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The Promise E*S*E


June Harcourt

Chapter 1


As he drifted off to sleep, nerves in his head seemed to crack like the petrified timbers of some ancient vessel. Then he recalled his own ship, her death, the brittle planking snapping as they say Hunt's arm snapped when it was first moved. Like the shots that finished the ponies, he wondered if his nerves would sort of 'go off' or if the relentless slow pressure would relax and he could sleep comfortably. Carpenter felt a little cold, one of the few times since he had resumed the civilized lifestyle that his renewed prominence demanded. Of course it wouldn't last much longer. He would awake one day to infamy, or irrelevancy instead of the kind of fame adventuring had awarded. Then all the warping boards would deform from seaworthy to worthless, to embarrassment to decay. The fate of all old wood was to rot. But still the London cold was of a particular nature. Cruel not clean. It roughed him up a bit.

He couldn't see Clara because she was away on tour for three months. And he couldn't see Emmy because she saw into him and her sympathetic, searching gaze seemed to burn. And he couldn’t even see Browning because the words were very tiny and the hotel bulbs were timid.

So he could only smoke away this absurd and undeserved agony of brain. In the past he would have thrashed it to pieces with a flail of new plans. He would have rushed to fruition before the smaller men could catch his tail. God, this was a death he didn't wish to meet.

* * *

‘My darling little Gwen (the only girl living who grows an extra inch taller each time she sneezes),

What do you think your old Dad has been dreaming about? If you can guess, ask Mama to buy you a special prize. I can already hear your brains churning and grinding towards an answer which if creaky will assuredly be correct. We really thought our little ship let out groans the day she settled down on her ice pillows to sleep forever. And when the wind howls it reminds me of our ships sighs. Would you believe that a senseless product of mans toil could experience such severe distress at the moment of its end, that it should cry out...'

* * *

Soon he was down at Bournemouth, not tired or achy but crackling with a future. Only at nights did he fear the penetrating eyes of his wife.

"Emmy, I need a ship,” declared Hector, with a fervour that threatened to swamp her resurgent wifeliness. He loomed avast on the hall mat. Emily's wary look measured a suffering so extensive it reached to the silvering roots of her hair.

"Where would you head - Alaska?" she said, forcing interest, then, mechanically: "The North Pole has been claimed, there is nothing new to discover South, and I don’t believe you could find a Government in Europe willing to back proposals smacking, to any extent, of risk. Every country's budget's been stretched to its limit by the demands of war. What few resources there are get funnelled into rebuilding."

And reparations. Versailles had become again a venue for frivolous parties of ghosts and gawkers. Dealing over. Unless he proposed to colonize the ice-sheets? But land-grabbing had died with the wild-west. Emily drew breath. She had ticked off salient negatives.

Over the hallway floorboards their shoes heels mimicked the rhythm of this regular, eyes-downcast deflation of his intent. Then the warmth of the drawing-room fire seemed to stall it. He shunted Emily to a sofa powdered by muslin light, where he dusted a few toys to the floor indifferently, until she bent to clear them.

"Do our children still play with blocks?" he asked, reclining.

"No, they have advanced beyond the block stage. This is a 'brain-teaser'," she said, presenting her husband an hexagonal segment. He examined it with an exaggerated interest then several more shapes as his wife arranged them in a tray.

"You've solved this before?"

"Why do you think that?"
"Because every piece fits where you place it," he observed. "Not much of a mental struggle, apparently."

"Oh I've not tried it before," said Emily, smugly shuffling triangles into formation. "But I can see," she added, "this one is for you. It's a humdinger."

Carpenter eyed his wife, amused. He hunched forward, legs together, board on knees. She held out the central starry polygon for him to fit then winced with glee at each wrong twist. Its many little sharp points fought off other nestled shapes flecked with drifting cigarette ash. Even as Carpenter coolly determined its angle of fit, the prickly star wouldn't click. No matter his accuracy of calculation, it stuck and stuck. His effervescence began welling into annoyance when Emily, at last, slipped the board from sight before it could be thrown.

"I'm not interested in tricks." He thought: She will dance on my grave.

Her faint gleeful stutters had scratched at their festering disaffections.

"It's a child’s game," she affirmed.

"Emily, which is the game? This or this?" His arms shaved a wide arc in the air.

In years past she would briskly have said "Don't be silly....", squeezed his over- animated hand, rung for coffee, rattled on about the children or praised his pals until he grew bored and hastened away to something important which she understood wasn't very, but lives had changed so she decided to stare him down - administer that guiding slap she fancied to lay on the peach-hewn cheek of his mistress if ever it showed. But a spiritual hurt, visible in his eyes even at life’s peaks, stopped her, saddened her, made her yearn for a younger love within those deep, deep eyes. He let the wordless attempt at self-assertion wilt but felt no complacence. She had sailed with him before on few previous schemes, on voyages soulwise or seawards. Still he thought it better not to stint with the ballast.

"Some have made money", he said with confidence. "The arms merchants. Government coffers may echo stonily whilst bald men soak in tubs of gold." Emily blanched. That wealth was tainted and it would taint him.

"Why not organize another speaking-tour abroad? I'm sure the continental public is not quite sick of the Pole. They love to skate. We both know it is any easy way to earn some money."

"Easy for who? I have to rant and rave about this hellish thing that happened to us and feed the publics vicarious appetite for disasters. I'm positive they're sick of me. It’s a frisson, a seasonable thing. I'm a falling apple."

He stared reflectively into the afternoon room haze of languid smoke and weak sun. He started to kick one foot, wondering at the certainty of Emmy's opposition to his schemes. Her solemn yearning for a happy home which was beyond his ability to provide all but quenched his spark.

"Well then", he said. "Try looking at it from a different angle. I could clean their muddied money for them and make it pay back a thousandfold the nations from which it was wrenched - in blood," he added, to sound biblical. Emmy leaned a bit that way Hector had learned this from his friend Mackintosh the last time the two conferred. Mackintosh acted as carrier pigeon between an oft-times estranged husband and wife. Then, characteristically, Hector clapped her fist between his fine hands, adapted his gaze to her as if she was a blank cheque and sonorously intoned, "I've always wished for nothing else but to benefit humanity through an addition to Knowledge".

She knew he wanted this to be true. Sincerity even flashed over his face, briefly, but an unfocussed enthusiasm pervaded as always, along with disappointment, doubt, fumbling at their grips. She nodded, a nod he divined as approval.

"Well,” he said, smiling, " it's not necessary to confabulate together over details. I have several plans for the money-side. I just thought you'd like to know that there's a voyage in the offing. North maybe.... I.."

It would never be north. North was the cradle of havoc.

It belied his candid self to stop short from explosive disclosure yet the sentence tailed. He stood up, paced about, mentioned their dining together, unless... He had also heard she was seeing an old flame some nights.

"I have a meeting. Percy wakes soon. Would you like to take him for a walk?" she said, suddenly charming.

Hector said he hoped the older children might be home as well. He needed reminding about their respective ages, schools and holidays. He wanted especially to see their daughter, Gwen.

"Gwennie, said Emily, "greatly enjoys those letters you've been sending. Is that what you wished to ask her about?" He rarely visited for other than purposes of divulgence or discernment. "Did you bring gifts? They expect it. If you really want to do good by the children, send funds as well as fatherly advice. Their school fees are ballooning. I've read those letters and they remind me of Polonious who, remember, falls to the blade and is really a butt of jokes."

"I mean my letters to entertain that’s all," he said defensively. "I don't think I will stay. The car can take me to the station or all the way. The children won't mind. I can think of lots more exciting, enticing, joyous jumbles for their occupation. See to it they have enough tantalizing books."

"They prefer to play at the seaside, although the weather has been less than kind to us."

"Beaches can be windswept places".

After a discussion of practical household and financial arrangements, which Carpenter dubbed 'ephemera', he motored away, extracting from the gloom a somewhat distasteful glimpse of a loose-ish, he supposed discontented, woman framed by porch columns, waving vaguely like a penny-model Venus.

* * *

By the time Sir Hector Aeneas Carpenter arrived in London it had darkened considerably, street lamps worked magic, pulsing mists hung about. 'Tomorrow,' he had decided on the car journey, 'telephone Emmy, implore her to come back and steady my city life.' He urgently needed a round of respectability to re-assure potential backers and cosy down the rumours; re-create that easy-chair, fireside domesticity that his people deserved. With destiny rising in the east he could readily endure occasional probing glances. Married people barely monitored their others physiognomy, anyway. They just floated past and flagged signals. He and Emmy that afternoon had not soul-peered. Lost the need. Her eyes glittered in that doorway like a glass shard in the sun.

'Why am I not flooded with telegrams from the team. I call but the war has quelled their roving spirits'. He had been trying to round up the old hands from previous journeys South, hoping their tonic company might reinvigorate his spluttering engine of achievement. A vision of writhing arms buoying him up, the arms of all the devoted pillars of his past intensified a desire for succour from what remained of the night.

He asked the driver to set him down in a street halfway between his own house and Clara's flat, to keep the fellow guessing. He snuck furtively along close to spear-point ironwork and cavernous porticoes. Not a twinge of headache. She had given him her key before leaving. The other piece of her divided affections, Hickox, had yet to win that privilege. He clothed her but didn't own her. Hector had quarried a little promontory of her heart. When the front door shut behind him, he felt hot from walking. He hungered but went directly to her bedroom - she called it her 'boudoir', where, thoughtfully, an assortment of biscuit tins, his stash, filled one compartment of her dressing-table. Everyone presumed the mind-blinding obsession with food nursed by all starving, marching Antarctic explorers continued forever after rescue. Compensation paid in the form of rather unusual and extravagant delicacies, as if fattening up the wretches served as well as medals and buckets of glory. All his comrades had reported this phenomenon and by now were heartily primed for future bouts of under-nourishment. Food companies lurked with cameras hoping to snap away at them munching a wrappered morsel. It was all tending towards the commercial side, nowadays.

After a fire had been ushered into life, Clara’s room felt happier so Hector lowered the light to an after-glow. He crouched before the fire, reddening, dreamily visualizing her firm figure pounding the stage with anguished hands wringing. Clara called herself 'Claire De Lune', but with Lady Macbeth entering the repertoire the stage-name would have to raise a tone. What about 'madame something-or -other'- for an actress 'mrs' sounded solid - she could invent a husband. He wondered if Clara had packed her blue satin dress - no it still clung to the wardrobe hook, like ice, glacial blue. He ran his fingertips down the rippling smoothness that glinted violet in the flame tinted light before, withdrawing, laying the gown over the white bed-cover - the plateau and the river of ice. He had told her the dress imitated nature, stole nature's jewels, the piercing blue blink of an ice-cave, the turgid hummocks of glacier, the blinding, swiping sharp-soft canyon of blue, the crevasse. I've fallen into you, Moony, he said, and you are closing, crushing, swallowing me, shielding me from the blizzard, squeezing and sliding me towards the fathomless black who-knows-where and who-knows-how many have plunged to its core. The crisp satin thawed beneath his breath. Wherever he ran his finger, the dimple filled with liquid shadows, ice-coloured, cleaving. He lay his cheek upon the sweet-scented flank, the eternal stream and this time, as a bubble in the grate popped he could feel it in his chest, the harness knifing his ribs, formless snow billowing over in wave-clouds and the wind strangling voices and the void and then her......... the shapeless one beside him, the single multifarious substance, the water turned woman, the atmosphere coalescing and puffing lung bursts into one ear, into his nose, all the hollows of his body expanding with wind rush, lifting him as a gust towards base rock.

Carpenter jerked into consciousness. Tufts of grey morning sprouted from about the curtains edge. Morning. So much living took place in his restless slumbers, lately. His scarred hands were buried in the blueness somewhere. It was running over the carpet now, metamorphosed, from old ice to spring thaw. The heat from his face and chest, his moist breath had played the gown to dishevelment. Hector's neck and knees were stiff. He had rolled to the floor unwittingly. Dust from under the bed teased his throat. Hungover yet he seldom drank rashly. A nightmare - yet it was not bad tasting like the storm ones. Instead it was delicious, this residue in his memory, a feminine flavour. Of course it had been all right, that incident, that pain transformed to gold, because he had survived. So why could he think it with horror yet dream it with delight? The ruched sleeve was a guiding hand, the flimsy satin truly flesh. Still it could accommodate her figure. I must be off my rocker, he thought, crouching on a chair, feeling for cigarettes, massaging a leg, at a loss.

* * *

During the day, he and Mackintosh applied themselves to secretarial duties, that is, answering correspondence. Priority of reply went to 'sweet possibilities', which included any dealings with those in high places, foreign countries, dubious types [diamond-lipped ones], the super wealthy, tycoons, billionaires, royalty, bald men and show biz. Press came next, the anonymous public then the relations. Patiently, Mackintosh dumped paper cairns across a chipped and bowing table retrieved for the old office, where as Mac had been forewarned, Carpenter intended to 'kind of camp’ until Lady Carpenter moved back into their London address. Men that meant something in the world ran things from offices in the city, he thought. Just setting up a sign had activated previous expeditions, his old gang of merry men had suddenly manifested, such had been the mystical power of a sign.

Hector fiddled about with the private-personal stuff.

"This," he said "should be burned. More accusations of my past duplicity... nonetheless it must be preserved for the sake of history. Do you think I sound like Hunt, this having to do things for some lofty purpose such as Science. Now there’s a man who cared for his reputation, a true child of the RGS. A Darwinian, a poet, a navy man, brave and....unoriginal." Mac normally spent much of his dictation time bucking up the boss so he said:

"You have an equal if not finer record and reputation."

"Well in certain circles they consider me as an 'example' of some endangered type. Early twentieth-century man." If only fate would grant him one last chance to change the pattern. This was the hope.

Carpenter lurched to the window and gazed at various hat-crowns, umbrellas, packages and scowls which obscured human identities. He would like to have spied the cheery face of someone known to him, to bolt downstairs and waylay them. He could sense the paper cairn behind his back, known as 'Bill', towering like a major depot. Bet they've forgotten the dreamed-of case marked 'treat'. How they had looked forward to the sweetmeats so thoughtfully deposited at the Bluff.

His imagination ran on a thick mix of Southern allusions and ‘nobilmente'. A drab herd crowding the pavements he could divvy up into penguins and seals, traffic became sledges blundering by. He chuckled at a perky, muff-like dog tottering along as if to remind the Swedes a British dog is what a dog is - unexpendable, functionless, highly ridiculous.

Could another push to the south fix things? How could he possibly promise to organize again men and things when he made his wife beg friends for support, made her ‘manage’?

"Lady Carpenter's coming up to town next week. She may stay. Did I tell you, Mac?" He spoke boldly, brightly against the street noise without facing the room but when no reply ensued, he turned, said, less ebulliently: "I'll do some letters now.”

"Canadian government's turned you down", announced Mackintosh, intaking breath dramatically.

"Is that definite?' Hector grabbed a stiff beige letter addressed to his erstwhile canned-food concern and could hardly credit its formality. Reynolds, the big man, had turned him down. The holiday at his beach house.... quickly he scanned his memory for a cause - they'd seemed happy together, they’d battled at bridge, quaffed cocktails, enjoyed poetry, tracked sea-birds. Emmy had even braved the Atlantic in pursuit of social success. He recalled Reynold's wife, Arlene acting chummy with Em. Reynolds had virtually applauded Hectors every utterance, now, he presumed, because the rejection message skirted around reasons, a turned stone must have uncovered a viper.

"Here's a second letter. It confirms the appointment of a Canadian party to survey the same area of coastline."

Hector recalled Arlene again, the beautiful Arlene, sun-brown Arlene and her painted finger-nails.

Early boastful remarks from Sir Hector about this collaboration between nations breaking new ground etc., rang again tunelessly in Mac's memory, how he 'had the governor of Canada in his pocket', but as a confidante of the great man, such uncertainty, let downs and vain hyperbole inevitably ending in uproar, failed to stun.

Perched on the desk, smoking, Hector merely said,

"It's personal, I think." Foolish, he thought, those intimate conversations about manliness. Lucky survivors, playthings of fate, he'd said humbly, and she'd asked about seal blood and blubber and how she was sure it made ordinary men hard like savages and the deprivation, the paring away of sensation stimulated instinct and how she liked to live instinctively herself and how her husband reminded her of a sponge. Hector felt he would have liked to have tossed her to the men after they had regained strength. He explained about the effects of freezing temperatures and she had said, its warm, its summer, and they had gone swimming. But what had she told Reynolds? There was more than talk? Hector looked at his calloused hands, softening up, healing, shaking even. Was she right? Visions of abandonment on a tropical atoll - brown up his hands, construct a sinuous, light-weight craft from fronds then navigate to South America using native dead reckoning. Observe what physical impact heat, fruit and abundance of unconstrained indigenous island flesh worked on seaman suspicious of humidity. Then all the world's Arlene’s, basking beneath the tent of blue, savouring their last passionate coupling with a hard man, might sleep satisfied. Limply Arlene's instincts had responded to the grimy town flaneur burgeoning within him while her own man, Reynolds, loomed like a fit Goliath. A sponge?

Then he had said: Your beauty overwhelms me. Tenderness in her voice...

* * *

‘Irksome, loopily affectionate, on tenterhooks, fidgety’… ran Emily's immediate assessment of her Husband's ‘welcome-back-to-the-big-city’ mood. Percy had once mistaken his Daddy for a postman because he sometimes wore hats that sat awkwardly like postman’s' caps also Daddy delivered him like a package to other rooms if the situation demanded absolute peace. Well he had promised to abandon his stretcher at the office and promised to devote himself to the brood. He would teach Charles, the eldest of the three, to master chess, a nonsensical game his prating pater really could not stand.

Straight away, a lack of newsprint around the house convinced Hector of Emmy's total collapse from an Edifice worth praising, to a shepherds hut, quaint and rural and redolent of livestock.

"But Hector, I've only been here five-minutes.''

"Time enough to lay siege of a newsstand.”

"I feel you are too much with the boy," he admonished, over breakfast, the solitary meal they used to habitually chew together. "So I think he should be left more often with whoever's available, whether your sister or Mrs Lloyd or that maid."

"Or the postman. Percy thinks you are a postman. He only has uncles for comparison and the various shopkeepers and our friends and very occasionally your friends. In Percy's view they don't seem to have jobs but mostly lounge." Emily insinuated for the duration of her tea-cup, "And they all sport elegant suits. They must be the senior postman who don't pay Daddy very well, that is why he looks untidy sometimes."


His interjection startled her. "I'm surprised you listen to my babbles. I say: Change clothes! You say your whole life is a ruin, shocking talk from the world’s hugest optimist, but your children suffer enough growing-pains without their father creaking around like an old tattered scarecrow since he's not even old. Gwen will be with us next week. Her school is closing for repair. She only has one photograph of her father very upright in his uniform. It perfectly illustrates the sermonizing in his letters."

Did he have her creeping religion to thank for this outburst?

"Why not reinforce my values, Mother, the impregnability of ones inner being, Teach her the superior value of moral truth above meagre trappings...Mother." He thrust the word into her harpoon-like. She continually would exclude herself from social engagements pleading some problem with the children. Their appearances together had dwindled to greetings quayside or quayside send-offs. "I've been without fresh clothing for months on end but that didn’t split one fibre of my soul. Do children care, dirt-scrunching children? In fact I could run out to the street in rags, even unclothed and still feel capable."

Of what, Emily feared, drawing a crowd? Her horror-struck look coaxed an infectious smirk to his lips. If he dashed round the table he could spread it to her, lip to lip, the woman who subsided into motherhood somewhat as his own mother, emptied out by many births, paralysed within the drear recesses of a dim chamber and, even duller, her cavity of mind. Emily, on the contrary, blossomed freshly that morning, seaside sunbursts fading gradually from her hair soon to be replaced by city soot. But she turned her mouth aside. He humphed...

Their house stood in a prestigious green suburb, sometimes noisy.

"How to you like that clatter of machinery, m’dear?", he inquired, closely.

For the first time in years she felt nervous of her husband's proximity, of the hands kneading her chair-back, the marmalade breath tickling the tip of her right ear, the weight of invisible body hemming her in. Then she thought perhaps...

"How are all your pains, Dearest?"

And automatically she broke the strain. This one entanglement, their marriage, thoroughly drained Emily's reserves.

"They come and go," he said, desultory. "Like yours and everybody's." What did it matter if the cramps were sometimes severe and all- consuming? But still he kissed her hair in a mischievous fashion. "No need to sweat, Sweet-o-mine," he said, softly. "Your boy's grown up. He's outgrown love and games," and besides Emily's staid reserve made him feel old. They had crawled through muck together; a congealing rime of ash and disappointment defined the creases of their face. He knew from experience that snow would prove an ineffectual soap.

* * *

Clara's manager, Pat Hickox, tolerated Hector, lovable rogue, and looked forward to their jocular debates on cultural affairs and to after theatre drinks in Miss De Lune's dressing-room where sparkling glasses, earrings, repartee seasoned a very gentlemanly jealousy. And though by flashing talent and title the chap had clinched a lower rung and key, his claim drew scant reflection from the splendid star aglow atop the tree.

Hallucination, or was the Hickox glow on the wane, wondered Hector as the said triumvirate, missing one, stumbled up to Clara's door? This hopeful suspicion followed on the heels of a social success at Claire De Lune's home-coming soiree at which he had carpeted the entire throng with his speech in homage to the Ellen Terry acting tradition, the Bernhardt ennui and the Siddons commingling with eminent persons. None of his hastily whipped up blancmange made any sense at all and delighted his enemies almost more than the tipsy well-wishers. Marvellous that this man of action dared to explore well-trod regions of the liberal arts and make pronouncements as if his trail was the first. Many, in assorted fields, had questioned his calculations and their methods of production. Could he expect the fog to sweep away future footprints as completely as the driven snows? Not unless etched with deep conviction, impressed. He did utter impressively.

"You seem almost your old self," Clara smiled, radiant and rosy-cheeked, inflamed by champagne and promotional success, for her alliance with the famous explorer undeniably drew notice. "Pat and I were talking while we were away about, you know, your half-heartedness. It's gone. Has something happened?"

"Nothing in particular. Emily has moved back to Ermine Street. She can manage a household wonderfully well so it’s one less bother for me, for us." He thought: For my creditors. She thought: Marital bliss.

"I'm rarely at home, of course."

By now they had brightened up the boudoir with a young fire and boiled some water in Clara's new electric kettle.

"You wouldn't believe the gadgets they have there now," she meant America, "but I don't think I could live in New York. It's almost too brash after the war. It's like polishing up one corner of the globe to blacken the others. All talk of 'old worlds' crumbling. And empires in decline." Clara bubbled with an urge to declaim, towards what end Hector couldn't see, unless she was trying to 'put him off'. He yawned uncontrollably. He had been most talkative earlier. She said, "Well then, dearie, have you been keeping my little nest warm?" She could trace a smell of his tobacco which bundles of fresh flowers struggled to overpower. "Remember I said you could stay here when... I don't know, when you felt restless or seedy, because it all seems easier when we are together, don’t you think? I leave my worries elsewhere and expect you to follow suit."

She sat at her mirror. Pins and paste and show fell away. Hector's age diminished. Forty-five to twenty-eight. The flame light swashed Clara all over like an aurora. It was so much fun. He could play with this woman, he could whisper tasteless jokes he'd overheard. She'd giggle, they could be boys together, naughty and uproarious but still she was graceful and round as a queen in progress. She would lead and he would attend upon her, then like the court favourite, part the magnificent hangings, disarray pomp and powder, and crush the virgin in her.

Intrigue. A complicated play of emotion. Hickox was 'helping out'. Hector felt like a kept man. These people live a cardboard carousel ride of a life. The swirling plucked at his cuffs, the mechanism sucked him in, the wily high-class, lover-swapping farce that the east-coasters affected in their mink-white palaces. Clara seemed less set. She seemed European. She hove to through the merciless gales of fashion. She was steady. She knew the game. Emily would console his failures, Clara dispel them.

While Clara snored, he marvelled that such a heavenly creature could, Hector lay awake ruminating about the varieties of women attached to the varieties of men. Before his eyes the filthy, weather beaten faces of certain of the men murkily arose, like ghosts through blubber-smoke then the nondescript plumped-up faces of their female halves, a number of whom he had met, floated between, like moths looking to mate. The quieter ones on the ice it turned out generally had loud wives and the loutish ones had mice. As it should be. Yet one disruptive crew-member was met at the dock by a wife of leonine stature and all his bravado shrank. Hector wondered if, conversely, his men surmised things about their leader and his private relationships. Like Cook's wife or any adventurer's sweetheart, they wait and they manage. But then how does it run when they are reunited? How did his men slot in after the ordeal, to their family roles? How did they satisfy their women or were they not touched by it. A matter of practicality, he supposed, the women need children but they must want companionship as well, but then they have their female friends, family alliances, a sisterhood. Does that sort of bond exist as with men or maybe only men united in hardship?

He fell asleep.

* * *

The next few weeks dragged over Carpenter an obscuring thick mist. A sunny and beautiful happiness with Clara swiftly mired in one theatrical sludge after another. Mackintosh a spy! He couldn't type fast enough anyway. Hector's dictation careened like an untethered pup, jumping then rolling before crashing and heavily sighing. At which point Mac cranked over his memory for the proper phrase. Occasionally a most inapt term crept in, evaded Hector's cursory read through then embarked on an ethereal concourse bailing insult and regret upon all it passed. Still Carpenter liked to have him at beck and call because of his unquestioned loyalty South. It was not surprising, then, Emily's distrust of his reportage which she partly relied upon for information as to her husband's whereabouts. As for Hectors ‘activities,’ the mystery remained.

Mac stood a little in awe of Lady Carpenter who represented a filtered version of Sir Hector, with gusto, charm, determination, humour gone. A tincture of resignation drip, drip, dripped. Why she couldn't afford to be more generous, however, Mac was unable to fathom. He was hardly paid for his pains. He was stretched both ways like rubber but, for self-preservation, always exerted a backwards pull. He wouldn't give that extra inch even if Emily insisted upon names.

They strolled along the Embankment, Nanny trundling Percy behind in his pram. Emily carried a packet of letters and newspaper cuttings that Mackintosh thought might arrest her suspicious nature. Acclaim for the film of Sir Hector's last expedition was gradually wheedling stray young men like sated woodworms, into the light of potential dangers.

"Perhaps this public attention might compel elites to fund another push on the penguins realm." Money had dried up but had the public's enthusiasm entirely withered? Woo them with aeroplanes and wireless.

"Yes," she dripped. "Sir Hector can 'gauge a mood', as the expression goes, and I've been hearing of nought but the wonderful lure of 'whizz-bangery'. Mac, you've been there. What possible gains can the aeroplane hope to win? Much of the area has been explored. He tells me its not ambition for himself, but to serve the ambitions of younger men fielding their own destinies. He may as well operate a cruise-line. I know... that’s another option of his on the plate."

Even a hint of Lady Carpenter's having borrowed Sir Hector's style of slangy expression flummoxed Mackintosh, but he likened the long-term effects of Sir Hec's boomy oratory to shell-shock. A wife would suffer most.

"Anything else?" She sat down dead on a bench and arched her eyebrows at Mac. He sat down next to her, conspiratorially. A breeze wafted diesel smells from a bridge. Nanny had lifted Percy up to the railings and was pointing out barges, dredges and pleasure craft that spangled the river.

"I know for certain," Mac began to whisper up-breeze, "he remains on friendly terms with both Hickox and Miss De Lune. They dine at the Connaught and dance."

A ridiculous picture of wasp-waisted, swan-necked Claire DeLune and bullish, eager Hector swirling around the dance floor of The Connaught Hotel momentarily gagged Emily, then she said:

"It's getting worse. How can he expect support from high places when he's cavorting like a...goose. What about this Mr Hickox. What does he do while they waltz?"

Mackintosh hadn't the heart to dispute Emily's genteel idea of dancing. A waltz it certainly was not, the two-step.

"He just sits, watches, catches up with acquaintances. Rarely are the three alone. Once...," Mac hesitated, "An associate of Sir Hector's brother joined them. A face I had seen in the papers, I mean the court papers whilst the proceedings were underway [the criminal proceedings] maybe a witness, maybe a co-accused, a name I don’t quite remember...” In fact he did. It was Smith.

Mackintosh wriggled uncomfortably, his sentence drowned out by a bridge hooter. He overheard Nanny squeal excitedly: "Look Percy, it’s opening for that boat to pass through!" as a clunky but sleek vessel puttered beneath the pitched span. Emily shuddered. It was a dark boat, like the arctic ones.

Jack Carpenter, the less bankable of the two brothers, plucked shady associates as if they were uncultivated, rambling strawberries. As if he could judge their tartness by their sheen, he gathered freely. If he was the power behind the ‘face’... Emily stopped herself from mumbling, "Poor Hector," in that futile tone that run-ragged mothers used. He wasn't her Boy any longer, as he kept reminding. What was kinder for the children - the scandal of divorce or a taint of criminality? Even after a divorce, everyone would still acknowledge them as the 'explorer's' children. Just being fathered by a man who 'almost made it to the pole' handicapped them enough, she supposed. She said:

“Maybe it was by chance, this encounter?"

For reply he merely cocked his head and raised his eyebrows.

"They have had a prior acquaintance then...” A weary dread began to shrivel her investigations. Mac recalled the nameless one passing around slips of paper, one which wound its way to the office. He groped in his pocket.

"I have something here that may help you identify Sir Hector's dinner partner," he said, whipping forth a frail leaf torn from a cash-book. One side had an address pencilled on it. Emily took the note and flattened it on her knee.

‘106 Leathwaite Road’ she read and thought, is it London, is it Leeds, Edinburgh, Basle? The corners of her lips turned down with frustration, sorrow, incomprehension. Percy tottered to his Mother, she said, abstracted: "Hello dear."

Nanny called, "I'm blowing my nose, Madam," and fussed with her supply of sundry white cloths. Not a handkerchief among them. Then suddenly the child lunged at the railings and had it not been for an athletic amanuensis he might have cleared them like a rebel chimpanzee. Mac passed him back to his 'very, very sorry Sir’ Nurse.

Flicked by the breeze from Percy's curious fingers, a paper snowflake curtsied over and over then corkscrewed towards the tons of water surging below scattered, indistinct groups of pedestrians. But one, bemusedly, noted its descent and probable dissolution. Emily imagined her 'clue' disintegrating like sugar somewhere astern the snaking black boat.

Chapter 2

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