of works concerning philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. It was a pleasure to meet also my old friends Tom Jones and Roderick Random. Their presence surprised me. Did this solitary country gentleman sit peacefully by the fire, lost in tales of assignations and boisterous pranks? That possibility seemed the more remote in that here and in other rooms I saw evidence of Mr. Gilbert’s speculative curiosity: a terrestrial globe, a microscope, a brass telescope, a great magnet, and an articulated human skeleton.

When weary of reading, I explored the house. Everywhere there were paintings, hangings, and furnishings to admire. Even to my inexperienced eye it was apparent that the Gilbert family, about which I knew next to nothing, had been distinguished not merely by wealth, but by taste and connoisseurship.

I traced back the family line through a series of portraits. There were similarities of feature across the generations, but more striking was a cast of expression which suggested an inherited family temperament. Repeatedly a composed, even severe countenance implied lurking passions controlled by force of will. I concluded that any one of these gentlemen would have proved a shrewd antagonist in argument or business or a court of law.

As viewed from the drive that led from the main gates, the house was an imposing, wide-fronted building. The main rooms, spacious and lofty, answered to that external appearance. For some reason, however, I found myself particularly intrigued when quitting these apartments to venture down narrow staircases and stone-flagged passages into the domestic quarters. Here, like a colony of rabbits, dwelt the servants, far outnumbering those they served, even when there was company in the house. I reflected that such a mansion must necessarily have such a team to run it, as an oceangoing vessel must have men hoisting sails and manning pumps. These servants were my godfather’s crew, his prosperity affording shelter and wages for footmen, housemaids, cooks, grooms, and gardeners.

When the weather brightened I explored the estate. Hungry for fresh air and exertion, I walked at a good pace, breathing deep. One fine morning I found myself running from sheer excess of energy. My farthest excursion was to the woods I had seen from the drawing room window. In these first days of spring they offered little promise that they could ever resemble the shady groves of pastoral poetry. They were dense, leafless, and dark—even menacing—in aspect, as though ready, at a signal, to advance like Birnam Wood and overwhelm the cultivated land.

I
was curious as to my godfather’s daily doings. It seemed that he spent much of each morning talking to attorneys, tenants, or tradesmen and attending to business of various kinds. I began to infer that he was no passive landowner but an efficient and industrious overseer of an estate, a master of practices and responsibilities of which I knew nothing. Might he wish to groom me to take an active part in the conduct of these affairs? And would I be content to settle, at so early an age, into the role of a rural administrator? I hoped the question would not arise, while hoping also that it would.

When in his company, I observed him closely, looking for signs that I might read. He was controlled in manner as in speech, moving unhurriedly. His clothes, impeccably neat, seemed to be an expression of his being. There was nothing of the animal about him. It was impossible to imagine him so much as sweating, still less rutting or at stool. Even in his eating and drinking he expressed connoisseurship rather than appetite. His disposition seemed to be the achievement of years of self-command.

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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