Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Bill returns!

I have had a rather strange and unsettling few days of it. In the first place was Rose, who wanted to know how I thought Belle was reacting to David Porteous. “Do you think she has succumbed yet to the Porteous effect?” was the way she put it. “Or is she perhaps waiting for the go-ahead from Mummy?”

We were sitting in her kitchen at the time: a rare enough event in itself, as Rose is not especially fond of her own house, which she feels lets her down rather badly in terms of peeling paint and out-dated kitchen units. Rose’s house ought in the nature of things to be more like Rose herself – which is to say well appointed, and beautifully manicured and maintained. But alas, dear Curtis left her with just enough to live by: for luxuries she must look elsewhere, as she’s very fond of pointing out. I thought her question rather spitefully phrased, and must have looked at her rather hard; for she had corrected herself the next moment, explaining that of course she had known the Macauleys ‘forever’, and that I musn’t mind if she seemed to disparage the old lady now and then.

“Lady Macauley herself expects no less of me” she said. “She finds it entertaining - and of course gives as good as she gets, as you know. But even allowing for all that, you have to admit that she has been monopolising David – so that one wonders if she means to keep him for herself? I’ve seen her do that before too – you can’t think of all the hopelessly smitten young men she liked to keep dangling about her in the old days. ‘The Freddies’, she used to call them. After a certain Lord Freddie Livesey, an extravagant youth who languished for love of her for several years. Sir Jack turned a blind eye to it all of course – he knew where her heart lay, and I think it rather amused him to see the young men falling about at her feet. But I never saw her set herself up in opposition to Belle before. The lines in the sand were always very clearly drawn. Which makes me ask myself if we’re going to be treated for once to the spectacle of a contest between mother and daughter for the same man? I mean, you must have seen for yourself how Belle looks at him, and how anxious she is to seem sensible in conversation ...? I tell you, this is a situation quite unprecedented, and I for one can’t even begin to fathom how it’s likely to turn out.”

I replied that if she couldn’t foresee an outcome, it was unlikely that I, as a relative outsider, would be able to do so. But she had alarmed me somewhat, I confess; and I left her, half an hour later, wondering if after all I had misread the situation, and Belle were indeed listening to David Porteous when he leaned towards her in that quietly respectful way he has - and listening, at that, rather more closely than I had thought. Bill asked much the same thing of me, when he phoned later that evening.

“You tell me he’s talking to her – but is she listening?” he wanted to know. To which I replied that I couldn’t possibly say; though it did seem to me that Belle was not exactly turning her head the other way when David Porteous leaned in her direction. Bill greeted this remark with a rather long silence, before moving on to talk of other things. He is in Darwin now. For what particular purpose I haven’t yet been able to discern – though he tells me that he wanted to see for himself if reports he’d heard were true, that it’s possible in certain conditions to see crocodiles swimming along High Street, Darwin. I told him I thought the crocodile story just sufficiently fantastic to be true. But not quite fantastic enough, for all that, to keep him dawdling there indefinitely; and that if he wanted to know if Belle were listening to David Porteous, then he really ought to jump on a plane and come home to find out for himself.

I had further reason for disquiet the next day, when I went to the manor house to call on Frances. I hadn’t seen her for some time, and had wondered if she thought I was neglecting her; but was pleased to find her apparently very happily absorbed with her team of Polish builders, and all the marvels they are accomplishing in the house. “See how many bathrooms I’m to have!” she gaily cried, shortly after greeting me. “Tomek tells me that once you have the pipe-work in for one, you might just as well have half a dozen – so I’m having four upstairs; and another nice little cloakroom off the hall.” She gave me a conducted tour of the bathrooms, during the course of which she introduced me to Tomas (‘Tomek’ is the Polish diminutive form, she tells me), who is a large, grave, intensely blue-eyed, late-middle-aged Pole, and apparently the overseer of the team.

“Tomek is a surprisingly talented artist” Frances confided, after he had bowed over my hand and gone away. “I discovered that quite by chance, when he left a little drawing of his lying about among the building requisitions. He had sketched the cedar in the yard – such a noble old tree, he said. I thought that so very sensitive of him...”

She had forgotten Tomek however, by the time we sat down over coffee in the conservatory – brought to us by Mrs Meade, who still seems to regard me with suspicion, and just a hint of frostiness. “I hear that David has been taken up by Lady Macauley now” Frances said then; she seemed to be measuring her words with intense care. “I’m very glad for him of course – though I do think he ought to be accepting payment for his work in the library. He has very little to live by you know – he really can't afford to give up too much of his time unpaid.”

But she too wanted to know if I thought he was ‘making up to Belle’? She said it with some embarrassment, colouring deeply; but seemed resolved to go on nonetheless, so that before I knew it, she had begun to confide to me all the reasons why, if David were making up to Belle, she thought it would be very much better for Belle herself if he were not! I was very much taken aback, both by her confidences, and the unaccustomed vehemence with which she expressed them.

“He will start very quietly with her, just as he did with me.” she went on. “He will be courtesy and respect themselves; and only when he thinks he has gained her trust – or call it her adoration if you will! – only then will he begin to let her see what it is he really expects of her! “

This seemed to me such potentially explosive material that I was loath to stop her; and let her go on to tell me how it was that life with Mr Porteous had gradually enclosed, and finally imprisoned her – so that the day had come when, for what she called 'sheer panic, and shortness of breath', she had felt impelled to summon every drop of her courage, and break free. “It got in the end so that I could only breath freely when he was absent” she said. “When you feel like that in your own house; and when you know in addition that nothing you ever say or do - not even the clothes you wear, or the way you arrange your hair - will ever quite satisfy him .... Why, then, you know that you must flee for your life, or remain subject forever!”

I knew it couldn’t have come easily to Frances to admit such things to me. And I understood, without her having to tell me, that she was admitting them for the very good reason that in doing so she might spare Belle from possibly making the same mistake. In another woman – in one like Rose Mountjoy, say – one might have suspected envy and ulterior motive here; but not in Frances. Frances had loved in good faith and been horribly disillusioned. She had been deeply hurt, and now she wanted me to warn Belle off - though she couldn’t of course come right out and say it in so many words.

This was the message I took away from her, at any rate. I felt profoundly disturbed by it, and uncertain as to what action I should take in response. In the end I could see nothing better to do with it than pass it on to Bill. It would be an ungodly hour in Darwin, but still I made the call - and Bill’s long silence on receiving the intelligence seemed to vindicate my decision. He said little to me at the time; he only muttered something to the effect that he thought ‘that chap’ (it required several expletives to convey the depth of his sentiment here) - 'that chap had taken too much upon himself this time, by God!'

But he had evidently taken the message very much to heart. Since it was scarcely more than twenty four hours later that I heard the rattle of his old car in the yard; and there, all bleached and sun-tanned and visibly jet-lagged, with his worldly goods stuffed into the ancient hold-all he carries everywhere he goes - there he was!

It’s foolish of me perhaps, but I do feel unaccountably easier about everything now that Bill is home. I haven’t the least idea of what it is he means to do – but it seems likely we shall all be the happier and the better for it, whatever it is.