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The Promise E*S*E


June Harcourt

Chapter 3

Clara tucked the eiderdown about his shoulders. All men reverted to boys when dwarfed by the feather billows of a bed and humbled by infection.

"I can read to you from my new part, if you'd like me to. I'm playing a wise woman from the woods...wise woman from the woods, a tongue-tickler, although I'm pleased to say the play is not called 'a wise woman of the woods'"

"What’s it called then?"

" 'The Secret Flower'. And only I as the wisest woman for miles around, know of the flower and of what magic it can perform and how it can bring true lovers together and protect them from harm” Hector was grinning enormously. "And I know what you're thinking, my boy, you think it sounds like the plot of a pantomime. I will have you know, philistine, its basis is a fairy story from Eire collected by the genius Mr Yeats and set to verse by his collaborator, the Lady Gregory. And I will be got up like the Countess Cathleen looking very craggy but still seductive and throaty voiced. And this is my cloak. I've brought it home to set the mood while I practise my chants. It is the colour of peat, feel it, its homespun...."

Clara had taken a voluminous earth-brown robe from the chair and spread it across the bumps in the bed that was Hectors shape.

"Dowdy", he coughed. "Its not your colour, blue is your colour."

"Well it isn't a colour, it’s the ground in which we are all rooted which is too deep for the light to reach and throw colours on to. I agree. It suits you more than me. Changes you into a leprechaun." She cowled the hood about his head. "But I can't kiss you there, pixie, turn your head to one side. I don't want to catch whatever bug it is."

Clara’s too beautiful to be actress, thought Hector as she fussed around his bed of pain. Oval-face, golden hair, superb body. She should have stayed a 'professional beauty', and happily slung her hook at the whales of the financial aristocracy.

"What is it dear?" she said, softly. "You have the pinched look of a sick person, one which I commend to the dunghill. You can't 'smoke it away' as you always say. But I think the cough is as a consequence of too often smoking problems away. Anyway you're not going to die, so why look so glum? True it’s drizzling outside...but in here it’s sunny." She put one hand to her breast, to designate the repository of her sun. Maybe an artificial one, the cameras flash-bulb or the spotlight.

"Ever been in the country,” inquired Hector, " I don't mean a country-house or an inn, but the remote places, the peaks?"

"We were in the Rocky Mountains, weren't we? Remember all the fish we caught? My brother is happy there. I can stay with him whenever I want. It snows up at his farm. The scenery of those mountains can move people. Would you like me to invite Pat over? He's just lost his mother, poor thing."

Hector covered his face with his hands. Hickox in the 'boudoir', Hector in the bed?

"Its just a cough. I don't need to lie down. With all this swaddling, it’s stifling, worse than being stuck in bag while the blizzards rage." Playing nursemaid he thought an inappropriate role for Clara yet she seemed a little hurt by his wriggling and complaining. He bunched up the cloak and threw it to her, said, "Your on. Read me the script."

"Well first you must imagine the scene. I can't do it in shoes, the woman is a kind of middle-aged nymph, barefoot.... A couple turn up on the shingly beach after a shipwreck so you must think they were passengers on the ship but they have a ghostly quality, phantasmagorical, a word the Irish love, you should too, then I come along, I was collecting seaweed for soup and think I am beholding two spirits. Now these two must bear a child, it is their destiny, the child will be monarch of all the land. My secret flower is restorative and hopefully will reverse the dying process and they can get married, however, all is not what it seems. By this time they are seated on stools at my hearth, a tremendous fireplace with a cauldron.... and I say

Press, moan, flow miraculously, the void of wind

This flame, my child, pines for the lick of your breath,

void of wind

Afleet but frail, it staggers and weeps its black tears

and slivers of its dress bamboozle my flowers bending tongue

void of wind be strong, be full, be as the wests moist issue,

be quick, come wind, quake my

child into howls, red and wildly burning.

One key to the story is the flowers invisibility. I have to pretend I'm holding its stem, like this but then it catches fire and the two ghosts suddenly become devils and eat the flower which is alight. Then the devils eat me...and then I am the child. I have sort the flame which was the flower."

"And do the devils inherit the Earth?"

"Decide for yourself," she said, poring over the typescript "An audience needs to take something with them to argue about while they are getting smashed. What do you think the meaning of this might be?"

a must , a train of thunder, rain and death, brakes

the ribbolous sea, under waters, flat and cool and

greeny. I your turtle, my body its carapace eons old

worn and travelled, take sup of the sea, cool and flat, I swim, I scoop

until the tips of winds have joined, the eternal swaying weed.

This is what happens to me at the end, the fire becomes a creature of the seas. Ruler of both realms, I suppose.... Of, I'm tired of that now." Something had distracted her. " How can I enlarge my eyes? They sort of shrink in the shade of the hood. Opening them wider dries them out, gives me that moving picture quality."

His coughing climaxed in a paroxysm, Clara passed him a glass of water {with gin} then stroked his brow and he could see the skittishness that had been palpable only moments ago transmuting into the fixed serious look people get in their eyes when the situation breeds arousal. Something about his vulnerability, his panting and closing then unclosing his fists, something so taut as flexed muscle juxtaposed against the yielding, formless bed linen, a dark mass scarring the pallor of ivory pillow...

Hector wondered what she was up to. He was sick and had things on his mind, but Clara was a modern-self-serving creation. She ate life, ardently like a starveling. Commandingly she hauled the pillow from under his shoulders which forced his head flat onto the hard, slab of mattress, then leapt up beside him, so lithe then slid herself on top of him effigy like and her golden hair pummelled his face until she swept it brusquely aside so she could drill into his soul with her diamond eyes. Then she said in a low rumbling purr: Don't cough on me, hon. and began rubbing herself up and down his body as it sweat and fought the weight of quilt and her weight and the weight of his predicament and he thought, I won't be able to go through with this and the house-cat demanding its meal would be left to yowl on the roof-tops. He suddenly stiffened, in not quite the way she desired, and squeezed her shoulders and lifted her and tried to blow apart the concealing tresses.

"Clara, he coughed into the hair, I'm not in the mood... and he wondered if this one denial would blast their relationship to smithereens. It was tenuous. She was ten years younger. I want you.... but I'm not well enough."

She bolted upright, pinning him down like a recalcitrant steer and thrust her breasts forward with the brazen indomitability of a figurehead.

"Oh, a moment ago you were pleading to be allowed out of bed. I suspect your frightened of an oh much to forward woman.. Well I can't wait, that play is a sexy one, words are sexy."

She bent forward. She was still wearing an elaborate blouse but commenced to undo the serried flanks of pearly buttons to set her body free. It was partly true, a little strange to feel the assertive weight of a crusading woman driving into one. Then suddenly it was off and the straps of her shift were down and she was hanging over him like a fruiting tree and pleading with ever raised and quivering pore of her keenly-sculpted figure. Then she kissed, drank every section of his face bar mouth, ruffled his hair, Hector thinking, I must be mad and lying still, almost in terror...

Then angrily she jumped off the bed, shrouded herself in the peat-brown cloak and sat in the chair sighing and screwing up her toes inside her stockings, every inch of her restless and dissatisfied and aching and steaming. Hectors eyes followed the shabby gilt cornices from one corner of the ceiling in a complete circuit as he lay flat on his back avoiding the consequences. He heard Clara say "I'm going out", her voice monotone, then he heard drawers and her heels in other rooms and then the staircase and then the front door.

"I craved your love. And what you could, you gave me,

Your body's beauty: yet I sought the soul.

Not loving me, dear child, you could not save me:

Yet all your love could not have made me whole."

Each grinding cough wrung out poetry. What would make any man whole, he mused, if not the whole woman? So his spittle induced impotence would inevitably send him home to Emmy. He loathed her sick-bed sympathy because it seemed feigned. At once the sensual, indelible beauty swelling the attractions of a wanton and superior, a dominant woman, minutes before and his spurning her offer, made Hector regret even more the deleterious health effects worked by his erratic, nearly finished life.

* * *

Mac descried his boss in a desolate condition at the office. He found the 'fallen mighty' downing luke-warm champagne, puffing Havana cigars and coughing forth intentions:

"I want to do a good deed. I want the letter, for Emily to read, and to spare the Hunt clan from embarrassment. I want to buy it, but I haven’t all the money, even if I can knock him down to three. I'll have to speak with Archie, alone. The Murchison creature only wants to throttle negotiations, at worst me. Off his head, maw-crammed with simmering violence...What are the assets, Mac? What can I off-load? The pills, worthless...the Burmese dam, never get built. I should have gone sclusively for Peruvian oil."

"I still have the petroleum shares you gave me". Mac's joints twinged. He could sense the onset of a monologue.

"And you have a wife in Surbiton. My brother-in-law looks after you, I hope. I'd best have a word with him. We must leave Lady Carpenter in the dark. I can say it was discovered in the bottom of a suitcase...hmm... at the old hut, buried under twenty-feet of snow, in a sardine-tin. I'll have to dig into the American money, then another thousand...ship capital. Liquid assets, that’s what we need. Hunt’s father owned a brewery, believe it or not. The frogs are millionaires by default. Lucky with the land. I could try for vineyards in Australia. Wilson is a geologist he can sniff out the best grounds around Adelaide. Its very dry there, ideal. What do you think Mac? I don't want to involve the in-laws or my brethren. I don't want the dear ones of this world feeling sorry for me and I don't want you to tell anyone, particularly the crew. This is the genuine gold...”

He nodded at a framed photograph of a jolly ship beside a wharf thick with people waving their hats. Pennants flapped from the rigging like welcome garlands and tiny bandsman hugged tight their brass instruments amidst the crush.

"Public adulation is the utmost society can grant the seeker. You know it and so do the rest of the black dots on that deck. But what does it mean, Mac and how long will it enthrall? Life’s prize...a handsome death. Now look at me laid low with disease."

His coughing sent a tremor through the room. He was propped against some panelling in a very casual manner as though it was a tree-trunk, his knee drawn up and the cigar hand dangling over.

"Off to the club, I suppose. Hope I'm well enough for the show tomorrow"

It was the final of his film and slide presentation. It was the cut off. The maiming of his last adventure. There was but the next to consider. Mac helped him to his feet. It was a rare sight indeed, his chief, a-staggering and bent. Like a recurrence of sciatica.

"What if I fetch a doctor? Mac volunteered, gingerly, foreseeing protest. "Jim will come, I'm sure. It may be his lunch-break."

Hector grimaced. "You would have him condemn me to those most inhumane treatments of bed-rest and abstinence?" His protest was a mild one.

Mac shepherded him towards the antechamber which housed the camp-bed, saying persuasively;

" Then don't you feel it would be wiser to rest here, until the coughing clears. They might not let you in to the club." Then again, a course of hand-shakes and backslaps could revitalize.

"What", he exclaimed, jovial. "You should see the state of the clientele. Dosed to their eyeballs in claret and liqueurs, rough night for the ol tub. Waves this big and they shoot over the side like mutton." He staggered in the teeth of horrendous, killing seas. "And that,” he cough-laughed, " is merely from the aperitif"

The befuddled silliness might be genuine gold or it might be play-acting.

Mac scrutinized Hectors eyes. Clear. His eyes never altered. They were either tinkling with excitement or suffused with impending tears of proof emotion.

"I suggest you sleep," said Mac. But Hectors attention meandered.

"Where’s Robbie {Browning} as distinct from Rabbie Burns?" Mac helped him search for the mandatory 'collected works', splayed somewhere beneath an army blanket. "My last ride."

His poem of the moment was called "The last ride."

He declaimed from acute memory the twelve stanzas more or less seamlessly, the jig of the meter propelling, waltzing, wheeling him into a sobriety of tears. It was about..."all that my life means".

"The missus has forbidden my recitations. She rails I never learn anything modern... But Mac, I can tell one of my old chums, white-hot, grandiloquent verse made up the charm that won her to me, hand-kissing and, rose-petal, breast-heaving sentimentality, the classics and the morbid Tennysonian. If only I had such talent myself...strictly cheat's stuff, this bleeding dry other men’s work."

His reconstituting a prepared hash seemed at variance with the Hunt method of shaping recipes from the basic, uncontaminated elements embedded in one human heart. But then how grossly Hunt over-cooked the Amaranthus letter then sloppily doled it out, to some woman who throve upon rhapsody and thus revealed, had to be his wife. Never sufficient sugar for the wives. "Flings' shy away from a too overt sprinkling. Hunt had always come across as such an earnest fellow, betrothed to his majesties fleet. A dose of spousely billing and cooing, a whimsical peck on the cheek of his wife then a grand smacker for the navy's bum. And never a fling.

Mac saw there was little chance of desk-work although a sheaf of charts had arrived in the mail and their new ink smelt like the elixir of life. If Sir Hector would just vacate the premises. But he was leaning on the table- top staring wetly into a third- dimension of profoundly livid emptiness, coughing into a terrible handkerchief.

"Before the last ride wouldn't it be sweet to behold a pair of up'turned eyes and feel the sobs upon ones breast and hear her pleading?"

* * *

Lady Moncrieff realigned a rebellious pince-nez before continuing with her abridged reading aloud of 'Swaziland, children find a home.' Her teenage daughter surreptitiously glanced at personal objects scattered throughout the room, trivial souvenirs stamped with the insignia of foreign countries, South American textiles, a scrimshaw and a pair of yellowing gloves that had shaken the hand of the tsarina. A board game called ‘Dash to the Pole’ with a likeness of Carpenter on its carton, and candlesticks and a globe upended on it axis to display the two poles swarming with their appropriate fauna, almost to scale, like fly dirt. It was, thought Evelyn Moncrieff, as if the other lands of the world had slipped off and been scrunched up and tossed into the bonfire by the hand of God. The school-mistressly readings of her mothers made the other lands seem so impossibly disenchanting that Evelyn thought it, indeed, a wise selection he had made. Because still the British Isles were there, stuck as if by some divine glue. She squinted across to where the globe balanced on a cabinet. Maybe Africa had escaped the bonfire too. Maybe the artist had coloured it like dry grass, the same tint as the globe itself. Maybe God had camouflaged Africa.

Discreetly absorbing the hefty import of an African mission, its pitfalls, its raptures, Lady Carpenter sat, at peace, fondling her 'Aurora' brooch with its gem shower of stars. As well as feeling that the Missionary Society’s practices benefited her directly, she faintly hoped that by funding the next voyage of discovery undertaken by her husband et al, they might also provide the added relief of ridding him from her. Reluctantly, she banished the likelihood of his ever getting suitable employment. He tired of routines so quickly and most work required them. Too old for the merchant service and too blabber-mouthed for diplomacy. A pity the war had ended. Lady Moncrieff ended and passed to Emily the text of her tract.

"Besides Swaziland, she said, the society is considering re-opening their mission on certain islands of the Fijian archipelago. Now that the shipping lanes are safe again, the impediments are few."

"I’m sure my husband will have a view on this. Perhaps he could come and address the regional body. Does it meet often?

"The South Sea Islanders, we call them," she giggled heartily, "meet.... meet once a fortnight at headquarters" Evelyn lifted her eyes to the udder-like jowls of her mother whose chittering laughter had been known to soothe squalling African orphans. Her ordinary face was like a wooden mask but the laugh recast it in chocolate. "Oh my dear but none of us is brown like the genuine Polynesians." Milk-white chocolate.

At least there is plenty to read, thought Evelyn, bored by the conversation.

After Hectors 'newsprint' decree Emily and a maid had scratched every surface searching for papers and journals and leaflets and programmes and magazines to strew about for him to flick through. Many out of date by miles. But it didn't bother him. Amazingly, Evelyn had levered free ‘a view book' from the '1911 Festival of Empire.' Nine years ago!

"A very great occasion," nodded lady Moncrieff, as Evelyn opened out the panoramas and plastered them before both ladies’ eyes. Gwennie would do just as much, but at age twenty? By then she would be much more sophisticated. Suddenly, Emily could make out his tread in the hall. She shot from her chair to the double doors and marginally opened one to peep out. A racked Hector discoursing with Nanny beneath the fanlight.

"Now, now, Sir," Nanny was saying gently, Mind you don't cough upon young Percy". The boy was dabbing at something swinging from daddy’s forefinger. A penguin’s foot on a chain.

Emily excused herself from her guests, then prodded Nanny towards the swiftly vacated room entrusting her with the job of introducing Perks to the company and of generally entertaining them.

"Are you hungry?" she asked Hector, somewhat officiously.

He shrugged

"Wait on...” Emmy wished he'd hang there as she went half-way down the kitchen stairs to resonate instructions to a below-stairs ‘staff’ of one. For the sake of stringent economy, Cook settled below like dregs with a maid of all work floating free, and Nanny. Lean times. What of the lady’s maid and a chauffeur and a butler? Hector had once promised Emmy a bevy of liveried doers.

But Hector grumbled "God, woman...."and flounced off into the drawing-room after nanny, half expecting to find the prime-minister enthroned in a cosy chair.

"Good afternoon, ladies", he smarmed, cleansing his throat abruptly, cruising towards the startled snippets of femine vagary with an outstretched, sinuous hand and an all too courtly demeanour. Percy trotted forward and received a right royal pat upon his little head of blue-black curls. Hector, at first, eyed the younger Moncrieff, a fright in wheaty, worn-out woollens, but took her sticky hand with its bitten nails and kissed it ever so lightly,

"Miss...?" Evelyn flashed beseechingly at her mother.

"I am Phyllis Moncrieff, this is Evelyn, my daughter, and I take it you are the man of the house."

Ah, thought Hector impressed, she seems like a good sort.

"I am one of them. One is at school and the other, you can see before you, reeking havoc,” he said and gestured towards the girlishly clad boy.

Evelyn and Nanny were both trying to wrench the 'View Book' from Percy’s clawing grip without detonating his infantile frustrations."Please, little pet...” Evelyn was insisting. "I like to look at it. You would enjoy the pictures too. I'll sit over here and show them to you." Percy held out his arms compliantly for the young miss who, with a delighted whimper, hoisted him beside her onto a couch and began by pointing out the queen, photographed during a descent of the Crystal Palace stair way, she slender, and the steps exuding grandeur.

"What is that?" Hector asked. Emily had returned with a tea-tray and the maid.

"Its a souvenir from the very great Pageant of London, 19ll," obliged Lady Moncrieff, bustling over to assist her hostess.

"I'm awfully sorry, Phyllis," she was saying whilst dealing the crockery.

"Not at all. During the war we shut off half of our country place because all the girls were off doing ambulance work and such-like. Even Arthur learned to boil potatoes. I can see a time in the near future when service will be a thing of the past. The girls are leaving school, well-educated, with minds of their own and who would have sanely predicted this shortage of manpower across all our industries. No I'm afraid people like us will just have to start getting our hands dirty like every other civilized human-being. Of course when one is away on a station in Africa or the pacific, its general mucking in, washing in the streams and cleaning the babies' sores, pounding the bananas for their porridge. Its no burden at all."

Laughter accompanied the lubricious strains of tea pouring into bone china. Percy had mistaken the stiff circles on the heads of match-size men, in one of the photographic vistas, for sucking peppermints. Evelyn was contentedly cuddling him on her knee.

"Hats,' she corrected, "boaters".

"Boats, that’s right, and this is a train Perky my boy. See that, it says 'red-route'." Hector had brought across a squat footstool to sit upon. Percy was three and had rarely seen his father up so close before. He stared at him, wanted to touch him, shyly. A while since they had all been together but then Miss Moncrieff made a dowdy substitute for Gwennie, beautiful and budding. Hector sauntered to the table for his tea.

"Em, do you recall the red-route train from 1911?'

"I'm afraid not, " she replied, then, "Oh yes, the diamond-mine train and the vineyard, Australia and the dried cod, Newfoundland." All of a sudden her memories dazzled.

"Always difficult to remember that far back, " was Alice's bold contribution. "I'm a forward-looking person myself."

"So is Hector," Emily smiled as if surrendering to some intangible. She was on tenterhooks, awaiting his coughs, yet somehow they had been swallowed with the cakes and tea.

"Of course the war blots out most prior things” Oh of course, of course.

After the missionaries had gone he took off his shoes, collapsed on a chaise-lounge, read about Swaziland. He hated sherry, it was all that was about.

"Oh do sit up, won't you," chid Emily, straightening up the room. Percy had been taken for a pram-ride by Nanny in order to cool off following his hectic gambol with a quite boisterous Evelyn Moncrieff, once she had thawed a bit.

'Why", he said coldly, "I'm not an item of furniture you can re-arrange."

Obviously there was some issue pendant in the atmosphere needing to be snatched and opened and tussled with. "Do you wish me to launch a spasm of coughs? I can, if it will make you feel victorious otherwise the Baxter Company can employ me to promote their magic cough medicine. One swig and he just went right on with the commentary."

He drummed the few words in tacky Yankee fashion like a travelling medicine-man. "And," he went on, ceaselessly, "yes the darned witch of the east-coast, she with the flaxen tresses and devils lashes pinned me to the deck forced open my mouth and dripped in the sweet as honey remedy and behold, the magic worked for me and my splutter was cured as surely as the ocean is a dreadful place. You hear?"

"You're lucky to be alive Hector. Can't you simply bless every day that God has allowed you to be so?" Emily hovered above him in the power position, hands on hips, up to his challenge. Something had twanged. Their respectful charade, the saying and the never said, the riddles and poetry and correct, mannered tableaux of a simmering marriage, the frozen resentments splashed into the hoosh pot and seethed... the dollops of pure fat caught. Hector sat forward.

"And that’s what you do, is it, my dearest chuck, thank the holy Trinity for the wreck of a husband manacled to your side in the heat of summer, in the shadow of his returned and glorious ship, bang in the teeth of a rejected lover who walked weeping away? I know you thank me for our little boy, everyday you thank me for coming back from the dead and falling into your arms and defying the odds". Forty-four years old, past the age of child-bearing, they automatically assumed. Like Christ he had risen from the ice and she had wanted to be Mary. She had wanted to slake his lust. Everyone knows about Mrs Darwin, the forty-eight year old breeder. Emily flinched at the recollection of the night and searched for bombs. She threw up his penchant for the high-life, for bungling business then:

"What about your actress? She's even less to be grateful for. Were you her second or third choice?" What better than to next hit out at his bit of fluff, she thought? "Mac pointed her out to me on the pavement outside our grocers. She even came up and cooed at Percy, startled him. I didn't let on that I knew. I warrant your not much use to her in your present state, a woman like that, an extremely younger woman."

"There’s no virtue in celibacy. What ever happened to Raymond that beau ideal of yours? Is he a monk?"

Emily was not normally one to dwell on the lascivious but naturally, the impinging sensate closeness, outside the grocers, of her replacement, the blush of her complexion, so peachy, so brazen had projected certain undesirable but insistent images into her daily ruminations. A picture of her and him, him and her, the legs, the arms, the embraces. Their private language. What did they say? The shame of her prurient thoughts. Until now they had mostly skirted the impact of his love-affairs, like skirting tramps asleep in the street. The impetus of organization and the thrall of new schemes had usually slapped him into consciousness. Lately he had become an indolent sea-bather idly scudding in the tepid shallows. Emilys purple thoughts chastened her accusations. Instead she said:

"Where have you been? People call for you and I have to fabricate excuses?”

Hector was still sitting on his hands, breathing heavily, gazing at Emily’s hemline. His deep brown, even hair was mussed from the hip of the chaise-lounge, awoken. He said:

"Leave me." Two words, two fangs.

"No, although,” she slowed, slowed, as if approaching a steep gradient, "maybe I’m tired of resourcing you. My allowance was always going to be an adjunct to your earnings from books or whatever. But its all there has ever been. I'm forced to be breadwinner, the woman in the family! Neither of us would like this to be generally known.... would we.”?

His couch was tree-stump height, his sphere of interest her ankle, his fingers operating pincers. His huddle that of an artisan intently at work, his breath a tap of the hammer. She was the venomous spectre of failure standing over.

"Your brother shows the same tendency, the habit of living off females, preying on them. The result of an over developed number of sisters. I can imagine the two of you lording it over your numerous, devoted sisters."

Very well, row then, woman, he thought, and probed her booted ankle with his nervous fingers.

"Oh," she squeaked, disgusted, " keep away from me with your insidious little niggles."

"Ah, Emmy you are so biting." He smothered his face with her petticoat. "You miss the shouting me?"

"I don't want to see you grovelling there, for pity sake, get up and control yourself." Emmy stepped back, hesitated, deciding whether to physically assist him to his feet. He wasn't such a large man; it was his manner that triggered the illusion. His chest was large yet his limbs were like twigs in comparison. His sore voice vaporous.

"If only you weren't such a seriously moral, small-seeing woman. Makes me scared to shit."

"Gracious!" she exclaimed, appalled.

"I wonder if you at all appreciate the state of things. When I go away, you will never see me again. All the glamour stuff and the world-tours and the hobnobbing with eminent folks gone for good. But you have your own life to cherish, those charities, the girl-guides. Being patroness suits you and our children can aspire and grow up and do good and remember their father as one who perished and in time my memory will blur with Captain Hunts and they will find it difficult to fathom who perished at the Pole and who just perished of drink or scuttled his head on the yard arm, But until these happenings do transpire why can't we not be friends? You need not be anxious for your friend or want to boss him and make him pick up his shoes and books and matches and frown at the people he can never bring home. Living two lives has worked me over, I'm afraid. When one has seen all things clearly, the not being able to behold them that way forever, is intolerable."

So it’s devolved to messianic gibbering, as she termed his pathos.

Then he stood up of his own accord, desisted from the intricate hand movements and looked her in the eyes, not with the'mother me' plead but with reclaimed intelligence. He coughed and said:

"Now we have had it out there is something you must know."

There existed in the neglected library of their house, a carbon-copy of the Hunt-Carpenter agreement, meticulously typed by the Carpenter himself, champion of type-writing machines and telephones and acetate recordings. Whilst he was rifling through years of documents, Emily noticed a playbill from the 'Collisseum' {London playhouse owned by Albert Colliss}, a promotion of the new Irish verse-play "The Secret Flower".

Emily asked Hector if it was worth going to see.

" If Brieux appeals to you, so it may." His irony was lost upon her, however. One of Brieux-s dramas revolved around the cancerous effects venereal disease reeks upon the innocents in a profligate society. She scanned the cast of characters and was about too...scream... when he lay out the wrinkled, faintly legible screed with the two prominent signatures and a counter sign and a pencilled addendum in a top corner; 'the promise that Providence compelled me to compromise'.

He shut the door which divided the library from the dining room, shut out that rooms heat from the inhospitable, unlived in library cum storage area, or as far away from Ethel {the maid) that one could flee to. He could tell Emily was restive, eager to belt on her chatelaine’s keys and rush off to primp the cushions. What relevance could his' promise' exercise over a today dammed by fifteen years of effluvial yesterdays?

He could put it plainly. He could say that he had lobbed upon some evidence in support of the 'Hunt was a sore loser' hypotheses, envious and suspicious and vacillating and weak , that in Carpenter he recognized a stronger man, a challenger, a free spirit who needed to be brought to his knees before a legislative council of Polar luminaries. At the time most people had thought Hunt’s gripe legitimate. He had staked out a claim to certain ice-fields therefore earnt the right to work them. Carpenter had just been the third officer on the 'Deliverer', third in line and whatsmore, debilitated...

"But it so happens, Emmy my darling, this indignation and crying foul was merely a pretext to trap me and squash me down well and truly into the amateur class. You remember the wording., ‘ if at all possible.' Well the erudite and learned Royal Geographical Society and their vassal knew it would bloody well be impossible.... and I would end up a supreme cad and any discoveries made written off as lies."

Emmy bided patiently, not discerning the point. She almost would have been happier arguing a little more about infidelities. She wondered how the 'De Lune' witch would appear at the Collisseum, how she would make up for the ‘Secret Flower.’ Cold, bleak room. Hector left it, reappearing shortly afterwards lugging a gramophone and two records. To connect audience to performer one had to inject commonality, tune the two wavelengths to identical pitch.

"Nimrod,” he said holding up a record. "The music for the film, as you know, weathered many transformations and we tried it without music. At which time I had to use my voice as a type of musical essence. Then we tried an opera singer, mournful and dirgelike. But Nimrod proved the most successful ship theme, ploughing through the waves, erect on the ice like a monument to human endeavour. Ah, such waste."

"I am not a stranger peering up at you from a draughty auditorium," she abjured, " what do I need convincing of, why do you want to enthral me? That Captain Hunt business. It was not important. I never considered your behaviour to be the least dishonourable. It was a stupid ploy and he's paid for it now, so leave it alone. Anyway where is this letter? Whom was it addressed to?"

The threat of Nimrod seemed to have mobilized her attention. Hector snared her gaze and uttered slowly;

"Many have reviled me, they have withheld their support. If it can be demonstrated that my actions developed as a consequence of deliberate provocations and machinations, and as hinted in the letter, ill-will harboured against me, personally by Hunt, the many might look for ways to assuage their consciences and repair relations with me. Do you realize how it spoilt friendships, divided loyalties? - ' Ah ha so now we see, he's not prepared to play the game according to the rules, he is a cheat and certainly no gentleman.' "

"You've said you don't care about others opinions."

"Only if they’re bad ones handicap my prospects of...” Escape? Enrichment? "Of living a contented life."

* * *

He promised Emmy that they could breakfast together next morning. Three days had passed with not a sign of him. Yet like a stray he had came back when hungry. But he wasn't to sleep in her room, even as a way to economize with the coal, rather their eldest sons room, as snug as the broom cupboard. Ethel could massage some feeling into its comatose habiliments. Hector could lie there and dream of wangling investment capital from the island woman, Phyllis Moncrieff. Bloodthirsty lot, the esquimaux. The missionary society and Hector would set up a trading co-operative. Reindeer furs and seal skins to be replaced by stalwart English Burberry and Jaeger fabric. Hunts letter would rinse the slur from his name then abetted by the missionaries and their dollars he could survey all the arctic islands and live in an igloo. What was Emmy doing in her room while he lay stony cold on the almost nuns pallet? Was she thinking about her husband, wishing him dead? Or was she crooning to Percy unable to sleep from the excitement of seeing his ol man? Or maybe she answered letters at the ormolu escretoire that a Bavarian prince had thrust upon them. Or maybe she was yawning and curling up in bed trying to warm her feet.

‘ Dear little Gwen,

You will be pleased to hear that Dads film and his little talks to very vast assemblages, have come to an end. He is free to plan his next adventure. One day, I’m sure, girls will be able to sail ships all the way around cape horn... but then it may be the aeroplane they wish to fly all the way across the great continents...’

Hector had done away with smoking for a few days which left him jittery.

‘To celebrate the finale of our film extravaganza, an enormous and starchy banquet was held in honour of the man who made the film and very many of the brave souls who featured in it and me of course but because I was feeling a trifle nervous and tired something happened that must amuse anyone who is told of it. For some reason the top of a bottle exploded, flew to the high ceiling and came down directly into a glass which only needed to be moved an inch. As this occurred so rapidly, my hand just couldn't steady itself, the glass pitched on to someone, a lady who in turn fell off her rickety chair and short-circuited a lamp which happens when water comes into contact with electricity, because she was drinking at the time. Now do you for a minute think the lamp which was tall and fancy, a statue of a lady holding aloft a torch, then itself fell over? It did. It tipped over backwards and smashed a frosted window to pieces, one of which glass splinters landed near me. Embossed on this tiny bit of glass was a star so you can believe I take this as a good omen. In olden times, sailors used stars to set their courses and the constellations each have meanings...’

Oh, well, it was likely he wouldn't remember this blotchy mental cablegram in the morning. For a homily, to caption his description of the event - "be Prepared for any mishap, because one can never be certain that the berg whirling into view is not the berg carved with your epitaph.'

Hector looked at the night sky through his dormer window and perceived some stars. If he connected his fingers in geometric patterns before his eyes he could stitch them into rudimentary designs. Then squinting between thumb and forefinger, the stars could be plucked and held like chance diamonds in a young Brazilian stream. The biggest blinding star preserved itself for twilights.

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