9

T he Clandon-Hartleys did not come down to dinner.

I was interested in them in spite of myself. So Mrs. Clandon-Hartley was an Italian! That explained a lot. It explained the Major’s use of the word “apperitivo” when he had been talking to me the night previously. It explained his wife’s forbidding silence. She was shy of speaking broken English. It explained why “my good lady” was “a bit religious.” It explained her un-English appearance. And Clandon-Hartley himself was a shell-shock case not responsible for his actions. I remembered Mary Skelton’s doubt of that. Well, if their account of the incident on the beach were accurate. I was inclined to doubt it too. It sounded as if there had been more to the affair than a mere neurotic outburst. But, it was no affair of mine. I had more important things to think about. This wretched business of the Clandon-Hartleys had rendered the Skeltons useless from my point of view. There had been “a lot of coming and going.” That presumably had taken place while I was in the village. It was hopeless.

Dinner was nearly over when Koche came on to the terrace and announced that a ping-pong table had been erected under the trees in the garden and that guests were invited to make use of it. By the time I had finished my dinner I could hear that the invitation had been accepted. I wandered towards the sound.

An electric light fixed in the branches above the green-topped table shed a hard light on the faces of the players. They were Skelton and the Frenchman, Roux. Sitting on a stone rockery watching them were Mademoiselle Martin and Mary Skelton.

Roux played crouching in an attitude of fierce concentration, his protuberant eyes watching the ball as if it were a bomb on the point of exploding. He leaped about a great deal. In contrast, Skelton’s easy, lazy play looked wooden and ineffective. But I noticed that he seemed to gain most of the points. Mademoiselle Martin made no effort to disguise her chagrin at this, uttering loud cries of despair every time Skelton won. A Roux victory was received with corresponding jubilation. I saw that Mary Skelton was watching her with interest and amusement.

The game ended. Mademoiselle Martin cast a malevolent glance at Skelton and wiped her perspiring lover’s forehead with his handkerchief. I heard her assuring him that his failure made no difference to her affection for him.

“What about a game?” said Skelton to me.

Before I could reply, however, Roux had bounded to the other end of the table, flourishing his bat, and announced with a flashing smile that he wanted his revenge.

“What does he say?” muttered Skelton.

“He says he wants his revenge.”

“Oh, all right.” He winked. “I’d better see that he has it.”

They started to play again. I sat down beside Mary Skelton.

“Why is it,” she said, “that I can’t understand a word of what that Frenchman says? He seems to have a very peculiar accent.”

“He’s probably a provincial. Even Parisians can’t understand some provincial French.”

“Well, that’s comforting. You know, I think that if he goes on playing much longer his eyes will drop right out.”

I forget what I replied, for I was trying, for my own satisfaction, to identify Roux’s accent. I had heard another like it, and quite recently. I knew it as well as I knew my own name. A loud cry of delight from Mademoiselle Martin brought my thoughts back to the game.

“Warren can be a very convincing loser when he likes,” said the girl. “He lets me win a game sometimes, and I always feel that it’s my good play.”

He was convincing enough to lose by a very narrow margin of points, though not without having to referee a spirited argument between Roux and Monsieur Duclos, who had arrived on the scene halfway through the game and insisted on keeping the score. Mademoiselle Martin was triumphant, and kissed Roux on the lobe of the ear.

“You know,” murmured Skelton, “that old so-and-so with the white beard is a menace. I’ve seen him cheating at Russian billiards, but I didn’t think he’d try and cook other people’s ping-pong scores. I was keeping count myself. I was five points down, not two. If we’d gone on any longer he’d have won the game for me. Maybe he’s got some sort of inverted kleptomania.”

“And where,” the subject of this comment was demanding sportively, “are the English major and his wife this evening? Why are they not playing ping-pong? The Major would be a formidable opponent.”

“Silly old fool!” said Mary Skelton.

Monsieur Duclos beamed at her blankly.

“For goodness’ sake shut up,” said her brother; “they might understand you.”

Mademoiselle Martin, dimly comprehending that English was being spoken, said “Okay” and “How do you do?” to Roux, dissolved into laughter, and was rewarded with a kiss on the nape. It was evident that nobody had understood. Monsieur Duclos buttonholed me and began to discuss the affair on the beach.

“One would not have thought,” he said, “that in this cold military officer there was so much passion, so much love for this Italian woman, his wife. But the English are like that. On the surface, cold and businesslike. With the English it is always business, one thinks. But below, who knows what fires may slumber!” He frowned. “I have seen much of life, but one can never understand the English and the Americans. They are inscrutable.” He stroked his beard. “It was a beautiful blow, and the curious noise made by the Italian was very satisfactory. Straight to the chin. The Italian fell like a stone.”

“I heard that the blow was in the stomach.”

He looked at me sharply. “And to the chin, Monsieur. And to the chin. Two magnificent blows!”

Roux, who had been listening, intervened.

“There was no blow struck,” he said decidedly. “The English major used jiu-jitsu. I was watching closely. I am myself familiar with the hold.”

Monsieur Duclos put his pince-nez on his nose and glowered.

“There was a blow to the chin, Monsieur,” he said sternly.

Roux threw up his hands. His eyes bulged. He scowled.

“You could not have seen,” he said rudely. He turned to Mademoiselle Martin. “You saw, ma petite, did you not? Your eyesight is perfect. You have no glasses to confuse you like this old gentleman here. It was undoubtedly jiu-jitsu, was it not?”

“Oui, cheri.” She blew him a kiss.

“There, you see!” jeered Roux.

“A blow to the chin, without a doubt.” Monsieur Duclos’s pince-nez were quivering with anger.

“Bah!” said Roux savagely. “Look!”

He turned to me suddenly, grasped my left wrist, and pulled. Instinctively I drew back. The next moment I felt myself falling. Roux grasped my other arm and held me up. There was amazing strength in his grip. I felt his thin, wiry body stiffen. Then I was standing on my feet again.

“You see!” he crowed. “It was jiu-jitsu. It is a simple hold. I could have treated this Monsieur here as the English major treated the man from the yacht.”

Monsieur Duclos drew himself up and bowed curtly.

“An interesting demonstration, Monsieur. But unnecessary. I can see perfectly well. It was a blow to the chin.”

He bowed again and strode off towards the hotel. Roux laughed derisively after him and snapped his fingers.

“An old cretin, that one,” he said contemptuously. “Because we pretend not to notice when he cheats, he thinks we see nothing.”

I smiled noncommittally. Mademoiselle Martin began to compliment him on his handling of the situation. The two Skeltons had begun a game of ping-pong. I wandered down to the lower terrace.

Beyond the inky darkness of the trees I could see two silent figures leaning against the parapet. It was the Major and his wife. As my footsteps grated on the path he turned his head. I heard him say something softly to her, then the two of them moved away. For a moment or two I stood listening to their footsteps dying away up the path, and was about to move to where they had been standing when I saw the glow of a pipe in the blackness near the trees. I went towards it.

“Good evening, Herr Heinberger.”

“Good evening.”

“Would you care for a game of Russian billiards?”

There was a shower of sparks as he tapped the pipe on the side of the chair.

“No, thank you.”

For some unaccountable reason my heart began to beat faster. Words and phrases were rising to my lips. I had an overwhelming desire to blurt out my suspicions of him there and then, denounce him, this man here sitting in the darkness, this invisible spy. “Thief! Spy!” I wanted to shout the words at him. I felt myself trembling. I opened my mouth and my lips moved. Then, suddenly, a match spluttered and flared, and I saw his face, thin and drawn in the yellow light, curiously dramatic.

He raised the match to the bowl of his pipe and drew the flame into it. The match flamed twice and went out. The glowing bowl moved in a gesture.

“Why not sit down, Herr Vadassy? There is a chair there.”

And, indeed, I was standing gaping at him like a fool. I sat down, feeling as if I had only just escaped being run over by a fast car, and that it was the driver’s skill rather than my own agility that had saved me. For sheer want of something to say I asked him if he had heard about the English couple and the incident on the beach.

“Yes, I have heard of it.” He paused. “It is said that the Englishman is unbalanced.”

“Do you think that is true?”

“Not necessarily. The real question is just how far he was provoked. Even a lunatic does not become violent unless he is stimulated.” Again he paused. “Violence,” he went on, “is a very odd thing. A normal man’s mind has an extraordinarily complex mechanism inhibiting him from using it. But the power of that mechanism varies with different cultures. With the Western peoples it is less powerful than with the Eastern. I do not, of course, speak of war. There, different factors are operating. The Indian is a good example of what I mean. The number of attempted assassinations of English officials in British India is, not unnaturally, very high. The interesting thing is the very large number of those attempts that fail. Most of them fail not because Indians are specially bad shots, but because at the crucial moment the would-be assassin becomes immobilized by his instinct against violence. I once talked with a Bengali Communist about it. He said that the Hindu might go with hate in his heart and a good revolver to kill the local representative of his oppressors. He might escape detection, he might stand out of the crowd unobserved when the time came and his enemy approached and raise the revolver. The official would be at his mercy. Then the Indian would hesitate. He would see not the hated oppressor, but a man. His aim would falter and the next moment he would himself be shot down by the guards. A German or a Frenchman or an Englishman under the same hate-stimulus would have shot and shot straight.”

“And what sort of hate-stimulus do you think caused Major Clandon-Hartley to punch this Italian in the stomach?”

“Perhaps,” said he, with a touch of impatience, “he did not like the man.” He rose to his feet. “I have some urgent letters to write. You will excuse me?”

He went. For a time I remained seated in my chair, thinking. It was not of Major Clandon-Hartley that I thought, but of Herr Schimler’s Indian. “He would see not the hated oppressor, but a man.” I felt a bond of sympathy with that Indian. But that was not all, for “the next moment he would himself be shot down by the guards.” There was the whole thing in a nutshell. Fear and be slain. Or were you slain anyway, whether you were afraid or not? Yes, you were. Good did not triumph. Evil did not triumph. The two resolved, destroyed each other, and created new evils, new goods that slew each other in their turn. The essential contradiction. “Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality.” Ah, that was Schimler’s sentence. I frowned in the darkness. If I paid a little more attention to Herr Schimler’s actions and less to what he said I should perhaps get somewhere.

I walked up to the house. The writing-room was empty. So much for Schimler’s “urgent letters”! As I walked through the lounge I passed Madame Koche carrying a pile of linen. I said: “Good evening!”

“Good evening, Monsieur. You have seen my husband? No? He will be down playing ping-pong without a doubt. There are the clever ones who pass their days agreeably and the fools who slave behind the scenes. But someone must do the work. At the Reserve it is left to the women.” She swept on up the stairs calling shrilly for “Marie.”

I passed through the deserted lounge to the upper terrace.

Monsieur Duclos was sitting with a Pernod and a cigar at a table by the balustrade. He saw me, stood up, and bowed.

“Ah, Monsieur! I must apologize for leaving you all so abruptly. It was impossible, however, to remain there to be insulted.”

“I understand and sympathize, Monsieur.”

He bowed again. “You will take something to drink, Monsieur? I have here a Pernod.”

“Thank you, a vermouth-citron for me.”

He rang for the waiter and offered me a cigar, which I accepted.

“In spite of my years,” he said, pouring some water into his glass, “I am a proud man. Very proud.” He paused to take another piece of ice. I did not quite see why pride should diminish with age, but, fortunately, he went on before I could say so. “In spite of my years,” he repeated, “I would have struck this Roux, but for one thing. There were women present.”

“You took the most dignified course possible,” I assured him.

He stroked his beard. “I am glad you think so, Monsieur. But it is difficult for a proud man to curb his anger under such circumstances. When I was a student I fought a duel. The man disputed my word. I struck him. He challenged. We fought. Our friends arranged it.”

He sighed reminiscently. “It was a cold November morning; so cold that my hands were blue and numb. It is strange how such trifles worry a man. We took a carriage to the meeting-place. My friend wished to walk, for neither of us could afford a carriage. But I insisted. If I were to be killed it would not matter. If I were not killed the relief would be so great that I should not care about the expense. So we took a carriage. But all the same I was worrying about my cold hands. I put them in my pockets and still they were cold. I was afraid to put them under my arms for fear that my friend should think from my hunched attitude that I was frightened. I tried sitting on them, but the leather of the seats was smooth and shiny and even colder. All my thoughts were centered in my hands. And do you know why?”

I shook my head. His eyes twinkled behind the pince-nez.

“Because, in the first place, I was afraid that I should not be able to shoot straight enough to hit my opponent and, secondly, because if his hands were as cold as mine he might have the luck to hit me.”

I smiled. “I take it, Monsieur, that all went well, after all.”

“Perfectly! We both missed. We not only missed. We nearly shot our seconds.” He chuckled. “We have laughed over it many times since. He is now the owner of the factory next to mine. He has five hundred workmen. I have seven hundred and thirty. He makes machinery. I make packing-cases.” The waiter arrived. “A vermouth-citron for Monsieur.”

I was puzzled. Someone, Skelton or the Major, had told me that Monsieur Duclos had a canning factory. I must have been mistaken.

“Times are difficult,” he was saying. “Wages rise, prices rise. The next moment prices fall, yet wages still must rise. I am forced to reduce wages. What happens? My workmen strike. Some of them have been with me for many years. I know them by their names, and as I walk through the factory I greet them. Then the agitators, the Communists, went among them, turning them against me. My men struck. What did I do?”

The waiter arriving with my drink absolved me from the necessity of replying.

“What did I do? I sat down to think. Why had my men turned against me? Why? The answer was-ignorance. Poor fellows, they did not understand, they did not know. I resolved to call them together, to explain to them the simple truth. I, Papa Duclos, would explain. It needed courage, for the young men did not know me as well as the old ones and the agitators had done their work well.”

Monsieur Duclos sipped at his Pernod.

“I faced them,” he said dramatically, “standing on the steps of the factory. I held up my hand for silence. They were silent. ‘My children,’ I said, ‘you wish for increased wages.’ They cheered. I held up my hand again for silence. I spoke again. ‘Let me tell you, my children, what will happen if I do this. Then you may make your own choice.’ They murmured and were silent again. I felt inspired. ‘Prices are falling,’ I continued. ‘Prices are falling. If I increase your wages the prices of the Duclos works will be higher than those of our competitors. We shall lose orders. For many of you there will no longer be work. Do you wish that?’ There were shouts of ‘no!’ Some agitators cried in their ignorant way that the profits must be reduced. But how can one explain to such imbeciles that interest must be paid on investments, that if there were no profits business would come to a stop? I ignored these shouts. I went on to tell them of my love for them, of my sense of responsibility for their welfare, of how I wished to do the best for all, of how we must co-operate for the sake of ourselves and of France. ‘We must all,’ I said, ‘make sacrifices for the common good.’ I appealed to them to accept a reduction in wages with stout hearts and the determination to work even harder. When I had finished they cheered me, and the older men agreed among themselves that all should go back to work. It was a great moment. I wept for joy.” His eyes glistened through the pince-nez.

“I great moment, as you say,” I said tactfully. “But is it, do you think, quite as simple as that? If wages fall, do not prices fall still further for the reason that people have less to spend?”

He shrugged.

“There are,” he said vaguely, “certain economic laws with which it is unwise for man to tamper. If wages rise above their natural level the delicate balance of the system is upset. But I must not bore you with these affairs. In my factory I am a businessman, alert, decisive, strong. Now I am on holiday. For the moment my great responsibilities are put aside. I am content to soothe my tired brain with contemplation of the stars.”

He flung his head back and looked at the stars. “Beautiful!” he murmured raptly. “Magnificent! Such quantities! Formidable!”

He looked at me again. “I am very sensitive to beauty,” he said. He turned his attention to his glass, diluted the contents with some more water and drank it off. Then he looked at his watch and stood up.

“Monsieur,” he said, “it is half past ten. I am old. I have enjoyed our discussion. Now, with your permission, I will retire to bed. Good night.”

He bowed, shook hands, put his pince-nez in his pocket, and walked, rather unsteadily, indoors. Only then did it occur to me to suspect that perhaps Monsieur Duclos had had more than one Pernod that evening.

For a time I sat in the lounge and read a fortnight-old Gringoire. Then, tiring of this, I went out into the garden to look for the Americans.

The ping-pong table was deserted, but the light was still glaring down on it. The bats lay crossed, with a dented ball lying between the handles. I picked up the ball and bounced it on the table. It made an odd, cracked sound. As I replaced it between the bats I heard a step somewhere near at hand. I turned round expecting to see someone. The darkness beyond the pool of light round the table was intense. If there was anyone there I could not see him or her. I listened, but there was no further sound. Whoever it was must have passed by. I decided to go down to the alcove on the lower terrace.

I threaded my way through the bushes to the path and began to descend. I had nearly reached the steps and could see a narrow strip of starry blue-black sky between the cypresses when it happened.

There was a slight rustle in the bushes on my left. I went to turn. The next moment something hit me on the back of the head.

I don’t think that I actually lost consciousness, but the next thing I realized at all coherently was that I was lying on my face, half off the path, and that something was pinning my shoulders to the ground with considerable force. Lights were flashing behind my eyes and my ears were singing; but behind the singing I could hear the sound of somebody’s quick breathing, and I could feel hands fumbling in my pockets.

Almost before my stunned brain had begun to absorb these facts the whole thing was over. The pressure on my shoulders suddenly relaxed, a shoe grated on the path, then there was silence.

For several minutes I lay where I was, my hands clasping my head as waves of sickening pain began to surge through it. Then, as the waves subsided into a steady throb, I got slowly to my feet and struck a match. My note-case was lying open on the ground. It contained only money and a few odd papers. Nothing had been taken.

I started to walk towards the house. Twice I became dizzy and had to stop and wait for the fit to pass, but I gained my room without assistance and without meeting anyone. I sank on the bed with a sigh. The relief of being able to rest my head on a soft pillow was almost painful.

It may have been delayed concussion or it may have been sheer weariness, but in less than a minute I seemed to go to sleep. The inconsequence of my last conscious thought makes me think that it must have been concussion.

“I must remember,” I kept saying to myself, “to tell Beghin that Mrs. Clandon-Hartley is an Italian.”

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