With a half-conscious gesture of caution he was clutching the lapel of his coat, holding it tight against him. In there, stowed away in his right-hand inner pocket, was an object whose very existence he partly doubted. It was a stout blue envelope with an American stamp; in the envelope was a cheque for fifty dollars; and the cheque was made out to ‘Gordon Comstock’!
He could feel the square shape of the envelope outlined against his body as clearly as though it had been red hot. All the morning he had felt it there, whether he touched it or whether he did not; he seemed to have developed a special patch of sensitiveness in the skin below his right breast. As often as once in ten minutes he had taken the cheque out of its envelope and anxiously examined it. After all, cheques are tricky things. It would be frightful if there turned out to be some hitch about the date or the signature. Besides, he might lose it—it might even vanish of its own accord like fairy gold.
The cheque had come from the Californian Review, that American magazine to which, weeks or months ago, he had despairingly sent a poem. He had almost forgotten about the poem, it had been so long away, until this morning their letter had come sailing out of the blue. And what a letter! No English editor ever writes letters like that. They were ‘very favorably impressed’ by his poem. They would ‘endeavor’ to include it in their next number. Would he ‘favor’ them by showing them some more of his work? (Would he? Oh, boy!—as Flaxman would say.) And the cheque had come with it. It seemed the most monstrous folly, in this year of blight 1934, that anyone should pay fifty dollars for a poem. However, there it was; and there was the cheque, which looked perfectly genuine however often he inspected it.
He would have no peace of mind till the cheque was cashed—for quite possibly the bank would refuse it—but already a stream of visions was flowing through his mind. Visions of girls’ faces, visions of cobwebby claret bottles and quart pots of beer, visions of a new suit and his overcoat out of pawn, visions of a week-end at Brighton with Rosemary, visions of the crisp, crackling five pound note which he was going to give to Julia. Above all, of course, that fiver for Julia. It was almost the first thing he had thought of when the cheque came. Whatever else he did with the money, he must give Julia half of it. It was only the barest justice, considering how much he had ‘borrowed’ from her in all these years. All the morning the thought of Julia and the money he owed her had been cropping up in his mind at odd moments. It was a vaguely distasteful thought, however. He would forget about it for half an hour at a time, would plan a dozen ways of spending his ten pounds to the uttermost farthing, and then suddenly he would remember about Julia. Good old Julia! Julia should have her share. A fiver at the very least. Even that was not a tenth of what he owed her. For the twentieth time, with a faint malaise, he registered the thought: five quid for Julia.
The bank made no trouble about the cheque. Gordon had no banking account, but they knew him well, for Mr McKechnie banked there. They had cashed editors’ cheques for Gordon before. There was only a minute’s consultation, and then the cashier came back.
‘Notes, Mr Comstock?’
‘One five pound, and the rest pounds, please.’
The flimsy luscious fiver and the five clean pound notes slid rustling under the brass rail. And after them the cashier pushed a little pile of half-crowns and pennies. In lordly style Gordon shot the coins into his pocket without even counting them. That was a bit of backsheesh. He had only expected ten pounds for fifty dollars. The dollar must be above par. The five pound note, however, he carefully folded up and stowed away in the American envelope. That was Julia’s fiver. It was sacrosanct. He would post it to her presently.
He did not go home for dinner. Why chew leathery beef in the aspidistral dining-room when he had ten quid in pocket—five quid, rather? (He kept forgetting that half the money was already mortgaged to Julia.) For the moment he did not bother to post Julia’s five pounds. This evening would be soon enough. Besides, he rather enjoyed the feeling of it in his pocket. It was queer how different you felt with all that money in your pocket. Not opulent, merely, but reassured, revivified, reborn. He felt a different person from what he had been yesterday. He was a different person. He was no longer the downtrodden wretch who made secret cups of tea over the oil stove at 31 Willowbed Road. He was Gordon Comstock, the poet, famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Publications: Mice (1932), London Pleasures (1935). He thought with perfect confidence of London Pleasures now. In three months it should see the light. Demy octavo, white buckram covers. There was nothing that he did not feel equal to now that his luck had turned.
He strolled into the Prince of Wales for a bite of food. A cut off the joint and two veg., one and twopence, a pint of pale ale ninepence, twenty Gold Flakes a shilling. Even after that extravagance he still had well over ten pounds in hand—or rather, well over five pounds. Beer-warmed, he sat and meditated on the things you can do with five pounds. A new suit, a week-end in the country, a day-trip to Paris, five rousing drunks, ten dinners in Soho restaurants. At this point it occurred to him that he and Rosemary and Ravelston must certainly have dinner together tonight. Just to celebrate his stroke of luck; after all, it isn’t every day that ten pounds—five pounds—drops out of the sky into your lap. The thought of the three of them together, with good food and wine and money no object took hold of him as something not to be resisted. He had just a tiny twinge of caution. Mustn’t spend all his money, of course. Still, he could afford a quid—two quid. In a couple of minutes he had got Ravelston on the pub phone.
‘Is that you, Ravelston? I say, Ravelston! Look here, you’ve got to have dinner with me tonight.’
From the other end of the line Ravelston faintly demurred. ‘No, dash it! You have dinner with me.’ But Gordon overbore him. Nonsense! Ravelston had got to have dinner with him tonight. Unwillingly, Ravelston assented. All right, yes, thanks; he’d like it very much. There was a sort of apologetic misery in his voice. He guessed what had happened. Gordon had got hold of money from somewhere and was squandering it immediately; as usual, Ravelston felt he hadn’t the right to interfere. Where should they go? Gordon was demanding. Ravelston began to speak in praise of those jolly little Soho restaurants where you get such a wonderful dinner for half a crown. But the Soho restaurants sounded beastly as soon as Ravelston mentioned them. Gordon wouldn’t hear of it. Nonsense! They must go somewhere decent. Let’s do it all regardless, was his private thought; might as well spend two quid—three quid, even. Where did Ravelston generally go? Modigliani’s, admitted Ravelston. But Modigliani’s was very—but no! not even over the phone could Ravelston frame that hateful word ‘expensive’. How remind Gordon of his poverty? Gordon mightn’t care for Modigliani’s, he euphemistically said. But Gordon was satisfied. Modigliani’s? Right you are—half past eight. Good! After all, if he spent even three quid on the dinner he’d still have two quid to buy himself a new pair of shoes and a vest and a pair of pants.
He had fixed it up with Rosemary in another five minutes. The New Albion did not like their employees being rung up on the phone, but it did not matter once in a way. Since that disastrous Sunday journey, five days ago, he had heard from her once but had not seen her. She answered eagerly when she heard whose voice it was. Would she have dinner with him tonight? Of course! What fun! And so in ten minutes the whole thing was settled. He had always wanted Rosemary and Ravelston to meet, but somehow had never been able to contrive it. These things are so much easier when you’ve got a little money to spend.
The taxi bore him westward through the darkling streets. A three-mile journey—still, he could afford it. Why spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar? He had dropped that notion of spending only two pounds tonight. He would spend three pounds, three pounds ten—four pounds if he felt like it. Slap up and regardless—that was the idea. And, oh! by the way! Julia’s fiver. He hadn’t sent it yet. No matter. Send it first thing in the morning. Good old Julia! She should have her fiver.
How voluptuous were the taxi cushions under his bum! He lolled this way and that. He had been drinking, of course—had had two quick ones, or possibly three, before coming away. The taxi-driver was a stout philosophic man with a weather-beaten face and a knowing eye. He and Gordon understood one another. They had palled up in the bar where Gordon was having his quick ones. As they neared the West End the taximan drew up, unbidden, at a discreet pub on a corner. He knew what was in Gordon’s mind. Gordon could do with a quick one. So could the taximan. But the drinks were on Gordon—that too was understood.
‘You anticipated my thoughts,’ said Gordon, climbing out.
‘I could just about do with a quick one.’
‘Thought you might, sir.’
‘And could you manage one yourself, do you think?’
‘Where there’s a will there’s a way,’ said the taximan.
‘Come inside,’ said Gordon.
They leaned matily on the brass-edged bar, elbow to elbow, lighting two of the taximan’s cigarettes. Gordon felt witty and expansive. He would have liked to tell the taximan the history of his life. The white-aproned barman hastened towards them.
‘Yes sir?’ said the barman.
‘Gin,’ said Gordon.
‘Make it two,’ said the taximan.
More matily than ever, they clinked glasses.
‘Many happy returns,’ said Gordon.
‘Your birthday today, sir?’
‘Only metaphorically. My re-birthday, so to speak.’
‘I never had much education,’ said the taximan.
‘I was speaking in parables,’ said Gordon.
‘English is good enough for me,’ said the taximan.
‘It was the tongue of Shakespeare,’ said Gordon.
‘Literary gentleman, are you, sir, by any chance?’
‘Do I look as moth-eaten as all that?’
‘Not moth-eaten, sir. Only intellectual-like.’
‘You’re quite right. A poet.’
‘Poet! It takes all sorts to make a world, don’t it now?’ said the taximan.
‘And a bloody good world it is,’ said Gordon.
His thoughts moved lyrically tonight. They had another gin and presently went back to the taxi all but arm in arm, after yet another gin. That made five gins Gordon had had this evening. There was an ethereal feeling in his veins; the gin seemed to be flowing there, mingled with his blood. He lay back in the corner of the seat, watching the great blazing skysigns swim across the bluish dark. The evil red and blue of the Neon lights pleased him at this moment. How smoothly the taxi glided! More like a gondola than a car. It was having money that did that. Money greased the wheels. He thought of the evening ahead of him; good food, good wine, good talk—above all, no worrying about money. No damned niggling with sixpences and ‘We can’t afford this’ and ‘We can’t afford that!’ Rosemary and Ravelston would try to stop him being extravagant. But he would shut them up. He’d spend every penny he had if he felt like it. Ten whole quid to bust! At least, five quid. The thought of Julia passed flickeringly through his mind and disappeared again.
He was quite sober when they got to Modigliani’s. The monstrous commissionaire, like a great glittering waxwork with the minimum of joints, stepped stiffly forward to open the taxi door. His grim eye looked askance at Gordon’s clothes. Not that you were expected to ‘dress’ at Modigliani’s. They were tremendously Bohemian at Modigliani’s, of course; but there are ways and ways of being Bohemian, and Gordon’s way was the wrong way. Gordon did not care. He bade the taximan an affectionate farewell, and tipped him half a crown over his fare, whereat the commissionaire’s eye looked a little less grim. At this moment Ravelston emerged from the doorway. The commissionaire knew Ravelston, of course. He lounged out on to the pavement, a tall distinguished figure, aristocratically shabby, his eye rather moody. He was worrying already about the money this dinner was going to cost Gordon.
‘Ah, there you are, Gordon!’
‘Hullo, Ravelston! Where’s Rosemary?’
‘Perhaps she’s waiting inside. I don’t know her by sight, you know. But I say, Gordon, look here! Before we go in, I wanted—’
‘Ah, look, there she is!’
She was coming towards them, swift and debonair. She threaded her way through the crowd with the air of some neat little destroyer gliding between large clumsy cargo-boats. And she was nicely dressed, as usual. The sub-shovel hat was cocked at its most provocative angle. Gordon’s heart stirred. There was a girl for you! He was proud that Ravelston should see her. She was very gay tonight. It was written all over her that she was not going to remind herself or Gordon of their last disastrous encounter. Perhaps she laughed and talked just a little too vivaciously as Gordon introduced them and they went inside. But Ravelston had taken a liking to her immediately. Indeed, everyone who met her did take a liking to Rosemary. The inside of the restaurant overawed Gordon for a moment. It was so horribly, artistically smart. Dark gate-leg tables, pewter candlesticks, pictures by modern French painters on the walls. One, a street scene, looked like a Utrillo. Gordon stiffened his shoulders. Damn it, what was there to be afraid of? The five pound note was tucked away in its envelope in his pocket. It was Julia’s five pounds, of course; he wasn’t going to spend it. Still, its presence gave him moral support. It was a kind of talisman. They were making for the corner table—Ravelston’s favourite table—at the far end. Ravelston took Gordon by the arm and drew him a little back, out of Rosemary’s hearing.
‘Gordon, look here!’
‘Look here, you’re going to have dinner with me tonight.’
‘Bosh! This is on me.’
‘I do wish you would. I hate to see you spending all that money.’
‘We won’t talk about money tonight,’ said Gordon.
‘Fifty-fifty, then,’ pleaded Ravelston.
‘It’s on me,’ said Gordon firmly.
Ravelston subsided. The fat, white-haired Italian waiter was bowing and smiling beside the corner table. But it was at Ravelston, not at Gordon, that he smiled. Gordon sat down with the feeling that he must assert himself quickly. He waved away the menu which the waiter had produced.
‘We must settle what we’re going to drink first,’ he said.
‘Beer for me,’ said Ravelston, with a sort of gloomy haste. ‘Beer’s the only drink I care about.’
‘Me too,’ echoed Rosemary.
‘Oh, rot! We’ve got to have some wine. What do you like, red or white? Give me the wine list,’ he said to the waiter.
‘Then let’s have a plain Bordeaux. Medoc or St Julien or something,’ said Ravelston.
‘I adore St Julien,’ said Rosemary, who thought she remembered that St Julien was always the cheapest wine on the list.
Inwardly, Gordon damned their eyes. There you are, you see! They were in league against him already. They were trying to prevent him from spending his money. There was going to be that deadly, hateful atmosphere of ‘You can’t afford it’ hanging over everything. It made him all the more anxious to be extravagant. A moment ago he would have compromised on Burgundy. Now he decided that they must have something really expensive—something fizzy, something with a kick in it. Champagne? No, they’d never let him have champagne. Ah!
‘Have you got any Asti?’ he said to the waiter.
The waiter suddenly beamed, thinking of his corkage. He had grasped now that Gordon and not Ravelston was the host. He answered in the peculiar mixture of French and English which he affected.
‘Asti, sir? Yes, sir. Very nice Asti! Asti Spumanti. Tres fin! Tres vif!’
Ravelston’s worried eye sought Gordon’s across the table. You can’t afford it! his eye pleaded.
‘Is that one of those fizzy wines?’ said Rosemary.
‘Very fizzy, madame. Very lively wine. Tres vif! Pop!’ His fat hands made a gesture, picturing cascades of foam.
‘Asti,’ said Gordon, before Rosemary could stop him
Ravelston looked miserable. He knew that Asti would cost Gordon ten or fifteen shillings a bottle. Gordon pretended not to notice. He began talking about Stendhal—association with Duchesse de Sanseverina and her ‘force vin d’Asti’. Along came the Asti in a pail of ice—a mistake, that, as Ravelston could have told Gordon. Out came the cork. Pop! The wild wine foamed into the wide flat glasses. Mysteriously the atmosphere of the table changed. Something had happened to all three of them. Even before it was drunk the wine had worked its magic. Rosemary had lost her nervousness, Ravelston his worried preoccupation with the expense, Gordon his defiant resolve to be extravagant. They were eating anchovies and bread and butter, fried sole, roast pheasant with bread sauce and chipped potatoes; but principally they were drinking and talking. And how brilliantly they were talking—or so it seemed to them, anyway! They talked about the bloodiness of modern life and the bloodiness of modern books. What else is there to talk about nowadays? As usual (but, oh! how differently, now that there was money in his pocket and he didn’t really believe what he was saying) Gordon descanted on the deadness, the dreadfulness of the age we live in. French letters and machine-guns! The movies and the Daily Mail! It was a bone-deep truth when he walked the streets with a couple of coppers in his pocket; but it was a joke at this moment. It was great fun—it is fun when you have good food and good wine inside you—to demonstrate that we live in a dead and rotting world. He was being witty at the expense of the modern literature; they were all being witty. With the fine scorn of the unpublished Gordon knocked down reputation after reputation. Shaw, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Huxley, Lewis, Hemingway—each with a careless phrase or two was shovelled into the dustbin. What fun it all was, if only it could last! And of course, at this particular moment, Gordon believed that it could last. Of the first bottle of Asti, Gordon drank three glasses, Ravelston two, and Rosemary one. Gordon became aware that a girl at the table opposite was watching him. A tall elegant girl with a shell-pink skin and wonderful, almond-shaped eyes. Rich, obviously; one of the moneyed intelligentsia. She thought him interesting—was wondering who he was. Gordon found himself manufacturing special witticisms for her benefit. And he was being witty, there was no doubt about that. That too was money. Money greasing the wheels— wheels of thought as well as wheels of taxis.
But somehow the second bottle of Asti was not such a success as the first. To begin with there was uncomfortableness over its ordering. Gordon beckoned to the waiter.
‘Have you got another bottle of this?’
The waiter beamed fatly. ‘Yes, sir! Mais certainement, monsieur!’
Rosemary frowned and tapped Gordon’s foot under the table. ‘No, Gordon, no! You’re not to.’
‘Not to what?’
‘Order another bottle. We don’t want it.’
‘Oh, bosh! Get another bottle, waiter.’
Ravelston rubbed his nose. With eyes too guilty to meet Gordon’s he looked at his wine glass. ‘Look here, Gordon. Let me stand this bottle. I’d like to.’
‘Bosh!’ repeated Gordon.
‘Get half a bottle, then,’ said Rosemary.
‘A whole bottle, waiter,’ said Gordon.
After that nothing was the same. They still talked, laughed, argued, but things were not the same. The elegant girl at the table opposite had ceased watching Gordon. Somehow, Gordon wasn’t being witty any longer. It is almost always a mistake to order a second bottle. It is like bathing for a second time on a summer day. However warm the day is, however much you have enjoyed your first bathe, you are always sorry for it if you go in a second time. The magic had departed from the wine. It seemed to foam and sparkle less, it was merely a clogging sourish liquid which you gulped down half in disgust and half in hopes of getting drunk quicker. Gordon was now definitely though secretly drunk. One half of him was drunk and the other half sober. He was beginning to have that peculiar blurred feeling, as though your features had swollen and your fingers grown thicker, which you have in the second stage of drunkenness. But the sober half of him was still in command to outward appearance, anyway. The conversation grew more and more tedious. Gordon and Ravelston talked in the detached uncomfortable manner of people who have had a little scene and are not going to admit it. They talked about Shakespeare. The conversation tailed off into a long discussion about the meaning of Hamlet. It was very dull. Rosemary stifled a yawn. While Gordon’s sober half talked, his drunken half stood aside and listened. Drunken half was very angry. They’d spoiled his evening, damn them! with their arguing about that second bottle. All he wanted now was to be properly drunk and have done with it. Of the six glasses in the second bottle he drank four—for Rosemary refused more wine. But you couldn’t do much on this weak stuff. Drunken half clamoured for more drink, and more, and more. Beer by the quart and the bucket! A real good rousing drink! And by God! he was going to have it later on. He thought of the five pound note stowed away in his inner pocket. He still had that to blow, anyway.
The musical clock that was concealed somewhere in Modigliani’s interior struck ten.
‘Shall we shove off?’ said Gordon.
Ravelston’s eyes looked pleadingly, guiltily across the table. Let me share the bill! his eyes said. Gordon ignored him.
‘I vote we go to the Cafe Imperial,’ he said.
The bill failed to sober him. A little over two quid for the dinner, thirty bob for the wine. He did not let the others see the bill, of course, but they saw him paying. He threw four pound notes on to the waiter’s salver and said casually, ‘Keep the change.’ That left him with about ten bob besides the fiver. Ravelston was helping Rosemary on with her coat; as she saw Gordon throw notes to the waiter her lips parted in dismay. She had had no idea that the dinner was going to cost anything like four pounds. It horrified her to see him throwing money about like that. Ravelston looked gloomy and disapproving. Gordon damned their eyes again. Why did they have to keep on worrying? He could afford it, couldn’t he? He still had that fiver. But by God, it wouldn’t be his fault if he got home with a penny left!
But outwardly he was quite sober, and much more subdued than he had been half an hour ago. ‘We’d better have a taxi to the Cafe Imperial,’ he said.
‘Oh, let’s walk!’ said Rosemary. ‘It’s only a step.’
‘No, we’ll have a taxi.’
They got into the taxi and were driven away, Gordon sitting next to Rosemary. He had half a mind to put his arm round her, in spite of Ravelston’s presence. But at that moment a swirl of cold night air came in at the window and blew against Gordon’s forehead. It gave him a shock. It was like one of those moments in the night when suddenly from deep sleep you are broad awake and full of some dreadful realization—as that you are doomed to die, for instance, or that your life is a failure. For perhaps a minute he was cold sober. He knew all about himself and the awful folly he was committing—knew that he had squandered five pounds on utter foolishness and was now going to squander the other five that belonged to Julia. He had a fleeting but terribly vivid vision of Julia, with her thin face and her greying hair, in the cold of her dismal bed-sitting room. Poor, good Julia! Julia who had been sacrificed to him all her life, from whom he had borrowed pound after pound after pound; and now he hadn’t even the decency to keep her five intact! He recoiled from the thought; he fled back into his drunkenness as into a refuge. Quick, quick, we’re getting sober! Booze, more booze! Recapture that first fine careless rapture! Outside, the multi-coloured window of an Italian grocery, still open, swam towards them. He tapped sharply on the glass. The taxi drew up. Gordon began to climb out across Rosemary’s knees.
‘Where are you going, Gordon?’
‘To recapture that first fine careless rapture,’ said Gordon, on the pavement.
‘It’s time we laid in some more booze. The pubs’ll be shutting in half an hour.’
‘No, Gordon, no! You’re not to get anything more to drink. You’ve had quite enough already.’
He came out of the shop nursing a litre bottle of Chianti. The grocer had taken the cork out for him and put it in loosely again. The others had grasped now that he was drunk—that he must have been drinking before he met them. It made them both embarrassed. They went into the Cafe Imperial, but the chief thought in both their minds was to get Gordon away and to bed as quickly as possible. Rosemary whispered behind Gordon’s back, ‘Please don’t let him drink any more!’ Ravelston nodded gloomily. Gordon was marching ahead of them to a vacant table, not in the least troubled by the stares everyone was casting at the wine-bottle which he carried on his arm. They sat down and ordered coffee, and with some difficulty Ravelston restrained Gordon from ordering brandy as well. All of them were ill at ease. It was horrible in the great garish cafe, stuffily hot and deafeningly noisy with the jabber of several hundred voices, the clatter of plates and glasses, and the intermittent squalling of the band. All three of them wanted to get away. Ravelston was still worrying about the expense, Rosemary was worried because Gordon was drunk, Gordon was restless and thirsty. He had wanted to come here, but he was no sooner here than he wanted to escape. Drunken half was clamouring for a bit of fun. And drunken half wasn’t going to be kept in check much longer. Beer, beer! cried drunken half. Gordon hated this stuffy place. He had visions of a pub taproom with great oozy barrels and quart pots topped with foam. He kept an eye on the clock. It was nearly half past ten and the pubs even in Westminster would shut at eleven. Mustn’t miss his beer! The bottle of wine was for afterwards, when the pubs were shut. Rosemary was sitting opposite him, talking to Ravelston, uncomfortably but with a sufficient pretence that she was enjoying herself and there was nothing the matter. They were still talking in a rather futile way about Shakespeare. Gordon hated Shakespeare. As he watched Rosemary talking there came over him a violent, perverse desire for her. She was leaning forward, her elbows on the table; he could see her small breasts clearly through her dress. It came to him with a kind of shock, a catch of breath, which once again almost sobered him, that he had seen her naked. She was his girl! He could have her whenever he wanted her! And by God, he was going to have her tonight! Why not? It was a fitting end to the evening. They could find a place easily enough; there are plenty of hotels round Shaftesbury Avenue where they don’t ask questions if you can pay the bill. He still had his fiver. He felt her foot under the table, meaning to imprint a delicate caress upon it, and only succeeded in treading on her toe. She drew her foot away from him.
‘Let’s get out of this,’ he said abruptly, and at once stood up.
‘Oh, let’s!’ said Rosemary with relief.
They were in Regent Street again. Down on the left Piccadilly Circus blazed, a horrible pool of light. Rosemary’s eyes turned towards the bus stop opposite.
‘It’s half past ten,’ she said doubtfully. ‘I’ve got to be back by eleven.’
‘Oh, rot! Let’s look for a decent pub. I mustn’t miss my beer.’
‘Oh, no, Gordon! No more pubs tonight. I couldn’t drink any more. Nor ought you.’
‘It doesn’t matter. Come this way.’
He took her by the arm and began to lead her down towards the bottom of Regent Street, holding her rather tight as though afraid she would escape. For the moment he had forgotten about Ravelston. Ravelston followed, wondering whether he ought to leave them to themselves or whether he ought to stay and keep an eye on Gordon. Rosemary hung back, not liking the way Gordon was pulling at her arm.
‘Where are you taking me, Gordon?’
‘Round the corner, where it’s dark. I want to kiss you.’
‘I don’t think I want to be kissed.’
‘Of course you do.’
She let him take her. Ravelston waited on the corner by the Regent Palace, uncertain what to do. Gordon and Rosemary disappeared round the corner and were almost immediately in darker, narrower streets. The appalling faces of tarts, like skulls coated with pink powder, peered meaningly from several doorways. Rosemary shrank from them. Gordon was rather amused.
‘They think you’re one of them,’ he explained to her.
He stood his bottle on the pavement, carefully, against the wall, then suddenly seized her and twisted her backwards. He wanted her badly, and he did not want to waste time over preliminaries. He began to kiss her face all over, clumsily but very hard. She let him do it for a moment, but it frightened her; his face, so close to hers, looked pale, strange, and distracted. He smelt very strongly of wine. She struggled, turning her face away so that he was only kissing her hair and neck.
‘Gordon, you mustn’t!’
‘Why mustn’t I?’
‘What are you doing?’
‘What do you suppose I’m doing?’
He shoved her back against the wall, and with the careful, preoccupied movements of a drunken man, tried to undo the front of her dress. It was of a kind that did not undo, as it happened. This time she was angry. She struggled violently, fending his hand aside.
‘Gordon, stop that at once!’
‘If you do it again I’ll smack your face.’
‘Smack my face! Don’t you come the Girl Guide with me.’
‘Let me go, will you!’
‘Think of last Sunday,’ he said lewdly.
‘Gordon, if you go on I’ll hit you, honestly I will.’
He thrust his hand right into the front of her dress. The movement was curiously brutal, as though she had been a stranger to him. She grasped that from the expression of his face. She was not Rosemary to him any longer, she was just a girl, a girl’s body. That was the thing that upset her. She struggled and managed to free herself from him. He came after her again and clutched her arm. She smacked his face as hard as she could and dodged neatly out of his reach.
‘What did you do that for?’ he said, feeling his cheek but not hurt by the blow.
‘I’m not going to stand that sort of thing. I’m going home. You’ll be different tomorrow.’
‘Rot! You come along with me. You’re going to bed with me.’
‘Good night!’ she said, and fled up the dark side street.
For a moment he thought of following her, but found his legs too heavy. It did not seem worth while, anyway. He wandered back to where Ravelston was still waiting, looking moody and alone, partly because he was worried about Gordon and partly because he was trying not to notice two hopeful tarts who were on patrol just behind him. Gordon looked properly drunk, Ravelston thought. His hair was tumbling down over his forehead, one side of his face was very pale and on the other there was a red smudge where Rosemary had slapped him. Ravelston thought this must be the flush of drunkenness.
‘What have you done with Rosemary?’ he said.
‘She’s gone,’ said Gordon, with a wave of his hand which was meant to explain everything. ‘But the night’s still young.’
‘Look here, Gordon, it’s time you were in bed.’
‘In bed, yes. But not alone.’
He stood on the kerb gazing out into the hideous midnight-noon. For a moment he felt quite deathly. His face was burning. His whole body had a dreadful, swollen, fiery feeling. His head in particular seemed on the point of bursting. Somehow the baleful light was bound up with his sensations. He watched the skysigns flicking on and off, glaring red and blue, arrowing up and down— the awful, sinister glitter of a doomed civilization, like the still blazing lights of a sinking ship. He caught Ravelston’s arm and made a gesture that comprehended the whole of Piccadilly Circus.
‘The lights down in hell will look just like that.’
‘I shouldn’t wonder.’
Ravelston was looking out for a disengaged taxi. He must get Gordon home to bed without further delay. Gordon wondered whether he was in joy or in agony. That burning, bursting feeling was dreadful. The sober half of him was not dead yet. Sober half still knew with ice-cold clarity what he had done and what he was doing. He had committed follies for which tomorrow he would feel like killing himself. He had squandered five pounds in senseless extravagance, he had robbed Julia, he had insulted Rosemary. And tomorrow—oh, tomorrow, we’ll be sober! Go home, go home! cried sober half. —— to you! said drunken half contemptuously. Drunken half was still clamouring for a bit of fun. And drunken half was the stronger. A fiery clock somewhere opposite caught his eye. Twenty to eleven. Quick, before the pubs are shut! Haro! la gorge m’ard! Once again his thoughts moved lyrically. He felt a hard round shape under his arm, discovered that it was the Chianti bottle, and tweaked out the cork. Ravelston was waving to a taxi-driver without managing to catch his eye. He heard a shocked squeal from the tarts behind. Turning, he saw with horror that Gordon had up-ended the bottle and was drinking from it.
He sprang towards him and forced his arm down. A gout of wine went down Gordon’s collar.
‘For God’s sake be careful! You don’t want the police to get hold of you, do you?’
‘I want a drink,’ complained Gordon.
‘But dash it! You can’t start drinking here.’
‘Take me to a pub,’ said Gordon.
Ravelston rubbed his nose helplessly. ‘Oh, God! I suppose that’s better than drinking on the pavement. Come on, we’ll go to a pub. You shall have your drink there.’
Gordon recorked his bottle carefully. Ravelston shepherded him across the circus, Gordon clinging to his arm, but not for support, for his legs were still quite steady. They halted on the island, then managed to find a gap in the traffic and went down the Haymarket.
In the pub the air seemed wet with beer. It was all a mist of beer shot through with the sickly tang of whisky. Along the bar a press of men seethed, downing with Faustlike eagerness their last drinks before eleven should sound its knell. Gordon slid easily through the crowd. He was not in a mood to worry about a few jostlings and elbowings. In a moment he had fetched up at the bar between a stout commercial traveller drinking Guinness and a tall, lean, decayed major type of man with droopy moustaches, whose entire conversation seemed to consist of ‘What ho!’ and ‘What, what!’ Gordon threw half a crown on to the beer-wet bar.
‘A quart of bitter, please!’
‘No quart pots here!’ cried the harassed barmaid, measuring pegs of whisky with one eye on the clock.
‘Quart pots on the top shelf, Effie!’ shouted the landlord over his shoulder, from the other side of the bar.
The barmaid hauled the beer-handle three times hurriedly. The monstrous glass pot was set before him. He lifted it. What a weight! A pint of pure water weighs a pound and a quarter. Down with it! Swish—gurgle! A long, long sup of beer flowed gratefully down his gullet. He paused for breath, and felt a little sickish. Come on, now for another. Swish—gurgle! It almost choked him this time. But stick it out, stick it out! Through the cascade of beer that poured down his throat and seemed to drown his ears he heard the landlord’s shout: ‘Last orders, gentlemen, please!’ For a moment he removed his face from the pot, gasped, and got his breath back. Now for the last. Swish—gurgle! A-a-ah! Gordon set down the pot. Emptied in three gulps—not bad. He clattered it on the bar.
‘Hi! Give me the other half of that—quick!’
‘What ho!’ said the major.
‘Coming it a bit, aren’t you?’ said the commercial traveller.
Ravelston, farther down the bar and hemmed in by several men, saw what Gordon was doing. He called to him, ‘Hi, Gordon!’, frowned and shook his head, too shy to say in front of everybody, ‘Don’t drink any more.’ Gordon settled himself on his legs. He was still steady, but consciously steady. His head seemed to have swollen to an immense size, his whole body had the same horrible, swollen, fiery feeling as before. Languidly he lifted the refilled beerpot. He did not want it now. Its smell nauseated him. It was just a hateful, pale yellow, sickly-tasting liquid. Like urine, almost! That bucketful of stuff to be forced down into his bursting guts—horrible! But come on, no flinching! What else are we here for? Down with it! Here she is so near my nose. So tip her up and down she goes. Swish—gurgle!
In the same moment something dreadful happened. His gullet had shut up of its own accord, or the beer had missed his mouth. It was pouring all over him, a tidal wave of beer. He was drowning in beer like lay-brother Peter in the Ingoldsby Legends. Help! He tried to shout, choked, and let fall the beer-pot. There was a flurry all round him. People were leaping aside to avoid the jet of beer. Crash! went the pot. Gordon stood rocking. Men, bottles, mirrors were going round and round. He was falling, losing consciousness. But dimly visible before him was a black upright shape, sole point of stability in a reeling world—the beer-handle. He clutched it, swung, held tight. Ravelston started towards him.
The barmaid leaned indignantly over the bar. The roundabout world slowed down and stopped. Gordon’s brain was quite clear.
‘Here! What are you hanging on to the beer-handle for?’
‘All over my bloody trousers!’ cried the commercial traveller.
‘What am I hanging on to the beer-handle for?’
‘Yes! What are you hanging on to the beer-handle for?’
Gordon swung himself sideways. The elongated face of the major peered down at him, with wet moustaches drooping.
‘She says, “What am I hanging on to the beer-handle for?”’
‘What ho! What?’
Ravelston had forced his way between several men and reached him. He put a strong arm round Gordon’s waist and hoisted him to his feet.
‘Stand up, for God’s sake! You’re drunk.’
‘Drunk?’ said Gordon.
Everyone was laughing at them. Ravelston’s pale face flushed.
‘Two and three those mugs cost,’ said the barmaid bitterly.
‘And what about my bloody trousers?’ said the commercial traveller.
‘I’ll pay for the mug,’ said Ravelston. He did so. ‘Now come on out of it. You’re drunk.’
He began to shepherd Gordon towards the door, one arm round his shoulder, the other holding the Chianti bottle, which he had taken from him earlier. Gordon freed himself. He could walk with perfect steadiness. He said in a dignified manner:
‘Drunk did you say I was?’
Ravelston took his arm again. ‘Yes, I’m afraid you are. Decidedly.’
‘Swan swam across the sea, well swam swan,’ said Gordon.
‘Gordon, you are drunk. The sooner you’re in bed the better.’
‘First cast out the beam that is in thine own eye before thou castest out the mote that is in thy brother’s,’ said Gordon.
Ravelston had got him out on to the pavement by this time. ‘We’d better get hold of a taxi,’ he said, looking up and down the street.
There seemed to be no taxis about, however. The people were streaming noisily out of the pub, which was on the point of closing. Gordon felt better in the open air. His brain had never been clearer. The red satanic gleam of a Neon light, somewhere in the distance, put a new and brilliant idea into his head. He plucked at Ravelston’s arm.
‘Ravelston! I say, Ravelston!’
‘Let’s pick up a couple of tarts.’
In spite of Gordon’s drunken state, Ravelston was scandalized. ‘My dear old chap! You can’t do that kind of thing.’
‘Don’t be so damned upper-class. Why not?’
‘But how could you, dash it! After you’ve just said good night to Rosemary—a really charming girl like that!’
‘At night all cats are grey,’ said Gordon, with the feeling that he voiced a profound and cynical wisdom.
Ravelston decided to ignore this remark. ‘We’d better walk up to Piccadilly Circus,’ he said. ‘There’ll be plenty of taxis there.’
The theatres were emptying. Crowds of people and streams of cars flowed to and fro in the frightful corpse-light. Gordon’s brain was marvellously clear. He knew what folly and evil he had committed and was about to commit. And yet after all it hardly seemed to matter. He saw as something far, far away, like something seen through the wrong end of the telescope, his thirty years, his wasted life, the blank future, Julia’s five pounds, Rosemary. He said with a sort of philosophic interest:
‘Look at the Neon lights! Look at those awful blue ones over the rubber shop. When I see those lights I know that I’m a damned soul.’
‘Quite,’ said Ravelston, who was not listening. ‘Ah, there’s a taxi!’ He signalled. ‘Damn! He didn’t see me. Wait here a second.’
He left Gordon by the Tube station and hurried across the street. For a little while Gordon’s mind receded into blankness. Then he was aware of two hard yet youthful faces, like the faces of young predatory animals, that had come close up to his own. They had blackened eye-brows and hats that were like vulgarer versions of Rosemary’s. He was exchanging badinage with them. This seemed to him to have been going on for several minutes.
‘Hullo, Dora! Hullo, Barbara! (He knew their names, it seemed.) And how are you? And how’s old England’s winding-sheet?’
‘Oo—haven’t you got a cheek, just!’
‘And what are you up to at this time of night?’
‘Oo—jes’ strolling around.’
‘Like a lion, seeking whom he may devour?’
‘Oo—you haven’t half got a cheek! Hasn’t he got a cheek, Barbara? You have got a cheek!’
Ravelston had caught the taxi and brought it round to where Gordon was standing. He stepped out, saw Gordon between the two girls, and stood aghast.
‘Gordon! Oh, my God! What the devil have you been doing?’
‘Let me introduce you. Dora and Barbara,’ said Gordon.
For a moment Ravelston looked almost angry. As a matter of fact, Ravelston was incapable of being properly angry. Upset, pained, embarrassed—yes; but not angry. He stepped forward with a miserable effort not to notice the two girls’ existence. Once he noticed them the game was up. He took Gordon by the arm and would have bundled him into the taxi.
‘Come on, Gordon, for God’s sake! Here’s the taxi. We’ll go straight home and put you to bed.’
Dora caught Gordon’s other arm and hauled him out of reach as though he had been a stolen handbag.
‘What bloody business is it of yours?’ she cried ferociously.
‘You don’t want to insult these two ladies, I hope?’ said Gordon.
Ravelston faltered, stepped back, rubbed his nose. It was a moment to be firm; but Ravelston had never in his life been firm. He looked from Dora to Gordon, from Gordon to Barbara. That was fatal. Once he had looked them in the face he was lost. Oh, God! What could he do? They were human beings—he couldn’t insult them. The same instinct that sent his hand into his pocket at the very sight of a beggar made him helpless at this moment. The poor, wretched girls! He hadn’t the heart to send them packing into the night. Suddenly he realized that he would have to go through with this abominable adventure into which Gordon had led him. For the first time in his life he was let in for going home with a tart.
‘But dash it all!’ he said feebly.
‘Allons-y,’ said Gordon.
The taximan had taken his direction at a nod from Dora. Gordon slumped into the corner seat and seemed immediately to sink into some immense abyss from which he rose again more gradually and with only partial consciousness of what he had been doing. He was gliding smoothly through darkness starred with lights. Or were the lights moving and he stationary? It was like being on the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes. The fancy returned to him that he was a damned soul in hell. The landscape in hell would be just like this. Ravines of cold evil-coloured fire, with darkness all above. But in hell there would be torment. Was this torment? He strove to classify his sensations. The momentary lapse into unconsciousness had left him weak, sick, shaken; his forehead seemed to be splitting. He put out a hand. It encountered a knee, a garter, and a small soft hand which sought mechanically for his. He became aware that Ravelston, sitting opposite, was tapping his toe urgently and nervously.
‘Gordon! Gordon! Wake up!’
‘Gordon! Oh, damn! Causons en francais. Qu’est-ce que tu as fait? Crois-tu que je veux coucher avec une sale—oh, damnation!’
‘Oo-parley-voo francey!’ squealed the girls.
Gordon was mildly amused. Do Ravelston good, he thought. A parlour Socialist going home with a tart! The first genuinely proletarian action of his life. As though aware of this thought, Ravelston subsided into his corner in silent misery, sitting as far away from Barbara as possible. The taxi drew up at a hotel in a side-street; a dreadful, shoddy, low place it was. The ‘hotel’ sign over the door looked skew-eyed. The windows were almost dark, but the sound of singing, boozy and dreary, trickled from within. Gordon staggered out of the taxi and felt for Dora’s arm. Give us a hand, Dora. Mind the step. What ho!
A smallish, darkish, smelly hallway, lino-carpeted, mean, uncared-for, and somehow impermanent. From a room somewhere on the left the singing swelled, mournful as a church organ. A cross-eyed, evil-looking chambermaid appeared from nowhere. She and Dora seemed to know one another. What a mug! No competition there. From the room on the left a single voice took up the song with would-be facetious emphasis:
‘The man that kisses a pretty girl And goes and tells his mother, Ought to have his lips cut off, Ought to—’
It tailed away, full of the ineffable, undisguisable sadness of debauchery. A very young voice it sounded. The voice of some poor boy who in his heart only wanted to be at home with his mother and sisters, playing hunt-the-slipper. There was a party of young fools in there, on the razzle with whisky and girls. The tune reminded Gordon. He turned to Ravelston as he came in, Barbara following.
‘Where’s my Chianti?’ he said.
Ravelston gave him the bottle. His face looked pale, harassed, hunted, almost. With guilty restless movements he kept himself apart from Barbara. He could not touch her or even look at her, and yet to escape was beyond him. His eyes sought Gordon’s. ‘For the love of God can’t we get out of it somehow?’ they signalled. Gordon frowned at him. Stick it out! No flinching! He took Dora’s arm again. Come on, Dora! Now for those stairs. Ah! Wait a moment.
Her arm round his waist, supporting him, Dora drew him aside. Down the darkish, smelly stairs a young woman came mincingly, buttoning on a glove; after her a bald, middle-aged man in evening clothes, black overcoat, and white silk muffler, his opera hat in his hand. He walked past them with small mean mouth tightened, pretending not to see them. A family man, by the guilty look in his eye. Gordon watched the gaslight gleam on the back of his bald head. His predecessor. In the same bed, probably. The mantle of Elisha. Now then, Dora, up we go! Ah, these stairs! Difficilis ascensus Averni. That’s right, here we are! ‘Mind the step,’ said Dora. They were on the landing. Black and white lino like a chessboard. White-painted doors. A smell of slops and a fainter smell of stale linen.
We this way, you that. At the other door Ravelston halted, his fingers on the handle. He could not—no, he could not do it. He could not enter that dreadful room. For the last time his eyes, like those of a dog about to be whipped, turned upon Gordon. ‘Must I, must I?’ his eyes said. Gordon eyed him sternly. Stick it out, Regulus! March to your doom! Atqui sciebat quae sibi Barbara. It is a far, far more proletarian thing that you do. And then with startling suddenness Ravelston’s face cleared. An expression of relief, almost of joy, stole over it. A wonderful thought had occurred to him. After all, you could always pay the girl without actually doing anything! Thank God! He set his shoulders, plucked up courage, went in. The door shut.
So here we are. A mean, dreadful room. Lino on the floor, gas-fire, huge double bed with sheets vaguely dingy. Over the bed a framed coloured picture from La Vie Parisienne. A mistake, that. Sometimes the originals don’t compare so well. And, by Jove! on the bamboo table by the window, positively an aspidistra! Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? But come here, Dora. Let’s have a look at you.
He seemed to be lying on the bed. He could not see very well. Her youthful, rapacious face, with blackened eyebrows, leaned over him as he sprawled there.
‘How about my present?’ she demanded, half wheedling, half menacing.
Never mind that now. To work! Come here. Not a bad mouth. Come here. Come closer. Ah!
No. No use. Impossible. The will but not the way. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Try again. No. The booze, it must be. See Macbeth. One last try. No, no use. Not this evening, I’m afraid.
All right, Dora, don’t you worry. You’ll get your two quid all right. We aren’t paying by results.
He made a clumsy gesture. ‘Here, give us that bottle. That bottle off the dressing-table.’
Dora brought it. Ah, that’s better. That at least doesn’t fail. With hands that had swollen to monstrous size he up-ended the Chianti bottle. The wine flowed down his throat, bitter and choking, and some of it went up his nose. It overwhelmed him. He was slipping, sliding, falling off the bed. His head met the floor. His legs were still on the bed. For a while he lay in this position. Is this the way to live? Down below the youthful voices were still mournfully singing:
‘For tonight we’ll merry be,|
For tonight we’ll merry be,
For tonight we’ll merry be-e-e—
Tomorrow we’ll be so-ober!’