Besieged Fortress Act II, Part 2
Another meeting and parting.
That morning Alec was uncharacteristically cheerful and had a faintly apologetic air, as though trying to make up for past sins of omission. Slightly conscious that his preoccupation with his own affairs might have led him to fail in his duties as host Laurie suggested they take advantage of the continued fine weather and go swimming at Rosa Bay, and undertook to provide the picnic, and Alec accepted the suggestion with alacrity.
So it was that Laurie had his arms full of bread and assorted cheese and sausage when he collided forcibly with someone departing in haste from the little branch of Coutts that occupied the corner of one of the squares in the upper part of town; the rolls flew everywhere and only in-built good manners inhibited his urge to curse at length and with the inventiveness honed by years of Ralph's companionship. On seeing who it was he had bumped into Laurie rather regretted his forbearance.
"Laurie! What a pleasure! I was hoping I might see you boys on my little trip back to British territory. And tell me, how is darling Ralph?"
There was something a little too eager about Longenhurst's expression; briefly Laurie cursed the efficiency of the gossip network. He had been right, he thought, a trifle wildly; once one touched it one never could get away from this world, no matter how lightly one tried to make one's foot fall.
He said briefly and without emphasis that Ralph's profession had taken him to sea again, and, without allowing Longenhurst time to comment, asked what brought him to Gibraltar, and would he be staying long?
Longenhurst giggled. "My dear, I know you'll think I'm quite the helpless dope fiend, but I simply cannot live without my tea. And then a very dear friend offered to drop two pounds of the best Earl Grey for me here - practically pre-War quality, goodness only knows what he had to do to get it - and as I had to come across anyway to pick up a remittance (Oh, those grubby little men in Westminster! How they have ruined foreign travel for us all!) I thought I might kill three birds with one stone."
And he fixed his eyes soulfully on Laurie's face.
"Laurie," a cool and infinitely welcome voice said from somewhere behind his left ear, "there you are. I'm sorry to drag you away but Tómas said he had to see you for some instructions about laying up the launch for the winter which he said Ralph would have been bound to have left with you, and it didn't sound as if it could wait until this afternoon."
Laurie turned to find Alec looking at him quizzically; the relief of seeing him was unexpectedly profound, as though he'd thrown a lifeline to haul him out of a snake-pit.
Which was patently absurd; Longenhurst was objectionable enough but more pathetic than anything, and certainly no danger to anyone.
"I'm sorry," Laurie said, turning back to Longenhurst. "One of those winter jobs I'd been putting off which has finally caught up with me. And one never realises just how true that tired old bromide about time and tide is until one actually has anything to do with boats, blast them. Goodbye; I hope you enjoy your tea."
Practice, a good boot at last and sheer determination enabled him to get a fair turn of speed out of the leg; certainly enough that he might quite plausibly have been out of earshot when Longenhurst recovered himself enough to bleat something after him about cocktails that evening, dear boy, since doubtless he must be at loose ends since Ralph's departure.
Alec, loping by his side, tactfully forebore to make any comment. Laurie felt another quick spark of gratitude to him for his sensitivity. And to Ralph, too: he must have taken the opportunity at some point to explain what a raw place that evening with Longenhurst had left on his spirit.
What was the point of writing at all if that was the response he was going to get? Longenhurst (and how many others? Perhaps the Bishop had not been so far off the mark after all) had taken for the hero the character Laurie had taken most pains to show as a moral cripple: someone who had taken a psychological quirk he'd been born with (which had been shaped by forces he could neither perceive nor compel) and treated it as an inexhaustible credit balance he could draw on for all eternity. "The dice were loaded against me from the start: therefore I owe the world nothing," had been Rattenbury's misbegotten creed, and from it, with proper classical inevitability, had come his tragedy.
Only Longenhurst, it seemed, had missed that particular point. That evening he had turned to Laurie, his eyes watering under the effects of gin and synthetic emotion, and declared tremulously,
"When I first came across Rattenbury - that beastly, beastly moment where he's treated so mortifyingly on the cricket pitch by that horrid hearty games captain - I all but wept. There I said to anyone who had the gumption to listen, speaks someone who has been there, who knows how it feels and who is not afraid to let the world know how it feels to stand in Rattenbury's shoes at a moment like that."
And Laurie, who had not had Hazell far from his thoughts as he created Rattenbury - though the two men were not, in many external respects, particularly similar - had almost been ill on the spot, until he had been brought back to some sense, at least, of proportion by the calming pressure of Ralph's hand on his thigh under the concealment of the bar table. And heard Ralph's coolly sardonic inflection as he said,
"Boots, surely, rather than shoes if he was playing cricket? Otherwise I'm not surprised the Head of Games was giving him hell."
Yes; it was typical of Ralph's thoughtfulness to have dropped a hint to Alec about Longenhurst. He must remember to thank him when he wrote.
Next morning Laurie realised, of course, that only a hopeless optimist would have dreamt that a pachyderm like Longenhurst would even have registered the snub, let alone been deterred by it. But by then the man was in his living room, and there was nothing to be done about matters. No help likely from Alec this time either; he had risen early, dressed with a jaunty precision which had been wholly foreign to his manner hitherto, and had vanished into town with an injunction not to fret should he not be back for lunch. He had volunteered no confidences and Laurie had sought none: he wished him the best of whatever it might be he was up to, and abandoned any hope of his assistance in the current matter.
This turned out to be nothing other than an invitation to Laurie to come to stay indefinitely with him in Tangier, on terms that the densest would have no trouble whatsoever reading between the lines. While Laurie was still trying to retrieve his lower jaw from the floor and to put together a half-way polite but completely unequivocal form of refusal Longenhurst was prattling on in the blithe assumption that the whole thing was settled.
"And of course you'll be able to mix so much more with a sympatique crowd that those oafs you've been forced to rub shoulders with here - but perhaps the less said about that the better. At least that sort of thing's all over now, thank God. Anyway, there's a simply wonderful mix of people congregating for the winter - very much our sort, of course; de Carteret has already opened up his villa for the winter season. They call him "the Sun Queen" you know." Longenhurst giggled, and gesticulated excitably.
"He's fantastically old now, of course, but his parties remain legendary. He's such an admirer of your work. When I told him you were only just across the Straits he positively demanded that you come to the next one. You see, dear boy, there are some people, even out here, capable of appreciating the fineness of your talent. And I can do so much for you - introduce you to all the right people, people who'll be really useful to you - if you'll only let me."
Laurie almost choked, and his carefully crafted, almost complete sentence of refusal was lost altogether.
Once, shortly after he and Ralph had first arrived in Gibraltar, they'd got stinking on red wine and brandy, sitting on the terrace at the Rock Hotel; glad in the first instance to be alive, glad to be together after the months and years of separation, glad to be out of grey, exhausted England and under the blue skies of the Med. Hardly able to talk himself, he'd challenged Ralph as visibly the drunker, and, when Ralph, laughing, contested the accusation Laurie had demanded he prove himself sober by reciting "the Leith police dismisseth us".
At which Ralph, his voice having the careful over-precision which only descended when he was very drunk indeed, had said,
"We aren't in Scotland, my dear, and my experiences of Rosyth and and Loch Eriboll are too recent to care to revisit them. But if you want me to prove I'm still capable of speaking straight, this might be a bit more suited to the locality."
And, his eyes crossing a little with the effort, he'd recited solemnly,
"God save us my dear from the Queer of Tangier;
Whom absinthe makes fonder, whose fingers will wander;
Who's had boys by the score, but who'll always want more
Who joined with the Devil,
And screwed the Bishop of Seville
In some hellish revel.
So God save us my dear from the Queer of Tangier."
And then, very softly, and as though something had sobered him up abruptly, he had said, indicating a doddery old man with parchment skin and a panama hat being seated by an obsequious waiter at a table further down the terrace,
"Good Lord. That's uncanny. And I thought he'd have been dead long ago, too."
Laurie had looked, struggling a little with the changed mood. Ralph's face in the lamplight of the terrace had looked suddenly hard, and a little fey, as though he had accidentally conjured an evil spirit by a rash incantation in one of the archaic sacred places of the world.
"I hadn't thought of that verse in years, and then the man it was written about actually walks into the hotel. Hugh de Carteret. Dabbler in anything and everything from black magic to belles lettres. Knew everyone from Blavatsky to Bosie - in every sense of the word, in the latter case, no doubt. Someone once dragged me to a party he was throwing, and I went because I thought it would be "interesting". God, Spud, when I think of your face when you found out what you'd got yourself into when you fetched up at Sandy's bash, and yet, you know, it was like a Sunday school picnic compared to de Carteret's orgy. I was twenty-four and thought I was unshockable. I think, Spud, you're right. I have had enough. Should we go?"
It was the memory of how Ralph's face had looked then that shaped Laurie's next words.
"Longenhurst, I think you'd better leave. Now. And don't come back."
Longenhurst was gaping at him, but there was the pressure of blood thundering in his ears and a fierce pleasure - like the pleasure he had used to get from walking over hills in a high wind, or swimming in a rough sea - as he abandoned all attempts at tact and temporisation.
"But Laurie - my dear boy - I don't understand -" Longenhurst bleated.
Laurie drew a deep breath.
"No. You don't. And you never will. I wouldn't discuss my personal affairs with you in any case I can conceivably imagine, but I can tell you that whatever you may have been told, or surmised, or speculated about is likely to have been utter and complete rot. But in any event, it's none of your business. If you were enough of a gentleman for it to mean anything at all I'd ask you to stop gossiping about it, but I'd have more chance of getting sense out of a parrot. So just get out. Now."
There was something about the expression on Longenhurst's face that was wholly unexpected and yet familiar; as though Laurie was seeing for the first time in real life something he had read or heard of in fiction. For a split second he racked his brains trying to work out what it was. And then it hit him.
Hazell. He gulped. Had that been how Hazell had looked when Ralph had lost his temper for the last time?
But before he could formulate his thoughts more clearly Longenhurst had flung his arms round his neck and was kissing him passionately; his tongue was trying to force itself between Laurie's lips and his breath was hot and coming in thick panting gasps.
Panic, revulsion, and an appalled sense that hysterical laughter was the only possible response to the sheer grotesque absurdity of the situation warred within him. Shockled and caught off balance it was difficult to free himself, and before he could do so there came the sound of a familiar voice from the doorway.
"Laurie, have you seen my - Oh, God!"
The note in Alec's voice spurred Laurie's efforts; with brutal efficiency (the sergeant who had taught him the basics of unarmed combat would be proud he had remembered so much) he broke out of Longenhurst's grip, thrusting him away from him with such vigour that he went sprawling across the floor. But by then Alec had gone.
Longenhurst looked up, bewilderment slowly changing to something more profoundly malignant on his expression.
"I see. Well, you haven't wasted any time, have you? Or - how long has that little affaire been going on, after all? Quite the little hypocrite, aren't we? Well, I'm sorry to have - ah, queered your pitch."
Laurie grabbed Longenhurst by his shirt collar, twisting so that his face reddened as his air-supply was cut off and he choked. The savage within his blood exulted; it would take only that little, little extra force -
He choked back the thought, frog-marching Longenhurst to the door and thrusting him bodily out into the gutter. The effort was too much; his knee bent backwards treacherously. He clung for support to the door frame, determined not to let Longenhurst see him stagger or fall.
Longenhurst gathered himself together, his face a mask of hatred (the fall had bloodied his nose, too, a small part of Laurie's brain noted with a detached approval).
"Don't think you'll get away with this, you filthy little whore."
Laurie managed an indifferent shrug. From its stiff feel his face must be a mask of distaste; he could see it reflected back in Longenhurst's eyes. Longenhurst pulled himself to his feet and with a precise enunciation which reminded Laurie, incongruously, of nothing so much as a small boy reciting Casabianca for his governess began to swear, interspersing his obscenities with threats about what he would do via his literary connections to any hope Laurie might ever have of being published again.
Rather dully, Laurie stood in silence and let him run himself to a standstill without essaying anything by way of response. With one final piece of advice (notable for its staggering biological impossibility) Longenhurst took his departure. Having seen him out of sight Laurie locked up the house behind him with careful precision, though his hands shook.
Longenhurst might, for all he knew, be capable of making good on those threats, and he was certainly mean and vicious enough to try. But if he bankrupted him (Laurie's mind went nervously to unfulfilled contracts and spent advances) and ensured his voice was never heard again Laurie was damned if he would let that misapprehension caused by the scene in the living room (God! His skin crawled still to think of it!)destroy his good name with one of the few people whose opinion he valued.
Unsure whether it was the smoke of burnt bridges or the breath of freedom in his nostrils Laurie dropped the key into his pocket and went whistling down the hill into the town in search of Alec.