The Skull and the Nightingale (31 page)

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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“You mock me, Mrs. Ogden, as many a time in the past.”

“Only by way of revenge. You have teased me since I was ten years old and you threw a worm at me.”

“I could never have done such a thing. I was always chivalrous to a fault. Let me appeal to Mrs. Kinsey.”

“All I can remember,” said the old lady with spirit, “is that you were both very naughty children who deserved to be whipped.”

“We stand rebuked,” said I. “But tell me: has Mr. Ogden safely returned?”

“Not yet,” said Sarah. “He may be home tomorrow. I am sure he will be intrigued by the invitation from Lord Downs.”

“With the weather so fine, you should celebrate his return by a diversion of some sort. I recently went by boat as far as Richmond, and can heartily recommend the experience.”

Mrs. Kinsey laughed. “Mr. Ogden is not easily diverted.”

“Indeed not,” said Sarah. “He must always be about his business.”

There was a brief pause, as at the end of a paragraph.

“Well,” said I, “for once in a way I, too, must be about my business. Lord Vincent awaits me—although not, I am afraid, with any great impatience. But this chance encounter has been most agreeable.”

With that I kissed the hand, first of Mrs. Kinsey, then of Mrs. Ogden. Brief as these gestures were, they could not have differed more. The former was mere convention: I could as well have been kissing my own wrist or an empty glove. Kissing Sarah’s hand became instantly an amorous act: for a moment I was in contact with the warmth of her body and could feel the soft pressure of her fingers. Not in the minutest respect had I exceeded formal custom, yet I was certain that she had experienced the same stab of intimacy as I had myself—a certainty that was confirmed as I raised my head and fleetingly caught her glance.

As I left them my heart was beating hard. I had perhaps deceived myself in fancying that Sarah’s face fell at the mention of her husband’s return, but I could not,
could
not, have misinterpreted that last contact. The meeting had yielded all I could have hoped for: a year after Sarah had closed the door upon me, it remained, after all, unlocked.

This might have seemed ideal matter for a letter to my godfather; but I knew it was not. Who could describe a rainbow to a blind man? Worse, the very attempt at description would sully the thing described.

My dear Richard,

In my last letter I mentioned the unexplained disappearance of Quentin. His body has since been found in a river not far from the village. It is believed that the unfortunate man fell off a broken bridge and was drowned. When I first knew him he was a young fellow of some promise as a poet, and I gave him encouragement accordingly; but little came of his efforts. I suspect that in recent years he had become a disappointment to himself and would not greatly have regretted the accident that put an end to his life.

His sudden death caused a stir in the parish, but occasioned little grief. He had no children and few friends. There was no great intimacy between him and his wife, to judge from their public appearances. Her future seems uncertain; I am advised that she has a sister in London to whom she might apply.

I was glad to receive your recent letters, providing further food for speculation. Your dealings with Miss Brindley suggest that although social refinements are said to touch female hearts, women are in fact more responsive to physical subjugation. On the other hand, it may be that this particular female, like Mrs. Hurlock, happens to be a creature of strong physical appetites and therefore more susceptible to a direct approach. How could one find out, save by the attempt—which could go sadly awry?

For the majority, I would hazard, the raw animal instinct skulks as far below the surface of social convention as the pastoral tendency is pitched above it. It would seem likely, however, that while poetical delusions are intermittent and short-lived, the appetites of the body will lurk, gather, and recurrently surge. If that is the case, then marriage and domestic life are precariously perched on treacherous ground.

You and your drinking companions seem to have been debating a more disagreeable antithesis, one which made a strong impression upon me as a young man. John Pringle, an acquaintance of mine at Oxford, was envied for his good looks and for the confident address derived from them. He seduced numerous women of all classes and sired several bastards. Within a few years, however, his beauty was eradicated. Disease destroyed his nose, deprived him of his teeth and his sight, and diminished his mind. Like a figure in a morality tale the man once admired was shunned and left to endure an early death.

My knowledge of Pringle, and others comparably situated, intensified my innate tendency to be overnice. Even as a young man I was as physically fastidious as Dr. Swift. Already disturbed by the knowledge that our final goal in the pursuit of love is a channel for urine and blood, I could not endure the thought that it might also transmit disease.

My collusion with you has caused me to relax a lifelong habit of secrecy. This reckless candor implies, of course, a confidence in your understanding and dependability. No one who knows me, or has ever known me, could guess at the nature of the correspondence into which I have been drawn.

I have been a considerable reader in my time, but novels at last proved unsatisfactory to me: they purport to tell a true story, yet are too easily manipulated to produce an edifying conclusion. By contrast I retain a certain respect for Yardley, in that his speculations derive from dispassionate study of a reality. Our own project would seem to offer something like this rigor while also taking into account the inconsistency of human motives, including your own (and perhaps, indirectly, mine), and the pressures of social constraint.

I fully understand that you will need time and opportunity. It seems to me probable, however, that Ogden will visit Lord Downs briefly in response to his inquiry, and will later stay for some little time to carry out his commission. You should therefore have several days, and later some weeks, with the coast clear.

At the heart of this venture is surely the question of motive. If Mrs. Ogden yields, will it be for reasons of “love,” or of animal desire, or of fantasy, as in some version of the pastoral conceit? Might she be negatively driven (as you suggest) by resentment of an inept husband? Or will all these factors play a part? Here is an experiment by no means to be circumscribed to mere physical conjunction. I will look to you for a diagnosis of everything that it entails. This intrigue has taken on peculiar significance in my eyes. You will find a successful outcome to your advantage in more ways than one.

I remain, &c.

Chapter 17

A
day or two after my meeting with Sarah I was indeed invited to attend a reception at Lord Vincent’s. Again I found the venerable lord upright, civil, and dry as a bone. We exchanged compliments and commonplaces to no great purpose. As we did so I saw on the far side of the room his antithetical cousin, Mrs. Jennings, laughing and gesturing. She soon contrived to draw me into a quiet corner, where she confided that the invitation had been sent at her suggestion:

“I was eager for another gossip with you, young man. Last week I was in Worcestershire, visiting my nephew—Henry, the man of God. He spoke warmly of you.”

“I can speak as warmly of him,” said I.

“And well you may, for his heart is good, and responsibility has matured him. But for me the great event was dinner with Mr. Gilbert: the first time I have set eyes upon him these twenty years. He also spoke well of you: he said you had your father’s power to please—a compliment I was happy to endorse.”

“I am obliged to you. But you must tell me more. Was Mr. Gilbert the man you remembered?”

“I must consider.” Mrs. Jennings pursed her painted lips in thought. “He was, yet he was not. In appearance he seemed to me little altered. I was quite mortified to see the fellow so well preserved. He is lean, scarcely wrinkled—even his teeth appear to be in good order. This is monstrously unfair. On the other hand, I had borne three children since our previous meeting.”

“While he had borne none?”

“Pray do not be facetious, Master Fenwick: he has fathered none, and so has lived for himself alone.”

“Was he pleased to see you?”

“I asked myself that very question. He was—coolly affable. But now comes my reservation: he seems isolated from life—like a fish in a bowl. Do I go too far?”

“Perhaps not.”

We exchanged smiles of understanding before she continued:

“I well remember James Gilbert when he was about your own age—and warmly disposed toward me. He affected confidence but was cautious, too concerned with what others might think. I may have mocked him a little—I have been guilty of such things—but I found the awkwardness engaging.”

“And now?”

“Now that diffidence has gone. But he seemed reluctant to speak of those former times. I attempted one or two sallies, but he is not to be teased. His defenses are complete. He has made himself a man of authority.”

There was a playful irony in her tone that invited exploration.

“You are discreet, Mrs. Jennings. I suspect that you do not find those changes wholly for the better?”

“I have not quite said so—but no, I do not: though the achievement is impressive. Will Mr. Gilbert’s godson permit me to be frank—in strictest confidence?”

“He will—in strictest confidence.”

“The gentleman seems to have suffered a cooling of the blood. I can hardly now believe that once, years ago, I felt his hand tremble in mine. Tell me: Is there life in him? Does he ever shout or cut a caper?” She lowered her voice: “To be more particular: Has he ever, do you think, done the deed of darkness?”

“Madam, your bluntness might shock a more timid youth. I have asked myself that very question, but have not yet been able to answer it.”

“You share my contempt for false delicacy. This is an intriguing topic. Consider my husband.” She gestured toward him as he stood alone on the other side of the room, glass in hand, sleepily abstracted.

“Although Colonel Jennings is of an age with Gilbert, he suffers by comparison. He has lost much of his vigor and most of his hearing. But, after all, the dear fellow has exhausted his substance in living out his life, performing manfully as breeder and provider. He has fulfilled himself and so remains cheerful in his own way. By contrast the carefully preserved Mr. Gilbert is like a parcel yet to be opened. Can he be happy?”

Her bright eyes scanned me shrewdly as I sought for a diplomatic reply:

“Perhaps he still cherishes a hope that the parcel may be unwrapped.”

“But how? Who would wish to do so? And whatever would be inside it? Perhaps something not very agreeable.” She gave a little shudder, but then smiled. “Do not mind me: I am a mischievous old lady.” She leaned toward me: “At dinner with Mr. Gilbert I had half a mind to squeeze his thigh to see if he would jump.”

“I am sure he would have been flattered by your attentions.”

“Alas, the opportunity is gone. And truth to tell, young man, I had rather squeeze your own thigh: there is more meat on the bone.”

“Mrs. Jennings, you are not only mischievous but dangerous,” I said. “Little wonder that you frightened Mr. Gilbert when he was young.”

“Well, well: you yourself are a mischievous young fellow, if rumor is to be believed. I hear that you have been seen with the celebrated Miss Brindley.”

I tried not to show that I was taken aback by this sudden thrust: “She is an excellent actress. Have you seen her perform?”

“I have—and found her most entertaining. But you will have enjoyed a rather more intimate performance. Or so it has been said. Ah—a hit! I see you turn a little pink. But never fear: I will say nothing to Mr. Gilbert.” She laughed. “Young appetites must be appeased. My nephew hinted at an entanglement of his own, if of a more conventional kind. Do you know anything of the matter?”

“I do not. But he did confide to me that he would like to be married.”

“Of course he would. Country life is so oppressive. Henry spoke of a man in the parish who had recently drowned himself. I was not surprised. If I were compelled to live in the country, I would do the same.”

Colonel Jennings hobbled over, as though feeling it was time to attempt conversation. Crimsoned by wine, he was tipsy enough to defy his deafness.

“You come in good time, Ben,” shrilled his wife. “I was saying that if we lived in the country, I would drown myself.”

“Very good,” growled the old man. “We shall move there tomorrow.”

Mrs. Jennings gave a little shriek. “Bear witness: I am married to a murderer.”

“Pay no heed to her,” cried Jennings cheerfully. “She grows hysterical. I remember you, Mr. Fenwick. We have been visiting your godfather.”

“So your wife has been telling me,” I shouted.

“He’s a grave fellow nowadays. But we knew him when he was your own age. He was nervous then—always on the edge of things, peering about. Peering about. Some said he came to London to look for preferment. He dined with Walpole. But I say he wanted a wife. He smiled on this lady here, did he not, Bel? But in vain. She was a coldhearted tease, as I could have told him.”

“You see how I suffer,” she cried: “I must share a bed with my slanderer.”

“No matter,” continued Jennings, ignoring her. “She did not detain him long once Charlotte Tyler took his eye.”

“Ben, Ben”—she prodded him with her fan—“pray control your tongue. You are speaking of this young gentleman’s mother.”

“Am I? So I am. Well, there is no harm in it: she was a fine woman. Gilbert chose well. But then along came your father and stole the girl away.”

“We must change the conversation,” said Mrs. Jennings. “You mortify me.”

“What have I said, Bel?” The old tippler was suddenly confused. “It is no such matter. The young gentleman is not offended.”

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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