Besieged Fortress, Act 2 Part Three
Laurie tries to deal with the aftermath of Longenhurst's outburst.
Alec was not in Nikos'. Phillippe, who was, gave a brief assessing look at Laurie's drawn white face (by now his leg was putting up a level of protest about the unaccustomed exertions of the morning which he was finding increasingly hard to ignore) and snapped his fingers for the barman, who produced, at a curt phrase, a glass of Fundador brandy which he stood over Laurie and watched him drink, despite his somewhat feeble protests.
"So," Phillippe said cheerfully, "a little early in the day, is it not, for a fight?"
Laurie looked up, sharply. Phillippe's expression - piratical as always - was nevertheless tinged with a benign approval. He gestured towards Laurie's right hand, which was resting on the table. The knuckles were already beginning to look a little puffy and he had, unwittingly until now, been massaging them with his other hand.
"The chin, yes? One cannot tell this to an Englishman of your type, but you would have done better to have gone for the gut. Him, he's soft enough there."
Laurie's expression of shock must have been apparent, because Phillippe laughed out loud.
"You alone expected your affairs to be a secret from anyone else on this Rock?"
After a second Laurie joined in the laughter. And to think he had thought the bush telegraph confined to Longenhurst and his friends! Phillippe made an explanatory gesture.
"I passed the fat -" (here Phillippe applied a descriptive noun to Longenhurst that had certainly never sullied the virginal pages of Larousse) "on my way up from the harbour - I have been night-fishing, you understand." There was something about the emphasis on "understand" that led Laurie to guess that whatever he had been fishing for had been left for him carefully buoyed and wrapped in oilskin. He nodded and Phillippe continued.
"He was almost running, so anxious he was to get back to his hotel. And his face -! It was not difficult to guess what must have happened. And I knew he had been causing trouble for you and for the Captain." He paused, and then spat reflectively into the fireplace. "This man - Longenhurst? - takes foolish risks. I think one of these days he may find himself with a knife stuck in his fat belly."
Laurie swallowed, hard. It was moments like this that made him realise just how close they lived here to the very edge of civilisation. Briefly he remembered the expression on Longenhurst's face as the punch had sunk home; the absolute bewilderment that anything so barbaric could possibly be happening to him, Edward Longenhurst, with his twee little flat somewhere in Chelsea with the Beardsley etchings and the Swinburne 'Firsts' that he babbled so endlessly about.
"I hope," Laurie said with cautious emphasis, "that that was merely a prediction and not an invitation?"
"No?" Phillippe looked quizzically at him for a moment, and then shrugged. "I have killed far better men than him." His hand went towards the jacket pocket from which he had extracted the German officer's diary the other day. "But it will do very well as a prediction, instead. He takes no care where he goes; he chooses his enemies badly and his friends worse; he makes a big noise about being so wealthy (though he is not, I think, so wealthy as he would have people believe) and he thinks that everyone is for sale. He would be safer back in London."
It hit Laurie unpleasantly that from his own perspective he would be safer if Longenhurst were to remain indefinitely in Tangier. No doubt that, too, could be arranged with an oblique word or so. But - he gave himself a mental shake - even had he been that kind of man, these days there were telegrams and international telephone calls to render any such steps useless.
"I think I'm the one who needs to be in London, actually. Before he manages to stir up any more trouble. But I've got to find Alec first - you wouldn't happen to know -?"
Phillippe looked up at the clock behind the bar; it was just before noon.
"I think - by now - he will be at the Grand Hotel. With his friend the distinguished physician." He looked sidelong at Laurie. "Now Alexandre, he is not someone who chooses his friends badly."
"I can't say it's a trait I've noted before," Laurie snapped before he could stop himself. Phillippe grinned again.
"Ah, that. I meant, in important matters. Yes, I should think you would find him there."
Rather disconcertingly, Phillippe proved entirely correct. Alec was sitting having a pre-lunch sherry on a terrace table, opposite a silver-haired gentleman of startlingly deep tan, whom Laurie had little doubt was "the distinguished physician" Phillippe had asserted him to be. Alec made no move to introduce him. Laurie turned towards him.
"I do apologise, sir, for disturbing you." He turned back to Alec. "Alec; this shouldn't take more than five minutes, but I have to speak to you. It really is extremely urgent."
For a moment it looked as though Alec was weighing whether or not to refuse outright. Laurie put a desperate, silent appeal into his face, and Alec, rather heavily, got to his feet.
"Please excuse us, sir," he said to his companion, and followed Laurie round the curve of the terrace, out of earshot and sight line. His face, once the constraints imposed by his guest had been removed, looked thunderous.
"Look, what is it, Odell? I suppose if you're worried about this morning -"
"Alec, for God's sake if you're planning to behave like a fool about this at least could you try not to be a bloody fool?"
The crisp decisiveness in Laurie's tone took even he himself by surprise. Alec shut up abruptly. Laurie followed up his temporary advantage without delay.
"If you'd waited another half-minute I could have asked for your help in kicking Longenhurst's backside for him. He grabbed me completely out of the blue: I punched his objectionable face, and he may well have broken his nose on the edge of the gutter outside our house, which is where he landed when I chucked him out, but if I'd had two good legs I'd certainly have tried to kick him back to Tangier."
Alec looked down at Laurie's right hand; it was unclear whether for corroboration or out of simple professional interest. Whatever it was his voice changed, became friendlier.
"I should get some arnica put on that as soon as you can, if I were you."
Laurie grinned, a trifle ruefully. "Phillippe's professional opinion was I should have gone for the gut. Preferably with six inches of steel. Anyway, that isn't particularly important. What is, is that I've got to get the night boat to Marseilles today, and then on to London however I can."
Alec frowned slightly.
"Why do you have to go? Surely you can't suppose he'd be likely to press charges?"
"Only if he's a complete imbecile. However -"
He shrugged and Alec laughed, softly.
"Indeed. As you say. But nevertheless -"
"Nevertheless he's my publisher's nephew. And I'm in a jam about the new book. It's overdue and it just won't - well, I won't bore you with all that. Somehow, I haven't been able to write properly out here. Too much sunshine or something. Well, the long and the short of it is that Longenhurst could cause me a lot of trouble, and I'd rather be on the spot to try and limit the damage. You're welcome to stay on in the house as long as you want, of course."
"Thanks - though actually, I'm going to be on my travels myself sooner than I'd expected. But I'll explain about that later. Look here, Laurie -"
Alec's expression had changed; he almost looked contrite. "I'm sorry I was a bit of an ass about this morning. But I didn't honestly think anything like that. Heavens knows, we've all had our moments that looked at in the cold light of day - well, you know. But there are some idiocies I'd certainly never credit you with. I hope you didn't think - look, when I bolted it was more that - well, I've been at sixes and sevens ever since I left London, and I felt I just "couldn't be doing with any of that there" as my mother's char used to say. And the same when you showed up just now. I'm sorry."
It was as though the delirious world of a fever dream had suddenly tilted back to the level plain of cool, sober waking existence. Laurie had not realised until then how important Alec's good opinion was to him.
"Idiot! I hardly think you've got anything to apologise for. It's for me to apologise for dropping you into things -"
Alec looked at him. "Don't be absurd. If you two are going through a rough patch - well, I'm the last person who's going to throw that in your face. Look; I know that however much he tries to pretend he can ever settle down in a country cottage with roses round the porch or however he sets it out for himself in his own head the fact is that - as you'd know perfectly well if you'd admit it to yourself - Ralph gets the worst case of port rot known to man if he's a fortnight on shore together, and no berth in the offing. No use pretending; he's intolerable when land-bound, and worse when he won't admit it to himself."
Alec, having delivered himself of this tirade, frowned slightly. "Odd, you'd think, for old Ralph to be so besotted with the sea, given the bloody thing's invariably personified as female?"
The conversation had, in a few short moments, transgressed so far beyond the usual polite equivocations that it seemed entirely reasonable to be totally honest in responding to it.
"He told me once," Laurie said, "that the only women he could really get on with were absolute bitches."
Alec grinned. "I suppose - for the psychologists of my acquaintance - that would make the sea the über-bitch?"
"I expect so."
But it was more than that. During the days, weeks and months of the War Ralph had fought the Battle of the Atlantic, and Laurie had sat snug, overworked, and bored in his Ministry job which he knew intellectually (and was informed repeatedly by propagandists of one stripe or another ) was just as crucial to the War Effort as anything done on the score or so of Front Lines where the penalty for one's inevitable failures was thrust in one's face, written in blood which splashed warmly over one.
And he hadn't believed a word of it. Although Ralph had never said anything, Laurie's consciousness that Ralph had had a conspicuously good war and that he had not had - he realised - always nagged at the back of his mind. He wondered, now, whether it was about time he got over that sense of inferiority.
A number of things suddenly clicked into place. But he had first to clean up the difficulties caused by Longenhurst.
He grinned at Alec. "Well, I suppose I'd better be getting back to the house to start packing."
Alec looked faintly awkward. "Can I introduce you to Professeur Dubois, first? I'm sorry about earlier, and goodness only knows what he must have thought. And I'm rather keen to stay on his good side; he's just offered me a job."
"A job? Congratulations."
"I suspect the congratulations should go to Lyall-Owens. He must have been pulling every string he could find ever since I left London. And he's reeled in Professeur Dubois. You see - he's running a big hospital out in French Indo-China -"
Alec waved a hand airily. "I have suddenly discovered a life-long desire to explore the East."
Laurie must have looked sceptical. Alec's face changed; he was making a conscious effort to sound reassuring, it seemed.
"Seriously, though, while I'd not have thought of it if the Nurse Urquhart complication hadn't arisen, it is a fantastic opportunity."
He looked, Laurie thought, almost on fire. And he could see, now he thought about it, the logic of that: Alec had from the first struck him with the single-mindedness of his approach to life and if Alec was determined to make a go of Indo-China then he would undoubtedly suceced. Laurie's congratulations, as they walked back along the terrace towards the table where Professor Dubois was sitting, were wholly sincere.
It came as a surprise - and Laurie found himself feeling genuinely touched - to see how many people came to see him off at the quayside. Annuciata was even crying, a little, as she assured him that no-one would have a house on the Rock better cared for than his own in his absence. And at the end, just before the boat was about to leave, and Laurie was actually standing on the gang-plank, Phillippe thrust his way through the groups and pushed a small packet into his hand.
"Here," he said abruptly. "It may be that with the people you know in London you will be able to think of a way to return it to his family, and to let them know that he died well."
There was no time to do anything more: he was being bustled on board. He stood at the ship's rail until the little group on the quayside had vanished to specks, and then been swallowed by the darkness.