Op. 13

 

THWARTED AMBITIONS

 

Long Prose

 

Copyright © 1980-2010 John O'Loughlin

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CONTENTS

 

Chapters 1-12

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CHAPTER ONE

 

"Will it look anything like me when it's finished?" the writer, Andrew Doyle, casually inquired of the man seated at the easel, whose slender body was partly obscured by the canvas upon which he was still busily applying large dollops of deep rich paint.

     "Yes, I dare say it will," Robert Harding replied.  "At least, it'll look more like you than anyone else."

     "Thank goodness for that!" the thirty-year-old Irishman sighed.  "One can never be too sure nowadays."

     There ensued a short pause, before the artist asked: Do you object to Expressionist interpretations, then?"

     "Only when they distort one's image unfavourably," quipped Andrew.  "As long as you don't purposely make me out to be worse-looking than I really am ..."

     "You needn't worry about that!" declared Harding reassuringly, a large pair of dark-brown eyes momentarily focusing on his sitter's impassive face.  "It's usually the opposite tendency I have to guard against.  For it's precisely the tendency to make people out to be better-looking than they really are which seems to appeal to so many of them, ensuring me a guaranteed sale at the expense of artistic truth!"

     "And you don't like to flatter them?" the writer knowingly ventured.

     "Not if my integrity as an artist suffers in consequence!" Harding averred.  "For I don't relish being dictated to by wealthy patrons."

     Andrew Doyle had to smile.  "Well, you needn't worry about that where I'm concerned," he said.  "I can only just afford to pay the price you're asking."

     "Which, in any case, is a special concession," affirmed the artist, some liberal brush-work just audible beneath his rather deep baritone voice.  "If it wasn't for the fact that you're my next-door neighbour, I'd charge you at least twice as much."

     "What, three-hundred quid?" gasped Andrew unbelievingly.

     "Maybe more."

     At which remark there came a gentle stirring to their left, as Carol Jackson, current girlfriend of the man who spoke it, was heard to comment: "He's a born capitalist!" - a statement which duly drew both men's attention to her scantily-clad reclining form.  "If it wasn't for the fact that I normally profit from him, I'd have no hesitation in considering him a ruthless shark."

     "Oh, come now!" protested Harding jokingly, a mock appearance of outraged innocence momentarily taking possession of his handsome thirty-three-year-old face.  "I never charge above my worth, not even where people whom I personally dislike the look of are concerned."

     Andrew Doyle fidgeted nervously in his chair.  "And are there many of those?" he asked.

     "Too many, I'm afraid!" replied Harding bluntly.  "Three-quarter-witted aristocrats, half-witted bourgeoisie, and quarter-witted proletarians, to name but ..."

     "I sincerely hope I'm not classifiable in the latter category!" interposed Carol, her acerbic tone-of-voice betraying an emotional sharpness partly intended to avenge her on her lover's previous protest.  "I should hate to think you have such a low opinion of my mind."

     "Not that low, honey," the artist admitted.  "But certainly lower than my opinion of your body.  After all, it's the latter which really matters, isn't it?"

     Miss Jackson refrained from commenting on this evidently rhetorical question, but conceded Harding the privilege of a wry smile, which could be interpreted as a tacit confirmation of the fact.  Yes, it was first and foremost as a body that she expected to be respected, considering the degree of its sexual attractiveness.  A high opinion of her mind from a man like him would simply have detracted, in her view, from its standing, made her feel too masculine.  It was usually through her body that she obtained her chief pride in life, both as a lover and, no less significantly, as a model.  And that body or, at any rate, three-quarters of it was very conspicuously on show today - thanks in part to the exceptionally fine weather.

     "No, I don't particularly mind a woman being half-witted when she's attractive," Harding resumed, following a reflective pause.  "It's when she's ugly that I take offence.  My aesthetic sensibilities are then somewhat grossly offended."

     "As I can well imagine," chuckled Andrew, before turning an admiring eye away from the sensuous sunbather on the ground and refocusing his attention on the artist.  "An attractive female doesn't have to be too intelligent, does she?"

     "Not for my purposes," admitted Harding with a sly wink.  "Yet, to tell you the truth, I've known some who did.  Exceptions to the rule, of course, but attractive and highly intelligent, would you believe?  Quite a problem, my friend."

     Andrew felt both puzzled and intrigued.  "In what way?" he wanted to know.

     "Oh, in a number of ways actually," the artist declared.  "But chiefly as regards my art."  He brushed away at the canvas awhile, his gaze slightly abstracted, before adding: "They'd criticize or make fun of it on the pretext that it was too decadent or too arcane or too simple or too traditional or too derivative or too commonplace or too ... something or other."

     "And was it?"

     "How should I know?" Harding exclaimed.  "I never bothered to inquire why.  So far as I'm concerned my work is what it has to be, irrespective of the current fashion.  But these cursed clever females knew better, of course.  They'd have expected me to knuckle under to the latest aesthetic conventions at a moment's notice, the drop of a fashionable hat, so to speak.  Never mind one's personal psychology or class/race integrity.  Just keep-up with the artistic trends."

     "Which you presumably refused to do?" Andrew conjectured.

     Robert Harding sighed and vaguely nodded.  "Only when it was necessary for me to follow my personal bent and do what I felt had to be done," he confirmed.  "Although there were times, I have to admit, when I was ahead of them - relatively rare as they were!  But even then I was subject to criticism or mockery from the more intelligent women, who were of the express opinion that I'd done the wrong thing, departed from art altogether, mixed-up too many diverse styles, gone too far ahead, and so on.  Whatever I did, I just couldn't win.  So in the end I gave-up collecting highly intelligent women and reverted - or perhaps I should say progressed - to collecting only moderately intelligent ones, who didn't know enough about modern art to unduly exasperate me with their opinions, and who very rarely commented upon my creative faults or presumed shortcomings."

     "I see," said Andrew, whose sitter's impassivity was slightly ruffled by a trace of ironic amusement at Harding's expense, since it seemed to him that the artist was exaggerating his misfortunes for the sake of a little masculine sympathy.  After all, weren't some women intelligent enough to keep quiet about matters which might give offence to any man with whom they had intimate or, at any rate, regular connections?  He had known a few who were, anyway.  Rather than making them critical of one's literary or aesthetic predilections, their intelligence sufficed to keep them discreet, to inhibit the formulation of rash or superficial judgements, opinions, etc., which might have upset their lover and had a detrimental, if not fatal, effect upon their relationship.  Perhaps Harding had lacked the good fortune to encounter such females?  Perhaps, on the other hand, he had no real use for them, since possessing an instinctive ability or subconscious need to attract the other sort - a sort whose above-average intelligence required that they adopt a condescending and, at times, positively hostile opinion of his work?  It wasn't for Andrew to arrive at any definite conclusions on that score, but he half-suspected, from what he already knew about his next-door neighbour, that there might well be more than a grain of masochistic truth in the latter assumption!  Even Carol Jackson, whose predominantly sensual nature apparently precluded her from placing any great pride in her intellect, struck one as being somewhat imperious, if not downright rude, at times.  Attractive she might be, but it was hardly in Andrew Doyle's sensitive and fundamentally self-respecting nature to consider attractiveness an excuse for impertinence!  On the contrary, he would automatically have revolted against any female who exploited her good looks or sexual standing in what, to him, seemed such an ignominious fashion.  Experience had more than adequately taught him that he had no patience for women who were rude.  They simply offended him.

     Towards four o'clock the artist opted for a late-afternoon tea break, thereby giving his subject an opportunity to stretch his legs by strolling around the elongated back garden in which he had been patiently, even stoically, sitting for the greater part of the day.  Apart from the presence of a couple of old apple trees, a few lilac bushes, and a narrow bed of roses along the length of the fence adjoining his property, the garden in question contained little to suggest that its owner had any real interest in gardening, since it was of such a simple and straightforward appearance.  What interest Harding might have had in his garden appeared to be confined to keeping it in trim, not to encouraging it to blossom!  This artist was fundamentally a negative gardener - in other words, one whose only motivation for cutting the grass or pruning the rose bushes or removing the weeds was to prevent his garden from becoming a kind of mini-jungle.  As for pride in the garden or gardening per se, he would evidently have considered that infra dignum, since too much the artist or aesthete to desire being associated, in his imagination, with the philistine status of a mere gardener!

     Following their tea interval, the delicate business of portrait painting and sitting was resumed with fresh resolve, the artist assuring his handsome client that he would soon be through with the task to-hand, which had now taken him the best part of a week.

     "And when you've finally completed it?" Andrew asked, curious to learn what Harding's next project would be.

     "I'll be able to start work on a portrait of Henry Grace," the latter revealed.

     "Who's he?"

     Harding looked up from the canvas with an expression of genuine surprise on his flushed face.  "Don't tell me you haven't heard of him?" he gasped.

     "I'm afraid not," confessed Andrew, a faint but perceptible blush betraying his sudden psychic discomfiture in response to Harding's well-nigh incredulous expression.

     "Well, he's one of the leading art critics of our time," the artist duly affirmed.  "Famous throughout the greater part of the Western world."

     "Really?" Andrew exclaimed, as an enthusiasm for fresh knowledge suddenly usurped the domain of his emotional unease.... Not that it was a knowledge he valued particularly highly, since, by natural inclination, far more interested in artists than in art critics.  But, even so, the addition of Henry Grace to his small store of names such as Charles Baudelaire, André Breton, Herbert Read, Kenneth Clark, Anthony Blunt, and Edward Lucie-Smith was not without at least some significance to him, in that he now possessed a rudimentary knowledge of approximately seven art critics, past and present.  Admittedly, seven was a small number compared with the hundreds of artists who had claimed a place, no matter how humbly, amid his teeming brain cells.  But it was a growing number nonetheless!  Had he not known so much about so many artists he would certainly have felt more ashamed of himself, where Harding's manifest surprise was concerned.  But the fact of one's knowledge in one context usually precludes feelings of shame at one's ignorance in another, especially when the latter is ordinarily regarded by one as of less interest or value anyway.  However, being an artist, Harding doubtless had cause to lay claim to a greater knowledge of art critics, so it was understandable that he made such a show of surprise at Andrew's expense, even though, unbeknown to himself, the latter's ignorance was perfectly justified.  Alas, our habit of projecting ourselves into the world around us, including the human world, is not one that we can easily shake off or dispense with!  We measure others according to our own standards, no matter how insular or limited those standards may happen to be!

     "Yes, it will be the first time I've been granted the privilege of painting the portrait of a really eminent critic," Harding rejoined, as soon as it became clear to him that the other man had nothing to add to his initial exclamation, "so, for once, albeit with due respect to yourself, I'm quite looking forward to knuckling down to the job.  It will be interesting to hear his comments on the subject."

     "How did you receive the commission, if that's the right word?" asked Andrew.

     "Simply through Mr Grace himself, who rang me, a few weeks ago, to ask whether I'd consider doing his portrait," Harding matter-of-factly replied.  "Naturally, I immediately leaped at the chance with an unequivocal 'Yes!'  I mean, I couldn't really refuse him, could I?  Not after he'd written so eloquently and eulogistically of a couple of my recent paintings in 'The Arts Review', the previous week.  I was flattered, to say the least.  A friend of his standing in the art world would not be without its advantages, provided, however, that one could actually secure his friendship."

     Andrew offered the artist a diffident smile.  "And do you believe you can?" he asked.

     "To some extent I believe I already have," Harding affirmed.  "But a lot will obviously depend on what happens when he comes here next week, as promised, and I knuckle down to the arduous task of reproducing, with minor variations, his famous face on canvas.  If we can strike-up an interesting conversation in the process, it could well transpire that his faith in my professional abilities will be cemented by a friendship which may well prove to my lasting advantage.  It would only take a few more favourable reviews, and perhaps even a book on my work, for me to become internationally famous - of that I'm quite convinced!  For his influence in the West, and particularly Britain, is quite considerable - in fact, so considerable that a really good write-up from him in one or other of the more prestigious arts magazines would boost my professional reputation overnight."

     "Just as a really bad write-down from him would ruin it," Carol declared with severity from her reclining posture to his right.

     "So I'm aware, honey," Harding conceded, frowning slightly.  "But the chances of that happening to me are, to say the least, pretty remote."

     "Oh, I'm not for one moment suggesting it would happen to you," Carol rejoined, gently raising herself on one elbow.  "Although it has happened to some people, hasn't it?"

     "So I gather," conceded Harding, who was suddenly feeling more than a shade annoyed by his girlfriend's light sarcasm - a sarcasm, alas, with which he was all-too-well acquainted by now!

     "Anyone you personally know?" Andrew asked him.

     "No, to tell you the truth, I don't know all that many people in the art world, not even among the artists themselves, because I never go out of my way to establish contact with others," Harding bluntly replied.

     "Not unless they're important to you," Carol sarcastically remarked.

     Harding had to smile, albeit weakly.  "Few of them ever are, at least not in my experience," he rejoined.  "But Henry Grace could be.  He's one of the few critics with influence and, with a little luck, I may be able to induce him to wield some of that influence on my behalf."

     "Particularly if you grant him a special concession," Carol suggested, her attention shifting from the painter to the canvas and back again, as though to link them.  "You need only knock the price down from, say, five-hundred quid to about two-hundred-and-fifty quid to soften him up a bit.  He'd almost certainly appreciate the gesture."

     A tinge of embarrassment swept across Harding's clean-shaven face, though he quickly did his best to stifle it beneath a little forced laugh.  "I had thought of that," he confessed, scarcely bothering to look in Carol's direction.  "But I don't want to make my desire to win his support too obvious.  Besides, he might get offended."

     "I rather doubt it," the model murmured through lips which had already broken into an ironic smile.  "I expect he'd be only too delighted to learn that you were offering him his portrait at a knock-down rate on the strength of your professional admiration for him.  It would be a good way of establishing, if not furthering, your friendship."

     "Yes, I entirely agree!" chimed-in Andrew, feeling he ought to offer the artist some encouragement by way of justifying his own special concession.  After all, it wouldn't do to think that he was the sole exception.

     Harding was slightly touched by this unexpected contribution from his sitter.  "Well, I shall certainly bear it in mind," he promised.  "Although it'll obviously depend on how we get-on during the forthcoming sessions.  If my case transpires to being hopeless I'll have no alternative but to charge him the full amount, if only to compensate for any personal inconvenience.  It remains to be seen."  And with that said, a silence supervened between them all which wasn't broken until, giving vent to an exclamation of triumph some twenty minutes later, the artist stood up and announced to his sitter that the portrait was at last completed.  "You like it?" he asked, as, abandoning his seat, Andrew apprehensively walked over to witness the result.

     "Yes, I'm relieved to say I do," the writer admitted, following a brief inspection of its moderately Expressionist outlines.  "It's definitely more like me than anyone else."

     "I told you it would be," Harding rejoined, his thin lips curving into a self-satisfied smile.  "Although it does flatter you rather more than I had intended."

     "Oh, come now!" protested Andrew half-jokingly.  But he was unable to prevent himself from blushing.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

It took a couple of days for Andrew Doyle to get used to the presence of his portrait hanging in the study of his ground-floor flat.  Frankly its existence there struck him as somewhat pretentious, elevating him out-of-all-proportion to his actual status.  Gradually, however, he became less conscious of that and more resigned to living with it as a matter of course.  Whether or not other people would approve of the work ... was a matter of complete indifference to him, as was its presence on the wall above his writing desk.  Now that the temptation to have his relatively youthful face transposed to canvas had been realized, he could forget all about the experience and turn his attention towards matters of more importance to himself.  He might even be able to sell the portrait to a wealthy and admiring collector one day - assuming he ever became sufficiently famous to be in such a privileged position!  For the time being, however, it would have to remain where it was, sightlessly staring out onto the back garden.

     As for Robert Harding, there was as yet little that Andrew really knew about him; though, to judge by the paintings he had seen next door, not to mention the one he had recently purchased, it was evident that his neighbour, besides having a talent for self-publicity, was a talented and versatile artist, who could develop quite interesting potentialities if time permitted.... Not that time was completely on his side as regards the age in which he lived - an age when traditional representational art, no less than traditional representational literature or music, was steadily on the decline and, to all appearances, could hardly be expected to pick up again.  At least that was how matters generally stood, though there were, however, a few notable exceptions - works of art which approximated to egocentric greatness in an age of post-egocentric simplicity and even naiveté, whether in respect of the superconscious or of the subconscious.  But even that was better than no art at all, if one had a taste for art in general.  And even post-egocentric art, conceived, say, in terms of Abstract Expressionism or Post-Painterly Abstraction, was only such in relation to traditional art, where a balance held good between the sensual and the spiritual, the physical and the mental, and dualistic man was aptly reflected in his representational creations.  Nowadays, on the other hand, that balance had been tipped so much in favour of the spiritual, even with a new disparity between progressive and regressive manifestations of it, that a kind of transcendent rather than Christian art prevailed, in testimony to a later stage of evolution, wherein the abstract predominated over the concrete.  Doubtless there was a limit to just how abstract such art could become before it reached a peak, one way or the other, and this limit, signified in the most radically progressive examples by a monochrome canvas, had arguably already been presented to the public, thereby signalling the unofficial end of painterly art.  For once the highest and most radical abstraction had been attained to, there was no going back to a less abstract approach to painting, no returning to the concrete, even if contrary approaches to abstraction were still possible!  Progress in art couldn't be reversed simply because one had a nostalgia for earlier trends.  Art wasn't a game that could be one thing one moment and a completely different, unrelated thing the next!  On the contrary, it was a very definite procedure which progressed from age to age through the requisite transformations laid down by both artistic precedent and the fundamental nature of the age itself.  If it didn't, in some measure, reflect the age into which it had been born, no matter how many contradictions that age may have inherited from the past, it wasn't genuine art but, rather, a sham carried out by aesthetic philistines who simply wanted to please themselves and imagined, in consequence, that art could be completely irresponsible, turning its back on the problems and overriding concerns of the age in the name of an ivory-tower isolationism which would inevitably reduce it, or whatever they produced, to the comparatively contemptible level of an amateur pastime - devoid of social or moral significance!

     Thus modern painterly art, in attaining to an abstract climax, was drawing to a close, refusing to turn away from the logic inherent in its development towards increased spiritualization and thereby desert its primary responsibility in response to and furtherance of the developing transcendental nature of the age.  A number of the artists involved with this responsibility could certainly have gratified themselves - not least of all financially - by adopting a more traditional approach to art and thereupon painting works which the ignorant or mediocre could have recognized as 'genuine art' - three-dimensional perspective and a credible balance between the concrete and the abstract, with the appropriate traditionally-approved colour schemes included for good measure.  But for a variety of reasons, not excepting their responsibility to society or, more correctly, to themselves as artists, they refused to do so, resolutely sticking to the dictates of the age, with its abstract predilections.  And even if some of them didn't possess these talents primarily because they were heirs of the Industrial Revolution and the large-scale urbanization which had resulted from it - in other words, because the environments in which they had matured were inimical to the life of the soul, with its emphasis on the sensuous and the emotional - then their transcendental allegiance to the dictates of the age was still the most important consideration, rendering the ability or inability to paint in traditional terms largely if not completely irrelevant.  If the ignorant or cynical wished to think otherwise, so be it!  But their desire to see 'real art' instead of 'modern art', at the latest and most genuine exhibitions, would never be realized, neither now nor in the future.  The urban environment was fundamentally against it.

     But where did Robert Harding fit-in to all these thoughts that flitted through Andrew's mind in a plethora of paradoxical contradictions as he sat in his study one morning, about a week after the completion of his portrait, and indifferently gazed out, through his closed french windows, on to the garden, now freshly bathed in sunlight.  Certainly there was much more to Harding's art than the execution of semi-Expressionist portraits - passably accomplished though they were.  On the few occasions when he had sat in his neighbour's studio or wandered around from room to room out of idle curiosity, he had noticed examples of Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Op, and even Surrealism on various of the walls - each work testifying to the painter's awareness of contemporary or, at any rate, modern trends ... as largely bearing, thought Keating, on a petty-bourgeois intelligentsia who necessarily fought shy of photography, with its communistic and, hence, objective implications for social realism more symptomatic, it seemed to him, of a proletarian humanism.  If portrait painting was one of Harding's lines, it could hardly be described as the only one; though, off-late, it had evidently usurped the domain of his other painterly concerns and rendered them at least temporarily redundant.  How long he would continue to paint portraits was anyone's guess, but it seemed not unlikely that his recent decision to do so was in part sparked off by a growing discontent with the bi-polar trend of modern art towards increased abstraction, and a desire, in consequence, to return to a more concrete and possibly traditional mode of painting such as might, besides offering him greater financial reward, gratify his penchant for form, for unity and coherence.  Whether he would eventually grow disillusioned with or tired of this, however, remained to be seen.  But he showed no signs of doing so at present.  On the contrary, the very fact that he had asked his new neighbour of only moderate literary fame whether he would like his portrait done and, when this worthy individual had modestly declined, well-nigh insisted on it, on the pretext that it would be to his subsequent professional advantage to be seen on canvas, suggested an urgency of intent bordering on the ridiculous, so imperative must have been his need to find someone, no matter how socially insignificant, on whom to practise.  Doubtless the preoccupation afforded him by Andrew's subsequent, if rather unenthusiastic, consent prevented him from being either idle or, worse still, relapsing into a non-representational mode of art which, for some as-yet-unspecified reason, he preferred to avoid.  That more than likely being the case, it was obviously in his personal interests to carry on from where he had left off and execute a number of other such works - works which would, in some measure, unburden him of the contradictory pressures and responsibilities of being modern.  For it did seem that the aesthete in Harding, which Andrew had recognized and been obliged to acknowledge on their first meeting, little over a month ago, was in earnest rebellion against the latest developments in art which, in their utter and disarming simplicity, scorned the traditional criteria of aesthetics as though they had never existed.

     Not that Harding had intimated to him of any such rebellion at the time, nor, for that matter, subsequently, since far too discreet to risk exposing himself to opposition, ideologically or otherwise, from a person he as yet knew very little about and wanted, for the aforementioned reasons, to exploit.  All the same, it wasn't too difficult for Andrew to put two-and-two together and adduce from his reticence and general aestheticism the likelihood of a conservative if not reactionary turn-of-mind where uncritical fidelity to the more progressive contemporary trends in art was concerned.  Even his considerable knowledge of Christian art, a knowledge embracing almost everything of any value from approximately the 10th-19th centuries, spoke eloquently on behalf of an unsatisfied aestheticism and preference for traditional values, for a return, in short, to that compromise between sensuality and spirituality which had characterized the era of egocentric art.  An unequivocal admission of this fact might have rendered him vulnerable to attack and rejection by one who, on first setting foot in his house, had expressed tentative approval of an Abstract Expressionist canvas, after the manner of de Kooning, hanging in the entrance hall.  Yet for reasons only vaguely hinted at, and then unconsciously, he had refrained from any such admission and, instead, pandered to Andrew's tastes to the extent he could.

     Nevertheless it was evident from the first that a kind of spiritual friction existed between the two men which no amount of duplicity or neighbourly deference could entirely cloak - a friction which led the writer to critically reflect upon a number of things which had passed between them during the course of the afternoon in question, and not least of all where politics and religion were concerned.  For although neither of them had 'come out', as it were, about their respective beliefs and allegiances on those counts, nevertheless it was fairly evident, from various statements and casual asides Harding had let drop during their conversation, that they were by no means of a kindred disposition but, rather, of an unequal if not downright antagonistic one!  Still, neighbours were neighbours, and the fact that they were both professionals of approximately the same age - Andrew being a mere three years younger than the painter - was conducive towards the establishment of a cordial, not to say optimistic, acquaintanceship.  How they would respond to each other in due course when, through familiarity, they became a little less guarded in their conversation, remained to be seen; though Andrew already harboured some misgivings as to the prospect of a genuine friendship, based on religious and political affinities, subsequently developing.  Even that remark Harding had casually let drop, during the final afternoon of his sitter's ordeal the previous week, about being obliged to paint three-quarter witted aristocrats, half-witted bourgeoisie, and quarter-witted proletarians had, unbeknown to himself, provided the writer's sensitive imagination with further clues as to the political mentality of his new neighbour, causing him to reflect upon the probability of an allegiance, consciously or unconsciously, to the upper classes in contrast to any socialistic bias which would have favoured the people.... Not that the descending scale-of-values, evidently improvised on the spur-of-the-moment, was without at least some applicability to the general intellectual or imaginative differences which undoubtedly existed between the classes in question.  But, even so, a remark like that could easily be interpreted in terms of fascism or even of royalism.  Yet Harding, with his aestheticism and expansive knowledge of Christian art, was unlikely to be a fascist, even if the possessor, consciously or unconsciously, of fascist tendencies.  No, in all probability, he was simply a bourgeois aesthete, as most young aesthetes tended to be these days.  And that doubtless went some way towards explaining why he was in rebellion, willy-nilly, against the trend of modern art towards increased abstraction and had consequently reverted to painting portraits, to reinstating the concrete to the extent he could.  The bourgeois in him had taken fright at the progressive spiritualization of art, but to save face or, at any rate, prevent this realization from breaking through the thin barrier of moral integrity with which he protected his conscience, the aesthete had conveniently come to the fore and recoiled from the simplicities of the latest abstractions in the name of 'genuine art', to thereupon initiate a return to portraiture, with its sensuous form.

     Yes, that was how it seemed to Andrew Doyle, as he reflected on the probable motives for Harding's abandonment of painterly abstraction, an abstraction which, in any case, he had never appeared to practise too ardently or convincingly, if the original paintings on display in his house were anything to judge by!  On the contrary, the first impression a number of them had made on Andrew was hardly such as to suggest that their creator possessed a profound and intimate knowledge of modern art!  Rather, that he managed a perfunctory attempt at emulating it.  The result, one felt, was more a pastiche than a genuine outpouring of progressive sentiment, a thin veneer of modernism over the essentially reactionary and conservative nature of the artist's soul.  Perhaps a brave attempt at camouflaging his true loyalties?  But not a particularly convincing one!  His return to portraiture must have come as something of a relief.

     The sudden sound of someone laughing from the direction of the artist's back garden caused Andrew to start from his morose speculations at Harding's expense and wonder who it could be?  Then he remembered that Henry Grace had been expected to put in a few appearances, next door, for the sake of his portrait, this week, and wondered whether it mightn't be him?  Apparently, it was in the nature of Harding to paint in his garden when the weather permitted, and today, being so clear and warm, was evidently no obstacle to his pleinair predilections but, rather, a strong encouragement to them.  Whether or not he had already painted part of the new portrait in his studio would have no bearing, seemingly, on any subsequent decision to paint outdoors.  For he somehow managed to change from one light to another without any professional qualms or undue technical difficulties.  The only possible obstruction to this environmental resilience would come, if at all, from his sitter, who might object to being exposed to the sun for too long, or of having to endure stiff breezes, etc.  But such obstructions were apparently few-and-far-between, a majority of sitters evidently preferring the superficial beauty and apparent cleanliness of Harding's back garden to the profound ugliness and essential stuffiness of his studio.

     With curiosity aroused, Andrew silently opened his french windows and tiptoed out into the garden, availing himself of the cover afforded by the tall lattice-fence which divided his strip of turf from Harding's.  Although the laughter had evaporated, a little sporadic conversation could be heard instead, which was punctuated, every few seconds, by enigmatic silences or subdued humming.  Tiptoeing up as close as possible to the fence without running the risk of detection, he peered through a narrow gap in the lattice at the scene beyond, where Harding was indeed at work on the art critic.  For at that moment the sound of a woman's voice saying: "D'you know, Henry, I really can't remember the last time you drank champagne," was distinctly audible above a protracted bout of subdued humming which issued from the direction of the man in question.

     "Can't you, my dear?" Mr Grace responded in a vaguely commiserating tone-of-voice.

     "Not unless it was at Raymond's, that time in '76," the lady conjectured.

     Andrew swivelled his eyes over to the right to get a look at the physical source of the female voice which, until then, had simply eluded him.  He could just discern, through the tangle of rose bushes the other side of his fence, the outlines of a profiled head with short grey hair freshly tinted a pale purplish hue.  With further optical manoeuvrings it was just about possible for him to follow the length of her lightly dressed body from the top of her head down to the tips of her toes, as she reclined, without sunglasses, in a bright-green deck chair which Harding had evidently brought out into the garden on her account.  She must have been in her late fifties or early sixties, judging by the colour of her hair and the mature timbre of her voice.

     "Yes, it may well have been," Mr Grace admitted, following a period of reflective deliberation which might have led one to suppose he was pondering a problem of such magnitude that its correct solution was a veritable matter of life-and-death to him.  "Although I've an uneasy suspicion I had a drop in '78 at Maxim's, the time they were opening their new gallery."

     "Which was something I missed, wasn't it?" the lady commented, half-excusing herself.

     "Yes, I do believe it was," Mr Grace confirmed, casting her a sidelong and vaguely reproachful glance.  "However, it tasted more like cider, so you didn't miss much - not, at any rate, with regard to the refreshments!"

     From what Andrew could see of him, Mr Grace was a man of approximately the same age as his wife, with grey hair, an average build, and a patrician profile.  Not a particularly handsome-looking figure but arguably an intelligent-looking one nonetheless, a man with an air of authority, acquired, no doubt, during the course of his lengthy career as a maker or breaker of painters.  One felt that if he hadn't been an art critic he would have been a judge.  Possibly even a priest.  But at the present juncture in time he was very definitely a sitter for Robert Harding, who, ensconced at his easel no more than a few yards away, appeared to be deeply engrossed in the application of bright pigment to a canvas slightly larger than the one he had used for his previous client.  It was indeed refreshing to behold such an unabashed demonstration of industry, to see the artist knitting his brows and occasionally allowing his tongue to delicately protrude from between his moistened lips under the apparent exigency of the latest feat of concentration he was imposing upon himself with the encouragement of Mr Grace!  Not once, during the entire course of his own modelling engagement with the artist, had Andrew noticed such a display of ardent commitment!  The artist, except when replying to the comments of his mistress, had retained an almost unbroken equanimity, a serenity of visage bordering on the angelic.  But now?  One might have thought him in the throes of some demonic possession or suffering from a fierce and implacable migraine.  The transformation in his approach to portraiture appeared so complete ... that Andrew was tempted to laugh, so incongruous an impression did it make on him.  If it was an act Harding was putting on to impress the renowned art critic, there could be no doubt that he was flogging it for all it was damn-well worth!  A more concentrated act of sustained commitment one couldn't have imagined.  Clearly, the absence of Carol Jackson from the scene had something to do with it.  For, with her present, he wouldn't have felt quite so confident that the act would be taken seriously.  Indeed, he might not have been able to perform one at all.  But that was probably beside-the-point and only an aside Andrew felt inclined to entertain on the strength of his sublimated amusement.

     "Have you ever been to Maxim's, Robert?" the figure in the deck chair suddenly inquired of the painter.

     "Yes, once or twice actually," he answered.

     "Really?"  Mrs Grace appeared lost in thought, but Mr Grace, having apparently lost interest in the champagne problem, pressed the artist to reveal what he thought of the place.

     A slightly nervous cough from Harding intimated to all present the likelihood of a negative response.  "Rather too modern for my tastes," he tentatively confessed, after a moment's cautious hesitation.

     Andrew automatically started back from the fence, as though to avoid the gaze of someone who had a suspicion he was there.  It was a veritable revelation!  A confirmation of his prior assumptions concerning Harding's creative predilections!  Maxim's evidently specialized in abstracts.

     "Yes, I had imagined it would be," Mr Grace remarked in an overly sympathetic tone-of-voice, the rudiments of a conspiratorial smile in swift pursuit of his words.  "And thus rather too subjective, what?"

     The artist nodded in agreement and proceeded to mix some fresh pigment on his abstract-looking palette.  "Not quite what I'd regard as art," he softly commented, becoming a little more forthright.  "Though they do deal in a few paintings more to my tastes - portraits and landscapes, for example.  Not to mention the odd nude of variable quality."

     "Quite!" the critic conceded, nodding vaguely.  "Unfortunately the emphasis is on Abstract Expressionism, Op, Pop, and Post-Painterly Abstraction.  They don't even deal in Cubist or Surrealist works these days."

     "Doubtless they're just another victim of the times," opined Harding, some freshly tinted pigment poised on the end of his brush, like a blob of coloured ice cream.  "Going down the slippery slope of commercial modernism in deference to creative degeneration," he added caustically.

     "So it would appear," sighed Mr Grace.  "Frankly, if modern art degenerates any further, I'll be out of a job.  One feels the critic is a dying breed."

     "Well, at least he won't die-out in your lifetime," Mrs Grace declared from her deck chair.

     "Small consolation for those who come after me!" the critic retorted, turning briefly, at Harding's professional expense, towards his wife.  "Fortunately, however, there are some artists in the world who are doing their level best to stem the rising tide of anarchic disintegration and thereby grant one the rare opportunity of reviewing art instead of kitsch.  Artists who refuse to kow-tow to the latest trashy shibboleths but remain loyal, even in the face of hardship, to the essentially objective nature of art."

     It wasn't too difficult for Andrew to notice that, following this comment from 'On High', a modest but perceptible smile had insinuated itself into Harding's formerly stern mien - a smile which betrayed his heartfelt pleasure in identifying with the sentiments of his distinguished sitter.  Yes, how significant all this was becoming for the writer, as he continued to spy on the unsuspecting trio through the small gap in his fence!  Now there could be absolutely no doubt concerning the artist's bourgeois aestheticism, his reactionary tendencies vis-à-vis modern art!  Objectively speaking, he didn't want progress but only regress or, failing that, perpetual stasis.  He wasn't prepared to let art exhaust itself, to come to its inevitable painterly end in the ultimate abstraction.  He was one of those who wanted, on the contrary, 'to stem the rising tide of anarchic disintegration' as Mr Grace, himself evidently an enemy of progress, had so crudely put it, and thus prevent the evolution of Western art from reaching its subjective goal.  And, if possible, he would doubtless do more than merely 'stem the rising tide'; he would endeavour to reverse it, so that the age could become a victim of his anachronisms and thereafter be obliged to regard them as alone representative of artistic progress, the 'progress' of a post-abstract accommodation with photographic objectivity, and thus of the bourgeoisie with the proletariat, of liberal and social humanism.

     To be sure, it was easy enough to see why portraiture had become such a must for Harding recently, as also why he hoped to curry favour with Mr Grace.  And, to judge by the conversation and sentiments exchanged between the two men, he was doing just that - establishing the basis of a mutual understanding which would further his cause by, hopefully, bringing his work into greater prominence.  For if Mr Grace wielded as much influential power as Harding supposed, then there could be little doubt that the subsequent assistance of the critic would prove of inestimable value in his hitherto lone-handed battle against abstraction.

     Turning away from the fence in manifest disgust, Andrew swiftly tiptoed back to his study and gently closed its french windows behind him.  He had seen and heard quite enough of his next-door neighbour for one day!

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Donald Prescott was by nature an eccentric.  He was also a wealthy bachelor who spent a great deal of time photographing models for both native and foreign magazines.  One of the models he photographed most often, whether dressed or undressed, was Harding's current girlfriend, Carol Jackson, whose slim though shapely figure he particularly admired.  She was also popular with the editors of a variety of successful men's magazines, and this fact had led to the formation of a sort of Carol Jackson industry for which, apparently, there was never any shortage of custom.  Whatever the presentation, she could be depended upon to excite curiosity.  And Donald Prescott, her favourite photographer, knew how to make the most of her.  He was a dab hand at exploiting women!

     At forty-five he was securely established in his chosen profession, able to pick and choose as he thought fit, and no less able to indulge those favourite eccentricities of his which had earned him almost as great a reputation as his camera.  Among their number was the establishment of the 'Rejection Club' for young or aspiring authors who had garnered more than fifty rejection slips from publishers, which met twice a month in the drawing room of his South Hampstead residence, and whose members spent the greater part of the meeting discussing literature and philosophy, their own and everyone else's.  At present, the club membership numbered about forty, a majority of whom had around 50-100 rejection slips to their name, though a few had as many as 200 or more.  What, besides eccentricity, had prompted Prescott to start the club was a desire to find out more about the difficulties aspiring authors were confronted with, and to ascertain whether rejections followed as a consequence of a given writer's work being bad or good, insufficiently commercial or insufficiently accomplished, too truthful or too illusory, and so on.  Having received approximately fifty rejections from a variety of publishers during the three years he had spent, before turning to photography, as an aspiring author, he wanted to discover whether there were others who'd had as little luck as himself and, if so, for what reasons?  Thus he placed a number of advertisements in local newspapers and magazines to the effect that he intended to start a club for people with fifty or more rejection slips to their name, in order that they could get together on a fortnightly basis to discuss their problems, find out where, if anywhere, they were going wrong, and, if they couldn't rectify anything, at least obtain some mutual consolation and encouragement from one another.

     All this had occurred some ten years ago and duly resulted in a steady flow of people in-and-out of the club, most of whom only stayed a few weeks but some of whom, warming to the hospitality and sympathy they received there, were of the opinion that it was in their interests to stay much longer.  The condition of entry did, however, necessitate that one should produce evidence, in the form of rejection slips, to prove one's work had in fact been rejected at least fifty times, in order to preclude the possibility of anyone's bluffing their way into it.  But once this fact had been demonstrated, one was free to come and go at one's leisure.

     Contrary to Prescott's initial suspicions, a majority of the struggling authors who frequented his house on this basis weren't imbeciles or amateurish duffers who couldn't write to save their skins but, on the contrary, highly-gifted and serious-minded people whose work tended to be either insufficiently commercial to pander to popular taste or, in some cases, detrimental to bourgeois interests and the class system which favoured the rich and high-profiled, including those with a public school and university background, at the expense of the poor and downtrodden, who, excluded from the more glamorous or influential forms of employment, could never or rarely get sufficient media or other publicity to make them a desirable prospect from a publisher's point of view.  Indeed, it had completely taken him by surprise to discover that so many intelligent writers regularly had work rejected because it was either too scholarly, too philosophical, too ideologically radical, too complex, too outspoken, too satirical, too ethnic, or even too revolutionary in its treatment of plot, characterization, style, grammar, etc., for general dissemination within the commercial framework of the free market.  Reading through one-another's typescripts they learnt a great deal more about themselves and the general publishing climate of the age - sub-zero as far as any passionate relationship to intellectual heat was concerned! - than ever they would have done had the club not existed and frequent rejections obliged them to presume that their work was simply 'not good enough'.  On the contrary, it was generally found to be 'too good' (both morally and intellectually), too out-of-the-ordinary to attract a large public, given the crass nature of most people's literary tastes or, more specifically, of the system which bludgeoned them into conformist mediocrity.  Now this discovery at least sufficed to reassure the members of the 'Rejection Club' of their respective literary abilities, even if it couldn't alter anything in terms of their immediate or short-term prospects of being published.  For few if any of the more intelligent, gifted, and well-educated ones (usually self-taught on the basis of home reading which transcended school education to an extent and in a way which made the latter seem relatively inconsequential) were prepared to sacrifice their creative integrity to the great modern antigod of popular taste, and thereupon reduce their creativity to the lowest-common-commercial-denominator on the basis of a materialistic concession to the supply-on-demand tyranny of market forces!

     Indeed, as the club developed and its members became more intimate, a kind of anti-popular campaign was launched in which they vowed to write contemptuously of established authors who specialized in and profited from crime, thriller, war, horror, spy, and occult stories, kow-towing to popular predilections with an opportunistic blatancy totally unworthy of a cultured and discriminating turn-of-mind!  Such authors, particularly the most commercially successful of them, were unanimously regarded as the literary scum-of-the-earth, and poster-size reproductions of their fame-wallowing faces were duly tacked to the walls and exposed to graphic disfigurement and verbal abuse as a reminder of just how contemptible they were.  And, by way of reminding themselves of their common cause against commercial trash, the 'Rejection Club' sported, in large letters on a wooden plaque which hung over the drawing-room's mantelpiece, a reassuring quotation from The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde, which read: 'No country produces such badly written fiction, such tedious common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England.  It must necessarily be so.  The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it.  It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist.  It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind.  It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him.'  Thus read the very pertinent and admirably anti-commercial quotation with which the club members sought, under Prescott's moral guidance, to boost their morale and strengthen their resolve never to capitulate to the pseudo-cultural  enemy, whatever his class, but to carry-on fighting against him in the name of art, truth, spirit, intelligence, honesty, courage, idealism, etc., to the bitter end or, preferably, until such time as an ultimate victory had been won and everything low and mean was systematically consigned to the rubbish bin of commercial history.  That Oscar Wilde had fought against this enemy to the bitter end, they fully realized.  But so, too, had other such 'saints' of their 'church' as Baudelaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Huysmans, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Thomas Mann, so that it was with such courageous names as these in mind that they continued to write and dispatch typescripts not guaranteed to solicit popular endorsement.

     Yet there was also another side to the club's attitude towards commercial literature which, initiated by Prescott himself, took the form of an imaginative sympathy for those exceptional publishers who, less overly exploitative than the majority of their competitors, would much rather have published only works of cultural and literary value but were obliged, through force of economic necessity, to kow-tow to commercial criteria and only publish such books as could be expected to appeal to a wide public.  Here it was not so much the author whose work, though intrinsically valuable in itself, had been regularly rejected whom one was expected to sympathize with, as the publisher who suffered nightmares of depression and humiliation at having to publish so much rubbish, novelistic or otherwise, simply to make ends meet, and who, deep down, would rather have published only what he knew to be artistically and/or culturally meritorious.  Instead of which, the cut-throat circumstances of life in a capitalist economy obliged him to earn the privilege of bringing out a few genuinely valuable books by publishing a host of trashy ones - much to his personal dissatisfaction!

     Yes, in order not to become too prejudiced against publishers, and thereby run the risk of losing all track of economic reality, Donald Prescott reminded his fellow-rejects, from time to time, of the difficulties they faced, and of the noble intentions which the most reputable firms always harboured.  The literary saint who suffered all manner of tortuous misgivings and reserves in the face of commercial pressures had to be juxtaposed with the well-intentioned publisher who, no less frequently, suffered all manner of tortuous misgivings and reserves in the face of economic pressures, before one could hope to get the two in perspective and arrive at anything like a reasonable viewpoint.  Otherwise one would be deceiving oneself and doing a grave injustice to both author and publisher alike!  Yet this didn't mean to say that, as a writer, one should therefore 'sell out', by sacrificing one's creative principles, and automatically commit literary suicide.  If one had any creative principles at all, it was one's duty as an artist to stick by them in order not to allow commercial pressures and temptations to get the better of one.  For if one didn't, there could be no question of work of intrinsic literary value ever being produced by one again!  One would simply be reduced to the contemptible status of the literary riffraff - a victim of the democratic mob and an enemy of the spirit!  There could be no question of any member of the 'Rejection Club' becoming that!

     Such, at any rate, was how Prescott had reasoned in the heyday of his dedication to the club, which, however, had lately ceased to appeal to him to the degree it did, before he made a name for himself in photography.  More from habit than genuine conviction, he still kept it going and entertained the surviving members to the extent circumstances would permit.  His eccentricity in this respect had not deserted him, even if his initial enthusiasm for the cause, born in days of misery and struggle, had somewhat waned under the influence of his subsequent successes.  Nowadays it was primarily to show off his latest photographs and air his prejudices on a variety of topics, from the obsolescence of horse racing to the moral vacuousness of society women, that he allowed a couple of rooms in his spacious house to be invaded, twice a month, by the leading rejects of the literary world, a majority of whom had become so set in their rebellious ways and so absolutely unable or unwilling to revise their approach to writing ... that they virtually regarded every new publication with deep suspicion, believing it must necessarily be morally bad in consequence, and would almost certainly have turned against any member of the club who deserted them in this respect, as though he were a traitor to their cause and accordingly merited the kinds of abuse and contempt ordinarily reserved for the more conspicuous examples of commercial success which hung, somewhat pathetically, from each of the main walls, as though from gibbets!

     Concerning Donald Prescott's other main eccentricities, however, it is perhaps wiser not to speak at all.  Although it might prove of passing interest to the odd person, here and there, to learn that he was possessed of a marked predilection for women's underclothes, particularly panties, which he collected with a zeal and pride not far removed from what a collector of books or records might experience with each new addition to his collection of cultural artefacts.  Not that he went into ladies' underwear shops and actually bought them over the counter or anything like that.  Oh no!  They came to him via the models, including Carol Jackson, whom he had at one time or another succeeded in seducing (and he had succeeded in seducing the great majority of them).  One pair of panties from each model was his requirement which, once acquired and pegged to a clothesline in one of his spare upstairs rooms, became for him the equivalent of what a scalp must have been to a Red Indian in the bad old days of intertribal or colonial warfare - namely an object of conquest.

     Altogether, since he first began collecting them, just over six years ago, he now had some 330 pairs of assorted panties dangling in parallel rows of different height across the large room in which he chose to keep them - panties of every shape, size, and colour, with a number of G-strings thrown-in for good measure.  And to each item exhibited in this provocative fashion was appended a small cotton tag bearing, in neatly printed block capitals, the forename of its original owner, together with the date of surrender.  Thus one might have encountered, in this extraordinary museum of women's briefs, upwards of twenty exhibits bearing the name Susan, sixteen the name Christine, twelve the name Margaret, ten the name Carol, and so on, right the way down to those specimens which were as yet unduplicated, but bore such interesting and exotic names as Norma, Jayshree, Yogini, Shobhana, Shahla, Alia, Isik, and Anne-Marie.  To be sure, the genuine connoisseur of panties could hardly have failed to be impressed by this collection, were he granted the good fortune to be escorted around the 'Panties Museum' - as Prescott liked to call it - by the curator-in-residence himself and invited to scrutinize the exhibits to his heart's content, listening all the while to the running commentary provided by his host as a means to enlightening him as to the character and quality of their original owners, not to mention the dubious means by which they had been acquired!  Such an unprecedented spectacle could hardly have failed to elicit at least some enthusiasm from the guest whose privilege it was to witness what Prescott proudly referred to as 'The finest private collection of assorted female briefs in Western Europe', even if the accompanying invitation to take a sniff at as many of them as he pleased in order to verify, where possible, the authenticity of their current owner's claims, wasn't guaranteed to meet with his wholehearted approval!  For it had occurred to a few sceptics, when confronted by these exhibits for the first time, to doubt the genuineness of Prescott's claims and to question whether he hadn't simply bought them all in various shops, at one time or another, appended name tags to them, and then cold-bloodedly invented some cock-and-bull story about his conquests, together with equally spurious information regarding the characters and physical qualities of the young women concerned, the better to impress his visitors.  But the doubts of the sceptics - for the most part elderly males unwilling to believe their host could possibly have had it off with so many women during the course of his photographic career - were invariably silenced when each of them was personally invited to sniff certain of the exhibits, and accordingly verify the fact that they had indeed been worn and still bore faint traces of their original owners' person.  To be sure, the smell of the museum was not, in view of Prescott's disinclination to let-in too much fresh air at the risk of undermining the credibility of his claims, particularly fragrant.  But such was his determination to prevent anyone from accusing him of fraud ... that he was more than prepared to put-up with any nasal or psychological inconvenience this caused him, as well as go to the trouble of pointing out such small stains of one sort or another as could still be found on various of the exhibits, as further proof that these items were not new but decidedly second-hand.

     However, the vast majority of Prescott's visitors were prepared to believe what he told them about the items in question without desiring the slightest recourse to corroborative evidence.  And the vast majority of them, despite initial misgivings and private qualms at the sight of the 'Panties Museum', had come away feeling rather impressed by its curator's apparent luck with women.  Only a relative handful of persons, such as recoiled from any form of eccentricity or originality out of personal insecurity or bourgeois prudery, subsequently harboured serious misgivings.  And they generally declined any further invitation Prescott might make to keep people in touch with his various commitments - fetishist or otherwise.

     But one of the people who never declined the photographer's invitations to visit him was Carol Jackson, who was now posing for his latest camera in quite the most slender brassiere it had ever been her privilege to wear, her head thrown back in a posture of sensual abandon, her hands crossed behind it.  How many more snaps of this nature Prescott would require, she couldn't guess.  For he had taken enough photos of her in a variety of different poses, and with varying amounts of clothes on and/or off, to fill half-a-dozen magazines!  She was always amazed by his persistence, a persistence which he attributed to perfectionism and the correlative desire to get the most out of his models; though it was fairly obvious that his real motive was simply a love of taking photos and ordering women about - with or without clothing.  And some of his orders, Carol had to admit, were not at all easy to follow!  One wondered how he ever thought them up, so unusual, not to say bizarre, were the resultant poses!  Really, it was a never-ending source of astonishment to her, to what lengths one sometimes had to go to satisfy men!  Selling sensual pleasure to voyeuristic jerks wasn't always child's play, despite appearances to the contrary.  Why, with so many men's magazines in competition these days, it was hardly surprising that one had to stretch and contort oneself to the extent one did, irrespective of whatever natural beauty one possessed and of how foolish the whole affair seemed to one!  For there were indeed times when the exigencies of one's occupation gave rise to a feeling of existentialist absurdity, and one was hard-pressed not to burst-out laughing or absolutely refuse to comply with the exacting demands of the occasion.  How curious men must be, Carol would think, that they should find this kind of thing, this absurd posture, entertaining!  One cannot even begin to fathom them!  But, as usual, the sentiment expressed in Tennyson's unfortunate line: 'Ours is not to reason why', coupled to the need to earn a living, would interpose itself between her thoughts and her actions, granting additional weight to the latter.  It was as well for her that pornographic modelling was only a sideline, not the backbone of her career as a model.

     "So how's your artist friend been keeping lately?" Prescott asked, as the time approached for them to take a break from their morning's labour.

     "As well as can be expected," Carol replied, before settling herself down in the nearest armchair and lighting a mild cigarette with the aid of a plastic lighter.

     "And still painting hard?" Prescott rejoined.

     "As far as I know," Carol admitted.  "Portraits at the moment."

     "Portraits?"  Prescott raised his brows in a show of acute surprise.  "Are they any good?"

     "Not bad; though I'm not properly qualified to judge, am I?" said Carol rhetorically.  "However, he must have some talent for portraiture if Henry Grace is sufficiently interested to have commissioned his portrait.  You've doubtless heard of him before."

     The photographer smiled faintly and then gently nodded. "I've actually talked to him," he confessed.  "Quite a few times, in fact."

     "Really?"  Carol hadn't even vaguely considered the possibility, and was somewhat surprised in consequence.

     "He used to be among my most regular visitors at one time," Prescott declared, with a little chuckle.  For a moment he stared unseeingly at Carol, as though absorbed in some arduous recollection, before asking: "And what, pray, does friend Robert think of him?"

     "Professionally or personally?" Carol wanted to know.

     "Either."

     The model reflected awhile, inhaling and exhaling some smoke from her cigarette.  "Well, professionally he thinks very highly of Mr Grace," she revealed.  "But personally ... I'm not so sure.  They appear to get on quite well together - at least to the extent that circumstances currently permit them.  But I haven't yet succeeded in finding out all that much, partly because Robert systematically refuses to discuss the subject with me.  He absolutely forbids me to be present in the garden or, for that matter, the studio while Mr Grace is there.  And Mr Grace has bloody-well been there from three to four hours a day all the past week!"

     "Presumably that's the time it takes Robert to complete a portrait?" Prescott conjectured.

     "I imagine so," Carol confirmed, frowning.

     The photographer poured out a couple of glasses of sweet white wine and then handed one to Carol, asking: "What about Mr Grace's wife - is she there, too?"

     "Yeah, Patricia accompanies him to Richmond every frigging day!" Carol exclaimed with exasperation.  "Keeps him company, apparently."

     Prescott had to laugh at that!  It was just like Henry Grace, he reflected, to drag his wife along with him.

     "What's so funny?" Carol wanted to know, becoming puzzled and slightly offended by the photographer's attitude.

     "Oh, nothing really," Prescott assured her.  "Just a little private joke, that's all."

     "Anyway, Robert is doing his utmost to get into his latest sitter's good books," Carol declared, changing the subject slightly.  "He's of the opinion that his career will thereby be considerably enhanced."

     Having got over his little joke, Prescott merely smiled and wandered over to his camera, which he proceeded to gently stroke with the hand not holding a glass of wine.  "Your lover must have a much higher opinion of Henry Grace and his professional influence than I do," he at length said.

     Carol was somewhat flummoxed by this remark.  "What makes you say that?" she asked.

     "Simply what you told me," the photographer replied.  "I very much doubt whether an old rogue like Mr Grace would put himself out on Robert's behalf, no matter how hard the latter tries to impress him.  He's just not that kind of man."

     Deep down Carol was almost amused or, at any rate, secretly gratified by the possibility that her boyfriend was making a damn fool of himself when he thought he was being most wise.  "Are you sure?" she queried.

     "Absolutely sure," Prescott affirmed in a tone which left no room for uncertainty.  "Besides, even if Mr Grace were to do the improbable, I doubt whether his professional influence would appreciably improve Robert's prospects of advancement to greater fame.  After all, a single art critic, even when well-known, doesn't have all that much clout.  Doubtfully as much as your admirer may, for reasons best known to himself, like to imagine anyway."

     "But Henry Grace is internationally famous!" Carol protested, feigning concern on her boyfriend's behalf.  "Surely that fact must be taken into account when assessing either his potential or actual influence?"

     Prescott reluctantly abandoned the camera and sat down in his customary leather-backed chair.  "Oh, I entirely agree," he conceded, a glint of ironic satisfaction faintly discernible in his large eyes.  "But so what?  Will that make any real difference?  To put it bluntly, his fame is essentially a thing of the past.  He achieved it during the 'sixties, extended it in the 'seventies, and took a stand on it in the 'eighties.  I doubt whether he has budged a fraction-of-an-inch in over a decade.  And during that time his actual influence has been in steady decline, falling, I dare say, to a level which could only impress those of his own generation who remember his early fame and, out of self-serving sentimentality, are still inclined to equate him with it!  However, to the young art critic of today and, I might add, to most of the younger generation of artists, he's a blundering anachronism, a voice to which one can listen but whom one needn't take too seriously.  Even he must know it, despite his considerable capacity for self-deception.  For he's completely out-of-touch with the latest developments in painterly art, never mind light art and anything else, my own photographic interests notwithstanding, which might broadly be identified with proletarian as opposed to bourgeois interests."

     "But how d'you know all this?" Carol queried, still unwilling to take Prescott's opinions at face-value.  After all, could she be certain, knowing as much about him as she did, that he wasn't making it all up just to amuse himself at her expense?  She stubbed out the burnt-down remains of her smouldering cigarette, sipped a little more wine, as though to extinguish the fire in her mouth, and then looked at him expectantly.

     "Through what I've recently read by him, read about him, heard from various artists and critics about him, thought about him, remembered about him ... oh, through so many channels," the photographer at length asserted, expressing, via a broad sweep of an arm, the general breadth of his information.  "He writes well and is respected in many countries by a great many people - don't get me wrong there!  Yet his influence isn't so great that he could be expected to win-over the hearts and minds of the more youthful or progressive art-lovers.  On the contrary, his influence on the younger generation would be very slight, believe me!  And it's above all to the younger generation that your admirer would have to appeal, if he hoped to increase his fame - not to those outmoded people whom Grace could still be depended upon to influence in some way."

     "But maybe that's precisely what Robert wants," suggested Carol, recalling to mind the conventional nature of his most recent work.  "Simply to be appreciated by art enthusiasts of a more traditional stamp, and thus become renowned as a champion and defender of conventional aesthetic values."

     Prescott gave vent to a short, sharp burst of sardonic laughter, such as he usually only succumbed to when confronted by suggestions or comments which ran contrary to his own better knowledge.  "That may be," he conceded, for Carol's sake, "but I would hardly describe the thought as one guaranteed to appeal to the ambitions of any self-respecting, progressive artist!  If it's that kind of fame he's after, he might as well take his canvases to an antique dealer as to a modern gallery.  Indeed, he might as well give-up painting original works altogether and concentrate on copying old masters instead.  He'll be appreciated alright, but only by those philistines who know next-to-nothing about modern art and can only relate to what preceded it.  In other words, people who require of art that it conforms to something intelligible to them, something pleasantly picturesque.  But if he thinks he'll secure universal acclaim through reverting to such muck, and if he thinks Henry Grace will help him acquire it, then he's sadly mistaken!  Just as he's sadly mistaken if he thinks that, by returning to a more traditional framework, he'll be saving art from the ogres of modernity and thereby restoring it to a healthier condition.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  All he'll end-up bloody-well doing is to acquire, with his rather limited fame, the contempt of all truly contemporary artists and connoisseurs of modern art for being both a fool and a reactionary down-dragging influence on the age.  But don't tell him I told you that.  Let him discover it for himself, if he's really determined to pursue this futile course of his."

     "I wouldn't dare tell him," Carol responded.  "He wouldn't listen to me anyway, having dismissed so many of his previous girlfriends for being critical of his work.  He'd probably send me packing there and then."

     Prescott glanced at his watch and commented how it was time they got down to some more work before lunch, since he had another model - a new one - to see during the afternoon and didn't want to fall behind with his schedule.  What kind of panties she would turn-up in, he didn't of course know.  But he was fairly confident that, before she left his studio an hour or two later, she would have surrendered them to his private museum and thus enabled him to expand his collection to 331.  Without a doubt, he was distinctly looking forward to conquering her!  For the time being, however, there was Carol Jackson to photograph again, and this time minus her bra.  She had already been conquered, and on more than one previous occasion, to boot!

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

It was with some surprise that Andrew found himself being invited by his next-door neighbour, the following week, to join him and Carol on a visit to Henry Grace's house in Berkshire, over the weekend of July 25/26th, and, no less surprisingly, found himself accepting the invitation with alacrity.  Apparently the critic had been so pleased with his portrait and so impressed by the hospitality granted him during the course of his sitting for the artist, that he had decided to invite Harding up to Berkshire as a sort of reward for all the trouble to which the latter had evidently put himself in the execution of his painterly duties.  And Harding, overjoyed by this most wholesome response to his stratagem, had automatically accepted the invitation, flattered, as he was, to be the guest of so distinguished a man. 

     The fact that no recourse had been made to the special financial concession he had contemplated offering the critic was another joy to him.  For, in reality, he could ill-afford to be overly generous in that respect, and was only too relieved that such a ploy wouldn't be necessary, after all.  And Henry Grace, in the throes of his gratitude, had not only invited him, but permitted him to bring one or two of his friends along as well, in order to make the journey less lonely and the visit more sociable.  It would amount, in effect, to a pleasantly educative social gathering - one comprised of the Graces, together with a few of their close friends and/or relatives, and whosoever Harding brought with him - which was sure to provide a worthwhile experience for all concerned.

     The prospect of such an experience was therefore what particularly appealed to the three young people as they set off from Richmond in the painter's car, on the morning of July 25th, for Mr Grace's country house, situated near Maidenhead.  It was a relatively short drive which faced them as, abandoning Surrey, they crossed into Berkshire, exchanging few words but being content, on this warm sunny day, to take-in the provincial scenery, much of which was refreshingly agreeable to behold.

     What, exactly, he would find to say to Mr Grace when they arrived, Andrew didn't have a clue; though, to judge by what he had previously overheard from the secret vantage-point of his back garden, he doubted whether it would amount to anything very congenial or sympathetic!  He might even be obliged to stand-up for his radical views on art in the face of conservative opposition, and criticize both the artist and his newly acquired friend for endorsing reactionary tendencies inimical to the further progress of art.  He didn't know.  But it wasn't beyond the range of his imaginings, as he lolled on the back seat of his neighbour's battered BMW, to suppose that some such defence of modern art might be forced upon him.  After all, wasn't it obvious that he was being driven towards the enemy's camp, a camp Harding doubtless found of agreeable prospect but which he could only regard with deep suspicion, albeit in an intriguing and secretly gratifying kind of way?  For if he was going to lay his cards on the table, he figured he might as well do so with style, with a thoroughness and relish which, no matter how offensive to the opposition, would serve to flatter his idealistic integrity in loyalty to his views, and thereby preclude any allegations of hypocrisy.

     As for Harding, there could be no doubt that he was the most excited of the trio, the one who most looked forward to arriving at the destination towards which they were speedily heading, and the one whose thoughts were almost entirely set on furthering the good impression he had already made on the critic and, if possible, winning some additional supporters to his side, supporters who, through Henry Grace's example, might well commission him to paint their portraits in due course.  Indeed, the thought had earlier crossed his mind that it could well be his fate to paint portraits of Mr Grace's family, as well, perhaps, as an extra and possibly even larger one of the critic himself.  After all, the man was sufficiently wealthy to afford additional commissions.  And why shouldn't he, Robert John Harding, be the artist to execute them?  The work he had already done was bound to excite further interest in his talents, consolidate his growing reputation, and thereby enhance his prospects of greater success.  Even Andrew, whom he had invited along more from professional tact than because of any altruistic motive, could prove of invaluable assistance in that respect, adding to the confidence already established by saying a few words in praise of his own rather more modest portrait, which, unbeknown to himself, could hardly fail to excite further curiosity, not to say critical regard.

     Yes, it was indeed a good idea to make use of Doyle in this way.  It might even be possible to show the author's portrait to Mr Grace sometime, get the old man to write about it.  And even the one of Carol Jackson, done several weeks before, might prove of more than passing interest to the critic's keenly-experienced eye.... Although there was something odd about Carol herself, these past few days.  Harding couldn't quite determine what, not having probed her very deeply, but he was pretty sure that she was holding something back from him, keeping herself in secretive reserve on some enigmatic pretext or other.  Perhaps she had a professional problem or two on her conscience, or a qualm about visiting Mr Grace?  It wasn't like her at all.  Still, it would probably blow over, like a heavy shower, in due course.  Miss Jackson wasn't always smooth sailing anyway!

     But the journey to Henry Grace's house certainly had an air of smoothness about it as, with an hour to go before noon, they entered the drive and drew-up alongside its dark-green front door.  The house, set well back from the road by a pretty front garden, was quite impressive, with a whitewashed facade and eight latticed windows positioned equidistantly along its two stories, giving overall emphasis to length rather than height.  Imposing without being ostentatious, the dwelling bespoke bourgeois comfort and charm - the kinds of qualities which Andrew Doyle had grown accustomed to living without, during the course of his several years' experience of North London lodgings and, latterly, small garden flat in Richmond.  But it rang a bell in his memory nonetheless, as he pictured to himself the New England-style house in which he used to live, compliments of a friend's family, at Merstham, in Surrey, before being obliged to move to the grimy metropolis.

     A brief rap on the door by Harding was promptly answered, and the visitors, excited and apprehensive by turns, were invited inside by a smartly dressed, grey-haired woman whom Andrew immediately recognized as the one he had spied sunbathing in Harding's back garden the previous week.  Close-up, she looked slightly less impressive than at several yards' distance; though there was something about her dark-blue eyes, fine brow, aquiline nose, and sensuous lips which suggested she had once been an extremely attractive woman - even if age had somewhat detracted from her natural assets.

     "So delighted to meet you, Mr Doyle," she averred, squeezing the writer's hand with a more than reassuringly firm grip, as he was first introduced to Mrs Grace and then to Mr Grace by an impeccably polite neighbour.  "I do hope you'll enjoy it here."

     "Yes, splendid of you to come!" Mr Grace declared, shaking hands in turn and beaming appreciatively at the three young people before him - particularly the artist, with whose face he was of course already familiar.  "My wife and I are anxious to make your stay here as pleasant as possible.  And so, too, is our daughter, Pauline."

     A young woman with long black hair of a very fine texture and blue eyes the exact colour of her mother's had appeared in the entrance hall in her parents' wake, and was now extending a nervous-looking hand towards each of the three guests in turn.

     "Unfortunately my son is at present visiting a neighbouring friend," Mr Grace confessed, as the last handshake was duly terminated.  "But you'll meet him soon enough, don't worry!  He's a year-and-a-half older than Pauline, who has just turned eighteen."

     "Oh dad, do you have to tell everybody my age?" Pauline protested good-naturedly, a slight but perceptible blush suffusing her slender cheeks.

     "They'd guess it soon enough anyway," her father responded, playfully patting her on the rump.  "Now then, as you're all no doubt hungry and thirsty after your little journey, we must set about finding you some refreshment.  Lunch is currently being prepared, but a drink is something I can fix you up with right away.  If you'd just care to follow me into the lounge, where, incidentally, your excellent portrait of me is now hanging, Robert."

     Obediently, they followed their host into the said room, accepted a glass of wine, and stood before the portrait in question, which hung over the mantelpiece in an expensive-looking carved-oak frame - one that appeared to take the artist by surprise, since he hadn't provided anything like it himself.

     "Yes, a useful addition," Mr Grace opined, in response to some eulogistic comment from Harding.  "It makes the work appear more dignified, don't you think?"

     "Absolutely!" the artist agreed, going-up closer to the mantelpiece in order to scrutinize the frame in more detail.  "It's a Carlton, isn't it?"

     "A Wark-Davidson actually," the critic corrected, with a benign smile.  "I purchased it the day after you finished your work.  Thought it might impress you!"

     The room in which they were now standing, Andrew noted, was tastefully decorated, being furnished in modern though not trendy items, and provided shelter for five additional paintings, three of which were landscapes of a fairly conventional naturalistic order, the remaining two being portraits of, as yet, unspecified persons; though the patrician tone and bearing of each suggested a strong connection with the Grace family.  As to the occupants of the room, however, it was manifestly apparent that none of the other guests - if other guests there were to be - had as yet arrived.  For, apart from the three newcomers and the Graces themselves, the lounge was otherwise empty.  Presumably Mr Grace's friends would turn-up later, at a time more suited to their habits?  The prospect of having to spend most of the day in his company probably didn't appeal to them, after all.

     Meanwhile, the attention having shifted from the portrait to the other paintings in evidence, and even to a discussion on art in general, Andrew was obliged to listen to both Mr Grace and Harding without being able or, indeed, invited to offer any comments himself; though he did contrive to nod his head once or twice and to grunt knowingly, in response to the occasional glance the critic directed towards him, more out of politeness, it seemed, than from any intentional desire to include him in the conversation.  But, as though to rescue him from the social isolation into which he was further and further sinking by the moment, young Pauline meekly inquired of him whether he was an artist, too?

     "No, not in the painterly sense," he quietly and almost apologetically replied, turning towards the pretty face on a level with his own.  "Although I have to admit to being something of an artist as regards the production of literature."

     "Ah, so you're a writer!" deduced Pauline, offering him an admiring smile.

     "Yes, in a manner of speaking, though I very rarely use a pen," he informed her.  "You could say I'm essentially a philosophical artist."

     Visibly intrigued by this unexpected revelation, the young woman then asked: "Have you, eh, written many books?"

     "Just a few," he admitted, feeling slightly embarrassed by her apparent enthusiasm for the subject, and no-less slightly regretful for the fact that his dream of having his work brought to public attention on CD-Rom in addition to paper had yet to be realized.  "Two novels and a volume of essays," he added.

     "How interesting!" Pauline exclaimed.  "I've always wanted to meet a writer."

     "Is that so?" Doyle found himself responding, his embarrassment giving way to a slight annoyance at being taken for a kind of hero.  Doubtless this young woman, like so many of her kind, had motives for feeling that a 'writer' was someone special - a sort of intellectual superman.  Perhaps it was one of her most cherished illusions, to meet the modern equivalent of Keats or Shelley or Dickens or Hugo!  One could never tell.  But, then, one could never expect an eighteen-year-old to relate to a thirty-year-old anyway, to view writers through the same pair of eyes.  To her, they were evidently something special.  To him, they were occasionally something special but, for the most part, insufferable bores!  Few indeed were the writers with whom he would want to identify, especially among the moderns!  But that, alas, wasn't a fact he could impart to Mr Grace's daughter, who was doubtless flattered by her illusions and secretly gratified, moreover, that one of her pet wishes - to meet a practising writer face-to-face - had now actually come true.  All he could do, under the circumstances, was bear up to the distinction he apparently signified in Pauline's estimation and accept her unspoilt opinion of authors without demur.  Possibly she would come round to a more discriminating view of them in due course, once her juvenile hunger for creative heroes of one sort or another had been satisfied and her literary appetites consequently declined.  In the meantime, a writer, even those of the type Andrew particularly despised, was a more interesting and distinguished prospect, in her eyes, than, say, a clerk or a stockbroker or an insurance agent and, as such, he deserved greater respect.  "Have you written anything yourself?" he asked, desperately desiring to ward off the aura of heroism which now threatened to engulf him and turn him into a 'being apart'.

     With a paradoxical little laugh - half self-deprecatory and half self-assertive - which suggested she didn't quite know what to think, Pauline replied: "Quite a few poems, actually.  And a few one-act plays, too.  But I don't intend to branch out into a novel yet - not, anyway, until I've completed my time at university, which is due to commence in September."

     "Is that so?" responded Doyle, who was vaguely amused by the way she spoke of her impending 'time' at university, as though it were a kind of prison sentence looming over her.  "So you intend to become a writer eventually?"

     He had guessed correctly.  She had definite ambitions in regard to literature, which she hoped her 'time' at university would help her to realize, and principally by providing her with all the knowledge she would need to become a success.  For it was only by studying the literature of the past in some detail that one could hope to emulate and, if possible, strive to excel it in the present.  That much, at any rate, she had learnt at boarding school, and her parents had more than once confirmed her in the matter since her departure from that venerable old institution earlier in the year; though they had also expressed certain reservations concerning the long-term viability of a literary career.  But, then, parents were usually like that, so what matter?  Pauline was determined to press ahead with her studies in literature and, at the end of her 'time', take up the pen professionally, so to speak, in order to embark on a successful career as a leading novelist.  It was basically as simple and straightforward as that - a fact which the writer could surely appreciate?

     To be sure, Andrew Doyle made an attempt at playing along with the young lady's ingenuousness as best he could, amused and, to a degree, bewildered by her ambitions, not the least of which appeared to be her intention to emulate and, if possible, strive to excel the literature of the past in the present!  No doubt, she would learn, in due time, that that wasn't possible and that those who, by producing works of a traditional nature, attempted to do so ... were usually the ones who succeeded least, being hopelessly out-of-date and contemptible in the eyes of all genuine artists or, at any rate, authors who moved with the times and refused to write or, alternatively, type or key-in anything which didn't reflect the essential Zeitgeist of the times.  But Pauline, sweet thing, couldn't be expected to know that at the tender age of eighteen.  She still had a lot of schooling to get through, even if it didn't all take place at her future university and she was subsequently obliged to seek additional enlightenment elsewhere.  Whether she would continue to live in poetic illusion and write poetic illusion ... remained to be seen.  But at this stage of her life, she couldn't exactly be blamed for her naiveté.  On the contrary, it was to be expected.  "Well, I hope you succeed in your ambitions," he at length remarked, trying not to reveal his personal thoughts on the matter.  "There are quite a few female novelists around these days.  One of the consequences of Women's Lib, I suspect."

     "A thing you approve of?" Pauline hastened to ascertain.

     "Only when they really are intellectually liberated and not worldly reactionaries in disguise."  But that was a bit profound and, regretting his slip, he simply smiled and tentatively nodded his head.

     The young woman sighed in relief.  "I'm so glad to hear it," she confessed.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

After lunch the three guests were invited by Mr Grace to take a stroll with him across some nearby fields and through the surrounding woods.  Only Mrs Grace stayed behind, apparently to take care of the housework and attend to any additional guests or callers who might arrive, as the party of five, including Pauline, set off to savour the warm afternoon sunshine and leisurely traverse the peaceful countryside.

     As previously, Mr Grace, who led the way, devoted most of his conversational attention to Harding, with whom he appeared to have struck-up a good relationship - one doubtless owing something to their mutual knowledge of and concern for art, since it constituted their main topic.  But every now and then, as though for form's sake or to prevent the other two guests from feeling left out, he directed a few words at Carol and Andrew, included them in his discussion of art or probed them about their respective interests.  He seemed especially polite towards Carol, even though she didn't go out of her way to chat with him but remained strangely aloof, as though the walk was all that really mattered to her and the conversation simply a tedious distraction from it.

     However, for Andrew, who found himself accompanied by Pauline, the conversation into which he had drifted before lunch was resumed on a slightly different footing afterwards, as he listened to her quiet but clear voice expressing various opinions on literature, poetry, writing technique, etc., and responded, to the limited extent circumstances allowed him, with his own opinions in due course.  Not that he was particularly keen on listening to what young Miss Grace had to say, nor eager to contradict or question her views.  Quite the contrary, it was rather a bore to him, since the twelve years which separated them, their dissimilar temperaments and unequal experience of writing, rendered intimate, interesting, and educative conversation virtually impossible.  Yet he had to persevere somehow, pretend he wasn't bored, and thus make some effort to grant the young woman the pleasure she evidently acquired from walking and talking with 'a writer'.  Besides, if her conversation, relative to her youth, was somewhat superficial, at least there was the compensation of her physical attractiveness – an attractiveness which Andrew Doyle couldn't help noticing and secretly admiring as they strolled along together, a few yards behind the little group in front.

     Yes, there was indeed something about her physical appearance which gave one pleasure, reminded one of her mother, and caused one to speculate as to whether she had ever had a lover.  No doubt, a pretty creature like her would have attracted men before now, perhaps even older ones.  And not only on account of her classical face or long dark hair, either.  Her body was, to all appearances, by no means lacking in feminine charms, now somewhat paradoxically clothed in a tight-fitting pair of quality denims which amply sufficed to highlight her highly seductive rump and womanly thighs, with the addition of a semi-transparent nylon vest such as could only draw attention to her breasts, nestling snugly in a white brassiere edged with frills.  To be sure, she was by no means a slow developer for her age but, if anything, a shade precocious, suggesting someone of about twenty - a fact which may have owed more than a little, Andrew speculated, to her mother's relative maturity, since Mrs Grace must have been in her late thirties or early forties at the time of Pauline's birth.

     But her body had evidently developed way ahead of her mind, which was very decidedly that of an eighteen-year-old.  And it was to her mind, rather than her attractive body, that Andrew was obliged to give most of his attention, as they trailed along behind the trio in front and continued their predominantly literary conversation.  However, there were periodic breaks in it which enabled him to return to his private thoughts or overhear snippets of conversation from the leading group, snippets which, at times, bordered on the ridiculous, as Harding and his critic friend continued to exchange views on art with a conservatism and reactionary tone which the writer had by now come to expect.  What Carol thought of it all, he couldn't know for sure.  Yet it was becoming sufficiently apparent, from the stand-offish nature of her relationship to the others, that she wasn't particularly impressed.  No doubt, she would have been more a part of the scene had they been discussing models or modelling.  But Mr Grace could hardly be expected to do that!  Beyond the world of art he seemed to know very little and not to care for very much.  His life was dominated by his criticisms, and it was his role as an art critic which made his life bearable.  Without them he would be nothing, reduced in size to the level of an ordinary man, an intellectually insignificant man.  Needless to say, he couldn't afford to forsake them, to run the risk of becoming or appearing ordinary - least of all in front of an artist!  And to take an interest in other matters, to squander too much time on the concerns of other professions, would have been to do just that, to become ordinary, to forsake his role - in short, to become an amateur.  No, Henry Grace had no intentions of sacrificing his professional pride and status for the sake of a young woman who preferred modelling to art!  Besides, bearing in mind Harding's commitment to painting, she was outnumbered 2:1, a fact which spoke eloquently for itself.  Two people's professional self-esteem couldn't possibly be sacrificed for the sake of one person's, particularly when that person was a relatively insignificant model.  Common sense forbade!

     Yes, and it was also common sense which forbade Andrew from launching out, at various times in the afternoon's proceedings, with a defence of modern art, and impressing upon the other two men the antiquated, not to say futile, nature of their opinions.  For if he had, he would almost certainly have compromised himself in his host's eyes, deeply wounded his next-door neighbour, and embarrassed the young woman whose company he was obliged to entertain, with an overriding consequence that the walk would have been thoroughly spoilt.  So he wisely restrained the impulse to champion the cause of abstraction and retained, instead, a discreet silence on the issue which, with better effect, might be broken at some more propitious opportunity.  Like, perhaps, when he was questioned on his own views and obliged to do himself proper justice in consequence.

     It was towards tea-time when, tired and sunburnt, they returned from their country stroll.  Meanwhile Philip Grace, the son of the household, had returned from his morning visit to a neighbouring friend and was on-hand to greet the guests as, once more, they entered the large detached house via its imposing front door.  Unlike his sister, this young Oxford undergraduate had flaxen hair, pale-blue eyes, and a slightly retroussé nose.  He was also a few inches taller, standing just under 5'10", and possessed a build bordering on the muscular.  As Andrew soon discovered, he was keen on sport, particularly cricket and athletics, which he frequently indulged in at university, and liked to go cross-country running at least once a week.  At first sight, one might have taken him for a German or possibly even a Swede, so much did his fair complexion connote with a strongly Nordic strain.  But he was distinctly an Englishman in character and speech, and wouldn't have been flattered by suspicions to the contrary!

     In addition to this athletic and serious-looking young man who, in-between casting shy glances at Carol, endeavoured to strike-up a conversation with Harding, the gathering had also been augmented by the presence of a certain Edwin Ford - a short, stocky, dark-eyed young man who transpired to being the neighbouring friend whom Philip Grace had gone to visit that very day, and who duly introduced himself as a fellow-undergraduate.

     "What subject are you reading?" Andrew politely inquired of him in due course.

     "Philosophy," he replied, with a slightly ingratiating smile.  "I'll soon be in my third year, unlike Philip here, who is due to begin his second shortly.  But we've known each other since we were so high (here he lowered a horizontal hand to the height of about three feet from the floor), and although he's at Oxford and I'm at Cambridge, we still continue to see each other during vacations.  As you probably realize, we're both on vacation at present - at any rate, as far as legitimate absence from college is concerned!"  He smiled anew, as though to provide a visible full-stop to his statement.  Then, by way of changing the subject, asked Andrew whether he was the artist everybody had been talking about?

     "No, I'm a writer actually," the latter confessed, wondering who the 'everybody' could be.  "Of mostly philosophical tendency," he added, in an effort both to preclude the student from asking what type and simultaneously curry favour with him.

     "Oh, how interesting!" Edwin exclaimed.  "Not Marxist, by any chance?"

     "No, not exactly," Andrew replied, a slight embarrassment in the presence of the others taking the place of the weariness he had felt, the moment before, at the prospect of being obliged to go through what he had already gone through with Pauline all over again.

     "In point of fact, he's a socialist and a transcendentalist," the latter suddenly remarked, coming to his rescue.  "A sort of socialistic transcendentalist."

     Andrew Doyle's embarrassment shot up a few degrees, with the reception of this statement, and he automatically cast a furtive glance in the general direction of the other group - for, in effect, two groups had formed - to see if he could detect any visible change in their collective demeanour.  But they seemed not to have heard or, at any rate, been affected by it.

     "A socialist and a transcendentalist?" Edwin duly exclaimed, his loud tone-of-voice betraying a degree of astonishment which caused Andrew further psychological discomfiture as, with less than steady gaze, he noted its effect on the other group - an effect of bemused curiosity which prompted one or two of them to turn their head in his direction, as though to say: 'Well, what's all the fuss about then?'  Oh, how he wished, at this moment, that he hadn't told Pauline so much about himself during the course of their walk that afternoon!  His lack of tact in one context had certainly not compensated him for his excess of it in another.  Quite the contrary!  But it was evident, by the startled expression on the chubby face of the philosophy student before him, that an answer or, at any rate, explanation was expected.

     "Yes," he at length admitted, doing his level best to ignore whatever curiosity certain members of the other group might still be displaying at this point, and looking at the expressive face of the student in question in as calm and collected a manner as possible.  "I happen to subscribe to both."

     "Do you mean to tell me that you subscribe to atheistic socialism and God-bound transcendentalism simultaneously?" Edwin objected, still manifestly incredulous.

     "Of course not!" Andrew retorted, becoming slightly defensive.  "I don't believe, however, that socialism need necessarily be opposed to religion.  On the contrary, I believe that it should eventually serve our spiritual aspirations by complementing Transcendental Meditation."

     "Then you're definitely no Marxist," declared Edwin, suddenly appearing a shade offended.  "For, as you may know, Marx warned his followers to be on their guard against transcendentalism, as constituting a threat to socialism.  Anyone who puts salvation in the sky instead of here on earth, and thereby discounts atheism, is a threat to socialism."

     "Oh, I quite agree," Andrew conceded, too much committed to the argument he had entered into with the philosophy student to be able to pull out or change mental track.  "But, even so, Marx had a rather mundane personality, didn't he?  You couldn't very well expect a man of his corpulent type to think particularly highly of transcendentalism, whatever he considered it to be.  Somehow, he doesn't strike me as the meditating type.  He's much too materialistic and intellectual."

     "Well, that doesn't detract anything from the claims of Marxism, does it?" Edwin hotly retorted, his face betraying signs of impatience, even embarrassment, by a faint colouring of the skin.  "The Marxist viewpoint is still the Marxist viewpoint, whether or not he was too materialistic."

     Andrew nodded vaguely.  "Oh, I quite agree," he repeated.  "But it's a rather limited one, all the same.  After all, just because a fat man of German-Jewish descent proclaims that transcendentalism is something to be guarded against, it doesn't necessarily follow that transcendentalism's bad.  On the contrary, it more than likely indicates that such a man wasn't qualified to either understand or practise it, given the limitations of his predominantly endomorphic temperament and build, in the, er, Sheldonian sense of the term," he added, alluding to one of the American psychologist W.H. Sheldon's principal physiological classifications.

     "But, damn it all! ‘God is dead’" the student, echoing Nietzsche, vigorously objected, "and, in a sense, has been so for some two thousand years.  All this nonsense about transcendentalism, spiritual aspirations, TM, and so on, is irrelevant, out-of-date, passé.  You remind me of Philip when you speak of such things.  Christianity and Christ are inimical to socialism, incompatible with it.  The co-operative society must be atheistic!"

     "Thoroughly mistaken," asseverated Andrew, who had by now cast off his remaining inhibitions and was in a fighting mood.  "And I wasn't alluding to Christ when I spoke of transcendentalism, but to the Holy Ghost."

     "What difference does it make?" Edwin retorted.  "God is God no matter what you call Him."

     Andrew had expected some such mistaken opinion, and sighed in heartfelt exasperation at it.  "Quite wrong!" he averred.  "The God of the pagans, or pre-Christians, was the Father, or whatever you'd like to call their equivalent of the Creator, the so-called Almighty.  The God of the Christians is - or, if you prefer, was - Jesus Christ.  And, finally, the God of the transcendentalists, or post-Christians, will be - and for some already is - the Holy Ghost.  The Blessed Trinity, which Christianity in its wisdom and foresight has bequeathed to us, isn't strictly a simultaneous phenomenon but, rather, a successive one.  It was initiated by Christianity because, as the middle development in Western man's evolution, Christianity was in an historical position to both look back towards the earliest stage of man's religious evolution as well as forward towards the future stage of it - the stage which we, in the West, have already entered upon, though not officially or with unanimous consent, during the course of the past 100-150 years, and most especially in the latter-half of the twentieth century.  In effect, we in the post-industrialized West live in the age of the Holy Ghost, and, if the human kind is to survive any subsequent apocalyptic upheaval, we'll progressively continue to do so, to grow ever more attached to the superconscious as opposed to the ego."

     Edwin Ford was completely taken-aback by this barrage of evolutionary theology from the comparative stranger in front of him.  What was all this nonsense about the superconscious, age of the Holy Ghost, middle development in Western man's evolution, etc?  He hadn't read anything about such things during the course of his studies at Cambridge!  Was this philosophy, too?  He looked at Pauline as though for support, confirmation that he was dealing with a madman or at least a fool.  But she merely stared back at him, as if to say: 'Well, what d'you find strange about all that?'  Even Philip Grace, who had disengaged himself from the other group and come over to join them, showed no signs of being outraged, baffled, or amused.  Quite the contrary, he merely requested Andrew, in a voice which bespoke genuine curiosity, to make some effort to explain, in greater detail, what he meant by 'the superconscious as opposed to the ego', together with certain other related aspects of his philosophy.

     "Yes," Pauline seconded, deferring to her brother. "Enlighten us accordingly!"

     Only too willing to oblige, Andrew cleared his throat before proceeding to deliver the broad outlines of his philosophy concerning the progress of human evolution from the subconscious to the superconscious.  It was something which, to varying extents, affected men everywhere, though the example of Europe, particularly Western Europe, was most apt because relevant to everyone present.  "Beginning in the subconscious, in subservience to sensuous nature," he began, "man's consciousness was relatively dark - the darker the more sensuous the type of nature man found himself surrounded and, to a large extent, dominated by.  One might argue that his ego, or conscious mind, was composed of approximately three-quarters subconscious and one-quarter superconscious, making it decidedly lopsided on the side of the former.  Consequently fear predominated over hope, hate over love, sadness over happiness, pain over pleasure, evil over good, and illusion over truth, so that a religious sense reflecting this negative imbalance necessitated a religion in which God, as 'Creator', was dark and cruel, requiring regular propitiation.  For this act of propitiation blood sacrifices, also dark and cruel, were deemed appropriate - the more prized and important, from a human standpoint, the greater was thought their prospect of success.  Witness the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament, the record of first-stage man in the Middle East.  Witness the example of the Aztecs in South America.  Think of the Druids in ancient Britain, who are more relevant to us.  Wherever man has been under subconscious domination in subservience to nature, a similar pattern of blood sacrifice, founded on fear of God, has followed suit.  For the subconscious is dark, and it's to 'the dark gods' - which, incidentally, D.H. Lawrence seems to have found so attractive - that it inevitably leads.  One might say that, at this stage of evolution, God is essentially hateful, a power to be feared and, if possible, won over to one's side.  The sacrifice follows as a matter of course.

     "But, fortunately, man doesn't come to a halt, like the beasts, but continues to evolve," Andrew went on, "and through the progress he makes in the expansion of his settlements or villages into towns, he manages to push the sensuous influence of nature away from himself to an extent which makes it possible for him to live in a more balanced psychological condition, and thus relate to a dualistic rather than a pre-dualistic religious framework, a framework manifesting itself in the antithesis between a bad god and a good god which, in Christian terms, is equivalent to the Devil and Christ - the one representative of the sensual, the other of the spiritual.  It's after the transcendent example of Christ, of course, that human evolution tends, and consequently it's the duty of all Christians to live as much as possible in His light, to fight shy of the Devil's darkness.  For Satan, symbolizing the mundane, would drag one back to pre-Christian paganism, which would conflict with one's deepest interests in spiritual salvation.  Willy-nilly, with the Church's guidance, one must follow the example of Christ, the man-god whom allegiance to the psychic balance between the subconscious and superconscious minds had made possible, since that balance constitutes the highpoint of the ego and accordingly entails an anthropomorphic projection perfectly relative to one's self-centredness as man in his prime as man.

     "But Christianity, being dualistic, doesn't stop at the dichotomy between Satan and Christ," Andrew continued, warming to his thesis, "but also, and in another context, divides the Saviour Himself into two tendencies, the evil and the good, so that to some extent - though to a lesser extent than in the pre-Christian context of a god of hate - one must fear Him as well, and thus, by living in His light, avoid the consequences of His wrath at the Last Judgement.  For wrath, on whatever grounds, appertains to the realm of hate, the transmission of negative vibrations through anger, and hate, as we all know, is evil.  But it isn't, however, the same kind of evil as generally manifested in and represented by the Devil, being a spiritual rather than purely sensual evil, and therefore is of less consequence, in the Christian schemata, than the latter.  For the essential dichotomy of Christianity is between the sensual and the spiritual, not between hate and love.  Thus the essence of Christ is His opposition to Satan, and this is what makes Him the spiritual leader of all true Christians.

     "But man, as I've already said, doesn't remain static but continues to evolve," Andrew went on, warming still further to his subject, "and thus his towns gradually expand into cities or, at any rate, some of them do, so that the sensuous influence of nature is at a still-further remove from him and, in accordance with the artificial dictates of his predominantly urban environment, he begins to forsake the balance between the subconscious and superconscious minds in favour of the latter.  Hence the ego, reflecting that former balance, goes into decline as more and more of the light of superconscious allegiance makes its mark on his psychology, and he begins to transcend dualism.  Yes, now one might argue that he's approximately one-quarter subconscious and three-quarters superconscious, decidedly biased in favour of the latter and therefore not in a psychic position to relate to the Christian dichotomy between Devil and God, sensual and spiritual, hate and love, Christ the Banisher and Christ the Redeemer - in short, to anthropomorphism.  No, it's at this third stage of his evolution that he turns, in response to his predominating spirituality in a superconsciously biased psyche, to the creation of a god of love, a god who doesn't require to be propitiated with blood sacrifices or confessions or prayers or charitable deeds, a god who doesn't judge and condemn to eternal torment those who haven't followed his example on earth, a god who doesn't take the form of man, a god who isn't opposed by an evil god of sensuous predilection but, rather, a god who is wholly transcendent, and thus completely beyond the realm of nature.  This god will be the Holy Ghost, the third and highest so-called 'Person' of the Blessed Trinity - though, should you wish to avoid Christian terminology, with its anthropomorphic limitations, you might prefer to follow Teilhard de Chardin's lead and refer to Him or, rather, it as the Omega Point, and thus transcend purely Trinitarian connotations.  The essential thing to remember, however, is that this god, reflecting our growing allegiance to the superconscious, is a god of love and that, because it's non-human, because the projection of human traits, whether physical or psychical, is irrelevant, one doesn't pray to it, as a Christian would pray to Christ, but simply experiences what is potentially it ... as the essential self within the psyche, an intimation of the Infinite which man, in consequence of his superconscious mind, is enabled to experience, a condition of higher awareness wherein all distinctions of good and evil, love and hate, are transcended in an all-embracing peace - the peace that 'surpasses all understanding' and, hence, intellectual ego."

     "Yes, it's essentially the age of the Holy Ghost," Andrew pressed on, oblivious of all but his immediate audience, "the age when man turns away from his former dualism towards the realm of peace, and so draws one stage closer to the culmination of his evolution in transcendent bliss, which is, of course, the condition of Heaven.  Christianity has pointed him towards this culmination for centuries, it has held up to him the dual image of Hell and Heaven, symbolizing the beginnings and endings of evolution, and placed Christ in the middle of this development.  One might say that it is a terribly long journey from the tortuous writhing of the Damned in Hell to the blissful passivity of the Saved in Heaven!  The juxtaposition of the two states in painterly depictions of the Last Judgement doesn't so much signify a simultaneous occurrence - contrary to what one might at first suppose - as the furthest possible remove from such simultaneity.  Strictly speaking, the Saved are no longer human but godly, just as the Damned are not yet human but beastly.  And in-between lies man who, in the long journey from the beastly to the godly, is now closer, when not either dualistic or pre-dualistic, whether on 'neo' or 'classical' terms, to the latter than ever before, more transcendental, and hence spiritual, than ever before, and thus closer to that salvation which resides in the post-human, not to say humanist, Beyond.  An ever-increasing number of us are no longer, from a species point of view, in our prime as men, but are growing progressively lopsided on the side of the godly, ever more spiritual as the decades pass.  This is certainly something to be grateful for, since it indicates that the promise of Christianity is being fulfilled and that it is we, in this post-Christian age, who are the ones actively engaged in fulfilling it.  As far as the more spiritually evolved of us are concerned, the example of Christ has served its day ..."

     "Antichrist!" a voice suddenly erupted from an area of the room to Andrew's left.  It belonged, as the writer quickly and somewhat disconcertingly discovered, to Mr Grace who, together with Robert Harding and Carol Jackson, had also been listening to the impromptu sermon he had delivered to the three young people in front of him.  He blushed perceptibly as the realization of this fact dawned upon him, and turned a rather startled face towards his accuser.  "How dare you come into my house and preach this kind of nonsense to a man who is a Christian and has endeavoured to educate his children accordingly!" Mr Grace protested.  "Who-the-devil d'you think you are?"

     His nerves violently on-edge, Andrew retorted: "If I'm he whom you accuse me of being, then I don't see that you should necessarily regard me with hate and suspicion, as though I were some dangerously evil man set upon destroying the spiritual life and reducing humanity to the level of beasts.  On the contrary, if I express views to the effect that Christianity is no longer relevant to the age in which we live, it isn't because I regard it as a source of goodness which I, ostensibly an evil man, wish to oppose and, if possible, make a contribution towards crushing.  Rather, it's because, as a man very much on the side of goodness, light, truth, the fulfilment of the Christian prophecy, etc., I recognize, in response to the nature of the age, that it is being transcended anyway, and that this is perfectly just, since strictly in accordance with the progress of human evolution towards a higher spirituality founded on the superconscious.  I don't turn against Christ because I am evil, as you, in your antiquated traditionalism, would seem to suppose, but simply because I'm evidently more enlightened than you, a person who is apparently at home with anthropomorphism and the consequent ego-projection of human traits, some of them rather nasty, onto the god you serve."

     "More enlightened than me?" Mr Grace vigorously demurred.  "How dare you say such a thing!  Don't you know that I'm a world-famous critic, a man who deserves respect and deference on account of his status, age, wealth, class, not to mention his role as your host?  Who are you to judge whether you're more enlightened than me?"  It was evident, by this pathetically egocentric outburst, that Henry Grace had lost all sense of restraint, of dignified perseverance, and would have been capable of sinking to almost any level of abusive fury.

     There was a titter of laughter from Edwin Ford, and Andrew noticed that Harding was glaring at him.  But the other people in the room showed no particular emotion at this point, being content merely to await whatever response he should decide upon with a reserved demeanour.

     "I wasn't specifically intending to flatter myself or to criticize you when I spoke like that," the writer at length responded in a pacificatory tone-of-voice.  "I was simply endeavouring to state a fact which would seem to be borne-out by your professed allegiance to Christianity and consequent adherence to dualism rather than to transcendentalism.  In actuality, however, I would wager anything that, like a majority of your kind, you aren't really a Christian at all but more of a Christian transcendentalist, being midway between Christ and the Holy Ghost."

     Mr Grace, however, wasn't to be mollified by such a wager.  "I am a Christian," he asserted, as though to defend himself from some unsavoury accusation.  "I attend church once a week, believe in Christ, and look forward to meeting the Saviour face-to-face in the Afterlife."

     Andrew vaguely nodded his head, as though in weary anticipation of some such admission.  "But do you sincerely believe that Christ is all there is to Western man's concept of God, that Christ is the be-all-and-end-all of human evolution?  Deep down, do you really think one cannot evolve beyond Christ?"

     "Yes, I do," Mr Grace averred, though, perhaps understandably, without much conviction.  He hesitated a moment, then continued: "Of course, I accept the Holy Ghost as the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, but ..."

     "Ah, so you do acknowledge the fact that there's something above Christ," Andrew interposed, with an expression of triumph on his lean face.  "You are prepared to admit to the validity of the Holy Ghost?"

     "By all means," Mr Grace confirmed.  "But I don't see what that has to do with it.  After all, I believe in Christ, the Son of God Who ..."

     "Oh, of course you do!" Andrew interposed again, growing slightly impatient with his host's theological conservatism, the product, no doubt, of a sheep-like acquiescence in what he had been taught many years before and had not bothered to question in the meantime.  "Yet that doesn't mean to say you can't have transcendental sympathies, or that Christianity is the final stage of man's religious evolution.  Quite the reverse, there are a lot of people these days who, just because they attend church once a week and pay lip service to Christ, imagine they're genuine Christians when, if the truth were known, they're incapable of a genuinely Christian faith and attitude to life because closer in reality to being transcendentalists.  They're caught between two worlds, two stages of man's religious evolution, and are consequently less Christian than they may think."

     Mr Grace frowned sullenly, doubtless to distance himself from being implicated in any such ambiguity, but Andrew prevented him from saying anything by raising his hand in mild rebuff and continuing: "Now don't think I'm condemning them for that, since it's only to be expected at this transitional juncture in time that a lot of consciously Christian people should be unconsciously less Christian than they may think, given the fact that they're subject, like most other people, to the anti-natural influence of the artificial environments of our big cities, and therefore aren't quite as finely balanced between the subconscious and the superconscious as a genuine Christian, living in the heyday of Christianity, would be.  And if, for that reason, they're less Christian, well then, they can only be more transcendental, which is a good thing.  For just as a transcendentalist-proper is on a higher level of spiritual evolution than a Christian transcendentalist, so, in a paradoxical sort of way, the latter is on a higher spiritual level than a Christian-proper.  In point of fact, most latter-day Protestant sects are effectively Christian transcendentalist, in contrast to the Catholic Church, which puts more emphasis on the feminine, viz. the Virgin Mary, and on propitiation, viz. confession, and is thereby closer, in essence, to paganism, to what preceded Christianity, even when one discounts the sublimated cannibalism of the Mass, wherein the body and blood of Christ are sacramentally consumed.  One might say that the fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is to do with a distinction between early Christianity and late Christianity, as between Christianity-proper which, with its beingful deference to the Virgin Mary, is somewhat Buddhist in its accommodation of sentience to the world, and Christian transcendentalism which, with its existential crucifix, transcends the world to some extent, if only materialistically so and, hence, with effect to the intellect primarily.  Thus if you're a Roman Catholic ..."

     "My family and I am Baptist!" declared Henry Grace with solemnity.

     "Well then, you're certainly more transcendental," Andrew rejoined, offering his adversary a confirmatory smile.  "You don't set much store by the Blessed Virgin, and you don't make a point of regularly confessing your sins to a priest.  You have, it seems to me, a more optimistic concept of God, which is exemplified by the fact that you don't go in any great fear of Him.  Why, He might almost be a god of love, the way you trust Him not to punish you for being opposed to confession.  But not quite because, being partly Christian, you still contrive to anthropomorphize God and thus relate, in varying degrees, to Christ.  You still acknowledge a dualistic framework to some extent, though obviously to a lesser extent than the genuine Christian - assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are in fact any such people around these days.  For it goes without saying that if the modern age, with its large-scale industrialization and widespread urbanization, isn't particularly friendly towards Protestantism, it's even less friendly towards Catholicism, which initially flourished in a much-less urban environment - indeed, in a predominantly rural one, and was accordingly more naturalistic.  But all this is slightly beside-the-point, a point I trust I made sufficiently clear to you when I said that our evolution is leading us towards a higher spirituality founded upon the superconscious, and it's therefore right and proper that Christianity, of whatever description, should be left behind as a matter of course.  Thus if you see me as an antichrist, Mr Grace, I'm not in the least ashamed of it, nor in any way conscious that I'm holding back evolutionary progress.  On the contrary, I'm only anti-Christian to the extent that I'm pro-transcendental.  I'm not a Christian but a transcendentalist, a man of the Holy Ghost, as I hope to have made conclusively evident by now."

     Mr Grace refused to comment, but Edwin Ford, who during the course of Andrew's explication had retained a discreet if resentful silence, suddenly reverted to his earlier concern with Marxism and the correlative assertion that a socialist society should be atheistic.  He saw no future, he said, for the type of person Andrew seemed to be so keen on defending, and flatly proclaimed himself in favour of atheistic socialism - not, it might be noted, to the overall pleasure of Henry Grace and Robert Harding who, at this unhappy juncture, simultaneously expressed an implicit disapproval of the subject by reverting to a discussion of their own - one, needless to say, on art.  "The fact is that modern man," Edwin continued, ignoring the disturbance to his right, "is outgrowing the illusions of the past and evolving, in consequence, towards a secular society in which God, however you conceive of Him, has absolutely no place.  Salvation is in our own hands, not in those of an illusory deity, and will only come about when we attain to the communist millennium, having, in the meantime, abolished competitiveness and established a classless society founded on co-operation."

     "Oh, I entirely agree," said Andrew, in enthusiastic response to the latter part of the student's argument.  "It is important to mankind's future welfare that the co-operative ideals of socialism should flourish.  For just as religion passes through three distinct stages, so, too, does politics - beginning with royalism, evolving to liberalism, and culminating in socialism."

     Both Edwin and Philip looked puzzled.  "How d'you mean?" the latter asked.

     "I mean," Andrew confidently replied, "that politics, like religion, corresponds to the nature of the environment in which a given people happen to find themselves, corresponds, if you prefer, to their psychic disposition in relation to it, so that a people predominantly existing in the subconscious will have a different political bias from a people for whom the superconscious has come to play a greater role.  Now if subservience to the subconscious results in royalism, genuine royalism, that is, not the neo-royalism and/or fascism we have seen so much of in recent decades but a pre-democratic authoritarianism which emphasizes differences of rank, wealth, race, intelligence, etc., and is distinctly competitive, then the converse situation ... of allegiance to the superconscious ... results in socialism, in a politics which strives to establish equality, abolishing differences of rank, wealth, race, intelligence, etc., and encouraging co-operation.  Well, just as our spiritual evolution from the beastly to the godly embraces a compromise position in-between paganism and transcendentalism en route which, as Christianity, reflects man in his prime as man, so our material evolution likewise embraces a compromise position in-between royalism and socialism en route which, as liberalism, also reflects man in his dualistic prime.  Now just as Christianity reaches its peak while the dualistic tension is strongest and man is most finely balanced between the subconscious and the superconscious in his ego, so liberalism reaches a peak while the tension between competitiveness and co-operativeness, democratic royalism and democratic socialism, is greatest, and the political battle accordingly most finely balanced.

     "It has been claimed, incidentally, that liberalism is incapable of producing great leaders - a view, if I may say so, which is really quite mistaken," Andrew continued, taking his exposition to a new level.  "For it's certainly capable of producing them while in the ascendant or at its peak, as witness men like Gladstone and Shaftesbury.  But as soon as it begins to decline, the odds are stacked against its doing so.  Now the further it declines, the more liberalism parts company, in other words, with its former dualistic balance and becomes progressively lopsided on the side of the Left, the less chance there is that it will produce great leaders, since they only appear, as a rule, when the battle between the Right and the Left is at its height, not when one doesn't have to exert oneself overmuch because the balance has been tipped so far in one's favour that the sailing, if I may use a sporting analogue, is smoothest.  Political leadership always requires a strong opposition if it's to distinguish itself."

     "Yes, but what does all this have to do with Marxism?" Edwin wanted to know, showing signs of impatience with Andrew's contention.  "I don't doubt that socialism evolves out of liberalism.  What I'm interested in establishing with you is the fact that 'God is dead' and the drive towards the communist millennium accordingly under way."

     Andrew Doyle felt somewhat annoyed with this cocky young Cambridge undergraduate for not having given ground to any appreciable extent on his misguided conviction that socialism and transcendentalism were incompatible, even after all the efforts he had put himself through to describe the three principal stages of religious evolution and to align them, so far as possible, with corresponding political stages.  No doubt, young Ford was of such a distinctly political persuasion as not to be able to abide the thought of religion, or the prospect of spiritual aspirations, still figuring in people's lives.  Like Marx, he put all or most of his eggs in the basket of socialism and left them there.

     But was he wrong?  Yes and no.  Yes, because politics weren't everything and couldn't be expected to bring one to spiritual salvation in transcendent bliss.  No, because he was to a significant extent the victim of his temperament, his physiological type, possibly even his race, and couldn't be expected to properly relate to those of a dissimilar constitution.  The world had need of men who would dedicate most of their energies to politics, who saw salvation largely if not wholly in material terms, if only to ensure that politics weren't ignored.  Likewise, it had need of the opposite kind of men, men who, for a variety of reasons, not least of all temperamental, would dedicate themselves primarily to the cause of spiritual advancement.  Yet it also had need of men like Andrew, who, being more temperamentally balanced between the material and the spiritual, realized that, strictly speaking, the one couldn't exist without the other, and that it was a rash presumption on the part of the temperamentally lopsided to suppose the contrary - namely that only their individual concerns mattered, not those of their opponents.  Taken to extremes, this would lead to mass purges of people who, for a variety of personal reasons, couldn't be expected to share one's views, to abandon their transcendentalism, shall we say, in the name of Marxism, and thus subscribe to a society based solely on politics and/or economics.  Rather than being accepted on their own temperamental standing as a legitimate contribution to the overall welfare of society or, at any rate, to a quite considerable section of it, such people would probably be regarded as fools, if not class enemies, and be liquidated for the good of Marxism.  Which of course would be partly true, since it would be for the good of Marxism.  But not for the good of human progress!  Not as a contributory factor to the culmination of evolution in the subsequent post-human millennium!  It would suit only one section of humanity - people whose mundane temperaments permitted them to regard material concerns as the be-all-and-end-all of mankind's salvation, who conceived of the Millennium solely in terms of economic co-operation, decent wages, council estates, equality of opportunity, freedom from want, etc., with never a thought for the deepest and most important needs of mankind - those of the spirit.  Man, apparently, was to be reduced to a beast who simply required to be well-housed and well-fed, provided with a decent kennel and regular meat.  But could man be so reduced?  Was it likely that progress demanded of man that he became less spiritual than of old, that progress signified a regression to pagan criteria - nay, even a complete elimination of man's spiritual potential?

     It seemed unlikely!  If anything, progress could only mean a refinement on and improvement of his spiritual potential, a better and more sensible way of satisfying it, of encouraging it to develop, according to the capacities of the individual.  Man was not to regress to a level scarcely above the beasts, with never a thought for anything beyond his material well-being and future survival.  On the contrary, he had to progress one stage closer to the godlike.  After all, even 2000 years ago it was acknowledged that man did not live by bread alone.  How much more so was it the case now!  How much more so would it be the case in future!

     No, the Marxist claim certainly had a point so far as outgrowing the Christian god was concerned.  But it was decidedly mistaken if it thought that men should outgrow the concept of spiritual salvation altogether!  If God was dead, it should not be taken to imply that God per se, or the Holy Ghost, was dead (since, in Andrew's view, this God didn't as yet properly exist), but only the Christian way of conceiving of God - the anthropomorphic, relativistic concept of God as Jesus Christ, based on the ego projections of dualistic man, or man balanced between the subconscious and the superconscious during that time he lived in a compromise position between nature and civilization in what has been termed, by philosophers of history like Spengler, a Culture.  But if Western Culture was in decline, as Spengler contended, then modern man was arguably on the rise, up beyond the cultural phase of evolution towards the transcendental phase, in which the superconscious considerably predominated over the subconscious, and the ego, at its height while the dualistic balance still prevailed, declines in proportion to the imbalance in favour of the superconscious.  Thus there is progressively less motivation for anthropomorphic projections, and consequently the Christian god is transcended.

     But not the Holy Ghost, Ultimate Reality, the Omega Point, or whatever one would like to call the true concept of God which takes Christ's place.  There can be no question of one's discarding that!  For it is only through progressive allegiance to that part of the psyche which presages the Infinite that man will eventually attain to his spiritual salvation in transcendent bliss, and thus enter the post-human millennium, that heaven-on-earth where only peace will reign.  The Christian prophecy of salvation will indeed be fulfilled, though not in strictly Christian or symbolical terms, but in post-Christian and hence literal terms, such as are readily acceptable to an age in which truth must increasingly prevail over illusion and ultimately, at the climax to our evolution, completely triumph over the illusory - to whatever pertains, in short, to the subconscious mind, the sensual, and the worldly.  It was closer and closer to the godly that we were heading, not closer to the beastly!  And because of this, the true concept of God was superior to anything which had preceded it.  (Note that one can have a true concept of God without believing in the existence of God, i.e. through refusing to confuse what is potentially this God, in the higher reaches of the superconscious, with what will truly become divine at the climax of evolution, following spiritual transcendence.  One can thus be an atheist and an upholder of God-in-the-process-of-formation at the same time!)

     Yet while the confusions resulting from and attendant upon the transition from one concept or stage of God to another continued to exist, as they would doubtless do until such time as the transition had been officially outgrown, it was understandable, if regrettable, that purely materialistic sentiments took possession of so many people and induced them to suppose that religion was a closed issue.  The fact of Edwin Ford's believing that politics, and politics alone, would suffice to take care of mankind's future welfare ... was by no means an uncommon assumption, since one effectively shared by thousands, if not millions, of fundamentally well-intentioned, though essentially deluded, people who took the gospel of Marx and kindred Socialists too seriously.  Whether or not he liked it, socialism would eventually have to serve transcendentalism, the Commissar, in Koestlerian parlance, would have to subordinate himself to the Yogi, so that, thanks to co-operative well-being on the material plane, man would be in the best possible position to develop his spiritual potential and thereby prepare himself for that long-awaited transformation from the human to the godlike, from man to superman, which would constitute the post-human millennium and, hence, salvation-on-earth.  Such a joyous climax to the long struggle humanity had waged through the ages in the name of progress would not be brought about, however, by the Commissars striving to eliminate the Yogis.  As Koestler suggested, the predominantly political temperaments and their religious counterparts would have to work together for the common good, not battle one another after the fashion of adversaries!  The co-operative society really had to be co-operative, unwilling to tolerate or sanction those divisive dualities out of which, thank goodness, man was slowly evolving.  There could be no question of people abusing one another, like Catholics and Protestants, democratic royalists and democratic socialists, in the transcendental society.  For physical passivity, not conflict, is the key to salvation - a salvation which, as deliverance from dualism, we were now closer to than at any previous time in the history of our race.

     So it was that Andrew strove to impress upon Edwin the limitations of his materialistic viewpoint, agreeing with him where agreement was possible, but strongly repudiating any claims to the effect that socialism should be regarded as an end-in-itself, without recourse to religion.  Clearly, materialistic Marxism had to be superseded, in due course, by a socialist philosophy not hostile to transcendentalism ... if what Andrew liked to think of as third-stage life, the life of post-Christian man, was to get properly off the ground and reasonably integrated (otherwise humanity would arrive at a dead-end in which the spirit suffocated beneath the oppressive consistency of materialistic considerations, cut-off from that higher destiny which alone constituted true salvation).  That this was unlikely to happen in the near future seemed only too obvious.  But eventually, once the world had rid itself of a number of existing conflicts, there could be no reasonable alternative to the establishment of a new socialism, one based not on hostility to Christianity, but on an acceptance of and allegiance to transcendentalism.  The struggle towards the creation of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Grail of religious striving, would have to be acknowledged - else politics was defeating its own ends.

     "Well," said Edwin at the conclusion to Andrew's latest speech, part of which he found attractive and even strangely credible, "what you say may well be true, but I'm damned if I'll submit to any meditation routine in the meantime.  I'd rather stick to my Marxism and concentrate on damning Christianity or, more specifically, bourgeois liberalism, with its parliamentary presumptions."

     "You're perfectly welcome to," Andrew responded, a faint smile of knowing resignation in accompaniment, "since no-one is asking you to wear a coat which doesn't fit.  But I'd be grateful, all the same, if you didn't make the mistake of damning transcendentalism in the process!"

     "Yes, so would I," seconded Philip Grace, breaking the respectful silence he had maintained, in company with his sister, while Andrew was delivering his lengthy and, at times, perplexing harangue.

     "Bah!" ejaculated the Cambridge undergraduate, with a certain cynical relish.  "You can keep your heads in the clouds of idealistic illusion, for all I care!"

     But before he or anyone could say anything else, Mrs Grace appeared on the scene, to announce that tea was ready.  The time had again arrived for them to take care of the body!

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

"I do hope you weren't too offended by some of the opinions my next-door neighbour permitted himself before tea," Harding apologetically and almost rhetorically inquired of the figure seated beside him on one of the four available back-garden benches.  "I hadn't realized he harboured such radical sentiments."

     Henry Grace appeared momentarily upset, then, remembering his self-appointed role, burst into a dismissive smile, as though to say he had already forgotten about the affair and didn't consider it worth his while to recall anything.  "After all, people are entitled to their views, even if we can't approve of or relate to them," he averred, as a kind of afterthought.  "I hadn't realized you'd brought an antichrist with you."

     "Neither had I," Harding confessed, averting his eyes from the critic's vaguely reproachful gaze and instinctively turning them towards Carol Jackson, who sat directly opposite.  "In point of fact, I knew very little about him, not having known him all that long.  Had I not recently executed his portrait, it wouldn't have occurred to me to invite him along with us."

     "Oh, don't worry yourself about it!" Mr Grace advised him, adopting an almost fatherly tone.  "A new voice in our midst every now and then is by no means a bad thing, particularly if it only serves to strengthen us in our convictions.  I assure you that I'm not opposed to free speech, no matter how much I may disagree with or disapprove of what's being said.  We must be tolerant, mustn't we?  Although I must confess to not having been able to tolerate everything he said, as, for example, when he considered himself my spiritual superior.  That sounded too presumptuous by half!"

     Harding sighed faintly in commiserating response to this blunt reminder of Mr Grace's former outrage.  Obviously the man had been offended to some considerable extent, though politeness or tactfulness now restrained him from making a point of it.

     "He was just following-up the logic that transcendentalism is on a higher spiritual plane than Christianity," Carol opined, somewhat to both men's surprise, "and that a transcendentalist is therefore spiritually superior to a Christian, since less dualistic, less given to the sensual, and consequently indisposed to anthropomorphic projections relative to an egocentric humanism.  I find that an admirably objective viewpoint, actually."

     Harding wasn't at all pleased with his girlfriend's defence of Andrew Doyle's logic, nor with her uncharacteristic sophistication, and would have cautioned her with a look of reproof, had she not been focusing her attention exclusively on the shocked face of their host.

     "Admirable or not, it was still presumptuous of him to say what he did," Mr Grace responded testily.  "How does he know how good or bad I am?  Can he read my soul?"

     "I can't answer that," Carol replied.  "But he evidently assumes that a man who's at home with Christianity, like you, is less spiritually advanced than one who finds it beneath him.  Perhaps, on the other hand, you're not as much of a Christian as you tend to imagine, and simply did yourself an unconscious injustice by defending Christianity the way you did."

     "Carol!" protested Harding sharply, becoming embarrassed on Mr Grace's account.  But the critic seemed not to be offended, or at least to show it if he was.

     "That may be true," he conceded.  "Though it's hardly for him to say what I am.  Common decency should forbid."

     "Ah, but you did accuse him of being an antichrist," Carol insisted, ignoring her boyfriend's disapproval.

     "Well, that's what he is, isn't he?" Mr Grace retorted with impatience.  "And, to my mind, anyone who's against Christ is for the Devil.  That much I have always maintained!  But he doubtless wouldn't agree, being a transcendentalist or whatever he calls himself."  He attempted a dismissive chuckle.  Then, evidently disappointed that it didn't sound as dismissive as he would have liked, rhetorically added: "Have you ever heard such nonsense?" to the man beside him.

     Harding automatically allowed himself the luxury of a conspiratorial smile.  "Perhaps I ought to have painted a dove above his head when I did his portrait the other week," he murmured, by way of verbally siding with their host.  "But I hadn't realized, at the time, that he harboured such an allegiance.  He was remarkably secretive with me.  Didn't even let-on about his socialist sympathies, though I guessed from the start that he must have had some.... Could tell by his reaction to certain of my statements.  Yet because he was my new neighbour and something of an artist in his own right, I was doing my level best to establish a friendly relationship, to remain polite and optimistic, as the situation seemingly warranted.  Unfortunately, life too often has a way of obliging one to attempt friendship with people who are really anything but kindred spirits, yet whom circumstances have thrust upon one with the implicit stipulation that one makes a determined effort to treat them as if they were!  It has often happened to me in the past, and sometimes with quite disastrous results!  On one occasion, for instance, I found myself befriending a communist without in the least being aware of the fact until a number of weeks had elapsed, and I discovered a letter, which he'd evidently mislaid, from the Communist Party.  I immediately severed relations with the jerk and ceased to befriend him there and then!  You can imagine how surprised he was by my sudden volte-face.  But, fortunately to say, most of my social incompatibilities haven't been with men."  He avoided Carol's eyes but was perfectly aware, from the tone of the ironic a-hem she faintly emitted, that she assumed he was primarily alluding to her.  The incompatibility in her case, though hitherto of a less radical nature than a majority of the incompatibilities he had known with women, appeared to have acquired a new emphasis and slightly extended itself beyond its previous bounds; though he couldn't quite fathom the reason or reasons for this change in her - even given the fact that she was evidently sympathetic towards Andrew Doyle.  No, this modification in her attitude towards him, although for the most part artfully concealed, had stealthily insinuated itself into her some time before Doyle had elected to deliver an extempore lecture on religion and politics.  But why and how?  This he hadn't been able to ascertain, even after he had inquired of her if something was amiss.

     Breaking the oppressive silence which threatened to drive a psychological wedge between him and his two principal guests, Mr Grace said: "Well, I think that you and I can at least be assured, Robert, of an acceptable degree of temperamental and social compatibility, regardless of any superficial differences which may exist between us.  I liked you from the start, and I continue to do so ... whatever your new neighbour's views might be.  As far as art, politics, and religion are concerned, we're fundamentally two of a kind, brothers in a common cause - the cause, namely, of liberal decency and tradition.  We have enemies everywhere, that goes without saying.  But we also have friends, and it's our moral duty to aid them wherever and whenever we can.  For I'll aid you, Rob, you needn't be in any doubt about that!  Your technical abilities as an artist greatly impress me, not least of all in the aesthetically gratifying example recently made available to me in the form of a highly competent and elegant portrait, which I assure you I shall always treasure.  The other two in the lounge - the one of me as a young man of approximately your own age, painted by Gareth Stephens, and the one of my late cousin, Reginald, done by the artist himself - are decidedly overshadowed by your work, believe me, and I flatter myself to think that you may be prepared to execute other such portraits of me and my family in due course."

     Hardly able to believe his ears, Harding was overcome with a mixture of gratitude and relief at the sound of these generous words which, all along, it had been his pet ambition to hear.  "I most certainly am!" he exuberantly averred, blushing profusely.  "The prospect of executing additional commissions from you gives me immense satisfaction, I can assure you, Mr Grace.  I'm deeply honoured."

     "No more than your talent deserves," Henry Grace nonchalantly assured him, taking the opportunity to extend an encouraging hand to the artist's nearest shoulder.  "It's the least I can do, to offer you further opportunities of expressing it.  Otherwise you may feel obliged to waste precious time on the production of works you're not temperamentally suited to - if, indeed, one can term such productions as those to which I'm alluding 'works' at all!"

     Harding smiled knowingly and nodded in eager complicity.  He knew exactly to which kinds of productions the critic was alluding and was only too grateful for this further confirmation of the latter's professional confidence in him, this new indication of their mutual distaste for and opposition to modern art, with its non-representational bias.  Now there could be no doubt that Mr Grace was firmly on his side, he felt confident he could establish a firm reputation for himself as a champion of the representational tradition and an enemy of abstraction, in any and all of its modes.  The art world would come to appreciate his cause in due time, tired, as it was, of the insipid productions of the painterly avant-garde and hungering for something with real substance, hungering, in fact, for art itself.  Yes, the art world had been deprived of genuine creativity for too long, it was spiritually famished.  But it would be fed, and Harding knew how to feed it!  And not only with portraits, nutritious though they undoubtedly were, but with landscapes, depictions of great events, interpretations of classical myth, and illustrations from world literature.  He would pour fresh blood into its moribund veins, re-animate it with all the vigour of his soul, and create a veritable revolution in taste.  Representational art would acquire a new lease-of-life, and thus be restored to full bodily strength.

     Such was how Harding mused as, oblivious of Carol, he sat in Henry Grace's verdant garden, that fair evening in late July, and pondered his future world-saving destiny, no more than a foot or two from the man who would help him to realize it.  But even as he basked in the smug complicity of their mutual conspiracy, a dark cloud passed across his soul at the recollection of what Doyle had said, during tea, about his preference for progressive abstract art and conviction that, if it hadn't already done so, such art would soon reach its painterly consummation and thereupon die out - a remark made in response to a question put to him by young Edwin Ford which, at the time, neither artist nor critic chose to comment on, but which nonetheless caused a certain heightening of tension at table.  Even Carol had shown signs of being visibly affected by it, though not in a way he would have expected.  Indeed, her half-humorous response suggested more than an inkling of sympathy for Andrew Doyle's viewpoint - one that could only have been tied-up with his socialism and transcendentalism!

     But Harding refused to be impressed by this sombre recollection and quickly made an effort to dispel it by launching-out on an impassioned vilification of Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Tachism, and kindred extremist movements in modern art, all for the benefit of the elderly critic, who would doubtless concur.

     "Yes, it's a wonder to me that such phenomena get taken for art at all," Mr Grace agreed, nodding his patrician head in persevering affirmation.  "And it's a still greater wonder that people expect me, an experienced eye, to appreciate them!  Of course, there are times when I have to make an effort at doing so, times when I even have to simulate appreciation to pass muster as an informed and informative critic.... Not that I go out of my way to do so, or make a regular habit of betraying my deepest responses, my true feelings.  But I'm not always able to speak my mind, believe me!  I sometimes find myself being obliged to refer to a certain work as art when, in reality, it's anti-art or some artless daub.  Not a very flattering situation, by any means!  Simply one forced upon me by the degenerate nature of the age.  Alas, I'm unable to entirely transcend it!  I must make an effort at toeing-the-critical-line, even when it's crooked and no longer easy to see, else give up criticism altogether.  However, since that's something I'm not in a position to do, I persevere.  But I'm partly compensated by Modern Realism, which I prefer to concentrate on whenever possible.  A much better and more acceptable branch of contemporary art, even given the threat and, in some sense, technical victory of photography.  At any rate, one of the few painterly developments, this century, to which I can unreservedly subscribe, albeit without that degree of enthusiasm I ordinarily reserve for more traditional forms of realism.  It's really the best of a bad job, so to speak."

     "Or the worst of a good one," Harding facetiously suggested, in an attempt to defer to his host's banality.  "It has the merit, anyway, of solid form and dependable technique, which is more than can be said for most latter-day abstract art.  Any fool can paint a modern abstract, but rare is the man who can reproduce external reality with an almost photographic exactitude, like, say, Andrew Wyeth.  It is certainly a task requiring the utmost technical mastery if it's to materialize in anything approaching a convincing way.  Like trompe-l'oeil, for which, as you know, I have a great admiration, having experimented quite extensively in the genre."

     "Indeed you have," Mr Grace confirmed, suddenly reminded of the vexing examples of this long-standing mode of painterly reproduction which he had recently encountered in the artist's Richmond house.  "From what I've seen of your trompe-l'oeils, I'd rank you second only to Martin Battersby," he went on.  "You create an illusion of presence which is capable of deceiving even the most sceptical eye, particularly from a distance of several yards.  That vase of assorted flowers in a darkened niche is one of your most credible deceptions, in my opinion.  I was momentarily fooled by it when I first set foot in the room in which you've painted it.  But the play of light from the large front window duly gave the game away.  The vase suddenly became part of a skilfully contrived mural, and I was prevented from making an ass of myself by attempting to smell its illusory contents!"

     "Robert would have been more flattered by his achievement had you in fact actually attempted to do so," Carol opined, abandoning the torpor into which she had protectively immersed herself while the attack on modern art prevailed.  "A few people have already distinguished themselves in that respect, haven't they, darling?"

     The artist felt obliged to admit as much, though he had no specific recollection of the fact.  In all probability, Carol was simply endeavouring to mock him, to emphasize the impossibility of anyone with any degree of intelligence and a relatively unimpaired vision possibly being deceived by the trompe-l'oeil in question, never mind the other and more blatantly ineffectual examples which adorned his house!  No doubt, Henry Grace was being a shade over-generous in his estimation of it from a sense of humour, not stupidity, as she probably suspected.

     "And which side of Rob's art do you particularly admire?" the critic was asking her.

     "A bit of all sides but all of no particular one," Carol ambiguously confessed, somewhat to Harding's embarrassment.  "I tend to be fairly eclectic in my tastes."

     "Like my wife, who doesn't know enough about art to have any specific prejudices," Mr Grace commented, smiling ruefully.  "She changes her tastes like a chameleon its colours, preferring now this, now that, but never staying on any given tack for very long.  She'd be incapable of taking a stand on moral or philosophical grounds against any particular branch of modern art.  Too eclectic by-half!"

     "So it is with women generally," Harding averred, slightly amused.  "It's only a comparatively small minority of them who cherish strong aesthetic or moral prejudices, or perhaps I should say principles?  Most women are quite indifferent to such matters as right or wrong, good or bad, progress or regress, in art.  After all, matters like that don't strictly concern them as women, do they?"

     "Perhaps not," Mr Grace replied, not without a slight feeling of uneasiness in the presence of Carol Jackson.  "Though they must certainly concern us, Rob, else our cause is lost and the philistines of modernity will have it all their own damn way!  Still, we know on which side we must make our stand, don't we, Rob?"

     The latter nodded and smiled in eager confirmation.

     "Sodding good for you!" exclaimed Carol under her breath, patently contemptuous of them.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

It was with a slightly apprehensive feeling that Andrew accepted an invitation from Pauline, following their return from the local pub later that evening, to take a peek at her book collection and listen to a private recital of some of her poems.  Having spent the greater part of the evening in heated conversation with Philip and Edwin, he was not in the best of moods to respond to such an invitation, since somewhat tired of intellectual matters and desirous of some privacy.  Besides, he half-feared that she would revert to her conversation on writing and exasperate him with a fresh barrage of ingenuous opinions and/or questions.  But more because it was impossible to refuse than from any heartfelt desire to witness her culture, he found himself accompanying Mr Grace's daughter up the well-carpeted stairs, having abandoned the two tipsy students in the lounge to their dialectical and even post-dialectical ruminations.  What, if anything, they would think he was up to with her, he didn't know.  But it was not improbable that he was simply going to bed, and that Pauline had merely elected to escort him to his room.... Which, to all appearances, was exactly what she was doing, save for the fact that her room happened to be conveniently situated en route, and contained a quantity of books which she felt sure would be of some interest to the writer - books she had begun collecting at the tender age of ten and had continued to amass, at regular intervals, right up to the present. 

     Extending two-thirds of the way along the length of one wall and upwards to a height of approximately six feet, her books rested on several shelves of brightly varnished pine and presented their variously coloured spines to Andrew's wary eye.  Of the total number housed in this way, which must have been somewhere in the region of two thousand, a goodly number were Penguin paperbacks, their orange or grey spines betraying varying degrees of wear, some of them very creased, the spines curved inwards and looking as though they might collapse or disintegrate at the slightest provocation, others scarcely creased at all, either because they were less old or hadn't been re-read.  It was evident, from a cursory inspection of the collection, that Pauline was no stranger to books but must have spent the greater part of her free time thumbing through one paperback after another, with the occasional hardback thrown-in for good measure - presumably when favourable financial circumstances had enabled her to obtain one, or as a Christmas and/or birthday gift.

     However, much as he was a confirmed bookworm himself, the spectacle of so many worn, dilapidated paperbacks packed together on the shelves, like canned sardines, had a distinctly depressing effect on Andrew, who had sometime previously disposed of a large number of worn paperbacks, stemming from the days of his own youthful and therefore more economical collecting, and replaced such of them as he especially admired with hardbacks, so that his current library, comprising merely some five-hundred books, was largely composed of the latter.  Pauline, to his mind, had evidently not yet reached that revolution in one's sense of values which made the acquisition of hardbacks a must for any discriminating collector but was still a victim of financial constraint and, in all probability, the accompanying ignorance with regard to the body/head distinction which the softback/hardback dichotomy signified to Andrew and thus, by implication, stood as a matter of incontrovertible fact.  No doubt, she would come to realize, in due time, that the great literary masters were better served on fine paper with larger and clearer print between stronger covers ... than ever they were by the coarse paper and tiny, not to say faint, print so often resorted to by the manufacturers of cheap paperbacks.  Admittedly, paperbacks were of immense social value, inasmuch as they enabled people who couldn't afford hardbacks to read the classics (if, indeed, classic literature was what appealed to them) at a relatively economic cost.  But for anyone with any discrimination in such matters and, needless to say, the means to sustain it, there was quite a difference between reading a novel like, say, Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point in paperback and reading it in hardback.  Only the latter, with its finer paper and stronger print, could really do justice to the intellectual dignity of the work, making one conscious that one had a precious literary treasure in one's hands which it was worth keeping and, when the fancy took one, re-reading.  After all, did one collect books for the mere sake of collecting?

     Well, on deeper reflection, Andrew had to admit to himself that some people did.  There were undoubtedly bibliomaniacs and bibliophiles of one persuasion or another to be found in the world - people whose principal reason for buying books was the sheer pleasure of collecting, or witnessing the materialistic expansion of their library.  Understandably, such people would not take too kindly to the phrase 'mere sake of collecting'.  But for Andrew Doyle - who, incidentally, wasn't entirely immune to such pleasures himself - the thought of keeping a book one wasn't likely to re-read found little support with him, primarily because he regarded books from a cultural rather than a material angle, and this in spite of his penchant for hardbacks.  If a book didn't particularly appeal to him, he made little or no effort to include it in his library.  For, comparatively small though his current library was, it represented books for which he had a special fondness or weakness - not books he had simply collected.

     Thus if - as was indeed the case - he had all eleven of Aldous Huxley's published novels there, it wasn't simply because he had, at one time or another, bought them all but, more significantly, because he had a distinct predilection for Huxley's novels, any one of which he would have been capable of re-reading from time to time.  Indeed, he would have been capable of re-reading virtually anything by Huxley, the early poems notwithstanding, but that's essentially beside-the-point.  Suffice it to say that there was nothing in his library which was there just because he had happened to buy it.  If he didn't like a particular book he would dispose of it, no matter how much it had cost him.  But he was such a careful, thoughtful, reserved, and discriminating collector ... that he very rarely found himself being obliged to resort to such a drastic tactic.  Then, too, he made judicious use of the local library, experimenting with authors he would probably have avoided had circumstances obliged him to buy their works, and thereby extending his literary horizons comparatively free-of-charge.  Only when he had borrowed a book he particularly liked would he consider the possibility of expanding his small private collection by actually buying the work from a city book-seller, in order to be able to re-read it at leisure in years to come.  In this fashion, by first 'sounding out' a work through the public library and then - assuming it had made an especially favourable impression on him - buying it for private reference, he had acquired such profound works as Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus, Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus, and J.K. Huysmans' Against the Grain.  Such novels, he believed, were worthy of the shelves of any discriminating collector!

     But novels like that were not, alas, to be found on young Pauline's shelves, as the writer, having supposed as much anyway, now had his suppositions confirmed by the depressing spectacle arrayed in front of him.  Only average classics reposed there, though this was really more a credit to her than a disgrace, in that she conformed, by and large, to the dictates of her sex, age, education, class, financial circumstances, and cheerful temperament.  One could hardly expect to have found Les Chants de Maldoror, Tropic of Cancer, or Steppenwolf on such an innocent young Englishwoman's shelves, even if the presence there of Notes from Underground and Women in Love was somewhat surprising.... Though the spine of the Dostoyevsky was somewhat less creased than that of the D.H. Lawrence, suggesting the likelihood that its contents had received only the most cursory attention.

     But whatever the actual case - and Andrew had no desire to inquire too deeply into her literary predilections - it was evident that the greater part of Pauline's collection wasn't such as would appeal to a mature taste, since decidedly juvenile in character.  Comprised, in the main, of romances, with a sprinkling of adventure, crime, thriller, and sci-fi novels thrown-in for good measure, her library suggested an easy-going and rather haphazard approach to collecting which radically conflicted with the writer's own overly fastidious and discriminating one.  Had she not been so young, he would have dismissed her collection with a contemptuous indifference.  But the fact of her youthful inexperience, coupled to an eclecticism he had encountered not once but a number of times in the past with females, prevented him from taking a condescending line and induced him, instead, to proffer a few friendly remarks concerning the breadth and extent of her reading.  In short, by not taking her too seriously, he was able to avoid treating her condescendingly, and thus replace any criticisms he might otherwise have levelled at her tastes by a half-humorous curiosity.

     It was interesting for him to note, too, that she prided herself more on the size of her collection - which she evidently considered large - than on its quality, and that the acquisition of additional books was to her what the achievement of additional honours would be to a conventional writer - an indication of growing prestige.  Evidently the more books one had on show, the better-read and the more highly-educated one would appear to other people, even if, unbeknown to oneself, the individual quality or literary value of a majority of those books wasn't guaranteed to confirm or in any degree substantiate it! 

     Such, at any rate, was the impression Andrew was now receiving from Pauline, as he casually scanned the tightly packed contents of her shelves and continued to comment favourably where he saw fit, noting, all the while, the ineffable pleasure it evidently gave her to have a writer witnessing her dedication to books!  No doubt, she would have felt less proud had a musician or an artist been scanning them instead, even if closely.  The thought of inviting Harding into her bedroom-cum-library probably wouldn't even have crossed her mind.  Like it or not, the prerogative for estimating her culture devolved upon Andrew, and it was up to him to justify it to the extent he could, that's to say, to the extent his tact would permit him.  Otherwise poor young Pauline would risk becoming severely disillusioned with him and unable to regard him as quite the literary hero he had formerly seemed, when his presence in their house, as one of her father's guests, had suddenly confronted her with a degree of pleasure she had not in the least anticipated.  He had, in short, no option but to live-up to the reputation she had inflicted upon him, if only on her account.... Which was precisely what he was endeavouring to do, as he stood in front of the shelves and surveyed their dilapidated contents with the air of a literary connoisseur, albeit a rather partial one.  He had an act to pull off and, as far as Pauline's gratified responses now indicated, he was pulling it off convincingly enough, justifying the special confidence she had placed in him when, from a pressing desire to be recognized as a kindred spirit, she had invited him to step 'on stage', a short while previously, to flatter her intellectual vanity.

     But such vanity wasn't to be flattered solely by his knowledgeable presence in front of her library.  For now that he had pompously contemplated the battered spines for several minutes and proffered a few discerning, not to say flattering, remarks concerning her taste, it was time for her to switch to the poems and read aloud from a number of her most recent compositions, in the hope that he would find them no less meritorious - a thing which, under the circumstances of his charitable desire to please, seemed not unlikely.  Thus, after the title of the last paperback on the top shelf had been assimilated in due connoisseurial fashion, Andrew, who was now invited to sit on the edge of her bed, found himself listening to the graceful flow of her voice as she read, not without a hint of self-consciousness, certain examples of her lyric poetry, some of which, at other times, would have been enough to set his teeth on edge.  Take, for example, the following, entitled 'The Lovers' Scheme':-

 

                                      Let us leave for peaceful places,

                                                     Far away from city smoke.

                                                     Let us seek the distant races,

                                                     Lands, and climes which grant us scope.

 

                                                     Discontent contracts our minds

                                                     As the days slip out-of-sight.

                                                     Where will we be if our finds

                                                     Change the darkness into light?

 

                                                     What constraint is good advice

                                                     If boredom be the means?

                                                     What true man would sacrifice

                                                     His spirit for some beans?

 

                                                     If, in time, we leave together,

                                                     Traipsing through the hay;

                                                     If, in truth, we live each other,

                                                     Love will have its day.

 

 

Or, again, the following, entitled 'Unrequited Lover':-

 

                                If I were to flee to some faraway place,

                                             Escape the town where love was sad,

                                             An image of you would stay in my head,

                                             Regret would pollute my grace.

 

                                             If I were to sob until, full of shame,

                                             I slash my wrist and let it bleed,

                                             Or throw to the dogs all the things of greed,

                                             You'd still be as free of blame.

 

                                             If I, on a quest, were to search for gold,

                                             Recapture joy in wine and rhyme,

                                             Then sell for a future my wisdom and time,

                                             Your love would stay warm while mine grows cold.        

 

     What was Andrew Doyle, who hadn't written a poem in over a decade and scarcely read one during the past five years, to make of all that?  How could he be expected to relate to the sentiments, romantic or otherwise, of this young poetess, who obviously wanted him to acknowledge the fact that she possessed a certain poetic gift, not to say licence, as well?  Naturally, being something of a devotee of culture, he made a brave effort to enter into the spirit of her poems, to identify with their heroine's viewpoint.  Yet his brave effort was scarcely sufficient to guarantee him any success in the matter!  Quite the contrary, the words seemed to pass over his head as though they had wings, or were in a foreign language which he couldn't understand, or had been written by a creature not of this world.  The gulf between her poetic idiom and his prosaic understanding was too wide to be bridged by brave efforts or, indeed, by anything else.  The twelve years which separated them seemed more like an eternity, so different were their respective attitudes and approaches to literature.

     To be sure, it was as much as Andrew could do, during the course of Pauline's somewhat self-conscious recitation, to prevent himself from giggling at the silliness of various of the sentiments expressed in her poems, the unabashed naiveté of which conflicted so violently with what experience in love and life had taught him ... that they appeared not to have any bearing on diurnal reality whatsoever!  It was so long since he had attempted any flights of poetic fancy himself that he couldn't quite reconcile himself to them, though he could remember well enough why he had abandoned poetry and concentrated on prose instead: simply to earn a living.  To do something, moreover, that necessitated more work and kept the pen and/or typewriter in fairly constant motion.  The thought of calling a short lyric poem 'a work' struck his fundamentally hard-working imagination as being too ridiculous for words.  A poem seemed to him too trivial a thing to take any pride in as a work of art.  It had only served his purposes when a youth and, like most literary-minded youths, he had lacked the courage or patience, not to mention know-how, to tackle anything better.  As an introduction to writing, poetry was not without its merits.  But as a vehicle for expressing one's thoughts throughout adulthood, as a form to which one remained faithful for the rest of one's life, that was quite another matter, and few indeed were those who did so, even among the aesthetes!  In a sense, mature poets were the Peter Pans of literature, the adult children who had never grown out of their youthful infatuation with verse.  There seemed to Andrew something intrinsically childish, not to say foolish, about a grown man continuing to produce little verses, like a sixteen-year-old, and actually taking a pride in it.  'Ah,' one was tempted to sneer, 'how touching, how pretty his little poesies are!'

     Indeed, it was an ironic commentary on poets and poems in general that the poet whom Andrew had most admired as a youth, viz. Yeats, should be among the writers whom he most despised as an adult, and largely on account of the fact that W.B. had continued to write poems right up until his death in 1939.  Not so Rimbaud, who outgrew or, at any rate, abandoned his youthful poetry at the tender age of nineteen.  And not so with a host of other youthful poets either who, if they didn't abandon poetry altogether, at least modified it towards something more manly as the decades passed - as in the cases of Ezra Pound and, to a lesser extent, James Joyce, whose Gas from a Burner was remembered by Andrew as one of the best poems he had ever read.   But for an eighteen-year-old like Pauline, the recitation of pretty little verses was still in order and therefore quite acceptable to Andrew, if a shade insipid.  After all, it wasn't really all that long ago that he had been in a similar position, having wanted to read examples of his verse - representative of a cross, he liked to flatter himself, between Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde - to whatever sympathetic ear he could find.  It was a phase through which most of the more creatively gifted literary youths of each generation passed before they attained to a deeper, more realistic outlook on life and, in a majority of cases, abandoned poetry altogether.  Again, it was a credit to Pauline that she was also of this elect-of-spirit who thrived on poetic creation.  Whether she would continue to thrive on it at university, however, remained to be seen; though the odds were definitely stacked against her continuing to do so after she left it, with or without a graduation certificate.  If literature was to be her calling, her vocation, then the novel would certainly prove more to her advantage, even if the vast number of people writing them these days tended to reduce one's prospects of earning a living from it.  Better, in Andrew's view, to be a fool with prose than a fool with poetry, and so be someone who gave the world more truth or, at any rate, knowledge than illusion!  Yes, better by far, insofar as human evolution was gradually tending away from illusion into truth, away from the subconscious mind into the superconscious one, and thus towards Ultimate Truth.

     However, fictional literature in an age of incipient transcendentalism hardly struck Andrew as the most progressive of pursuits, either!  On the contrary, it was essentially outmoded, passé, aligned with the ego and all that the ego represented.  With the gradual decline of the ego throughout the nineteenth century, following the expansion of urbanization and the consequent shift in egocentric balance between the subconscious and superconscious minds in favour of superconscious extremism, it stood to reason that literature, which like other branches of the arts depended on the subconscious for its essential illusion or fictitiousness, would also be in decline as traditionally conceived.  The rise, on the other hand, of philosophical literature in the twentieth century was but a reflection of our ongoing evolution towards greater degrees of truth, as germane to the superconscious, and a disinclination, in consequence, to abide by the canons of traditional literature, which required a good deal more illusion than the most evolved writers were now prepared to provide.  And even philosophical literature was destined, in Andrew's estimation, to be completely transcended, as we progressed so far into the superconscious that the element of fictitiousness in it became unacceptable to us and therefore no longer practicable.  In the meantime, however, a degree of fiction was still possible, those best qualified to produce it generally being among the less sophisticated writers of the age. 

     Thus, as far as Pauline's literary ambitions were concerned, there was certainly a chance that circumstances would favour her and enable her to write something approximating to traditional literature, in which illusion still got the better of truth, and the fictional element was accordingly uppermost.  But great literature it would never be, and not only because, as a rule, young women like Pauline weren't qualified, neither temperamentally nor intellectually, to produce such a thing but, more particularly, because great literature could hardly be produced in an age essentially inimical to it, only in one which encouraged it - an age in which the illusory was not regarded with suspicion and disdain.

     Nowadays, however, no-one with any relationship to the leading intellectual/spiritual developments of the age could possibly allow themselves to champion dualism, and thereby produce traditional literature, in which conflict and differentiation prevailed over the passivity of transcendental unity.  At worst, they would compromise to the extent of producing philosophical literature, where passivity, in the form of discussion and/or reflection, got the better of activity, and truth accordingly prevailed over illusion.  That was what, following in Aldous Huxley's estimable footsteps, Andrew was doing anyway, and it was what he intended to continue doing as long as necessary, extending the domain of the philosophical over the fictional with each successive work - a policy which probably wouldn't endear him to the general public, but one which nonetheless reflected the degree of his allegiance to the superconscious and, hence, to a hankering after spiritual leadership, to his budding status as one of the more evolved writers of his time. 

     No doubt, this status would be more clearly defined with the assistance of essays and/or aphorisms, which he also liked to write as a complementary mode of intellectual creativity to his philosophical literature, thereby adding his name to the ranks of such compromise writers as Huxley, Hesse, Henry Miller, Koestler, Sartre, Norman Mailer, and Camus, who stood half-way, it seemed to him, between the sage and the artist.  Better, of course, to be a pure philosopher than a hybrid, and thus pursue truth to a much greater extent.  But if, for various reasons, that wasn't possible, well then, better to be a hybrid, an artist/writer in Barthe's paradoxical phrase, than simply an artist, and thus side more with truth.  For fiction was ever illusory, no matter how naturalistic or realistic its author endeavoured to make it, and therefore contrary to the domain of truth. 

     A society which no longer produces or reads fiction would be unquestionably superior, in Andrew's view, to one which does, being closer to the post-human millennium - that coming time in which literature ceases to have even the slightest influence or applicability.  Yet a society which no longer produces or reads philosophy but, with the aid of Transcendental Meditation, simply experiences truth, would be superior again - the closest of all to the post-human millennium in terms of godly bliss.

     Alas, Western society hadn't yet outgrown its fictions, being the producer and consumer of the greatest amount of commercial literature the world had ever known!  But (if this was any consolation) it was certainly doing so, and would doubtless continue to do so, as we progressed further and further into the superconscious and thereby gradually freed ourselves from the illusory shackles of the past.  The assault on traditional literature from the vantage-point of anti-literature and/or philosophical literature would have to exhaust itself in due course, as we increasingly confined ourselves to the production and assimilation of truth.  In the meantime, however, they were the only modes of creativity acceptable to anyone with the faintest glimmer of spiritual leadership.  Those who weren't for the literary avant-garde, in its various manifestations, were simply mediocrities and simpletons for whom the egocentric tradition had more substance, and to whom traditional criteria of art were accordingly of more relevance.  One couldn't very well congratulate them on their conservatism, born of ignorance and stupidity, as though it signified the most honourable and perspicacious stance possible!  If they persisted in reading or writing something approximating to egocentric literature, too fucking bad!  For it wouldn't win them the approbation of those who had gone beyond such habits and accordingly made it their business to forge a higher one.  In the time-honoured battle between 'the quick' and 'the slow', 'the slow' were in for a roasting!  Illusion might be at home in Hell, but it could have no bearing whatsoever on Heaven.  It was only by writing post-egocentric literature that one could hope to justify, if only temporarily, the procedure of writing literature at all.  In due course, even that would prove unnecessary.  But, until then, one had to persist or, as some would say, persevere with the degree of literary evolution compatible with modern society.  One had to be an avant-gardist.

     Yes, a post-egocentric avant-gardist was precisely what Andrew considered himself to be, he whose first two novels had broken with traditional conventions of plot, characterization, description, action, fiction, grammar, etc., in the interests of a greater degree of philosophical integrity.  If Huxley to some extent progressively dispensed with the traditional conventions of literature, endowing his finest novels with a preponderance of discussion over action, passivity over conflict, truth over illusion, goodness over evil, transcendentalism over dualism, then Andrew Doyle intended to go one stage better and tip the imbalance in favour of philosophy, truth, light, etc., even further than Huxley had done, thereby building on that master's example and extending the progress of truth in literature a stage further along the road to our future spiritual salvation, creating, in the process, an abstract idealism. 

     For a disciple who didn't build on his master's example was unworthy of ever becoming a master himself, since a traitor to evolution.  If he didn't build on it he could only stand still or turn against it, and the latter, leading back to more illusion, conflict, dualism and action ... in deference, most probably, to cinematic barbarism ... was hardly guaranteed to assist in the cause of human progress or help bring about the long-awaited post-human millennium!  Reaction, clearly, was unthinkable, unworthy of any true discipleship.  If one didn't take literature further off the 'gold standard' of illusion, one might as well give-up writing altogether.  For one wouldn't be assisting the cause of enlightenment or moral progress, but simply be holding the reader back, dragging him down to a level wholly incompatible with transcendental strivings.  If we have to be weaned away from a dependence on the arts, it won't be done via the production of works corresponding to traditional art but, rather, via works which, in turning against such art, whether implicitly or explicitly, weaken our taste for it, thereby making it easier for us to climb onto the higher level, in which illusion has no place whatsoever.  For if traditional art isn't, in a manner of speaking, rendered contemptible, we shall find it that much harder to abandon illusion. 

     Fortunately, the most enlightened modern art was certainly doing its best to wean us from our dependence on the illusory!  Although we may not entirely succeed in freeing ourselves from fictions in the foreseeable future, nonetheless it cannot be denied that we're gradually breaking away from them, maturing, as it were, into the fullness of a life lived solely for truth.  The superconscious beckons us on, no matter how highly some of us may think of the greatest egocentric achievements of man in his prime as man.  Life, however, doesn't stand still.  It requires constant change, and anyone who doesn't change with it, who requires of painting or music or literature that it always remains the same is, if not a monster, then an enemy of life.  Certainly an enemy of progress!

     In his estimation Andrew was neither an enemy neither of life nor of progress but very much a participator in it, as his most recent writings - more pro-philosophical than anti-literary - adequately demonstrated.  If he wasn't yet transcendental enough to be a sage, he was at least insufficiently dualistic to be an artist in the egocentric narrative tradition, and this was something on which he secretly prided himself.  For in his assumption that the contemplative man was as inherently superior to the man balanced between action and contemplation as the latter to the man-of-action, he made no bones about giving pride of honour in his novels to contemplatives, whether mystical or scholarly, and directing matters so that conflict and action were reduced to a bare minimum.  In such fashion, he hoped to discourage his readers from taking men-of-action too seriously, to remind them that evolution was increasingly tending towards the passive, and that it was the sacred destiny of mankind to progress towards a stage where the passive entirely came to supersede the active, and they entered the millennial Beyond in transcendent bliss.  Needless to say, mankind still had a long way to go before that happened!  But the fact that modern life, with its television culture, bore testimony to the predominance of the passive over the active ... gave one ample grounds for believing it would eventually come about.

     Thus, in loyalty to his spiritual bent, Andrew did everything he could to stress the superiority of the contemplative life, fastidiously avoiding literary action as much as possible.  If he hadn't yet succeeded in producing a work to match Huxley's Island for spiritual leadership, he was nevertheless determined to go beyond that master's most transcendental and predominantly passive achievement in due course, extending the boundaries of the philosophical over the fictional until the latter almost completely disappeared beneath the dictates of spiritual progress.  Not for anything would he allow himself to be dissuaded from such a task by the amount of stupid, irrelevant, and reactionary criticism which had greeted Huxley's last and, from the avant-garde standpoint, greatest novel.  If certain hidebound critics found such a radically idealistic work unacceptable or unintelligible, that was too bad!  He wouldn't allow himself to be intimidated by people whose moribund evaluations of progressive developments in contemporary literature were largely conditioned by the philistine nature of their journalistic constraints!  That a novel of such unprecedented philosophical bias should have been judged on conventional literary grounds ... was indeed a tragedy for its author.  But perhaps, in time, such regrettable misunderstandings would cease to occur, as people grew to acclimatize themselves to increasingly transcendental criteria of literary creation, and thereupon attached far less importance to the production of illusions or to the establishment of an antithetical balance between, say, action and contemplation.  What authors like Huxley and, for that matter, Arthur Koestler (for The Call-Girls certainly hadn't escaped our hero's attention) had pioneered at the risk of literary ostracism, others would increasingly take for granted, regarding with unmitigated disdain anything which smacked of traditional literature in the face of revolutionary precedent!  Now that such examples had been set, there could be no excuse for a serious, self-respecting writer failing to take note of them.  Evolution could not be reversed!

     But where, exactly, did Pauline Grace figure where the death of illusion was concerned?  Where, exactly, was she in relation to the novel?  Indeed, was she anywhere at all?  No, in a sense she wasn't, having still to tackle the creation of one.  Yet it was clear, from what Andrew had already gleaned on the subject, that she had literary ambitions which, following her 'time' at university, she intended to fulfil, to the extent that circumstances would permit her.  A novel, then, was what she planned to produce, though, in all probability, it would be a rather different kind of novel from those already produced by Andrew Doyle.  Being young, naive, and worldly-minded moreover, she would doubtless do her best to approximate to egocentric literature.  She would give illusion a much greater role to play than the more progressive novelists did, and so produce something they wouldn't particularly care to write, never mind read!

     However, even then, there would still be a comparatively large number of people for whom long passages of illusion between the covers of a novel were quite acceptable, even desirable, and these less-evolved or, depending on one's viewpoint, more conservative minds would probably constitute the backbone of her reading public.  Thus she would more than likely make some professional headway in the world, if only on a relatively modest footing.  It was unlikely, anyway, that she would become another Andrew, much less another Henry Miller or Hermann Hesse, since young women weren't, as a rule, cut-out for spiritual or literary leadership, but remained confined to a more modest role in shaping literary values.  Her talents might well extend to the romance, the adventure story, maybe even the thriller.  But it seemed rather doubtful that they would also extend in the direction of philosophy, whether religious, political, aesthetic, moral, or whatever, and thereby make her something of an intellectual pace-setter, a future Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Murdoch, Germaine Greer or Agnes Heller.  If her poems were anything to judge by, she would have to resign herself to a kind of fictional mediocrity.

     But what of the young woman personally?  Where, if one endeavoured to forget all the paradoxically laudable attempts women were making to liberate themselves these days, did she stand as a woman?  Was she, for instance, a virgin?  To be sure, this question had occurred to Andrew while they were out walking together, earlier on, and now that he sat beside her and, compliments of her poetic preoccupations, was able to regard her at leisure, the question returned to him, albeit in a slightly different light.  Supposing she was - wouldn't it be justice, for all the tedium and humiliation he had suffered at her hands, to take her virginity from her, and thus recompense himself in some measure?  After all, she was a very attractive young person, particularly when dressed, as tonight, in a low-cut nylon blouse, a gently flounced miniskirt, dark nylon stockings with a seam up the back, and black velvet high-heels.  Even the scent of her perfume was not without its attractiveness or, at any rate, seductive allure.  On the contrary, it highlighted the overall attractiveness of her body, endowing it with a focus and clarity it might otherwise have lacked.  There was nothing repulsive about this sweet scent.  It was specifically intended to attract, to seduce, to conquer.  There could be no question of a woman using such a delightful perfume if she didn't want to make a favourable impression on one, or had an unduly feminist outlook on men which induced her to keep them at arm's length, come what may.  Obviously, Pauline had gone to some pains, this evening, to make herself as attractive as possible, not least of all where the provocative spectacle of her low-cut blouse and intriguingly shaped breasts were concerned.  Finally, to cap it all, she had thrown in a little culture to boot, which the author should find to his taste.

     Well, that hadn't been quite the case, though he had at least found her appearance to his taste, which was something!  Should he therefore make haste to reveal this fact, and so gratify in her a number of the romantic sentiments touchingly expressed in her rather juvenile poems?  He had always wanted the privilege of taking someone's virginity - a privilege, curiously, which fate had denied him.  Here, if anywhere, was the best chance of fulfilling a long-standing ambition and gaining fresh experience in life.  It was an opportunity not to be missed!

     But what of her parents?  What of her brother and the others in the house?  Wasn't it a shade risky, committing oneself to the pleasures of the sexual senses when other people were in such close proximity and might - heaven forbid! - overhear and burst-in upon one at any moment?  Yes, definitely!  But so what?  Was he to be dictated to by them, particularly by Henry Grace, whom he personally disliked and professionally despised?  No, not if he could help it!  After all, making love to Pauline would be as good a way as any of getting his own back on Mr Grace for the pathetically negative response the critic had made to his religious theorizing prior to tea.  Not only would he be avenging himself on Pauline but, more importantly, on her damn father as well, since the latter would hardly be in favour of Andrew Doyle, of all people, taking his daughter's virginity - assuming she really was a virgin.  No, anyone but him!

     Indeed, this thought seemed so amusing to Andrew that he was unable to prevent a tiny snigger escaping from between his lips, a snigger which slightly surprised and embarrassed Pauline, who hadn't been declaiming anything overtly humorous at the time.  Yet, much to his relief, she didn't respond to it in an inquisitive manner, but continued with her poetic recitation as though nothing had happened.  However, the fact of her poetry was no less wearisome for all that, and his desire to avenge himself on her no less compelling.  If he was to do something he had better do it soon, and so get it over and done with before the opportunity was gone!  Otherwise she might continue reciting her insipid and slightly ridiculous little poems for hours, aggravating his weariness until it was past tolerating and he felt obliged to take swift leave of her.

     No, he didn't want that to happen!  Better to take the poems from her hands, draw oneself closer to her, plant a preliminary kiss on her astonished lips, put one's arms around her slender waist, probe her lengthily in the mouth with an adventurous tongue, run a tender hand up and down her thighs a few times, unbutton her blouse, thumb her nipples, part her legs, cup her crotch, and take it from there.  Yes, there could be no alternative to that, absolutely none!

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

"So where did you get to last night?" Harding asked, as Andrew came down to the lounge, prior to breakfast, at about 8.30am.  "I was looking for you, you know."

     "Is that so?" the writer wearily responded, a slight but perceptible blush in swift accompaniment.  "Well, as a matter of fact I was, er, invited by young Pauline to view her private library and, er, listen to her reading some poems.  I was in her bedroom."

     "Ah, so that's where you were!" Harding exclaimed with evident relief.  "I had no idea.  Thought you might have gone to bed."

     "What, with Pauline?"

     Harding had to laugh.  "No, with yourself of course!  Hey, don't look so aggrieved!  I didn't mean to offend you."

     "I'm sincerely glad to hear it!" Andrew declared, feeling somewhat relieved in spite of his determination not to let on.  But he was secretly annoyed with himself for taking quick offence and jumping to conclusions.  He oughtn't to have lost his cool like that!

     "So what did you think of her poems?" Harding wanted to know, latching-on to the most credible straw available.

     "Not a great deal, actually.  They were the sort of second-rate things young females like her often write, if you know what I mean."

     "Yes, I think so," Harding admitted, nodding vaguely.  "Rather maudlin, I expect."

     "And tedious," Andrew affirmed.  "Why, I was obliged to persevere with them until gone twelve, before I could get to bed!"  Which wasn't entirely true, though he knew that better than anyone.  For the fact that he had made love to Pauline from half-eleven till nearly one o'clock was a matter he would have to keep to himself.  Just as he would have to keep all his feelings about her to himself - the vertiginous impression her tender sexuality had made on him, the delight in ravishing a virgin - for she had actually been one - for the first time, the suspense created by the close proximity of her parents, and so on.  If he was bored by her poems, her body had excited him enormously - a fact which might be said to have more than adequately compensated him for his previous inconvenience!  It was one of the most seductive bodies he had ever beheld, as fresh and soft as only a young woman's body can be, and he had drunk of its love-juice until his thirst was quenched, had eaten of its sex-fruit until his hunger was appeased.  She had become a real feast for him, and he had come away not merely satisfied by satiated, positively reeling with sex.  Realizing the extent of its beauty, he had spared her body nothing.  The virgin stronghold had been breached and the citadel of her womb taken by peremptory storm.  Her labia had been prized apart, like the succulent segments of a luscious tangerine, and his tongue had lasciviously partaken of the most delicious flesh it had ever known.  She had struck him as intensely desirable, more desirable than poems could ever hope to express, and he had wasted no time, once he got her undressed, in letting her know it!  No woman could look so attractive and fail to reap the harvest her body so richly deserved!

     "Well, now that you've heard them, at least you won't have to persevere with her poems again," Harding was saying, as though to himself.

     "No, I suppose not," Andrew agreed, blushing slightly.  "By the way, what time are we leaving here today?"

     "Some time this afternoon, I should imagine," Harding replied.  "Why, do you have to be back home by any specific hour?"

     "No, not really; though I'd like to be back in good time for my customary Sunday-evening bath and hair wash, if you don't mind."  It was a flimsy excuse, but better than nothing.

     Harding smiled benignly.  "I think we can arrange that," he stated in a faintly condescending tone-of-voice.  "Incidentally, you may be interested to learn that I've been commissioned by our generous host to paint portraits of his family, both separately and collectively, during the coming weeks.  So I'll be seeing a lot more of the Graces."

     "Congratulations!" Andrew exclaimed, extending a friendly hand to the artist's left arm.  "I wish you every success."

     "Thanks," responded Harding, who appeared visibly flattered by his neighbour's gesture.  "I could certainly do with it.  However, now that I have a chance to speak to you while we're alone together, I'd be grateful if you avoided the temptation to get yourself re-involved in the kind of controversial discussion you were having yesterday with young Edwin Ford in Mr Grace's presence.  He wasn't particularly impressed by it, as I'm sure you're fully aware, and, frankly, it's altogether doubtful he would take kindly to anything bordering on a repeat performance today."

     Andrew felt momentarily taken-aback by this prohibitive utterance, which struck him as singularly impertinent.  But, to save argument, he agreed to steer clear of deep water, if only for his neighbour's sake.  He realized, of course, that Harding was only out for his own professional ends and didn't want anyone to upset Henry Grace and thereby jeopardize his prospects of commercial success.  However, since Edwin Ford would have returned to his parents' house in the meantime, there seemed little chance that a recrudescence of political and religious theorizing, incompatible with their host's own rather more conservative beliefs and loyalties, would occur, there being no-one else in the house likely to incite Andrew to his former polemical eloquence.  Providing Mr Grace didn't challenge him to defend his views, it looked as though the writer would have to be content with saying very little - a fact which Harding could hardly fail to endorse!

     "Well, now that I've said my piece," the painter rejoined, "I feel a lot better towards you than was the case yesterday evening, when your argumentative outburst caused me so much embarrassment.  I know you didn't mean to upset anyone, but the fact that you have such different views on a variety of issues than me is something which, at least in the presence of Mr Grace, I'd rather you kept to yourself, if you don't mind.  That way least harm can be done."

     "I'll try my best," Andrew promised, feeling, in spite of his show of calm, a passionate contempt for this arrogant bastard who dared tell him how to behave, as if he were a child who needed to be kept in check!  My God, to what craven lengths some people could stoop to further their vainglorious ambitions!  How low they could get!  How petty and eaten-up by their own insolent pride!  Indeed, it was as much as Andrew could do to prevent himself from giving this opportunistic social climber a vigorous tongue-lashing and thereby reducing him in size to something more compatible with his fundamental baseness.  But as though in anticipation of the fact he was about to do so, Mrs Grace suddenly entered the room and announced to the two men facing each other there that breakfast was ready.  He would just have to postpone the airing of his grievances until a more propitious opportunity!

     During breakfast, the occupants of the table remained on fairly cordial terms with one another, Henry Grace and Robert Harding continuing their conversation on art from approximately where they had left off the previous night, whilst everyone else, including Andrew and Pauline, maintained a respectful if slightly resentful silence - the general feeling being that two or three separate conversations running simultaneously across the table would not have been appreciated by Mr Grace who, as master of the house, preferred attention to be focused on himself, and thus on matters closer to hand.  This, at any rate, was the case as far as Carol, Pauline, and Mrs Grace were concerned; though Andrew felt in no mood to enter into conversation with anyone at all, particularly with the host and his chief guest, whom he now felt obliged to regard with unmitigated disdain.  Nevertheless, the attractive face of young Pauline Grace opposite him could hardly be ignored, least of all when she looked at him with a vaguely conspiratorial expression on it, as she did on more than one occasion during breakfast, as if to say: 'Don't let them bother you.  Let's just remember how much pleasure we got from each other last night!'

     Yes, there was something decidedly charming about the presence of Mr Grace's daughter at table that morning, a presence which, for Andrew, had the not unpredictable effect of lifting his spirits a little.  At least he had no cause to regard her as an enemy; no more cause, for that matter, than to regard Philip as one, even though he sat in-between Harding and himself and occasionally said a word or two, across the conversation raging between the champions of representational art, on behalf of Transcendental Meditation and athletics - two seemingly incompatible devotions to which he somehow managed to reconcile himself.  But that was the way of Pauline's brother who, to the writer's covert disapproval, regarded meditation as a means to improving his bodily powers, and had not yet learnt to differentiate between spirit and matter.  He was too young, in short, to be particularly spiritual, and too well-built, moreover, to be anything but athletic.  Whether he would eventually sort himself out and change for what Andrew would have regarded as the better, remained to be seen; though it seemed unlikely that he would abandon his athletic commitments for some time to-come.  The man of action in competition with others was uppermost in his lifestyle, and it was to this somewhat unspiritual man that he gave most of his attention.  Clearly, Transcendental Meditation was a discipline which young students often encountered and superficially endorsed, if only for appearance's sake.  There was no real depth of commitment in them though, no real understanding of what it really implied.  The urge of youth to action and rebellion against the social status quo, quite apart from the exigent demands of study and college obligations generally, was too strong to be eradicated or underestimated in the vast majority of cases.  It was a phenomenon which had to be lived through before one was in a position to take a better, more objective look at spiritual values and, if one so desired, proceed to direct one's life along less physically active and possibly more passive lines, following in Andrew's own ideal footsteps.  In the meantime, competitive sport would doubtless take the place of honour in the lives of people like Philip, who had no impending or imperative desire to 'go spiritual' when they were under pressure to compete on a variety of levels.  Besides, people came in so many different shapes and sizes that what was good for one type of person could be bad for another.  Spirituality was all right for some persons, but definitely not for everyone!

     To be sure, there was undoubtedly an element of truth in that contention, albeit, Andrew had to admit, rather relatively.  For it was of the utmost importance to mankind's future development that an increasing number of people turned spiritual and accordingly dedicated the greater part of their lives to contemplative concerns.  It was necessary that predominantly active types should eventually be superseded by their predominantly passive counterparts, so that mankind would be morally qualified to enter the millennial Beyond at the culmination of human evolution, and thereupon become wholly divine - filled with the bliss and peace of pure spirit.  Otherwise Heaven would remain no more than a pipe dream, a distant possibility never actually realized, except perhaps in the grave, and man would forever continue to be torn between the active and the passive, Hell and Heaven, in a dualistic twilight of Christian relativity.  But that could not be!  For man had evolved out of a predominantly dark state of pre-Christian hellish activity to the Christian compromise between the dark and the light, sensuality and spirituality, and he was now evolving beyond that towards a state of being which favoured the light, a state commensurate with greater physical passivity.  History could not be refuted, since the trend of human evolution towards the enhanced spirituality of the Holy Ghost was made manifest through it and could be discerned more clearly in recent decades, in spite of all the existing horrors of modern life, including the threat of nuclear or biological obliteration.  Even the tendency of modern architects to endow their buildings with more window space, to fashion office blocks or high-rise flats in such a way that glass or plastic predominated over concrete and steel, was a clear indication, so far as Andrew was concerned, of our growing allegiance to the spirit - as, of course, was the widespread and regular use of artificial lighting.  Like it or not, the spread of urbanization was a blessing unprecedented in the entire history of Western man, speeding-up his evolution from a being torn, in the ego, between the sensual subconscious and the spiritual superconscious during virtually the whole of the Christian era, to one who, within the space of a mere century, had become biased on the side of the latter, freed, as never before, from the sensuous influence of nature, and enabled to direct his spiritual development along lines which, eventually, could only bring him to the consummation of his evolution in heavenly bliss!

     Yes, a remarkable fact, but there it was!  Our isolation from nature was a means to our spiritual salvation, and this salvation could and would be brought about, provided we survived the catastrophic consequences of future wars and continued to develop, according to the dictates of our urban environments, in an increasingly artificial direction.  All credit to the tall buildings which were mostly fabricated from synthetics!  Well did they reflect our ongoing allegiance to the superconscious and consequent break with a balanced dualism.  The sooner those buildings which had more concrete than glass in them were superseded by buildings of a more spiritual order, the better!  Away with all the old dualities as soon as it was convenient and proper to do away with them! 

     Let us have more spirit, in accordance with our yearning for eternity.  Let us remember that life continues to evolve and that the world is slowly but surely becoming a better place.  Let us not be deceived by the short-term horrors it besets us with into assuming the contrary.  Our short-sightedness, in this respect, will not detract from the facts of evolution!  Socialism and transcendentalism, suitably modified in a sort of Social Transcendental synthesis, will carry the world before them, no matter how much some people may persist in presuming otherwise!  The only serious cause for regret, concerning this transitional stage of man's evolution, is the fact that these developments should still have such a deplorably long way to go before we arrived at our ultimate destination in heavenly peace, and thus entirely transcended the human condition!

     To bring the average man up to a higher moral level, a level where he can share in the fruits of the spiritual life - what an immense task, and how long it will take to affect a genuine equalitarianism of the spirit!  One shudders at the thought of how far evolution still has to go before inequalities cease to exist, and the vast majority of people share in a common aspiration towards spiritual fulfilment!  Yes, one positively shudders at the immensity of the task ahead, the task of affecting an overall higher standard of life.  Yet it is one which has got to be knuckled down to, no matter how difficult things may now seem.  There is no alternative to going forwards, upwards, and inwards - absolutely none!  We have no option but to persist in the equalitarian and co-operative policies which progress is demanding of us, for there is no other way to the post-human millennium.  As the decades pass, we shall doubtless succeed in improving the quality of the race, so that an ever-growing number of people will become spiritually earnest, and thus given to devotions like Transcendental Meditation.  But the difficulty of the task before us cannot be underestimated, if we are not to seriously delude ourselves regarding the entire process of human evolution.  It is our duty to progress, and progress we shall, even if only by small steps, one after the other.  As yet, we are still too close to the ego, that old dualistic balance, for comfort, and cannot afford to become complacent over the extent of evolution to-date.  We may indeed have come a long way from the caveman, grovelling in the moral darkness of subservience to the subconscious, but we are by no means at our journey's end in unequivocal identification with the superconscious.  On the contrary, we are only just beginning to recognize it for what it is - namely, the essence of salvation.

     As usual, however, there are 'the quick' and 'the slow', the former spearheading transcendentalism's advance, the latter not having disentangled themselves from the old dualities to an extent which makes it possible for them to regard such dualities as phenomena out of which we are slowly evolving.  No, 'the slow' are still at home with these dualities, still given to political confrontation, religious anthropomorphism, competitive/cooperative economics, sexual discrimination, noble and plebeian class divisions, distinctions of rich and poor, and so on, as though such dualities constituted the very essence of reality against which it was senseless to rebel.  Well, 'the slow' might think so, but 'the quick' don't agree!  They find such a viewpoint totally unacceptable, having gone well beyond it in their knowledge of and commitment to evolutionary progress.  'The quick', now as before, are in the vanguard of mankind's advance towards the post-human millennium, and while they may not be completely beyond dualism themselves, they are sufficiently biased on the side of the spirit to see through the illusion of regarding dualism as an end-in-itself, instead of merely a stage on the road to a higher end.  Yes, they are sufficiently advanced along the road to salvation to see through this, the greatest of all contemporary illusions, and are consequently that much closer to ultimate truth!

     But, unfortunately, 'the quick' still aren't in the majority - at least not everywhere.  It is to be hoped, however, that one day they will be.  For that is true progress, that is the task!  In the meantime, we can only persevere with our efforts, not to mention enemies - as, indeed, Andrew was obliged to do during breakfast, while Mr Grace and Harding continued with a conversation centred around representational art, to the detriment of the transcendent.  Oh, how he would have liked to interpose himself between them by pointing out the fallacies in their view of taking traditional representational art for the only legitimate art-form and of considering it in the interests of Western man's well-being that a return to such art should officially be made as soon as possible!  How he would have liked to impress upon them the fact that such a reversion to form and substance in art would have constituted a regression on a par with reverting to gas lamps or candle light; that, contrary to their reactionary assumptions, it would have been diametrically opposed to his well-being; that, instead of constituting a moral example to society, such art would have set a thoroughly bad example, leading people to attach more importance to the concrete, the representational, the apparent, than was desirable, and so on - a whole host of valid objections to their crackbrained and thoroughly obsolete values!  Yes, he most certainly would! 

     But partly out of consideration for Pauline, whom he genuinely liked, and partly in response to Harding's request for reserve, earlier that morning, Andrew refrained from interposing, restrained the impulse to speak out on behalf of the very tendencies in art, as in life, which these two reactionary bastards were attacking, whether directly, as in their opposition to abstraction, or indirectly, through their advocacy of more traditional approaches to art.  Besides, had he done so, and thus given vent to the very genuine temptation to air his views in front of them, nothing more would have come of it than another nasty scene, like the one he had been obliged to endure in the lounge, when Henry Grace had lost what little precarious cool he ordinarily possessed.  Needless to say, there wasn't much sense in that - not, anyway, if one had transcendental rather than dualistic or humanistic sympathies at stake!  Better to keep one's views to oneself, under the circumstances.  For there was scant hope of changing those of the opposition!  Quite the contrary, one would simply be banging one's head against a dense wall of adamant imperviousness - the imperviousness germane to a different species of man.

     Breakfast passed, then, without any recrudescence of the ideological tension which had sprung-up, the day before, between Mr Grace and Harding on the one side, and Andrew and Carol on the other; though, thanks in some measure to Philip's ingenuousness, a few comments were voiced which caused a certain disquiet to flourish in the minds of the opponents of artistic progress, and at no time more evidently so than when he referred to something Andrew had said about Christian transcendentalism on the day in question.  But the writer judiciously refrained from expanding on it, and so enabled the traditionalists to continue their conversation on aesthetics with a modicum of equanimity.

     As, however, for Pauline, no allusions were made to her sexual experiences of the night before ... other than in the way she occasionally regarded Andrew, as he sat seemingly engrossed in his breakfast, with a certain coy admiration born, no doubt, of her gratitude to him for having extended his appreciation of her poems beyond the purely theoretical level!  Now she was no longer a virgin, it struck him that she might even refrain from writing poetry in future, and so give herself exclusively to literature instead.  If so, he hoped, anyway, that he wouldn't be obliged to read it.  For he had little taste for illusion, his only real ambition being to kill it off to the extent he could, and thereby encourage his readers away from the old dualistic respect for fictions, which had characterized the era of egocentric culture, towards a preoccupation with truth, more characteristic of the coming era of superconscious transcendentalism.  Anything else would have been unthinkable!  But until a majority of people had been raised-up, through the combined efforts of a modified socialism and transcendentalism, to a higher level of consciousness, the popular novel, in all its heathen permutations, vicious as well as inane, would doubtless continue to find a willing audience, mainly composed of people who could only stomach knowledge and truth in small doses or in a diluted guise, and whose respect for strength or beauty was still the overriding determinant in the composition of their tastes.  Clearly, evolution still had a long way to go - particularly with regard to consumers of the popular novel.  The post-human millennium couldn't be brought about overnight!

     Having taken his leave of the table, Andrew contrived to avoid further contact with Pauline by electing to take a stroll round the spacious back garden, which particularly appealed to him at this juncture on account of the early-morning sunshine which lit it up in a dazzle of assorted colours - reds, greens, yellows, pinks, purples, blues, browns, and golds, each colour seemingly vying with the others to claim his attention and win his approval.  At the far end of the garden, just a yard or two short of the wooden fence which divided Mr Grace's land from that of the nearest farmer, a large goldfish pond sparkled in the mid-morning sunlight, and it was towards this brilliant cynosure of optical allure that Andrew now directed his steps, crossing the closely-cropped lawn between the various flowerbeds and pressing on down the gently sloping incline towards the enticing sparkle of light beyond.  What a relief it was to be free of the oppressive proximity of his ideological enemies!  How he delighted in the sanctuary afforded him by this pond, isolated at a safe distance from the house and partly obscured, on one side, by a few small shrubs and trees, their overhanging branches sharply reflected in the clear water.  And there, in the pond itself, how refreshing to behold the many goldfish swimming about after their individual fashions - some quickly, some slowly, others scarcely moving at all, but each one of them, no matter what their direction, completely isolated from human concerns and struggles, shut off from the conflicting realities of modern life in a world of aquatic seclusion.

     Yes, it was almost possible to envy these tiny creatures their watery isolation, their complete indifference to politics, religion, economics, science - everything, in short, that mattered to man.  There were indeed times when, had circumstances permitted, one would gladly have changed places with any of the more complacent-looking inhabitants of such a pond, and thus abandoned the human world altogether.  Times, indeed, when to swim about like that, free from the arduous responsibilities of earning a living or the tedious necessity of defending a radical viewpoint from hidebound opponents, would have struck one as constituting a charmed existence, a privilege of the elect, a kind of luxurious abandon.  But, of course, goldfish remained fish and human beings human, even if sometimes rather unwillingly so!  Their worlds could never be exchanged.  Willy-nilly, the burden of religion, politics, science, art, etc., would have to be borne for as long as one lived - borne in the face of every adversity or, for that matter, adversary.

     It wasn't long, however, before Andrew was startled out of these sombre reflections by the sight of a woman's face reflected in the still water beside him and, turning round to behold it in the flesh, he recognized Carol Jackson staring down at him with a gentle smile on her lips.  He almost lost his grip on the small rocks against which he was leaning and toppled backwards into the pond, so completely did her presence take him by surprise!

     "I do hope I haven't disturbed you," she murmured, somewhat gratuitously in the circumstances.

     "No, not at all!" he automatically responded, as one usually does in such a delicate situation.  "I was simply admiring the goldfish."

     She smiled her acknowledgement of this obvious confession and, with a "May I?", to which Andrew offered a prompt and affirmative response, sat down beside him on one of the larger and cleaner-looking rocks by the edge of the pond.  After a brief inspection of its aquatic contents, she smiled anew and cast him a penetrative look from her dark-brown eyes - one specifically designed to cut through any pretence or reserve which might have come between them at this juncture.  "I take it you had a pleasant time with Pauline Grace yesterday evening?" she at length commented.

     A sudden uprush of embarrassment overpowered Andrew with these words.  For the tone of Carol's voice, coupled to the knowing look in her lively eyes, suggested, all too clearly, that more was known of his nocturnal activities on the evening in question than he would have been prepared to admit.  "Yes," he blushingly confessed.  "Quite pleasant."

     "Only 'quite'?" queried Carol with the air of a tease about her.  "Were you worried that someone like her father would overhear you, then?"

     Andrew's embarrassment took a sharp turn for the worse.  He didn't know how to reply, not knowing exactly where he stood with her.  But Carol came to his rescue.

     "Or perhaps you were disappointed because she wasn't more responsive and didn't have much experience behind her?" Carol shamelessly conjectured.

     Now it was completely out in the open.  There could be no question of pretence here.  "No, not really," he confessed, his blood seeming hotter than usual.  And then, all of a sudden, as though the lid of his shame had just been removed and the pressure released from his embarrassing predicament, he burst into an impulsive giggle, which was followed, much to Carol's satisfaction, by a lengthy smile of cathartic relief.  "How did you know?" he asked, as soon as it had run its pleasurable course.

     "Simply by listening outside her bedroom door for a few minutes before retiring to my room," Carol revealed.  "Not that either of you were making much noise about it!  On the contrary, I had to strain my ears, since you seemed rather reserved in your pleasures."

     "We had to be," Andrew admitted, automatically deferring to Carol's partial impression.  "Otherwise the game would have been given away."

     "As it was in any case - at least as far as I was concerned."

     Andrew experienced a slight qualm at this point.  "What about Robert?" he asked.

     "Not to my knowledge," Carol replied.  "I didn't mention it to him and he hasn't mentioned anything to me.  So I can only presume he doesn't know."  She smiled reassuringly and then added: "We slept in separate rooms, by the way."

     "Is that so?" Andrew responded, not a little surprised at this turn of events.  "Well, I sincerely hope I can trust you to keep a secret, Carol.  I don't think Mr Grace would particularly approve of what I've been up to with his daughter, would he?"

     "Most probably not; though I don't think you would particularly approve of what he's up to with Robert," the model averred.

     Andrew felt somewhat puzzled and looked it.  "How d'you mean?" he asked, surprised to find himself becoming slightly concerned on Harding's behalf.

     Carol smiled vaguely and proceeded to cast a few tiny pebbles into the pond, momentarily disturbing the apparent equanimity of its tiny inhabitants.  "Well, as yet, I've nothing definite to go on; though, from what I've learnt from an acquaintance of mine, it's somewhat doubtful that Henry Grace's motives for inviting Robert here are exclusively professional," she remarked.  "In point of fact, I incline to believe such motives don't really enter into it at all."

     The writer became even more puzzled.  "I don't think I quite follow you," he not unreasonably confessed.

     "You wouldn't happen to know a photographer by name of Donald Prescott, by any chance?"

     He shook his head.

     "Well, as you do know, I'm a model, and my profession often takes me to Prescott's house in Hampstead, where I pose for his camera," Carol resumed.  "Now from what I gleaned from him, the last time I was there, Henry Grace is by no means as influential in the world of art or art criticism as Robert seems to imagine, since he's at least two decades out-of-date."

     "I could have told you that!" Andrew retorted.  "In fact, he's almost a century out-of-date, so far as I'm concerned."

     Carol had to smile, in spite of the seriousness of the matter.  "I'm glad you think so," she said.  "However Prescott, who used to know Mr Grace personally, assured me that the critic wasn't the type of man to put himself out for anybody, to use what little influence he has specifically on anybody's professional behalf."

     "You mean, Robert's being deceived by him?" Andrew conjectured.

     "That seems the most logical inference," Carol agreed.

     "But why?  Why would he go to all the trouble to invite Robert here and play the charming host, if he wasn't intending to befriend him?"  Andrew objected.  "After all, they've talked of little else but art ever since we arrived!"

     "As I well know," Carol admitted over a faint but earnest sigh.  "Yet that strikes me as no more than a cover for his real motives, a trap to lure Robert into danger.  If you want to know my honest opinion, I believe Henry Grace has taken a fancy to my boyfriend and hopes to seduce him."

     Andrew could scarcely believe his ears.  "You're kidding!" he ejaculated.

     "Not a bit," Carol assured him, her face deadly serious.  "I gleaned as much from what Prescott told me the other week, both from what was said and by the way he responded to some of my comments.  He was harbouring a little secret, and I bet you anything it had to do with Mr Grace's sexuality - namely, the fact of his being bisexual."

     "Bisexual?" Andrew repeated, still distinctly sceptical about the revelation Carol had opted to inflict upon him.  "Maybe that explains the strange silence and withdrawn disposition of his wife over the weekend, her disinclination to enter into conversation with him in Robert's presence, much as though she knew full-well what was going on and what was expected of her in consequence.  Maybe even a private grudge against him and jealousy that he should prefer someone else to her?  After all, she didn't come with us on that cross-country stroll yesterday afternoon, did she?"

     "Probably more because she wasn't invited to than from any overt grievance against her husband," Carol opined.  "We were led to believe that she had to stay behind to look after the house and attend to any new guests who might arrive during our absence.  But were there any?"

     Andrew pondered, a moment, what was evidently a rhetorical question, and then said: "Not if you discount Philip's friend, Edwin."

     "Quite!  And one can hardly consider him a guest, much less a personal friend of Henry Grace!" declared Carol sternly.  "No, as far as I'm concerned, that was just a ruse to keep her out of the way while her husband chatted-up my boyfriend to the extent he could.  Besides, you were on the walk and he didn't talk very much to you, did he?"

     "Perhaps that's just as well!" the writer ironically averred, showing signs of amusement.  "It would also have detracted from my conversation with Pauline or even prevented it from taking place.  Curious, now I come to think about it, how my preoccupation with her didn't appear to arouse any interest or concern on his part, much as though he had better things to think about than the safety of his daughter in the dubious company of a handsome male stranger."

     "Evidently he had," Carol affirmed.  "And primarily in terms of the success of his strategy to seduce Robert."

     "But is he bisexual, too?"

     "Not to my knowledge.  At least, he has never made mention of a penchant for men to me, nor have I ever seen him in anything approximating to sexual contact with them during the six months of our intimacy.  Of course, prior to then I'm not able to say.  But from what he told me about his previous relationships, all of them with women, it would seem highly improbable that he has ever gone out of his way to establish bisexual relations with anyone.  Quite the contrary, he strikes me as a born heterosexual."

     "Well, if that's how it is - and I can well believe it in view of his overly realistic approach to painting - then we needn't fear for his safety or, rather, morals, need we?" Andrew deduced.  "Henry Grace is simply wasting his time."

     Carol firmly shook her head.  "I rather doubt it," she retorted.  "For Robert has so much confidence in Mr Grace's ability to influence his career for the better ... that he might well succumb to his sexual demands on the spur of the moment, if only to further his aims."

     "You mean he'd allow Grace to sexually violate him on the assumption that such a procedure would be to his professional advantage?" Andrew blurted out, quite beside himself with astonishment.

     "Shush, keep your voice down!" Carol hissed, pressing the proverbial forefinger against her lips.

     They cast an apprehensive glance around the garden, but there was nobody to be seen.  The house stood bathed in sunlight some eighty-odd yards away, its windows blank.  Only the harmless sounds of sparrows and thrushes could be heard.

     "But that's preposterous!" Andrew exclaimed with renewed confidence.  "Who-on-earth would allow another man to violate him for the sake of his career?"

     "Particularly when, unbeknownst to himself, he wouldn't stand to gain anything much by it," Carol confirmed.  "But you don't know Robert Harding.  At least you wouldn't know the extent of his ambitions to become universally recognized as a great painter."

     "I've an inkling of it!" Andrew admitted, simultaneously recalling the experience of Harding's concern over his freedom of speech earlier that morning.  If that was part of the painter's ambition to gain universal recognition, then he was certainly doing everything he could to stay in Henry Grace's good books.  No doubt, he could be induced to do a bit more, if circumstances required!  But how absurd that his ambitions should be so important to him that he could be depended upon to lean over backwards to achieve them - and evidently in more than a merely metaphorical sense.

     "An inkling is all very well," Carol sharply rejoined, succumbing to a degree of self-pity.  "But I have to live with a great deal more than that, including the fact of his desire to become the leading English portrait-painter of his day."

     Andrew felt obliged to laugh, and did so with a sarcastic relish quite untypical of him.  Really, it was too funny for words!  How could Harding become the foremost anything?  Wasn't it simply his intention to become the most reactionary painter of his day, to make war on all forms of modernity, not excepting the contemporary treatment of portraiture?  But Carol wasn't particularly amused by Andrew's flippant response.  It was all right for him to laugh, he didn't have to live with the guy.  She did, though not legally.  Indeed, she could have broken with Harding that very day, had she really wanted to.  But, deep down, she was still rather fond of him, unwilling, at present, to be the source of a break-up.  Besides, if the truth were known, she would have to admit that he was the best lover she had ever had - far more adventurous, vigorous, and responsive than any of the previous men in her life.  And one who took longer with his pleasures, moreover.  It wouldn't have been to her sexual advantage to risk having to settle for anything less, least of all over such a relatively trifling issue as his professional ambitions!

     "By the way, I ought to tell you that I happened to overhear part of a conversation between Robert and Mr Grace whilst he was working on the latter's portrait one day," Andrew revealed, once he had cooled down again.  "You weren't there, but I could see that your boyfriend was doing his level best to make as good an impression on his sitter as possible, straining every damn nerve and muscle on his face to make it appear as though he were deeply engrossed in concentration, and agreeing with just about everything the latter said.  It didn't take long before my suspicions were confirmed concerning his reactionary attitude towards modern art, his dislike of everything abstract."

     "Yes, that must have been on one of the days I was at Prescott's," Carol commented.  "But the irony of it all is that, if what I assume about Mr Grace is true, Robert needn't have gone to such trouble to make a good impression, since that old faggot only commissioned his portrait because he'd already taken a fancy to him and thereby hoped to seduce him.  Robert's concern with being on his best behaviour was accordingly quite superfluous."

     "And probably still is," Andrew conjectured, smiling.

     "Yes, I incline to think so," Carol agreed.  "Especially when I recall the ease with which Mr Grace dismissed Robert's concern over your differences of opinion, earlier in the day, while the three of us were sitting outside on those old back-garden seats yesterday evening."

     Andrew automatically cast a suspicious glance in the direction of the seats in question, as though to assure himself that they were now empty.  "Oh, was Robert somewhat upset then?" he asked.

     "You bet he was!" Carol exclaimed.  "And quite apologetic, to boot.  But he needn't have been, since Henry Grace didn't harbour any grievances against him as a result of your philosophical outspokenness.  On the contrary, he was only too keen to reassure us - and Robert in particular - that he could still be a charming host."

     "I bet the old sod was!" Andrew cried, unable, once again, to prevent a gasp of amusement escaping from between his parted lips.  "But I doubt if he really felt as charming as he made himself out to be, especially where I was concerned."

     "Indeed not!" Carol confirmed, smiling ironically.  "Although I did my best to stand-up for you, in spite of opposition from my boyfriend.  Unlike him, however, I saw no reason why not to, since I agree with your theories concerning the difference between Christians and transcendentalists.  It stands to reason that a dualist is less spiritually evolved.  But Mr Grace didn't see it like that, being too set in his bourgeois ways and too vain, moreover, to concede one the truth of the matter.  For all we know, he might have had a guilty conscience about his intention to seduce Robert and couldn't restrain the impulse to defend him against you, when you spoke of the moral superiority of transcendentalists yesterday afternoon.  But, whatever the case, he was certainly not put off Robert by my subsequent defence of your views.  Quite the contrary, he began to speak of their temperamental compatibility and reaffirmed his liking for him - a liking which seemed to corroborate all my suspicions regarding his real motives for having invited Robert all the way up here in the first place.  Yet when he went on to speak of their being 'two of a kind', brothers in the cause of 'liberal decency and tradition', I nearly burst out laughing, so ironic did it sound to me!  Doubtless the word 'kind' possessed more significance for Henry Grace than ever it did for his naive dupe!"

     "So it would seem," Andrew murmured through an accompanying snigger.  "Yet brothers in the cause of liberal, or representational, tradition in the arts they most certainly are, as I was made more than adequately aware by my eavesdropping on the other side of Robert's fence that day.  Naturally, I had suspected he was in revolt against all forms of abstraction in art, shortly after we first became acquainted.  But it wasn't until I heard the pair of them together that my suspicions were confirmed.  Instead of moving with the times and furthering the admirable cause of transcendental abstraction, these two bastards are determined to reverse things by reaffirming the primacy, as they see it, of form and substance, thereby returning art to an outmoded sensual/spiritual dualism compatible with bourgeois ethics.  I don't know exactly how you feel about this, Carol, but I can tell you I'm very much against it!  If they think that by advocating a more representational approach to art they'll be affecting its salvation, then they're sadly mistaken!  They would simply be resurrecting the past, and that isn't much good to the present, still less the future.  For figurative art has had its day, and nothing they could do now would really alter matters to any appreciable extent.  At worst, I expect they'd merely succeed in causing a certain amount of mental confusion among the less-integrated devotees of modern art, affecting a vague nostalgia for dualistic criteria among the bourgeoisie, and slightly undermining the progress of transcendentalism in art, including various types of light art, in the process.  But nothing significant, nothing guaranteed to cause a major regression in our tastes.  Fortunately for all true lovers of cultural progress, theirs is a lost cause, so we needn't become unduly concerned about it.  However, the fact they do think in terms of a return to outmoded values in art makes them extremely disagreeable to me - enemies, if you like, whom it's my duty to denigrate.  It isn't for me to encourage them in their anachronistic intentions."

     Carol appeared momentarily grieved, primarily because her lover was being attacked by Andrew and made to appear a fool, but also because, deep down, she sympathized with the cause of modern art, at least in its more progressive manifestations, and was rather ashamed of the fact that Robert didn't.  And then what Prescott had said to her about the consequences of his associating with Mr Grace more or less corresponded, in essence if not exactly in detail, to the sentiments expressed by Andrew, and presented her with additional reasons for believing that Harding's was a lost cause.  Yes, however much she remained loyal to her lover as a person, she couldn't pretend that his professional ambitions were worthy of respect.  Accordingly, she had no option but to side with the writer.  "It would serve him right," she remarked eventually, "if Mr Grace manages to seduce him on the pretext of furthering his career, without actually doing so!  It might teach him a valuable lesson."

     "True, though I doubt if it would prevent him from continuing with his reactionary creative policies," Andrew solemnly opined.  "He seems to be perfectly at one with them."

     "Yes, that has to be admitted," Carol agreed.  "A born reactionary."

     However, the sight of Mrs Grace emerging from the house to put some washing out decided Carol against continuing their conversation and, with a parting smile, she left the writer to his reflections, both private and public.  He was in no hurry to return to the others himself, not even for Pauline's sake.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

It was around 7.00pm that same day when young Philip Grace called on Edwin, who had spent the greater part of the afternoon in his room with a book.  As usual, it was Edwin's mother who answered the front door.  Aside from the obliging young women who came to visit her son during vacations, Philip was the most regular caller - almost a member of the family.  But, as ever, he couldn't be induced to say very much to Mrs Ford, whom he found slightly intimidating on account of her matronly build and deep voice.  It was accordingly straight up to his fellow-student's room that he went.

     "Ah, so you've finally broken away from your father's guests!" Edwin observed, as soon as Philip had proffered his customary "Hi!" in a terse, high-pitched tone of voice.

     "Yes, fortunately!  They left just under an hour ago."  He helped himself to a wooden chair and sat down on it with a sigh of relief, more from habit than fatigue.  It was often his way to sigh at contact with chairs, even when he hadn't run the 400-odd yards which separated their parents' houses, as on this occasion.  To him, a chair signified less a support than a letting go of oneself, a general collapse of the physical organism, an abdication of moral high-standing, which he ordinarily strove to maintain on as athletic a plane as possible.

     "Were you glad to see the back of them?" Edwin asked, politely putting his book to one side and sitting up a little on his bed, where he had been sprawled-out in luxurious abandon.

     "Yes and no," Philip ambivalently replied.  "I didn't much like the painter, who struck me as rather pompous and effeminate in a middle-class kind of way.  But I quite liked the other two, especially Miss Jackson.  She was certainly pretty!"

     Edwin smiled broadly in conspiratorial acknowledgement of his friend's assessment of Carol.  "A good fucking lay, what?" he facetiously speculated.

     "I bet!" Philip enthusiastically responded.  "Too good for that painter jerk, so far as I'm concerned.  I'd like to have tried something on her."

     "But you evidently didn't?" Edwin deduced.

     "I hardly had time!  Nonetheless I'm quite convinced, from the way Pauline was behaving this morning, that the other guy tried something on her last night, after leaving us in the lounge."

     "Oh, what makes you think that?"  Edwin seemed concerned, almost worriedly so.

     "I couldn't help noticing the way she was staring at him during breakfast - kind of intimately," Philip revealed, fidgeting slightly in his chair.  "Even mother was aware of something, or at least of a change in her.  And the way she was dressed too, in her best and most seductive minidress, like she wanted to show off and please someone.  I bet you anything she was dolled-up specifically to please him."

     "So you think he got off with her last night?" Edwin conjectured nervously.

     "I shouldn't be at all surprised!" Philip averred.  "After all, she didn't come back downstairs after she'd disappeared with him at around eleven o'clock, did she?"

     "She might have gone straight to bed after having shown him to his room," Edwin speculated, shifting uneasily on his bed.

     "She might," Philip conceded, giving his friend the benefit of the doubt.  "But, knowing my sister, I incline to think otherwise, since she doesn't usually go to bed till after twelve on Saturdays.  No, I bet you anything he had his way with her."

     Edwin appeared even more concerned than before.  He hadn't quite realized, until now, that he was virtually in love with Pauline or, at any rate, fonder of her than he had hitherto imagined.  But Philip's sister had never shown any real romantic interest in him - nothing comparable to the interest she had evidently shown in Andrew Doyle.  Her attitude towards him, on the contrary, had always been rather cool.  However that may be, it wasn't for him to make a blabbering fool of himself in front of Philip!  "Oh well, if that writer-bastard got on intimate terms with her, good fucking luck to him!" he at length exclaimed, trying to sound as flippantly impartial as possible.  "We needn't begrudge him such modest pleasures!  I guess he deserved something after all the trouble we put him through, encouraging him to expound his religious views to us in your father's lounge.  Had I not been so stoned, when we arrived back at your place yesterday, I doubt that I'd have launched out so frigging vehemently in defence of Marxism in front of your distinctly conservative father, and thereby precipitated the impromptu lecture from Doyle which was destined to lead to a show-down between the Christian camp on the one hand and the transcendentalist camp, or whatever, on the other.  To tell you the truth, I'm still pretty confused about this Social Transcendental compromise between modified forms of socialism and transcendentalism which he was advocating.  But, really, I can't say I've ever seen your dad look more aggrieved or sound more offended than when he let rip at the guy for having dismissed Christianity as outmoded.  Too frigging terrible!"

     Philip had to agree.  "It quite poisoned the atmosphere for the rest of the weekend, and not only so far as their attitude to each other was concerned," he declared.  "You ought to have felt the strain at breakfast, what with Andrew on my left and Robert on my right.  I could almost feel the needles of antipathy passing through me from the one to the other!  And Andrew hardly spoke a word all the time, not even when I attempted to start a conversation with him."

     "I don't really blame him," Edwin remarked, grinning ironically.  "If I had been in his shoes, I wouldn't have said very much either.  But I could never be in his shoes, since I've no use for transcendentalism."

     "Not even after what he said on the subject yesterday afternoon?" Philip queried.

     "No, absolutely not!  I'm still a Marxist and don't desire to meditate.  I'll remain loyal to my type, even if it's only one amongst others and not necessarily the most important.  You can keep your Krishnamurti, Radhakrishnan, Sri Chinmoy, Prabhupada, Sri Rajhneesh, and all the rest of them, if that's what you bloody-well want.  But leave me my Marx, Engles, Trotsky, Kropotkin, etc., who suit me better.  Alright, he may be correct in claiming Marxism isn't everything.  But that's no reason for me to suppose I ought necessarily to abandon it and embrace meditation instead!  If I'm of a predominantly materialistic disposition, well then, I shall just have to live in accordance with its dictates and attend to matters as they stand in relation to it.  For me, politics is more important than religion."

     "And for me it's the other way around, my temperamental disposition being somewhat different," Philip confessed.  "But you must admit you've slightly changed your position, due to what Andrew was saying.  For you were previously inclined to dismiss religion altogether, and not concede that meditation had any place whatsoever in the march of history.  You hadn't learnt to differentiate between Christianity and transcendentalism, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, and therefore weren't prepared to accept that the latter might have more relevance to a post-Christian socialist society than you supposed.  To you, all religious people, no matter how they conceived of God, were equally detrimental to socialism, and hence to a world based on the claims of materialism.  You would have wanted them all done away with, so that atheistic Marxism could flourish unimpeded by religion, which to you was nothing more than a system of glorified superstitions, and thus bring the world to the millennium as you conceived of it, that's to say, a socialist millennium in which only material things mattered - everyone being well-fed, well-housed, well-sexed, etc., and thereby reduced to the level of contented cabbages.  But such a millennium would be an absurdity, as I'm sure you must now realize, in which men simply vegetated, in accordance with their new-found ease, and degenerated to a level on a par with, if not actually way below, the beasts.  They would be stuck in front of their television sets night after dreary night, with never an ambition in their starry-eyed heads beyond the materialistic desire to indefinitely maintain the status quo and thereby reduce human sufferings to a bare minimum.  But is that salvation?  Is that the climax to our long and difficult evolution?  No, you know as well as me that such a lamentable state-of-affairs, already manifest in all-too-many-cases, would eventually prove intolerable, the source of ineffable boredom.  If we didn't go mad or turn psychopathic, we'd simply sink into our bodies, like abject clods, and die of humiliation and shame!  No, it's obvious there must be more to the coming millennium than that, something which lifts us above material survival and makes it possible for us to experience spiritual bliss.  And what is that something if not Transcendental Meditation and an identification, in consequence, with the Godhead, an identification, through the superconscious mind, with holy spirit."

     "Don't frigging-well preach to me!" Edwin objected, becoming resentful.  "I don't want your salvation.  I may have slightly modified my attitude to transcendentalism, but I'm still a Marxist, still predominantly political."

     "Oh, I'm not preaching to you!" Philip corrected.  "I know only too well by now that any kind or degree of transcendentalist preaching would be wasted on your damn ears, since they're not attuned to it.  'I'm not the mouth for those ears,' as Nietzsche would say.  No, I'm merely pointing out the absurdity in conceiving of the Millennium in purely materialist terms, as though it were nothing more than a glorified consumer society bereft of the spirit.  Let's not degrade ourselves to that level!"

     "Alright, alright, have it your own frigging way!" Edwin countered, with an air of weariness.  "To some extent I accept what you say - at least to the extent of distinguishing between Christianity and transcendentalism, and thereby acknowledging that there's probably more to the Millennium, in the ideological sense, than material well-being."

     "And you still consider yourself a Marxist?"

     "Yes, in a manner of speaking!  At least I'm still dedicated to politics, not religion.  I'm still atheistic as far as the Christian god is concerned.  Still an enemy of the Church!"

     "But not of the Holy Spirit or of Transcendental Meditation?" Philip pressed him, scenting victory.

     There was a strained silence during which the Cambridge undergraduate wearily shrugged his shoulders and sighed faintly, torn between allegiance to Marxism and the overwhelming logic in support of the claims put forward by his fellow-student.  No, he wasn't going to admit defeat.  "I'll content myself with the policies of socialism," he defiantly averred.  "At least they're tangible.  I'll be the Commissar and you can be the Yogi.  You do your thing to help the individual and I'll do mine to help the collectivity.  But don't expect me to get down on my knees or rump or whatever before the Godhead.  That's not my responsibility."

     "I didn't for one moment expect it to be!" Philip remarked.  "But at least you now know or are prepared to admit that the superconscious has a legitimate role to play in shaping our future salvation, and therefore can't be dismissed as an illusion or a fancy.  If anything should be dismissed as such, it's the belief that the ego - as representative, at its height, of a balanced fusion between subconscious and superconscious elements - should indefinitely continue to dominate us, and every criterion of truth, progress, goodness, etc., be referred back to it as a matter of logical course.  As Andrew was only too keen to point out yesterday, the ego is on the decline and will doubtless continue to decline, or 'wither away', for as long as it takes us to attain to the goal of human evolution in spiritual bliss.  Eventually we'll overcome it altogether, and so break free of the subconscious.  Then, once we've broken free of that, we'll be in the Millennium, the post-human millennium, as Andrew Doyle wisely calls it.  So let's not subscribe to the popular psychological fallacy, so dear to bourgeois intellectuals, that the mind is only divisible into subconscious and conscious, and that the conscious mind, or ego, will reign for ever.  Fortunately, that would appear to be anything but the case!"

     "Indeed, here I'll have to agree with you," Edwin confessed, breaking into a gratified smile at last.  "For that aspect of the writer's logical acumen has a certain relevance to the development of co-operative economics, suggesting a break with the ego-bound competitive/cooperative system of the bourgeoisie in deference to the self-transcending dictates of the superconscious.  Yes, there's evidently something in what he said about religion and politics hanging together on a common framework of evolutionary development!  At least, I can see the political and economic side of his argument.  But, in case you're interested in emphasizing fallacies, illusions, superstitions, and the like, this is the book you ought to be reading right now.  It's by a certain Philip Ward, and it's about fallacies of one kind or another."

     It was the book he had been reading when his friend first entered the room, one that had kept him engrossed like few others, and he now proceeded to flick through its pages by way of refreshing his memory about various of its contents.  Fallacies listed, he duly informed his fellow-undergraduate, included biogenesis, the Arthurius Society, astrology, Atlantis, inheritance of acquired characteristics, divination, flying saucers, ghosts, giants, homeopathy, I Ching, the immortality of the soul, the infallibility of the Pope, karma, Lawsonomy, Lysenkoism, metoposcopy, naturopathy, orgonomy, osteopathy, ouija boards, poltergeists, psychometry, reincarnation, scientology, scrying, tarot, telegony, and theosophy - each fallacy being described in relevant detail with careful reference to existing knowledge on the subject.  Not since he read Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, during his first year at college, had Edwin Ford encountered a more perspicacious or enlightening book, the logical acumen of its author cutting through the welter of superstitions that clouded our age with a clear-sightedness worthy of Voltaire himself!  No-one who was interested in the progress of truth over illusion could possibly fail to be impressed by such a book.  It was an invaluable safeguard against so many of the intellectual or spiritual tricks-and-traps which beset us on all sides, rendering us the victims of other men's delusions.  It cleared the ground, so to speak, of thousands of books to which one might otherwise, in one's comparative ignorance, have fallen victim, giving one a healthy scepticism concerning the ostensible incontestability of so many trendy 'truths'.  After reading such a book one felt mentally purged, delivered from the pernicious influence of contemporary illusion.  It was a kind of cleansing agent of the psyche.

     "Well, as long as it doesn't say anything against the value of Transcendental Meditation and the reality of the superconscious," said Philip, "I think I'd like to read it - assuming you're willing to part with it, that is?"  He looked inquiringly at his friend.

     "Sure, take it home with you later this evening!" Edwin gladly proposed, handing the voluminous hardback across to him.  "I don't think you'll be disappointed.  Although it does contain an entry dealing with the fallacy of believing that, with the Millennium, the Messiah will return."

     "Which, in any case, isn't something I really believe," Philip hastened to assure his mocking companion.  "Like Andrew, I believe that the Millennium will signify the triumph of the spiritual principle, not the literal return of the theological symbol, viz. Jesus Christ, standing for that principle.  The difference, if you like, between taking the Last Judgement literally and taking it figuratively, if you see what I mean."

     Edwin shook his head.  "I'm not altogether sure I do," he confessed, "but I'm prepared to believe that what you say is probably nearer the truth than what has generally been accepted for it, over the centuries.  I'll concede you the benefit of the agnostic doubt!"

     "I'm glad to hear it," Philip declared, smiling ironically.  "I'd always thought you were less of a Marxist than you made yourself out to be."

     "Frigging nonsense!" the other defiantly concluded.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

It was not long after his return from Berkshire that Andrew received an invitation from Carol to accompany her on one of her professional visits to Donald Prescott's house.  The prospect of meeting the eccentric photographer in the flesh quite appealed to him, and so he had no hesitation in accepting it.  Besides, he rather liked her company.  For she was certainly more of a kind with himself than Harding or, for that matter, anyone else he had met in recent weeks, including Pauline.

     However, it was principally with a view to meeting the photographer that he set off with Miss Jackson, the following Wednesday morning, to their South Hampstead destination.  When they arrived there, at around 10.30, Prescott had only just got up, having overslept by an hour, and was not yet washed or dressed.  His dressing gown - bright green and of a fine silk texture which suggested affluence - was his only defence against a possible accusation of indecency, but he had taken the precaution to wrap and tie it around his tall, slender body in a manner by no means unconventional.  Indeed, much to Andrew's surprise, there was nothing about the physical appearance of the man to suggest a penchant for eccentricity; though if his face looked perfectly unassuming, it had to be admitted that the entrance hall of his imposing house reflected a degree of eccentricity bordering on madness.  For its walls were covered from top to bottom with thousands of photographs - mostly of young women!

     Still, it was not for Andrew Doyle to ogle them but to extend a hand, necessarily nervous, for Prescott, apologetic on account of his uncivil appearance, to dutifully shake.  Evidently the photographer did make some concessions to the outside world or, at any rate, to social custom!

     "So what have you been doing with yourself since I last saw you?" he asked, turning back to Carol.

     The question afforded a fairly wide solution, but the model answered it in a tactfully compressed sort of way by informing him that, together with Andrew and Robert, she had been to Henry Grace's Berkshire house for the weekend, in response to an invitation which the critic had made them.

     "Ah, so that's it!" Prescott exclaimed, as though he had just received some important revelation.  "And is Robert still there?"

     "No, he returned with us on Sunday evening," Carol replied.  "He's currently at work in his studio on a portrait of Philip Grace, Mr Grace's son, since he received further commissions from Grace senior to paint the family, both separately and, in due course, collectively."

     "Oh really?"  The photographer seemed relatively unconcerned about this, as he led his visitors through to his own studio at the rear of the house where, scorning further curiosity, he instructed them to make themselves at home whilst he attended to his toilet upstairs.  Washing and dressing wouldn't take him long, he assured them with a departing smile.

     With Prescott temporarily out of the way, Andrew proceeded to take stock of the studio, the walls of which were even more tightly crammed with photographs than those of the entrance hall.  "So this is where you pose for his camera, is it?" he said to Carol on a firmly deductive note.

     "It sure is!" she confirmed, smiling coyly.  "If you strain your eyes hard enough, you might even detect a few photos of me."

     "More than a few!" Andrew declared, glancing around the walls at the different-sized photographs, some large and some small, some in black-and-white and others in colour.  Altogether there must have been at least five thousand of them in the room, though he could detect only about twenty of the two hundred or so dedicated exclusively to Carol.  He was partly amused and partly embarrassed, especially by the ones which showed him all or most of her physical charms in a highly erotic light.  He hesitated to look at them, feeling conscious of the young woman's eyes on him as he scanned the walls.  It had brought him into a sudden indirect intimacy with her which was somewhat disquieting in its unexpectedness.  Had she purposely planned this visit in order to seduce him, or was she simply showing off?  He couldn't be sure, but it was difficult to equate the physical presence of the attractive female seated in one of the studio's armchairs with the garish photographs of her on the walls, and no less difficult to equate the person he had spoken to in Henry Grace's back-garden with them!  No doubt, Carol was more detached from the spectacle of her professional life and therefore able to regard it with a cool objectivity.  She was used to men admiring her body.  There could be no cause for embarrassment about it.

     "In case you're wondering why Don's photos are also to be found elsewhere in the house, it's because there isn't any more room for them here," Carol matter-of-factly remarked, while Andrew was still busily scanning the walls.  "The ones in the hall, for instance, are part of the studio overspill, which came into effect some two years ago."

     "Is that so?" gasped the writer, not a little bewildered.  "Doesn't he ever throw any of them away, then?"

     "Not if they're any good, he doesn't!  He's a born miser where they're concerned.  And a born show off, to boot.  He has to have the fruit of his labours right there before his eyes, even if this does mean that just about every damn room in the house is threatened by it.  If he carries on working in this context much longer - and it's difficult to imagine him doing anything else - he'll end-up pinning photos to doors, ceilings, windows, and furniture!  He might even have to resort to floors eventually."

     "You're kidding!"

     Carol smiled in shared amusement at the ludicrous nature of her supposition before saying: "Not as much as you may think.  For he's absolutely obsessed by his work."

     "So it would appear, especially where young women are concerned," Andrew blushingly observed.  "He must have photographed more nudes and semi-nudes than I've had hot dinners, if you'll pardon the cliché."

     "As well as made love to more of them," Carol nonchalantly informed him.  "I told you about his kinky little panties museum upstairs, didn't I?"

     Andrew pondered this point a moment, before nodding affirmatively.  "As also about the 'Rejection Club'," he remarked.

     Carol had to smile anew.  "You can consider yourself fortunate you're not a member of it!" she declared.  "Plenty of wankers are or have been.  Yet, for all his eccentricity, I think you'll have to concede that Don has genius.  His photography is amongst the best of its kind.  And he has such taste!  Just take another look around you, and tell me where else could you expect to witness so many tasteful photos in one place - photos which confirm his extraordinary sense of beauty?"

     Despite persistent misgivings at the spectacle before him, Andrew had to concede that the man had talent.  There was scarcely a model on display who wasn't highly attractive or whose natural attractiveness hadn't been exploited to telling effect.  Moreover, their postures weren't generally vulgar or stupid, the way so many photographs of nude models tended to be.  On the contrary, they were for the most part very tasteful, if at times a little unusual.  "What's this stereo doing here?" he asked, as his eyes alighted upon an expensive-looking midi system not far from where he was standing.  "Does Mr Prescott play music while he, er, works?"

     "Yes, quite frequently, though very rarely in my presence," Carol confirmed, while directing her attention towards the large collection of discs and tapes to the left of the stereo, "since I don't share his tastes.  I'm something of a soul enthusiast, whereas he prefers classical music, and notably twentieth-century British music.  Sometimes he overrules my objections, but mostly he respects them.  He likes to listen to music whilst he's developing his prints as well."

     Andrew had gone across to the record collection and begun to nose through it.  Clearly, there was more to Donald Prescott than first met the eye!  Such recordings as the Berkeley Piano Concerto, Walton's First Symphony, Rubbra's Seventh Symphony, Lambert's Rio Grande, Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies, Vaughan Williams' London Symphony, and Tippett's Concerto for Orchestra testified to a sense of musical values one wouldn't have suspected from a glimpse at the other contents of the room!  Frankly, it was somewhat difficult to reconcile the music of Walton's First Symphony with, say, the art of photographing nude models.  Yet Prescott had evidently mastered the knack of doing so, perhaps in order to invest his work with a grandeur it might otherwise have lacked?  Bearing in mind the paradoxical nature of some of his other eccentricities, it wasn't altogether surprising that he should have resorted to such a policy.  It could hardly be considered any worse.

     But if it was Prescott's policy to mix business with pleasure, there was certainly no evidential lack of business in his studio, as the seven different-coloured silk-screens, neatly folded together in the proximity of a full-sized double bed, adequately attested, their purpose doubtless being to enable the photographer to transform the studio into different settings as the situation required, thereby granting him a variety of domestic contexts in which to work.  As clearly discernible from a number of the photos on display, however, not all of the models had been photographed here - a good many having evidently permitted him to enter their homes or utilize hotel rooms, as the occasion or context warranted.  Prescott was evidently not a man to be confined to any one location, even though he appeared to prefer his studio to anywhere else.  However, before Andrew could take up the subject of studio settings with Carol, the photographer had briskly returned to the scene and thereupon inhibited deeper inquiry.  He was now more like his true self, elegantly dressed in a pair of light-grey flannels and a pink shirt, with a dark-blue cravat for contrast.

     "Well, now that I'm reasonably presentable, let's get down to business, shall we?" he requested, with an encouraging smile.  "You were saying, Carol, that Robert was busy with Philip Grace's portrait, if I remember correctly?"

     "That's right," she confirmed.  "He was quite a success with his patron.  Or so it would appear."

     Prescott sat down in one of the vacant armchairs and stared across at his favourite model with a cool regard.  "You don't look absolutely convinced of it," he at length commented.

     "Well, as a matter of fact I'm not, bearing in mind what you told me about Mr Grace the last time we met," she admitted.  "You said he wasn't the kind of person to put himself out for anyone, and that he didn't have all that much professional influence."

     "True."

     "In which case, the fact that he and Robert got on so well together leads me to the conclusion that either you were wrong or he must have had some ulterior motive for being friendly."

     Prescott made no comment, but nodded vaguely.

     "Assuming you weren't wrong," Carol continued, "it seems probable to Andrew and I that the ulterior motive may have been sexual, and that Mr Grace was simply flattering Robert for his own carnal ends, acquiring power over the man in order to seduce him at a later juncture, when he felt confident that the painter would stake his career on it.  For the more professionally indebted to him Robert becomes, the harder he'll find it, as a client, to refuse the critic his satisfaction when the demand finally comes, and the more likely it is that Mr Grace will simply exploit him."

     "Ah, so you've arrived at that conclusion, have you?" Prescott responded, smiling cryptically.  "How did you do it?"

     "Simply by taking note of what was going on around us whilst we were at Mr Grace's house," Carol revealed.  "It seems the most plausible explanation."

     There was a short pause in the dialogue before Prescott, realizing that concealment would be of little avail, rejoined with: "Well, it's more than likely the correct one.  I've known Grace to get up to these little tricks before, and with men of his own age as well.  In fact, he's decidedly homosexual, not bisexual, as some people imagine.  His wife barely tolerates him and, needless to say, he can barely tolerate her.  If they live together it's only for appearance's sake, as a kind of respectable facade.  Of course, he has a family.  But that's no more than a thin veneer of convention over his fundamentally unconventional lifestyle, with its retinue of clandestine affairs.  He only comes properly to life outside it, behind his wife's back, so to speak.  At least, that's generally the case; though she is, however, fully aware of the nature of his sexual predilections, having lived with him long enough.  Indeed, when one considers the number of years she has lived with him, I shouldn't be at all surprised if there wasn't something fundamentally lesbian about her.  After all, how many ordinary heterosexual women could possibly stand living with such a man?  He can't be the most ardent or satisfying of lovers - assuming he fucks her at all, that is."

     "Though presumably he would be, where friend Robert is concerned," Carol surmised, the hint of an ironic smile on her heavily rouged lips.

     "Most probably ardent," Prescott conceded.  "But if your boyfriend's not homosexual or bisexual himself, then doubtfully satisfying!  Still, he has battened-on to quite a few men before now who would probably have found him so, including one or two distinguished painters whose names I shall graciously refrain from mentioning."

     "Which leads one to the assumption that he prefers to be the lover rather than the lovee," interposed Andrew thoughtfully, overcoming his reserve in the photographer's elegant presence.

     "So far as I know, that is indeed the case," Prescott confirmed, nodding gently and briefly turning to the writer with a hint of deferential admiration in his eyes.  "All of which goes to prove that there must be something masculine about him, after all.  In sexual matters, he apparently prefers to play the dominating role, as would certainly transpire to being the case vis-à-vis friend Robert.  But do homosexuals actually have sex?"

     The question wasn't specifically directed at anyone and was more than likely rhetorical, though Andrew, having definite views on the subject, thought it appropriate to offer an answer nonetheless.  "In actual fact they only have a kind of half-sex," he nervously averred, directing his attention at Prescott, "the principal reason being that, strictly speaking, the rectum isn't a sexual organ, since having nothing whatsoever to do with reproduction, so that it can never be other than, er, violated in a sexual context.  That's the plain, honest fact of the matter, irrespective of how unpleasant it may sound to ears accustomed to trendy euphemisms and the degenerately civilized acceptance, as it were, of perversions or subversions of naturalistic criteria.  Thus, objectively considered, homosexuals don't really have sex together; they simply violate each other.  In a sense, a homosexual is a kind of sexual freak, by which I mean that his sexuality is abnormal - not related to reproduction.  An erect penis enters a rectum, and the consequent sodomitic activity is, by natural standards, perverse.  Deny it as much as you like, but it remains a fact nonetheless."

     Denial was the last thing on Prescott's noble mind.  However, no sooner had Andrew said his conventional piece, the product, in part, of a Roman Catholic heritage, than Carol, desiring to tease him, let drop a word to the photographer about his weekend experiences in Pauline's bedroom - experiences which had apparently brought him into intimate relations with the young woman and enabled him to exploit her femininity to the extent he could.

     "Ah, so you gravitated to a little hanky-panky with the homosexual's daughter, did you?" Prescott facetiously deduced, looking from Carol to Andrew in response to the dictates of this fresh piece of salacious information.  "Nothing too unorthodox, I trust?"

     The author blushed faintly as he burst into a gentle if uncharacteristic snigger.  "Absolutely straight," he boasted.  "I broke her hymen."

     "Good for you!" chuckled Prescott.  "I'm sure Pauline appreciated it.  You must have won her over quite easily?"

     "I think she was rather flattered by my status as a writer actually," Andrew commented, by way of partly justifying what had happened.  "It must have been a pet ambition of hers, to be deflowered by the type of man who, for reasons best known to herself, most conforms to her ideal of human greatness.  I was evidently something of a hero for her."

     "How amusing!" exclaimed the photographer.  "Or was it vexing?"

     "A bit of both," Andrew confessed.  "Still, I couldn't very well disappoint the poor girl, could I?  She would never have thought so highly of writers again.  I had to play the Byron - one of her favourite poets apparently.  It was the only way I could prevent her from continuing to bore me with her poems, which she insisted on reciting.  I don't think I acted the part particularly well, under the circumstances, but at that age, and with no real sexual experience behind her, she can't have been in the best of positions to judge, can she?"

     "Probably not," Prescott conceded, allowing himself the luxury of an ironic smile.  "I expect you felt slightly intimidated, what with her parents lurking around.  But, tell me, do you think she'd be worth photographing?  I mean, would she make an attractive model, in your considered opinion?"

     Andrew couldn't very well say no, so after a moment's reflection he said: "Frankly, I think she would.  At least she's very mature for her age.  A good-looking girl, by any accounts."

     "Yes, I'd be prepared to endorse that opinion," Carol declared, bringing a little professional judgement to bear on the subject.  "She might be a shade shy or self-conscious in front of your camera lens at first, Don, but I'm sure she'd lose her inhibitions, not to mention knickers, after a while."  She gave the photographer a knowing wink, the significance of which he could hardly fail to appreciate.

     "And do you suppose you might be able to lure her along here?" Prescott tactfully inquired of his other guest.

     "I suppose it might be possible," Andrew somewhat tentatively replied, "though whether or not she has any ambitions to be photographed, I don't honestly know.  But I guess, being young and attractive, she wouldn't decline her services if a suitable opportunity were to present itself.  Despite her apparent predilection for intellectual matters, she's not altogether devoid - with due respect to Carol - of feminine vanity.  I'm sure she'd relish being seen in a tasteful magazine."

     "Well, if that's the case, invite her over here as soon as possible, using such charm and influence as you evidently have, to persuade her to keep it to herself," Prescott requested.  "When will you be next seeing her?"

     Andrew was far from certain, not having any definite plans to continue a relationship which had suddenly and quite unexpectedly sprung-up between them at the weekend.  It was still rather a surprise to him that he had actually got on intimate terms with her.  Consequently he hadn't quite woken-up to the reality of what this might now mean - the possibility, for instance, that Pauline might wish to see him again before long.  Not having said very much to her on Sunday, he had no clear idea exactly where he stood with her at present; though it was all too probable that she would be itching for a chance to renew their intimacy.  Her feelings for him would doubtless be stronger than his were for her, on a number of counts, including the fact that he had recently taken her virginity.  If he was to see her again he would have to face-up to the consequences of his actions, even if he didn't really want to encourage further intimacy, given the fact that she was Mr Grace's daughter and not exactly on his intellectual or literary wavelength.  If he had made love to Pauline partly in order to avenge himself on her for all the tedium and humiliation he had suffered at the hands of various people that day, it had not been with a view to subsequently becoming her victim and being obliged to continue a relationship which would almost certainly lead to unforeseen complications.  Yet he would have to see her again in any case, if only on Prescott's behalf, and the most suitable time would probably be during her forthcoming visit to Harding's studio, to have her portrait painted.  In other words, the following week, after the artist had completed his work on Philip's portrait.  For Pauline was next on his list, which included one of Mrs Grace.  About this Carol had been in no doubt.  And so it was left for Andrew to provide a provisional date.

     "Next week would be fine," Prescott confirmed, visibly gratified.  "I look forward to making her acquaintance.  But don't let Robert know anything about it, otherwise he might try to dissuade her or inform her father or do something equally undesirable.  As it happens, he doesn't know all that much about me, since he takes hardly any interest in Carol's modelling activities.  But I incline to the assumption that his professional ambitions, and correlative desire to remain on as good a standing with Grace as possible, would influence him against encouraging Pauline to take off her clothes for me, particularly if it were known to him that her father was ignorant of the matter and couldn't be depended upon to endorse it.  He would certainly not wish to be implicated in anything Grace could take umbrage at, if you see what I mean."

     "All too clearly," Andrew admitted, with a faintly ironic smile in accompaniment.  "Though it's rather doubtful, from the opposite viewpoint, that Mr Grace would be put out by or displeased with Robert, as Carol and I learnt to our cost at the weekend.  I'm sure he wouldn't object to his daughter being photographed by you, Mr Prescott, if he realized that his future relations with my next-door neighbour were at stake."

     The photographer cast Carol a vaguely conspiratorial glance.  "Probably not," he conceded.  "Yet he wouldn't be too happy if he knew I was involved."

     "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you," Andrew confessed.

      Prescott smiled drily and said: "Well, to put it bluntly, I was a Robert to him at one time, but a Robert who didn't give him what he was after.  Our relationship was duly terminated on a fairly hostile footing, each of us vowing never to set eyes on the other again.  Now that was a little under eight years ago, when Pauline was about ten, and since then we've kept to our respective vows.  So, one way or another, he wouldn't be too happy to learn that I intended to photograph his daughter.  Naturally, he couldn't categorically prohibit her from doing what she wanted, since she has come-of-age, as they say.  But he might stir up trouble for me through friends or acquaintances - as he threatened to do when I broke with him on the homosexual issue.  Had I been an artist, matters could have become more complicated, inasmuch as I might have fallen under the sledgehammer of his journalistic criticisms and accordingly suffered a professional defeat.  But my status as a photographer precluded him from wielding any great influence over or against me, as should be fairly obvious."

     "What isn't so obvious, however, is why, in that event, he should have got involved with you in the first place," Andrew commented, feeling distinctly puzzled.  "After all, you weren't dependent on him for the realization of your artistic ambitions, were you?"

     "No, quite true," Prescott admitted.  "He simply took a fancy to me, considering me an indispensable ingredient in his happiness."  At which point the photographer felt obliged to laugh, before continuing: "He was more idealistic in those days than now, less dependent, you could say, on using his professional influence to secure him what he was after; though I've little doubt that it still served his purposes from time to time, when the right artist became available.  Had I not been obliged to go out of my way to photograph him for some book a friend of mine was writing about him at the time, our paths would never have crossed.  But, alas, circumstances favoured our becoming acquainted, and in due course the homosexual in him got the upper-hand of the friend.  He became what is commonly known as too demanding."

     "I am surprised that anyone should want to write a book about him," Andrew declared, a look of astonishment clearly discernible on his thin face.

     "Well, in those days he was slightly more of an intellectual celebrity than at present," Prescott smilingly explained.  "He was still one of the foremost art critics in the world, and not just a critic but also a poet, like Baudelaire, André Breton, Edward Lucie-Smith, etc., with an established reputation."

     "Henry Grace a poet?" exclaimed Andrew, unable to contain his very genuine surprise at the mention of it.  "Perhaps that explains his daughter's predilection for verse?  Curious how she made no mention of it to me."

     "Probably because he stopped writing poetry several years ago," Prescott opined.  "Old-age seems to have put a halt to his versifying tendencies; though I dare say his homosexual frustrations had a part to play in the matter, too!  No, he was essentially a youthful poet who lost his taste for verse as he grew older and became a man - like, for instance, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, and even Oscar Wilde, notwithstanding the very excellent Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Indeed, most of the younger generation of artists have little or no idea that he was ever a poet at all.  But that's really beside-the-point.  Let's just say that a book about him was justified, if only on account of his more creative past."

     "A pity he didn't have the sense to abandon art criticism as well," Andrew sniggered.

     "He could hardly be expected to do that, particularly where people like Robert are concerned!" Prescott sternly averred.  "No, he stuck to his guns there, even if they're somewhat out-of-date and consequently a good deal less powerful than formerly.  Now his principal target was and, so far as I'm aware, continues to be modern art, as I think you realize."

     "Unfortunately so!" Andrew confirmed, offering Carol a profoundly meaningful glance.  "And I realize, moreover, that Robert Harding could serve Mr Grace as useful ammunition.  For the more reactionary his work becomes, the better the critic will like it - even with reduced firing power.  If they can, between them, cause some confusion in abstractionist ranks, they'll regard it as almost a victory, their chief intention apparently being to disrupt and impede the progress of transcendentalism in art to the extent they can, in order to prepare the ground for a return, via Harding's own work, to representational painting, with its dualistic balance between form and content.  Their aims are distinctly retrogressive."

     "That may be," Prescott conceded, frowning slightly; for he thought the matter a good deal more complex than that, even without a proper definition of painterly transcendentalism.  "But they won't succeed in getting very far, believe me.  The age won't be hoodwinked by them.  On the contrary, they'll find themselves exposed to a lot of ridicule.  Granted, some people will encourage them in their reactionary designs, but not the most enlightened!  Only such as are, like them, dedicated to thwarting artistic progress."

     Andrew sighed in exasperation.  "If only there were something we could do to thwart them, how gratifying that would be!" he averred

     "Yes, indeed!" Carol seconded enthusiastically, anxious to reassure both men that, despite her sexual attachment to Harding, she was essentially on their side in this matter.  "Andrew and I discussed this problem at the Graces' house on Sunday, and we're determined not to lend them any support."

     "Well, we can't very well murder them or prohibit them from doing their thing," the photographer calmly declared.  "And I doubt if preaching to them would get us very far, either.  We'll just have to wait and see what comes of their relationship.  Besides, we're not altogether in favour of allowing friend Robert to fall into the critic's sexual clutches, are we?"  He directed his attention specifically at Carol, since she was obviously the person who would be most affected by such an eventuality.

     "No, I guess not," she replied after a moment's hesitation, during which time she directed an uncertain look at Andrew.  "He ought at least to be spared that fate!  Although it would serve him bloody-well right and perhaps teach him a thorough lesson if he did fall into them, the self-serving prat!"

     "Yes, I suppose I'll have to agree with you," Prescott murmured.  "Ambitions like his can be very dangerous."

     "And foolish," Andrew opined.

     "Quite!" concurred the others simultaneously.

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

All in all, that Wednesday at Prescott's house had been fairly pleasant for Andrew Doyle, since the two men had struck up a cordial, not to say understanding, relationship, and exchanged views on a variety of topics of mutual interest - the author having been provided with a rare opportunity to air his political and religious views to a sympathetic ear, while the photographer had been only too ready, for his part, to expatiate on art and photography as they affected modern life.  After which, the host had conducted his latest guest on a tour of the house, not excepting his unique 'Panties Museum', which the latter duly praised for its exotic novelty, albeit declining recourse to nasal verification of the authenticity of their curator's claims!  And then there had been the spectacle of Prescott's photography to consider, not all of which was confined to women.  Indeed, in one of the three downstairs rooms where examples of his work could be conspicuously seen, the majority of photographs on view were either portraits of famous people or views of various buildings, landscapes, ships, animals, flowers, etc., according to the nature of the project Prescott had been engaged on at the time.  Latterly, to be sure, he mostly specialized in women.  But there had been a time when a more eclectic approach to photography had prevailed, and with some considerable success!  Whether he could be regarded as great a photographer as the likes of Brassai, Man Ray, or Cartier-Bresson ... was open to debate.  Yet if, for want of greater knowledge on the subject, Andrew was not prepared to accord him the benefit of the doubt and place him among the greats, he could hardly deny that Prescott's work was of considerable interest, displaying more taste, imagination, and subtlety in its handling of any given subject than one usually encountered in photography these days - especially where the nude or semi-nude model was concerned!

     However, if Prescott's guided tour had provided Andrew with an unprecedented experience shortly after lunch, the high-point of the day came when Carol started to model later that afternoon, and the writer, contrary to his expectations, was not sent packing but, rather, encouraged to take part in the proceedings himself, if only to the extent of assisting Prescott prepare the studio by moving various items of furniture about, arranging props, and adjusting the lights.  Carol, of course, had to take care of herself, though she followed instructions from the photographer without demur, giving Andrew a fresh glimpse of her shapely body - one which, unlike before, was concrete rather than abstract. 

     In fact, as the afternoon progressed, he found himself becoming positively hypnotized by her, at times scarcely able to conceal his appreciation of her stunning beauty.  It was as much as he could do to sit perfectly still in the shadows of the studio and not rush across the floor to embrace the model, as she posed in a variety of erotic postures with, at times, no more than a flimsy pink G-string protecting her modesty.  It was as though he hadn't realized the full extent of her sexuality until then.  Previously she had been an acquaintance who also modelled.  Now she was a model who was also an acquaintance.  He could hardly fail to appreciate the difference!  If it was to impress him that she was modelling like this, she was certainly going about it the right way!

     During the following days he didn't see anything of her in any sense, though he was only too conscious that a change had come over his attitude towards her and that the spell of her seductions was beginning to have its effect on him.  For the first time he allowed her image to become a part of his fantasy life, to usurp the domain temporarily held by Pauline as an erotic focal-point of his imagination.  He would recall certain of the postures in which she had posed for Prescott's camera, elaborating on them as he thought fit.  Occasionally he would even imagine himself cuddling up to her, taking off her clothes, examining her vagina or, as he preferred to call it, 'pussy' from different angles, as though she were a kind of puppet to be manipulated at will, a beautiful dark puppet with a highly responsive physique.  His imagination would take flight, and he would glide from one fantasy to another with the grace of an accomplished dreamer.  But never for very long!  Disgust with fantasy, illusion, and cerebration would quickly intervene, obliging him to erase from his mind those images which now threatened to degrade him.  He didn't want to become their victim, to be dragged down to the contemptible level of a naturalistic picture machine!  If she was really that enticing he would have to have her in the flesh, thus purging himself of voyeuristic impurities.  Fantasy could be seen as a first step towards action, a preliminary indication, as it were, of how he should respond to her in future - assuming he managed to win her over from Harding, that is. 

     Indeed, had he not already won her over from the painter to some extent, as evidenced by her confidences in him both at Henry Grace's house and at Donald Prescott's?  Or perhaps she had won him over ... from Pauline?  Yes, there could be no denying that she had a significant part to play in shaping his current attitude to her.  It remained to be seen whether he could turn it into concrete action, however.

     Yet there was still the problem of Pauline to resolve, and Andrew wasn't altogether convinced that his meeting with her, the following Monday, had adequately done so.  Having spent the morning in Harding's Richmond studio, where she was sitting for her portrait, Pauline had contrived to slip next-door and pay him a lunch-time visit, agreed to see him again in the evening and, when this duly materialized, got herself laid shortly before returning to her hotel nearby.  Nevertheless, in spite of his realization that Pauline's feelings for him were stronger than he had supposed, he did his best to impress upon her the unsuitability of further meetings and strongly advised her not to take their relationship too seriously - a vain piece of advice to a young woman who had only recently lost her virginity to him and was flattered to consider herself the girlfriend of a famous author!  But a piece of advice he felt it incumbent on himself to offer her all the same, if only for his own sake.

     However, he did manage to persuade her to visit Prescott with him later that same week, giving her to know that he was interested in seeing the photographic results of her modelling session in due course, and assuring her that the photographer, anxious to develop latent talent, would generously remunerate her for all her efforts.  Naturally, she had been a shade diffident about accepting the invitation at first, never having considered the possibility of modelling for anyone before, and being slightly unsure of exactly what to expect.  But with due coaxing from Andrew, who used his sexual powers over her to tactful advantage, she eventually discarded her qualms and promised to comply - as also to keep the matter a secret.  It was accordingly decided that an excuse would have to be made to Harding, to the effect that she had a dental appointment on the Friday afternoon and would therefore have to restrict her sitting for him to the morning alone.  That would give her time to make the journey from Richmond up to South Hampstead with Andrew after lunch and get her modelling done during the afternoon.  Mr Prescott would of course be informed in advance of her coming, as would Carol.  It was unlikely there would be a hitch.

     Having disposed of this obligation to the photographer, Andrew smuggled Pauline out of the house under cover of darkness and set himself the task of forgetting about her until Friday.  He had no desire to see her again in the meantime and principally because he had a strong desire to see Carol again, whose company was anything but an inconvenience to him.  Rather, it was her absence that was becoming inconvenient!  Yet this desire had to wait until Wednesday evening, when she called on him in a tight black leather miniskirt and matching high-heels, to find out what had happened between Pauline and himself.  Mr Prescott would have his way, she was blandly informed, on Friday - a piece of information which caused Carol to smile inwardly, since she knew only too well what the photographer liked to get-up to with his new recruits, and lost no time in reminding Andrew, who was also amused.  But there were more serious matters to address, the writer's feelings for Carol being among them.  He wanted her to know how much she had impressed him that afternoon in Mr Prescott's studio, how privileged he had felt to witness her modelling talents at such close-quarters and, more importantly, her physical charms.

     To be sure, Carol was flattered by this confession.  She hadn't expected him to respond to her seductions with such alacrity, knowing something about his reputation for coyness.  It was almost a shock to her.  Yet, at the same time, she was relieved, immensely relieved that Andrew hadn't been more interested in Pauline and was all for disentangling himself from the little bitch as quickly as possible.  For she had been at pains to conceal her jealousy from him at Mr Grace's house and, to some extent, was still smarting from the effort.  Now, however, she need be in no uncertainty over him.  He was not bluffing her.  It was all too obvious that he meant everything he said, that he wanted to make her his girlfriend, and she, true to her essential nature, was only too willing to oblige, to give him the opportunity of getting his own back on Harding for all the humiliations of that Berkshire weekend; to allow him to do the double, as it were, on his ideological enemies - first through Pauline and now with herself.  It was the least she could do to prove her allegiance to Andrew's transcendentalism at the expense of Harding's dualism.

     Having already adopted a number of his philosophical positions as her own, what was there to prevent her from adopting his body as well, from linking her allegiance to his mind with an alliance to his flesh, and thus bringing her relationship with him to completion?  Was it right that she should continue to rebel against Harding's views on art, politics, religion, etc., while permitting him to ravish her body?  Surely there was a dangerous dichotomy involved between the spirit and the senses which could only be to her personal disadvantage, reducing her relationship with the painter to a predominantly physical thing.  And hadn't he already noticed that something was amiss, that she wasn't quite the woman she had been, before Andrew Doyle and Henry Grace came onto the scene?  He could only become more suspicious of and dissatisfied with her as the months wore on, just as she would grow more dissatisfied with and suspicious of him as Andrew's spirit took greater possession of her, making her contemptuous of everything Harding stood for, in his anachronistic battle against modern art, with particular reference to beingful abstraction.

     Yes, it was perfectly obvious that she could not continue to find her spiritual bearings in the writer and simultaneously orientate herself to the physicality of the painter.  This fact had first occurred to her during the weekend in Berkshire, shortly after she secretly found herself siding with Andrew against the combined opposition of Robert Harding and Mr Grace on the subject of transcendentalism, and it had grown more pronounced ever since.  There could accordingly be no alternative but to try and win Andrew over to an appreciation of her body, to get him to respond to her in the exact opposite way she had responded to him, so that a completely integrated relationship became possible.  For she could no longer face-up to the prospect of being the repository of Harding's semen when she no longer related to his mind.  Strictly speaking, she had never related to his mind anyway.  But it had taken Andrew to make her fully aware of the fact, to wake her up from the mental stupor and moral inertia into which she had fallen as a consequence, in large measure, of the mere physicality of her relationship with the painter.  Now she could be under no doubt as to where she stood with Harding.  It was her duty to break with him, to establish a new centre for herself in which body and soul were reconciled to the same man, and she thereby acquired a new lease-of-life, positive and wholesome.  She needed to find her equal, and so establish herself on a footing which could only lead to their common good.  And this equal, this spiritual mirror to her own physical self, was now standing before her, reflecting her beauty in his spiritual eloquence, assuring her how of beneficial her physical influence had been upon him, and extending to her the opportunity of a two-way relationship which would rescue her from the self-division into which she had tragically fallen.

     A single kiss, gently placed on her sensuous little mouth, was sufficient to ignite the torch of her desire and hurl her into the arms of her saviour, bringing the present to life in a way which made the past irrelevant, insignificant, and contemptible.  No doubt, she would have a lot to learn from him in due course, other aspects of his transcendentalism presenting themselves to her as they went forward, growing more finely attuned to each other, more closely integrated, as their relationship blossomed.  She would learn about the development of the superconscious at the expense of the subconscious, and the changing nature of the ego in relation to this, so that the contemporary ego, subject to a greater influx of spirit, was decidedly less egocentric, not to say egotistic, than the ego of, say, three hundred years ago.  The doings of Western man in his egocentric prime were a thing of the past, never to be resurrected in the future.  The former tense balance between the two hemispheres of the psyche - ever the driving-force behind the development of great civilizations in the estimation of philosophers like Spengler - had been superseded by a mounting imbalance in favour of the superconscious, with a consequence that all traditional manifestations of dualism, whether religious, political, cultural, scientific, or social, were in rapid decline. 

     Yes, the civilized world was destined to become increasingly transcendental as the decades passed, and nothing, short of a solar collapse, could prevent it from becoming more so!  Those who were categorically against the decline of dualism, and accordingly in favour of stemming the rising tide of transcendentalism, were simply enemies of evolution, of progress, of enlightenment.  They and their kind would have to be dealt with in due course, when the world arrived at the Last Judgement and the wheat were subsequently divided from the chaff and the chaff, in a manner of speaking, from the wheat.  A just retribution would doubtless be meted out to all who stood in the way of progress, no matter how highly they thought of themselves.  'The slow' would be found wanting and condemned for having turned their back on the Christian prophecy of Heaven and the prospect of Eternal Life - a life lived in the spirit of heavenly eternity rather than in the flesh of worldly time.  'The slow' would not be praised for their competitive bias in the face of ongoing co-operativeness.  It would be their undoing, their banishment from a transcendental society.  Their dualism, no longer respectable, would be condemned on every front, slowly but surely eradicated from society, so that the Christian prophecy of Heaven could eventually be realized ... in the millennial Beyond, where 'the peace that surpasses all understanding', and hence egocentric relativity, reigned supreme, and dichotomies ceased to exist. 

     The transcendental future was certainly no fiction, and Carol would have to learn this, along with all of the other things which Andrew chose to impart to her concerning the evolution of mankind.  She would also come to understand why D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent was virtually anathema to him and why, by contrast, he valued Aldous Huxley's Island so highly.  Why Wolfgang Paalen was one of his favourite Surrealists and why he abhorred so much of the work of Gericault and Delacroix.  Why he disapproved of Freud but admired Myers, and so on.

     Yes, there would be a lot for her to learn as the months slipped by and their relationship became more firmly cemented.  She had a thirst for knowledge, a thirst which Harding, with his third-rate mind, had failed to quench.  It was a thirst every intelligent woman needed to have quenched.  Otherwise, she would be a mere physical thing in the hands of man - parched and indifferent, shut-out from proper contact with herself, deprived of spiritual growth.  No, she'd had enough experience of that, enough alienation from herself at the hands of someone who was spiritually beneath her, to be able to tolerate any more of it! 

     But Andrew would revive her, he would pour some of his spirit into hers and bring it back to life, offer her the cup of his wisdom until her spirit overflowed with his being and was duly restored to its true strength.  She would not be short of spiritual nourishment with him!  On the contrary, she would be satiated.  And what she received she would return, transformed and enriched to her benefactor, in the guise of devotion.  She would take and give back.  He would give and take back.  A two-way flow of giving and taking would be established, so different from the arid, bogus, one-sided giving she had known with Harding - a giving of her body merely!  A woman wasn't happy until she gave not only with her body but, no less importantly, with her soul, a soul which answered the man's physical giving and corresponded to her admiration of him, his whole being ... both physical and mental.  If he didn't permit himself to be fully loved because his ideas and attitudes were unacceptable to one, failed to correspond to one's deepest intuitions and ideological life-urge, then one would be cheating oneself, and nothing good could come of the relationship.  Better not to love at all than only to love by half-measures, on the strength of the man's sexual prowess.

     No, an intelligent woman could not allow herself to be degraded to the extent of being a mere body - a whore.  Her soul would rebel against it.  She needed the give and take, the spiritual and the physical, love and sex.  Hitherto Carol had known too little of the former and too much of the latter.  Now, with the promise of Andrew's company, it was time to swing over to the opposite extreme and break free of the alienated physicality in which she had been stranded with the painter, working towards the reintegration of her being through love.  It didn't matter if Andrew transpired not to being the best of lovers, if he didn't make love to her as often or as vigorously as Harding.  The fact that his political and religious beliefs were so much more congenial to her than Harding's, suggested his sexual habits would be too, so that a reduction in physical sex would work to her advantage.  For the double life of mental allegiance to him but physical allegiance to the painter was a contradiction in terms which could not be continued without the risk of serious consequences - possibly a severe neurosis or even psychosis, such as usually afflicted those who were deeply divided against themselves.  It was therefore high-time for the spirit to triumph over the senses, in accordance with the Zeitgeist of an increasingly post-dualistic age, so that the dualistic past, in which more often than not senses had triumphed over spirit, could be clearly distinguished from the transcendental present, and the will to spiritual beatitude made known in no uncertain terms!

     It was consequently imperative for Carol to sever connections with Harding and thus free herself from the past, not continue to be torn between worlds.  The new future which Andrew Doyle promised her seemed a good deal superior to anything she had known before, signifying a positivity of outlook which moved with the current of evolution rather than against it, rejoicing at the most progressive developments the age had to offer, rather than rebelling against them; seeing in the times not defeat and humiliation but pride and victory - the grand sweep of transcendental progress taking place right before one's very eyes!  How different it would be, being made love to by a man who entered one with a real positivity in his spirit, the positivity born of an assurance that the world was gradually changing for the better, becoming steadily, if slowly, a better place in which to live!  That, in spite of the ever-present threat of global war and the constant reporting of murders, arsons, rapes, thefts, hijacks, explosions, accidents, etc., on the news or in the papers, life was gradually evolving for the better!

     Yes, different to the point where one would hardly recognize oneself.  Yet there it was, Andrew Doyle was such a man, he lived with the unshakeable conviction that, come what may, things were evolving for the better and would continue to do so until mankind, in overcoming itself, reached its ultimate destination in transcendental bliss, some centuries hence, and thereupon brought progress to a halt, having attained to its culmination in the post-human millennium.  No matter how pessimistic the bourgeoisie became with regard to the impending collapse of their world, there could be no kidding Andrew that his world was in collapse.  Even if he personally became a casualty of evolution, even if he personally succumbed to a premature death, there could be no question of anyone's shaking his confidence in the triumph of transcendental ideals and the fact that human life was on the rise.  Severe economic, social, and political problems there might be, but they had no power to alter his vision to one of bourgeois pessimism or even proletarian cynicism. 

     To be sure, he had been through the worst in his own life, had pushed pessimism as far as it could go before, in a moment of enlightenment analogous to a 'Pauline conversion', he had seen the Light and thereupon acquired a new optimism, a new wisdom born largely from the extent of his previous folly.  Thenceforth the decline of the West, primarily conceived in terms of its bourgeois traditions, became not a cause for complaint but one for rejoicing, since it signified the progression of Western civilization towards higher spiritual development - a development tending away from the dualistic norms of civilized achievement towards a level where dualism became no more than an historical landmark on the road to enlightenment, a kind of midway stage in human evolution, with nothing to recommend it for eternal honours.  The fact that we were outgrowing dualism was yet another aspect of our progression towards a higher stage of life, even though it was not an aspect that appealed to everyone, including, Andrew had to concede, the painter Robert Harding.  For him, by contrast, it was an indication of regression, to be fought against with every means at his disposal.

     Yet how fortunate for Carol that she hadn't been deceived by the painter's views, but had found her true ally in Andrew Doyle!  How fortunate for her that she could now begin to live the victory of the spirit over the senses, instead of being the hapless victim of the latter!  To have a companion whose body and spirit vibrated in tune with her own ... on a major rather than a minor chord.  Not to have to feign scorn at the sight of Abstract Expressionist or other modern paintings which Harding invariably chose to castigate.  Not to have to feign a liking for works of art which were really a hundred or more years out-of-date and accordingly failed to synchronize with one's inner being, failed to impress one on account of their worldly representations.  What a relief it would be to have a companion who, whilst instructive, enabled one to remain true to oneself!  Carol was so tired of playing the hypocrite, so anxious to be genuine.  It was such a relief to know that an escape route from Harding lay open through Andrew and that, by availing herself of it, her life could begin to be lived progressively, optimistically, even happily, for the first time not only in months, but in years!

     She was still somewhat overcome by emotion when, after due kissings and fondlings that evening, during which Andrew had contrived to excite and even ignite her crotch to a degree where the fire could only be extinguished with the help of a succession of wet bursts which drenched her nylon panties, she returned to her room in Harding's house and threw herself down on its bed with a mixture of relief and joy in her heart.  It wouldn't be long now before she saw the back of the artist for good, and moved, with Andrew, to a flat in Highgate, north London.  The least she could do, in the meantime, was pretend that nothing unusual had happened and that every last fucking drop of her body still belonged to Harding.

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

It had just gone 9.30am when Henry Grace arrived down to breakfast.  As usual on Saturday mornings he had slept late and then taken a cold bath.  It was the only day he permitted himself to do both - the rest of the week commencing two hours earlier and always including either warm baths or washes, never cold ones.  However, this Saturday-morning exception was essentially part of a private religion he had scrupulously adhered to, while professing himself a practising Christian, for at least ten years.  What had begun as an experiment had turned into an inflexible habit.  Rare indeed were the Saturdays when he didn't indulge it, particularly in the summer.  Usually they were a consequence of illness or holidays or being invited away somewhere at the weekends.  Otherwise, an omission of this practice would have disturbed his mental equilibrium, made him question his moral integrity, and perhaps even doubt his sanity.

     "Have Philip and Pauline left the table already?" he grumblingly asked his wife, no sooner than he had sat down and sampled a little of the mild tea she had just poured him.

     "Gone over to call on Edwin," replied Mrs Grace nonchalantly, while regaining her seat on the opposite side of the small round table.  "They're all going down to London for the day, don't you remember?"

     "Ah yes!" Mr Grace affirmed.  "Some pop concert in Hyde Park, isn't it?"

     Mrs Grace nodded in tacit confirmation while pouring herself a second cup of tea.  "Let's hope the weather stays relatively fine for them anyway," she commented.  "It would be a pity if they all got wet this afternoon."

     Mr Grace looked meditative as he helped himself to some shredded wheat.  Then, glancing through the kitchen window at a fairly ambivalent sky - half-blue and half-grey - he asked: "Did the weather forecast predict rain later on, then?"

     "Yes, unfortunately it did," his wife replied in a tone of voice designed to impress upon him the fact that she would never have raised the possibility of bad weather had it not done so!  There then ensued a sullen silence between them, during which only the cultured sipping of tea and the methodical munching of shredded wheat could be heard.  Eventually, growing bored by it, Mrs Grace asked her husband whether he hadn't noticed a change in Pauline recently?

     "Not unless you mean her greater interest in Edwin Ford than previously," he responded, briefly scanning his wife's face as though for a clue.  "It's about the third time this week she's gone across to Edwin's, isn't it?"

     "Fourth actually," Patricia corrected.  "Three times with Philip and once on her own.  It scarcely makes any sense to me."

     Mr Grace meditatively chewed some more shredded wheat, before saying: "Could be she's taken a fancy to him.  After all, she's not a young girl any more, is she?"

     "No, but she could have taken a fancy to him before now," Mrs Grace averred.  "He was always fond of her."

     Mr Grace nodded his balding head.  "Too damn fond of her, the way I saw it," he opined.  "Had his eyes on her more often than a gentleman ought, even if he is a young one.  But she was never particularly interested in him, was she?  Probably more through shyness than anything else.  Perhaps afraid of what she might get herself into?"

     "Well, if that was the case, she's certainly not afraid of it now," Mrs Grace declared.  "Quite the opposite!  One feels he has become quite indispensable to her."

     Pushing his cereal bowl to one side and then helping himself to a slice of plain toast, the critic murmured: "Maybe he has.  Could be he can offer her something we can't."

     Mrs Grace sighed knowingly at this palpable understatement, before saying: "It's curious how this change-of-heart appears to have come over her since Robert and his friends paid us that visit last month, as though their presence here had something to do with it, especially Mr Doyle, who appeared to be a great source of interest to her.  Strange, but I couldn't help noticing the way she was looking at him during breakfast that Sunday - like they had something between them."

     "He did seem to spend more time with her the day before than anyone else," Mr Grace admitted, while chewing.  "Particularly during the afternoon, when we went for a stroll.  I don't really know what they got up to in the evening, but he just might have said something to her which has a bearing on her current enthusiasm for Edwin.  The fact of his being a professional writer undoubtedly contributed to Pauline's interest in him.  However, I don't think we need assume the worst.  I mean, he couldn't have seduced her, could he?"  The critic stared fairly confidently at his wife, as though the thought of seduction was too preposterous to entertain.

     Making an effort to respond to her husband's confidence with equal assurance, Mrs Grace replied: "No, I guess not.  Though my intuition on the morning in question indicated that a change had come over her and that they had something between them."

     "Perhaps it was leading you to imagine things, my dear?" Mr Grace suggested.  "Besides, I rather doubt that Pauline would have permitted him to seduce her, even if he'd been boorish or audacious enough to attempt it.  She has more sense and self-respect, as you well know.  A young woman who's been as well brought-up as she has, educated at the best schools and all the rest of it, couldn't possibly allow herself to be seduced by a complete stranger in her own home in close proximity to us!  Anyway, she was in Philip and Edwin's company throughout the greater part of the previous evening, wasn't she?"

     "So I presume," Mrs Grace replied without any great confidence.

     "A pity I wasn't there to keep an eye on them all," Mr Grace remarked on a regretful note.  "Something could have happened while they were down at 'The Burning Bush' - something between Edwin and her, I mean."

     "Or between Mr Doyle and her," Patricia Grace conjectured, recalling their visit to the local pub.

     "Well, I should sincerely hope she would have more sense than to get involved with him!" Mr Grace strongly objected, snorting superciliously.  "His behaviour here, particularly during the Saturday afternoon, was anything but commendable!  His insolence was enough to make me lose my temper at one point.  I could have thrown him out of the bloody house there and then.  Indeed, had I not been so determined to maintain the best possible relations with young Mr Harding, I would almost certainly have ordered him to leave.  As it was, I had no option but to tolerate his presence in my home for the rest of the weekend - the presence of a Socialistic Transcendentalist, as I think he called himself!  And a champion of abstract art, to boot!  Really, I'm most disappointed with Harding for having brought such a bloody scoundrel along with him!  He could have spared me that ordeal, surely?"

     Mrs Grace did her best, in spite of a feeling of revulsion concerning her husband's ulterior motives for befriending the painter, to appear sympathetic.  "I expect he was as much upset by the man's behaviour as yourself, not being a Socialistic Transcendentalist, or whatever it was, either," she said.  "But really, Henry, if it wasn't your policy to be so discreet, where the seduction of such potential victims of your sexual appetites as Harding is concerned, he could have come up here on his own.  After all, you did invite him to bring one or two friends, didn't you?"

     "Yes, I'm perfectly well aware of the fact!" Mr Grace sternly replied, betraying signs of impatience with his wife's irony.  "But not such bloody friends as them!  I can assure you that I wasn't particularly impressed by his girlfriend either, and not only for the obvious reasons!  D'you know, she had the nerve to side with Mr Doyle against me in the presence of Robert while we were out in the garden after tea that evening!  Defending his transcendental nonsense after the painter had tactfully apologized to me about it.  And the poor slob was further put out by that - as, of course, was I, though I did my best to conceal the fact, retaining as calm a demeanour as possible for fear that a show of ill-humour would only have alienated him from me.  But that young woman secretly made my blood boil!  She was almost as obnoxious as the writer, what with her arrogant sexuality.  I wonder what Harding could have seen in her, apart from the obvious?  Bad enough that he should have had a girlfriend at all, of course.  Yet I couldn't very well tell him so, could I?"

     With a wry smile, Mrs Grace said: "Maybe you will in due course, since you usually get your way, don't you?  Still, now that you remind me about the girl, I do recall seeing her with Mr Doyle on the Sunday morning.  They were down by the goldfish pond, sitting there and talking to each other, or so it appeared; though, for all I know, Miss Jackson may well have had the writer's hand up her short skirt, considering the considerable expanse of leg she was showing off at the time!  However, she got up and returned to the house as soon as she saw me with the washing.  Rather curious really, like she had a guilty conscience about something.  To be honest, I didn't think all that much of it at the time.  Yet the fact that they were together in such a remote spot can't be without some sexual significance, can it?  One wonders what they could have been discussing."

     "Nothing that we should care to hear, I expect," Mr Grace declared testily, while helping himself to another slice of plain toast.  "Probably something to do with the hypothetical future transmutation of men into fairies, or some such bloody nonsense!  They might even have been holding an outdoor séance, for all we know.  Or meditating even - assuming you can talk and meditate simultaneously.... That's the trouble with our Philip, you know.  Much too susceptible to the latest silly crazes in religion and the like!  Not a typical Grace by any means!  Only too ready to lend an ear to the likes of that writer.  A shame really, since I had high hopes for the lad.  Still have, to some extent, though I fear he'll continue to turn a deaf ear to my advice, wasting his time with pseudo-beliefs and false prophets!  Not that I'd particularly approve of his becoming more like young Edwin Ford and turning away from religion altogether.  Oh, no!  One extreme would be no better than another, so far as I'm concerned.  Fortunately, however, Edwin doesn't seem to have all that much influence on him, so I don't think we need fear anything there.  We don't want a Red son in the family, do we?  Not after all we've done for him over the years.  He has little reason to consider himself a proletarian anyway.  No more, for that matter, than Edwin, who, despite his considerable arrogance, comes from a perfectly respectable upper-middle-class family.  How it is that Ford's boy has turned out the way he appears to have done, I don't pretend to know; though I suspect he's in youthful rebellion against his father, who, as you well know, was always a good Tory - at times a little too sodding good, if his sexual predilections were anything to judge by!  But that's as it should be.  In all probability, his son will come to his political senses in due course, once he completes his studies at Cambridge and gets a taste of life in the real world.... I, myself, went through a kind of Marxist phase as a student, as did so many of my contemporaries - even the less famous or, perhaps I should say, infamous ones!  But it didn't have any lasting effect on my life.  Had it done so, I wouldn't be here now, would I?  I mean, I wouldn't have become your husband, for one thing.  And I doubt, for another, that I'd have got on so well with the rich!"

     "No, I suppose not," Mrs Grace reluctantly conceded, wondering exactly what he meant by the phrase 'got on'.  "You certainly wouldn't have made a reputation for yourself by attacking modern art, that's for sure!  But let's hope, anyway, that our daughter won't become too influenced by Edwin's revolutionary ideas in Philip's stead.  It wouldn't do to have a Red daughter in the family either, would it?"

     "Of course not!" bellowed Mr Grace in exasperation.  "But, frankly, I don't think she's any more susceptible to that kind of thing than Philip.  If anything, she's more likely to become an airy-fairy transcendentalist and take-up with meditation instead, like her brother.  I needn't remind you of how much time she spent listening to Harding's damn neighbour delivering his impromptu sermon that Saturday!  And if he had any effect on Edwin as well, then it could be that young Ford has modified his views in the meantime, and so become more ideologically acceptable to her in consequence.  Who knows, but maybe we should ask her personally - assuming we get an opportunity to, that is?"  He helped himself to a third slice of toast and requested another cup of tea, which his wife dutifully procured him.  He wasn't particularly interested in discussing Pauline's doings.  God knows, she was old enough to look after herself, wasn't she?  If she had discovered something new in Edwin, good fucking luck to her!  Let her make the most of it before he went back to Cambridge in a few weeks' time and she went down to London in order, presumably, to begin her literary studies in the big bad metropolis.  They needn't fear that he would remould her beliefs or personality in that short space of time!  She had a mind of her own anyway.  Marxist sentiments wouldn't have becomed her, and so on.  Mr Grace wasn't for spoiling his breakfast over any change of heart which had come over his daughter in recent weeks.  There were more important things to consider - like, for instance, Robert Harding.  "By the way," he continued, determined to shift the conversation onto that track, "I take it you're prepared to visit Harding's studio next week to sit for the portrait of you that I've commissioned from him.  Now that the one of Pauline is completed and hanging gracefully - no pun intended! - beside the others in our new family portrait gallery, he'll be anxious to see you and continue with his work."

     Mrs Grace frowned slightly and sighed her dissatisfaction at the prospect of having to spend a week or more in the painter's dubious company, doing nothing but sitting still.  "Oh, Henry, is it really necessary for me to go?" she protested.  "Aren't the three portraits already completed by him quite sufficient?"

     "No, I promised him work on a portrait of you and I intend to keep my promise!" Mr Grace spat back.  "If you don't go, he'll be sorely disappointed.  It would amount to a breach of contract."

     His wife was still far from convinced.  "But think of all the expense this is amounting to, Henry," she objected.   "Another £600 for the sake of gaining further power over him, making him more indebted to you?  Really, it's quite reckless!"

     "You know perfectly well I can afford it," Mr Grace asseverated, visibly unmoved by his wife's misgivings.  "I could afford ten such portraits if necessary.  But it won't be necessary, my dear.  After the one of you is completed, I shall visit him in person the following week, and during that time - a time when the pair of us will be quite alone together - I'll seduce him into giving me what I really want from him.  And I shall do so partly on the strength of my previous commissions and partly on the strength of the family portrait I should like him to execute in due course.  Such a tempting carrot as that, valued at around £2,000, can hardly fail to lure the donkey after it.  If he refuses me my personal satisfaction in the matter, he'll be deprived of this further commission and threatened with the harshest public criticism his work has ever received!  Rather than promising to make his reputation as a great painter, a champion of genuine art, or whatever it is he considers himself to be, I shall set about undermining what little reputation he already has and thereby completely ruin his career, branding him with hidebound conservatism!"

     Mrs Grace winced and shook her bushy head.  "Really, Henry, you're too cruel!" she exclaimed.

     "Cruel?" Mr Grace echoed incredulously.  "Not at all!  Kind to myself would be closer the mark, my dear.  And whether he appreciates it or not, kind to him as well!  The deal seems to me a very good one so far as he is concerned, much better than I'd be prepared to enter into with anyone else.... You don't realize how important he's become to me, Patricia, I who may never have the good fortune to fall in love with anyone like him again.  Ever since I first clapped eyes on his photograph in one of those London art magazines, I've been absolutely obsessed with the desire to make his acquaintance and seduce him into satisfying me.  You can't realize how much he appeals to me, you who have never really loved anyone in your entire life."

     "Henry!"

     Mr Grace was unmoved by his wife's manifest hurt.  "It's my last gamble, my final opportunity to reap the dividends of my bent," he ironically explained.  "Surely you can't refuse me your co-operation at this critical juncture, Patricia, now that I've almost achieved my objectives?"

     There were tears of anguish in Mrs Grace's eyes as she responded with: "But, Henry, the prospect of sitting there for as long as it takes him to do my portrait and keeping absolutely quiet about your sexual designs, not speaking a word about your plan of seduction - really, it's too terrible, too ... nerve-racking!  I don't think I can do it."

     "Of course you can do it," Mr Grace assured her in his most persuasively encouraging tone.  He was almost on the point of holding her hand.  "You've helped me before now, so why shouldn't you continue to be of service?  After all, you're not entirely without your own little ... foibles in such matters.  Come now, be realistic!  You wouldn't want us to part company after all these years, would you?  Not, surely, when you haven't got anywhere better to go?"

     These inherently rhetorical questions, threatening and sinister, seemed to have the desired effect on Patricia Grace.  For she suddenly snapped awake, as it were, from her self-pity, wiped the remaining tears from her eyes, and gently shook her head.  Reality had brutally returned to her, its disagreeable face reminding her of her limitations in defying it.  In truth, she lacked the courage to start a new life now, to completely sever connections with her husband and begin the half-life of a spinsterish divorcee - poor and alone.  She had no near or living relatives to fall back on, no real resources of her own, and the one man who might have provided a romantic solution to her problems was ... well, she had no way of telling where he was or what he was doing, so long was it since she had heard anything from him.  Willy-nilly, she was a kind of slave to her husband whether or not she liked the fact, and he never lost an opportunity in reminding her when circumstances required.  Accordingly, she had no alternative but to comply with his demands.

     "So you're agreed to the sitting, then?" he concluded.

     "Yes, if it helps to make things any easier for you," she dutifully replied.

     "Oh, I'm sure it will!" Mr Grace declared excitedly.  "For I have great confidence in my little strategy.  What with the carrot of this further commission and the promise of good reviews to-come, I'm quite convinced that the donkey will do as required.  After all, what alternative does he bloody-well have, eh?"  There was a broad smile of satisfaction on the critic's narrow face - a smile fostered as much on happy expectations as on shrewd manoeuvrings.  He was experienced at this kind of game and usually succeeded in getting his way.  "Not that this particular donkey is an especially good painter," he continued, having washed down his last mouthful of chewed toast with the remaining by-now lukewarm tea in his cup.  "I've known many better, I can tell you!  Some worse too, of course, though not a great deal so.  At best, Harding is competent and tasteful, but totally without distinction!  There are plenty of others who would be just as capable of doing what he does.  Unlike him, however, they'd be quite incapable of arousing my interest on other than strictly aesthetic grounds.  And that, precisely, is his chief advantage - namely his sexual appeal to me.  As an artist, no, I cannot claim to admire him, much as I may feign something approximating to admiration when in his company.  His work is fundamentally soulless, if you know what I mean.  Too tediously academic.  It lacks fire, passion, individuality, technical inventiveness, and conceptual integrity - all the things, in short, which make for great art.  We are painted as cadavers instead of human beings, social automatons instead of self-willed individuals.  His brush is tarnished by all the worst hallmarks of modernity.  He'll never achieve anything great, not even if he eventually transfers from the canvas to the mural, which seems rather unlikely if you ask me, given his fear of decadence."

     "But, presumably, you'll still continue to befriend him?" Mrs Grace conjectured.

     "Provided he gives me what I'm really after," Mr Grace responded.  "Just as you'll continue to befriend me, won't you, Patricia?"

     "If you insist, Henry."

     The critic sighed his relief and smiled a modest gratitude.  "Good, that's as it should be," he concluded.

     There then ensued a resentful silence on Mrs Grace's part, during which time she began to clear away the breakfast things.

     "By the way, was there any post for me this morning?" her husband wanted to know.

     "Just this."  She handed him a large brown envelope with a typed address on the front.  It had been resting on the sideboard to his right.

     "Ah, so someone has been thinking of me recently!" he mused, opening it with the aid of a large bread knife.  "Another tedious set of proofs to read, I expect.  Either that or a boring account of ...” His voice abruptly ceased, and it was several seconds later before he resumed with: "Good God, just take a look at this!"

     Mrs Grace went across to where he was sitting and stared down over his shoulder at the contents of the envelope, now spread out on the table before him.  She could scarcely believe her eyes.  "Why, it's Pauline!" she cried.

     "Yes, so it is," Mr Grace nervously confirmed.  "I don't understand."

     His wife bent closer.  "But what's she doing there like that?" she exclaimed.

     It wasn't a question Henry Grace could be expected to answer.  For there, right before his startled eyes, Pauline was exhibited in all manner of erotic nude or semi-nude poses on at least thirty colour photographs.  There wasn't a photograph on the table in which she wasn't showing off some private part of her anatomy, and doing so, in no less than twelve of them, in the company of an equally pornographic Carol Jackson!  Really, it was too disgraceful to behold, especially since Pauline had the look of a person enjoying every damn moment of being photographed in such palpably erotic postures!  It gave her parents something like the shock of their lives - Mr Grace turning bright red with embarrassment, his wife becoming deathly pale with revulsion.  What-on-earth could it all mean?  For Pauline had made no mention of having been photographed to them.... Not that that seemed particularly surprising when one considered the scandalous nature of the photographs in question!  And Miss Jackson, what could she be doing there, apart, that is, from showing off everything she naturally possessed?

     It was Mrs Grace who first recovered from the shock of such a spectacle and thereupon pointed out a large typed letter which lay partially buried beneath the mass of enigmatic photos.  Obediently, her husband extricated it from its hiding place and, briefly scanning the address and telephone number of its sender, proceeded to read:-

 

Dear Henry,

     Enclosed for your careful consideration is a selection of photos from a modelling session I recently had the pleasure of conducting with your daughter, in the company of one of my best models, Miss Carol Jackson.  I rather doubt they will make a particularly favourable impression on you, since that is not, of course, my principal concern.  If you haven't already guessed by now, it is to prevent you from making a fool of Robert Harding by exploiting him to your own ends, which, as I am only too well aware from personal experience, are purely carnal.  Also aware of this are Miss Jackson and Mr Doyle, both of whom made your acquaintance last month and, I regret to say, became mutually suspicious of your motives for befriending the painter, who, so I am informed, is neither homosexual nor bisexual but conventionally heterosexual.  It is therefore extremely unlikely that he would take kindly to your sexual designs.  Neither of course did I - an old acquaintance of yours who, as you'll probably recall, was unable to reconcile himself to your desires when, much admired for the wrong reasons, he was requested, nay, instructed to do so!

     That, believe it or not, was several years ago, when the said-acquaintance had just begun to establish himself in his chosen profession and had yet to acquire the fame and prestige to which he has since grown so painfully accustomed.  It was at that time, if you remember, that you sent me a series of threatening letters in order, as you facetiously put it, 'to make (me) see sense and become more reasonable'.  You could not, according to this same letter, avoid the consequences of having 'fallen in love' with me (you had a marked talent for hyperbole, probably still have, for all I know), and would not be able to tolerate living unless I satisfied your desires, which then, as now, were unequivocally anal.

     I have the letter in question before me as I write, and could quote quite copiously from it if I really wanted to, that's to say, if it were necessary in order to convince you that I am not imagining things.  And, of course, I have the others to-hand as well - some seven in all, which more or less reiterate your plea for clemency, each one a little more forcefully and even shamelessly than its immediate precursor.  No, it won't be necessary for me to quote from any of these either, as I am sure you will agree.  Better to let sleeping dogs lie, as they say.  And so I will, provided you comply with my request, which is this: to leave Robert Harding alone - absolutely alone!

     If you are planning any further commissions for him, you must cancel them immediately.  Otherwise I shall be obliged to have examples of these photographs - which are merely a selection of the ones in my possession - circulated to various magazines with which I have commercial contacts, and published in due course - with the consent, needless to say, of the young women involved.  Now when these photographs appear in public, i.e. are published, I shall draw them to the attention of certain persons with whom you are or were associated, sending copies of the relevant magazines to individuals who could only be scandalized by knowledge of the fact that your daughter has turned to pornographic modelling, and who would almost certainly not wish to associate with you again.  There are, I realize, quite a number of persons for whom the spectacle of Pauline Grace, nude and alluring in one or another of the more exotic men's magazines, would excite scepticism concerning the probity of her upbringing and the genuineness of her modesty.  Your old colleague Martin Howard would certainly be surprised, unable, one feels, to reconcile the daughter of the renowned art critic, Henry Grace, with the ostensible righteousness of the critic himself.  He would surely wonder how you had allowed or encouraged such a thing to happen!  No doubt, you would feel acutely embarrassed the next time your paths crossed - assuming they ever did!  And the same, of course, applies to so many eminent, respectable, God-fearing persons known to yourself, who have no sympathy for pornography.

     But don't think I would stop there!  I would also make the letters from you at the height of your infatuation with me known to the world at large, revealing you as the two-faced, double-dealing hypocrite you really are, and thus exposing your private life to public scrutiny - the lie of your marriage to Patricia and the sordid motives behind your current enthusiasm for Harding's work duly accompanying my in-depth exposé, thereby bringing further infamy upon your name.

     Last but by no means least, I would ensure that Robert Harding received copies of your letters to me, so that he could be left in absolutely no doubt as to the truth of your relationship with him as well.  Thus, one way or another, Henry, your life would never be quite the same again, neither personally nor professionally.

     So either you immediately break off relations with the painter, whose naiveté even I find quite touching, or I shall be obliged to carry out these threats.  The decision is entirely yours - one which I trust you will inform me about in due course. 

     If, however, you do decide to comply, then rest assured that none of these erotic photos and none of your sordid letters to me will ever get into public hands.

 

Yours sincerely

Donald J. Prescott.

 

     By the time he had got to the end of this harrowing letter, Henry Grace was trembling like a battered leaf in a mid-October gale and was almost on the verge of tears.  Never had he been threatened in so frank a manner in his entire life, and it was as much as he could do to take the threat seriously.  It was more like a bad dream.  He wasn't sure that he was really awake, sitting in his familiar kitchen with his wife standing behind him and the smell of burnt toast in the air.  But there, in front of his scandalized eyes, lay the torn envelope, the letter, and the pile of colour photographs, and they could not be wished away, like a bad dream sometimes could.  There they stayed, staring back at him, it seemed, with a consciousness of their own, peculiarly defiant and sinister.  They had to be taken seriously.

     "Damn the bastard!" exclaimed Mr Grace, as the tension created by the shocked silence became too much for him.  "Why does he have to interfere in my affairs like this?  What right has he to stir up the past?  It's positively vile!"

     "It would be viler still if he felt obliged to carry out his threats," Mrs Grace solemnly averred.

     "But how in God's name did Pauline fall into the clutches of that frigging wanker in the first place?" Mr Grace shouted, beside himself with exasperation.

     "Evidently whilst at Richmond to have her portrait painted last week," Mrs Grace calmly opined.  "She must have fallen-in with Miss Jackson and Mr Doyle and gone with them to Prescott's place, presumably without Harding knowing about it.  There was no mention of him in connection with these photos, was there?"

     Mr Grace reflected a moment, then shook his head.  "But I still don't understand," he confessed.  "I mean, a sensible well-bred young woman like her - it's scandalous!  Just think what would happen if all this got into the wrong hands!  Can you imagine how I'd feel if the local vicar was sent a copy of one of those foul sex magazines with pictures of my daughter spread-eagled all over the place?  I mean, that could be what the bastard was intimating at, couldn't it?  One isn't to know what he'd do.  No, I can't risk it.  I shall have to break off ties with Harding immediately, tell him I've changed my mind about the remaining commissions.... Or perhaps you would?  Yes, you could phone him in my stead and cancel your sitting next week.  I don't think I could face-up to it, not even on the phone.  Oh God, why did he have to bring that Andrew Doyle cad here?  It's all his fault, I'm convinced of it.  It's because of him that Pauline has allowed herself to be demeaned like this.  Now I begin to understand the change which has come over her recently, I begin to understand it all too clearly!  He must have seduced her, the rotter! Seduced her while she was out of our sight, either here or in Richmond.  Now you can see why Edwin has become more important to her.  She has lost her innocence.  Ah, Christ, what a tragedy!  Why-the-devil did I ever get involved with Harding in the first place?  Why-the-devil did I allow all this to happen?"

     Mrs Grace was still standing behind her husband, silent and still, her feelings torn between pity and contempt - contempt, above all, for his perverse self-pity, pity for herself for being married to such a man.  It was difficult not to tell him it served him bloody-well right for the vile thing he had intended to do to Mr Harding - exploiting the young man's professional vanity in the interests of his own sexual gratification.  Very difficult indeed!  Yet as she walked towards the telephone in the adjoining room to let the painter know of her husband's decision, this difficulty was offset by the sudden realization that she would not now have to go to Richmond, the following week, after all, and would therefore be spared the ordeal she had so painfully anticipated at breakfast.  It was almost as difficult not to express her sudden relief of the fact, and thereby risk inciting her husband's wrath.  At least there was something in it for her!

     "His number's by the phone," Mr Grace called after her as she approached the receiver.  "And don't tell him I told you to ring.  If he asks for me, say I'm out."  He sat, pale and trembling, slouched across the table like a man suffering from some terribly enervating illness, possibly glandular fever.  The life-force had withered away and he felt as though twenty years older - nearer eighty than sixty.  The bitter disappointment of having to comply with Prescott's demands had drained him of pride, reduced him to despair.  He could still hardly believe it, believe that the photographer had the power to carry out his threats, even though all the evidence to the contrary was right there in front of him and refused, like his bitter feelings, to disappear.  Instinctively, he reached for the bread knife, but ...

     "Hello, is Mr Harding there, please?"

     "Speaking."

     "Ah, good morning, Robert!  It's Patricia Grace here ..."

     "Oh, good morning, Mrs Grace!  How nice of you to ring."

     There was a moment's embarrassing silence before she could pluck up the courage to say, albeit in a slightly nervous tone-of-voice: "Er, with reference to the impending portrait of me, Robert, my husband and I have regretfully come to the decision that we shall not now be requiring it.  We are of course extremely grateful to you for the three excellent portraits already completed, which we feel will be quite sufficient.  Accordingly, I must therefore cancel our studio arrangements for next week."

     After a stunned silence, Harding responded with a faint: "Oh, I see."  He could scarcely believe his ears.  He had been so looking forward to seeing Mrs Grace and perhaps inducing her to take off her clothes for him and transfer her sitting into a lying which would perhaps enable him to explore her flesh in more concrete terms - terms such that would benefit him in more than a financial sense.  "Does this mean I won't be seeing either of you again?" he asked, almost pathetically.

     "Well, possibly not," she replied, mustering all the diplomatic tact at her disposal at this moment.  "It will depend on whether or not my husband wishes to commission any additional portraits from you in future.  But at present, he is quite satisfied with the ones he has.  If he changes his mind over the coming weeks, he'll doubtless get in touch with you.  For the time being, however, I think you can rest on your laurels, as it were, and dedicate your talents to someone or something else.  We are, however, most grateful to you for having spent so much time and care on us, and wish you every success in the future."

     Harding offered her a muted wail of thanks, despite his manifest disappointment.  All his fondest hopes had been dashed.  He would probably never see her again.

     "Well, goodbye, Robert!"

     "Yes, goodbye, Patricia!  I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed being associated with you."

     She replaced the receiver with a heartfelt sigh and slowly headed back towards the kitchen.  "Now you had better destroy Prescott's letter and all those dirty photos, Henry, before anyone else sees them," she suggested, as she stepped across the threshold into the larger of the two rooms with a look of determination on her pallid face.  But, to her surprise, she found that he had already done so.  For all but a few of them were torn into tiny pieces and lying at the bottom of the wastepaper bin, while the letter itself lay in a crumpled mess of partially torn paper by his feet. 

     A split second later Henry Grace was himself lying under the table with the bread knife through his neck and a severed juggler spurting bright-red blood across the kitchen floor.  He seemed to be staring emptily, or perhaps even reproachfully, at Patricia Grace, as she backed away from him with a sharp look of revulsion on her face.  But his eyes didn't follow her and she realized, soon enough, that he was losing consciousness and on the threshold of death, if not already across it. 

     With a cry of triumph, she picked up what remained of the letter, turned on her heels and rushed back into the adjoining room again in order to make another call.  But it wasn't the ambulance service, or even the police, whom she immediately dialled.  It was Donald Prescott, and it was with a view to not only telling him what had happened but actually visiting him in person, the following week, that she held the purring receiver up close to her ear. 

     This time there could be no regrets, only tears of joy!

 

    

LONDON 1980 (Revised 1981-2010)

 

 

THWARTED AMBITIONS

 

 

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