sonetka (sonetka) wrote,

  • Mood:

In The Beginning, Part 2

In which Philip begins the pursuit, and Norman Urquhart slithers back into his life. (Part 1 is here.) I may change the title at some point, since this one isn't particularly inspiring (and while something like, say, Fifty Shades Of Boyes would definitely stand out more, I wouldn't want to be responsible for the resulting mental scars). As before, all comments, suggestions, corrections and Howlers are welcome.

Sylvia was packing: although she did not seem to move quickly, her clothes flew into the cases with surprising efficiency. "Will they laugh at this hat in Paris, do you think?" she asked Harriet, holding up a poisonously green cloche with a netted veil hanging in front. "Never mind, it will get me looked at either way. I do hope the men are careful with those canvases. It's not as if I can whip up replacements in two days if they do something unspeakable to them. What am I hearing about you and Phil Boyes? You seem to be going about together quite a lot."

"He invited me to a concert, and I've been to his flat a few times. We talked about books – he's asked me to look over his newest thing. And he made omelettes for tea once."


"He's very interesting, you know. Just because you don't care for his books –"

Sylvia closed the trunk lid with a decisive thump. "If he suits you, then I won't complain about it. I only wanted to know what was going on. You know, we'd have room for a third if you wanted to stop in Paris some time over the next few months."

"I'll see about it – you know I have to be careful about money."

"Surely not by now, but never mind. If you want to come, we'll put you up. And do write – I'll need some return for all the postcards I'll send. Could you hand me that hatbox?"

She had become acquainted, if not precisely friends with, a few of Phil's circle. Volodya Kropotky was amiable if sometimes incomprehensible, and on her first visit to him, he gave her an impromptu demonstration of the loss of the post-war soul as performed on the musical saw. The Rushworths overwhelmed her with sticky sweet drinks and pastries, praised A Murder Of Prose and The Seventh Sin to the skies and then only required her to nod and make affirmative noises while they talked about medicines and meditation and how pineal extracts would cure inborn criminality. They were comforting if slightly embarrassing company, she told Phil later. He said "James is the only one of that crowd with a brain in his head, and he doesn't use it half the time. But they're generous, I'll agree with you there. They understand what a rough time artists have of it."

But Ryland Vaughan, the flatmate, was harder to please. She had encountered him several times, but each time he found some excuse for clearing out within a few minutes. The very first question he had asked her was "Have you read Phil's books?" Phil had looped his arm around her waist and said "Oh, she never gives opinions on other authors' work. Isn't that right, Harriet? It was one of the first things she ever said to me."

"Phil, it wasn't –"

"You said it, though, didn't you?"

"Of course I did, but –"

"I see," said Vaughan, though his expression was thoroughly uncomprehending. He left about five minutes later, saying he had just remembered a meeting, and managing to bump into Harriet before slamming the door behind him. Phil had shrugged it off, but Harriet was left with a profound gratitude that her finances had never been so desperate as to necessitate a flatmate.

"Is he quite all right, do you think?" she asked Phil as they settled back onto the sofa.

"Quite all right," said Phil, "Especially now that he's left." And he leaned in to give her a kiss. He had given her several more over the course of the afternoon, and she had ended the visit very reluctantly.

A month later, Vaughan became harder to ignore. It was the end of September, and Harriet was accompanying Philip to the Kropotkys' (a poetry reading this time, he assured her, not a concert) when Vaughan announced that he would be coming with them as well. "Phil and I go to these things all the time," he told Harriet as he walked on Phil's other side. "It's not much of a scene but I suppose it would seem different to you."

She could think of no response to this, but three hours later, as she sat enjoying the pleasant sensation of Phil's arm around her shoulders and the confusing impression left by the Russian poem which somebody was shouting by the window, her glance strayed towards the stove and she noticed something that was different: Vaughan, apparently unconscious. The people milling around him appeared not to notice this phenomenon.

Vaughan twitched for a second, and then appeared to be groaning, although she couldn't make out what he might be saying over the shouts of the Russian poet. His body convulsed and for a moment she thought he was going to be sick, but instead he subsided into snoring.

Phil had noticed as well. "Oh God," he whispered to her as the Russian poet stood down and another took his place. "He would. We'll have to get him repaired before he'll be fit to come home. Harriet, give me your notebook."

He took the little tablet which she always kept in her handbag and began scribbling. "There's a chemist across the street who should still be open. Go get this made up before Vaughan dies on Volodya's carpet, damn him."

She glanced at the ingredients listed on the notepad. "Won't this make him worse?"

"No! It works, he's had it before. Stop talking and go get it, I'll try and wake him up."

An hour later, an exhausted,ill, but somewhat mobile Vaughan had been deposited in his bedroom and left to find consolation in slumber. Harriet, not being sure what to do, fell back on making coffee as a restorative, and when Phil emerged from Vaughan's room he gave her a kiss, took a cup and drained half of it.

"You wonderful girl. The only good thing about this damned evening."

She took poured a cup for herself; her nerves were coming back together finally. "Is Vaughan often like this?"

"Drowning his self-pity in a butt of malmsey? Yes."

"Hadn't you better think about living somewhere else? I know he was your school friend but it can't be good for your work, always having him hanging about your neck like that. If you could live someplace where you could get more done –"

"I could, if I lived with you."

For a moment, she only stared at him while her interior began to suddenly complain about the coffee. "Phil – you know I care for you, a great deal – but we couldn't possibly get engaged yet. It hasn't even been six months."

Phil sat down and leaned back. The look on his face was one of honest bewilderment. "Married? I never meant that."

"What did you mean, then?"

"Harriet, I love you, and if you would live with me I think we could be happier together than anyone who's ever gone near a registry office. Marriage is just a legal pair of handcuffs for two people – I've written articles about it. Why any sane woman would want to get married I can't understand: she's allowing herself to become a man's legal property, with no voice and no rights of her own. She's tied to him for good no matter what he might do to her. Free love means that a man and a woman are together entirely by choice. Not because some clergyman muttered a few words over their heads and now they feel obliged to stick it out, or because neither one has the money to bring a divorce case. Why are you looking so surprised? You've read my books, I thought you knew I didn't believe in marriage."

"No, how would I? Or do you think that because I write books about murders, that must make me a murderer?" The coffee cup was shaking in her hand, and she quickly set it down.

"Those are puzzles, Harriet. They're very good puzzles, but they're not about life. They're not literature. If you wrote a different sort of books, you would see how it's impossible to keep your own opinions out of it. But that isn't the issue. You're not someone's Victorian daughter, you've made your own life and your own money. What is there in marriage for you?"

"Love – mutual honesty – trust? All the reasons people get married."

"Not just a bluestocking, but a bluenose! Marriage kills love if it does anything. Is there a more depressing prospect than loving someone because you must? I would never do that to you, or to anyone."

"Have there been other ones?"

"A few. Women don't flock to poor men, no matter what they may say about their books. I lived with Liubov Borisova for most of 1922, and Sarah Trenton – the painter – for a few months some years back. Not bad girls, but obstinate – not very sensitive in some ways. But you're not like them, you know."

Harriet sat back, suddenly feeling very drunk although she had not touched a glass all evening. "I'm not like them at all. And I must go home now."

He saw her to her taxi, saying, before she stepped in, "I'm sorry if I startled you, Harriet. But I couldn't go any further and not be honest with you."

"I understand," she said, and closed her eyes as the taxi pulled away.

Damn it, thought Phil the next morning as he heard Vaughan crashing and moaning his way into the kitchen like a hungover hippopotamus – perhaps he ought to have proposed after all. The way the girl looked at him, he was sure she would have accepted. Now it looked as if she might have gone altogether; Harriet with her grave face, her barbs which cropped up unwelcomed but somehow still intriguing, her wonderfully juvenile pronouncements on writing, and of course her other attributes. She'd never had another man so much as hold her hand, he was certain of it. But no – proposing was no solution to the problem. Marriage was a short march to mental slavery; she would doubtless want a better flat, more income to pay for it, and children to suck up whatever might still remain of their money. Or would she? She might not be quite a Bohemian but she was hardly a standard-issue young working woman, either.

It wasn't quite time to give up. Before getting the eggs out of the cupboard for a late breakfast, he wrote a note in which he apologized for having upset her and asked if she were still willing to help him with the editing of his current short story. He valued her opinion and hoped they could still be friendly with each other even if their conflicting principles made anything more impossible.

Two days later, he received a cool reply, inviting him to call at her flat. He brought the typescript with him – only a few pages at this point – and the brief call turned into a two-hour discussion, ending with them on Harriet's sofa.

"I really think we could make a go of it," he said as he reached for his hat and stood at the doorway. "You just have to look at the thing reasonably."

"You have a rather extraordinary definition of what's reasonable," she said. But she did not object when he asked if he might call again.

Jolting and sweltering in the bus on the way home, he looked over the manuscript and felt a slow headache coming on. She was clever enough, but why had she struck all his best passages? She was leaving him with something barely better than a thriller. Though she may perhaps have been right in a few places – he had loaded on the adjectives a bit extensively. He took a pencil from his pocket and began striking out Harriet's less perceptive edits.

Vaughan was home from the office by the time Philip arrived at their flat, and doing his yeoman best to make roast chicken and potatoes without filling the room with smoke. Ever since the episode of a few days ago, Vaughan had been surlier than ever; far from being grateful to Philip and Harriet for having rescued him from soiling himself on the Kropotkys' carpet, he appeared to regard their interference as a personal affront. Dinner was a dull and sulky meal, the silence broken only by Vaughan's asking where exactly Philip had spent his afternoon, not that he needed to ask. "Miss Vane, again, of course. What were you doing with her?"

"Asking her advice."

"Advice? From her? What in heaven's name could she have to teach you? I wouldn't give her a nursery rhyme to look at, she'd mutilate it. Just because she's had some fluke success – what did she tell you?"

Philip had been ready to produce the manuscript, along with a few sarcastic remarks, but when he looked at Vaughan's reddening face he felt a sudden disgust. Harriet might not have great literary perception, she might be mistress only of a cheap art form, but he wasn't going to have Vaughan, of all people, mocking her. What the hell had Vaughan ever made, anyway?

"She didn't tell me anything," said Philip, reaching for the salt-cellar. "Remember? She never gives opinions on other authors' work."

The rest of the evening was spent with Vaughan at the dining-room table, going over the books, and Philip on the sofa, water and bicarb at his side, trying not to move. He could hardly remember a time when he hadn't been subject to this sort of thing, but it never became easier. And with Vaughan acting the way he had been, it was becoming increasingly clear that Philip would have to part ways with him at some point. There was no way he could live by himself – his health and finances both forbade it. If Harriet would only see sense, he could be spared all this.

Summer began slipping into autumn. The papers were full of news of the once-more hostile Soviet Union, the first woman to swim the Channel, and the crowds in Hyde Park demanding that Sacco and Vanzetti be spared. In October, John Brubaker's predictions proved justified when Megatherium Trust, Ltd, collapsed so spectacularly that it seemed for a while as if every notable in the country had been injured by it, some fatally. Sylvia sent stray humourous postcards from Paris. Laura Brubaker confided that she thought John might need to go to Switzerland for a while, as his lungs were refusing to improve and she was afraid what another winter in the London fog might do to him, and two weeks later Harriet received a brief letter from them, postmarked Davos.

Harriet herself made two polite, uninformative visits to Miss Benn and Miss Clarridge, and wrote lightheartedly and uninformatively to Mary Attwood when the latter regretted that she couldn't invite her up for Christmas ("The baby will be there, or almost there, and we can't depend on having a proper nurse.") She wrote a short story in which the Kropotky concert featured as the scene of a murder (the victim's dying screams were masked by the louder and more cacophonous shrieks of the choir). And she continued to see Philip Boyes – on a purely friendly basis, she told herself, although these friendly visits had a tendency to end with the two of them on the sofa while Harriet told him, with lessening conviction, that it was impossible for them to go further. He argued that it was perfectly possible, that half her friends had done the same thing without a divine lightning-bolt intervening, and that she was depriving herself for no reason. "Do you think your aunts' ghosts are going to come and haunt you for doing something perfectly natural?"

"No," she told him once, "But a baby would haunt me much longer and be much more demanding."

"Needn't happen," he said. "There are lots of ways of preventing it. We couldn't have a baby getting in the way of my work – our work, I mean. Leave babies to the people who don't have anything else to do with their minds."

"So children should only be raised by people who have no minds? That's a dismal prospect for the future."

"They'd be a dismal prospect for us, though. Especially with my health, and work."

When Philip wasn't evangelizing on the virtues of free love, he was lively if immoderately sarcastic company. He made her his omelette recipe on a few more occasions, he asked her to the films, and once turned up a reading she gave with a group of other detective novelists. And he talked. His account of a recent disastrous weekend at Lady Till and Tweed's delighted her so much that she asked if he minded her adding a stabbing or two to it, for a short story. "Good heavens, of course you can," was his reply. "At least it will be a change, all her guests do is write about each other, and about her. You'll just stab her in the back literally, not figuratively. Have you read Vermillion? Tollett barely had to change a thing about the place. I don't think Lady T's invited him back since."

"Poor woman," said Harriet. "It sounds to me like they take horrible advantage of her. I was thinking she could be the detective, not the victim. Robert Templeton doesn't do very well in short stories."

More than once Harriet lay next to Philip, her hand on his cheek, and was on the verge of asking him to stay and do whatever he wanted. But no – she pulled herself back – it was not reasonable, no matter what he might say. Her religious convictions had largely died with her relations, but if she did this for him she would not just be disregarding their shades; she would be trampling on something which most of society held in great value. Philip might think nothing of it, but the world could not be expected to follow his example. And it was hardly reasonable, or fair, for him to ask this of her when it meant that her world would be half uprooted while his remained unchanged.

It might be worth it, she thought one evening, if I could be sure I loved him as well as he says he loves me. But love whilst that thou mayst be loved again ... Her pen drove over the paper, digging into it, transforming the hapless Lady T into a preternaturally gifted sleuth.

"So what are your plans for Christmas?"

Norman Urquhart sat at his oppressively polished dining room table, spooning up soup with a faintly disapproving expression. The sky had darkened long ago; Philip wondered what was wrong with Norman that he didn't have the maid pull the drapes. He and his cousin were reflected in the window now, very clearly – the candle-flame lit up his own face as clearly as a portrait, while all one could see of Norman was his back – dark, vague, could be anybody's.

"What are your plans for Christmas?"

"Forgive me, my mind was wandering. I'm going to my father's for a few days. He's not a bad old stick and he's lonely these days. I suppose my Christmas gift to him will be attending service so that parishioners don't talk more than they already do. And what about you?"

"I have a great deal of work and will be staying in town for the most part. I may see a show or two, though. And of course I need to make a short trip to Windle."

"Windle? Oh yes. Aunt Rosanna. I don't suppose there's any improvement, is there?"

"None, I'm afraid. Her doctor tells me she could last for days or for years, but she's unlikely ever to regain her wits."

The candle-flames wavered as the maid quietly refilled his wine glass. Philip took a long sip, his mind wandering back to the last time he had seen Aunt Rosanna. He had given her an author copy of the newly-published Abhasa and an old postcard of Cremorne Gardens, found in one of Vaughan's photograph albums. Later she had sent him a note to say that she was glad some of the younger generation were still daring to aspire to true artistry. He had meant to visit again, but then she had had her stroke, and after that there hardly seemed to be a point to it – what could he, or she, have to say to the other?

For that matter, what did he and his cousin have to say to each other? He had been surprised at the invitation to dinner, as he had last seen Norman eight years ago. Then, as now, he had been very close-mouthed. Of course, Norman had always been that way, even before the war. What he had gone through there Philip never learned, except that it had involved a great deal of crouching in the mud at Gallipoli and several near misses. He had asked a few questions, years before – the invalid husband in Mrs Bolton-Brown was originally supposed to be a returned man suffering from shell-shock – but Norman had deflected his questions with a brevity and politeness brought on, Philip thought sourly, by too many years of lawyering. "Largely unpleasant," was his sum total description of his months in the mud, and "Quite relieved," was his answer when asked how he had felt upon being demobilized. In the end, Philip had had to give the character another problem, as he had realized that dozens of other men writing about the war could do so from personal knowledge which he could never match. I was neither at the hot gates, nor fought in the warm rain.

Norman was talking on now, inquiring after his father's health. As good as ever, thank you for asking. And Philip's own health? Still some attacks from time to time, but he was holding up. And how was Philip's work going? Norman himself had always had a reserved sort of admiration for his writing, although he had never expressed it before. Philip felt himself expanding under the praise.

"Well, it's always good to know that one's relations have taste. I'm on my uppers at the moment, though – people think that all one has to do is get something in print and then it's all milk and honey from that moment. It isn't a bit. The books don't bring in enough to keep a cat alive and my articles and shorts; they're a heartbreaking amount of work and the magazines will cheat you however they can. Or they fold. James Rushworth, who edits Lightning – you haven't heard of it? It's not all bad stuff – but he just told me that it's folding. I can usually get five or ten pounds a month from stuff for them, but Lady Till and Tweed was their major backer, and now Rushworth tells me she lost half her money in the Megatherium crash. What that silly old biddy was thinking, playing at investing like that, I can't imagine, but she lost a lot and now the artists are paying for it. She'll be all right, half a fortune is still a fortune, but damned if I don't wonder sometimes where I'll be in ten years. Rushworth isn't even trying to keep the thing going – he's clearing out of the country and taking his sister with him – her fiance shot himself last month and he says she's cracking up and needs a rest-cure. Well, why couldn't her mother take her? He has no consideration for the people who depend on that magazine. If there could be a Bel Esprit for every artist, the world would be a better place, believe me."

"I quite agree. It's fortunate that you don't have family obligations."

"No, thank God. There is a girl, but of course marriage isn't something I could possibly contemplate, and she knows that. She was brought up in an odour of sanctity, poor thing, but I think she'll clear all that rubbish out of her head with a little help. She's clever in her own way."

"Which isn't your way? How are you planning to support her?"

"No need – she's one of your modern girls. Have you heard of Harriet Vane? She writes those murder mysteries you see at the railroad stalls. Junk, so of course people rush to buy them."

"An interesting choice of occupation. I'll have to pick up one sometime."

Before Philip left, Norman casually pressed a five-pound note into his hand. "It's a pity to see an artist underappreciated," he said. "I hope you'll consent to join me for dinner from time to time. There's very little left of our family, and we should not be strangers to each other."

Harriet's Christmas had been spent assisting Miss Benn at a church charity dinner, and she had been horrified to realize how close she was to sobbing by the end of the day. Philip's absence was a torment – the lack of his jokes, stories, and complaints about the industry, even his endless, wearing insistence on hashing out all the disadvantages of legal marriage – it all made her feel as if she were merely marking time while he was gone. At least she had more time for writing, but the satisfaction in finishing a short story, or another chapter, was bitter whenever she remembered that she would not see him before the end of two weeks.

It was a relief when, one day in early January, she heard the bell and for the first time in months saw Sylvia standing on the steps. She was carrying a bouquet and a satchel, her face was pink with cold, and she burst into the flat like a creature from another existence.

"Happy new year! Here, the satchel's for you; all the latest naughty books that the English publishers wouldn't touch. You have been working, haven't you? You look exhausted, and no wonder – whenever I picked up a 'tec magazine from the English bookstalls I saw something by you in it. I'm sure you've made enough by now to buy another hat, at least. Come on out with me, you'll get some fresh air and we'll look for that hat. Or go to the films. What's wrong?" For Harriet had put her head in her hands and not responding.

"Nothing's wrong, Sylvia, it's just a headache. And Philip won't be back for another week and I wish he weren't so … oh, everything's a mess-up and I feel as if I should know better."

"What sort of mess-up? Oh no – it's not a baby, is it?"

Harriet laughed for the first time in weeks. "No, thank goodness! But it's difficult enough." Her gaze wandered towards the coat stand. She had had that beige cloche for a very long time, it was true. "Let's go and get that hat, and I'll tell you all about it at tea."

A few hours later, with not one but two hats duly bought, she and Sylvia sat in a tearoom corner, well out of earshot of the other patrons. Sylvia was fiddling with a ten-centime piece she had discovered in her coat pocket as she talked.

"I'm hardly in a position to talk about other people's arrangements, but it seems to me that if women are victims of matrimony, we can reject it without Phil's help. He loves the sound of his own voice as much as most men do –"

"Syl, is that Eiluned talking?"

"I suppose it is, a little," she said, and smiled. "But all I can say is, our crowd would understand if you did agree to it. And I'm sure they'd understand if you didn't – " she stopped without finishing the sentence.

"But the world is so much larger than that. I have other friends, and I don't want to lose them. I haven't even been able to tell them about this. And if the next book didn't do well and I had to look for work … my readers, if word got out –"

"Why on earth would it? I thought your mail went to Challoner's, anyway – the readers wouldn't know whom you were living with or weren't, and it's hardly their business anyway. Besides, how many men authors keep their noses clean? I'm sure Phil hasn't. Forget all that. Do you want to live with Phil?

"I love him, and we would do so well together. Phil's got an extraordinary talent – don't look at me like that! I think I know him pretty well by this point, and I think if he just made a few changes, if he had better company at home than Vaughan, he could break out of the rut he's in."

"You haven't answered my question."

"I can't. I don't know what I think any more."

Phil returned in the middle of January, but not in the way she had imagined he would; he stumbled off the train as ill as Harriet had ever seen him, so ill that, for once, he had no interest in talking. Vaughan claimed him as soon as she hauled him out of the taxi, and Harriet had to content herself with sending round some of Sylvia's Parisian books and some sodium bicarb. A few days later he was standing at her front door, paler and a little thinner but otherwise well, wondering if she could look over an outline for him. Within an hour it was as if he had never left. Well, what had she expected? His principles couldn't be expected to change over the course of a month – and as welcome as the change would have been to her, she would have mistrusted him somewhat if he had. They were still at an impasse. After he left, she was so wound up that she couldn't bear to think of eating, so she spent the next three hours writing letters – to her agent, her publisher, and a few readers who had spotted errors – and experimenting with her old cloche to see just how long it took to dry after having been plunged in the dishpan for five minutes. Her latest alibi involved a woman who claimed to have been caught in a sudden rainstorm, miles away from the crime, but whose hat was suspiciously well-preserved.

By February, Eiluned had finally returned from Paris with a sheaf of etchings under her arm and another sheaf of stories about a certain woman's salon, and Harriet had asked her and Sylvia to supper so as to have a few hours of distraction from her dilemma. She did not get it, as Eiluned seized on the subject of Philip Boyes with enthusiasm and decided that it was high time to disabuse Harriet of her illusions about him. Despite Sylvia's frantic signals and frequent attempts to change the subject, Harriet nonetheless heard a good deal of Paris-sharpened invective about Phil's selfishness, childishness, laziness, and complete lack of talent. When the supper was done, Sylvia pulled Harriet aside to apologize. "Please forgive her – I know you won't believe it, but she's worried about you. Those Clifford salon people are all about trying to top each other in outrageousness and I think she hasn't quite realized that she's in London now."

Harriet was so tired that she could not bring herself to be angry. She should have remembered how Eiluned was about men who didn't suit her, which was to say any man aside from her two brothers and one schoolboy nephew. She was wrong about Phil, how could she not have been?

Sylvia must have said something to Eiluned, because the next week they invited Harriet for a chilly but beautiful visit to Kew Gardens, during which Eiluned told some of her Paris stories, did not mention Phil's name, and offered Harriet an etching of a seventeenth-century courtyard on the rue Jacob. Harriet received it gratefully, but that evening, as she tried first one place on the wall and then another, she thought that picture only made the rest of her flat look emptier. But love whilst that thou mayst be loved again … Her work, outings, friends, none of them helped lift her unhappiness. Only Phil could do that, and he would not change.

She put the picture aside, sat down, and wrote a note to Philip asking him to coffee the next day. Not tea, of course. Never tea.

She said it as soon as he walked through the door, so that she would not have a chance to stop herself later on. "I'll live with you," she said. "I will."
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.