This is a poem that addresses, with extraordinary bitterness, the central question of what it was that alienated Larkin from the rest of his tribe. She was twenty, and on holiday with her parents; he was two years older, and on a cycling tour. Although both were extremely shy, they were also attracted to each other as opposites sometimes are: Sydney was forceful, decisive and emotionally remote, while Eva was a hapless worrier and ditherer who found running their household, even with the help of servants, an almost impossible challenge.
His personality had imposed this taut ungenerous defeated pattern of life on the family, and it was only to be expected that it would make them miserable and that their misery would react on him. And despite the fact that my mother grew to be such an obsessive snivelling pest, I think if my father had handled her properly she would have done much better. Christmases were clearly awful. Here is an extract from a letter sent in November in which he anticipates the approach of the festive season with deep foreboding:.
The thought of Christmas depresses me. All I want is an ordinary lunch, and no fuss. Get a good piece of beef that will last a day or two, and potatoes for baking. To hell with Christmas. Duck, in fact, seems often to have been a bone of contention. It may be something to do with never having got away from home. I do appreciate your courageous struggle to keep going in the old way, and am aware of your kindnesses — I did enjoy the duck, and all the other things — but I am worried about how long you can carry on without help.
The mixture of guilt and exasperation on display here runs through many of these letters. His response to his hatred was complex and contorted, yet was also in many ways central to his concept of poethood. Larkin carefully and deliberately avoided allowing his lodgings in Wellington, in Leicester, in Belfast, and finally in Hull, to be homely.
He will be here probably next month. You know whom I mean, of course? I tell you, Nigel, what happens during Prince Shan's visit will probably decide the destinies of this country, and yet I wouldn't mind betting you a thousand to one that there isn't a single official of the Government who has the slightest idea as to why he is coming, or that he is coming at all.
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Let us leave Prince Shan for the moment, Nigel. Now listen. You go about a great deal. What do people say about me—honestly, I mean? Speak with your face to the light. Philip's Club, diplomatists and ambassadors whose place in the world has passed away, who think and believe differently. You know, sir, that I am amongst them. Seven years ago, it was," he went on reminiscently, "when the new National Party came into supreme power. You know one of their first battle cries—'Down with all secret treaties! Down with all secret diplomacy!
Let nothing exist but an honest commercial understanding between the different countries of the world! In place of an English statesman with his country's broad interests at heart, we have in Berlin and Petrograd half a dozen representatives of the great industries, whose object, in their own words, is, I believe, to develop friendly commercialism and a feeling of brotherhood between the nations.
Not only our ambassadors but our secret service were swept clean out of existence. I remember going to Broadley, the day he was appointed Foreign Minister, and I asked him a simple question. I asked him whether he did not consider it his duty to keep his finger upon the pulses of the other great nations, however friendly they might seem, to keep himself assured that all these expressions of good will were honourable, and that in the heart of the German nation that great craving for revenge which is the natural heritage of the present generation had really become dissipated.
Broadley smiled at me. We look upon espionage as a disgraceful practice. It is the people of Germany with whom we are in touch now, not a military oligarchy, and the people of Germany no more desire war than we do. Besides, there is the League of Nations.
You know what I did? I have had a few agents at work for over a year, and when I have finished decoding this last dispatch, I shall have evidence which will prove beyond a doubt that we are on the threshold of terrible events. The worst of it is—well, we have been found out. To continue. Atcheson was a friend of yours, wasn't he? He was at Eton with me.
It was I who first brought him here to dine. Don't tell me that anything has happened to Jim Atcheson! He died last week in a nursing home in—well, let us say a foreign capital. The professor in charge of the hospital sends a long report as to the unhappy disease from which he suffered. As a matter of fact, he was poisoned. Nigel Kingley had been a soldier in his youth and he was a brave man.
Nevertheless, the horror of these things struck a cold chill to his heart. He seemed suddenly to be looking into the faces of spectres, to hear the birth of the winds of destruction. In the meantime, I want you to go and talk for a few minutes to the cleverest woman in England, the woman who, in the face of a whole army of policemen and detectives, crossed the North Sea yesterday afternoon with this in her pocket. In an hour's time, return here. Lord Dorminster rose to his feet as his nephew turned to depart.
He laid his hand upon the latter's shoulder, and Nigel always remembered the grave kindliness of his tone and expression. Lady Maggie Trent, a stepdaughter of the Earl of Dorminster, was one of those young women who had baffled description for some years before she had commenced to take life seriously. She was neither fair nor dark, petite nor tall. No one could ever have called her nondescript, or have extolled any particular grace of form or feature. Her complexion had defied the ravages of sun and wind and that moderate indulgence in cigarettes and cocktails which the youth of her day affected.
She was curled up in a chair when Nigel entered, immersed in a fashion paper. She held out her left hand, which he raised to his lips. Do you realise that if anything in the world can save this stupid old country, I have done it? I believed, with the rest of the world, what the newspapers announced—that you were visiting Japan and China, and afterwards the South Sea Islands, with the Wendercombes. I was afraid you would be disagreeable about it. We arranged it all with the Wendercombes, but as a matter of fact I did not even start with them.
For the last eight months, I have been living part of the time in Berlin and part of the time in a country house near the Black Forest. He is a huge fat man and he eats a great deal too much. Oh, the horror of those meals! I wonder I have any digestion left at all. I was Miss Brown. You talk about thrills, Nigel," she went on. All the time the real dispatch, written by Atcheson when he was dying, was sewn into my corsets. How's that for an exciting situation? But the feeling in Germany now, although it is marvellously hidden, is something perfectly amazing. It absolutely vibrates wherever you go.
The silence makes it all the more menacing. Nigel, was it necessary to have been so bitterly cruel to a beaten enemy? You must remember that it was an unprovoked war, a war engineered by Germany for the sheer purposes of aggression. That is why a punitive spirit entered into our subsequent negotiations. However, that is all ended. They sowed the seed at Versailles, and I think we are going to reap the harvest.
I can very well believe that the spirit is there, but when it comes to hard facts—well, what can they do? England can never be invaded. The war of proved that. Besides, Germany now has a representative on the League of Nations. She is bound to toe the line with the rest. Clumsy statesmanship is it, or what? After all, ambassadors are born, not made, and they should be—they very often were—men of rare tact and perceptions. We have no one now to inform us of the prejudices and humours of the nations.
We often offend quite unwittingly, and we miss many opportunities of a rapprochement. It is trade, trade, trade and nothing else, the whole of the time, and the men whom we sent to the different Courts to further our commercial interests are not the type to keep us informed of the more subtle and intricate matters which sometimes need adjustment between two countries.
Dad doesn't think so, you know. He is terribly exercised about the coming of Prince Shan. Prince Shan is too great a diplomatist to risk his country's new prosperity. He was at Oxford with you, wasn't he, Nigel? I can't remember whether he did anything at games. He was very reserved, though, and even in those days he was far more exclusive than our own royal princes. We all thought him clever, but no one dreamed that he would become Asia's great man. I'll tell you all that I can remember about him another time, Maggie.
I'm rather curious about that report of Atcheson's. Have you any idea what it is about? It is in the old Foreign Office cipher and it looks like gibberish. I only know that the first few lines he transcribed gave dad the jumps. You know I always thought so. And I hate foreigners.
They are terribly in earnest but there is no finesse about them. You may kiss me just once, please, Nigel, the way I like. He held her for a moment in his arms, tenderly, but with a reserve to which she was accustomed from him. Presently she thrust him away. Her own colour had risen a little.
No one has kissed me, Nigel, since we said good-bye. Do you really want to marry me? I should hate to find an affinity, and all that sort of thing, after marriage—divorce in these days is such shocking bad form. Besides, honestly, Nigel, I don't feel frivolous enough to think about marriage just now. I have the feeling that even while the clock is ticking we are moving on to terrible things. I can't tell you quite what it is. I carried my life in my hands during those last few days abroad.
I dare say this is the reaction. And who is she, anyhow? They were interrupted by a sudden knock at the door—not the discreet tap of a well-bred domestic, but a flurried, almost an imperative summons. Before either of them could reply, the door was opened and Brookes, the elderly butler, presented himself upon the threshold.
Even before he spoke, it was clear that he brought alarming news. They all hurried out together. Brookes was evidently terribly perturbed and went on talking half to himself without heeding their questions. Parkins has rung for Doctor Wilcox. They entered the library, Nigel leading the way. Lord Dorminster was lying very much as Brookes had described him, but there was something altogether unnatural in the collapse of his head and shoulders and his motionless body.
Nigel spoke to him, touched him gently, raised him at last into a sitting position. Something on which his right hand seemed to have been resting clattered on to the carpet. Nigel turned around and waved Maggie back. They went out into the hall and waited there in shocked silence until the doctor arrived. The latter's examination lasted only a few seconds. Then he pointed to the telephone. Lord Dorminster appears either to have shot himself, as seems most probable," he added, glancing at the revolver upon the carpet, "or to have been murdered.
The physician pointed downwards to the revolver. Then he unfastened once more the dead man's waistcoat, opened his shirt and indicated a small blue mark just over his heart. Time seemed to beat out its course in leaden seconds whilst they waited for the superintendent from Scotland Yard. Nigel at first stood still for some moments.
From outside came the cheerful but muffled roar of the London streets, the hooting of motor horns, the rumbling of wheels, the measured footfall of the passing multitude. A boy went by, whistling; another passed, calling hoarsely the news from the afternoon papers. A muffin man rang his bell, a small boy clattered his stick against the area bailing. The whole world marched on, unmoved and unnoticing. In this sombre apartment alone tragedy reigned in sinister silence. On the sofa, Lord Dorminster, who only half an hour ago had seemed to be in the prime of life and health, lay dead.
Nigel moved towards the writing-table and stood looking at it in wonder. The code book still remained, but there was not the slightest sign of any manuscript or paper of any sort. He even searched the drawers of the desk without result. Every trace of Atcheson's dispatch and Lord Dorminster's transcription of it had disappeared! On a certain day some weeks after the adjourned inquest and funeral of Lord Dorminster, Nigel obtained a long-sought-for interview with the Right Honourable Mervin Brown, who had started life as a factory inspector and was now Prime Minister of England.
The great man received his visitor with an air of good-natured tolerance. Mervin Brown pointed out dryly, "nor have the police been able to discover how any one could have obtained access to the room, or left it, without leaving some trace of their visit behind. Further, there are no indications of a robbery having been attempted. Mervin Brown. I know that you considered my uncle to be in some respects a crank, because he was far-seeing enough to understand that under the seeming tranquillity abroad there is a universal and deep-seated hatred of this country.
We have turned over a new leaf, Lord Dorminster. Our efforts are all directed towards developing an international spirit of friendliness and trust. I am in no way prejudiced, however, and am willing to listen to anything you may have to say which will not take you more than a quarter of an hour," he added, glancing at the clock upon his table.
When you abandoned any pretence of a continental secret service, he at his own expense instituted a small one of his own. He sent two men out to Germany and one to Russia. Of the two sent to Germany, one has disappeared, and the other died in hospital, without a doubt poisoned, a few days after he had sent the report to England which was stolen from my uncle's desk.
That report was brought over by Lady Maggie Trent, Lord Dorminster's stepdaughter, who was really the brains of the enterprise and under another name was acting as governess to the children of Herr Essendorf, President of the German Republic. Half an hour before his death, my uncle was decoding this dispatch in his library.
I saw him doing it, and I saw the dispatch itself. He told me that so far as he had gone already, it was full of information of the gravest import; that a definite scheme was already being formulated against this country by an absolutely unique and dangerous combination of enemies. The Right Honourable gentleman smiled slightly. He was a man of some natural politeness, but he found it hard to altogether conceal his incredulity.
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Is there anything more I can do for you? Nigel, even as a prophet of woe, was a very human person and withal a philosopher. He strolled along Piccadilly and turned into Bond Street, thoroughly enjoying one of the first spring days of the season. Flower sellers were busy at every corner; the sky was blue, with tiny flecks of white clouds, there was even some dust stirred by the little puffs of west wind. He exchanged greetings with a few acquaintances, lingered here and there before the shop windows, and presently developed a fit of contemplation engendered by the thoughts which were all the time at the back of his mind.
Bond Street was crowded with vehicles of all sorts, from wonderfully upholstered automobiles to the resuscitated victoria. The shop windows were laden with the treasures of the world, buyers were plentiful, promenaders multitudinous. Every one seemed to be cheerful but a little engrossed in the concrete act of living. Nigel almost ran into Prince Karschoff, at the corner of Grafton Street.
Tell me whether anything strikes you about the Bond Street of to-day, compared with the Bond Street of, say, ten years ago? The Russian glanced around him curiously. He himself was a somewhat unusual figure in his distinctively cut morning coat, his carefully tied cravat, his silk hat, black and white check trousers and faultless white spats. Not only that, but there is a difference in the wares set out in the shops, an absence of taste, if you can understand what I mean, as though the shopkeepers themselves understood that they were catering for a new class of people.
Noblesse oblige has no significance to the shopman. He wants the fat cheques, and he caters for the people who can write them. Let us pursue our reflections a little farther and in a different direction, my friend," he added, glancing at his watch. Nigel hesitated for a moment, a somewhat curious hesitation which he many times afterwards remembered. Woman is at her loveliest in the spring. The Ritz Restaurant will look like a bouquet of flowers.
Perhaps 'One for you and one for me. Luncheon at the Ritz was an almost unexpectedly pleasant meal. The two men sat at a table near the door and exchanged greetings with many acquaintances. Still, what else is there for a man without a country to do? Karschoff glanced in the direction indicated, and for a moment his somewhat saturnine expression changed.
A smile played upon his lips, his eyes seemed to rest upon the figure of the girl half turned away from them with interest, almost with pleasure. She was of an unusual type, tall and dark, dressed in black with the simplicity of a nun, with only a little gleam of white at her throat. Her hair—so much of it as showed under her flower-garlanded hat—was as black as jet, and yet, where she stood in the full glare of the sunlight, the burnish of it was almost wine-coloured. Her cheeks were pale, her expression thoughtful. Her eyes, rather heavily lidded, were a deep shade of violet.
Her mouth was unexpectedly soft and red. She is the daughter of the man who will probably be the next President of the Russian Republic.
You see, I can speak those words without a tremor. Her father at present represents the shipping interests of Russia and England. He is one of the authorised consuls. They are coming this way. We will speak of them afterwards. The girl recognised the Prince with a charming little bow and was on the point of passing on when she appeared to notice his companion.
For a moment she hesitated. The Prince, anticipating her desire to speak, rose at once to his feet. You bring with you the first sunshine we have seen for many days. I have heard of Mr. Kingley, through the unfortunate death of a relative, is now the Earl of Dorminster—Mademoiselle Karetsky. Nigel, as he made his bow, was conscious of an expression of something more than ordinary curiosity in the face of the girl who had herself aroused his interest.
Will you and my dear friend here," she added, turning to the Prince, "take coffee with us afterwards? I shall then introduce you to my father. Oscar Immelan you both know, of course. They murmured their delighted assent, and she passed on. Nigel watched her until she took her place at the table. The Kolchekoffs lived on their estates, and as a matter of fact we never met.
Naida has gone over to the people, though, body and soul. I wonder whether I have done well or ill in making you two acquainted. Nigel felt a sudden desire to break through a certain seriousness which had come over his own thoughts and which was reflected in the other's tone. He shrugged his shoulders slightly and filled his glass with wine.
But seriously, my quarrel with Naida is one of prejudice only. She is the confidante and the inspiration of Matinsky, and though one realises, of course, that so long as there is a Russian Republic there must be a Russian President, I suppose I should scarcely be human if I did not hate him. The disparity of years, you see, is not so great. Matinsky, however, is married to an invalid wife, and concerning Naida I have never heard one word of scandal.
But this much is certain. Matinsky has the blandest confidence in her judgment and discretion. She has already been his unofficial ambassador in several capitals of Europe. I am convinced that she is here with a purpose. But enough of my country-people. We came here to be gay. Let us drink another bottle of wine. The joy of living seemed for a moment to reassert itself in Karschoff's face.
His momentary fierceness, reminiscent of his Tartar ancestry, had passed, but it had left a shadow behind. Our Bond Street lament finds its proof here. Except for their clothes—so ill-worn, too, most of them—the women here remind one of Blackpool, and their men of Huddersfield. I am inclined to wish that I had taken you to Soho. Nigel shook his head. His eyes had strayed to a distant corner of the room, where Naida and her two companions were seated.
A couple of generations and a little intermarriage may put things right. A Chancellor of the Exchequer with genius, fifteen years ago, might even have prevented it. This is the class whom you left to gorge,—the war profiteers. I hope that whoever writes the history of these times will see that it is properly illustrated. In the lounge, they had barely seated themselves before Naida, with her father and Immelan, appeared.
The little party at once joined up, and Naida seated herself next to Nigel. She talked very slowly, but her accent amounted to little more than a prolongation of certain syllables, which had the effect of a rather musical drawl. Her father, after the few words of introduction had been spoken, strolled away to speak to some acquaintances, and Immelan and the Prince discussed with measured politeness one of the commonplace subjects of the moment.
Naida and her companion became almost isolated. I remember that he attracted me. He represented a class of Englishman of whom I had met very few, the thinking aristocrat with a sense for foreign affairs. It was some years ago, that. He remained outside politics, did he not, until his death?
He declined the challenge of her eyes. After all, she belonged to the Russia whose growing strength was the greatest menace to European peace, and whose attitude towards England was entirely uncertain. She remained for a moment very thoughtful, smoking a thin cigarette through a long holder and watching the little rings of smoke. Did you know that Maggie was a friend of mine, Lord Dorminster?
But she has been away for some months. You have not seen much of her, perhaps, since her return?
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We are at the Milan Court for a little time. My father is trying to get a house. My sister is coming over to look after him. I am unfortunately only a bird of passage. Immelan intervened,—grim, suspicious, a little disturbed. For some reason or other, the meeting between these two young people seemed to have made him uneasy. He has been telephoned for from the Consulate.
She nodded and made her adieux to the Prince. The two men stood together and watched her depart with her companion. You dabble in these things, my friend Dorminster. Can you guess what they are met for—for whom they wait? Nigel and Maggie had tea together in the little room which the latter had used as a boudoir. They were discussing the question of her future residence there. I should be married at St. Mary Abbot's, Kensington, and have the Annersley children for bridesmaids.
Don't you think I should look sweet in old gold and orange blossoms? Are you quite sure that you love me, Nigel? Such eyes, Maggie, and the slimmest, most wonderful figure you ever saw! Maggie was suddenly serious. There was just a trace of the one expression he had never before seen in her face—fear—lurking in her eyes, even asserting itself in her tone.
She stopped to speak to Karschoff and asked him to present me. Afterwards, she invited us to take coffee in the lounge. She is the most vital force in Russian politics. She is the woman whom I wanted you to know, to whom I told you that I wished you to pay attentions. And now that you know her, I am afraid. She was two years older than I, but she stayed there until she was twenty. Afterwards we met in Florence. She is very beautiful, too. They say that he would give his soul to be free to marry her.
As it is, she is the uncrowned Tsarina of Russia. There has never been a word of scandal concerning him and Naida, nor will there ever be. But in his eyes, Naida has that most wonderful gift of all,—she has vision. He once told a man with whom I spoke in Berlin that Naida was the one person in the world to whom a mistake was impossible. Nigel, did she give you any idea at all what she was over here for? She asked me whether I had inherited my uncle's hobby.
She seemed sympathetic, but after all she is in the enemy camp. She and Immelan seemed on particularly good terms. Nigel, do you think that I have vision? Of Immelan we have no hope. He conceals it cleverly enough, but he hates England with all the fervour of a zealot. Naida is unconvinced. She is to be won. And Prince Shan—".
At least, though, one could watch and hope. So shall we. If he comes here, it will be easier. Tell me, Nigel, did you see the Prime Minister? He is clearly of the opinion that the open verdict was a merciful one. In other words, he believes that it was a case of suicide. The strangest part of it all is that it is true. To think that those few pages of manuscript would have told us exactly what we have to fear!
Why, I actually had them in my hand. They found Brookes in the hall and took him with them. The blinds in the room had never been raised, and there was still that nameless atmosphere which lingers for long in an apartment which has become associated with tragedy. Instinctively they all moved quietly and spoke in hushed voices. Nigel sat in the chair where his uncle had been found dead and made a mental effort to reconstruct the events which must have immediately preceded the tragedy. You see how far it is from this table to the door.
My uncle must have had abundant warning of any one approaching. Was there no other way by which any one could have entered the room? The cleaners were here on the morning of that day, and the window at the farther end of the room was unfastened—I even believe that it was open. Nigel rose and examined the window in question. It was almost flush with the ground, and although there were iron railings separating it from the street, a little gate opening from the area entrance made ingress not only possible but easy. Nigel returned to his chair. It was perfectly clear to every one there, if your lordship will excuse my saying so, that both the coroner and the police seemed to have made up their minds that it was a case of suicide.
He dismissed the man with a little nod and sat turning over the code books which still stood upon the table. We don't want to direct people's attention to us. We want to lull suspicion so far as we can, to be free to watch the three. The telephone bell rang, and as Nigel moved his arm to take off the receiver, he knocked over one of the black, morocco-bound code books, A sheet of paper with a few words upon it came fluttering to the ground. Maggie picked it up, glanced at it carelessly at first and then with interest. Could it be part of the decoded dispatch?
The telephone enquiry had been unimportant. Nigel pushed the instrument away. They both looked eagerly at the page of manuscript paper. It was numbered "8" at the top, and the few words written upon it in Lord Dorminster's writing were obviously the continuation of a paragraph:. The name of the middle one, then, of the three secret cities, into which at all costs some one must find his way, is Kroten, and the telephone number which is all the clue I have been able to get, up to the present, to the London end of the affair, is Mayfair They searched through every page of the heavy code books in vain.
Then they returned to their study of the single page. Nigel dragged down an atlas and studied it. Cheerful sort of spot it seems! Nigel played golf at Ranelagh, on the following Sunday morning, with Jere Chalmers, a young American in the Diplomatic Service, who had just arrived in London and brought a letter of introduction to him. They had a pleasant game and strolled off from the eighteenth green to the dressing rooms on the best of terms with each other.
I've had a kind of feeling for a cocktail, these last four holes, which I can't exactly put into words. Besides, I want to have a word or two with you before the others come down. My cousin-in-law Maggie Trent, whom you'll meet at luncheon, is rather keen, and she doesn't care about golf.
Get a move on, there's a good fellow. I have a fancy for just five minutes with you out on the lawn, with the ice chinking in our glasses. Nigel finished smoothing his hair, and the two men strolled through the hall, gave an order to a red-coated attendant, and found a secluded table under a marvellous tree in the gardens on the other side.
Chalmers had become a little thoughtful. It seems to me, as a budding diplomat, that you are running the most ghastly risks on earth. They've bled your bourgeoisie a bit, and serve 'em right, but with an empire to keep up you're losing all touch upon international politics. Your ambassadors have been exchanged for trade consuls, the whole of your secret service staff has been disbanded, you place your entire faith on this sacred League of Nations.
Say, Dorminster, you're taking risks! Well-Endowed Young Lover. The Babysitter. Jett White. Out on the Lake. Mike Spencer. Angelica Cummings. Love Valentina. Siren's Catch. Hot Treatment. David J. Dungeon of Submission. Domina Martine. James Pollard. Rena Grace.
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