Authors: Patrick Hamilton
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Classics
He washed and dressed, and swallowed some breakfast, and began on the Brass.
Ella was glowing with her own perky healthfulness.
‘And what was
gettin’ up to last night, Bob?’ she asked.
‘Me? Oh – I knocked about the West End a bit.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Ella. ‘Don’t you tell me!’
‘Go on,’ said Bob. ‘Say it.’
‘You’re surprised at me.’
‘Well. So I
,’ retorted Ella, in an indignant tone.
There was a rubbing pause.
‘Meet any of your lovely ladies?’ she asked. . . .
She somehow vaguely guessed what he had been up to, he
reflected. But how? What on earth induced her to make these long shots, and how did she always manage to bring them off? There was something uncanny about these plain, really good women. You could no more fool them than you could your own conscience. She could not know for certain, however, and he would not give in.
‘Don’t know what you mean about lovely ladies,’ he said. ‘I spent a nice quiet evening at the pictures – if that’s what you want to know.’
‘Yes,’ said Ella, with equanimity. ‘I’ve heard that one before.’
There was a silence. Bob rubbed away.
‘You’ll be gettin’ entangled with one of them creatures – one of these days,’ said Ella. ‘You mark my words.’
There you were! Another long shot! Not quite on the mark, certainly, but horribly near. Her femininity was beyond him.
‘All right, I’ll mark ’em,’ he said, and the subject was dropped.
Bob had nothing to drink at lunch time, and had a good walk in the afternoon. By the time ‘The Midnight Bell’ opened in the evening, he had quite pulled round from his excess of the night before. So much so that he was really looking forward to seven o’clock, and was confident of being able to handle the acquaintanceship with the required delicacy and firmness.
The first to enter the Saloon Bar that night was Mr. Wall. This was a very sprightly little man, and another habitué. He had a red face, fair hair, twinkling blue eyes, a comic little moustache, and a bowler hat. He was obscurely connected with motors in Great Portland Street, and incorrigible. His incorrigibility was his charm. Indeed, he kept his company perpetually diverted. But this was not because his jokes and innuendoes were good, but because they were so terribly, terribly bad. You couldn’t believe that anyone could behave so badly and awfully, and you loved to hear him exceed himself. Against all your sense of propriety you were obscurely tickled – simply because he was at it again. There was no doing anything with him.
His jokes, like all bad jokes, were mostly tomfooleries with the language. To call, for instance, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ ‘The Four Horsemen of the Eucalyptus’ was, to him, quite tremendous in its sly and impudent irony. But he was not always as subtle as this. Having a wonderful comic susceptibility to words, and particularly those with as many as, or more than, four syllables in them, he could hardly let any hopeful ones go by without raillery. Thus, if in the course of conversation you happened innocently to employ the word ‘Vo
ulary’ he would instantly cry out ‘Oh my word – let’s take a Cab!’ or something like that, and repeat it until you had fully registered it. Or if you said that something was Identical with something else, he would say that So long as there wasn’t a Dent in it, we would be all right. Or if you said that things looked rather Ominous, he would declare that So long as we weren’t all run over by an Omnibus we would be all right. Or if you were so priggishly erudite as to allude to Metaphysics, he would first of all ask you, in a complaining tone, Met What? – and then add consolingly that So long as we Met it Half Way it would be all right. It was a kind of patter in the conditional. Similarly, in his own peculiar idiom, Martyrs were associated with Tomatoes, Waiters with Hot Potatoes, Cribbage with Cabbage, Salary with Celery (the entire vegetable world was ineffably droll), Suits with Suet, Fiascoes with Fiancées, and the popular wireless genius with Macaroni. He was, perhaps, practically off his head.
‘Well, Bob, my boy,’ he said, rallyingly, as he came in. ‘How’re you? B an’ B, please, oalgirl.’
He employed the popular abbreviation for Bitter and Burton mixed, and Ella gave it him, primly and deprecatingly, and took his money.
‘How are you, Mr. Wall?’ she said. ‘We haven’t seen you lately.’
‘Oh – I’m all right. Wotyavin, Bob?’
‘I won’t have nothing to-night, thank you, Mr. Wall.’
‘What – You on the Wagon?’
‘Pro Tem,’ said Bob.
‘’Bout time he was,’ said Ella.
At this the door creaked open, and Mr. Sounder entered.
‘Ah Ha!’ said Mr. Sounder. ‘The worthy Mr. Wall!’
‘Oh ho!’ said Mr. Wall. ‘The good Mr. Sounder!’
But the two gentlemen looked at each other with a kind of glassy gleam which belied this broad and amicable opening. Indeed, these two were notoriously incapable of hitting it off, and the thwarted condescension of the one, together with the invulnerable impudence of the other, were features of ‘The Midnight Bell’ in the evening.
‘Been writin’ any more letters to those there papers of yours, Mr. Sounder?’ asked Mr. Wall.
papers – alas – Mr. Wall. Bitter I think, please, Ella.’
‘Wish I owned a paper, ’tanyrate,’ said Ella, trying to keep the peace, and she gave him his beer.
‘No. . . .’ said Mr. Sounder. ‘As a matter of Absolute Fact, within the last hour I have been in the Throes of Composition.’
‘So long as it ain’t a
position,’ said Mr. Wall. ‘It’s all right.’
Here both Bob and Ella were seized by that irritating and inexplicable desire to giggle, and showed it on their shamefaced faces: but Mr. Sounder ignored the interruption.
‘I have, in fact, brought forth a Sonnet,’ he said.
‘A Sonnet?’ said Bob.
‘Oh,’ said Mr. Wall. ‘Didn’t know you wore a Bonnet. Glad to hear it.’
‘What’s the subject?’ asked Bob.
(‘You might lend it to me,’ said Mr. Wall.)
‘The subject is Evensong in Westminster Abbey,’ said Mr. Sounder, suavely, and looked portentously at his beer.
‘Brought it with you?’ asked Ella, coming straight to the point.
‘Well – I have it with me, Ella. But I doubt if it’s quite in your line.’
‘Why not?’ said Ella. ‘I like Poetry.’
‘So do I,’ said Mr. Wall. ‘I’m a poet, if you’d only know it. There you are!
“I’m a poet,
If you’d only know it!”
There you are! That’s Poetry, ain’t it?’
‘Hardly,’ said Mr. Sounder.
‘No!’ cried Mr. Wall, becoming perfectly violent in his endeavour to convince. ‘That’s Poetry.
“I’m a poet,
If you’d only know it!”
That’s Poetry all right! That’s Poetry!’
‘Of a Somewhat Crude Kind, I fear,’ said Mr. Sounder, reflectively.
‘No. That’s Poetry!’ complained a tortured Mr. Wall. ‘That’s
Poetry, that is!’
‘Can’t we see the sonnet?’ asked Bob.
‘Certainly,’ said Mr. Sounder, ‘if you like.’ And bringing from his pocket a folded sheet of quarto typewriting paper, he handed it to Bob. ‘It is done on the Petrarchan model,’ he benignly added.
‘On the Model? My word!’ said Mr. Wall. ‘Well – so long as she wasn’t
But Bob was already looking at the thing, and the remark passed unheeded.
‘I says so long as the model’s not
, I don’t mind,’ said Mr. Wall, for he did not like you to miss his points. ‘But this ain’t no artist’s studio, you know.’
Ella told him not to be silly.
‘The Petrarchan,’ said Bob. ‘That’s different from the Shakespearean, isn’t it, Mr. Sounder?’
Mr. Sounder, very much taken aback, said that it was – yes.
‘In the Petrarchan,’ continued Bob, already beginning to blush, ‘you get eight lines to begin with, an’ then six to follow. An’ in the Shakespearean you get four quatrains an’ then a couplet. Ain’t that right?’
‘But my dear Bob! Whence this erudition?’
‘Oh, he’s like that,’ said Ella. ‘You don’t know him.’
‘Astonishing,’ said Mr. Sounder, encouragingly, but he obviously didn’t like it very much.
Bob’s blush at last subsided. ‘I’m just interested – that’s all,’ he said.
‘He reads the
Fall of the Roman Empire
,’ said Ella, mouthing the words. ‘Doesn’t he?’
Mr. Wall hoped it got up again all right, and at this the door creaked open and a man entered. He was tall, with a bowler hat, yellow gloves, and a silver-knobbed black stick. He wore an expensive, shapely grey overcoat – rather too shapely: and he had large, handsome features – rather too large and handsome. His eyes were blue and fine. His voice was rich, deep, patrician – authentically beautiful. With all this there was an elusive shabbiness and meretriciousness about the man. In a word – an actor.
He had been quite a regular client of ‘The Midnight Bell’ within the last few months. His name was Gerald Loame, and he had been known to bring in friends of his own calling.
‘Good evening, sir,’ said the Governor, who had also entered from behind the bar.
‘Good evening,’ he said, and ordered a Black and White and Splash.
The conversation was rather dashed. Mr. Sounder, who had more than once, in the past, tried to get off with this fellow member of the arts, looked rather awkwardly at his beer.
‘I have been telling your friends,’ he said, ostensibly to the Governor, but actually to the object of his designs, ‘that I have only lately emerged from the throes of Composition.’
‘Oh,’ said the Governor. ‘Reely?’
‘Yes,’ said Bob. ‘I’ve got it here.’
‘You’re a long time readin’ that, Bob,’ said Ella. ‘I want to have a look at it myself.’
‘All right,’ said Bob, and while the others talked, did his best to read it. This, however, in view of the distraction of their voices, was not an easy thing to do conscientiously. Nevertheless, knowing the subject, he was able to get a pretty fair picture of Mr. Sounder sitting in the Abbey and enjoying the scenery and organ.
Beginning with an impassioned apostrophe to the ‘fretted lights and tall, aspiring
,’ Mr. Sounder went straight ahead to describe the music, which was coming in ‘wave on
,’ and which in so doing (as we might have known) his ‘soul did
’ in all sorts of mystic feelings. Sometimes, he continued, the effect was so tremulous and delicate as to remind him of nothing so much as ‘wind in forest
,’ while at certain notable moments there was a ‘very
’ of sound – indeed it caused him to ‘well-nigh
.’ Which fluctuations were replaced, when the thing left off, by an even more breath-taking silence – ‘as
’ in fact.
He then testified to the fullness of his own soul – which was full to the ‘
’ – and fancied he could positively catch, from a limitless distance, ‘echoes of angel’s
.’ Surely, he declared, this service was being conducted not under human agency, but rather in the glorious and invisible presence of ‘some stray Cheru
’ – some spiritual being, anyhow, who knew how to ‘touch the heavenly
’ in a manner unexampled. But this was only supposition.
did not know –
did not dare
. His tears fell fast, his eyes were weak and
. On that line Mr. Sounder’s sonnet concluded.
The courteous Bob rushed through Mr. Sounder’s soullavings with a grave but rather abbreviated sympathy, which was incommoded firstly by the fact that they were all waiting for him to give it back with some comment, and secondly by the fact that a couple had entered the lounge and was already banging on the table with a sprightly but justifiable disregard of Westminster Abbey.
‘Yes. That’s very good, ain’t it?’ he said, handing it to Ella, and went about his duties.
Another couple came in immediately afterwards, and with them ‘The Midnight Bell’ lost its personal atmosphere and became a public place once more.
In an hour the house was quite full; he had made one and seven in tips, he had had nothing to drink, and it was a quarter to seven.
A quarter to seven. She had said about seven. He had his first drink.
Now what did About Seven mean? Did it mean a quarter to seven? Or seven? Or a quarter past? You couldn’t tell.
Five minutes to seven came. It evidently meant Seven.
But it did not apparently mean that, either. For five past seven came, and still she had not entered. He had his second drink. Perhaps it meant a quarter past. . . .
By twenty minutes past he was looking up at every creak of the door, surprised at a curious perturbation in himself. If things went on like this he would have to develop, protectively, a Half-Past theory.
By five and twenty past he had developed, and was confident in, a Half-Past theory.
But unjustifiably confident, as twenty to eight boldly demonstrated. Meanwhile the door had been continuously creaking, and people who were not her continuously entering – entering with a unique, and, it seemed to him, almost churlish opaqueness to the fact that they were not her. . . .
He wondered whether she was Ill.
By a quarter to eight he had lost his temper and was telling himself that anyway it was nothing to do with him. He didn’t care, anyway. And she probably had to earn her living, the poor little wretch.
He then verged upon an Eight O’clock theory. . . .
But this fell through also, and after a time he cast it from his mind. He entered whole-heartedly into his work, and made a good deal of money.
HE DID NOT
come in throughout the entire next week, and he told himself (prompted by a minute but unforeseen malice) that it was just as well.
All the same, intermittently, and at odd moments of the day, the thing occupied and irritated him. She had not kept her word. He could not credit that it was sheer perfidy: he
guessed that it was due to some contingency in her life of which he had no knowledge. A week, however, should have covered this, and she should have been in, if only for a moment. And in the event of her having slighted him of her own free will, he desired vaguely, to get his revenge – to meet her once more, even, in order to get his revenge. He had spent over thirty shillings on her the other evening. At least he could not tolerate rough edges, and wanted to round the thing off.