V, p.53

V., page 53

 

V.
 



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  I’m through wiv rowdiness and noise.

  Cause Stencil’s going ’ome tonight.

  [In palmier days a chorus of junior F.O. operatives would enter here singing]:

  ‘Ere, wot’s this? Wot’s the matter wiv Stencil?

  Wot’s the reason for such a change of ’eart?

  [To which Stencil would answer]:

  Gather round me closely lads

  And I the most forlorn of cads

  Will tell you all ere I depart:

  [Refrain]:

  I’ve just become the father to a bouncing baby boy

  And Herbert blithering Stencil is ’is name.

  ‘E’s a card

  And treats me wiv regard

  Though I’ave to change ’is nappies all the same.

  I don’t know where we got the time to make ’im,

  Cause I’ve been coming ’ome drunk most every night,

  But ’e’s cute and fat as a kidney pie

  And looks like ’is ma and that is why

  Stencil’s going ’ome tonight

  (Just ask the milkman)

  Stencil’s going ’ome tonight.

  Out of the tub, dry, back in tweeds, Stencil stood at the window, looking out idly at the night.

  At length came a knock at the door. It would be Maijstral. A quick twitch of eyeballs about the room to check for loose papers, anything compromising. Then to the door to admit the shipfitter who’d been described to him as looking like a stunted oak. Maijstral stood there neither aggressive nor humble, merely existing: whitening hair, unkempt mustaches. A nervous tic in the man’s upper lip made the food particles trapped there vibrate disturbingly.

  “He comes of noble family,” Mehemet had revealed sadly. Stencil fell into the trap, asking which family. “Della Torre,” Mehemet replied. Delatore, informer.

  “What of the Dockyard people,” Stencil asked.

  “They will attack the Chronicle.” (A grievance stemming from the strike of 1917; the newspaper had published a letter condemning the strike, but had given no equal time for a reply.) “There was a meeting a few minutes ago.” Maijstral gave him a brief digest. Stencil knew all the objections. Workers from England got a colonial allowance: local yardbirds received only normal wages. Most would like to emigrate, after hearing glowing reports from the Maltese Labour Corps and other crews from abroad of higher pay outside Malta. But the rumor had started, somehow, that the government was refusing passports to keep workers on the island, against any future requirement. “What else can they do but emigrate?” Maijstral digressed: “With the war the number of Dockyard workers swelled to three times what it was before. Now, with Armistice, they’re already laying off. There are only so many jobs here outside the Dockyard. Not enough to keep everyone eating.”

  Stencil wanted to ask: if you sympathize, why inform? He had used informers as a journeyman his tools and had never tried to understand their motives. Usually he supposed it was no more than a personal grudge, a desire for revenge. But he’d seen them before, torn: committed to some program or other, and still helping along its defeat. Would Maijstral be there in the van of the mob storming the Daily Malta Chronicle? Stencil did want to ask why, but could hardly. It being none of his affair.

  Maijstral told him all he knew and left, expressionless as before. Stencil lit a pipe, consulted a map of Valletta, and five minutes later was strolling sprightly down Strada Reale, trailing Maijstral.

  This was normal precaution. Of course, a certain double standard was at work; the feeling being “If he will inform for me he will also inform against me.”

  Ahead Maijstral now turned left, away from the lights of the main thoroughfare; down the hill toward Strada Stretta. Here were the borders of this city’s Disreputable Quarter; Stencil looked around without much curiosity. It was all the same. What a warped idea of cities one got in this occupation! If no record of this century should survive except the personal logs of F.O. operatives, the historians of the future must reconstruct a curious landscape indeed.

  Massive public buildings with characterless façades; networks of streets from which the civilian populace seems mysteriously absent. An aseptic administrative world, surrounded by an outlying vandal-country of twisting lanes, houses of prostitution, taverns; ill-lit except for rendezvous points, which stand out like sequins on an old and misused ball-gown.

  “If there is any political moral to be found in this world,” Stencil once wrote in his journal, “it is that we carry on the business of this century with an intolerable double vision. Right and Left; the hothouse and the street. The Right can only live and work hermetically, in the hothouse of the past, while outside the Left prosecute their affairs in the streets by manipulated mob violence. And cannot live but in the dreamscape of the future.

  “What of the real present, the men-of-no-politics, the once-respectable Golden Mean? Obsolete; in any case, lost sight of. In a West of such extremes we can expect, at the very least, a highly ‘alienated’ populace within not many more years.”

  Strada Stretta; Strait Street. A passage meant, one felt, to be choked with mobs. Such was nearly the case: early evening had brought to it sailors ashore from HMS Egmont and smaller men-o-war; seamen from Greek, Italian and North African merchant-ships; and a supporting cast of shoeshine boys, pimps, hawkers of trinkets, confections, dirty pictures. Such were the topological deformities of this street that one seemed to walk through a succession of music-hall stages, each demarcated by a curve or slope, each with a different set and acting company but all for the same low entertainment. Stencil, old soft-shoe artist, felt quite at home.

  But he increased his pace through the thickening crowds; noticing with some anxiety that Maijstral had begun to disappear more and more frequently in the surgings of white and blue ahead.

  To his right he became aware of a persistent image, flickering in and out of his field of vision. Tall, black, somehow conical. He risked a sidewise glance. What seemed to be a Greek pope or parish priest had been keeping abreast of him for some time. What was a man of God doing in this territory? Seeking perhaps to reclaim souls; but their glances touched and Stencil saw no merciful intention there.

  “Chaire,” muttered the priest.

  “Chaire, Papá,” said Stencil out of the side of his mouth, and tried to push ahead. He was restrained by the pope’s ringed hand.

  “One moment, Sidney,” said the voice. “Come over here, out of this mob.”

  That voice was damned familiar. “Maijstral is going to the John Bull,” said the pope. “We can catch up with him later.” They proceeded down an alley to a small courtyard. In the center was a cistern, its rim adorned with a dark sunburst of sewage.

  “Presto change-ho,” and off came the holy man’s black beard and calotte.

  “Demivolt, you’ve grown crude in your old age. What sort of low comedy is this? What’s the matter with Whitehall?”

  “They’re all right,” sang Demivolt, hopping clumsily about the courtyard. “You’re as much a surprise to me, you know.”

  “What about Moffit,” Stencil said. “As long as they’re staging a reunion of the Florence crew.”

  “Moffit caught it in Belgrade. I thought you’d heard.” Demivolt removed the soutane and rolled his paraphernalia in it. Underneath he wore a suit of English tweed. After quickly recombing his hair and twirling his mustache, he looked no different from the Demivolt Stencil had last seen in ’99. Except for more gray in the hair, a few more lines in the face.

  “God knows who all they’ve sent to Valletta,” said Demivolt cheerfully, as they returned to the street. “I suspect it’s only another fad—F.O. gets these fits, you know. Like a spa or watering place. The Fashionable Place to Go seems to be different every season.”

  “Don’t look at me. I have only a hint what’s up. The natives here
are, as we say, restless. This chap Fairing—R.C. priest, Jesuit I suspect—thinks there will be a bloodbath before very long.”

  “Yes, I’ve seen Fairing. If his paycheck is coming out of the same pocket as ours, he shows it not.”

  “Oh I doubt, I doubt,” Stencil said vaguely, wanting to talk about old times.

  “Maijstral always sits out in front; we’ll go across the street.” They took seats at the Café Phoenicia, Stencil with his back to the street. Briefly, over Barcelona beer each filled the other in on the two decades between the Vheissu affair and here, voices monotone against the measured frenzy of the street.

  “Odd how paths cross.”

  Stencil nodded.

  “Are we meant to keep tabs on one another? Or were we meant to meet.”

  “Meant?” too quickly. “By Whitehall, of course.”

  “Of course.”

  As we get older we skew more toward the past. Stencil had thus become partially lost to the street and the yardbird across it. The ill-starred year in Florence—Demivolt having popped up again—now came back to him, each unpleasant detail quivering brightly in the dark room of his spy’s memory. He hoped devoutly that Demivolt’s appearance was merely chance; and not a signal for the reactivation of the same chaotic and Situational forces at work in Florence twenty years ago.

  For Fairing’s prediction of massacre, and its attendant politics, had all the earmarks of a Situation-in-the-process-of-becoming. He had changed none of his ideas on The Situation. Had even written an article, pseudonymous, and sent it to Punch: “The Situation as an N-Dimensional Mishmash.” It was rejected.

  “Short of examining the entire history of each individual participating;” Stencil wrote, “short of anatomizing each soul, what hope has anyone of understanding a Situation? It may be that the civil servants of the future will not be accredited unless they first receive a degree in brain surgery.”

  He indeed was visited by dreams in which he had shrunk to submicroscopic size and entered a brain, strolling in through some forehead’s pore and into the cul-de-sac of a sweat gland. Struggling out of a jungle of capillaries there he would finally reach bone; down then through the skull, dura mater, arachnoid, pia mater to the fissure-floored sea of cerebrospinal fluid. And there he would float before final assault on the gray hemispheres: the soul.

  Nodes of Ranvier, sheath of Schwann, vein of Galen; tiny Stencil wandered all night long among the silent, immense lightning bursts of nerve-impulses crossing a synapse; the waving dendrites, the nerve-autobahns chaining away to God knew where in receding clusters of end-bulbs. A stranger in this landscape, it never occurred to him to ask whose brain he was in. Perhaps his own. They were fever dreams: the kind where one is given an impossibly complex problem to solve, and keeps chasing dead ends, following random promises, frustrated at every turn, until the fever breaks.

  Assume, then, a prospect of chaos in the streets, joined by every group on the island with a grudge. This would include nearly everyone but the OAG and his staff. Doubtless each would think only of his own immediate desires. But mob violence, like tourism, is a kind of communion. By its special magic a large number of lonely souls, however heterogeneous, can share the common property of opposition to what is. And like an epidemic or earthquake the politics of the street can overtake even the most stable-appearing of governments; like death it cuts through and gathers in all ranks of society.

  The poor would seek revenge against the millers, who allegedly profiteered in bread during the war.

  The civil servants would be out looking for a fairer shake: advance notice of open competition, higher salaries, no more racial discrimination.

  The tradesmen would want repeal of the Succession and Donation Duties Ordinance. This tax was meant to bring in £5000 yearly; but the actual assessments amounted to £30,000.

  Bolshevists among the yardbirds could only be satisfied with the abolition of all private property, sacred or profane.

  The anti-colonial extremists would seek of course to sweep England from the Palace forever. Damn the consequences. Though probably Italy would enter on the next crest and be even harder to dislodge. There would be blood ties, then.

  The Abstentionists wanted a new constitution.

  The Mizzists—comprising three clubs: Giovine Malta, Dante Alighieri, Il Comitato Patriottico—sought (a) Italian hegemony in Malta, (b) aggrandizement for the leader, Dr. Enrico Mizzi.

  The Church—here perhaps Stencil’s C. of E. stuffiness colored an otherwise objective view—wanted only what the Church always desires during times of political crisis. She awaited a Third Kingdom. Violent overthrow is a Christian phenomenon.

  The matter of a Paraclete’s coming, the comforter, the dove; the tongues of flame, the gift of tongues: Pentecost. Third Person of the Trinity. None of it was implausible to Stencil. The Father had come and gone. In political terms, the Father was the Prince; the single leader, the dynamic figure whose virtù used to be a determinant of history. This had degenerated to the Son, genius of the liberal love-feast which had produced 1848 and lately the overthrow of the Czars. What next? What Apocalypse?

  Especially on Malta, a matriarchal island. Would the Paraclete be also a mother? Comforter, true. But what gift of communication could ever come from a woman. . . .

  Enough, lad, he told himself. You’re in dangerous waters. Come out, come out.

  “Don’t turn around now,” Demivolt broke in conversationally, “but it’s she. At Maijstral’s table.”

  When Stencil did turn around he saw only a vague figure in an evening cape, her face shadowed by an elaborate, probably Parisian bonnet.

  “That is Veronica Manganese.”

  “Gustavus V is ruler of Sweden. You are brimful of intelligence, aren’t you.”

  Demivolt gave Stencil a thumbnail dossier on Veronica Manganese. Origins uncertain. She’d popped up in Malta at the beginning of the war, in the company of one Sgherraccio, a Mizzist. She was now intimate with various renegade Italians, among them D’Annunzio the poet-militant, and one Mussolini, an active and troublesome anti-socialist. Her political sympathies weren’t known; whatever they might be, Whitehall was less than amused. The woman was clearly a troublemaker. She was reputed to be wealthy; lived alone in a villa long abandoned by the baronage of Sant’ Ugo di Tagliapiombo di Sammut, a nearly defunct branch of the Maltese nobility. The source of her income was not apparent.

  “He’s a double agent, then.”

  “It would seem so.”

  “Why don’t I go back to London. You seem to be doing quite well—”

  “Negative, negative, Sidney. You do remember Florence.”

  A waiter materialized with more Barcelona beer. Stencil fumbled for his pipe. “This must be the worst brew in the Mediterranean. You deserve another, for that. Can’t Vheissu ever be a dead file?”

  “Call Vheissu a symptom. Symptoms like that are always alive, somewhere in the world.”

  “Sweet Christ, we’ve only now concluded one. Are they quite ready, do you think, to begin this foolishness again?”

  “I don’t think,” Demivolt smiled grimly. “I try not to. Seriously, I believe all elaborate games of this sort arise from someone in the Office—high up, of course—getting a hunch. Saying to himself, ‘Look here: something is wrong, you know.’ He’s usually right. In Florence he was right, again only as far as we’re talking about symptoms and not about any acute case of whatever the disease is.

  “Now you and I are only private-soldiers. For myself, I wouldn’t presume. That manner of guesswork draws from a really first-rate intuitiveness. Oh we have our own minor hunches, of course: your following Maijstral tonight. But it’s a matter of level. Level of paygrade, level of elevation above the jumble, where one can see the long-term movements. We’re in it, in the thick, after all.”

  “And so
they want us together,” Stencil murmured.

  “As of now. Who knows what they’ll want tomorrow?”

  “And I wonder who else is here.”

  “Look sharp. There they go.” They let the two across the street move off before they arose. “Like to see the island? They’re probably on their way out to the Villa. Not that the rendezvous is apt to prove very exciting.”

  So they made their way down Strada Stretta, Demivolt looking like a jaunty anarchist with the black bundle under one arm.

  “The roads are terrible,” Demivolt admitted, “but we have an automobile.”

  “I’m frightened to death of automobiles.”

  Indeed he was. En route to the villa Stencil clutched the Peugeot’s seat, refusing to look at anything but the floorboards. Autos, balloons, aeroplanes; he’d have nothing to do with them.

  “Isn’t this rather crude,” he gritted, huddled behind the windscreen as if expecting it to vanish at any moment. “There’s no one else on the road.”

  “At the speed she’s going she’ll lose us soon enough,” Demivolt chirruped, all breezy. “Relax, Sidney.”

  They moved southwest into Floriana. Ahead Veronica Manganese’s Benz had vanished in a gale of cinders and exhaust. “Ambush,” Stencil suggested.

  “They’re not that sort.” After a while Demivolt turned right. They worked their way thus round Marsamuscetto in near-darkness. Reeds whistled in the fens. Behind them the illuminated city seemed tilted toward them, like some display case in a poor souvenir shop. And how quiet was Malta’s night. Approaching or leaving other capitals one always caught the sense of a great pulse or plexus whose energy reached one by induction; broadcasting its presence over whatever arête or sea’s curve might be hiding it. But Valletta seemed serene in her own past, in the Mediterranean womb, in something so insulating that Zeus himself might once have quarantined her and her island for an old sin or an older pestilence. So at peace was Valletta that with the least distance she would deteriorate to mere spectacle. She ceased to exist as anything quick or pulsed, and was assumed again into the textual stillness of her own history.

 

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