V., page 21
Forcing the door with the shears took only half a minute. Two flights down the back stairs and out a service entrance, and he found himself in Via Tosinghi, a block north of the Piazza. He headed east, away from the center of town. He had to find a way out of Florence. However he came out of this, he would have to resign his commission and live from here on as a fugitive, a temporary occupant of pension rooms, a dweller in the demimonde. Marching through the dusk, he saw his fate complete, pre-assembled, inescapable. No matter how he tacked, yawed or dodged about he’d only be standing still while that treacherous reef loomed closer with every shift in course.
He turned right and headed toward the Duomo. Tourists sauntered by, cabs clattered in the street. He felt isolated from a human community—even a common humanity—which he had regarded until recently as little more than a cant concept which liberals were apt to use in making speeches. He watched the tourists gaping at the Campanile; he watched dispassionately without effort, curiously without commitment. He wondered at this phenomenon of tourism: what was it drove them to Thomas Cook & Son in ever-increasing flocks every year to let themselves in for the Campagna’s fevers, the Levant’s squalor, the septic foods of Greece? To return to Ludgate Circus at the desolate end of every season having caressed the skin of each alien place, a peregrine or Don Juan of cities but no more able to talk of any mistress’s heart than to cease keeping that interminable Catalogue, that non picciol’ libro. Did he owe it to them, the lovers of skins, not to tell about Vheissu, not even to let them suspect the suicidal fact that below the glittering integument of every foreign land there is a hard dead-point of truth and that in all cases—even England’s—it is the same kind of truth, can be phrased in identical words? He had lived with his knowledge since June and that headlong drive for the Pole; was able now to control or repress it almost at will. But the humans—those from whom, prodigal, he had strayed and could expect no future blessing—those four fat schoolmistresses whinnying softly to one another by the south portals of the Duomo, that fop in tweeds and clipped mustaches who came hastening by in fumes of lavender toward God knew what assignation; had they any notion of what inner magnitudes such control must draw on? His own, he knew, were nearly played out. He wandered down Via dell’ Orivolo, counting the dark spaces between street lamps as he had once counted the number of puffs it took him to extinguish all his birthday candles. This year, next year, sometime, never. There were more candles at this point perhaps than even he could dream; but nearly all had been blown to twisted black wicks and the party needed very little to modulate to the most gently radiant of wakes. He turned left toward the hospital and surgeons’ school, tiny and gray-haired and casting a shadow, he felt, much too large.
Footsteps behind him. On passing the next street lamp he saw the elongated shadows of helmeted heads bobbing about his quickening feet. Guardie? He nearly panicked: he’d been followed. He turned to face them, arms spread like the drooping wings of a condor at bay. He couldn’t see them. “You are wanted for questioning,” a voice purred in Italian, out of the darkness.
For no good reason he could see, life returned to him all at once, things were as they had always been, no different from leading a renegade squad against the Mahdi, invading Borneo in a whaleboat, attempting the Pole in midwinter. “Go to hell,” he said cheerfully. Skipped out of the pool of light they’d trapped him in and went dashing off down a narrow, twisting side street. He heard footsteps, curses, cries of “Avanti!” behind him: would have laughed but couldn’t waste the breath. Fifty meters on he turned abruptly down an alley. At the end was a trellis: he grasped it, swung himself up, began to climb. Young rose-thorns pricked his hands, the enemy howled closer. He came to a balcony, vaulted over, kicked in a set of French windows and entered a bedroom where a single candle burned. A man and a woman cringed nude and dumbfounded on the bed, their caresses frozen to immobility. “Madonna!” the woman screamed. “E il mio marito!” The man swore and tried to dive under the bed. Old Godolphin, blundering through the room, guffawed. My God, he was thinking irrelevantly, I have seen them before. I have seen this all twenty years ago in a music hall. He opened a door, found a stairway, hesitated briefly, then started up. No doubt about it, he was in a romantic mood. He’d be let down if there weren’t a dash over the rooftops. By the time he gained the roof the voices of his pursuers were roaring in confusion far to his left. Disappointed, he made his way over the tops of two or three more buildings anyway, found an outside stairway and descended to another alley. For ten minutes he jogged along, taking in great breaths, steering a sinuous course. A brilliantly lighted back window finally attracted his attention. He catfooted up to it, peered in. Inside, three men conferred anxiously amid a jungle of hothouse flowers, shrubs and trees. One of them he recognized, and chuckled in amazement. It is a small planet indeed, he thought, whose nether end I have seen. He tapped on the window. “Raf,” he called softly.
Signor Mantissa glanced up, startled. “Minghe,” he said, seeing Godolphin’s grinning face. “The old inglese. Let him in, someone.” The florist, red-faced and disapproving, opened the rear door. Godolphin stepped in quickly, the two men embraced, Cesare scratched his head. The florist retreated behind a fan palm after resecuring the door.
“A long way from Port Said,” Signor Mantissa said.
“Not so far,” Godolphin said, “nor so long.”
Here was the sort of friendship which doesn’t decay, however gapped it may be over the years with arid stretches of isolation from one another; more significant a renewal of that instant, motiveless acknowledgment of kinship one autumn morning four years back on the coaling piers at the head of the Suez Canal. Godolphin, impeccable in full dress uniform, preparing to inspect his man-o’-war, Rafael Mantissa the entrepreneur, overseeing the embarkation of a fleet of bumboats he’d acquired in a drunken baccarat game in Cannes the month before, had each touched glances and seen immediately in the other an identical uprootedness, a similarly catholic despair. Before they spoke they were friends. Soon they had gone out and got drunk together, told each other their lives; were in fights, found, it seemed, a temporary home in the half-world behind Port Said’s Europeanized boulevards. No rot about eternal friendship or blood brotherhood ever needed to be spoken.
“What is it, my friend,” Signor Mantissa said now.
“Do you remember, once,” Godolphin said, “a place, I told you: Vheissu.” It hadn’t been the same as telling his son, or the Board of Inquiry, or Victoria a few hours before. Telling Raf had been like comparing notes with a fellow sea dog on a liberty port both had visited.
Signor Mantissa made a sympathetic moue. “That again,” he said.
“You have business now. I’ll tell you later.”
“No, nothing. This matter of a Judas tree.”
“I have no more,” Gadrulfi the florist muttered. “I’ve been telling him this for half an hour.”
“He’s holding out,” Cesare said ominously. “Two hundred and fifty lire he wants, this time.”
Godolphin smiled. “What chicanery with the law requires a Judas tree?”
Without hesitation Signor Mantissa explained. “And now,” he concluded, “we need a duplicate, which we will let the police find.”
Godolphin whistled. “You leave Florence tonight then.”
“One way or the other, on the river barge at midnight, sì.”
“And there would be room for one more?”
“My friend.” Signor Mantissa gripped him by the biceps. “For you,” he said. Godolphin nodded. “You are in trouble. Of course. You need not even have asked. If you had come along even without a word I would have slain the barge captain at his first protest.” The old man grinned. He was beginning to feel at least halfway secure for the first time in weeks.
“Let me make up the extra fifty lire,” he said.
“I could not allow—”
“The three of us can handle it,” Cesare said. “Where to?”
“The Ponte Vecchio,” Signor Mantissa said. “And then to Scheissvogel’s. Remember, Cesare, a firm and united front. We must not let the Gaucho intimidate us. We may have to use his bomb, but we shall also have the Judas trees. The lion and the fox.”
They formed a triangle around the tree and lifted. The florist held the back door open for them. They carried the tree twenty meters down an alley to a waiting carriage.
“Andiam’,” Signor Mantissa cried. The horses moved off at a trot.
“I am to meet my son at Scheissvogel’s in a few hours,” Godolphin said. He had almost forgotten that Evan was probably now in the city. “I thought a beer hall would be safer than a café. But perhaps it is dangerous after all. The guardie are after me. They and others may have the place under surveillance.”
Signor Mantissa took a sharp right expertly. “Ridiculous,” he said. “Trust me. You are safe with Mantissa, I will defend your life as long as I have my own.” Godolphin did not answer for a moment, then only shook his head in acceptance. For now he found himself wanting to see Evan; almost desperately. “You will see your son. It will be a jolly family reunion.”
Cesare was uncorking a bottle of wine and singing an old revolutionary song. A wind had risen off the Arno. It blew Signor Mantissa’s hair into a pale flutter. They headed toward the center of town, rattling along at a hollow clip. Cesare’s mournful singing soon dissipated in the seeming vastness of that street.
The Englishman who had questioned the Gaucho was named Stencil. A little after sundown he was in Major Chapman’s study, sitting bemused in a deep leather chair, his scarred Algerian briar gone out unnoticed in the ashtray beside him. In his left hand he held a dozen wooden penholders, recently fitted with shiny new nibs. With his right hand he was hurling the pens methodically, like darts, at a large photograph of the current Foreign Minister which hung on the wall opposite. So far he had scored only a single hit, in the center of the Minister’s forehead. This had made his chief resemble a benevolent unicorn, which was amusing but hardly rectified the Situation. The Situation at the moment was frankly appalling. More than that, it seemed to be irreparably bitched up.
The door suddenly burst open and a rangy man, prematurely gray, came roaring in. “They’ve found him,” he said, not too elated.
Stencil glanced up quizzically, a pen poised in his hand. “The old man?”
“At the Savoy. A girl, a young English girl. Has him locked in. She just told us. Walked in and announced, calmly enough—”
“Go check it out, then,” Stencil interrupted. “Though he’s probably bolted by now.”
“Don’t you want to see her?”
“No, then. Things are bad enough as it is, if you see my point. I’ll leave her to you, Demivolt.”
“Bravo, Sidney. Dedicated to duty, aren’t you. St. George and no quarter. I say. Well. I’m off, then. Don’t say I didn’t give you first chance.”
Stencil smiled. “You’re acting like a chorus boy. Perhaps I will see her. Later, when you’re done.”
Demivolt smiled woefully. “It makes the Situation halfway tolerable, you know.” And bounded sadly back out through the door.
Stencil gritted his teeth. Oh, the Situation. The bloody Situation. In his more philosophical moments he would wonder about this abstract entity the Situation, its idea, the details of its mechanism. He remembered times when whole embassiesful of personnel had simply run amok and gibbering in the streets when confronted with a Situation which refused to make sense no matter who looked at it, or from what angle. He had once had a school chum named Covess. They had entered the diplomatic service together, worked their way up neck and neck. Until last year along came the Fashoda crisis and quite early one morning Covess was discovered in spats and a pith helmet, working his way around Piccadilly trying to recruit volunteers to invade France. There had been some idea of commandeering a Cunard liner. By the time they caught him he’d sworn in several costermongers, two streetwalkers and a music-hall comedian. Stencil remembered painfully that they had all been singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in various keys and tempi.
He had decided long ago that no Situation had any objective reality: it only existed in the minds of those who happened to be in on it at any specific moment. Since these several minds tended to form a sum total or complex more mongrel than homogeneous, the Situation must necessarily appear to a single observer much like a diagram in four dimensions to an eye conditioned to seeing its world in only three. Hence the success or failure of any diplomatic issue must vary directly with the degree of rapport achieved by the team confronting it. This had led to the near-obsession with teamwork which had inspired his colleagues to dub him Soft-shoe Sidney, on the assumption that he was at his best working in front of a chorus line.
But it was a neat theory, and he was in love with it. The only consolation he drew from the present chaos was that his theory managed to explain it. Brought up by a pair of bleak Nonconformist aunts, he had acquired the Anglo-Saxon tendency to group northern/Protestant/intellectual against Mediterranean/Roman Catholic/irrational. He had thus arrived in Florence with a deep-rooted and chiefly subliminal ill will toward all things Italian, and the subsequent conduct of his running mates from the secret police confirmed it. What sort of Situation could one expect from such a scurvy and heterogeneous crew?
The matter of this English lad, for example: Godolphin, alias Gadrulfi. The Italians claimed they had been unable after an hour of interrogation to extract anything about his father, the naval officer. Yet the first thing the boy had done when they’d finally brought him round to the British Consulate was to ask for Stencil’s help in locating old Godolphin. He had been quite ready to answer all inquiries about Vheissu (although he’d done little more than recapitulate information already in F.O.’s possession); he had gratuitously made mention of the rendezvous at Scheissvogel’s at ten tonight; in general he’d exhibited the honest concern and bewilderment of any English tourist confronted with a happening outside the ken of his Baedeker or the power of Cook’s to deal with it. And this simply did not fit in with the picture Stencil had formed of father and son as cunning arch-professionals. Their employers, whoever they might be (Scheissvogel’s was a German beer hall, which might be significant, especially so with Italy a member of the Dreibund), could not tolerate such simplicity. This show was too big, too serious, to be carried out by any but the top men in the field.
The Department had been keeping a dossier on old Godolphin since ’84, when the surveying expedition had been all but wiped out. The name Vheissu occurred in it only once, in a secret F.O. memorandum to the Secretary of State for War, a memo condensed from Godolphin’s personal testimony. But a week ago the Italian Embassy in London sent round a copy of a telegram which the censor at Florence, after informing the state police, had let go through. The Embassy had included no explanation except for a scribbled note on the copy: “This may be of interest to you. Cooperation to our mutual advantage.” It was initialed by the Italian Ambassador. On seeing Vheissu a live file again, Stencil’s chief had alerted operatives in Deauville and Florence to keep a close eye on father and son. Inquiries began to be made around the Geographical Society. Since the original had been somehow lost, junior researchers started piecing together the text of Godolphin’s testimony at the time of the incident by interviewing all available members of the original Board of Inquiry. The chief had been puzzled that no code was used in the telegram; but it had only strengthened Stencil’s conviction that the Department was up against a pair of veterans. Such arrogance, he felt, such cocksureness was exasperating
The door opened hesitantly. “I say, Mr. Stencil.”
“Yes, Moffit. Do what I told you?”
“They’re together. Mine not to reason why, you know.”
“Bravo. Give them an hour or so together. After that we let young Gadrulfi out. Tell him we have nothing really to hold him on, sorry for the inconvenience, pip-pip, a rivederci. You know.”
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