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Authors: Evelyn Waugh

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A handful of dust (8 page)

BOOK: A handful of dust
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Brenda wrote:

Darling Tony,

Sorry not to have written or rung up but I've had such a busy time with bimetallism. v. complicated. Coming down Saturday with Polly again. Good her coming twice-Lyonesse can't be as beastly as most of the rooms can it. Also charming girl I have taken up with who I want us to be kind to. She'd had a terrible life and she lives in one of these flats called Jenny Abdul Akbar. Not black but married one. Get her to tell you. She'll come by train 3. 18 I expect. Must stop now and go to lecture.

Keep away from the Demon Rum. xxxxx


Saw Jock last night at Café de Paris with shameless blonde. Who? Cin no Djinn how? has rheumatism and Marjorie is v. put out about it. She thinks his pelvis is out of place and Cruttwell won't do him which is pretty mean considering all the people she has brought there.

"Are you certain Jenny will be Tony's tea?" "You can't ever be certain," said Polly. "She bores my pants off, but she's a good trier." "Is mummy coming down today, daddy?" "Yes." "Who else?" "Someone called Abdul Akbar." "What a silly name. Is she foreign?" "I don't know." "Sounds foreign, doesn't she, daddy? D'you think she won't be able to talk any English? Is she black?" "Mummy says not." "Oh... who else?" "Lady Cockpurse." "The monkey woman. You know she wasn't a bit like a monkey except perhaps her face and I don't think she had a tail because I looked as close as anything... unless perhaps she has it rolled up between her legs. D'you think she has, daddy?" "I shouldn't be surprised." "Very uncomfortable." Tony and John were friends again; but it had been a leaden week. It was part of Polly Cockpurse's plan to arrive late at Hetton. "Give the girl a chance to get down to it," she said. So she and Brenda did not leave London until Jenny was already on her way from the station. It was a day of bitter cold and occasional rain. The resolute little figure huddled herself in the rugs until they reached the gates. Then she opened her bag, tucked up her veil, shook out her powder puff and put her face to rights. She licked the rouge from her finger with a sharp red tongue. Tony was in the smoking room when she was announced; the library was now too noisy during the daytime for there were men at work on the walls of the morning room next door, tearing down the plaster tracery. "Princess Abdul Akbar." He rose to greet her. She was preceded by a heavy odour of musk. "Oh, Mr. Last," she said, "what a sweet old place this is." "I'm afraid it's been restored a great deal," said Tony. "Ah, but its atmosphere. I always think that's what counts in a house. Such dignity, and repose, but of course you're used to it. When you've been very unhappy as I have, you appreciate these things." Tony said, "I'm afraid Brenda hasn't arrived yet. She's coming by car with Lady Cockpurse." "Brenda's been such a friend to me." The Princess took off her furs and sat down on the stool before the fire, looking up at Tony. "D'you mind if I take off my hat?" "No, no... of course." She threw it on to the sofa and shook out her hair, which was dead black and curled. "D'you know, Mr. Last, I'm going to call you Teddy right away. You don't think that very fresh of me? And you must call me Jenny. Princess is so formal, isn't it, and suggests tight trousers and gold braid... Of course," she went on, stretching out her hands to the fire and letting her hair fall forwards a little across her face, "my husband was not called 'Prince' in Morocco; his title was Moulay-but there's no proper equivalent for a woman so I've always called myself Princess in Europe... Moulay is far higher really... my husband was a descendant of the Prophet. Are you interested in the East?" "No... yes. I mean I know very little about it." "It has an uncanny fascination for me. You must go there, Teddy. I know you'd like it. I've been saying the same to Brenda." "I expect you'd like to see your room," said Tony. "They'll bring tea soon." "No, I'll stay here. I like just to curl up like a cat in front of the fire, and if you're nice to me I'll purr, and if you're cruel I shall pretend not to notice-just like a cat... Shall I purr, Teddy?" "Er... yes... do, please, if that's what you like doing." "Englishmen are so gentle and considerate. It's wonderful to be back among them... mine own people. Sometimes when I look back at my life, especially at times like this among lovely old English things and kind people, I think the whole thing must be a frightful nightmare... then I remember my scars..." "Brenda tells me you've taken one of the flats in the same house as hers. They must be very convenient." "How English you are, Teddy-so shy of talking about personal things, intimate things... I like you for that, you know. I love everything that's solid and homely and good after... after all I've been through." "You're not studying economics too, are you, like Brenda?" "No; is Brenda? She never told me. What a wonderful person she is. When does she find the time?" "Ah, here comes tea at last," said Tony. "I hope you allow yourself to eat muffins. So many of our guests nowadays are on a diet. I think muffins one of the few things that make the English winter endurable." "Muffins stand for so much," said Jenny. She ate heartily; often she ran her tongue over her lips, collecting crumbs that had become embedded there and melted butter from the muffin. One drop of butter fell on her chin and glittered there unobserved except by Tony. It was a relief to him when John Andrew was brought in. "Come and be introduced to Princess Abdul Akbar." John Andrew had never before seen a Princess; he gazed at her fascinated. "Aren't you going to give me a kiss?" He walked over to her and she kissed him on the mouth. "Oh," he said, recoiling and rubbing away the taste of the lipstick; and then "What a beautiful smell." "It's my last link with the East," she said. "You've got butter on your chin." She reached for her bag, laughing. "Why so I have. Teddy, you might have told me." "Why do you call daddy, Teddy?" "Because I hope we are going to be great friends." "What a. funny reason." John stayed with them for an hour and all the time watched her fascinated. "Have you got a crown?" he asked. "How did you learn to speak English? What is that big ring made of? Did it cost much? Why are your nails that colour? Can you ride?" She answered all his questions, sometimes enigmatically with an eye on Tony. She took out a little heavily scented handkerchief and showed John the monogram. "That is my only crown... now," she said. She told him about the horses she used to have-glossy black, with arched necks; foam round their silver bits; plumes tossing on their foreheads; silver studs on the harness, crimson saddle cloths, "On the Moulay's birthday-" "What's the Moulay?" "A beautiful and a very bad man," she said gravely, "and on his birthday all his horsemen used to assemble round a great square, with all their finest clothes and trappings and jewels, with long swords in their hands. The Moulay used to sit on a throne under a great crimson canopy." "What's a canopy?" "Like a tent," she said more sharply, and then resuming her soft voice, "and all the horsemen used to gallop across the plain, in a great cloud of dust, waving their swords, straight towards the Moulay. And everyone used to hold their breath, thinking the horsemen were bound to ride right on top of the Moulay, but when they were a few feet away, as near as I am to you, galloping at full speed, they used to rein their horses back, up on to their hind legs and salute-" "Oh but they shouldn't," said John. "It's very bad horsemanship indeed. Ben says so." "They're the most wonderful horsemen in the world. Everyone knows that." "Oh no, they can't be, if they do that. It's one of the worst things. Were they natives?" "Yes, of course." "Ben says natives aren't humans at all really." "Ah but he's thinking of Negroes I expect. These are pure Semitic type." "What's that?" "The same as Jews." "Ben says Jews are worse than natives." "Oh dear, what a very severe boy you are. I was like that once. Life teaches one to be tolerant." "It hasn't taught Ben," said John. "When's mummy coming? I thought she'd be here, otherwise I wouldn't have stopped painting my picture." But when nanny came to fetch him, John, without invitation, went over and kissed Jenny goodnight. "Goodnight, Johnny-boy," she said. "What did you call me?" "Johnny-boy." "You are funny with names." Upstairs, meditatively splashing his spoon in the bread and milk, he said, "Nanny, I do think that Princess is beautiful, don't you?" Nanny sniffed. "It would be a dull world if we all thought alike," she said. "She's more beautiful than Miss Tendril, even. I think she's the most beautiful lady I've ever seen... D'you think she'd like to watch me have my bath?" Downstairs, Jenny said, "What a heavenly child... I love children. That has been my great tragedy. It was when he found I couldn't have children that the Moulay first showed the Other Side of his Nature. It wasn't my fault... you see my womb is out of place... I don't know why I'm telling you all this, but I feel you'll understand. It's such a waste of time, isn't it, when one knows one is going to like someone and one goes on pretending... I know at once if someone is going to be a real friend..." Polly and Brenda arrived just before seven. Brenda went straight up to the nursery. "Oh, mummy," said John. "There's such a beautiful lady downstairs. Do ask her to come and say goodnight. Nanny doesn't think she'd want to. "Did daddy seem to like her?" "He didn't talk much... She doesn't know anything about horses or natives but she is beautiful. Please tell her to come up." Brenda went downstairs and found Jenny with Polly and Tony in the smoking room. "You've made a wild success with John Andrew. He won't go to sleep until he's seen you again." They went up together, and Jenny said, "They're both such dears." "Did you and Tony get on? I was so sorry not to be here when you arrived." "He was so sympathetic and gentle... and so wistful." They sat on John's small bed in the night-nursery. He threw the clothes back and crawled out, nestling against Jenny. "Back to bed," she said, "or I shall spank you." "Would you do it hard? I shouldn't mind." "Oh dear," said Brenda, "what a terrible effect you seem to have. He's never like this as a rule." When they had gone nanny threw open another window. "Poof!" she said, "making the whole place stink." "Don't you like it? I think it's lovely." Brenda took Polly up to Lyonesse. It was a large suite, fitted up with satinwood for King Edward when, as Prince of Wales, he was once expected at a shooting party; he never came. "How's it going?" she asked anxiously. "Too soon to tell. I'm sure it will be all right." "She's got the wrong chap. John Andrew's mad about her... quite embarrassing." "I should say Tony was a slow starter. It's a pity she's got his name wrong. Ought we to tell her?" "No, let's leave it." "When she was dressing Tony said, "Brenda, who is this joke-woman?" "Darling, don't you like her?" The disappointment and distress in her tone were so clear that Tony was touched. "I don't know about not liking her exactly. She's just a joke, isn't she?" "Is she... oh dear... She's had a terrible life you know." "So I gathered." "Be nice to her, Tony please." "Oh, I'll be nice to her. Is she Jewish?" "I don't know. I never thought. Perhaps she is." Soon after dinner Polly said she was tired and asked Brenda to come with her while she undressed. "Leave the young couple to it," she whispered outside the door. "My dear, I don't believe it's going to be any good... the poor boy's got some taste you know, and a sense of humour." "She didn't show up too well at dinner, did she?" "She will go on so... and after all Tony's been used to me for seven years. It's rather a sudden change." "Tired?" "Mmm. Little bit." "You gave me a pretty long bout of Abdul Akbar." "I know. I'm sorry, darling, but Polly takes so long to get to bed... Was it awful? I wish you liked her more." "She's awful." "One has to make allowances... she's got the most terrible scars." "So she told me." "I've seen them." "Besides I hoped to see something of you." "Oh." "Brenda, you aren't angry still about my getting tight that night and waking you up?" "No, sweet, do I seem angry?" "... I don't know. You do rather... Has it been an amusing week?" "Not amusing, very hard work. Bimetallism you know." "Oh yes... well, I suppose, you want to go to sleep." "Mm... so tired. Goodnight, darling." "Goodnight." "Can I go and say good morning to the Princess, mummy?" "I don't expect she's awake yet." "Please, mummy, may I go and see. I'll just peep and if she's asleep, go away." "I don't know what room she's in." "Galahad, my lady," said Grimshawe who was putting out her clothes. "Oh dear, why was she put there." "It was Mr. Last's orders, my lady." "Well, she's probably awake then." John slipped out of the room and trotted down the passage to Galahad. "May I come in?" "Hullo, Johnny-boy. Come in." He swung on the handles of the door, half in, half out of the room. "Have you had breakfast? Mummy said you wouldn't be awake." "I've been awake a long time. You see I was once very badly hurt, and now I don't always sleep well. Even the softest beds are too hard for me now." "Ooh. What did you do? Was it a motor car accident?" "Not an accident, Johnny-boy, not an accident... but come. It's cold with the door open. Look there are some grapes here. Would you like to eat them?" John climbed on to the bed. "What are you going to do today?" "I don't know yet. I haven't been told." "Well I'll tell you. We'll go to church in the morning because I have to and then we'll go and look at Thunderclap and I'll show you the place we jump and then you can come with me while I have dinner because I have it early and afterwards we can go down to Bruton wood and we needn't take nanny because it makes her so muddy and you can see where they dug out a fox in the drain just outside the wood, he nearly got away and then you can come and have tea in the nursery and I've got a little gramophone Uncle Reggie gave me for Christmas and it plays 'When Father Papered the Parlour,' do you know that song. Ben can sing it, and I've got some books to show you and a picture I did of the battle of Marston Moor." "I think that sounds a lovely day. But don't you think I ought to spend some time with daddy and mummy and Lady Cockpurse?" "Oh, them... besides it's all my foot about Lady Cockpurse having a tail. Please you will spend the day with me?" "Well, we'll see." "She's gone to church with him. That's a good sign isn't it?" "Well, not really, Polly. He likes going alone, or with me. It's the time he gossips to the village." "She won't stop him." "I'm afraid you don't understand the old boy altogether. He's much odder than you'd think." "I could see from your sermon that you knew the East, rector." "Yes, yes, most of my life." "It has an uncanny fascination, hasn't it?" "Oh come on," said John, pulling at her coat. "We must go and see Thunderclap." So Tony returned alone with the button-holes. After luncheon Brenda said, "Why don't you show Jenny the house?" "Oh yes, do." When they reached the morning room he said, "Brenda's having it done up." There were planks and ladders and heaps of plaster about. "Oh, Teddy, what a shame. I do hate seeing things modernised." "It isn't a room we used very much." "No, but still..." she stirred the mouldings of fleur-de-lis that littered the floor, fragments of tarnished gilding and dusty stencil-work. "You know, Brenda's been a wonderful friend to me. I wouldn't say anything against her... but ever since I came here I've been wondering whether she really understands this beautiful

BOOK: A handful of dust
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