Op. 17

 

SUBLIMATED RELATIONS

OR

THE VOICE MUSEUM

 

Long Prose

 

Copyright © 1981-2010 John O'Loughlin

____________

 

CONTENTS

 

Chapters 1-12

__________

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

He gently closed the front door of his parents' house behind him and, pulling his scarf more tightly round his neck, set off at a brisk pace for home.  It was a rather cold night and, as he hurried along, great plumes of escaping breath were quickly dispersed into the chill air.  He was somewhat relieved that the once-yearly obligation to visit his parents for Christmas had been successfully dispatched and that he was once more a free man - free, that is, to please himself. 

     Not that their company unduly oppressed him!  On the contrary, they did their best to make his stay a merry one, having provided a copious roast lunch and a sufficiency of wine and/or sherry.  But, even so, it was a relief that the social pressure to be on one's best behaviour had if not entirely vanished then, at any rate, been temporarily relaxed, and he was accordingly free to be his usual informal self.

     One's best behaviour?  No, that wasn't entirely true!  More accurately, the pressure to tune-in, as it were, to one's parents' standard of Christmas and behave in a manner which suggested that no alternative standard was either possible or indeed desirable.  Yes, that was it!  He was escaping from the pressure of that, as also, if the truth were known, from the even worse pressure of having been in close proximity to his stepfather's wretched cold and of having had to pretend that it didn't really inconvenience him in any way.  But, really, what a gross inconvenience it had been!  It was quite a stinker the man was suffering from, a most objectionable stinker!

     For a moment Timothy Byrne was on the verge of cursing his stepfather for having had the untimely misfortune to catch a rotten cold at Christmas, but, mindful of the festive spirit, he stifled the thought as best he could and replaced it with a charitable commiseration towards Richard Briley for the rotten luck he'd had ... to fall victim to such a sordid fate at so inopportune a time.  In fact, he forced himself to feel sorry for the man and to offer him, in retrospect, what private sympathy he could.  Yet even then it wasn't possible for Timothy to ignore the self-pity which suddenly welled up, like flood waters, inside him at the recollection of his having had to sit in uncomfortably close proximity to Mr Briley on a number of occasions over Christmas and not only risk being infected with the stinker himself, but, no less distastefully, listen to the incessant snivelling which issued from the old man's snot-laden nose.  Really, it was enough to make one weep!

     Crossing over one of the busy main roads which prominently divided his part of Haringey from theirs, he hurried his steps along the north London streets still faster, as much, in effect, to escape the memory of his stepfather's threatening germs ... as to get back to his flat as quickly as possible, lest additional threats from unseen quarters lay in sordid wait for him!  Poor Mr Briley, it was really most unkind of nature to have inflicted such a bad cold on him during that brief period in the year when, birthdays notwithstanding, one least wished to suffer germs.  Most unkind!  Yet, unfortunately, that was generally the way with nature, which was unconcerned with human wishes and the sporadic attempts man might make to approximate to a heavenly condition.  Mindful, one might almost say, of its own wayward interests.  Ignorant of Christmas. 

     For what was Christmas, after all, but a concerted attempt by man to approximate to Heaven in the face, if needs be, of natural opposition?  A time when one remembered the birth of Christ and gave thanks for the spiritual example He was to set.  A time when one endeavoured to live more closely in Christ's light and refrain from sin.  But what did nature care about that?  Not a frigging jot!  It made no specific effort to emulate man and call a truce for a few days.  On the contrary, one was just as likely to catch a cold on Christmas day, if germs were in the air, as at any other time.  And if the weather had been particularly inclement before Christmas, it wasn't likely to improve just to suit men.  It could even get worse!

     Fortunately that had not been the case this year, and, as he continued on his brooding way, Timothy felt gratitude for the fact that the weather had remained comparatively dry and mild these past few days, thus discouraging the rapid spread of harmful germs.  Yet the fact of Mr Briley's cold was still bad enough, and even if he, Timothy John Byrne, hadn't caught it, nevertheless he had suffered from it in a certain sense, both psychologically and physically, and that was no joke!  His Christmas hadn't exactly proved to be the most congenial of experiences, even if it could have been a damn sight worse.  Still, his parents had generally been kind to him, and together, in spite of their temperamental differences, they had endeavoured to maintain an atmosphere of peace and joy whilst in one-another's persevering company.

     Yes, a kind of crude approximation to the heavenly Beyond had been achieved, in spite of whatever opposition the temporal world had contrived to place in their way.  Even with Mr Briley's constant snivelling and the consequent risk of infection, these past few days had retained a seasonal quality which, on the whole, was fairly pleasant, if a little lacking in excitement.  For there could be no question that Timothy had eaten well and, despite his customary abstinence, imbibed a bottle or two of quality sherry, not to mention sat in front of some interesting films on television and spent an hour or so profitably reading philosophy in one of his parents' spare rooms.  And, of course, there had been some conversation with his mother - Mr Briley being a rather laconic bloke who preferred not to enter into conversation with him even when he wasn't ill - which had proved more the exception than the rule, and passed the time quite pleasantly.

     Yet even as he hurried across another busy road, Timothy reflected that this Christmas could have been a lot better, a much finer approximation to Heaven than theirs had been, and not only on account of his stepfather's cold, by any means!  No, on a number of counts.  But, alas, his parents had prevented it from being such by their emphasis on traditional, or sensual, approximations to the Beyond, and had thus made it virtually obligatory for him to follow suit.  The ideas which were now welling-up in his conscious mind, like molten lava, would hardly appeal to them, well-meaning though they undoubtedly were.  No, they couldn't be expected to appreciate what he now considered a higher way of celebrating Christmas, a way which, instead of emphasizing downward self-transcendence, put the emphasis firmly on upward self-transcendence and was accordingly closer to Heaven, to what Timothy liked to think of as the spiritual climax to human evolution in the not-too-distant future. 

     However, being average sensual people, his mother and stepfather could only celebrate Christmas in a fashion commensurate with their average sensuality, not in a fashion which he now regarded as of a higher and altogether more agreeable order.  Yet what was true of them was no less true of the great majority of people, who were likewise indisposed to change their habits and celebrate Christmas in any but a sensual way.  And as he neared his flat, a poignant truth suddenly dawned on him.  Like it or not, the majority of people's attempts to approximate to a heavenly condition at Christmas only resulted in their ending-up in a condition closer to Hell, in which their customary sensual habits were intensified to a point of gluttony and drunkenness, if not lechery as well!

     Yes, that was the ironic truth of the matter!  For the average sensual man Christmas was simply an intensification of his average sensual habits, and thus, in certain respects, an approximation not to Heaven but to its beastly antithesis.  Society hadn't yet evolved to a stage where the great majority of people were disposed to approximate, no matter how humbly or tentatively, to the heavenly Beyond through upward self-transcendence.  Consequently the only reasonable alternative to average day-to-day consciousness for a relatively short period of time lay, for them, in downward self-transcendence, in the gratification of the senses rather than of the spirit, and thus immersion in the subconscious instead of the superconscious.  For which, as Timothy well knew, food and drink were eminently suitable!

     And so, by a curious paradox, the Devil was arguably given more acknowledgement, by a majority of people at Christmas, than God, and a kind of sensuous approximation to Hell triumphed over the Christian world during that time.  Only in a minority of cases was it likely that the godly in man would be given its due and duly acknowledged, and as Timothy drew closer to his small flat he realized, with some regret, that he hadn't been among that minority of higher types this Christmas but, on the contrary, had consumed more than his customary amounts of food and drink! 

     Maybe next year - assuming he wasn't living in the same place and had the means to be more independent of his parents for Christmas - he would be able to celebrate Christ's birth in a manner more suited to his tastes, and thus become a part of that tiny minority who acknowledged the superiority of the spirit over the senses at Christmas, thereby upward self-transcending.  He hoped so anyway, since he had become somewhat dissatisfied, no thanks to his parents, with the traditional way of celebrating it!

     But what, exactly, would this alternative to sensual indulgence be?  He had arrived at the front door to his ground-floor flat and duly let himself in.  Yes, what exactly?  Quickly, almost impatiently, he removed his black leather zipper and matching scarf and hung them on the metal clothes pegs just inside the door.  Then he hurried into his small living-room and immediately switched on the electric fire there.  Its two coiled filaments were aglow in no time, and he gratefully sat in front of it and rubbed the cold from his frozen hands.  Yes, well, to approximate more to Heaven than to Hell at Christmas meant that one would have to reduce one's consumption of food and drink for a start, and thus avoid the temptation to become both a glutton and a drunkard.  Whether one went as far as limiting oneself to bread and water instead of, say, roast and wine was another thing.  But one could at least make do with a less sensual fare than one was ordinarily accustomed to, and certainly avoid alcohol, that leading enemy of the spiritual life!  Milk, tea, coffee, or some fruit juice was morally preferable to booze, though not perhaps as good as cola.

     Timothy smiled slightly at the thought of it and continued to gently rub his hands together in front of the electric fire.  He was still feeling quite bloated from the turkey-sandwich supper his mother had provided for him, and not a little conscious of the soporific effects which the last glass of sherry was having on his mind.  He was still thinking of heavenly approximations from the disadvantage-point, as it were, of hellish approximations, or so it seemed.  But he hadn't imbibed that much sherry in all, and was accordingly still capable of lucid thought, thanks in part to the sobering influence of the cold weather during his brisk walk home.  So, as a step in the right direction of upward self-transcendence, it would be necessary to minimize the part played by downward self-transcendence by curtailing one's sensual intake.  That much was obvious.

     But what else?  What about the actual feeding of the spirit?  Would reading a paperback throughout the Christmas holiday suffice to take care of that?  An image of a painting by Daniele Crespi entitled The Meal of St. Charles Borromeo, in which the Saint was depicted reading the Bible whilst eating a frugal meal of bread and water, came soaring into his mind's eye and to some extent answered that vexing question.  Yes, reading would serve the needs of the spirit and contribute towards establishing an approximation to the heavenly Beyond, or Omega Point, as Teilhard de Chardin had called the projected culmination of spiritual evolution.  But a rather crude approximation to it, one had to admit, insofar as only the lower reaches of the spirit would be acknowledged and served - those reaches in which the intellect had its throne.  The greater and higher part of the spirit, the soul, would languish unfed, undernourished, and ignored.

     Thus while reading would be better than dozing, one could approximate more closely to the heavenly Beyond by meditating throughout the Christmas holiday, thereby allowing one's spirit to expand on a wave of blessed peace.  Stillness, quietness, alert passivity, joy ... all these consequences of Transcendental Meditation would bring one closer to heavenly salvation than ever reading could, even when the book in one's hands was of an elevated order, and so result in a finer Christmas.  Yet if a few days given-up to meditating still seemed too much ... well then, one could always divide one's time between reading and meditating, or meditating and watching some ennobling film or listening to some inspiring music.  As long as the spirit rather than the body was being acknowledged, no matter how imperfectly, one would be in alliance with that tiny minority of higher types.

     Yet what else?  Was there anything besides culture and meditation that could be indulged in over Christmas in order to approximate as closely as possible to Heaven?  Undoubtedly meditation was the best thing for any length of time.  But if, by any chance, one felt one had to have recourse to some kind of concrete substitute for alcohol or tobacco, what was there?  Ah, there was indeed something that could be indulged in but which wasn't legal at present, and that was mind-expanding hallucinogens like LSD, the acronym for lysergic acid diethylamide.  Whether LSD, for example, would be legalized in the near or distant future ... remained to be seen.  But, whatever its ultimate fate, there could be no denying that its synthetic constitution distinguished it from natural drugs, or drugs which either grew naturally or were less than fully synthetic, like tobacco, alcohol, opium, and morphine, rendering it an altogether different proposition from them. 

     For all the 'natural' drugs - in short, everything that grew from or owed their origins to the earth - were inevitably stamped with nature's imprint and were thus of a sensual essence.  Whenever one had recourse to them, in whatever doses, the result was an intensification of sensual indulgence and therefore a downward self-transcendence.  According to their strength and the amounts imbibed, they imposed varying degrees of subconscious stupor, ranging from the shallow in tobacco to the deep in opium or morphine.  Being of natural origin, they could only appeal to the senses, not the spirit, and thus were aligned with Hell rather than Heaven.  The deeper the level of subconscious stupor imposed by them, the more evil, it seemed to Timothy, they were, so it wasn't altogether surprising that society had sought to protect itself from the most potent natural drugs by making them illegal and punishing those who trafficked in them.  Only the relatively less evil ones, including tobacco and alcohol, were officially sanctioned and accorded a degree of social respectability, even though they were by no means without extremely serious consequences, as lung cancer and sclerosis of the liver made more than adequately clear!  Hopefully, a day would come when even tobacco and alcohol would be officially discountenanced, and all degrees of downward self-transcendence through natural drugs duly proscribed or, at the very least, discouraged.  But, at present, we were still living in an age when such evils were to a certain extent inevitable and somehow relevant to the times.

     However, perhaps there would also come a time when hallucinogens like LSD would be legalized, and those who wanted to use it could do so without fearing prosecution?  At which thought Timothy clicked his tongue and, ceasing to rub his hands together, sat back comfortably in his armchair.  Yes, for LSD was a synthetic drug, and therefore it acted on the superconscious rather than the subconscious.  It resulted, as a rule, in visionary experiences of a transcendent, translucent, and altogether mystical order, opening the door to the Beyond and thus giving rise to upward self-transcendence.  It was divine rather than diabolic, uplifting rather than degrading, enlightening rather than depressing.

     Yes, if sanity was to prevail in the world and evolution continue on its upward curve, then LSD would certainly have a role to play in the future as probably the drug of transcendental man.  The centuries of tobacco and alcohol consumption, not to mention the illicit consumption of dope and the harder natural drugs, would have to be supplanted by the centuries of LSD consumption, in which man aspired towards God, through expanded consciousness, rather than regressed towards the Devil in varying degrees of subconscious stupor.  Then perhaps Christmas, or some such equivalent festival, would be celebrated with LSD instead of alcohol or tobacco.  Then Christmas would approximate more closely to the heavenly Beyond for the great majority of people, and so be a much superior occasion to what it was at present.  For at present it was all too under nature's sensuous influence.  Only by overcoming nature, Timothy believed, would man eventually attain to God, since the mundane and the transcendent were ever different, if not antithetical, propositions. 

     But, in the meantime - no, one couldn't expect overnight miracles.  The majority of people were simply not ready for LSD and, consequently, it had to remain illegal.  Only a comparatively small number of people would be capable of using it profitably and sensibly, whereas, for the average sensual man, it would probably prove either a blank or a danger.  And not only to himself!  One shuddered at the thought of what might happen if a crowd of football thugs or other hooligans were to get their coarse hands on the divine hallucinogen!  Why, they were bad enough under the influence of lager!

     No, it was pretty obvious that the one drug seriously capable of effecting an upward self-transcendence would have to wait a while yet for official approval.  There was no sense in casting pearls before swine!  When society as a whole had progressed to a higher stage of evolution, a stage transcending anything we now knew, then perhaps an official change-of-heart would be possible.  But, in the meantime ... ah! one would just have to make do, in a majority of cases, with alcohol for Christmas.  And if one found that infra dignum?  Well, one could always meditate or read a book - which was exactly what Timothy Byrne intended to do next Christmas, all being well!

     Getting up from his armchair, he ambled over to the windows and pulled their floral-patterned curtains across.  He had quite overlooked them when first entering the room, but it didn't really matter too much.  Few people would have been interested in staring-in at him and, besides, the low wall and front-garden hedge provided his room with a certain amount of seclusion anyway.  Yet he was reminded, by the sight of a large Christmas card standing on the small table just to one side of the windows, that he had been invited out to dinner on New Year's Eve, so he hastened to pick it up and re-read its contents.

     Yes, this late card, only received on Christmas Eve, had come as quite a surprise to him, particularly since he had met its sender but once, and then rather briefly.  Yet the man had shown what seemed like genuine interest in his philosophy, and suggested the possibility of their dining together some time.  So it looked as though he had meant what he said.  Here, however, is what he had written:-

 

Dear Timothy Byrne,

     Just a brief note to wish you a Merry Christmas and invite you down to Rothermore House for dinner on New Year's Eve.  You will recall that we discussed your most recent publication together, earlier this month, and that I was quite impressed by it.  Perhaps you would like to offer me some further enlightenment on its difficult subject-matter in due course?  If so, then come down by early afternoon train to Crowborough in East Sussex, and join the select group of cultured guests whom I have also invited to see-in the New Year with us.  I hope you don't have any prior engagements?

 

Yours sincerely

Joseph Handon (Viscount)

 

     Timothy re-read the invitation through twice and then replaced the rather picturesque card on the table.  He was really quite baffled by it, not having received any such invitation before.  And the fact that Handon was a viscount came as something of a surprise to him.  He hadn't realized, at the time of their first encounter, that he was dealing with a peer of the realm.  Maybe that explained why the invitation made mention of a dinner rather than a party?  It seemed to him quite posh really, not what he would have expected at all.  But, still, what was he to make of it?  Should he accept?

     He returned to his single armchair and involuntarily began to warm his hands in front of the electric fire again.  Crowborough?  No, not a place he had ever been to before?  And Rothermore House?  He smiled at the thought of his arriving from the station by taxi at a large country house with fluted pilasters surmounted by Ionic or Corinthian capitals on the façade, and a large central pediment, with or without relief sculpture, over the architrave.  Maybe, on the other hand, it would be less classical, more baroque or even gothic?  He hadn't the faintest idea.  Nevertheless, it was almost bound to be large, imposing, spacious, and surrounded on all sides by plenty of open land.  Country houses were usually like that, after all.

     Again he smiled to himself and sat back in his armchair.  He wasn't sure whether or not to accept the invitation, especially since he didn't know much about Joseph Handon and had absolutely no idea who the other guests would be.  It wasn't as if he were exactly enamoured of country houses either, though he had retained a certain rather narrow aesthetic interest in one or two of them, compliments of some informal architectural studies in the reference division of his local library, several years before.  Yet, all things considered, perhaps the experience would prove rewarding, confirming him in his suppositions and further enlightening him where aristocratic lifestyles like Viscount Handon's were concerned.  Yes, maybe he would learn a thing or two from first-hand experience, as it were, of country houses and their inhabitants that contact with reference books had denied him?  It was certainly worth considering anyway.

     Still smiling, he vacated his old armchair again and proceeded to slot an audio cassette into the tape-deck of his modest midi sound-system.  Boxing Day still had an hour to run and he was determined to pass the remaining time in as cultural a fashion as possible.  Some synth-based modern jazz would, he supposed, enable him to do just that!

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

At length the train arrived at Crowborough station and a rather bored Timothy Byrne alighted from the empty second-class compartment, in which he had sat cross-legged for most of the journey, and slowly made his way towards the ticket barrier.  Only a handful of other people had got off the train with him and he wondered, as he passed through the exit, whether there might not be another person bound for Rothermore House among their number.

     Once outside the station he quickly engaged the services of a waiting taxi, and presently found himself being driven through a series of narrow country lanes in the general direction of Rothermore House.  It was almost four o'clock and he hoped that his arrival there wouldn't be too early; though he had no way of telling from the invitation at exactly what time the viscount would be expecting his other guests to arrive.  Perhaps most of them were already there?  He mentally shuddered at the thought of it and sought distraction from that prospect by scanning the surrounding fauna-and-flora of the passing countryside.  He never liked being the last or nearly last guest to arrive anywhere.

     "Been out this way before, mate?" the cabby asked, addressing his passenger via the driving mirror.

     "No," Timothy replied, a bit startled by this unexpected intrusion into his sordid reflections.

     "Nearly there now," said the cabby, who speedily steered the taxi round a couple of sharp bends and then brought it to a gradual halt a hundred or so yards along a relatively straight road, which appeared to lead nowhere.  On one side, a view of trees and hills.  On the other side, a tall gateway presented its black steel bars to their attention.  It was slightly ajar, and stood between high brick walls lined with trees and bushes.

     "I'll take you up the driveway if you'd like," the cabby offered, half-turning round in his seat.

     "Is it a long one?" Timothy asked.

     "At least a coupla hundred yards," the cabby informed him.

     "Right, thanks."

     Having got out of the taxi to push the gate open, the cabby returned to his seat and restarted the engine, which had in the meantime spluttered out.  "You're the second geezer I've driven up here today," he revealed, as they got under way again.

     "Oh, really?" responded Timothy, who hadn't expected to be informed of that fact!  "Perhaps I won't be the last," he commented.

     "Perhaps not, mate."

     The taxi reached the end of the driveway and there, suddenly, the expanse of Rothermore House loomed menacingly ahead, no more than seventy yards away.  One had the feeling, curiously, of coming out of a jungle and into the open again.

     "I'm afraid this is as far as I can go, mate," the cabby informed him on a slightly apologetic note, as unexpected as it was strange.

     Timothy felt like saying: "That's quite far enough," since he had no wish to be driven right up to the large front doors of such an imposing house in a bright red Cortina, but simply nodded his head and got out.  Then he paid the driver and, reciprocating his New Year wishes, stood back to allow the taxi to turn around in the narrow space provided and speed back down the driveway.

     So this was it!  He stood a moment stock-still, staring across the wide expanse of front garden which framed the large house.  He hadn't been far wrong in his conjectures as to what the place would look like, for it did indeed possess fluted pilasters surmounted by Corinthian capitals.  But where he had imagined a central pediment there was a balustrade, upon which a couple of weighty-looking sculptural urns were standing, and this balustrade extended along the entire length of the façade, reminding one, in a way, of crenellated battlements.  Thus a two-storey house, with twelve vertically-elongated windows on each story - six to either side of the aediculated entrance.  Where had he seen a building like this before?  Yes, of course!  A book on English architecture in the local library's reference division had shown him a photograph of Easton Neston by Nicholas Hawksmoor.  There was indeed a close resemblance between the two houses.  But whereas Easton Neston had only been a photograph, Rothermore House was right there in the flesh, so to speak, and altogether very real.  Almost too real for comfort, as far as Timothy Byrne was concerned!

     Realizing that he couldn't very well continue to stand out in the cold and gaze up at the building as though he had nothing better to do, he forced himself on towards his objective.  The crunching of his steps on the gravel path which led through the English garden made him feel rather self-conscious and exposed to view as he neared the large front entrance, and he carefully avoided looking at the windows from fear of seeing someone behind them.  The house seemed to tower above him like some fearful monster the nearer he got to it, making him feel rather dwarfed as well as self-conscious.  He was almost wishing he hadn't accepted Joseph Handon's invitation, as he climbed the steps leading to the framed entrance.  Almost, but not quite!  For he was determined to brave this experience out until the end and learn what he could from it.  And he was learning fast, because now, halted just in front of the door, he realized that there was a world of difference between looking at photos of country houses and actually standing in front of one!  The former he could tolerate, the latter.... He shuddered with apprehension and pressed the bell.  Now he was irrevocably committed.

     In less than a minute it was answered by a manservant, who, on receiving his name, politely ushered him inside.  Once there, he took off his leather jacket and handed it, together with woollen scarf, to the man.  He hoped that his sartorial appearance would pass muster here, since he wasn't in the habit of dressing more conservatively, having burnt his last bridges, so to speak, of conventional attire several years before.  His black denims and green sweatshirt were presentable enough, he thought, and his new white leather sneakers with black stripes sufficiently clean, in spite of the dust kicked up while crossing the gravel path.  All in all, pretty typical of him these days, and not something he had any desire to change, given his long-standing aversion to suits and ties and other sartorial manifestations of a more conventional, not to say  bourgeois,  lifestyle.

     "Now, sir, if you'd just care to follow me," said the elderly servant, once he had deposited Timothy's jacket and scarf in a cloakroom to one side of the entrance hall.  Smilingly, he led the way across the intervening space to a pair of double doors which, on reaching, he threw open with a polished gesture, to reveal one of the longest and largest rooms Timothy had ever beheld.  Having announced his name for the benefit of its occupants, the manservant ushered him in with formal politeness and then gently but firmly closed the doors behind him, leaving the young writer to his fate.  Never before had he felt as self-conscious as now, what with the sight of those already gathered there.  He might as well have been standing in the nude before a roomful of nubile females, as standing in his usual informal clothes just inside the doors of this immense room!

     But help was at hand in the form of Lord Handon himself, who beamed an encouraging smile at him while swiftly approaching across the bright blue carpet which covered the greater part of the floor.  "So glad you could come," he announced, extending a welcoming hand; though the six or seven yards he had to walk seemed to take an eternity for Timothy, who gratefully clasped the outstretched hand when it finally arrived.  "I trust you had a pleasant journey?"

     "Yes, quite pleasant," the writer responded, blushing slightly.

     "I'm a bit out-of-the-way here, and wouldn't like to think that you'd got lost en route from the station," Lord Handon remarked.

     "Oh, no trouble in that respect," Timothy averred.

     "Good!  Well, allow me to introduce you to the others," said the viscount and, taking his latest guest in tow, he led the way towards the centre of the room, where a small group of people were seated in a semicircle in front of a roaring open fire.  There was hardly time for Timothy to get more than an inkling of the extent and variety of his surroundings, as he bashfully accompanied the grey-haired peer back across the carpet.  Besides, he couldn't very well begin investigating the room's contents as though he were in a museum.  It was obligatory to ignore them, as though stepping into such an ornately-furnished and expensively-decorated room was a commonplace affair, unworthy of more than a passing curiosity.  The only thing that mattered was the series of introductions which were about to befall him.  It was impossible to concentrate on anything else.  "Allow me first of all to present you to my wife, Pamela," the host obliged, extending his arm in the direction of a medium-built lady with high cheekbones and a long nose who was seated nearest the fire.  She at once rose from her amply-cushioned armchair and held out a dainty hand for Timothy to shake.

     "Delighted to meet you, Mr Byrne," she said, smiling primly.

     "And here is my youngest daughter, Geraldine," rejoined Lord Handon, leading his new guest's attention to the occupant of the next armchair, who duly stood up and offered him a similar hand, albeit in a more tentative manner.  She was wearing a straight purple dress with black stockings, and had fine dark-brown hair which was tied-up in a bun on the crown of her head.  She couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen.

     "Unfortunately, my eldest daughter is celebrating New Year's Eve elsewhere," Lord Handon explained, for the benefit of his guest, "so you'll have to forego the pleasure of meeting her."

     Scarcely had the writer shaken hands with Geraldine than he was whisked-on to the occupant of the third armchair from the fire, who happened to be an artist by name of Lawrence Gowling.  Of the three men besides Timothy in the room, he was the only one with a moustache, which, like his hair, was of a fair complexion.  Next to him, as the armchairs curved around, sat a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man with short, stubby fingers who offered a firm but clammy handshake.  This was Nigel Townley, an architect who, like Timothy, was a first-time visitor to Rothermore House.  He briefly smiled at the man being introduced to him, then relapsed back into his chair with an eagerness that suggested he didn't much like standing up.  Possibly the alcohol imbibed had left him a shade unsteady on his legs.  For, as Timothy now noted, there was a distinct smell of wine on his breath.

     "And here," Lord Handon announced, leading the way past an empty armchair to one occupied by a coloured girl of slender build, "is a highly-talented young opera singer by name of Sarah Field, whom you may well have heard of or even heard sing."

     "Indeed I have," Timothy admitted, extending a nervous hand for its sixth shaking.

     "Pleased to meet you," said the singer, with a polite smile in due attendance.  Her brown eyes sparkled gaily from the reflection, in part, of the electric lights which issued from an overhead chandelier.  She was tastefully attired in a dark-green minidress with pale stockings, and wore her smooth dark hair combed back into a single plait which stretched a third of the way down her back.  Her lips were enhanced with pink lipstick, and pink was the preferred colour of her eye make-up.  She was about the same height as Timothy - a little short of tall.

     "And, finally, before the strain of encountering so many new faces proves too much for you, here's Miss Sheila Johnston, that excellent concert pianist of Scotch origin, whose graceful tone and touch gladden the heart," Lord Handon smilingly revealed.

     Miss Johnston held out a firm muscular-looking hand for Timothy to shake and lowered her large blue eyes while he shook it.  She was blushing from the compliments of her host and smiled involuntary appreciation of his flattery.  Timothy she hardly seemed conscious of and the handshake was uncomfortably one-sided.

     "Good, that just about takes care of everyone," Lord Handon commented, simultaneously giving the writer a congratulatory slap on the back, or so it seemed to the latter.  "But for a couple of people yet to arrive, we're all  here," he added, before drawing Timothy's flagging attention to the vacant armchair in between Nigel Townley and Sarah Field, and motioning him to sit down, which he thankfully did, though not without a certain self-consciousness at actually taking his place there amongst the other guests.  "Since we've all had a glass or two of port this afternoon, I should be delighted if you'd join us in that respect," the host declared, beaming brightly.

     "Very well," said Timothy, politely putting aside his natural aversion to such drinks.

     "One port here!" Lord Handon requested in an extraordinarily loud tone-of-voice, bringing his butler, who stood at a discreet remove from the armchairs, into action.

     To his astonishment, Timothy found the port being served up to him on a silver platter by the officiating servant - a slight, balding man with long grey whiskers and a sober mien, who bent down to facilitate service.

     "Would anyone else care for another?" the host asked, casting around the arc of his guests.  "No?  Very well.  That's all thank you, Madley."

     The old servant straightened up and withdrew to the drinks cabinet across the far side of the room, where he noisily deposited the platter before taking up his customary stance, like a sentry on duty, unobtrusive and remote.  It appeared that he would have to stay there, attentive and waiting, until his next summons, which, to Timothy's way of thinking, seemed rather strange.

     Hardly had the young newcomer got over the experience of being served port on a silver platter than he found himself being questioned by Lady Handon as to the nature of his work.  "My husband tells me you're a religious writer," she remarked, fixing a pair of beady eyes directly upon him.

     "Yes, that's basically so," he admitted.

     "And quite a revolutionary one too, I hear?" Lady Handon added.

     "Yes, I suppose so," Timothy confirmed, nodding vaguely.

     Lord Handon smiled acquiescently and confessed to only having read one of Timothy's books so far, and that the latest.  Yet it had made quite an impression on him, and he was now interested to discover whether its author had made any progress beyond that point in the meantime.

     "Yes, do tell us what you're currently writing," Lady Handon seconded.  "Are you a deist, a theist, an atheist, or what?"

     "Well, as a matter of fact, I'm an atheist, insofar as I reject the assumption of an existent deity in the Universe and the attendant concept of Divine Creation," Timothy blushingly confessed.

     "You do?" Lady Handon responded, on a note of subdued alarm.  "And, pray tell me, why's that?"

     "Because I believe that the Universe is fundamentally of diabolic origin and that evolution is essentially a struggle, as it were, from the Devil to God," the writer averred.

     One or two brows were raised in tacit incredulity with the reception of this unconventional statement.  Young Geraldine even found it slightly amusing and smiled faintly.

     "In what way diabolic?" Lady Handon wanted to know.

     "Diabolic insofar as it was brought about by the formation of stars and their myriad explosions," Timothy answered her.  "To my mind, there's nothing more infernal and hypernegative than the stars, and, taken together, they signify the Devil for me, purely and simply."

     "This is certainly beyond what you wrote in 'Religious Evolution'," Lord Handon observed, before his wife could say anything further.  "You never mentioned that there."

     "No, and I believe I've made more progress in my religious thinking these past three or four months, since its publication, than in the whole of the preceding twelve months," Timothy confessed.

     There came a murmur or two from some of the other guests and, once again, Lady Handon interposed with further curiosity. "You say the stars should be equated with the Devil, but what, pray, do you equate with God?" she asked.  "After all, you've just told us that you don't believe in Him."

     "Quite so, I don't."  At which point Timothy sighed softly and took a sip of the port which, until then, had remained untouched.  "What I do believe, however, is that man is entrusted with the responsibility of creating God, that human evolution is essentially nothing less than a development for bringing God to fruition in the Universe, and thus of establishing God as the climax to it."

     Lady Handon raised her brows and cast her husband a correspondingly puzzled look.  She had never heard anything of the sort and couldn't very well disguise the fact.  "But how?" she asked, in an almost petulant sort of way.

     "Increasingly, in the future, through the widespread practice of Transcendental Meditation and the cultivation, in consequence, of superconscious mind - in other words, the spirit," Timothy revealed.

     "Transcendental Meditation?" Geraldine repeated, still vaguely amused.

     "Yes, though not in a passive sense, reminiscent of Buddhist practices, but in a dynamically post-Christian sense which stresses the difference between God and the world, between, for want of a better term, the Holy Spirit and human spirit.  One mustn't think that because one is meditating one is tuning-in, as it were, to God, since, as I've just contended, God is in the making, not already there.  All one would be doing, in reality, is tuning-in to one's own spirit.  But one's own spirit shouldn't be confused with the Holy Spirit, with God per se, since it's contaminated by the flesh, the senses, and therefore isn't transcendent.  It is simply human spirit.  Therefore Brahman and Atman are not, strictly speaking, one and the same.  There is no tat tvam asi, or 'thou art that', contrary to Oriental assumptions.  Rather, the Holy Spirit is that which, as God, will arise out of man in due course, when he has evolved to a point where his spirit has expanded and developed to such an extent ... that it becomes transcendent, and thereupon abandons the flesh to literally establish God in the Universe.  And once God has been established there, He will shine inwardly for ever - eternally.  So man is the medium through which the future culmination of the Universe strives to realize itself and attain to its blissful goal.  Man is the maker of God, not vice versa.  For the maker of men, animals, plants, etc., would appear to have been the Devil, or stars, and so one would be quite mistaken, in my view, to speak of a divine origin to life or to equate God with the world.  'Out of evil cometh good', and out of the world will come God ... as pure spirit."

     Lady Handon had become well-nigh flabbergasted and now turned somewhat pale in the face.  "Do you seriously mean to suggest that nature is evil?" she exclaimed, her beady eyes more concentrated, seemingly, than ever.

     "I most certainly do, insofar as it's under sensual dominion in subconscious stupor," Timothy retorted.  "Quite the opposite of the Holy Spirit, which would be a completely spiritual essence in superconscious bliss."

     Lawrence Gowling, who had listened patiently to the conversation thus far, suddenly felt a need to challenge Timothy on the nature of God.  After all, hadn't Pascal stressed the impossibility of our having absolute knowledge of Him, and wasn't it therefore presumptuous of Timothy Byrne to presume he knew better?

     The young writer smiled sympathetically and took another sip of port.  "One should beware of taking everything thought by great men of the past too seriously," he remarked.  "For their views are often proved fallacious in the course of time.  But no, I'm not presuming absolute knowledge of God and, in that respect, I'm in complete accordance with Pascal.  However, the fact that God is a spirit would be hard to refute, since, by definition, God is the highest we can conceive of, and there's nothing higher than pure spirit.  But that's only relative knowledge.  I can say, for instance, that God will emerge in the Universe following transcendence, but I cannot tell you for certain what His exact scale will be, nor how brightly He will shine, nor how intense will be the bliss that results from His spiritual constitution.  I cannot tell you what it would be like to actually be in the holy light of pure spirit, for the simple reason that I'm a man, with a body and impure spirit, not God.  I can only speculate and say, rather theoretically, that the experience of ultimate being would be higher and greater than anything one could ever hope to know in the becoming ... as man.  I cannot have any absolute, eternal knowledge of it.  Only, at best, a diluted, temporal, transient knowledge, such as is compatible with my earthly condition."

     "Yet, presumably, this holy light of pure spirit, or whatever, would be a pretty large entity," Lord Handon commented, turning a mildly inquisitive face towards his religious guest.

     "Quite possibly, though we cannot have any idea of exactly how large," Timothy rejoined.  "We can, however, speculate that it would be compounded of the transcendent spirit of the entire population at the climax of evolution, and quite probably the entire population of human-equivalent life forms throughout the Universe, so that the sum total of superconscious mind gathered together there in absolute unity would be way beyond our comprehension.  A phenomenal cohesion of pure spirit."

     "What a staggering thought!" cried Nigel Townley, offering his fellow first-time guest an expression of bewilderment.

     "Yes, and this phenomenal cohesion of pure spirit would presumably constitute the One which has arisen from the Many," Sarah Field suggested, warming to Timothy's thesis.

     "Precisely," the writer confirmed.  "Thus the converging universe to the Omega Point, which Teilhard de Chardin often speaks about in his fascinating books, would indeed be a fact of spiritual evolution.  Willy-nilly, the Diabolic Many are giving way to the Divine One."

     Lady Handon frowned bitterly and snorted defiantly.  "I really cannot reconcile myself to your attitude towards the stars and nature," she said.  "Why, is one to see the Devil in the sun every time one looks up at it on a fine day?"

     Geraldine tittered in frivolous response to this sceptical if not rhetorical question, and that prompted an otherwise circumspect Sheila Johnston to do likewise.  Even Lord Handon permitted an indulgent smile to cross his formerly impassive face.

     "You might find it less picturesque if you were transported to Venus, where the surface temperature is reputed to be somewhere in the region of eight-hundred degrees Fahrenheit (800°F) and you'd be in for an extremely roasting time," Timothy replied, endeavouring not to flinch before Lady Handon's stern gaze.  "And, of course, the closer you went to the sun, the hotter the temperature would get, so that you'd have a less complacent notion of it.  Even here on earth there are places, like the Sahara, where the sun's heat is too intense to be ignored, and one would consequently be more inclined to equate it with Hell than Heaven.  The fact of the sun's infernal heat would leave one in no doubt as to its evil essence, which is only relatively less apparent here because we're at a comparatively safe remove from it in the middle of an English winter.  Appearances can beguile, but anyone who went too close to the sun would soon find it the source of excruciating agony - quite the reverse of the Holy Spirit which, when it ultimately emerges, will be the scene of ineffable bliss.  So there is all the difference in the Universe between the unholy light of primal damnation and the holy spirit of ultimate salvation.  Fortunately or unfortunately, however, the former is eventually destined to collapse, leaving the Universe to its ultimate perfection in pure transcendence."

     Lord Handon smiled defensively.  "One would think that the Universe is still quite an imperfect place, judging by the vast numbers of primal stars currently in existence," he said.

     "Indeed," Timothy agreed, nodding.  "And it will continue to know imperfection until such time as the last star collapses and fades away in so many thousands-of-millions-of-years' time.  Only when the Universe is solely the Holy Spirit will it be perfect.  In the meantime, it will remain under the Devil's influence to some extent, even with the initial emergence of transcendent spirit."

     "You mean, with the climax of human evolution?" Gowling suggested.

     "Either that or with the climax of human-equivalent evolution on some other planet or planets elsewhere in the Universe," Timothy smilingly rejoined.  "After all, we can't be sure that we're the only relatively-advanced species of life in the Universe, can we?  And if there are others, then they must be a part of a converging universe to the Omega Point as well."

     "What makes you so sure that some other species, more advanced than us, hasn't already established transcendent spirit somewhere in the Universe?" Lady Handon asked, offering fresh opposition to the young writer.

     "Well, frankly, I just can't believe that any other civilization elsewhere in the Universe could possibly have evolved to that level when we still have such a deplorably long way to go here," Timothy replied.  "It's too fantastic.  The theory of a converging universe would seem to suggest that, willy-nilly, all its higher life forms must converge together en masse and roughly apace, rather than at great evolutionary intervals.  Now the fact, moreover, that we haven't yet encountered any alien civilizations, not having explored too deeply into space, suggests that evolution still has a long way to go before an extensive convergence becomes manifest in the Universe.  Consequently, judging from the absence of any superior alien visitors to earth thus far, we needn't expect other civilizations to be greatly ahead of us.  In all probability they'll either be a little behind us, approximately on our own level, or a little ahead - assuming, for the sake of argument, that any such alien civilizations, and hence alternative life-forms, do actually exist.  Yet I'd be extremely surprised to learn of an alien civilization which had already established the beginnings of God, so to speak, in the Universe, when it would seem that we on earth still have such a deplorably long way to go.  Somehow I can't help but assume that any truly-advanced, superior 'people' would already have made themselves extensively known throughout the Universe by dint of their  spiritual sophistication.  Accordingly, I remain unflinchingly an atheist, but an atheist with this difference: I'm all in favour of our doing what we can either to establish God as the Holy Spirit in the Universe in the future or, if some other civilization beats us to it, at least contribute to its growth by linking our spirit with the sum total of transcendent spirit already there.  Thus I'm in the quite unique position of being an atheist who's in favour of God.  No small distinction!"

     Lady Handon snorted contemptuously and sought distraction in the flickering flames of the large open fire to her left.  She wasn't at all resigned to the writer's beliefs, nor to his apparent facetiousness concerning them!  But Lord Handon had a different response.

     "Yes, you're probably onto something there," he at length opined, a reflective expression on his darkly clean-shaven face.  "The notion of a diabolic origin and of a divine consummation to the Universe does, I must say, possess a certain logical appeal.  After all, when one recalls that this planet was once populated by fearsome dinosaurs and other loathsome monsters, and that volcanoes were erupting all over the damn place, it would seem more logical to ascribe such a creation to the Devil than to God.  Life on earth must have been a real hell for the earliest men, mustn't it?"

     "To be sure, and only very gradually did it become less so, as man evolved away from nature and thus grew less evil himself," Timothy averred.  "For a long time man was little better than the beasts, since more given, like them, to sensual indulgences.  But gradually, with the development of civilization, he became less sensual and more spiritual, grew closer to God.  Yet even the most spiritual men are partly of diabolic origin, insofar as they're of the flesh.  All they can do is aspire towards God, not actually be God.  For God and nature, which includes the flesh, are two very different things, and should never be equated!"

     Lady Handon frowned sullenly at Timothy, while Geraldine drew attention to the difference between his standpoint and those who equated God with nature.  Apparently, the pantheists were quite mistaken, then?

     "To my mind they're really unconscious devil-worshippers," the writer asserted confidently.  "Anyone who equates God with creation rather than consummation must inevitably make the same mistake.  For nature is an entirely sensual phenomenon, and anyone who thinks he sees God in it must be imagining things.  If, on rare occasions, it appears transfigured, shines, as it were, with a spiritual glow - as it apparently did for Wordsworth on occasion - one can assume that the mind of the beholder has experienced an inrush of spirit and projected this internal transformation onto nature, thus giving rise to the delusion that it's nature itself which shines with 'something far more deeply interfused', or whatever the quotation is.  For, in reality, nature can never be anything other than its own subconscious self."

     "Accordingly, writers like Aldous Huxley were somewhat mistaken to equate it with God?" Lord Handon suggested.

     "Indeed," Timothy opined.  "Although unquestionably a brilliant man, Huxley fell too much under the influence of Oriental mysticism, with its complacency in nature.  He couldn't properly distinguish between the One and the Many, but was all-too-disposed to see the Many in the One rather than as the basis out of which the One would eventually emerge.  He could never have equated the stars with the Devil, still less regarded nature as the Devil's creation.  To him, it was all part of the One, and the One was compounded of the creative force behind nature, or the Ground, the natural realm itself, including the human, and the Clear Light of the Void."

     "Which, presumably, is approximately equivalent to the Holy Trinity?" Lord Handon conjectured.

     "To be sure," Timothy conceded.  "But this, I believe, is where traditional religion, both Eastern and Western, slips up.  For, in reality, there's no such unity but, rather, a continuum of evolution from the Diabolic Alpha to the Divine Omega via man.  The One is the consummation of this evolution, not a combination of 'Three in One', like the Christian cynosure of the Holy Trinity.  To my mind, the Creator, or the Ground, is symbolic of the Many, whereas the Holy Spirit, or Clear Light, symbolizes of the One.  And, in between, we have Jesus Christ, or some such Eastern equivalent like the Buddha, who represents the human aspiration towards God, towards Oneness.  He is a son of the Many, as it were, aspiring towards the One."

     "A son of the Devil?" Lord Handon queried, on a note of slightly scandalized concern.

     "Inasmuch as we're all sons or daughters of nature and are thus fleshy, worldly, natural," Timothy calmly responded.

     "Yet Christ is represented as a supernatural being in scripture," Lady Handon objected.

     "From a theological standpoint, that is absolutely correct," the writer admitted, blushing slightly under pressure of her fierce gaze.  "But, not being an orthodox Christian, I don't personally take Christ's divinity too seriously.  To me, there's only one true divinity, and that is the pure spirit which should emerge out of man's spirit at the culmination of evolution.  I reject all other concepts of the supernatural, including the ghostly.  And that's why I'm an atheist, not a believer in divinities which are presumed to exist already."

     "Then what, pray, of the resurrection of Christ?" Lady Handon imperiously pressed him.

     "I regard that as an excellent symbol, or metaphor, for man's future destiny in spiritual transcendence," Timothy declared.  "Don't think I'm knocking Christianity, I'm not.  If you must know, I regard it as the greatest of the traditional, or 'axial', faiths ... to cite a term coined, I believe, by the philosopher Lewis Mumford.  But I also believe that, so far as the more advanced industrial nations are concerned, it has seen its best days and is gradually being superseded by a transcendental attitude to God, an attitude which should constitute the final stage of our religious evolution.  Christianity has brought us to transcendentalism, but transcendentalism will take us to God - of that I have no doubt!"

     "Let's hope you're right," said Nigel Townley sympathetically.

     "Yes," agreed Geraldine, to the consternation of her mother, who briefly cast her a sharp look of reproof.  "And presumably this transcendentalism to which you allude, Mr Byrne, should not be confounded with Oriental mysticism, but is largely a Western affair?"

     "It stems from the artificial influence of the modern city, which, in cutting us off from nature to a greater extent than ever before, has made the cultivation of a predominantly spiritual approach to God possible."  No sooner had Timothy said this, however, than he realized that he was speaking to a person who, together with her parents, spent most of her time in the country and therefore wasn't in a position to appreciate it properly.  But, since he had already spoken at some length about his religious beliefs anyway, there seemed little point in his refusing to continue just because Geraldine wasn't likely to appreciate it.  And so, with fresh resolve, he went on: "One might say that it's post-Christian, insofar as we're led to concentrate our religious devotion on the Third rather than Second so-called 'Person' of the Trinity, and so work towards actually bringing about the birth of the Holy Spirit in the Universe.  Accordingly we're not indulging in Buddhism or Hinduism or Mohammedanism or any other traditional religion, but in something which is the logical outcome of them all, since a further instance of the converging universe from the Many to the One.  Instead, therefore, of a number of so-called world religions, the future will contain just one, a true world, or global, religion, and, being transcendental, it will prove acceptable to everyone.  Indeed, religion is hardly the word!  For we won't be dealing with creeds or dogmas or rites or prayers or any of the other formulae of traditional religious observance.  Yet inasmuch as religion has to do with the cultivation of spirit, then a religion of sorts is what it will assuredly be, and meditation, as a method of directly cultivating the spirit, will apply to it.  But its objective will be to establish God, whereas traditional religion assumes that God already exists, which, in my opinion, just isn't true.  All that actually exists is the Devil, viz. the stars, and the Devil's creations, viz. nature, the beasts, and man.  For me, the Creator, which traditional religion upholds, is symbolic of the stars and is thus diabolic, not divine!  'Our Father Who art in Heaven'.... No, rather 'Our Father Who art in Hell' ..."

     Lady Handon huffed indignantly and cast her guest another withering look.   "Really, Mr Byrne, how can you say such a scandalous thing!" she exclaimed.

     "Because I believe it's true," the latter explained. "After all, we're living in an age which is in the process of transvaluating all values, to cite Nietzsche, and this is simply a further instance of such a transvaluation, whereby the Father becomes synonymous with the Devil, in order that the term 'God' may solely be applied to the Holy Spirit, and all ambivalence and open-society relativity accordingly be overcome.  In reality, the concept of the Blessed Trinity is a myth.  For the Father is decidedly cursed, whereas Christ, like all men who have attained to a civilized stage of evolution, is somewhere in-between - in other words  both cursed and blessed, as his dual role as banisher and redeemer at the Last Judgement adequately attests, whether or not one actually believes in such a judgement.  So the Father is really the Devil in disguise, an anthropomorphic metaphor for the creative-and-sustaining force behind the world.  Now what is that if not the sun and other such stars in the Universe?  As I've said before, if evolution is a journey from the Diabolic Alpha to the Divine Omega, from the Devil to God, then one can hardly regard the creative and sustaining force as God.  On the contrary, God is, only the Devil does."

     "All this is indeed rather revolutionary, isn't it?" Lady Handon observed disapprovingly.  "And also rather blasphemous, I might add."

     "Blasphemous?" Timothy queried.

     "Well, you do speak of the Father as cursed, don't you?" Lady Handon rejoined.  "And your interpretation of the Lord's Prayer would suggest that you identify 'Our Father' with the Father instead of with Christ, even granted the rather ambivalent terminology involved, which may well lead some people to unthinkingly identify the Lord's Prayer with the Creator, and thus with anything but the god of Christian humanity."

     "That's all too true, and one has to accept that Western civilization is anything but clear-cut in its allegiance to Christ," averred Timothy, who was pleasantly surprised to find himself at last agreeing with Lady Handon on something.  "Yet my use of the word 'cursed' in relation to the Father is only on the understanding that the Father, or the Creator, stands as a symbol for the sum-total of flaming stars in the Universe.... Besides, as an atheist, I would be incapable of blasphemy.  For God is something I regard as in the making, not an already-existent fact.  We have to develop our spirit until, by transcending the flesh, it becomes pure spirit and thereby establishes the light of God in the Universe.  At present, the Holy Spirit simply isn't there to be blasphemed, only the Devil.  And I don't see how one can be accused of blaspheming that!"

     "I wasn't accusing you of blaspheming the Devil," the hostess sternly countered.  "Simply of blaspheming God by regarding Him as cursed."

     "Correction," said Timothy.  "I was regarding the Father as cursed, since He is symbolic of the stars for me.  And the stars ... well, I could hardly be expected to regard them, in all their infernal heat, as blessed, could I?  Quite the reverse.  Only the Holy Spirit will be truly blessed, and I can assure you that I'd be the last person on earth to blaspheme that - assuming one could.  No, the age of blasphemy, so to speak, is by and large a thing of the past, and let's be sincerely grateful for the fact!  For we are gradually coming to realize that the Universe, or at least the world, is becoming increasingly peopled by men who, having turned their backs on the Diabolic Alpha in light of a more evolved status, aspire towards the Divine Omega, not by men who imagine they can come into direct contact with the Divine Omega, or that alpha and omega are really one and the same!  One can of course come into a more profound, expansive contact with one's spirit if one bothers to cultivate it.  But that's quite a different proposition, I should think, from actually being in the Holy Spirit as pure transcendence.  One's own spirit is, at the best of times, only potentially divine.  For it's all the time surrounded by the flesh or, rather, the brain.  Only those whose spirits develop to a point, in the distant future, of literally becoming transcendent ... will know what it means to have direct contact with the Divine Omega.  For they will actually be God."

     Lady Handon permitted herself a sharply cynical laugh, in spite of the gravity of the subject.  "Are we therefore to suppose, dear boy, that the spirits of these future people of your perverse imaginings will somehow break out of the body, or wherever it is that spirit reposes, and soar heavenwards, like comets or rockets?" she cried, casting Timothy an equally sharp look of quizzical scepticism.

     In spite of his convictions her guest was unable to prevent himself from blushing at what seemed like a cynically rhetorical question, especially since Geraldine and one or two of the others were manifestly amused by it.  "It may seem odd," he admitted, after due deliberation, "but you could well be right in supposing something of the kind.  After all, how else could spirit become transcendent if not by breaking free of the brain and gravitating towards some point in the Universe congenial to itself?"

     Lady Handon huffed disdainfully.  "And from whereabouts in the brain would this ... transcendent spirit emerge?" she wanted to know.

     "Presumably from that part of the psyche known as the superconscious, in which it had been cultivated," Timothy averred. 

     "What, leaving a hole in the skull behind?" Lady Handon conjectured cynically.

     Lord Handon flashed his wife a reproving glance, but said nothing.

     "Not necessarily," Timothy responded, remaining calm.  "Though it might cause the brain to blow apart, since it would be an incredibly powerful globe of spirit - more powerful than virtually anything of which we can now conceive."

     Lady Handon smiled self-indulgently.  She was endeavouring to imagine what thousands of small globes of spirit simultaneously converging upon a central axis in the Universe would look like.  Some kind of vast fireworks display in reverse was the nearest she could get to it.  "And, presumably, when all the transcendent spirit in the Universe had converged upon a central axis, God would be complete, would He?" she frowningly concluded.

     Timothy nodded his head in wary confirmation.  "But not until then," he opined.  "Which is another reason why one can assume that, properly speaking, God doesn't at present exist.  For even if, by some remote chance, an alien civilization much more advanced than ours had established transcendent spirit somewhere in the Universe, such spirit would only amount to a tiny fraction of the potential sum-total of pure transcendence which the evolving Universe was capable of producing.  In other words, it would merely constitute the beginnings of God, not the Divine Omega in its entirety, grown to full maturity, so to speak, through the spiritual assimilation of the total transcendence of every advanced civilization.  However, I incline to doubt that even one alien civilization elsewhere in the Universe has already attained to definitive salvation, and thus entered the heavenly Beyond."

     Lady Handon coughed superciliously and turned her beady eyes back towards the fire, as though to seek refuge in a more congenial element - one necessarily closer to the Diabolic Alpha.

     "But what happens to our spirit when we die?" the host asked, taking over the reins of sceptical interrogation from his fire-struck wife.  "I mean if, as you would doubtless agree, transcendent spirit is eternal, why shouldn't our mundane spirit also be eternal and thus, as has been traditionally believed, capable of surviving bodily death?  Surely if spirit is eternal, it must continue to exist following death?"

     "I rather doubt that," answered Timothy in an almost commiserating tone-of-voice.  "For it seems to me that spirit only has a right to eternity if it has been extensively cultivated and is thereby able to escape the body, not otherwise being strong enough to survive it.  Now since we haven't yet evolved to a stage of extensively cultivating the spirit, having too many bodily obligations to attend to, it would seem that it is destined to perish - mine, yours, everyone's.  We none of us seem to have got to a point where spirit is strong enough for eternity."

     "Not even the saints and spiritually elect?" Lord Handon queried, his eyebrows slightly arched in sceptical response.

     "I doubt it," Timothy opined.  "After all, they mostly lived in an age which was at a lower stage of evolution than ours, an age in which men were closer to nature and had more contact with natural things generally.  And, as far as I know, they all died - like everyone else.  Now it has been assumed that, at death, the spirit passes into the heavenly Beyond.  But I incline to the view that, even in the case of the more spiritually earnest individuals, it simply expires and thereby succumbs to that nothingness the other side of life.  For if the spirit ever were to leave for the Beyond, it seems to me that the point of death would be the last time at which it could do so, since it's weaker then than at any other time and therefore unlikely to gather sufficient energy together to be able to precipitate itself into Eternity.  No, I incline to the view that, at death, the spirit simply expires.  If one is ever qualified to transcend the body, it would be at a point in time when the spirit was most energetic, not when it was on the point of languishing irrevocably into death.  One would, I imagine, be in one's spiritual prime, fully conscious and determined to attain to the Beyond, which isn't, however, the narrow personalized heaven of Christian man but, rather, the climax of evolution in which, by completely transcending the body, man ceases to be human and becomes divine.  That is my belief anyway, and you can accept or reject it, as you please.  I'm not trying to convert anyone here to my religious position, simply endeavouring to offer what I consider to be a valid reinterpretation and extension of Christian belief in suitably contemporary terms.  For we've now got to the stage, as a society, where it's possible to look upon spiritual evolution not with the eyes of faith, like our Christian forebears, but with the eyes of scientific knowledge.  The age of faith is, fortunately or unfortunately, a thing of the past, rendered necessary in its time by the egocentric stage of evolution to which dualistic man had progressed.  Now that we're in the post-egocentric or transcendental stage of evolution, however, we can regard spiritual issues with a transpersonally factual eye and thereby aspire to objective truth.  We needn't consider ourselves particularly unfortunate on that account."

     There was a rustle of clothing and a few embarrassed coughs from amongst the recipients of Timothy's informal lecture, followed by an uneasy silence in which baffled or sceptical looks were exchanged.  Only Nigel Townley on the writer's left and Sarah Field on his right conveyed an impression of having been impressed by it, since they gently smiled in his direction and regarded him with respectful eyes.  However, the host and hostess appeared somewhat disconcerted, especially the latter, whose eyes smouldered with resentment in the shadow of the flickering flames.  But nothing further was said or asked to provoke Timothy into continuing an exposition of his current religious freethinking.  And so, before long, the conversation turned elsewhere, giving some of the other guests an opportunity to reveal their deeper selves, however right or wrong those selves might happen to be!

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Later that afternoon Lord Handon, desiring as much to show off his house as to entertain his guests in a relatively educative manner, took those of them who hadn't set foot in it before on a brief tour of inspection, starting with the ground floor and working up to the bedrooms in which each of them had been allocated a bed for the night.  Sarah Field expressed her delight in and amazement at what the host had in store for them, whereas Timothy Byrne, though intrigued by the scale of everything, remained somewhat cooler and more objectively detached than the others, as though in an effort not to be too impressed by anything, least of all by its scale or amount.

     It was in the library, for instance, that he acquired his first real glimpse of an aristocratic norm where books were concerned - a glimpse, alas, which did little but confirm him in his low opinion of aristocratic libraries generally!  Stretching some thirty yards along the length of an entire wall and reaching to a height of about ten feet from the floor, the shelves of this particular library were crammed full of rather cumbersome-looking leather-backed tomes of ancient lineage, which had doubtless been handed down from generation to generation of the Handon family line.  There must have been upwards of 20,000 books there, most of which had probably never been read, at least not by the present owner, the 4th Viscount Handon.  They had probably just stood there for centuries, gathering dust.  Only a tiny fraction of them, at best, would have had their pages turned and perused in a thoroughly curious manner.... Though quite a number may well have served a brief reference purpose which the owner felt it incumbent upon himself to engage in from time to time.  Indeed, many of them were so large, so weighty and lengthy, that it was inconceivable they could possibly serve any other purpose than one of reference, since, even with all the time in the world, such tomes would have taken months, if not years, to peruse individually.  For the most part, they were simply decorative possessions which the viscount had considered it expedient to hold-on to for family honour and to satisfy the scholarly traditions of his class - extremely expensive possessions which would fetch a tidy sum from any prospective buyer, if ever he or any of his descendants decided to sell.

     Oh, yes!  And as Timothy scanned the tightly packed shelves of cumbersome tomes, he realized that their purchase could run into hundreds-of-thousands of pounds.  But that wasn't something by which he intended to be unduly impressed.  On the contrary, he needed to keep his customary attitude to the existence of such collections in mind - an attitude which, rather than being impressed by them, tended towards their condemnation on grounds of excessive materialism.  As the Biblical proverb had it: 'Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven', and, by God, how true, in a funny kind of figurative way, that statement was!  Weighed down by the extent and scale of his possessions, it seemed pretty evident to Timothy that men like Joseph Handon were almost at the furthest possible remove from the 'Kingdom of Heaven', which is to say, the Omega Point - the climax of evolution in spiritual transcendence.  Burdened by so many material belongings, it was inconceivable that the viscount could be anything but a kind of spiritual tail-ender on the journey to God, a victim of the Devil in materialistic dominion - the higher materialistic dominion, on the one hand, of the man-made, which included his house, and the lower materialistic dominion, on the other hand, of nature.  For as Timothy could plainly see via the library windows, there was no shortage of sensuous, subconsciously-dominated plant life in the immediate vicinity!  The viscount's land stretched around the house virtually as far as the eye could see, and contained more than a few trees, bushes, hedges, etc., which testified to the prevalence of the Devil's influence there, even though a degree of cultivation had been brought to bear on them, especially to the north of the house.  Yet cultivated or not, nature was still of partly diabolic origin and nothing man did, by way of reshaping or pruning it, could ever alter that fact.  Nor was it altogether surprising that, surrounded by so much land, the Handons hadn't been particularly appreciative of Timothy's transcendentalism, since they were the victims of so much subconscious influence.  One could hardly live in the middle of the country and adopt a Mondrian-like disdain for nature!

     No, it was perfectly obvious that they were not the ears for his mouth, to paraphrase Nietzsche, but, given their stately circumstances, would either be offended by what he said, as in the case of Lady Pamela, or somewhat perplexed by it, as in the case of the more benign Lord Handon, who nevertheless endeavoured, in his capacity of host, to remain as receptive as possible.  Still, one could understand the human aspirations in the face of nature which had led to the building of large country houses like Rothermore.  Rather than risk being dwarfed by the surrounding countryside, the aristocracy had sought to tame and dominate it as best they could, and the erection of the largest possible houses had gone some way towards satisfying that end.  After all, even the ancient aristocracy were human beings, not animals, and consequently they reflected human aspirations towards the Divine Omega, no matter how crudely or materialistically.  Even the viscount's great-great-great-grandfather would have had a spirit of sorts and found it desirable to cultivate that spirit to at least some extent, even if only to the rather limited extent of collecting thousands of cumbersome books and filling his house with Greek or Roman statuary.  For, as the library amply demonstrated, there was no shortage of classical sculpture on display, though most of it was undoubtedly derivative.  In fact, it was difficult not to stumble against various of the statues, statuettes, and busts, as one gingerly wound one's way between the tables and chairs liberally scattered along the length of Lord Handon's library, as though in anticipation of a whole tribe of avid readers.  Doubtless a certain horror vacui had possessed the original furnisher of this room, which duly resulted in its becoming virtually crammed with possessions, both aesthetic and utilitarian.  And the current owner had not rebelled against the fashion of his ancestors but, if the comparative newness of one or two of the chairs and tables was any indication, had succumbed to it with a few materialistic additions of his own!  Well, judging by the amount of furniture already in the room, it was pretty obvious that Lord Handon wouldn't be able to add much else to it in future, not unless he either sold off most of what was already there or set about filling up the interior space of certain other rooms - assuming, of course, that they still had any such space left to fill.  As yet, Timothy had only seen a couple of the downstairs rooms, so he wasn't really in a position to judge.  But what he had seen was more than enough to make him pessimistic about the rest of the house, bathrooms and toilets not excepted!

     Yet, by an ironic paradox, it could also be claimed that this urge to collect and fill one's rooms with expensive possessions was a further indication of aristocratic man's desire not to be dwarfed or smothered by nature, but to extend civilization to the extent he could.  The regrettable thing, however, was that he could only extend it, for the most part, in materialistic terms, not in terms, significant of the spiritual, which stood at the furthest remove from sensuous nature.  With him, it was more a case of endeavouring to protect oneself against a greater evil with the aid of a lesser good.  Whereas it was increasingly becoming the tendency of modern man to protect himself against a lesser good with the aid of a greater good, which is to say, to bring forward the direct cultivation of the spirit through meditation at the expense of its indirect cultivation through culture.  No small distinction!  But aristocratic man, reflected Timothy, hadn't really been in a position to do any such thing, and so the indirect cultivation of the spirit through culture was, as a rule, the best that could be done.

     And not generally the most elevated culture either, if Lord Handon's library was anything by which to judge!  One searched in vain, among the numerous sculptures on display, for anything with a direct bearing on Christianity.  Not a single statue, statuette, or bust of a senior Church dignitary, not even of a pope or an archbishop, and no reproductions of saints or evangelists either.  Except for some busts dedicated to the memory of various members of the Handon line, the entire collection revolved around classical antiquity, with reproductions of Roman emperors, Graeco-Roman deities, and one or two Greek heroes, like Hercules and Ajax.  Therefore not with a Christian culture, but with the lower pagan culture which had preceded it ... such was the stratagem by means of which the Handons had sought to elevate themselves above nature!  A liberal scattering of naked or semi-naked pagan gods and goddesses about the library had claimed the eye and precluded any serious attempt at self-realization.  One would have looked in vain for even the smallest crucifix there.  It wouldn't have served their materialistic purposes.

     Yet neither, it appeared, would the writings of the great Christian mystics have appealed to this family.  For the bookshelves were mainly dedicated to the pagan authors of classical antiquity, especially the Romans, who figured prominently on the lower shelves.  Possibly everything ever written and preserved for posterity by Sulla, Cicero, Tetullian, Caesar, Scipio, Horace, Senneca, Juvenal, Catullus, Virgil, Terence, and Pliny was to be found there, both in the original Latin and in subsequent English, French, and German translations, reminiscent of the sort of library favoured by that great sixteenth-century humanist, Michel de Montaigne.  By craning one's neck up to the top two shelves at the far end of the library, it was just possible to discern a few large depressing-looking bibles, again in various tongues, but the eye soon encountered the beginnings of a series of books written not by the Church Fathers, as one might vaguely have expected, but by medieval scholastics of a classical turn-of-mind, whose interest in contemporary scientific endeavour extended to a commentary on the Greek philosophers, and whose works now sedately reposed beside the major philosophical achievements of Plato and Aristotle.  Farther along that same shelf the subject of Greek philosophy was superseded by a series of large tomes on alchemy, among them a number by Paracelsus, and beneath these the eye discerned the complete plays of Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille, and Molière in rather old but evidently valuable editions - probably the first or very nearly.  Apart from a number of important literary figures such as Chaucer, Dante, Montaigne, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Petrach, Cevantes, Milton, Byron, and Goethe, the greater part of the remaining shelves was taken-up with histories, memoirs, biographies, letters, philosophies, and books on painting, architecture, graphics, landscape gardening, and sculpture.  In fact, apart from a little modern history, the only contribution the twentieth century seemed to make to Lord Handon's library was in the realm of aesthetics, notably through art books dealing with classical antiquity and the Renaissance.  Judging by the nature of the house itself, one might have thought the Baroque would figure prominently.  But, try as he might, Timothy could discern no more than three works dedicated to that stage of aesthetic evolution, and they were decidedly pre-war, suggesting acquisition by the viscount's father or grandfather rather than by the current owner himself.  Thus apart from the aforementioned histories and studies in classical and renaissance aesthetics, the crisp spines and bright titles of which betrayed comparatively recent purchase, the great majority of the books on display appeared to have been inherited and retained in aristocratic tradition.  Unless by some chance Lord Handon had a second library elsewhere, it looked as though this collection was broadly representative of his intellectual tastes - tastes which completely excluded the modern!  For even the newer books in it had been written in the twentieth century about pre-twentieth century activity, like the studies in classical art.  As regards modern art, a complete blank.  And as regards modern literature, the nearest one came to it appeared to be half-a-dozen novels by Disraeli and a couple by Lytton!  Really, Timothy could hardly believe his eyes, as he frantically scanned the shelves in search of twentieth-century life.  Not even a Proust or a Gide or a Mann.  Nothing!  So far as this library went, the twentieth century didn't exist.  Evidently, Lord Handon had little use for it.  Or would it be nearer the mark to say that it had little use for him?

     It wasn't exactly a question one could ask there and then, not, anyway, while the man in question was so fervently engaged in explaining to both Sarah Field and Nigel Townley how his great-grandfather had acquired the Venus statuette in imitation of Phidias by an unknown Roman sculptor whilst serving as English ambassador to Italy at the time of its discovery.  A quite shapely statuette it was too, but terribly nude and pagan!  It would have been of more interest to Timothy, just then, had someone inquired how the family had come by the worn edition of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Jours de Sodom, which reposed, beside a number of the master's other novels, on a shelf just to the left of where he was now standing, slightly apart from the small group of admiring statuette-gazers.  At least de Sade, for all his moral faults, had the virtue of seeing the criminality in nature at close range, so to speak, and in not pretending that it was really something else.  There was even a dash of the saint about him, albeit in a paradoxically negative kind of way.  For rather than turning towards God and the spiritual with love, like a genuine saint, de Sade had elected to turn against nature and the sensual with contempt, and thereby set about denigrating it in the manner best known to posterity.  Hardly surprising, therefore, that he was condemned as a criminal and regarded as an eccentric in an age of Rousseauesque fervour for nature and Wordsworthian complacency in nature.  His hatred of nature, and the rather extreme manifestation it was increasingly to take, could hardly be described, under the prevailing circumstances, as trendy.  Yet it served as an example of sorts to such negatively inclined 'saints', or anti-saints, as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Huysmans, who were to bring the anti-natural tradition of decadent writings to a much more refined pass later in the century.  But de Sade, it appeared, was the only anti-saint Lord Handon's library contained, whether or not its current owner appreciated the fact.  In all probability, thought Timothy, as he followed his fellow-guests past the Venus statuette and on towards the exit, the novels by that notorious French nobleman had mouldered on their shelf since virtually the time of their purchase.  The current viscount had probably not even opened them.  Or, if perchance he had, he probably shut them again pretty quickly, fearing contamination!

     They passed out of the library and were, in due course, introduced to most of the other rooms, including a large billiards room in which a couple of lush green felt-topped tables, one full-size and the other small, stood naked but for a cue resting on each.  Apparently billiards and snooker were among the host's favourite pastimes, which he sometimes played with himself, but more often with friends of the family who came-in from nearby country houses to do noble battle with him.

     Neither of the two male guests accompanying him on this particular tour of inspection, however, could admit to being regular practitioners of either game, though Townley confessed to having played a great deal of snooker in his youth - a confession which appeared to endow him with a certain temporary distinction over the others in Lord Handon's eyes.

     Yet, for Timothy, the most interesting aspect of the billiards room was the arrangement of Ionic pilasters which stretched the length of the walls at wide though regular intervals, endowing the setting with a restrained classical elegance.  Being fluted, they took on a symbolically feminine character that sharply contrasted with the masculinity of the bare, white Doric columns which stood at salient points in the room, more suggestive of the interior of a Greek temple than of anything recreational.  In fact, there was even space here for a few statues of Greek athletes, and the wall nearest the full-size table had two curved niches in it, at a distance of some four yards apart, each of which contained a brightly-painted Greek vase of the type which Timothy must have seen hundreds of photos of, during his pictorial investigations in the local library, but had only once before beheld in the flesh, so to speak, and then in the British Museum.  Was this spectacle any better or worse, he wondered?  Curiously, he thought worse.  For he had grown so accustomed to photographic reproductions of works of art ... that he had come to value the reproduction above the original production.  Lord Handon was perfectly entitled to his vases, as to his sculptures, but he, Timothy Byrne, wouldn't have wanted them, not even if he they were offered to him free-of-charge.  He preferred the spiritualization of the material object to the material object itself, and was therefore more at home with photos.  These Greek vases were of course beautiful, but they were even more beautiful, to Timothy's way of thinking, as colour reproductions in some choice book on the arts.  The actual object was somehow disappointing, all too palpably there.  He preferred his culture at a Platonic remove, as it were, from real culture, raised above materialism through spiritual sublimation.  All these sculptures and ceramics which Lord Handon possessed and evidently had need of, to fill his immense house, would have been raised to a higher level, it seemed to him, in photographic reproduction.  Rather than floundering about amidst bodies, as one did here, one would be contemplating their abstracted spirit, at a safe remove from their physical presence.  And one would be experiencing a higher level of culture - a level made possible thanks to the existence of photography.

     Yes, how logical evolution was!  The further one evolved, the more spiritual one became.  Eventually one would even dispense with photographic reproductions.  But not for a while yet, least of all within the foreseeable future.  The twenty-first century would doubtless continue to amass reproductions of the materialistic culture appertaining to an earlier stage of civilized evolution, thereby indirectly furthering the cause of its own spiritual culture.  And Timothy would continue to derive more pleasure from the latter than from the former - of that he assured himself.  In fact, so much so that his facial expression, as he stood no more than a few feet from the nearest Greek vase, must have communicated something of the disdain he was feeling for the object to its owner, who casually remarked, by way of apology, that it was a rather second-rate, first-century item purchased for a modest sum by his grandfather, some decades ago.  Slightly taken aback by the host's unexpected intervention, and a little ashamed of himself for having unwittingly betrayed his feelings on the matter, Timothy blushed faintly and then burst into a forgiving smile.  He could hardly reveal to the viscount what had really been on his mind!

     And so, following their brief but passably educative tour of Rothermore House, the three first-time guests were led back to the large drawing-room, where the rest of the gathering was still assembled, and thereupon encouraged to have another drink, with the aged butler duly officiating.  Dinner, they were informed, would commence at seven-thirty sharp, whether or not the remaining two invitees had arrived.  In the meantime, they were to relax and simply get to know one another better.  Which is what now proceeded to happen ... in spite of their differences.  Even the drawing-room had certain lessons to teach, and Timothy, not least, was avid to learn what he could from it!

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

To Timothy's subsequent satisfaction, the long dinner table accommodated the seven guests and three members of the Handon family quite comfortably, leaving ample elbow-room to either side.  At the head of it sat Lord Handon, whilst on either side of him, to left and right along the table's length, sat Sarah and Timothy, the one directly opposite the other.  Next to Timothy was Sheila Johnston, the Scotch pianist, whilst opposite her the architect Nigel Townley eagerly spooned into his helping of duck soup.  Beside him sat young Geraldine Handon, who looked directly across, whenever she lifted her bright-blue eyes, at the moustached face of Lawrence Gowling.  Finally, to complete the table, Irene Myers, one of two late arrivals, sat facing the other - a portly middle-aged man by name of Girish O'Donnell, who was partly of Asian extraction.  Irene, a sculptress of some renown, was wearing a dark-green gown of fine silk which somewhat clashed with the bright-red dress favoured by Lady Handon, who sat facing her husband at the foot of the table.  But nobody seemed to mind who was wearing what or, indeed, to take much interest in the varieties of attire at this point, since they were all engaged on the first course of a projected three-course meal and sipped steadily of the steaming soup which the officiating manservants had shortly before placed before them.  Overhead, a large cut-glass chandelier flooded the dining area with dazzling light, whilst on the table itself two three-branched candelabra stood ready and waiting for subsequent use during the final course of the dinner when, as was his habitual wont, the viscount preferred a gentler and more natural lighting arrangement to the rather brash one currently in use.  But they had a long way to go before then, so, in the meantime, the chandelier ruled the soup!

     "And how are things getting along at the museum?" Lady Handon inquired of the portly gentleman to her right.

     "Oh, quite well on the whole, I'm delighted to report," O'Donnell replied.  "We're getting more visitors by the day."

     His hostess seemed pleased by this response and cast her husband, who happened to have an eye cocked in their direction, a complacent glance.  "Young or old?" she asked.

     "Oh, mostly schoolkids," O'Donnell obliged, momentarily desisting from the avid consumption of his duck soup.

     "Really?  And are they very noisy?"

     The portly gentleman chuckled softly.  "Not as a rule, thank goodness," he confessed.  "We try to discourage speaking as much as possible, which, in the circumstances, is rather ironic really."

     Lady Handon smiled knowingly and cast her husband a matching glance, to which he duly responded with a short, sharp laugh.  "Perhaps we ought to enlighten those of our guests who haven't heard about Mr O'Donnell's museum," he suggested, preparatory to imbibing a steady spoonful of soup.

     "Yes, do please tell us what all this is about," Sheila Johnston politely requested of him.

     The portly gentleman cleared his throat with a soft though evidently ironic cough and smiled esoterically upon the host, who duly said: "Well, as you will no doubt be surprised and delighted to hear, Mr O'Donnell is principal director of the world's first voice museum."

     "Voice museum?" Sheila echoed, visibly startled by this unusual information.

     "Quite," confirmed the principal director with a gentle nod.  "It is a rather novel concept, I'll admit.  But one which, in my opinion, was long overdue."

     "As would seem to be borne out by the growing curiosity it is apparently exciting from the public," Lady Handon commented.

     "But what exactly is this voice museum?" Sheila pursued, showing Scotch determination to get to the bottom of the matter.  She looked searchingly at Mr O'Donnell, but it was Lord Handon who elected to reply with: "Simply an institution in London's West End where tape-recordings of the human voice are stored for public appreciation.  It is divided into a series of rooms which each house a number of soundproofed transparent booths in which a recording of the speaker's voice is lodged.  By pressing a button outside the booth and entering it via an automatically sliding door, one is entitled to a couple of minutes' recorded speech from any given voice.  After which, the door opens again and one is free to leave."

     "Though some people like to re-enter the booth a number of times in order to listen to the same voice over and over again," O'Donnell remarked, a touch petulantly.

     "And then in spite of the fact that they'll only hear the same recording as before," Lord Handon rejoined sympathetically.

     The principal director nodded his curly-haired head.  "Quite," he confirmed.  "Though, in the case of voices like Marilyn Monroe's and Greta Garbo's, you can quite understand it."

     General amusement prevailed amongst the other guests, with the reception of this remark.

     "You mean to say you preserve the voices of famous film stars there?" exclaimed Sarah on a note of gratified incredulity.

     "Not only of film stars but of the famous in general," O'Donnell declared, before noisily swallowing his last spoonful of soup.  "We have quite a large room also dedicated to the voices of famous writers, composers, artists, politicians, sportsmen, war heroes, and so on.  And we shall shortly be opening a smaller room upstairs exclusively dedicated to the voices of infamous persons, including the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin."

     "Something to rival the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Toussaud's," Gowling suggested, smirking ironically.

     "Quite possibly," O'Donnell conceded.  "But such specific voices, for which the young queue like rush-hour commuters, are only a single aspect of the museum's facilities or, rather, exhibits.  There are other rooms in which anonymous voices may be heard remarking on some particular thing - one on the ground floor, for instance, exclusively dedicated to regional dialects of the British people, where the visitor can sample examples of the thickest Geordie, the highest Highland, the softest Scouse, the strongest Swansea, the broadest Mancunian, or what have you.  Then appended to this room is another, smaller one in which the emphasis is on class rather than simply regional differences, and where the visitor can sample anything from the most plebeian cockney to the most patrician Oxbridge.  An ear-opener if ever there was one!  For you're made comprehensively aware, if you take full advantage of our facilities, as to just how wide the range of speech variation actually is between the various classes, and of how many classes there in fact are throughout the length and breadth of the country.  Yet that room is merely an appendage to the dialect room, which covers a much wider range of tone."

     At this point there issued from the assembled guests a mixture of surprise and amusement, astonishment and incredulity.  Timothy Byrne, in particular, was quite astonished by these revelations, and inquired of the man responsible for them why it was necessary to collect and exhibit such voices?

     "My dear chap," Lord Handon interposed, deputizing for the hard-pressed O'Donnell, "it's simply the function of a museum to preserve a record of a given aspect of life, culture, society, or whatever, and our museum is no exception.  Here, for future generations no less than contemporary ones, is a record, well-stocked and equally well-preserved, of the twentieth-century human voice in all or most of its several manifestations.  For virtually the first time in history, we are enabled, by our technology, to preserve a record of that most elusive of things, the human voice, and that's precisely what the museum does."

     "Yes, and not only with regard to the British voice," O'Donnell confirmed, "but also with regard to just about every other national voice in the world, not to mention, in a majority of cases, the dialect and class divisions thereof."

     Timothy was virtually thunderstruck, and so, too, were most of the other guests, despite the distraction of dinner - the servants meanwhile having removed the empty soup dishes and brought in the main course, which included roast chicken and assorted vegetables, these latter being brought up to the table separately in Sevres china and deposited at regular intervals along its ample length.

     "For not only does the museum possess a British room," O'Donnell continued, ignoring the toing-and-froing of the busy servants, "but it also possesses European, Asian, North American, South American, African, and Australasian rooms, in which examples of the greatest diversity are to be found."

     "Especially in the European and Asian rooms, where the entire gamut of major national languages is represented," Lady Handon remarked, putting aside, for the moment, her preoccupation with food.  "In the European room one can listen to anything from Portuguese and Spanish to Greek and Russian, whilst in the Asian room one can go from Bengali to Cantonese or from Hindustani to Japanese all within the space of a few minutes."

     "Provided, of course, that the booths aren't in excessive demand," O'Donnell pedantically rejoined, helping himself to a generous portion of Brussels sprouts from a dish passed to him by the hostess.  "Otherwise one may have to stand in the queue for several minutes."

     Nigel Townley proffered his most understanding smile and admitted, in a light-hearted vein, that it all sounded rather fun.  Indeed, he was surprised, he confessed, that this voice museum thing was a British and not an American invention, since the Americans were usually quick, not to say keen, to exploit new possibilities, and already possessed more than a few museums of a decidedly unique character, including, he recalled, a museum dedicated exclusively to nuts.

     "Well, as a matter of fact, my father was American,” O’Donnell admitted with a wry smile.  "Though my mother was Asian and I was born and raised here.  So perhaps there's a degree of American initiative behind the Voice Museum, after all."  He passed the dish of Brussels sprouts to Geraldine on his right and proceeded to help himself to some roast potatoes of an agreeably crisp appearance from another dish, this time one handed to him across the table by Miss Myers, the plump sculptress.  "But although I was chiefly responsible for thinking up the idea," he went on, "it would never have been realized without the help and encouragement of Lord and Lady Handon, who not only brought pressure to bear on the Government to sanction the project but, no less importantly, generously donated funds towards its eventual establishment.  Without them, I'm convinced that it would never have seen the light of day, if you'll pardon the cliché."

     Timothy smiled esoterically upon the reception of this eulogistic information and cast their host a deferential glance, before commenting: "So now, should we ever be invaded by aliens from outer space, we're in possession of a building where an investigation of the extraordinary variety of human languages and accents can be carried out on-the-spot, and presumably free-of-charge - not that aliens would care to pay, of course."

     Fifty pence for old-age pensioners and schoolkids," the principal director revealed, "but £3.50p for everyone else, with the possible exception of, ah, aliens from outer space, who may not have the correct change," he added facetiously, for Timothy's benefit.  "Nevertheless, any visitors to our planet would certainly learn a thing or two about the human voice from our museum, assuming they weren't smart enough to go straight back from where they had come!  Though I need hardly remind you that it wasn't specifically designed to satisfy the anthropological curiosity of aliens, stupid or otherwise, but the vocal curiosity of human beings, both now and in the future."

     "Indeed," Lady Handon confirmed, waving away the servant who was about to pour some red wine into her glass and motioning for sherry instead.  "And one can quite imagine a time, you know, when people will be as interested to learn how mankind spoke in the twentieth century ... as we're now interested to discover how they wrote or built or dressed or whatever in the fifteenth century.  Time will add a new dimension, a certain historical charm, to the recordings currently on track there.  And, of course, the coming centuries should provide us with fresh recordings - possibly even a room dedicated to the voices of aliens, Mr Byrne.  After all, there's no reason why we should freeze the museum's exhibits at the present stage of lingual evolution or reality, is there?  We can always add new floors to the top one."

     "Quite," O'Donnell agreed, while crushing a delicious piece of roast chicken between his gold-plated molars.  "Or even extend the museum down deeper into the earth," he added, as an afterthought.

     "Is the visitor told anything about what he's likely to hear in whichever soundproofed booth he happens to enter?" asked Irene Myers, fixing an inquisitive gaze on the face opposite.

     "Oh yes," O'Donnell replied with alacrity, a piece of tender chicken transfixed on the sharp prongs of his silver-plated fork.  "There's a large white plastic plaque on each of the booths bearing, in crisp black print, information about the voice recording inside.  But most people don't bother to read them, partly, I suspect, through laziness, though also because quite a lot can be spoken within two minutes and, since a majority of the recordings last that long, the plaque can become rather prolix and tedious to read.  So most people, especially the slow readers, tend to studiously ignore it, so to speak, and take pot-luck with whatever the recordings contain.  However, largely as an ethical gesture, we find it expedient to provide details of the recordings in order to nominally preclude criticism from those who might otherwise be in some doubt as to their moral  integrity and consequently inclined to suppose they contained scurrilous or obscene language, which, of course, they most certainly don't do!"

     Lord Handon found O'Donnell's explanation highly amusing and duly infected the rest of the table and even the elderly butler, who was still officiating with the drinks and generally pottering about the diners in his rather genteel and overly deferential manner, as though dealing with hot-house plants.  It was now, as he received an extra drop of Cockburns port from the old bugger's unsteady hands, that Timothy realized he was at least partly deaf.  For he wore a tiny hearing-aid clipped to his left ear, and this in some measure sufficed to explain the rather strange proceedings in the drawing-room earlier, both in terms of Lord Handon's loud commands and of the butler's rather close proximity to them all in the region of the wine cabinet.  Presumably, if the old man was going deaf, he couldn't be allowed to stray very far from the scene of alcohol consumption, but had to remain permanently on duty there, like the proverbial sentry at his post.  There seemed little risk, to judge by the loudness of the viscount's orders, of his overhearing much anyway, and this further realization came as a slight relief to Timothy, who was unused to talking in the proximity of servants.

     "Unfortunately we've received a number of critical, not to say abusive, letters from various elderly members of the public who considered what they heard, in certain booths, to be of dubious propriety," continued the principal director, as soon as things had quietened down again.  "However, you can't please everyone, and I'm fairly convinced that such people would find something else to grumble about if not that."

     "Like, presumably, the brevity of each of the recordings, or the volume at which they're played, or the size of the booths, or the length of the queue, or something of that order, I should imagine," Geraldine suggested, before looking across her shoulder at the portly figure on her left.

     "Quite so," O'Donnell confirmed, with an abrupt and evidently peeved nod of his curly-haired head thrown-in for good measure.  "Yet I've no cause to endorse the criticism of dubious propriety myself, which, not altogether surprisingly, has mostly been levelled at the booths of the famous, particularly the writers and film stars, while those of the anonymous French, Italian, and Greek voices exhibited in the European room have borne the brunt of the remainder of such criticisms.  These latter recordings would appear to be obscene to some people simply because they're foreign and seemingly unintelligible, whereas with the former recordings ... well, perhaps it's just the tone-of-voice adopted or the way the words are handled ... that aggravates the ageing sensibilities of my foremost critics.  Still, one can hardly expect Marilyn Monroe or Greta Garbo to sound like sexless machines, can one?  And as for Henry Miller ... well, his mere inclusion in the museum is evidently sufficient grounds for hostility from some visitors, even though what he says is entirely restricted to himself and completely devoid of sexual epithets."

     There was a faint ripple of laughter around the table at this remark, and Geraldine, although by no means the most prudish of young females, saw fit to blush.  Lady Handon merely nodded her head and then sipped daintily at the sherry in her bony hand.  She was one of those who, albeit secretly, opposed the inclusion of Henry Miller herself.  Timothy, by contrast, was quite delighted with the mention of it, and inquired of the director what other writers' voices were to be heard there.

     "Oh, quite a number," came his confident reply.  "For example, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, G.B. Shaw, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Burgess - a few more of that sort.  We only exhibit the voices of those who are dead, as a rule, though we have recordings of various important authors who are still alive in stock, so to speak, for future use.  Also several tapes of authors - as, indeed, of other artists and famous people in general - who, although dead, are kept in reserve, pending a rise in their reputations.  Rather than being a 'dead' museum, where the same exhibits are on display year after dreary year, the Metropolitan Voice Museum, as it's officially called, is very much a 'living' one, with regular changes or variations in the exhibition material.  So you're not guaranteed of hearing T.S. Eliot again, assuming you went back to the museum after a couple of years expecting to do so.  And even if his voice was still there, you're not guaranteed of hearing it say exactly the same thing as before.  I like to ensure that there's sufficient recorded material in stock to enable us to vary the programme from time to time.  That way nobody gets bored, and there's always some fresh bait, as it were, to entice people back to the museum.... In point of fact, I'm seriously considering having the recorded programme we currently have of Aldous Huxley on exhibition replaced by a less philosophical and possibly more autobiographical one, since I recently received a highly critical letter from a senior churchman accusing the museum of propagating certain orientally-inspired mystical views prejudicial to the Christian faith.  It seems the good man was less than happy with, amongst other things, the term 'Clear Light of the Void', and would have preferred Huxley to speak in terms closer to the Western soul, such as the Holy Ghost."

     Timothy smiled appreciatively at O'Donnell before swallowing the thoroughly chewed remains of his last piece of roast chicken.  "I think he may well have a point there," he opined, when his throat was clear again.

     "Yes, well, I may replace the current orientally-biased recording with a less 'prejudicial' one in due course," O'Donnell sighed, "and thereupon run the risk of adverse criticism from someone who would prefer Huxley to be represented by his mystical views."  At which point the principal director of the world's only voice museum heartily cleared his throat and gulped down a welcome mouthful of sherry.  It appeared that he was resigned to anything and everything the public might throw at him!

     "Presumably in changing the current recording, you would have to change the information plaque on the outside of the booth as well?" Nigel Townley pedantically conjectured.

     "Naturally," O'Donnell confirmed.  "We could hardly allow those visitors who bother to read them to be misled.  It would therefore be necessary to have a new plaque printed."

     To everyone's surprise, Sheila Johnston's voice suddenly exploded into a sharp burst of high-pitched laughter.  "I must confess to finding it rather difficult to visualize these transparent booths, with their buttons and plaques and all the rest of it," she declared in her soft Scotch accent.  "Are they all arranged like soldiers on parade, or what?"

     "Mostly grouped together in rows of about 10-20 at a time," O'Donnell rejoined over the intervening arm of a servant, who was busily removing empty vegetable dishes from the table.  "But, really, you'd have to see the museum for yourself, to get a proper impression of things and ..."

     "A thing that we hope you'll all do quite soon, in any case," Lord Handon interposed.  "And not only as visitors.  Part of the reason for my having you here is to invite you to participate in the museum indirectly, that's to say, through the medium of a voice recording.  As you're all highly-distinguished young members of your respective professions, it seems not unlikely that one day you'll be eligible for inclusion in the museum's catalogue of famous people.  So a recording or two of each of you now, at this stage in your respective careers, would not be inappropriate, in my opinion."

     "And later on, we may wish to record you again," said O'Donnell, his sherry-wet lips curved into a gentle smile.

     There issued a number of gasps and raised brows from the other guests, who were completely astounded by the prospect of being included in the museum's arsenal of tapes.

     "How come you didn't mention this the last time we were here, Lord Joe," complained Lawrence Gowling, speaking principally for himself and Miss Johnston.

     "Oh, partly because I hadn't then discussed the possibility with Mr O'Donnell and felt that it was safer to wait until he agreed to your inclusion before putting the invitation to you," the viscount revealed, smiling.  "He won't allow just anyone with a name in the arts to record for him, you know.  Only the best are chosen, and after long and arduous discussion, we came to the conclusion that you're all eminently qualified for the honour, if I may so term it, of indirectly participating in the museum's catalogue of illustrious names."

     "How flattering!" cried Sarah, clapping her hands together in childish delight.  "And do you intend us all to record here, there, or what?"

     "Preferably in the recording-room on the top floor of our Piccadilly headquarters," the director answered, craning his neck round to the right, in order to address the opera singer in person.  "We would require less than an hour of your time to get your voice on tape in a suitably-polished and correct manner.  All you need do is to speak slowly and distinctly about either yourself or your professional activity for about fifteen-twenty minutes, so as to give us sufficient material for several short exhibits ... should we wish to vary the subject-matter from time to time.  And in about ten or twelve years' time, you can all come back to the recording-room again to advertise your more mature voices for an alternative airing."  He smiled benignly on the talented occupants of the table, before helping himself to another mouthful of sherry.

     "Well, do we have your consent?" Lord Handon asked, throwing his head back the better to scan the Voice Museum's potential prey.

     "Frankly, it all sounds a trifle bananas to me," Townley averred.  "But since you appear so serious about it, I shall have to consent."

     "Me too," Sheila agreed half-heartedly.

     And one by one the others - Irene, Gowling, Sarah, and Timothy - each volunteered to offer their voices, so to speak, to the museum.  There wasn't really any valid reason not to, especially in light of its appeal to one's professional vanity.

     "Excellent!" declared Lord Handon, with the facial self-satisfaction of one who has just pulled off some lucrative business deal clearly in evidence.  "I knew we could count on you all!  And, by the way, Mr O'Donnell will amply remunerate you for your services."

     "To the sum of £1,000 each," the director confirmed with his customary alacrity.

     Sheila Johnston raised her dark eyebrows in a show of horrified surprise.  "Oh, but you needn't do that!" she objected, speaking on her own behalf, but unconsciously including the others as well.

     "I insist," the director quite firmly rejoined.  "It's our policy.  And, besides, it will cover your travelling expenses."

     Clearly, Miss Johnston, despite O'Donnell's little joke, had no option but to accept whatever payment her services were due.  And the same applied to the rest of Lord Handon's guests, who sat in a kind of dream while the servants cleared away the dinner plates, preparatory to bringing in the third course, which, to everyone's delight, took the impressive form of apple crumble with Devonshire cream.  It was at this more advanced stage in the proceedings, curiously, that the viscount requested the substitution of candle light for electric light by summoning the services of a tall servant, who, with cigarette-lighter in hand, lit the six tapers on the two candelabra before switching off the light of the chandelier. 

     Not surprisingly, the sudden transformation in the room's lighting caused quite a stir among the guests who, with the exceptions of Gowling and Sheila, had never experienced any such arrangement before.  Sarah regarded it as a transformation for the better, whereas Timothy found himself reflecting on his preference for electric light.  Indeed, he always made a point of preferring the artificial to the natural on principle these days, regarding it as indicative of a higher and therefore less evil stage of evolution.  The spectacle of the six candle flames flickering in front of his port-drowsed eyes had a slightly depressing effect on him, making him conscious of what he took to be the close proximity of the Infernal, even if it was controlled and limited to a given, rather innocuous sphere of influence.  Somehow he couldn't avoid the connotation of flame with evil, or of the diabolic with the sun.  It was as if a tiny piece of the sun had been transported to the dining-room and placed on the wicks of each of the burning candles, so that the spectacle in front of his eyes was less candle flame than six miniature hells, six fragments of the Devil, burning in splendid isolation.  He shuddered with disgust!  But then, remembering where he was, simply pretended to feel cold and proceeded to gently rub his hands together under the table.  However, nobody appeared to be paying him any attention.  For, at that moment, Irene Myers was heard asking the man opposite her when he would like them all to turn-up for their voice recordings?

     "Oh, no hurry," O'Donnell replied, momentarily looking-up from his dessert, which now contained an especially large helping of cream.  "Of course, I'd be more than willing to open the recording studio to anyone who wanted to offer his or her services next week.  I don't require you all to turn-up at once however, but simply when it's convenient to you.  I shall be available on the premises from approximately 10am-6pm each weekday, so if you can arrange to come at some time between then, I'll be delighted to see you.  Delighted, too, to escort you round the museum and give you a chance to hear a number of the exhibits.  I know that, as a sculptress, Irene, you'll be particularly interested to hear the voices of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.  And I'm confident that Sarah will be interested to hear Maria Callas speaking rather than singing, for a change."

     "In which language?" the young opera star wanted to know.

     "English unfortunately," O'Donnell confessed.  "For I haven't as yet dared to include foreign languages in the room of the famous.  Though we're intending to open a separate room for the relatively or absolutely non-English speaking famous in due course ... possibly later next year.  That would enable us to include such illustrious names as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Pablo Picasso in the museum, thereby enhancing its growing reputation.  After all, it's still in its infancy, not by any means grown to full maturity, and, as such, there's certainly scope for improvement.  Yet that isn't to say the Callas recording is bad.  Au contraire, she handles her English very well, on the whole."

     "I have in fact heard her speak before," Sarah revealed, slightly to the director's disappointment.

     "Oh well, I'm sure you'll be delighted all the same, particularly since she talks about her social background rather than her work," he rejoined.

     There followed a short lull in the conversation, before Gowling inquired of O'Donnell whether his funny little museum happened to have a recording by Piet Mondrian on offer?

     "Alas, no!" the latter sighed.  "We're not aware that he ever made one and, besides, he died in the 1940s, so even if he had, it would more than likely be of poor sound-quality and therefore unworthy of continuous exhibition.  As a rule, we studiously avoid anything recorded before 1950."

     "A shame in one sense," Lady Handon opined.  "For it means that a lot of very important famous people are automatically excluded from public attention."

     "Quite so," O'Donnell conceded.  "But one has to begin somewhere, and voices from the second-half of the twentieth century, or at least from the 1940s, provide an excellent foundation upon which to build our future repertoire, so to speak.  No, we cannot lay claim to a comprehensive collection of famous twentieth-century voices because we're obliged to exclude those from early in the first-half of the century, which, as you say, is a shame, especially where the most famous and important artists are concerned!  But we're certainly doing our best to record everyone of any consequence who is currently alive, if that's any consolation to you?"

     "A little," the hostess drily granted.  "Although being, like my husband, a member of the older generation, there are one or two pre-war voices that I'd personally prefer to hear, in contrast to much of what is currently on offer, irrespective of the comparatively poor sound-quality.  Of course, I fully realize that the modern and, on the whole, more youthful public of today wouldn't share my preference.  But the museum might still profit, you know, from an extension of the existing range of recordings back into the early decades of the current century.  A kind of historical room of early recordings.  And I'm quite convinced that, in spite of gaps or omissions, there would be no shortage of material from which to choose.  However, this is only a suggestion, Girish, not an order!  I quite understand your reluctance to expand too rapidly.  Yet suggestions of this kind may prove useful, particularly if you should one day run into competition from foreign voice museums."  At which point she cast him a mildly quizzical glance, and then resumed eating her dessert.

     Having in the meantime ordered more drink for the table, Lord Handon nodded in agreement and began to expatiate on a rumour he had heard, only the previous week, that the French were seriously contemplating the establishment of a national voice museum, which would inevitably focus more exclusively on their own language and, in all probability, the regional dialects and class differences thereof, thus bringing the disparate accents of their loquacious nation firmly under one roof.  "And before long," he continued, "I shouldn't be at all surprised to see the Germans and, ahem, Italians following suit, and perhaps even the Americans - assuming they can get over the shock that someone else thought up the damned idea before themselves!"

     "So any aliens from outer space who wished to find out more about the human voice wouldn't necessarily have to go to London in the future, but could depend on the inhabitants of just about any major country in which they happened to land to provide them with the relevant information," Geraldine declared facetiously.

     "Indeed, they might even prefer to hear French or German voices to British ones," her father joked.

     "Yes, well, as yet no alternative voice museums actually exist," O'Donnell remarked, bringing a serious note back into the discussion, "so we needn't fear immediate competition.  I will of course bear your suggestion in mind, Pamela, and should we subsequently decide to expand in that rather retrograde fashion, I shall give you full credit for it ... as indeed for the suggestion you made, last time I was here, concerning the possibility of extending our range of vocal sound to include singing, shouting, laughing, whistling, crying, coughing, or whatever it was ..."

     "I would hardly have suggested crying or coughing!" Lady Handon protested, with a look of ironic reproof in her beady eyes.  "Although they might serve the curious purposes of an alien with no knowledge or experience of such things!  No, I was thinking, more specifically, of the human voice in various of its myriad occupational roles - you know, the opera singer, pop singer, regimental sergeant-major, schoolmaster, priest, and so on.  For I am convinced that a room dedicated to the immense variety of occupational contexts would further enhance the museum's growing reputation."

     "And prevent its future competitors from forcing it into an imitative role," her husband added, as he came to the end of his dessert.  "However, let's not burden our guests with any more talk of that.  I'm sure they're dying for a change of subject."

     "On the contrary, I find it a most fascinating one," Sheila blandly confessed.

     "Me too," Sarah seconded, her pretty face bursting into a reassuring smile.

     The other guests, however, remained verbally noncommittal.

     "Oh well, you'll all be able to sate your curiosity when you actually visit the museum," Lord Handon averred.  "In the meantime, and this evening in particular, I'd like you to feel free to enjoy yourselves in a less educative fashion ... principally by joining my wife and I in the small ballroom next-door for a spot of dancing.  After all, this is New Year's Eve, so we ought to celebrate it in style.  I trust you have no objections, ladies and gentlemen?"

     There were certainly more than a few slight qualms and alarms at the mention of this, but, since no-one seemed to mind, or to express verbal reservations if they did, the viscount took it that everyone was agreed on the suitability of his suggestion, and clapped his hands together in apparent satisfaction.  "Good!" he cried.  "Then as soon as you're all ready, we shall proceed to the ballroom."  And that, curiously enough, is what duly happened.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

The room Lord Handon spoke of was not as small as one might have supposed, but it was still smaller than the drawing-room in which his guests had sat prior to dinner.  There was certainly ample space for ten people to exercise their legs, and, at a guess, one would have said it could accommodate at least fifty people in that regard.

     Situated on the south wing of Rothermore House, one entered a rectangular room brightly lit by three cut-glass chandeliers and warmly heated by a large open fire which blazed fiercely from its hearth in seeming anticipation of the dance.  Doubtless the servants had just prepared the room.  For it also contained a copiously-stocked wine cabinet, similar to the one in the drawing-room, on top of which stood a variety of wine bottles de-corked and ready for use.  Yet 'ballroom' was hardly the word one would have applied to the room on first entering it.  For not only was the floor covered by a bright-red carpet of seemingly immaculate condition, but there were also a number of armchairs and a couple of large settees spread along the length of its cream-coloured walls at various points, thereby giving the overall impression of a lounge or even a sitting-room.  And the walls were not adorned with mirrors, as one might have expected, but with various-sized glossy paintings, mostly by minor Italian or French artists of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which were of a decidedly romantic cast.  Added to which, the familiar spectacle of fluted pilasters spaced in solitude at regular distances apart, plus a few statuette-prone niches and one more or less had the 'ballroom' in a nutshell.  Yet there was still some exquisitely carved stucco on the ceiling, reminiscent of Robert Adam, and more than a hint of rococo panelling along the lower section of one of the walls, thus endowing the room with a stylistic eclecticism as charming as it was unusual.

     However, all this detail had relatively little significance for Timothy Byrne, as he followed the other guests across the threshold in a somewhat perplexed state-of-mind.  For he was more concerned with the ominous prospect of having to dance than with the stylistic nature of the ballroom itself, and hardly noticed his surroundings.  Who-on-earth would he be expected to dance with, he wondered?  And what dance to - the Foxtrot, Charleston, Two-Step, Waltz, Twist, Tango, or Boston?  He wasn't a dancing man by habit or temperament and scarcely knew how to - at least not in any passably-accomplished fashion.  Yet perhaps he wouldn't be alone in this respect?  Perhaps one or two of the other guests, like Nigel Townley and Irene Myers, wouldn't be any more, or less, qualified than him?  It was a slightly comforting thought, at any rate, and he needed all the comfort he could get, now that Lord Handon had gone across to the large stereo in the far corner of the room and begun to hunt among the sizeable collection of long-playing records there for something suitable to play.  In a minute the worst would be revealed, thought Timothy, though, for the time being, he was relatively content, like most of the others, to avail himself of a soft seat in one of the many available armchairs to-hand.  The few glasses of port he had imbibed, earlier that evening, had quite conclusively gone to his head by now, making him feel somewhat drowsy and slightly unsteady on his legs.  If most of the other guests were feeling the same, then it seemed to him that he needn't worry too much about having to exert himself in the dance.  Perhaps, after all, it wouldn't happen?

     But this vague and slightly dishonourable hope was quickly dashed, as Lord Handon cried out, with a certain roguish gusto it seemed to Timothy: "Choose your partners!" and then proceeded to advance towards the centre of the room, where his wife was already waiting, impatient, no doubt, for the dancing to begin.

     "Oh hell!" sighed Timothy, as he heard the first strains of a gentle Two-Step descend on his ears from high up in opposite corners of the room, and realized that the challenge was on.                                                      

     “Well, my dear young lady," said Lawrence Gowling on a note of enforced bravado, "may I have the privilege of your arm?"  He was standing near the seated figure of Geraldine Handon who, on seeing his outstretched hand, blushed graciously and rose to her feet, eager, it appeared, to comply with the artist's exigent request.

     For a moment Timothy almost envied Gowling his choice, but was soon distracted from that as he heard Girish O'Donnell saying: "I think it's about time you and I put feet together, Irene," and the ample figure of the sculptress duly rose from her seat, to accompany the director of the world's first and, to-date, only voice museum unsteadily across the carpet.

     "Two down, two to go," sighed Timothy, as he was left face-to-face with his own blank irresolution.  Perhaps the choice would be made simpler if Nigel...?

     At that very moment Townley did in fact feel it incumbent upon himself to offer an arm to the nearest solitary female, who, to Timothy's manifest relief, accepted it without demur and set off with Scotch gusto towards the centre of the room.  So that left only one, and she, still dressed in a dark-green tapering minidress and matt stockings, happened to be the opera singer Sarah Field, who smiled encouragingly at Timothy while he extended a tentative arm and stammered a gratuitous invitation.

     So there they were - ten pairs of legs shuffling about the centre of the carpet as the music set the pace in rather quaintly old-fashioned terms.  At first Timothy's legs seemed unwilling to work, but persisted in an awkward stiffness, which brought more than a gentle frown to his ordinarily impassive brow!  For he had quite forgotten how to dance a Two-Step and was afraid of stepping on Sarah's vulnerably-exposed toes and not only causing her physical discomfort, but making a thorough fool of himself, to boot!  He shuffled about the carpet begrudgingly, as though incapable of spontaneous movement, and, to be sure, an impartial observer might have supposed him dancing on stilts or wooden legs, so stiff would his technique have appeared!  Fortunately for him, however, there was no-one to fit that description in the room at present, since those there were all on their feet and endeavouring, as best they could, to keep time with the music and avoid bumping into one another.  It wasn't even possible to fear that the servants might be secretly enjoying themselves at one's expense.  For they had apparently been forbidden entry to the room and were thus on duty elsewhere - presumably in the region of the kitchens and dining-room.  Well, that was a relief too, and a sufficient incentive for one to loosen up a bit.  Which, to his surprise, Timothy gradually found himself doing, as the music began to get the better of his self-consciousness and to instil a certain complacency, partly born of reduced sensibility, into his mind.

     Not that he didn't have to struggle against himself in the process.  But, somehow, Sarah's self-confidence began to make an impression on him and encouraged him to take that redemptive plunge with her, when their two bodies would unite in a single movement and flow into each other, like two streams meeting in a single river.  As yet, he was just on the brink, still stiffly apart and uncertain.  But the temptation to merge with her was pressing upon him with greater insistence, becoming impossible to ignore.  His steps were less tentative now, more assured of their placings, and he had ceased to frown with virtually every move.  He felt her body press against him with greater frequency and ease now, whereas previously they had been almost afraid to touch each other.  She was smiling with a fresh candour, and the sweet scent of her perfume was insinuating itself into his slightly-dilated nostrils, causing his head to swim with aromatic pleasure.  Was this really what he had been afraid of before the dance started, this subtle pleasure in sensual gratification?  He smiled his incredulity at the thought of it and, suddenly, as though by the wave of a magic wand, the old world of distinctions had slipped away and he was at one with Sarah in the rhythm of the dance, had lost his self-consciousness and passed over into a world of transpersonal unity.  All in a flash, like that 'click' which descends upon people who are socially and sexually right for each other, heralding the start of a compatible relationship.  He was all of a sudden in that other world and Sarah's smile seemed more endearing to him than ever, her perfume still sweeter.  He had little time or inclination to notice what stage everybody else was at, though if he had bothered to look around him, he would have seen that all but Gowling and Geraldine had left their self-consciousness behind and were lifted up in the swirling movement of the dance, transported, as it were, to another realm.  They would follow suit later, but at present both of them were still struggling with their egos - particularly Geraldine, who danced rather primly with the taller figure of Gowling.

     And so the music continued as the couples circled around one another with greater facility, becoming increasingly part of one large twenty-legged creature with ten heads.  But then, almost without their expecting it, the old record reached the end of its scratchy duration, and suddenly a chilling silence descended upon the room, disrupting the orgy of blissful self-forgetfulness.  There were a few appropriate sighs of disappointment from the more ardent dancers and then, as if in gratitude for what they had experienced, a number of smiles, hand claps, and tersely eulogistic comments.  Their faces had already become quite flushed, especially Lord Handon's, whose high blood-pressure and age undoubtedly had something to do with it.  But he had no intention of allowing things to flag and duly hurried across to the record-player, where he proceeded to turn the disc over and set its other side in motion.

     "Well," said Sarah to her dancing partner, "it looks as though we're going to be kept busy tonight, doesn't it?"

     "It does indeed!" Timothy agreed, and, once more, he put his arm round the opera singer's waist and set her in graceful motion.  To his delight, she smiled more endearingly than ever as their bodies drew gently together, making him feel newly confident.  He wanted, if possible, to draw still closer to her, but realized that the propriety of the dance precluded it.  Besides, he couldn't very well allow himself to become too ardent in the company of the others, particularly Lord and Lady Handon, who now danced, it seemed to him, with a certain measure of constraint, as though they were approaching the end of their quota of energy or were secretly more intent upon surveying the proceedings around them.

     "Oh, so sorry!" cried Townley above the music, as he collided with Timothy and well-nigh sent his slender body sprawling across the carpet.  "I'm not used to this sort of thing," he added by way of excuse.

     "Neither am I, actually," the writer confessed, before the swirling throng engulfed him afresh.

     And so it went on, with Lord Handon taking sole charge of the stereo and, until his retirement through fatigue about an hour-and-a-half later, effectively leading the dance.  Thereafter the host and hostess sat watching the younger people amuse themselves in the centre of the room, not more than a few yards from the blazing open fire which Lord Handon judiciously topped-up, from time to time, with a small log or two from the pile of chopped logs that lay conveniently close to-hand in the spacious hearth.  And every time the prevailing record reached the last of its tiny grooves, up he would get to initiate a change of melody and sometimes even a change of dance, thereby throwing his guests into fresh confusion.  Thus Timothy found himself obliged to improvise a variety of ballroom dances on-the-spot, including the Boston and the Tango, which caused him not a little embarrassment at times.  The viscount was deriving a degree of sadistic pleasure, it seemed, from the confusions to which his activity gave rise, and not only as regards Timothy!  For O'Donnell and Townley were also finding the different dances difficult to negotiate at first, and could only manage a comically rudimentary approximation to them.  Even Lawrence Gowling, who was more acquainted with ballroom dancing than any of his fellow-guests, was hard-pressed to maintain anything like a consistent performance in the face of Lord Handon's musical directing, and stepped on young Geraldine's toes more often than she could have liked!

     But, still, the proceedings were generally fun, and everybody had imbibed too much alcohol to care unduly about the quality of their performance.  Even the host, who had drained more glasses than anybody else, appeared not to take much interest in it after a while, but slumped into his armchair with bowed head, as if in response to an overpowering tiredness, quite oblivious of his surroundings.  In the next armchair, his wife stared ruefully at the fire or cast a beady and rather abstracted gaze round the room, occasionally bringing her attention to rest on one of the small romantic paintings which were intended both to avoid the usual ballroom cliché of mirrors and to serve a mildly aphrodisiac role.  She appeared not to want to see the dancers, as though their presence was an inconvenience, a reminder of her long-past youth and current lack of stamina.  Yet youth and stamina were not exactly the leading attributes of Girish O'Donnell and his plump dancing partner either, and before long, at Irene's prompting, they also dropped out of the limelight, leaving the floor to the less bulky individuals.

     So now there were only three couples in motion, who danced on oblivious of everyone else, or seemingly so.  For Timothy, especially, had not quite regained that self-confidence of the preceding hour and was beginning to weary a little, despite the ever-enchanting proximity of Sarah Field, whom he resolutely clung to from fear that, if someone else were to intervene, he would be irrevocably plunged back into his old self-consciousness again.  Better this than that, even if, with all that alcohol swirling round in his head, he was now the victim of a downward self-transcendence, a transcendence such as his logical reasoning mind would ordinarily have deemed inferior to upward self-transcendence.  Unfortunately this was neither the time nor the place for the hallucinogenic trip of divine illumination!  Like it or not, one had to persist in the folly of Lord Handon's tastes and give way to the Diabolic to a greater or lesser extent.  Such was the situation.  Such it had been for centuries.  And such, in all probability, it would continue to be for ... centuries to come?  Perhaps and perhaps not.  Who could say for sure?

     So they danced on, and now it was Geraldine who led them, the very same person who, when the dancing had first begun, was the least willing to part with her self-consciousness.  Strange in a sense, but more indicative of her adolescent shyness in the imposing company of Lawrence Gowling, who towered manfully above her, than anything else.  Now, by contrast, she appeared to tower above him - at least in terms of her commitment to the dance.  For she smiled up at his handsome face in intoxicated abandon and pressed herself against him in a manner hardly guaranteed to win her parents' approval!  Perhaps that was the main reason why Lady Handon now sought to avoid looking at the dancers?  Perhaps she couldn't stomach the sight of Geraldine's coquetry or the way her daughter was showing off?  At least she had nothing to fear from Gowling, who, in spite of the considerable sensual pressures being put upon him at this moment, behaved quite gentlemanly, under the circumstances.

     Indeed, the more abandoned Geraldine became the less abandoned he appeared to be, so that he was now dancing with a degree of constraint which, in contrast to his partner's freedom, assumed an incongruous and semi-humorous aspect.  He had gone noticeably stiff and become somewhat self-conscious, occasionally bumping into the other couples, and this in spite of the fact that they now had more room in which to manoeuvre than before.  He must have cursed Lord Handon's eccentricity, at such moments, for depriving the dancers of mirrors and thereby increasing their chances of colliding, despite the limited utilitarian value of mirrors in a crowded ballroom, the difficulty of gauging perspective not rendered any easier by alcoholic somnolence in relation to the speed of the dance and the number of couples involved.  Doubtless the old devil had private motivations of his own for doing so!

     But the dancing wasn't to last much longer now.  For as Nigel Townley and Sheila Johnston dropped out, more through fatigue than lack of ability, a sudden self-consciousness descended on the two remaining couples, who feared that they would become the cynosure of too many pairs of critical or envious eyes.  The smooth bright carpet on which they slid and twisted suddenly seemed naked, and the dancing area itself stretched away on every side, causing them to feel somewhat isolated in the centre of it.  Still they danced, however, more out of pride than enjoyment, and when, a few minutes later, Timothy and Sarah simultaneously pulled out of the fray, even Geraldine had to admit defeat and relinquish her hold on Gowling, to the latter's evident relief.

     There was perfunctory clapping all round, as the last couple abandoned their feet for the enticing comfort of the nearest vacant armchairs, slumping into them with a well-earned sigh apiece.

     "Well done!" cried Lord Handon, raising himself a little in his seat the better to survey the couple in question.  "You managed to bring the beast out of my daughter, Lawrence," he added, with a roguish chuckle.  It was a comment, however, that his wife didn't appear to appreciate.  For, at that moment, she frowned sullenly and shook her head - more, it seemed, for her own benefit than anyone else's.  But this gesture generally passed unnoticed.

     It was now quite late, however, and most of the guests were feeling the lure of sleep, particularly those who had danced the longest.  Their bedrooms awaited them on the first floor where, after midnight, they were free to retire.  In the meantime, the remaining ten minutes left to the old year had to be passed downstairs, until, with the singing of Auld Lang Syne at midnight, the New Year's Eve party reached its climax.  So a few more celebratory gestures were called for and, true to form, Lord Handon saw to it that the remaining time wasn't wasted ... by personally serving as butler to his guests, refilling their empty wine glasses with a 'Knockout round', as he facetiously put it, of bubbly champagne, which, of course, they politely accepted - some, like Gowling, happily; others, like Timothy, less happily; but all, without exception, in a spirit of obliging acquiescence.

     "This is the last drink you'll get this year," their host facetiously declared, as he returned the empty champagne bottle to the wine cabinet, "so you'd better make the most of it!"  And that, ironically, was what they all endeavoured to do, Timothy almost literally so.  For he half-feared that the viscount would go back on his word and fish out another bottle from the wine cabinet's far from empty interior.

     Mercifully, that was not to be the case.  For no sooner had he quaffed back his share of the champagne and stubbed-out the smouldering remains of an expensive-looking cigar, than Lord Handon staggered over to the stereo in order to hunt out, from among the dozens of displaced records there, a recorded version of Auld Lang Syne with which to facilitate their own rendering of it in due course.  By the time he actually found the disc, however, midnight was already striking, and not only in the ballroom but in virtually every other downstairs room throughout the great house as well, creating a furious uproar which quite precluded any attempt at simultaneous singing.

     "Better late than never, I suppose," Lord Handon averred, as he fumbled the record onto the turntable and, with evident difficulty, strove to align the stylus with the first of its worn grooves.  After one or two false starts, during which one heard snatches of the music prematurely, he succeeded in his objective and, staggering to his feet again, gestured with outstretched arms that he wanted everyone to join him in the centre of the room for the traditional singing.  Such was the peremptory nature of his gesture that drinks were left unconsumed as everyone, including Lady Handon, converged on the chosen spot like vultures upon a rotting carcass.  They had scarcely arrived there and formed themselves into an approximate circle, however, when the music started-up, obliging them to join-in regardless.  To everyone's dismay, Lord Handon lost his footing and fell forwards into the centre of the ring, dragging his long-suffering wife down with him.  Thereafter a general confusion reigned during which, whilst endeavouring to sing Auld Lang Syne, efforts were made by one or two of the male guests to get the drunken peer and his startled wife back on their unsteady feet again.  Eventually success ensued in this regard, but not before the record had virtually run its course and brought proceedings to an embarrassing halt.  Nevertheless, Lord Handon defiantly rallied his forces about him for a final onslaught on the vocal cords and initiated a belated though rousing performance of the song once more, largely, it seemed, for the servants' benefit.  Then, as though following the roar of a loud explosion, the room fell into a deathly quiet, broken only be the intermittent sound of laughter, sighs, snivels, and coughs.  The party was over and, almost to a man, the revellers quietly dispersed to the fringes of the room, to finish off their drinks or wipe their brows or slump into a welcome armchair.  Now at last they were in the New Year, and it was as though the significance of this fact had only just begun to dawn on them, necessitating a slight readjustment of psychological perspective.

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Yes, it was New Year's Day, and as he mounted the red-carpeted stairs, a few minutes later, Timothy Byrne wondered whether the New Year would prove kinder to him than the old one had, and, if so, in what ways.  Indeed, he was so engrossed in speculation on this point that it quite startled him to hear Sarah inquiring over his shoulder, as he reached the door to his bedroom on the guest wing, what kind of accommodation he had been allocated for the night.  He turned abruptly in the thickly-carpeted corridor and confronted his questioner with a blank face.  "Oh, forgive me!" he cried, blushing as he recognized her.  "I hadn't realized you were following me."  His voice sounded quite leaden with drink and he almost lost his physical balance as he turned fully towards her.  "Have they put you in this part of the house as well?" he foolishly asked.

     Sarah returned him one of her characteristically-endearing smiles.  "Just a little farther along the corridor," she replied, pointing with her index finger.

     "I see," he responded, vaguely turning his head in the direction indicated.  He seemed indecisive as to his next move or remark and was on the verge of saying goodnight ... when the opera singer requested to see the interior of his room.

     "Certainly," he impulsively replied, and, just as impulsively, opened the door and pushed his way in, flicking on the light switch as he went.

     "Ah, how pretty!" exclaimed Sarah, following him inside.  "It's more cheerful than mine," she added, with a look at the light-blue wallpaper which clothed the walls of the brightly-lit, box-like room.  "And the curtains!"  She advanced a pace towards the maroon velvet curtains, which hung down to within a few inches of the floor, and clapped her hands in admiration of the harmony they formed with the wallpaper.  "Let's swap rooms," she playfully suggested.

     For a moment Timothy thought she was being serious. "What's wrong with yours?" he asked.

     "Oh, nothing really," giggled Sarah.  "Or, rather, it's just that the colours aren't quite so much to my taste."  She turned towards him and smiled briefly, before adding: "Come on, I'll show you it, if you're interested."

     It wouldn't have been very polite of him to say he wasn't, so he obligingly followed her out through the half-open door, automatically switching off the light, and made his way, with some difficulty, along the corridor to the room next-door.  He felt a trifle guilty and foolish about this, and was almost afraid that someone would see him.  But ahead of him the corridor was deserted, while behind ... he glanced back over his shoulder and saw no-one - at least not at that moment.  For just as he reached Sarah's door the distinctive voice of Girish O'Donnell was sounding at the top of the stairs, and, before he could disappear into her room, the portly figure of the Voice Museum's principal director had appeared in the corridor and was advancing towards them, accompanied by Irene Myers.  There was a faint hint of recognition from O'Donnell but, rather than acknowledging it, Timothy hurried into Sarah's room as fast as he could, under the circumstances of his inebriation, and shut the door behind him in a panic, fearing they might have seen Sarah going in as well.  Not that any such thing was guaranteed.  For she had been in front of him, after all, and was in the process of opening her door when they rounded the corner.  And, anyway, even if they had, so what?  Did that necessarily mean ...?  He cast the thought from his mind and advanced unsteadily towards the centre of her room, newly reminded of the purpose of his visit, which, on the surface at least, seemed perfectly innocent.

     For her part Sarah had sensed nothing of his panic and now stood to one side, pointing out the colours she apparently found less cheerful than those in her neighbour's room.  "You see?" she sighed, with a slight air of constraint.

     He looked about him, like a connoisseur of fine art, and nodded his head in apparent sympathy.  Though, in reality, he couldn't see anything amiss, since the dark-blue wallpaper and silver-grey velvet curtains were quite to his taste.  If anything, he preferred this combination to the one in his own room, which was suggestive of some football team, and would have said so, had not discretion or something analogous prevailed upon him to hold his tongue.  Finally he decided on a compromise by conceding that, although her room was probably a shade less cheerful, it was nonetheless just as brightly lit and no less spacious.  "Not really that bad at all," he concluded, involuntarily including the silver-quilted double bed which stood a few feet to his right.  "At least you won't have to sleep in it longer than tonight."

     She smiled in acknowledgement of this obvious fact and sat down on the corner of the bed, nearest to where Timothy was standing.  "No," she agreed, "that's one good thing."  Then, abruptly changing track, she asked him what he thought of the dance earlier?

     "Oh, quite amusing on the whole," he remarked, grinning.  "Not that I'm a particularly accomplished dancer, as you doubtless realized.  I hope you'll forgive me for having trodden on your toes so often."

     She glanced down at her pale-stockinged toes and confessed that, but for a little wear, they had survived quite well, considering that her dancing partner had been wearing some kind of newfangled boots.  "Besides," she added, smiling anew, "I must have committed more than a few choreographic indiscretions myself, not being used to that kind of dancing.  So perhaps it's I who ought to be apologizing to you."

     He blushed slightly in spite of himself, wondering what she could be referring to, and sought distraction in a small stucco carving of a cherub which graced the top of a circular table just in front of where he was still standing, hands bashfully tucked inside front pockets.  Yet she was looking at him with a curious interest when next he dared face her, much as though he were a work of art worthy of a certain critical appraisal.  What could be on her mind, he wondered?

     However, before he could wonder anything else, he heard her say: "I quite liked what you were saying about your latest religious beliefs, before dinner."

     "Oh, really?" he responded, somewhat surprised and not a little ashamed of his current wine-intoxicated condition.  Or was it the fact of his religious beliefs?

     "Yes, I think there must be some truth in it," Sarah declared.  "Quite a lot of truth in fact, in spite of your predilection for sweeping generalizations of the debunking sort, which are doubtless more expedient than pedantic, suggesting a degree of literary licence which, though arguably objectionable from a more objectively philosophic standpoint, at least has the merit of simplifying things and of obliging one to rethink accepted positions."

     A smile of gratitude overcame him with the mention of this.  "I'm glad you think so," he admitted, though he didn't fully understand the latter part of her remark.  "However, I'm aware that Lady Handon wouldn't agree with such an opinion."

     "No, she appears to be something of a religious conservative," Sarah confirmed, wrinkling-up her brows in evident disdain.  "Still, one can't win them all.  What she believes in is obviously right for her."

     "Indeed," Timothy conceded with a hint of weariness in his voice.  "Nevertheless, for people like you and I, such traditional criteria as she apparently subscribes to are far from right.  They would simply keep one moored to the Diabolic Alpha at the expense of the Divine Omega, binding one to the Creator in worshipful subjection to theocratic authoritarianism, and thus preventing the achievement of religious freedom in self-realization.  For without freethinking, there is only enslavement, and the freer and more advanced the thinking, the more will the Alpha appear diabolic and only the Omega divine."  He turned round and was on the point of returning to his room, when Sarah's voice halted him in his tracks.

     "Do you like opera?" she asked.

     "Some of it," he replied, smiling faintly.  "French opera, in particular."

     A look of gratified surprise came into the opera singer's large eyes.  "And have you ever heard me sing?"

     "Yes, once, in Manon at Covent Garden."

     Her look of gratified surprise blossomed handsomely into a smile of relief.  "And did you like it?" she wanted to know, her dark-brown eyes sparkling gaily in the reflection of the light from the small chandelier overhead.

     "I did indeed," he admitted, blushing slightly in spite of his semi-drunken predicament.  "As it happens, you reminded me quite a lot of Beverly Sills, not only as regards the way you sang but also with regard to your appearance.  It was through a recording of Manon by Sills and Gedda that I first got to know of the opera, actually."

     "Yes, one of the classic recordings," Sarah opined in a tone of undisguised enthusiasm.

     "I guess it would have to be, what with Gedda in it," Timothy rejoined, smiling appreciatively.  "He's still my favourite tenor.  However, I was keenly appreciative of Souzay as 'Lescaut' and Castel as 'Gillot', too.  Not to mention Bacquier as 'Le Compt de Grieux', for that matter.  His voice is unforgettable!  But the bass part which has given me most pleasure to-date is undoubtedly Boris Christoff's rendering of 'Mephistopheles' in a recording of Gounoud's Faust.  What power!  What brilliance of execution!  There are times when one's hair virtually stands on-end!"

     "I quite agree," Sarah responded.  "He is one of the great masters.  And he was with Gedda in the recording you allude to, wasn't he?"

     "Indeed he was!" Timothy smilingly confirmed.  "Gedda and Victoria de los Angeles.  Unforgettable!  Quite the best French opera I've ever heard.  At any rate - forgive me for appearing unduly opinionated in this matter - my responses so far have led me to the conclusion that there is a kind of decline in the French operatic masterpiece from Gounoud to Debussy.  I mean, if you take the greatest work from each major composer, you find that Faust tops the list, followed, in a descending order of merit, by Carmen, Manon, and Pelléas et Mélisande."

     "You forgot to mention Offenbach's Orpheus somewhere in between," Sarah commented, frowning slightly.  "But, basically, I would have to agree with you.  Of course, there are people who maintain that Manon isn't a masterpiece of the first rank, and that France had to wait some forty years for a worthy successor to Carmen.  Frankly, however, I don't go along with them.  Massenet's greatest work contains such a plethora of beautiful melodies and is so imaginatively orchestrated, that it's difficult if not impossible to see how it could possibly be anything less than a masterpiece."

     "Yes, and then the libretto is very good, which is more than can be said, in my opinion, for Pelléas et Mélisande, especially where the tedious reiteration of 'petit père' is concerned!  That just about drained my patience, I'm afraid."

     Sarah graciously admitted to finding that part of the opera a bit trying herself.  Then, realizing that Timothy was still standing in the centre of the room with hands in pockets, she invited him to sit beside her, so that they could discuss opera in comfort.  There was no reason, she said, why he should tire his legs standing there when a soft bed was conveniently close to-hand.

     Although he was somewhat mentally fatigued and mindful, at this juncture, of the lateness of the hour, he complied with her invitation - more from a relief to be off his feet at last than from anything else.

     So they sat side-by-side and discussed opera, Timothy relating his experiences of a variety of recordings, Sarah, for her part, merely content to comment upon them and offer a professional opinion from time to time.  She confessed to having sung in all the major French operas and to preferring her role as 'Carmen' to either that of 'Margueritta' or 'Manon', though each of these she found preferable to 'Melisande', which was less inspiring.

     "And Werther?" asked Timothy, becoming doubly inebriated by the sweetness of her perfume and the graceful flow of her conversation.

     "Yes, I was 'Charlotte' in a recent production of that," she revealed, smiling anew.  "Massenet at his sweetest.  But my 'Werther' was the tenor Adrian Tanner, whom I don't much care for."

     "As a singer or as a person?" Timothy queried.

     "As a person," Sarah confessed.

     The writer chuckled softly and offered her a gentle look of commiseration.  "My only experience of Werther came via Nicolai Gedda and Victoria de los Angeles, whose 1969 recording I recently heard."

     "You seem to prefer listening to records than actually visiting the opera," Sarah deduced.

     "In point of fact, I do," Timothy admitted, "though that's partly because what I'd like to hear isn't always available when I want it, and partly, too, because I'm able to borrow records from the local library and thus sate my musical curiosity free-of-charge, in the privacy of my flat."  Here he felt like adding a word or two about his preference for the spiritualization of art through reproductions or recordings, but decided not to risk either offending Sarah by or burdening himself with the corollary of a detailed explication of his philosophical position - a position which Lord Handon's guided tour of the library, billiards room, etc., had earlier made him freshly conscious of, and with a vengeance!  For, as a rule, he preferred the elimination of the material factor in opera, which recordings provided, to the actual live performance itself.  Just as he preferred a colour photograph, or photographic reproduction, of a statue to the statue itself.  It was all part of his transcendentalism and the modern trend towards a greater spiritualization of art and life generally.  The disembodied voices which assailed or charmed the ear were spiritual presences merely, abstractions of real people - like, for that matter, the actors and actresses who graced the cinema screen.  Nothing tangible or material about them - ghostly presences, rather, which attested to the higher spiritual culture of contemporary man.

     If one went to the cinema it wasn't to see real bodies moving about on screen but, on the contrary, the cinematic reproduction of such bodies.  It was analogous to looking through glossy art books at the photographic reproductions of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and the like.  At its best, cinema was undoubtedly a higher and more spiritual art-form than, say, theatre, which, by contrast, dealt in real presences, no less tangible than material.  Admittedly drama could be spiritualized through the medium of film, and so, too, could opera, as had occurred in a number of memorable productions, including Tosca.  Perhaps this was the best way to experience drama or opera in-the-round these days - simply by sitting in front of a colour television with good quality hi-fi?  Although if one valued the music and singing above the stage scenery, costumes, lighting, singers, and action, then a good quality stereo would doubtless serve one's purposes better.  The primary ingredients of opera, viz. music and singing, would be catered for on a superior level than what they would receive from a televised performance in-the-round, where the sound reproduction was likely, as a rule, to be less good.  Yet whatever one's bias, it seemed not improbable that cultural progress was being manifested through these electronic media, which transformed an initially dualistic material/spiritual performance into one of spiritual one-sidedness.  The closer men drew to the Omega Point, the more spiritual their art would become.  Film projector, television, video recorder, cassette recorder, stereo, camera - these were the kinds of media through which Timothy believed culture could be experienced in the highest way, detached from the physical, the natural, the sensual.

     Yes, he would rather watch opera on film or listen to it on disc than experience an actual performance of it in public, and, confessing as much to Sarah, he smiled to himself, reminded of his reasons for doing so.... Not that he was completely consistent in this respect, since he had of course visited the opera on occasion, when the need for a little materialistic reassurance presented itself.  In an age of transition from the mundane to the transcendent, the natural to the artificial, one couldn't be blamed, after all, for the occasional backsliding into traditional criteria.  Unless one had been blessed with a consistently progressive or spiritually-advanced mentality, it wasn't expedient to be too transcendental.  One could risk or even succumb to a serious brain injury somewhere along the over-idealistic line.

     Be that as it may, Sarah seemed a twinge saddened by his preference for recorded performances and asserted, with a mischievous gleam in her eyes, that while discs, tapes, etc., were wonderful inventions, it was still good to get a taste of the real thing from time to time, in order to be brought into closer contact with what actually prompted the singing.  "After all, a disembodied voice isn't the best key to the lock of love in which the principal characters are trapped," she said, with another of those subtly-endearing smiles on her lips.

     "No, I guess not," conceded Timothy, who was conscious, as never before, of the extremely close proximity of the opera singer to him at this moment.  "One must see it in the flesh as well," he found himself saying, half-hypnotized by her stare.

     "And, if possible, touch it," she murmured.

     "As well as smell it," he rejoined, mindful of her scent and the complementary freshness of her skin, a mere couple of inches from the tip of his nose.

     "And thereby experience it personally," she concluded, gently closing her eyes against the kiss which, at that moment, Timothy felt impelled to bestow upon her lips in response to the brazen cue just offered him.

     Amazingly, a single kiss was sufficient to precipitate them into each other's arms and initiate a series of more ardent kisses, which duly led to Sarah firmly closing her eyes against Timothy's carnal onslaught and meekly submitting to his physical objectives - objectives which were to encompass far more than her lips ... as he gently pushed her down on the bed and climbed over her reclining form, the better to achieve them.  Now he wanted to get more closely involved with her than he had done in the ballroom before midnight; to get so closely involved with her, in fact, as to make the rhythmic posturings of their dancing routines appear comparatively superficial.  Now there would be no clothes or fellow-dancers between him and his movements.  It would be a direct communion of flesh to flesh, a return to the primeval life-urge, a fitting climax to the New Year's Eve festivities.  He had been so well-juiced for it, this ultimate sensual communion, that it didn't really matter to him now whether or not he subsequently got back to his own room again.  If sleep overtook him he would stay where he was, wrapped in the tight embrace of Sarah's arms - submerged in sensual abandon.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The following morning was pleasantly bright and as, one by one, the guests came down to breakfast, they were greeted by the full-face of the sun as it shone in shamelessly through the tall windows of the breakfast room, on the west wing of Rothermore House.  Timothy, however, contrived to turn his back on it, as he arrived at the large round table at which everyone was invited to sit; for he rather disliked a direct confrontation with the Diabolic Alpha at this time of day, and trusted that it would be less harmful to his back than to his face.  He didn't of course mention this to anyone, lest they thought him crazy.... Although Lady Handon half-divined what was on his mind by the eagerness and determination with which he had acquired himself this particular seat.  She smiled ironically to herself and proceeded to sip the Chinese tea which the ageing butler had just poured into her dainty cup.  Behind her, and therefore in front of Timothy, an open fire crackled forcefully in its hearth.  The writer, for his part, preferred not to notice it.

     "Well, I trust you all had a comfortable night," said Lord Handon, as he took his place at table and briefly scanned the assembled faces, all but one of which had a noticeably pallid look.

     "Very comfortable thanks," admitted Sarah, whose candour caused Timothy a slight embarrassment at what seemed to him like an oblique allusion to his own contribution to it.

     "Good!" said Lord Handon in a business-like manner.  "As long as you all managed to get some rest after yesterday evening's physical exertions and don't find the first morning of January 1981 unduly oppressive ..."

     "Unfortunately I had a nightmare," Irene Myers interposed, slightly to everyone's horror.

     "Hardly the most auspicious start to the new year for you then!" Lady Handon declared over the rim of her steaming cup.  "I trust you didn't suffer a similar fate, Mr Byrne," she added, focusing her beady attention upon the rather washed-out face opposite, which, to her surprise, blushed perceptibly and shook its head.

     "Fortunately not!" he replied, all too conscious that he probably suffered a worse one in not getting any sleep at all.  For it was so late by the time Sarah let him go ... that he had quite passed the point of sleep and could do no better than to doze fitfully in his solitary room, tortured by the incessant twittering of sparrows in some nearby trees.  Now his head had something of the vacuity of an exploded shell about it, as though his brain had been removed and a dull void left in its place.  He smiled with a kind of cadaverous leer which the hostess appeared not to like very much; for she sharply turned her face away.

     "And how about you, sir?" she inquired of Girish O'Donnell, noting the speed with which the Voice Museum's principal director was draining his cup of black coffee.

     "Oh, just a slight hangover," he drawled, falling victim to one of the most palpably obvious of understatements.  "Nothing to grumble about, really!"

     "You danced exceedingly well last night, Girish," opined Lord Handon, countering palpable understatement with no-less palpable overstatement.  "Indeed, you all danced very well, including you, Geraldine."

     His daughter couldn't prevent herself blushing at this remark, and cast Gowling an optimistic glance, as though expecting him to confirm it.  However, the artist was preoccupied with the piled-up flaky contents of his cereal bowl and therefore didn't respond to her in any noticeable way.  But she wasn't to be rebuffed by this fact and declared that she had probably danced better last night than ever before - a declaration which caused Gowling a comparable degree of embarrassment.

     "Really?" cried Lord Handon on a note of ironic surprise.  "That's putting it rather strongly, I must say!"

     Not surprisingly his wife preferred to say nothing about that, but tactfully switched the conversation to her guests' impending departures, now that their New Year's Eve celebrations were a thing of the past.  "I take it you'll all be able to return to your various destinations today, bearing in mind the reduced public transport," she said.

     All but two of them were destined to return to London, those being Nigel Townley and Irene Myers, who had homes in Sussex.

     "Yes, I don't suppose there'll be any trains running," Lord Handon remarked, endeavouring to qualify his wife's almost contradictory question.

     "Don't worry, I can take the others back in my car," O'Donnell declared.  "I have enough space in the old banger for at least half-a-dozen people."  He was of course alluding to his Mercedes, which was parked in front of the house beside Irene's Porsche and Lord Handon's Rolls.  It would be far better travelling back to town in that than waiting around for taxis or buses, and the relevant guests thanked O'Donnell for his offer and accepted without a qualm - especially Timothy, who hadn't much enjoyed the solitary journey down by train in any case.

     "Good, then that takes care of that problem," Lady Handon concluded with an air of finality, and she accordingly relapsed into a welcome silence.

     Following breakfast, the guests retired to the drawing-room for a spate of informal conversation prior to their impending departures, Lord Handon encouraging those of them who could stand the sight of alcohol to sample a fresh glass as a leave-taking tribute.  But most of them seemed in need of fresh air, and, perceiving this, the viscount offered to take everyone on a guided tour of his grounds, including the stables, gardens, and parkland.  As the weather was so sunny that morning, most of the guests accepted with alacrity, and, before long, a little party of warmly-clad individuals had assembled in the spacious vestibule behind the north door, eager for exercise.

     Geraldine, however, was of the opinion that it would be better for them to divide into two groups rather than set off en masse across the lawns, like a herd of cattle.  She accordingly offered, by way of example, to take a few of their guests round the west wing of the house and through the stables, while her father took the rest of them in the opposite direction, in order to meet-up with her group at some point to the south.  The idea seemed a good one and consequently, with minimum deliberation, the party divided accordingly and set off in their respective directions. 

     To his relief, Timothy found himself in Geraldine's group, which included Lawrence Gowling and Nigel Townley who, slightly to his amusement, smiled sheepishly at him from under sleep-heavy eyelids.  Geraldine, clearly, had cornered most of the males, while her father, unaccompanied by his wife, had availed himself of the females, adding to their number the portly figure of Girish O'Donnell, who trailed along behind the others, like some kind of social outcast.  It was a little disenchanting for Timothy to watch Sarah being led away in the opposite direction, but he couldn't very well complain.  Besides, it might have proved embarrassing had she been with him instead, especially with Geraldine there.

     "Ah!" exclaimed Gowling, as he deeply inhaled and exhaled the crisp morning air.  "How refreshing to be out at this time of day!  Just the way to clear away a hangover, what?"

     Geraldine smiled her acknowledgement of him, but made no comment.  She had changed into a pair of pale-pink cords and was wearing a navy-blue anorak over a woolly jumper.  Her hair was still pinned up, but less formerly now than the day before.  Instead of forming a bun on the crown of her head, it rested in a loose rectangle at the back, making her look, if anything, slightly more attractive.  There was a faint hint of make-up on her face, but nothing overtly seductive.  Her eyes shone with pleasure as she led the men across the English garden and around to the West Front.  No doubt, she was relieved to be free of her parents' restrictive company.  "Let's take a look at the goldfish," she said, pointing out a small artificial pond which stood in front of the front in question.  "My mother is rather keen on goldfish and I seem to have inherited an aptitude for them myself.  A case of acquired characteristics, wouldn't you say, Mr Byrne?"

     The writer automatically raised wary brows, but graciously conceded her the benefit of the doubt.

     "My God, there must be hundreds of them in it!" Gowling observed, as they reached the goldfish pond.  "They're literally crawling over one another!"

     "Yes, it is rather a cramped environment," Geraldine admitted.  "Although we usually sell off a number of them every year and thereby maintain a fairly stable population.  We're intending, anyway, to extend the size of our ponds soon - there's one like this, incidentally, in front of each wing of the house - so as to provide our little darlings with more privacy."

     "Privacy?" Townley repeated, with an ironic expression on his face.

     But Geraldine was more interested in staring at Gowling's reflection in the shallow water than justifying her use of words, while the artist, for his part, was too engrossed in the pond's contents to notice that he was being secretly admired.

     "Well, let's proceed, shall we?" Geraldine at length suggested, and, together, they continued in the direction they had been taking, on past the West Front.  Here, too, Timothy couldn't help noticing that the Baroque features of the North Front were in ample evidence, particularly as regards the equidistant placing of Corinthian pilasters, and he noticed, moreover, that Townley was taking more interest in the general exterior of the house itself than in the surrounding grounds, which, for an architect, was only to be expected, or so he supposed.  But this was only in passing.  For soon they came upon the stables, no farther than a hundred-and-fifty yards away, and heard the sounds of horses neighing and champing - sounds which Townley couldn't help commenting upon as they drew near.  "Our approach has evidently excited them," he observed, raising his nostrils to inhale the smell of freshly-deposited manure.  "How many do you have?"

     "Just four nowadays," Geraldine replied, with a hint of regret in her voice.  "We used to have six, but, since my older sister went to live elsewhere and my younger brother got killed in a plane crash, we decided to part with theirs.... This one's called Smoky," she revealed, patting a large grey stallion on the nose.  "It's the favourite of my father, who owns the stallion on the right, too.  But this one's mine."  His name was Badger, and he was a dark-brown horse of slightly less than average height.  He seemed to like having his mane fondled and Geraldine was keen to oblige.  "The remaining horse belongs to my mother," she continued, drawing attention to a black mare to Badger's left, "and her name's Stella.  But since mother doesn't ride very often these days, she's mostly entrusted to our groom, who is a reliable horseman."

     "So what's the name of your father's other horse?" asked Timothy, who happened to be standing directly in front of it.

     "Dapper," said Geraldine.  "Because he is, see?"

     There was an uprush of amusement among the three men, who eyed the dapper-brown stallion in question with admiring looks.  For his part, Dapper neighed gently and stared back at them with a nonchalance bordering on contempt - or so it seemed.  Inscrutability was, after all, a hallmark of the horse!

     "Do you ride regularly?" Gowling asked Geraldine, following a short pause in their conversation.

     "Whenever I'm here I do, which is mostly during the vacations," she replied, smiling.  "Unfortunately, being away at college means that I don't now ride as often as before.  But I shall probably come down here for the occasional weekend, during the months ahead, and wrench my horse away from our groom for a few hours.  What about you - do any of you ride?"

     Gowling admitted to an occasional tendency in that august direction, while both Timothy and Townley shook their respective heads, the architect adding that he would welcome an opportunity to do so - a sentiment not shared, however, by the writer, who had never ridden a horse in his life and had no desire to, largely because he found the idea of intimate contact with a large beast repugnant.... To be sitting on a horse somewhere in the country - no, that was definitely not for him!  He almost shuddered at the thought of it.  On principle, he could never have given-in to complacency on a beast in the country.  He simply wanted to aspire towards God by expanding his spirit.  But how could one possibly do that seated on a horse, with nature airing its mundane prejudices all around one?  Impossible!  No, horses were definitely not for him!

     However, Townley was interested and Gowling fairly proud of the fact that he occasionally rented a horse for the day.  After all, horses were the most noble of beasts and not at all bad company.  Yet when Geraldine said she would like to see him ride, poor Gowling quite blushed with shame at the connotation with sex to which the word gave rise in his vulnerable imagination!  For it seemed to him that the young lady was deliberately provoking him.  He could have sworn he detected a mischievous gleam in her eyes.  "You don't mean now, do you?" he gasped, in his perplexity.

     "No, of course not, silly!" she retorted.  "Some other time."

     He mentally sighed his relief and wiped some imaginary sweat from his brow.

     "Well, now that you've all seen the horses, let's explore a bit farther afield, shall we?" suggested Geraldine, leading the way out of the stables and on across the open parkland to the left of the South Front, in the general direction of a thick wood beyond.

     "No sign of the other group from here," Gowling observed, looking across to his right, where he had vaguely expected to sight Lord Handon's four followers.

     The others cast a glance in the same direction and Geraldine explained how that was probably because her father had turned into the wood on the far side of the house, in order to explore the river which ran through it.  "He's recently had a few fancy wooden bridges installed, which he's probably keen to inspect and show off," she went on.  "But don't worry, we'll doubtless bump into them before long."

     The parkland stretched on quite some distance to either side of them and had the appearance of being well-kept, despite the ugly proximity, every now and then, of copious weeds, which had sprouted in the otherwise bare flower-beds, and of overgrown hedges, bent forward under the oppressive weight of their evergreen foliage.  A number of saplings were propped-up on wooden supports against the inclemency of winter, intended, no doubt, to form a new avenue of trees in due course.  For it was apparent, from a brief inspection of the area, that Lord Handon liked to have his saplings planted in rows, like soldiers or, rather, cadets on parade.  Less ordered, however, was the wood towards which Geraldine was now leading them.  It had a rough path through it but no sign of any intentional cultivation, and the prospect of his having to traverse this intensification of nature wasn't at all to Timothy's liking!  Indeed, he wasn't particularly happy to be exploring the parkland anyway, even its most cultivated parts, which still struck his transcendental mentality as evil, if relatively less so than the patently uncultivated parts.  But it was into the wood that Geraldine led them, and he just didn't have the nerve to back out or object.  Gowling and Townley would probably have thought him mad were he to do so, not being on his spiritual wavelength.  All he could reasonably do was to brave it, and this he endeavoured to do as they came upon the beaten path at the entrance to the wood and passed over into raw nature.

     "If we're in luck, we might get a glimpse of some of the deer that roam about in here," said Geraldine.

     "How many deer are there?" asked Townley.

     "About fifty at the last count," the young lady revealed.  "Mostly deeper into the wood of course, and more over to the far side.  You can see quite a lot of wildlife in here though, including foxes.  Look, there's a squirrel scampering up a tree over there!  Can you see it?"

     Halted, the men followed her finger in the direction indicated, and for a moment Timothy had a recollection of Sarah doing the same thing in the passageway outside his room the previous night.  "Quite clearly," Gowling admitted, as the squirrel came to a sudden halt half-way up the tree trunk, as though in suspended animation.  "One can see how this wood must be something of a naturalist's paradise, during certain times of the year and under the right conditions."

     Geraldine smiled warmly before trudging on again.  Only Timothy refrained from showing signs of pleasure here.  For the fact of this wood being a naturalist's paradise could only mean it was a transcendentalist's hell, and he needed no reminding.... Not that it was the worst of earthly hells, since a tropical jungle would have been far worse, to his way of thinking.  And even this place would, in his opinion, have been worse in the middle of summer than at present, deprived of all but its bare bones, so to speak, in the heart of winter.  Still, even in this depleted context, it was a place he would have preferred to avoid.

     "We used to have hunts here at one time," Geraldine was saying, principally for the benefit of the others, as they continued along the path, Timothy at the rear.

     "What, deer hunts?" Townley surmised.

     "Sometimes deer and sometimes foxes," Geraldine confessed.  "At any rate, my grandfather was keen on hunting and used to run with the pack, as they say, across the park and into this wood at various points, usually to emerge again on the far side and continue the chase across open country.  But my father preferred shooting grouse to hunting animals, so I never got to see more than an occasional deer or fox hunt."

     "Does he still shoot?" Timothy asked, over Townley's shoulder.

     "Oh yes, quite often," Geraldine replied.  "Mostly pheasants, of course.  Why, do you object to blood sports?"

     "Yes and no."

     "What do you mean by 'yes and no', you ambivalent man?"

     "Well, 'yes', because I'd rather people spent their time doing better things than chasing about after wild animals or birds," Timothy informed her, "and 'no' because I'd rather men made war on beasts than worshipped them.  In the final analysis, I don't object to people preventing the lower creatures from becoming too populous.  Though I suppose it would be better if society was arranged in such a fashion that either the State or some other authority could take greater responsibility for keeping their numbers in check, by having trained professionals do the job of culling them, in order to make the business less a sport than a moral and ecological obligation."

     "Ah, I see," said Geraldine.  "Well, you won't find the lower creatures too populous around here, I can assure you!  Not unless you're also alluding to ants, beetles, worms, sparrows, and other such lowly creatures?"

     Timothy made no comment, but contented himself, instead, with a private reflection on the sad fact that the lowest of all creations, viz. raw nature, was far too populous or, at any rate, abundant here, even in the heart of winter.

     Yet if Geraldine half-divined his thoughts she didn't let-on, nor draw attention to the impracticality of greater state responsibility in the matter of culling wild animals professionally while land was still in private ownership, but continued to lead the way and talk about her father's shooting abilities, which were of quite a high standard apparently.

     "I'd love to have a crack at shooting grouse myself one day," Gowling revealed, in due course.

     "Well, perhaps we can arrange that for you," Geraldine commented, and, as she briefly turned towards him, the artist found himself becoming embarrassed again for no apparent reason or, rather, for reasons best known to himself.  "That would be most kind of you," he averred, slightly to Timothy's distaste.

     The path wound on into the distance but, mercifully for Timothy,  didn't stray too far into the wood, so that it was possible, every now and then, to glimpse part of the South Front of Rothermore House away in the distance, as one came upon a small clearing between the trees and bushes to one's right.  Glimpsed from this distance, the house seemed quite small.  But it was still a vaguely reassuring spectacle for anyone who preferred civilization to nature, and provided Timothy with a brief reprieve from the gloomy thoughts which surged through his nature-stricken consciousness, like doom-besotted ghosts.  Overhead, the regular flapping of wings attested to an abundance of bird life here, and Gowling must have looked-up at the startled creatures, from time to time, with more than a vague desire to pull the trigger of a gun and send one or two of them crashing beak-foremost to earth.  Geraldine, however, had other things on her mind.

     "Look!" she cried, bringing the men to a sudden halt again.  "There's a fallow deer over there.  D'you see it?"

     The pale-brown deer, a doe, had certainly seen them and now kept a watchful eye on the intruding humans from where it stood, some seventy or so yards to their left.

     "How pretty she is!" Townley observed, instinctively dropping his voice to almost a whisper.  "And so small really!"  But the doe had seen enough of them by now, and suddenly made off deeper into the wood.

     "Perhaps she has a mate waiting for her somewhere," joked Gowling as they got under way again.

     "She might have," Geraldine responded, smiling slyly, "although we're not exactly in the heart of the rutting season at present and, as such, the bucks tend to be somewhat aloof ... like certain men at this time of year," she added, a shade ironically.

     Gowling experienced a painful recrudescence of his former embarrassment and endeavoured to hide his face from Geraldine by looking in the opposite direction ... across towards Rothermore House.  It was evident that she was teasing him again!  Timothy, on the other hand, smiled faintly and offered no comment.  Recalling to mind his intimacy with Sarah the previous night, he felt confident that Geraldine couldn't very well have been alluding to him - at least not as far as he was concerned.  For he had seen more than enough female flesh to last him a good few nights to come!

     To be sure, the recollection of his pulling down Sarah's little white nylon panties and placing an exploratory kiss on her pubic hair caused his smile to expand slightly, in spite of the uncongenial environment in which he still found himself.  Because he was walking just behind the others, however, this smile went unnoticed and he didn't have to justify it.  No doubt, Geraldine, in particular, would have been intrigued!  Anyway, he was relieved that it was Lawrence Gowling and not himself the young lady was especially interested in, since he had no real desire to fraternize with the aristocracy.  Perhaps Gowling was suffering a scruple of conscience on that account too, and was accordingly afraid of what he would be letting himself in for, if he became Geraldine's lover?  It was possible though by no means guaranteed, considering the extent of the artist's bourgeois pedigree.  Perhaps, on second thoughts, he would have welcomed closer association with her, but was simply afraid to take the initial plunge and risk being identified, in her parents' eyes, as some kind of unscrupulous social climber?  Poor fellow!  If that was the case, then he deserved pitying.  Social climber indeed!  The thought was enough to make Timothy smile again.  But by now they had come upon a stream which ran through their part of the wood, and Geraldine was explaining that it merged into the river farther down.  "And that's where we'll probably run into the other group, since they've probably been dawdling on one or other of the new wooden bridges, watching the fish swim by," she added for their benefit.

     "Do you get many fish here?" Townley asked, as they stared down into the gently-flowing stream which glistened with myriad patches of sunlight, like some kind of kaleidoscope.

     "Not in the stream itself," Geraldine replied.  "For, as you can see, it's rather shallow and stony.  But certainly in the river.  My father has caught more than a few salmon there over the years.  Quite large ones, too.  After grouse shooting, it's his next favourite sport."

     "Oh, really?" Townley responded, his face aglow with polite interest.  "I used to do a spot of fishing myself at one time.  On the Wey, in Guildford."

     "How lovely!" Geraldine exclaimed.  "They tell me there are some ideal spots for fishing, along the Wey."

     "Ideal if you discount the counter-productive influence of passing rowing boats," Townley retorted, with a faint good-natured chuckle.  "They often scare the fish away.  And sometimes the less-accomplished rowers have a fatal tendency to get their oars entangled in one's line, which can be pretty frustrating, I can tell you!"

     A chorus of sympathetic humour erupted from his listeners, before Geraldine assured him that there weren't any boats on their river, so one could fish in peace.  "My brother used to catch tiddlers in this stream," she remarked nostalgically, as they continued to skirt its edge.

     "Tiddlers?" echoed Timothy and, smiling inwardly, he recalled his own rather frustrating efforts, as a small boy, to catch either tiddlers, tadpoles, or aquatic insects in his fishing net at Bagshot Ponds or off the tiny wooden bridge in the park at Farnham.  Mostly he just caught weeds and stones.  It was enough to put him off fishing for good (long before mature reflection, as an adult, led him to conclude that fishing for pleasure was on a par with blood sports and therefore no less reprehensible from a moral standpoint).  However, disillusioned as much by the nature of his catch as by the humble means employed, he later gravitated to feeding monkeys on the Hogs Back.  It was a slightly more rewarding occupation than waiting for non-existent or extremely recalcitrant tiddlers!  But the Wey?  He smarted with repressed indignation at the indirect insult just received from the unsuspecting Nigel Townley, who, it seemed, objected to boating there.  Had not he, Timothy Byrne, spent many a pleasant afternoon rowing down the Wey without disturbing a single fishing enthusiast or noticing a single fish, except the occasional dead one floating on the water's surface, compliments, in all probability, of the rod fraternity?  And had he not been inconvenienced himself, on a number of occasions, by fishing lines cast too far out and necessitating an abrupt change of direction, which usually resulted in one's colliding with the nearest bank?  God knows, there were so many sharp bends and unexpected twists-and-turns in the Wey, that it was difficult enough to avoid clashing with one or other of its banks at the best of times!  But for this bloke to complain about the inconvenience caused by rowers! 

     However, Timothy had no real desire to drag up his childhood or youth by the banks of this little stream, even though, in the circumstances, it wasn't entirely irrelevant.  As a child one was always, after all, something of a savage, and thus more partial to the barbarous influence of nature's predatory instincts.  A miniature pagan, at the furthest possible moral remove from God, or very nearly so.  For it was probably truer to say that the very earliest children, in the childhood of the human race, so to speak, had been at a still-further remove from the Holy Spirit than were their latter-day counterparts - bad enough as they generally were!

     By now, however, Geraldine's group had come upon sight of Lord Handon's in the distance, and, together, they quickened their pace to approach them.  Yet if the former had spotted the latter, it was hardly the case that a reciprocal spotting had taken place with the other group.  For they stood with their backs to the approaching quartet and were staring down into the water which ran beneath the sturdy wooden parapet upon which they all leant.  Or so it appeared for an instant.  For as Geraldine's group got a slightly better view of the bridge, thanks to a narrow clearing beyond the path, it soon became apparent that only Girish O'Donnell and Irene Myers were actually leaning on the parapet, since, much to Timothy's surprise, the remaining two guests were leaning against Lord Handon, one on either side of him, while he held a supporting arm round their respective waists.  Yet this, too, was an optical illusion or, at any rate, only a very transient posture.  For, on closer inspection, it soon became evident that Lord Handon’s hands weren't exactly static, but actively roaming backwards and forwards over their respective behinds.

     "Shush!" hissed Geraldine, bringing them to a sudden standstill, the better to spy on the proceedings farther afield.  Then, following the inevitably excited pause, she whispered: "Can you see what I can?"

     "Plainly," Timothy admitted on a note of disgust.

     Townley sniggered softly and shook his head in amazement.  "It seems that you were perfectly right to say this place must be a naturalist's paradise, Lawrence," he at length remarked, for the artist's dubious benefit.  "Everything would seem to point in the direction that Lord Hand-on would be a more apt accentuation of Han-don, and that he's doing his damnedest to live-up to his surname."

     Geraldine had put her hand on Gowling's arm in involuntary response to her father's actions and was causing him to blush anew, despite his manifest interest in the occupants of the bridge.  "Gosh, we could certainly do with some binoculars now!" he managed to say.

     In point of fact, binoculars would not have taught them much they didn't already know.  For, from where they now stood, they could even see the smiling faces of Sheila and Sarah frequently turning up towards the viscount, as he whispered or murmured something evidently endearing into their eager ears.  A smile, and then another little bout of hand roaming on Lord Handon's part.  Another smile, followed by more of the same.  And then, quite unexpectedly, a spurt of more adventurous caressing in relation to Sarah, as the hand nearest to her caught the rim of her minidress and gently lifted it up, thereby exposing the greater part of her pale-stockinged legs to the rapt attention of Geraldine's group - an action which precipitated a fresh wave of amazement, not to say amusement, among them.

     "My goodness, what will the old sod do next?" Geraldine was asking in a patently rhetorical fashion.

     "Are you sure that wasn't the wind which blew it up?" queried Gowling, who was slightly myopic in any case.

     "Positively," Geraldine assured him.  "I always knew my father was a lecher, but really...!"  She cast him a sort of reassuring glance, before adding: "I don't think I ought to watch this any longer."

     "Frankly, I don't think there'll be much more to watch," said Timothy, conscious, now he had got over his initial shock, of a feeling of jealousy in relation to Lord Handon's liberties.

     "Maybe that's what you prefer to believe," Geraldine retorted, an ironic smile on her lips.

     He shot her a withering look, but almost immediately regretted it, and relapsed, instead, into a morose silence.

     "I'm surprised that Girish and Irene aren't more intrigued by their guide's familiarities with the others," Gowling declared to no-one in particular.

     "They appear to be more interested in themselves," Townley observed.  "Arm-in-arm and talking quite volubly, by the look of it."

     "A pity we can't hear what they're saying from here," Geraldine murmured.  "But if we go any closer, they're bound to see us."

     Timothy was beginning to feel the cold.  "In all probability, they've only got their arms about each other to keep warm," he opined.

     "It's not that cold!" Geraldine objected.

     "Yet even if that applies to Girish and Irene," conceded Townley, "it hardly explains or justifies the posture, as it were, of the others."

     "Quite," both Geraldine and Gowling confirmed simultaneously.

     "Unless, of course, your father is endeavouring to keep his right hand warm by using Sarah's dress as a glove," Townley rejoined, in an attempt to elucidate his objections.

     "I must say, she does have a nice pair of legs," Gowling declared half-humorously.

     "So does Sheila, incidentally," the architect revealed.

     "Oh? And just when did you discover that fact?" Geraldine asked.  For Sheila's legs were still modestly hidden beneath her outer garments at that moment.

     "Whilst I was dancing with her last night, if you must know," Townley replied, divulging only a part of the truth.

     "I see," sighed Geraldine, and a slightly-pained expression crossed her face.  For she had hoped that Lawrence would have become better acquainted with her own not-unattractive pair of legs by now.  Unfortunately her attempts to lure him into her bedroom, following the dance, had quite failed, with a consequence that she had spent the greater part of the night thinking about what she was missing, conscious of the difference between a thoroughly pleasurable night and the rather less than thoroughly pleasurable one which she had been obliged to experience, thanks or no thanks to him!  But perhaps she would get what she wanted before long?

     Meanwhile, however, it was her father who appeared to be getting what he wanted from the two young women on either side of him.  Evidently his wants were not as exigent as Geraldine's but, nonetheless, they were of a sufficiently sensuous nature to be of some concern to Timothy, who watched, with growing resentment, the liberal caresses Lord Handon was permitting himself at Sarah's expense.  For his right hand had now slipped under her dress and was more intimately exploring the opera singer's rear, gliding backwards and forwards across what appeared to be the very same pair of panties which Timothy had had the privilege of removing only the night before.  However, to the latter's relief, Sarah must have realized that Lord Handon was taking extra liberties with her, and decided there and then to put a stop to it.  For the hand that wasn't wrapped round his waist suddenly came to the rescue of her modesty and set about restoring the dress to its former, more orthodox position, thereby obliging her assailant to adopt a less intimate caress again.  In fact, Timothy almost heaved a sigh of relief at this point, but, realizing that Geraldine's attention was partly on him, he checked the impulse to do so at the last moment and endeavoured to fake a light-hearted smile instead, as though the proceedings farther afield were only of humorous interest.  If Geraldine saw through him, too bad!

     "It looks as if our little peep-show is about to come to an end," Townley remarked, a shade disappointedly.

     "So it does," Geraldine confirmed.  For the arms of the two young women on the bridge had now dropped to their sides, as Lord Handon turned away from the parapet and began to walk towards the couple to his left.

     "They'll be coming in our direction now, won't they?" Gowling surmised at the top of his whispering voice.

     And, sure enough, the other group was leaving the bridge and heading towards the beaten path on which they were still standing, as though locked in suspended animation.

     "I feel like turning back," Timothy confessed, in the throes of a momentary panic.

     "Don't be such a bloody fool!" cried Geraldine.  "They'll be expecting us to bump into them shortly in any case, so we must go on.  But when we do meet them, try not to look guilty or amused.  Otherwise they're bound to realize that we've been spying on them.  Try, if anything, to look surprised."

     "What, you here?" joked Townley, smiling.

     "Yes, something of the sort," Geraldine smilingly agreed, as they continued along the path and thence out into the less thickly-populated stretch of wood beyond.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

The drive back to London was both pleasant and educative, giving the four passengers in O'Donnell's Mercedes an opportunity to discover more about the Voice Museum and finalize arrangements for their prospective recordings.  As it happened, both Timothy and Sarah, who sat next to each other beside Sheila Johnston on the back seat, agreed to visit the museum together at the same time the following week, while Sheila made provisional arrangements for another day of that week, and Gowling, who sat beside the driver, tentatively offered his services for a day in the week after, when he would apparently be less busy.  The other two guests or, rather, ex-guests of Rothermore House had also, before going their separate ways, put forward provisional dates, so it rather looked as though O'Donnell would be in for a fairly busy time in the coming weeks!  And with a little luck, he would be able to show each of them around the museum personally, in a gesture of confidence.

     Their conversation became more desultory, however, as the drive wore on, and had virtually petered-out by the time they reached the outskirts of London.  Sheila was the first to go, since she lived way south of the Thames, and then, at Chelsea, Gowling alighted with a sigh of relief.  That left Timothy and Sarah, and, since he lived in Highgate and she in Hampstead, he was the next to be dropped off.  Not surprisingly, he was almost tempted to offer her a parting kiss when she put a farewell hand on his nearest thigh, but, mindful of O'Donnell's ignorance of their intimacy, he refrained from doing so at the last moment, making do, instead, with a parting smile.  O'Donnell simply nodded farewell and, as soon as Timothy was safely on the pavement, roared away again in his expensive motor.  After dropping Sarah off in Hampstead he would proceed to his semidetached in Golders Green, where he lived in bachelor confinement.  Whether he would continue to live in such confinement much longer, however, remained to be seen.  For he had certainly taken more than a passing fancy to Irene!

     Arrived home, Timothy immediately set about preparing himself some supper.  He hadn't eaten since lunch and, as it was nearly four o'clock when they left Rothermore House and had now just gone seven, his stomach was in need of some refreshment, not to say fuel.  It might have been more sensible, he thought, had they stayed on at Lord Handon's for tea instead of rushing away before it got too dark.  But O'Donnell had wanted to see one or two of the sights of Crowborough while some daylight remained, and had accordingly insisted on their leaving during the afternoon.  One could tell that even this was too late for Lady Handon, who, as previously noted, had wanted to get rid of them all in the morning.  Her husband, however, was less keen to see them go, and that was the main reason why they had remained there for the better part of the day.  No doubt, he was intent upon furthering the morning's intimacies!  Either that or he didn't want to be left alone with his wife and daughter too soon!  Yet, as far as Timothy could tell, the morning's intimacies had not been furthered, so the good viscount was obliged to make do with desultory conversation and, when that failed, a game of  billiards with Nigel Townley - an occupation which appeared to mollify him in some measure.

     Timothy ate supper in the kitchen of his four-roomed flat.  He was both pleased and relieved to be back from what, for him, had been an unprecedented experience.  But, by God, how small everything seemed!  The kitchen looked ten times smaller than usual - more a cupboard than a room.  And what applied to the kitchen would doubtless apply to each of his other rooms as well - all cupboards!  To be sure, the difference in scale from the rooms at Rothermore House was indeed tremendous, more tremendous than he would have been capable of contemplating had he never set foot in the place.  It was almost a comedown being back home again.  A comedown?  How quickly the aristocratic criteria of Lord Handon's stuffy old baroque mansion had made their mark on him, influencing his soul in a way he would ordinarily have considered pernicious or misguided!  No, not so much a comedown, the rational part of his mind now told him, as a radical change-of-scale.  But isn't that more to your liking?

     Ah yes, there at last was the philosophical part of his psyche reasserting itself again, reminding him of who he was and what he believed in as a person.  It was coming to his rescue, coming to combat the pernicious influence of his recent misguided experiences.  That old Nietzschean 'transvaluation of all values' was making its voice heard above the babble of contradictory feelings and impressions once more.  He could hear it quite clearly now, as he sat in front of his mug of steaming coffee and plate of cheese-and-tomato sandwiches.  Calm, reassuring, methodical, a reassertion of his customary values.... No, it wasn't a comedown to be sitting back here in one's tiny kitchen after the materialistic opulence and expansiveness of Rothermore House.  On the contrary, one had simply returned to one's own more evolved level, a level in which materialism was scaled-down, as it were, to a bare minimum.  One had returned to the late-twentieth century again, to a world of flats and small city houses.  It was a very different world from the old aristocratic one of large country mansions.  And faced with a choice between living in a small flat or a large mansion, one could hardly be blamed for coming down heavily in favour of the former.  One simply followed one's logic until it attained to a realization of the fact that one was closer to the Holy Ghost by living in a flat or small-city house than ever one would be in a large country mansion.  Not a great deal closer perhaps.  But still, on a higher level of evolution than the person surrounded by nature on some country estate.  One was morally better off, and that was worth knowing.   Such was the way, at any rate, that Timothy Byrne looked at life, and he was confident that there were plenty of others who would be just as capable of looking at it from a similarly objective viewpoint - objective, that is, in terms of the Holy Ghost and the struggle for inner truth.

     He smiled to himself as he swallowed the last mouthful of sandwich.  In his mind's eye he saw the stern, rather embittered face of Lady Handon, as she disagreed with his concept of the Diabolic, saying: 'I really cannot reconcile myself to your attitude towards the stars and nature.'  Ah well, too bad, Lady Pamela, too bad!  We don't all live on the same evolutionary level, after all.  Some of us virtually live in the Middle Ages, some in pagan times, others even aspire, if that's the right word, to the primeval, and yet others live in a mixture or combination of them all.  But then, of course, some live more up-to-date - in fact as far up-to-date as the last quarter of the twentieth century.  A few are effectively spiritual leaders and consequently expressive of viewpoints which may well sound strange to those who lag behind.  And the further they lag behind, the stranger these viewpoints are likely to sound.  A genuine pagan would have been even less disposed to accept Timothy's views of the stars and nature than Lady Handon.  Fortunately, however, genuine pagans were few-and-far-between these days.  Evolution was against them.  It disliked laggards.

     Yet what of the spiritual leaders?  Was evolution encouraging them as much as it could, and, if so, had Timothy Byrne a right to consider himself blessed with the privilege of such leadership?  Yes, he liked to think so - at least as far as his thinking, his theories, were concerned.  Naturally there would be those who, when once they read his latest published work, would be only too ready to consider him mad or bad, or both.  But so what?  Did that prove he really was?  In all probability their thinking - assuming they thought anything at all - was simply at a lower stage of evolution and therefore indisposed them to relate to him.  It was nothing to be surprised at.  There were millions of Lady Handons in the world, and what they thought was usually little more than what others had thought for them, and not generally the most up-to-date or progressive people either!  Let them have their little grumble, if that was all they wanted.  He would not be thrown off course by that, but would stick to his intellectual guns and fire away at the body of outmoded tradition, of entrenched reaction and dogmatic denial.  And if, after all, he was wrong and could be proved so?  Well, damn it, he would still fire away for all he was worth and assert his thinking over everyone else's.  It was his own life to do with as he saw fit.  And if he saw fit to regard human evolution as a sort of struggle from diabolic alpha points to a divine omega point, from the stars to the Holy Spirit - well then, that was his affair and nothing could take it away from him, not even the combined efforts of all the Lady Handons in the world put together.  As long as he lived, his truth lived with him.  It was germane to him and a reflection of his degree of evolutionary sophistication.  He had a right to think of the Alpha in diabolic terms, for he had gone so far in the contrary direction ... that there was no other reasonable possibility.  Willy-nilly, the Alpha is entitled to the respect accorded to divinity until the coming of the Omega shows it up and puts it in an immoral light.  For alpha and omega are incommensurate, and if there is to be an omega point, there can be no continuing allegiance to the Alpha.  Self-realization necessarily excludes worship.

     He finished off his last cheese-and-tomato sandwich and gulped down the rest of his coffee.  His new book was bound to cause some disagreement or disapproval among people.  Good, let it impinge on the cobwebs of their conservative thinking and rouse their feelings a bit!  God knows, some of them needed to have their feelings roused, to be shocked out of their smug complacency!  And if it stirred them into writing him abusive or threatening letters, so be it!  He would bear his cross as best he could, regardless.  He wouldn't go along with those who thought 'God's in His Heaven and all's right with the world.'  The Devil was in its Hell all right, but, so far as he was concerned, God had yet to be established in His or, rather, its Heaven.  Only with the climax of evolution would man attain to God, in his opinion.  Only with the transformation of spirit into holy spirit, transcendent and pure, would God actually become manifest in the Universe. 

     Thus Timothy saw himself in the unique position of being a spiritual leader who was yet an atheist, a man of God who disbelieved in God's actual existence, preferring to contend that it was our duty, as evolving beings, to create ultimate divinity in due course, to further the cause of divine truth in the Universe by cultivating the spirit as much as possible.

     God, then, was the culmination of evolution, the divine flower at the end of the stem of human progress, the climax of Eternal Life.  By cultivating the spirit Timothy believed that we were not so much getting into contact with God, contrary to what most mystics had hitherto imagined, as simply with that which, in pure consciousness, was potentially God - incipiently divine.  The spirit and the Holy Spirit were not identical.  For the latter was destined to arise out of the former as it became transcendent.  As yet, however, spirit was all too impure, held back and down, as it were, by the flesh.  Some presumption, indeed, to equate this spirit with God!

     With supper out of the way, Timothy decided to call a  halt to these rather radical reflections and do some meditating before going to bed.  He was quite tired now and anxious to make up, in due course, for any sleep missed the previous night.  Ah, how Sarah had drained him of physical energy, or such of it as he had still possessed after the fatiguing exertions of their dancing match!  A sexual vampire, if ever there was one!  But a very beautiful woman, he had to admit.  Too beautiful, in fact.  The kind of woman who could quickly drain one of spiritual energy, too!

     He switched off the kitchen light and ambled across the passageway to his study, which was where he preferred to conduct his brief stints of Transcendental Meditation these days.  The light was somewhat brighter in there and quite dazzled him as it came on, causing his mostly paperback library to gleam back at him from the opposite wall.  Ignoring that, he advanced towards his dark-green notebook, which lay where he had left it on the desk beneath the study's single window, and, opening it at the page where he had made his last entry only a couple of days before, began to read:-

 

I like de Chardin's phenomenology, or theory of cosmogenesis.  In fact, it has had some influence on my own work.  But I'm rather sceptical about his Christogenesis, especially with regard to a literal resurrection of Christ and the consequent inference of an already-existent Omega Point compounded, so to speak, of the spiritual presence of the Risen Christ.  This would suggest the existence of God, and I am unable to reconcile myself to it.  However, I do believe that, considered figuratively, the Resurrection can be regarded as a symbolic illustration of man's future destiny in spiritual transcendence.  Hence the Universe could be said to entail a literal Christogenesis insofar as it is man's destiny to follow the symbolic example of the Risen Christ and ultimately attain to the Omega Point, attain, in other words, to the Holy Spirit, the climax of evolution - call it what you will.  But as for Christ Himself, no, I can't for one moment believe that He literally rose from the dead and actually attained to the Omega Point two millennia ago - particularly in light of the fact that, even in this day and age, we have such a deplorably long way to go in developing our spiritual potential, and, as a corollary to that, to pairing back and eventually transcending the natural, ours no less than that pertaining to nature in general.

 

     Timothy smiled to himself in deference to the almost Nietzschean implications of the latter part of the last sentence, before turning back the page of his notebook to a note written earlier that same day.  It read:-

 

Like Aldous Huxley, I am opposed to downward self-transcendence but in favour of upward self-transcendence.  I believe the future belongs to LSD or some such hallucinogenic alternative.  Increasingly we shall avail ourselves of the synthetic, turning away from the natural, as from a narcotic plague.

 

     And above it another note, reading:-

 

They say that, like art, literature is dead, but this isn't really so!  Literature is simply undergoing a process of transformation into a higher stage of evolution, becoming less a matter of illusion and more one of truth, like art.  In this transitional age, the most advanced literature is that which aspires most consistently and successfully towards truth or fact at the expense of illusion and fiction.  In this regard, the philosophical stands above the autobiographical, the transpersonal above the personal.  Hence novels like Island (Huxley) or The Call-Girls (Koestler) are superior to, say, Tropic of Cancer (Miller) or Sons and Lovers (Lawrence).  But these predominantly autobiographical novels are, by a like-token, superior to novels of a traditionally and/or conventionally fictitious cast.

 

     He smiled to himself once more, this time in response to a reflection on the shortcomings of the above note, which, while doing relative justice to conventional bourgeois literature, absolutely failed to embrace the extent to which computers would revolutionize literature in terms of an artificial conceptualism that, in relation to conceptual precedent, would be effectively superconceptual, and proceeded to read the first note on the left-hand page, which was strictly autobiographical:-

 

I am incapable of writing inconsequential works - novels which revel in silly fictions and half-baked illusions.  If I do not write philosophical bombshells, pushing the pursuit of truth to greater heights, I don't write at all.  My imagination dries-up before mere story-telling.  It requires a worthier task!

 

     Ah, how true that statement was!  He closed his notebook and stood a moment staring blankly through the dark window, out into the night.  He wasn't a petty man to waste valuable time scribbling silly fictions!  It was his duty, he felt, to further the philosophically- and/or autobiographically-biased literature of late-twentieth-century man.... Admittedly, it was still necessary to commit a certain amount of illusion or fiction to paper, but one did so begrudgingly and sparingly, always with a view to supporting one's philosophical bias.  For if one was foolish enough to allow it to swamp one's work, to move from the plane of foundations to that of the principal edifice, one simply produced poor literature, that is to say, poor by late-twentieth-century standards - reactionary or traditional, a literature seemingly in the service of the perceptual rather than standing on its own conceptual terms in philosophical opposition to the theatrical, whether anterior or, preferably, posterior to it.  For the perceptual and the conceptual were two quite separate ways of approaching life, and there was no sense in which the perceptual was inherently superior to the conceptual.  On the contrary, it was a barbarous alpha, not a civilized omega.  The one stemmed from dreams, the other could be said to presage meditation.

     Absentmindedly, he pulled the bright cotton curtains across the dark window and then turned towards the centre of his study.  He normally meditated sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, but he wasn't now sure that he really wanted to meditate, after all.  Somehow the day had caught up with him, making him too tired to adopt a positive attitude towards his spirit.  He would run the risk of relapsing into a kind of downward self-transcendence in trance-like stupor.  He could end-up experiencing his subconscious mind rather than his superconscious one, his perceptual senses rather than his conceptual spirit.  No, he could do without that, especially after his experiences of the last two days!  He'd had enough truck with the Diabolic Alpha at Lord Handon's.  In a short while he would be sliding down into his subconscious anyway, to dream the devil-knew-what, so he might as well save himself the inconvenience of premature subconscious domination in the study.  After all, it was the noblest of his four rooms, the one most suited to the cultivation of spirit.  It wouldn't do to fall asleep there!  God knows, it was difficult enough to cultivate spirit at the best of times, what with all the diurnal occupations and obligations with which one had to contend.  Even more difficult when one lived in an environment, as Timothy used to do, in which dogs were gruffly barking most of the time.  Hellishly so!

     Fortunately, however, all he now had to contend with was tiredness, yet that was more than enough!  He decided, there and then, to take himself off to bed and make-up for this spiritual lapse some other time - perhaps the following day.  Then he might be in a better frame-of-mind to cultivate the godly and aspire towards transcendent spirit.

     And, sure enough, the following evening he set aside half-an-hour for the objective in question.  As a rule, he preferred the evening to the day because, to him, it was a less evil time, the sun having its primary influence on the opposite side of the globe.  The evening world was accordingly at the farthest physical remove from the Diabolic Alpha, and thus it was easier, he believed, to aspire towards the Divine Omega then than at any other time.  Aspire, yes!  But not attain to it!  For there was an immense difference, he felt obliged to remind himself, between spirit and holy spirit, between that which was potentially God and the actual transcendent establishment of God in due course.  To underestimate this could prove fatal.  He had no intentions of doing so!

     Yet he got a surprise that evening.  For no sooner had he completed his meditation routine and begun listening to some synth-based music than the telephone rang, and who should it be but Sarah Field!  He almost jumped out of his skin at the clear sound of her voice, sweetly alluring as ever.  Had he got over his visit to Rothermore House?  Yes, he had.  Was he happy to be back home?  Yes, he was.  Had he decided what he would say at the Voice Museum on Thursday for O'Donnell's commercial benefit?  No, he hadn't.  Would he be free for a friendly get-together on, say, Monday or Tuesday evening?  Er ... yes.  But where?

     "I'll come and see you, if you like," Sarah replied.  "I'd love to see your flat."

     "Oh, you would, would you?" (Gentle laughter at Sarah's end of the line.) "Well, in that case, Tuesday will be fine."

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Tuesday evening was in fact when Sarah arrived, looking like a beauty queen - or so it seemed to Timothy's overwrought imagination - and bringing a recording of Massenet's Werther, which she wanted him to hear because she was on it.

     "I know you're familiar with the work itself," she stated, as he took the slender box-set in his eager hands.  "But since it's the only recording I've so far made in French, it may prove of some fresh interest to you."

     "Decidèment," Timothy smilingly assured her.  "We'll put it on straightaway."

     "Please don't feel under any obligation to," said Sarah, following him into his sitting-room.  "I mean, you needn't play it just because I'm here."  But Timothy seemed resolved on playing it now, and so she was obliged to let him.  "Ah, what a nice room this is!" she enthused, while taking off her coat.  Underneath she wore a pale-green satin miniskirt with black nylon stockings and matching high-heels.  Her dark hair hung down her back in a plaited ponytail.

     "Yes," Timothy agreed.  "It's where I like to relax."  Although, with the ravishing proximity of Sarah Field in front of him at that moment, he felt anything but relaxed!  In fact, her image had played on his mind throughout the past few days, keying him up for the present.  He could hardly be blamed therefore if, no sooner than he had set side one of Werther in motion, he took her in his arms and lovingly applied his mouth to hers.

     To his gratification, she responded warmly, enabling him to unzip her skirt and run his hands over her ample behind, as though to erase the imprint of Lord Handon's liberties there the week before.  It seemed that she, too, was keen to explore the pleasures of the senses.  For her hand took care of his zip shortly afterwards.

     "Are you going to let me open your purse again?" he teasingly inquired of her.

     Purse?" she queried, wrinkling-up her brows in feigned puzzlement.

     "You know," he smiled, still teasing.

     A knowing blush suffused her cheeks.  "Provided you put something rich into it," she joked.

     He needed no further encouragement on that score but lifted her off her feet and set about the task to-hand, removing her tiny nylon panties with one hand and freeing his already-erect penis with the other.  In the background, so to speak, the disc was well under way, but now that he was succumbing to the physical enticements of Sarah's moist 'purse', it meant little or nothing to him.  He was quite familiar with the libretto anyway, and preferred not to hear certain parts of it again - for instance, the lines sung by Werther in Act One, which went:-

 

                                      O nature

                                                     enivre-moi de parfums.

                                                     Mère eternellment jeune, adorable et pure!

                                                     O nature!...

                                                     Et, soleil,

                                                     viens m'inonder de tes rayons!

 

and clashed violently with his own philosophical viewpoint concerning nature and the sun.  No, he could certainly do without that, even though it was something of a pleasure to hear the voice of Sarah following on behind, in her role as Charlotte.

     But the opera singer's body was more interesting to him now than her voice and, since he hadn't had much tangible sex these past few years, he was keen to satisfy his needs in some measure, to redress the balance slightly or, at any rate, pay some dues to the world, as it were, for being a man rather than a god.  Besides, he had become slightly less theocratic and correspondingly more democratic off late, which made coitus virtually de rigueur.

     Yes, he put something rich into her empty 'purse' all right, filling it up with tiny pearls of glistening sperm the making of which caused her to squirm in an ecstasy of sensual delight and expend her wealth in due course.  Oh, she clung to him like a leech, draining every last drop of the precious deposit from him, as though her very life depended upon it.  But then, all of a sudden, it was over, and he withdrew from her with the rapidity of a passing tornado, leaving her ravished form to topple to the carpet just in front of the electric fire.  He had filled her 'purse' all right, but what if she became pregnant?  Would he marry her?  Would he be capable of living with an opera singer - he, a man of the spirit?  He turned towards her and said: "Sarah, supposing you become pregnant ...?"  But the words sounded hollow and he immediately regretted it.  Somehow, one shouldn't ask such embarrassing questions!

     Yet, to his surprise, she calmly answered: "I take the pill, Tim."

     The pill?  Ah, yes!  Why hadn't it occurred to him?  She wouldn't have allowed him to have his way with her otherwise, not with her professional life to consider and the fact that they had only known each other less than a week - since last Thursday, in fact.  No, of course not!  How stupid of him to panic.

     "Would you rather I became pregnant, then?" she asked, to his further surprise.

     "Well ..." and he hesitated, wondering how best to answer.  For, in a sense, he would, since he had put so much effort into satisfying their mutual desires.  It seemed a waste of energy that she was defeating his sperm with the pill.  A futile, not to say gratuitous, undertaking.  But, on the other hand, he hadn't known her long enough to be confident that she would make a good wife; wasn't absolutely convinced that it would be in their mutual interests to embark upon the hazardous course of raising a family.

     Naturally he was pretty keen on her, might even have fallen in love with her in his own offhand way, and couldn't pretend that he didn't want to get married some day.  But whether to this particular woman ... that was something he couldn't very well tell at present.  All he knew for sure was that he didn't want to rush into anything prematurely, like he risked doing this evening.  He did, however, want to make some woman pregnant sooner or later, to have a son or a daughter and thus play a part, no matter how small, in keeping the human race going.  For it was only through propagation that humanity could continue to evolve and one day attain to the climax of evolution, only through reproducing itself that it could eventually attain to transcendent spirit.  His son or daughter would be chronologically closer to this long-awaited consummation of evolution than himself, and that was worth knowing.  The heavenly Beyond was our goal all right, but we couldn't get to it without reproducing ourselves en route.  Willy-nilly, propagation was a must.... "Well," he said again, "I suppose I'd like you to become pregnant eventually, but I've no desire to rush you into anything."  In fact, this was said in spite of himself, in order not to hurt her feelings.  For he still wasn't absolutely sure that he, personally, would want to make her pregnant.

     Sarah smiled understandingly and put her arms round his waist.  "I wouldn't allow you to rush me into anything," she softly assured him.

     "But if I really wanted to give you a child?" he remarked.

     "I'd probably allow you to," she responded.

     Timothy was visibly surprised.  "Just like that?" he sceptically asked.

     "Yes, because it's better that way, better to have a child by a man who really wants to give you one ... than by someone you have to coax it out of, like he's afraid of the consequences or something," Sarah replied.

     "But what about your opera career?"

     Sarah frowned slightly and closed her eyes a moment, before saying: "It could wait."

     "Wait?"

     "Oh, don't think I don't love singing," she assured him.  "But if I could love a man more, then my career would have to take second place."

     "You wouldn't consider it a waste of your professional time then, having a child?" he conjectured sceptically.

     "Not if the man was worthy of my love," she confirmed, smiling.  "A woman first and foremost, a singer secondly."

     "Even if you were on the verge of world fame?"

     Again Sarah hesitated a moment before replying, turning her face towards the electric fire as though to gather strength from its bright orange filaments.  "Yes, even then," she said, swallowing hard.

     Timothy was indeed surprised!  He had never been in such a seemingly privileged position before.  It was almost disconcerting to hear her admit such a thing.  Enough to make one feel guilty.  "And you consider me worth sacrificing your career for?" he tentatively and almost bashfully inquired of her.

     She sat up beside him and placed a tender kiss on his nearest cheek, saying: "Yes, Tim, I do.  For a while, at least."

     Automatically he reciprocated her tenderness, then said: "I'd have thought there were plenty of other men just as worthy of your love with whom you come into regular contact on the opera stage."

     "Not at present," she confessed, offering him a slightly forlorn glance.  "One comes into professional contact with plenty of men, admittedly.  Yet they're often unsuitable or otherwise engaged at the time.  Indeed, you'd be surprised how lonely an opera singer can be!  We spend most of our time singing about love and romance, but we're not necessarily experiencing what we sing.  It's mostly just an act, you know.  And sometimes a rather difficult one, too.... But don't let me burden you with my problems.  Suffice it to say that at present I don't know of another man whom I'd be prepared to sacrifice my career for, and that's a good enough reason to be on the pill."  She smiled reassuringly but without parting her lips, withholding from him that sparkle of teeth to which he had become gratefully accustomed.  "By the way," she added, "you're not opposed to the pill, are you?"

     "No, although I'm aware it can entail certain physical inconveniences and lead to a variety of psychological hang-ups," Timothy replied.  "But, fundamentally, I think it's a good thing, even if it might be improved upon in the course of time.  It makes for greater sexual freedom, at any rate."

     "Freedom from unnecessary or unwanted accidents," Sarah confirmed, smiling.  "More sexual liberty and a safeguard against rape - assuming one should ever have the misfortune to be raped."

     "Ah, I see your point," Timothy admitted, blushing faintly.  "It's a rather pessimistic thought, but I suppose you'd feel more confident being out alone in the dark or stuck in a lift with some male stranger, if you were on the pill."

     "Certainly as far as pregnancy is concerned," Sarah conceded.  "But then there would always be the risk of venereal disease."

     "An unsavoury subject!" Timothy declared, wincing at the thought of it.  "However, in getting back to the advantages of being on the pill, let's just remember it gives us more control over nature, and that's something we need to get as much control over as possible.  Nature is fundamentally evil, since torn between the earth's molten core and the sun.  Therefore if we can regulate our sexuality so that we don't invariably fall into its predatory trap, so much the better!"

     "I recall your anti-natural sentiments in the drawing-room at Rothermore House," Sarah confessed.  "Not to mention Lady Pamela's opposition to them.  She would undoubtedly be against the pill."

     "Yes, though probably not against condoms," Timothy opined.  "However, she's well past the age of having to worry about pregnancy, so I dare say that contraception of any description would be of little interest to her.  Geraldine would be the person for whom contraception has particular significance."

     "Especially where Lawrence Gowling is concerned," Sarah jokingly averred.

     "Absolutely!" concurred Timothy, as the thought of that suddenly evoked the memory of their walk around the grounds of Rothermore House, the previous Friday morning, during which time Geraldine had made a variety of flirtatious claims upon poor Gowling's sensibilities.  Yet it also evoked a less amusing memory, which was the spectacle of Joseph Handon standing on the wooden bridge with the arms of Sheila and Sarah draped about his waist and his hands on their respective behinds.  In the excitement of Sarah's arrival at his flat this evening, Timothy had quite forgotten about the episode in question, which had caused him more than a little uncertainty over the weekend.  Since the subsequent events at Rothermore House had taught him nothing further about it, he was still in some doubt as to its actual significance, even with Sarah beside him.  But he couldn't very well question her now, and thus betray the fact that, together with the other members of his group, he had been watching the goings-on from a discreet distance.  That simply wouldn't do at all!  No, he would just have to keep it to himself and hope for the best, hope, in other words, that Lord 'handy' Handon hadn't begun a private affair with Sarah behind his back.  It seemed unlikely, but, all the same, one couldn't be absolutely sure - not when she had the pill to safeguard her freedom!

     "Have you personally ever used sex aids?" she asked, startling Timothy out of his morose reflections.

     "Sex aids?" he gasped, unsure of exactly what she meant.

     "You know, special ribbed condoms or flashy little rubber gadgets that fit onto your cock and provide the participants with an extra thrill or two."

     The writer laughed impulsively and shook his head.  "Alas, no!" he confessed.  "But I do believe in them, though."

     "You do?"

     "Yes, I believe in anything that makes sex a less purely natural affair.  It attests to a higher level of civilization, this inclination to bring synthetics or whatever to bear on sex.  For the further civilization evolves, the more power it must gain over nature.  The highest civilization would be that which was most anti-natural and therefore synthetic.  Contemporary civilization hasn't as yet attained to the highest possible peak of synthetic excellence, by any means!  Nevertheless, the growth of such industries as you allude to is a good thing, and should be encouraged."

     "You frighten me a little," said Sarah, frowning apologetically.

     "You needn't be," Timothy assured her.

     "But isn't it mostly just commercial exploitation, this outpouring of sexual aids and stimulants?"

     "No, it's not just that, it's also civilization - higher civilization, as I've said.  And if we continue to evolve, as we should do, then you can be pretty certain that the use of synthetic aids will become more widespread and their construction correspondingly more efficacious.  Sex as an art rather than simply a utilitarian obligation.  Sex spiritualized through film and disc.  Sex elevated through sophisticated gadgets.  And eventually perhaps, as we become ever more civilized, actual sex phased-out of society and replaced by sublimated sex, in order that we may concentrate more thoroughly on attaining to the Omega Point, the culmination of evolution."

     "But how would we reproduce ourselves?" Sarah queried, her regard turning sharply quizzical.

     "By artificial means," said Timothy confidently.

     "Very Brave New World!" she opined, alluding to Aldous Huxley's most famous or, depending on your viewpoint, infamous novel.

     "Oh, absolutely!  We would enter this world through science rather than sex, and thus get off to a better start, morally speaking.  We would thereby be able to take our spiritual aspirations more seriously, since we'd no longer be semi-animals with beast-like passions."

     "You frighten me again."

     "Ah, don't worry!  This isn't likely to happen overnight.  Evolution is a tremendously long process, after all, and we have only comparatively recently begun to embark upon the sublimation of sex on a widespread, not to say wide-ranging, basis, thanks in large measure to the development of photography.  There's still a great deal of literal sex in society, which will doubtless continue to be the case for some time to come.  Yet even sublimated sex must eventually be outgrown, so to speak, as we concentrate more exclusively on the cultivation of spirit.  You won't attain to God by sitting in front of a sex video for hours on end, you know.  But unless you do elevate sex from the body to the mind, as it were, you'll always be stuck with it in the body, world without fucking end, and no transcendence will be possible."

     "No, I suppose  not," Sarah wearily conceded.  For, in truth, she found all this somewhat too futuristic and speculative for her liking, and was quite surprised that Timothy looked upon it with such evident relish.  But he was, after all, a man of spiritual foresight, a genuine intellectual leader, so what he said had to be taken seriously to some extent.  It was no use pretending that he was a fool or dupe of his own illusions.  He spoke with a certain moral authority born, no doubt, of premeditated deliberation.  Which was evidently what people like Lady Handon found so disagreeable about him.  "And do you believe that we'll stand a better chance of attaining to God through the aid of test-tubes, artificial insemination, sperm banks, et cetera, than otherwise?" she asked him in due course.

     "I do," he confidently replied, "since one only stands a chance of transcending the body, in my opinion, by cultivating the spirit as much as possible.  So long as we come into this world via the flesh, we shall always be its slaves.  However, don't forget that this transcendental hope only applies to people in the future, not to us personally.  I have no illusion that I'll personally attain to ultimate divinity, especially after a bout of sensual gratification like we've shared this evening!  The transformation from mundane spirit to transcendent spirit is the culmination of evolution, as I've already said, and that would be an exclusively heavenly phenomenon, so that the highest civilization just prior to it would probably be composed entirely of men or, rather, supermen who had been programmed for spiritual transcendence and brought into this world through science.  After all, if you do away with sex, of what use are women?"

     Sarah was even more surprised to hear this than what had preceded it, and duly opened her mouth in astonishment.  "A society without women?" she exclaimed.

     "One can imagine science programming the sex of the test-tube babies," Timothy calmly rejoined, "in order to minimize or preclude unnecessary sexual distractions in the ultimate civilization.  I don't know ... it's simply speculation on my part.  But I shouldn't be surprised if that or something like it did transpire to being the case.  For women would maintain fleshy temptations, and, frankly, you can't be ultra-spiritual and be tempted by the flesh at the same time!  There would have to be one-way traffic towards the Beyond, it seems to me, or nothing at all.  No homosexuality either, of course."

     "But, then, women wouldn't be candidates for Heaven!" Sarah protested.

     "Quite so!  The culmination of human evolution would be a completely supermasculine affair, eternity being entirely spiritual.  But women, it seems to me, are fundamentally appearance, not essence, and, as such, God isn't literally for them.  Their business is primarily to keep the species going until such time as they're no longer necessary, science having taken over.  They're a bit like the stars that shine-on in the heavens and keep life going, but aren't destined for blissful eternity themselves.  The stars will one day perish, leaving the Universe to its ultimate perfection in God.  And so, too, I believe, will women ... considered in literally feminine as opposed to liberated terms.  So, too, in a sense will men, since everybody will be unisexually superhuman, if not supra-human, rather than human, and therefore the old dichotomy between men and women will cease to exist."

     "Oh, but that's terrible!" Sarah objected.  "How can you say such a thing?"

     "It isn't terrible really," Timothy countered.  "On the contrary, it would, if true, be right and just.  Women of the unliberated type I have in mind, who are mostly conventional in any case, wouldn't want Heaven, the Holy Spirit, or whatever you prefer to term this hypothetical culmination of evolution.  They're what they are, and that's all there is to it.  It's not as if they were being denied anything, if you see what I mean.  What's essentially relevant to us is fundamentally irrelevant to them.  There's no disgrace in that."

     There then ensued a thoughtful silence between Timothy and Sarah, during which the writer moved closer to the singer and put an arm round her waist.  Then he kissed her tenderly on the cheek a few times, sucking away the tears that were rolling down it.  She looked weak and fragile at this moment, but ever so loveable!

     "Supposing you're right," she at length stammered, turning her face fully towards him, "supposing your speculations are valid, what right have I to love such a man as you, someone as clever as yourself?"

     "Don't talk like that!" Timothy reproved her, frowning.  For he had indeed been pained by it.  "I may be exceptionally clever, but I'm not above women - at least comparatively liberated ones.  Don't think that I despise you, Sarah, I don't!  But I do know that men and women are fundamentally of different constitution, and that what's desirable for the one sex isn't necessarily desirable or indeed possible for the other - at least not in the case of the great generality of unliberated women, who remain fundamentally sexy and, hence, seductive, scorning spirituality in favour of maternal ambitions, their beauty commensurate with a worldly disposition or status."  He kissed her again and she smiled weakly through the avalanche of tears that were now streaming down her face.

     "I've been fed so much crap all my life," she confessed, "that it rankles a bit when one hears something which sounds like the truth!  Perhaps women like me just aren't constitutionally qualified to bear it?"

     "Possibly not ultimate truth," Timothy conceded.  "But you are constitutionally qualified to bear children, and if ..." he hesitated on the verge of continuing.  For it came as quite a shock to him, this thought which had suddenly welled-up in his mind, like a water-bubble rising to the surface.  Had he changed his mind then, or come to a final decision?

     "Yes?" Sarah pressed him.

     "Well, if you ever wanted to bear a child of mine, I'd be more than happy to give you one."  The words were out of his mouth before he had quite realized exactly what he was saying.

     "You would?" Sarah exclaimed, her face showing renewed signs of surprise and astonishment.

     "Yes."

     "Serious?"

     "Perfectly."

     "But when?"

     He hesitated anew, not sure how best to answer, then smiled and said: "As soon as you like."

     "Oh but can you really afford to?"

     "Just about."

     "I see."

     "And you'll marry me?"

     "Yes."

     "Good, then that settles it!"

     "Are you quite sure?"

     "Positive!"

     "Even with your spiritual aspirations?"

     He smiled wryly and nodded his head, saying: "My dear lady, even if I were to dedicate the rest of my life to celibacy and meditation and religious thought, I doubt very much that I'd attain to God.  All that's too far into the future, so far as I'm concerned.  Besides, you wouldn't unduly distract me from my spiritual pursuits, would you?"

     "I'd try not to," Sarah promised, becoming noticeably embarrassed, as well she might.  "Although that isn't entirely for me to decide, is it?  But ... I'm not absolutely certain you love me in any case, so how can I be sure you mean what you say?"

     "I do love you," Timothy asserted.

     "Really?  Truly?"  She looked at him suspiciously, almost quizzically again.

     "Well ..."  But he couldn't say that he really did.

     "Aren't you simply trying to mollify me, after what you said about God and women?" she deduced.

     He hadn't quite realized how much he was doing that, but now, with her bright eyes fixed firmly upon him, it seemed unquestionably true.  He had simply taken pity on her and given way to a momentary impulse of reckless generosity.  He didn't really mean what he had said, and admitted as much with a regretful nod.

     "Think carefully before you come to a final decision where such important subjects as love and marriage are concerned!" Sarah sternly advised him.

     "Yes," he said.  "I'm sorry."  For he realized that his speculations concerning the future had driven a wedge of bitterness between them and made her feel somewhat afraid and even suspicious of him.  Admittedly, it had been callous of him to say what he did.  But it was his nature to assert what he believed to be true irrespective of the consequences, possibly because he habitually felt himself to be up against so many lies and falsehoods, so many things that ran contrary to his grain ... that nothing short of a fanatical affirmation of what he believed in would suffice to sustain him in his individual struggle against collective expedience, the artist against society, the outsider against tradition, truth against strength, idealism against materialism.  Perhaps that very fact rendered him constitutionally unfit to live with a woman?  He didn't know, but he hoped not anyway.  After all, he had no real desire to spend the rest of his life alone, a victim of his genius.  Maybe, in due course, Sarah would get over her little shock and come back to him again, emotionally speaking?  Then, with any luck, they could get married and start a family - assuming, of course, that he could love her enough to warrant their embarking on such a responsible undertaking, and that she really would be prepared to sacrifice her singing career for him.... Or would it be for herself?  No, he didn't need to turn cynical.  And even if it would be self-interest on her part, so what?  Wouldn't that be a good enough reason to do so?  Yes, of course it would!  He smiled to himself and turned towards her again, saying: "No hard feelings?"

     "No," she straightaway admitted, showing him a brief glimpse of sparkling white teeth.  "I'm rather grateful for what we've done and said this evening.  You've enlightened me in certain respects."

     "I have?"

     "Yes, you've helped me to understand the age we live in and the position of women in relation to it," she confirmed, "as well as contributed towards unburdening me of some spiritual pretensions."

     Timothy turned his face away in embarrassment.  "I hope that won't prove to your detriment," he commented.

     "No, I didn't have all that many religious illusions anyway," she confessed.  "In fact, I had more or less worked out the same ideas myself - intuitively, as it were.  And since I don't meditate or practise yoga ..."

     "Don't allow me to deceive you into assuming that women have no business meditating," Timothy interposed on a note of genuine concern.  "They have, even if they won't attain to God personally.  At least, their children will profit not only from their example and encouragement, but from whatever spiritual inheritance they may receive.  For I'm convinced that a child whose mother had regularly meditated ... would be more disposed to meditation, in later life, than one whose mother hadn't."

     "You may be right," Sarah conceded, nodding warily.  "Although I'm not particularly inclined towards meditation myself, so any child of ours wouldn't get much of an example from his mother.  I have assumed, of course, that it would be a boy."

     "Sarah, you needn't think that I'd begrudge us a girl.  Boy or girl, they're both necessary to the future progress of humanity.  Besides, if the truth were known, most men would probably prefer a daughter to a son in any case, if only to have an extra female about the house in later years."

     "Forgive me, I was being unkind to you."

     There was a short pause in their conversation before Timothy, realizing that side one of the Werther album had lain silent for some time, suggested they listen to the other side together.  "About this business of the Voice Museum," he went on, as he attended to the disc.  "Are you still intending to visit it with me on Thursday afternoon?"

     "Naturally.  We mustn't disappoint poor Girish, after all."

     "No, I suppose not."  And with that said, they settled down to some additional opera for the remainder of the evening.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Girish O'Donnell sat upright in his leather-upholstered swivel chair and frowned down at the letter in his hand.  His young secretary, a Miss Yogini Patel, stared anxiously at him across the desk, pen in hand and notebook on lap.  She was waiting for the oracle, as she regarded her boss, to dictate his next remarks with his usual spontaneity.  But he seemed to be rather chewing the cud, and this surprised her.  What was going through his mind, she wondered?  Or was he simply re-reading the letter?  She coughed politely, as though to remind him of her presence, and it appeared to have the desired effect.  For he cleared his throat and, without looking up, continued with his dictation from where he had so mysteriously broken off:-

 

"....Although we appreciate your obvious concern relating to the rather cramped nature of the booths, we cannot reasonably undertake their enlargement at present ... nor for that matter in the foreseeable future (STOP).  Not only would it prove too costly, but any alteration to the size of the booths would inevitably lead to the museum itself becoming too cramped (STOP).  Indeed, it could result in our having to dispense with a number of exhibits, which would not, we feel, be in either ours or the public's best interests (STOP).  So, much as we sympathize with your problem, we are at present unable to adjust our facilities to suit you (STOP).  We will, however, bear your suggestion in mind should we ever be in a position to implement it in due course (STOP).  In the meantime, I hope you will not feel that you are being discriminated against (STOP AND CLOSE).

 

     Having said which, O'Donnell cast the letter to one side and, leaning back in his chair, shook his head from side to side in patent wonderment.  Never had he received such a complaint before and, in spite of his own fairly corpulent disposition, it quite amused him.  "Oh, the poor chump!" he cried, grinning sarcastically from cheek to cheek.  "Twenty-four bloody stones to live with and more fat on his bones than you and I put together, Yogini.  No wonder he couldn't fit into any of the booths!"

     "Dear me!" tittered Miss Patel sympathetically.

     "And he expected us to modify the size of them in order to suit his bulk!" exclaimed the Voice Museum's director anew, thrusting his arms into the air in mock exasperation.  "Really, whatever next?"

     "He must be on the stout side!" averred Miss Patel on a rising tide of tactful understatement.  "For the booths are over a metre wide."

     "They are indeed," O'Donnell confirmed.  "So his width must be somewhat in excess of that."  At which point he rubbed the palm of his left hand over his balding pate as though in astonishment, before leaning forwards across his desk.  "It just goes to show one never knows what kind of complaint to expect here," he continued, on a weary note.  "Perhaps we'll receive a letter from somebody who is too tall for the booths one of these days - somebody over seven feet."

     "That wouldn't surprise me," Miss Patel declared, as she made a slight adjustment to the position of the horn-rimmed spectacles which dangled precariously on her aquiline nose.  "Assuming the unfortunate person lacked the imagination or desire to get down on his knees."

     "Quite.  Now then, what else do we have here?"  He was just on the point of picking up another letter from his desk when the switchboard operator rang through to inform him that there were two people in reception by the names of Mr Byrne and Miss Field to see him.  "Ah, good!" he responded enthusiastically.  "Tell them I'll be down immediately."  He slammed the receiver back into place and stood up with a look of undisguised relief on his clean-shaven face.  They had come to his rescue in the nick of time!  He'd had enough of dictating letters for one day, quite enough!  So he dismissed Miss Patel without delay and hurried along, as best he could, the third-floor corridor to the stairs, the lift being temporarily out-of-order.

     Downstairs, a lot of people were milling around or queuing to pay their entrance fees in the reception area, but Mr O'Donnell quickly caught sight of his guests and approached them with a welcoming smile on his face.  "So glad you could come," he announced, stretching out a ringless right hand with which he shook each of their shaking hands in turn.

     "It's a pleasure to be here," said Sarah, more from politeness than actual experience.  She was wearing a black raincoat with the rim of a beige skirt showing beneath it and a pair of maroon stockings.  For his part, Timothy was dressed in what he liked to think of as one of his more radically theocratic outfits, with his favourite jeans tucked into a pair of white boots to balance out the centripetal bias of the waist and cuffs of his hooded zipper, which, on a day like today, was a match for any wet or windy inclemency the weather might hurl at one.  He looked every inch the thinking individual beside the dark-suited figure of Girish O'Donnell who, in concluding the formalities, inquired whether they would prefer to tour the museum first and record their voices later, or vice versa.

     "I think we'd like to tour the museum first," Timothy replied for both Sarah and himself.

     "Excellent, that suits me fine!" the director averred, and without further ado he immediately began to lead the way along to their left in the direction of the nearest room, which happened to be the British one.  "By the way," he added, as they came to a halt on its threshold, "you'll probably have an opportunity to meet Joe Handon later this afternoon, since he usually comes in on Thursdays to attend to outstanding business and have a chat with me."

     Sarah blushed violently and Timothy opened his mouth in surprise.  "Oh?" he responded.  "Does Joe, er, I mean Lord Handon regularly come to town, then?"

     "Of course!" O'Donnell declared.  "He attends the Lords not infrequently in his capacity as a Labour Peer, and has a town house in South Kensington.  He only stays at Rothermore at the weekends, as a rule, where, despite left-wing sympathies, he likes to shoot grouse or go fishing."

     "Yes, I've heard about his sporting preferences," Timothy admitted with a grimace, wondering whether the possession of a London house explained the absence of certain books from the viscount's library.  Perhaps he possessed a more up-to-date one in South Kensington?

     "Right then, let's get on with our tour, shall we?" O'Donnell suggested, and he pushed open the swing door that led into the British Room.

     Obediently, Sarah and Timothy followed on behind the portly figure of Mr O'Donnell and entered a medium-sized rectangular room in which five rows of transparent booths, rather reminiscent of telephone kiosks, stood in almost regimental formation facing and backing onto one another at a distance of about four yards.  There were ten such booths in each row, making for a total of some fifty in all, and they stood just over a yard apart, with a sufficiency of space in-between to allow their doors to slide back from their fronts on specially-designed rails.  The initial impression they made on each of O'Donnell's guests was, to say the least, pretty bizarre, and Timothy, in particular, was unable to prevent an amused response from distorting his facial features.  It was really quite beyond his wildest expectations!  And the sight of people standing in several of the booths with concentrated expressions on their faces seemed to him even more bizarre!  Other visitors, however, were pacing backwards and forwards in front of booths or standing just outside them and reading information plaques.  Some were even queuing to get into one.  It was more than a little bewildering at first!

     "As you'll probably recall from our discussion on the subject at Rothermore House, the British Room is exclusively dedicated to regional dialects throughout the country," O'Donnell reminded them, adopting a more authoritative tone of voice, "and contains, in its fifty recordings, a fair cross-section of what this island produces.  Unfortunately we don't possess every possible dialect here, but the selection we've made is fairly representative of all the principal cities and regions."  He led them across to the first booth on the left of the entrance which, at that moment, happened to be in use, and pointed out the button one had to press in order to activate its sliding door.  It was positioned towards the upper right-hand corner of the information plaque, at approximately chest height, and was painted red in order to be conspicuous.  "Ordinarily a single depression of this button will activate the door," he continued, "but whilst the booth is in use, as at present, the button is programmed not to respond.  You can press it as much as you like ..." and here O'Donnell demonstrated what he was saying by giving the button three vigorous presses "... but nothing will happen.  Only once the recording has run its preordained course, and the door slides open again, does it come back into use.  This of course prevents anyone from disturbing the occupant of the booth."

     "How very ingenious!" cried Sarah, with a suitably appreciative smile.  "Therefore you not only have to wait until the recording has run its course before you can get into the booth, you also have to wait until it has run its course before you can get out of the booth again?"

     "Precisely," the director confirmed.  "This prevents people from wandering in-and-out at random, setting a recording in motion by a press of the button which, as you'll have gathered, is dual purpose, and then abandoning it whilst it's underway, like a naughty schoolboy playing knock-down-ginger, or whatever the ruddy expression is.... The fact that a majority of our visitors tend to be schoolchildren or youths makes it imperative for us to take such precautions, as I'm sure you can appreciate.  However, since the average recording only lasts 2-3 minutes, there isn't any reason for us to fear that visitors are going to be demonstrably inconvenienced by, ah, enforced confinement in a booth.  If they don't like the particular recording or voice to which they're listening, they won't have to put up with it for very long, will they?  Besides, a perusal of the information plaque, prior to entry, would leave one in no doubt as to the recording's contents.  If that proves boring, one is under no obligation to proceed further.  It's as simple as that!"

     Whilst O'Donnell was saying this, the booth in front of which they were standing became vacant, as its former occupant - a tall, red-haired guy of vaguely Lawentian appearance - ambled off down the row in search of other intriguing recordings.  Timothy and Sarah were thus presented with an opportunity to 'sound out' this particular exhibit for themselves, though it was pretty clear, from the modest size of the booth, that they could only decently do so one at a time.  For his part, Timothy wasn't particularly keen to initiate proceedings, but Sarah, true to form, went ahead and pressed the button.  "Don't run away," she playfully remarked, just before the sliding door closed behind her.

     "We won't," O'Donnell promised, with a reassuring smile. And, turning to Timothy, he began to add fresh information to what had already been imparted concerning the general layout of the booths and their physical construction.  "We start here, in the first row, with selected regional accents from the south of England, beginning in the South East and continuing along to the broadest imaginable Cornish at the end of the row.  The second row is dedicated to East Anglia and part of the Midlands, the third to the rest of the Midlands and Wales, the fourth to the north of England, and, finally, on the far side of the room, we conclude with a row composed of the principal dialects of Scotland.  That just about sums up the regional vocal richness of the British!  As to the booths themselves, we have ensured that they're fully soundproofed, being fashioned from a new synthetic material called aquatex, which, as you can see, isn't unlike glass in appearance but, fortunately, is so much stronger.  Indeed, it's virtually break-proof as well.  You'd have to use a mighty big sledgehammer to smash this substance, assuming you ever wanted to try.  But the real advantage with aquatex resides in its ability to contain sound, and this in a room where there can be up to fifty recordings running at any given time is absolutely essential.  People have often remarked to me on how silent the Voice Museum actually is, and, paradoxically, that is indeed the case - except, of course, where such voices as ours are concerned!  Even by putting your ear right up against the booth you can't hear anything more than a faint mumble from the stereo speakers inside, which, as I think you may already have gathered, are positioned above the visitor's head.  Thus the sound comes down at one from above, thereby preventing the possibility of people, particularly young ones, tinkering with the speakers or covering them in odious graffiti.  Furthermore, it gives one more space in the booth or, putting it from our standpoint, has enabled us to design them on a slender basis, and so fit as many of them into each room as possible.  This is better for the museum of course, though, not surprisingly, it doesn't suit everybody."  And here O'Donnell briefly digressed to inform his guest of the letter he had just that day received from an unusually corpulent gentleman, whose physical constitution precluded him from fully availing himself of the museum's facilities.

     Timothy had to laugh outright at the mention of this and, emerging from the booth after her short spell with a Kent dialect, Sarah thought he was laughing at her.  "Did I really look that funny in there?" she asked in semi-rhetorical fashion.

     "You looked wonderful actually," Timothy reassured her, exaggerating.  "It was about someone else that I was laughing."  And he promised to tell her O'Donnell's story later on.  He didn't, however, notice the elderly gentleman to his right who, standing in front of the fourth booth along, must have imagined himself to be the target of Timothy's amusement, and was now staring at him in a most uncivil manner.  No doubt, the old sod's hearing was not what it used to be!

     Meanwhile Sarah had quickly recovered from her moment's perplexity and duly remarked on the high-quality sound coming from the stereo speakers.  "I heard every Canterbury word that was spoken," she smilingly revealed.

     "Good, then let's proceed a little farther, shall we?" the director suggested, leading them past the offended grey-head and on towards the end of the row, where he solemnly paused before the booth housing a West Country accent and briefly scanned its plaque.  "This is one of the room's most popular exhibits," he duly informed them, "and largely because the voice talks of cider and Cornish cream.  Perhaps you'd like to give it a try, Tim?"

     The young writer obligingly consented to the unenviable experience of two minutes aquatex claustrophobia with a dialect which was largely unintelligible or, at any rate, somewhat abstruse, and duly emerged, when his time was mercifully up, with a look of undisguised relief on his pallid face.  There had been a welter of 'oohs', 'ahs', and 'ers' in the recording, but nothing especially educative.  He was at pains, initially, to conceal his disappointment.  For he had no taste for cider, and rarely allowed himself the boil-producing luxury of cream, whatever its provenance.  It would have been more to his liking had the anonymous and evidently half-witted Cornish voice droned-on about synthetic hallucinogens, or the virtues of upward self-transcendence instead.  But he pretended, for O'Donnell's sake, to having been impressed by exhibit 10 and, as soon as circumstances would allow, switched the conversation to the mechanics of the recordings.  Was it fair to assume, for instance, that each exhibit had been recorded a number of times on any particular tape, and that the recordings accordingly followed on one behind the other as the button was depressed?

     "Yes, that's approximately the case," O'Donnell replied, as he led the way past a sleepy-looking attendant, who tacitly acknowledged him with a terse if deferential nod of his capped head, and on into the next room.  "Each time one presses the button and the door slides open, the recording is automatically engaged," he went on.  "There are usually from between 20-30 duplicated recordings on each tape, and when a tape reaches the end of its length, it is automatically rewound by a self-regulating device so as to be ready to start all over again.  With the most popular recordings, the automatic rewind may be called into operation as many as five times a day."

     "Five?" Sarah and Timothy exclaimed together.

     "Indeed!" O'Donnell confirmed.  "Although most of the anonymous recordings are listened to no more than ten times a day, which means that the self-regulating device isn't called into operation all that often.  As you can see here, for example, the booths are scarcely overworked."

     They were now standing in the middle of the small appendage to the British Room, in which the emphasis was on class rather than dialect.  To left and right of them the booths, some twenty in all, were mostly unoccupied, though at least half-a-dozen people besides themselves were either engaged in scrutinizing information plaques or wandering lethargically from booth to booth.  Every once in awhile a hint of amusement or incredulity would appear on their faces, only to be countered, in due course, by fresh absorption in a plaque or total loss of interest in its contents.  One old lady was heavily bent over information relating to the cultivated Oxford recording, which she duly found of sufficient interest to merit a press of the button.  The door immediately slid open and, straightening up with some difficulty, she shuffled inside with lorgnette in hand.

     "The Oxford exhibit is usually popular with old ladies," O'Donnell remarked sotto voce, as the sliding door quietly closed behind its latest victim.  "Reports tell me it sometimes gets listened to as many as twenty times a day, which, in an age when class distinctions aren't supposed to exist or to mean anything much any more, is really quite surprising, I find.  Only the cockney one to your left, Tim, can rival it for interest.  However, unless either of you particularly wish to lend an ear to one or another of the recordings in here, I should now like to show you our most popular room, which happens to be exclusively dedicated to the famous."

     "Oh, please do!" Sarah urged him, and, since her companion had no desire to dally any longer in such a class-bound room, they at once set off for the Room of the Famous next-door.  A herd of young schoolboys exiting it at that moment prevented them, however, from immediately gaining access to its prized possessions via an unhampered entry.  But as soon as the stampede had subsided, O'Donnell proudly led the way through its twin doors into what was, without doubt, the most crowded of the ground-floor rooms.

     "Phew!" gasped Timothy at the sight of all the bodies buzzing round booths, like flies around jam pots.  "This is more than a little surprising!"

     "To be sure," O'Donnell responded, smiling affably.  "But it becomes less so once you begin to familiarize yourself with the exhibits, which, to say the least, are of considerable interest.  People come here from all over the world just to visit this room and hear the voices of their literary or musical or artistic or cinematic heroes.  And I have received numerous letters congratulating me on the superb quality of the recordings."

     "So you don't get only bad letters," said Sarah, with a mischievous smile.

     "Oh no, the great majority are good!" O'Donnell declared.  "If I gave you the contrary impression at Rothermore House, it was only because Lady Pamela prefers to hear about the bad ones.  She thrives on scandal, you know.  But don't let's discuss that now.  Let's take a look at what we have before us, shall we?"

     As in the British Room, the booths here were arranged in rows backing or facing (depending on your viewpoint) onto one another at a distance of about four yards, the only significant difference being that in this room the rows were twice as long, so that there were exactly a hundred exhibits from which to choose.  The first row, they were informed, was exclusively dedicated to literary people, the second to composers, singers, and artists, the third to film stars, the fourth to sportsmen, and the fifth to a miscellany of the famous, including politicians, clerics, scientists, inventors, and soldiers.  At a glance, it wasn't easy to tell which row was attracting the most attention; for there was no shortage of attention in any of them.  But since there were more schoolboys standing in front of the sportsmen's booths than actually standing in them, it soon became apparent that, as far as they were concerned, the famous sportsmen had a monopoly over everyone else - film stars not excepted!

     The first row, however, was more to Timothy's liking and, to his relief, it was along this that O'Donnell led Sarah and himself, pointing out the various names en route, which included T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Aldous Huxley.  A well-known photograph of the writer was appended to the information plaque in each case, thereby assisting the visitor's memory recall the face of the man whose voice was stored on tape.  Unfortunately it wasn't possible for Timothy to study the plaques in any great detail, since O'Donnell was obviously keen on showing his guests round the museum as quickly as possible and on showing them, moreover, as much of it as possible, and so led the way past the booths at a fairly uniform pace.  Only where the Huxley booth was concerned, however, did the young writer make a determined effort to read the substance of the recording, his self-willed absorption duly obliging O'Donnell to terminate his advance a few yards farther along.  For her part, Sarah halted beside Timothy and peered over his shoulder at the plaque in question.  She didn't know all that much about Huxley herself, and wasn't particularly interested in the information concerning him, but thought she might as well offer her fellow-guest a little psychological support.

     "Ah yes, I thought you'd be interested in that one," sighed O'Donnell, reluctantly retracing his steps until he was more or less level with the inquisitive pair.  "You probably recall my telling you, at Rothermore House, about the highly critical letter I received from a senior churchman concerning Huxley's use of, ah, orientally-inspired terminology detrimental, so it was alleged, to our Christian integrity."

     "Yes," Timothy admitted, with a wry smile.  "Are you still intending to replace this recording with a less ... controversial one in due course?"

     "I expect so.  Although, personally, I don't have anything against it, and am quite convinced that a majority of our visitors wouldn't, either.  After all, what does it matter if Huxley says Clear Light of the Void instead of the Holy Spirit?  They amount to approximately the same thing, don't they?"

     Timothy politely nodded his head and said: "Except that the Holy Spirit obviously has more relevance to those of us who respect the Christian tradition.  I, for one, prefer the term 'spirit' to 'light', because it seems to me closer to the essence of ultimate divinity, which is transcendent spirit - pure, and hence holy, spirit.  But, frankly, it doesn't make much difference which term one uses, so long as one knows to what one is referring.... Curiously, a lot of people who turn to the Orient and adopt such Buddhist terms are unaware of the parallels which exist with Occidental religion.  They mistakenly imagine that Christianity is incapable of expanding beyond itself into a transcendental framework of post-Christian mysticism.  One has to adopt Buddhism or Hinduism, in their misguided opinion, and take it from there."

     "The cult of the East," O'Donnell averred, nodding sagely.

     "Now although there are undoubtedly aspects of Eastern religion which are worth knowing about and taking seriously," Timothy rejoined, "there are also aspects of it which are simply antiquated or misguided, and that's something Huxley didn't always emphasize.  He took too many Eastern illusions seriously, including, in my opinion, those relating to reincarnation.  Not to mention a posthumous merging with the Clear Light of the Void."

     "You mean life after death," suggested Sarah, who had the advantage over O'Donnell of having been present in the drawing-room at Rothermore House when Timothy first delivered his theological exposition, the previous week.

     "Quite so!" he confirmed.  "I only believe in the eternity of transcendent bliss which should result from the climax of evolution, not in an already-established Heaven that exists either by dint of its own making or as a consequence of the spiritual contributions, as it were, of certain transcendentally precocious members of the human race, including Christ and the Buddha.  Thus, for me, God is something in the making, not an already-existent fact!"

     "He's an atheist who is yet in favour of God and is, to some extent, a man of God," Sarah revealed, for O'Donnell's puzzled benefit.

     "How extraordinary!" exclaimed the director, raising his brows in manifest surprise.  "Perhaps you'll do us the honour of recording some of your religious views later, when we get down to business."

     "As a matter of fact I have prepared a reading along those lines," Timothy revealed, blushing faintly in response to the conservative opposition he conjectured it would arouse.

     "Excellent!" O'Donnell enthused.  "Then I shall be delighted to hear it, since every advance in free thought is a further nail in the coffin of natural determinism and enslavement to the given."  At which point he playfully slapped the writer on the back and offered him an encouraging wink.  "Now what about you, Sarah?" he asked, turning his attention to the smartly-dressed young opera singer.  "Have you prepared your little speech as well?"

     "Indeed I have!" she revealed enthusiastically, as though from psychological contagion.  "Although, by contrast with Timothy's, it'll be largely autobiographical."

     "Good, that suits me fine!"  The director hesitated a moment, as if unsure what to say next, then, realizing that time was slipping by and the museum no more than part-toured, he suggested they continue on their way, which Timothy begrudgingly agreed to do, although he hadn't quite read to the end of the Huxley plaque and would have been grateful for the opportunity of listening to the great man's voice.  No doubt, such a heavenly experience could wait until another time - possibly after his own recording session.  For it seemed that, despite his show of hospitality, O'Donnell was unwilling to wait about outside, amid the swirling throng of noisy schoolchildren, while his guests amused themselves in the booths. 

     However, Sarah was more determined than Timothy to sate her curiosity where at least one recording of the famous was concerned, and accordingly insisted on their paying a visit to the Maria Callas booth in row two.  As luck would have it, the Callas was vacant at that moment, so she immediately pressed the button and betook herself to the booth's interior without bothering to scan the plaque first.  She evidently knew more or less what to expect from the renowned singer's autobiographical sketch.

     "A charming young woman," O'Donnell opined, as soon as she was safely sealed off from them.

     "To be sure," Timothy agreed.

     "And she sings so perfectly, don't you think?"

     "From what little I've heard, yes, I do."

     "Joe Handon is rather fond of her, you know."

     Timothy's face paid host to another blush.  "He is?" he responded, feigning innocence as best he could.  "In what kind of way?"

     "Oh, just friendly," O'Donnell averred.  "Playfully amorous.  Nothing serious, so far as I know."

     "I see," sighed Timothy, whose voice sounded a shade embittered in spite of the noble endeavour he was making to conceal his personal interest.  "And is Sarah, er, fond of him too?"

     "That's something you'll have to ask her, old man.... By the way, what did you think of Geraldine last week?" the director asked.

     Timothy didn't know quite what to think, but opted to reply: "She seemed quite pleasant.  Why do you ask?"

     "Oh, just simple curiosity.  Some people take to her, others don't.  I myself think she's very attractive and intelligent with it.  But, well, not everyone is of a like persuasion."

     "Like Lawrence Gowling, for instance?"

     "Possibly."

     It was clear that O'Donnell had no desire to expand on that, so Timothy said: "I must confess to not having got on too well with her mother, though."

     "No?  But then a man of your intellectual cast could hardly expect to, could he?  She is rather a bitch, I'll admit, which, between you and I, is one of the reasons why her husband is inclined to fish around a bit, as it were, for alternative company, if you follow me.  He doesn't get on too well with her, either.... Ah, here's Sarah again!"

     The young opera star emerged from the booth with a radiant smile across her face and confessed, at once, to having found the recording just to her taste.  "It was so nice to hear Callas speak for a change," she said.  "One begins to understand the kind of fascination this museum must have for people."

     Its principal director accepted her compliments graciously, before setting his guests under way again, round past the remaining booths in the second row and on through the crowd of schoolboys who thronged the narrow isle between the front of the third and the back of the fourth rows, past the glamorous dead film stars.  "I told you at Rothermore House that Marilyn Monroe's voice was very popular with young people, didn't I?" he joked, as they squeezed their way through a group of High School students who queued impatiently for a chance to get into her booth.  "One is trapped here between the Scylla of sex and the Charybdis of violence.  I should never have obliged you to traverse this part of the room, so please forgive me."  He was of course partly joking, but life was rather more tempestuous here, and Timothy reflected that the room could have been better arranged by having fewer rows and more space between them.  Perhaps that was something for the future?

     Once at the end of the third row, however, they decided against braving the remaining two rows but continued on towards the far exit, which led to the lift and stairs to the next floor.  There, as before, a solitary attendant acknowledged them in passing, though he was less sleepy-looking than the one in the British Room.

     "We have an attendant on duty in each of the rooms, so as to provide a kind of on-the-spot information service relating to the layout of the museum and simultaneously keep a watchful eye on things," O'Donnell proudly revealed, as they began to climb the stairs.  "With so many schoolkids about, one can't afford to take any chances."

     "But surely, if the booths are automatic and break-proof?" Timothy objected, showing genuine puzzlement.

     "Ah, it's not so much the booths themselves as to what may happen inside or outside of them which prompts our concern," the director replied, leading his visitors up to the first floor.  "Sometimes the buttons are tampered with, for example, and the booths put out of order.  We must have an attendant on duty to ensure that, where possible, this doesn't happen.  He must also supervise the queuing and prevent people from blocking the isles or otherwise making a public nuisance of themselves - two things which the attendant in the room we have just passed through appears to have neglected today.  And, of course, he must report any malfunctioning of the booths to me personally, and ensure that the casualty of either public abuse or private breakdown is temporarily marked with an out-of-order sign - like, unfortunately, the one on the lift downstairs, for which my humble apologies.  But there have been one or two tasks thrust upon our attendants in recent weeks which, I regret to say, were most odious.  I refer, in particular, to the removal of a number of so-called stink bombs which were placed in various booths by, ah, certain delinquents whose sole objective was to cause any subsequent and unsuspecting visitor to them as much nasal inconvenience as possible!"

     Timothy and Sarah wrinkled-up their noses in manifest disgust and raised their brows in horrified amazement.  "How awful!" Sarah elected to exclaim with verbal relish.

     "Especially if you're unfortunate enough to get trapped with the pong for two minutes, as I believe happened to a couple of slow-reacting elderly people, who must have activated the stink bombs by standing on them," O'Donnell speculated.  "By the time they realized what was afoot, the sliding door had closed in their wake and they were obliged to endure the most excruciating nasal torment imaginable."

     "Oh, Girish!" protested Sarah, making an emphatic grimace.

     "Forgive me for telling you," O'Donnell rejoined.  "But such irresponsible acts of callous delinquency might be far more frequent, did we not take the precaution of placing an attendant in each of the rooms.  His very presence there is normally sufficient to deter most of the would-be villains from pursuing their vile intentions!"

     They had reached the first floor and thereupon proceeded, as before, through each of the rooms in quick succession, beginning with the Asian and continuing, via the African, to the European and South American rooms on the far side of the building.  Here, too, the booths were laid-out in a similar fashion to those on the ground floor, with approximately an equal number in each room.  On the whole, things were somewhat quieter than in the Room of the Famous, since the voices recorded here, being anonymous, held little interest for the majority of schoolchildren and were only sampled, as a rule, by people with a special interest in languages, which included a number of foreign visitors and indigenous students.  As Lady Handon had explained over dinner, the previous week, one could experience a wide selection of languages in the space of a few minutes or, at any rate, in fairly rapid succession, and this seemed to have a distinct appeal for some people.

     On the evidence before them the European Room was the most popular of the first-floor rooms, attracting visitors not only from the Continent but from just about every other continent on earth as well, and as Timothy and Sarah passed through it in O'Donnell's corpulent wake they encountered a party of Japanese tourists who, to judge from their intent expressions, were experiencing considerable pleasure from listening to an assortment of European tongues.  In several of the booths, notably those dedicated to Greek and German recordings, small sallow faces with glittering white teeth peered out at one in rapt amusement or stunned incredulity at the sounds they were hearing.  A long queue of Japanese had formed in front of the Russian booth, which, for some reason, seemed to intrigue them the most.  Amateur photographers trained their cameras here and there on the occupants of various booths, avid, no doubt, for a visual record of this extraordinary aural experience to take back home with them.  It seemed that there was nothing comparable in Japan at present.  Nor, for that matter, anywhere else on earth, either!

     O'Donnell smiled his way through the rooms with mounting self-satisfaction, like a predator taking stock of his prey.  Business was pretty good today, he informed his guests, even though most of the overseas Christmas visitors had already gone home by now.  "Our busiest time is, of course, the summer," he continued, as they passed through the remaining room, where a variety of South American dialects in Spanish and Portuguese or even a jumble of both was stocked.  "Then we get literally thousands of tourists here, especially during the peak period of July-August.  After that, things begin to simmer down a little - at least as far as tourists are concerned.  For we have no shortage of schoolkids, as you've seen.  The only time we get a break from them is, of course, during school holidays, when the tourists take over.  Nevertheless life is never so busy here as in July and August, when whole coach-loads of foreign visitors descend upon us like a plague of locusts, ravaging the booths one by one.  Whether we shall fare as well in the future, after this idea catches on elsewhere, remains to be seen.  However, now that we've got to the end of this floor, let me introduce you to the rooms above."

     And this he duly did, starting with the Australasian Room, in which a cross-section of New Zealand, Tasmanian, and Australian dialects were housed, and continuing to the North American Room, where a variety of Canadian and US dialects awaited the inquisitive ear.  "Americans are especially keen on this room," he rather matter-of-factly informed them, as they ambled between plaques bearing the subject-matter of the respective recordings.  And, sure enough, a number of booths were at that very moment occupied by visitors from the United States, who stood with amused or ironic expressions on their chubby faces as they listened to one example or another of their compatriots' voices.  Schoolchildren also appeared to take a special interest in this room, and more than a few had gathered outside a booth dedicated to the representative voice of southern Texas.  Nearby, a north Texan recording attracted similar interest.  "Popular prejudice in this country tends to the assumption that all Americans sound alike," O'Donnell remarked, while scanning the room's visitors.  "But the variety of dialects gathered here would certainly not substantiate that assumption.  On the contrary, there is more difference between, say, a typical New York accent and a typical Los Angles one than at first meets the ear.  And when you hear some of the accents from Miami or New Orleans, and then compare them with those from Detroit or Chicago, well, you can never again fall victim to the delusion of considering Americans vocally stereotyped."

     "No, I guess not," said Timothy out of politeness.  For he had never fallen victim to that anyway.  Even then, while they were standing there, a group of Americans could be heard talking in different accents.  It was hardly necessary for one to venture into a booth, reflected Timothy, to hear a yank's voice!

     However, O'Donnell, himself partly of American extraction, had no intention of dallying there any longer, since he was determined that his companions should shortly get on with their own recordings, and so led the way beyond the North American Room at what, for him, was almost a gallop.  The next room was the smallest on the second floor, containing no more than forty booths arranged in four rows of ten, and was relatively quiet, with just a handful of people wandering around it.  Its recordings, O'Donnell informed them, were taken from several of the world's small islands, and were studies in both language and dialect.  A black man, evidently of West Indian origin, was listening to a Jamaican dialect as they passed through - the recording representative of Jamaica being one of several exhibits of Caribbean voices.  Ahead of them, a locked door was duly unlocked by O'Donnell and they passed into a room containing a number of new booths arranged in the more standard five-row sequence.  "We haven't yet opened this room to the public," O'Donnell explained, dutifully relocking the door behind them.  "For there is still some work to be done in wiring the booths to their buttons.  But when we do open it, I guarantee you that it'll be one of the museum's most sought-after attractions!"

     "Presumably this is the Room of the Infamous you briefly mentioned at Rothermore House," Sarah conjectured, as her eye caught the name 'Adolf Hitler' printed in bold gothic type on the nearest of the information plaques.

     "Indeed it is!" confirmed the director, nodding briefly.  "Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Stalin, Mussolini - these are just a handful of the infamous people whose pre-recorded voices we've acquired for the public's benefit."

     "I'm rather glad these booths aren't functioning at present," declared Timothy, for whom the room seemed, even at this stage, to have a certain malevolent atmosphere about it.

     "One fancies that Hitler's booth will get overworked," said Sarah, as they reached the exit door opposite and then stood waiting impatiently a moment whilst O'Donnell lustily thrust his key into its virgin lock.

     "Yes, especially where schoolkids are concerned," he conceded, with a wry smile.

     Emerging safely on the other side, they began to climb the stairs to the third floor.  The guided tour, it appeared, had run its maundering course and O'Donnell was now eager to lead them straight to the recording studio where, following some liquid refreshment, they could get on with their appointed tasks.  The studio in question was next-door to his secretary's office, to the left of the stairs, and contained a couple of soft chairs, a table, and some expensive-looking recording equipment.  In all, a very business-like little place with hardly enough room for more than a couple of people.  Not a sound from the outside world could be heard there.  For the walls, door, and windows had been thoroughly soundproofed, thereby preventing even the loudest external noise from interfering with the studio's function.  Outside in the corridor, however, the clicking sounds of a variety of business machines, including typewriters, betrayed the administrative essence of the third floor.  A few voices could also be heard from time to time, but they were more remote, coming from the far end of the corridor.  Nearby, a coffee machine stood idle, and it was towards this that O'Donnell next led his prospective recording stars, offering to pay for their coffees himself.  "There's a WC just along there on your left," he informed them, once they had accepted his offer, "so you needn't worry about overloading yourselves."

     "That's a relief!" joked Timothy ironically, and, together, they sipped their coffees in silence awhile, until O'Donnell, mindful of their real purpose for being there, suggested that a start be made on the recordings as soon as possible, since time was ticking by and there were other things for him to attend to that afternoon.

     "I'll record you one at a time," he added, after a short pause.  "So who's first?"

     "Ladies before gentlemen," said Timothy in ironic deference to his companion, who, to his surprise, graciously accepted it.

     "Good, then that settles the matter," O'Donnell concluded.  "If you like, Tim, you can wait in the lounge opposite, where you'll find a plentiful supply of educative reading matter.  And if, by any chance, old Joe Handon shows up, he'll be sure to pop in and see you, being interested to hear what you think of our museum."

     Sure enough, Lord Handon did show up, interrupting an article on modern sculpture upon which Timothy had duly engaged his reading fancy, compliments of the numerous arts magazines that, curiously for a museum of this nature, lay stacked up in the lounge.  "Delighted to see you again!" he averred, extending a bony hand for the writer to shake.  "I trust you're now familiar with the layout of the place?"

     "More or less," Timothy admitted, smiling politely.

     With handshake completed, Lord Handon took a seat opposite in one of the leather armchairs there and proceeded to light himself a mild cigar.  His light-grey suit complemented his hair, just as his dark-blue tie matched his eyes.  There was a verbal silence while he puffed on the cigar, which seemed to take-up all his attention, before he got round to asking Timothy, in a fairly guarded tone-of-voice, whether his visit to Rothermore House had been enjoyable?

     "Oh, very much so," the writer replied, succumbing to a degree of impulsive overstatement on the spur of the moment.

     "Even with my wife in flagrant opposition to your religious views?" Lord Handon queried.

     "In spite of that."

     "And in spite of my house and grounds, I take it?"

     "Well ..."  It was awkward for Timothy to admit as much outright; for there could be no doubt that the viscount had put two-and-two together in the meantime, and drawn the relevant conclusions.

     "Perhaps you'd feel less out-of-your-depth in my town house," Lord Handon suggested, coming to his rescue.  "I shall be home next Wednesday evening, so if you've no prior engagements, why not come over and have dinner with us - my daughter and I, that is?  I'd welcome a further opportunity to discuss your latest theories with you, and without running the risk of upsetting my fiercely fundamentalist wife, who will be down in Sussex.  My daughter is spending some time in London before returning to Oxford, so she'll be the only other female there.  And as you may already have realized, she's much less inclined to quibble with such views as you express than is my wife.  So are you game?"

     The expression sounded somewhat inept to Timothy, and the prospect of another visit to a Handon property not a little daunting.  But, more from politeness than a genuine desire to accept the invitation, he nodded his head and warmly thanked his prospective host.

     "Not at all!" the viscount responded, smiling reassuringly.  "It'll be a pleasure to have someone as enlightened and intellectually precocious as yourself to talk to for a change.  I get more than my share of conservative bores and spineless lickspittles to dinner, believe me!  Especially from my own age-group.... No, I like to hear the views of younger people, even when I can't personally relate to them.  Although I think I can relate to most of your religious views - at least up to a point.  But we can discuss that later.  At the moment, I expect you're anxious to get into the recording studio and put some of them down on tape, eh?"

     "Yes, I guess so," Timothy admitted.  "Though I'm also aware that whatever I say won't be heard by the public until after my death, which could be as many as 30-40 years hence."

     "I shouldn't let that bother you," Lord Handon advised him, blowing smoke.  "After all, the essential thing is to get your voice on tape at this stage in your career, in order that we can have a recording of you at thirty, or whatever it is.  Later recordings would also follow.  But if, by ill-luck, something were to happen to you in the meantime ... to cut your life short, we'd have this recording to-hand, and that's the important thing!  So it isn't really a futility for you to record now.... However, let's not be pessimistic.  Let's rather assume that you'll live to be a ripe old grey-head like myself, with three or four separate recordings behind you."

     There wasn't time, however, for Lord Handon to say anything else.  For the door suddenly opened and a relieved Sarah Field burst into the room with a broad smile on her face.  "Go on, Tim, it's your turn!" she cried, holding the door open for him.  With scarcely-concealed misgivings he got to his feet and reluctantly left her to the viscount, less because he had come ill-prepared for his recording than because he feared that Lord Handon would seek to renew his intimacies with Sarah no sooner than he was out of sight, and this worried him slightly.

     However, he didn't let that interfere with his recording obligations and, before long, he had knuckled down, under O'Donnell's calm guidance, to his appointed task, reading from the prepared document in his hands the basis for his current religious views and the fact that, for him, life really was a sort of struggle from the Devil to God, as from alpha to omega, which pitted the freedom of self-realization against the enslavement to worship.  Not that one couldn't distinguish, he went on, between effectively divine and diabolic alternatives on the alpha plane, as it were, of traditional religion, since there was, after all, a distinction between what was believed to be the central star of the Galaxy and the sun, as between the central star and revolving stars in general.  But pedantic distinctions of that order notwithstanding, those who, through self-realization, aspired towards the Divine Omega, the ultimate level of divinity, were, willy-nilly, obliged to turn their back on the Alpha.  In which case it was just as well to debunkingly lump both alpha diabolic and divine together anyway, since they were equally irrelevant to an omega-oriented liberation, and clinging to the Divine Alpha, or what was taken for such, wouldn't assist the development of inner truth but, on the contrary, simply dilute and impede it ... in the name of power or strength, the 'divine' virtue of the Alpha, with particular reference, in Timothy's estimation, to the central star of the Galaxy, the cosmic source from which, wittingly or unwittingly, the power-based concept of 'The Almighty' had been extrapolated, as the more totalitarian of the early peoples moved from the stars in general to one star in particular and thus, effectively, from centrifugal polytheism to (relatively speaking) centripetal monotheism, the Many to the One, albeit still within the necessarily primitive framework of the Alpha.

     As to those who thought fundamentalist theology had no basis in or connection with the Cosmos at all, said Timothy, by now considerably warming to his chosen subject, they were simply guilty of ignorance and superficiality, since religion was more than just a figment of the imagination, and it couldn't have survived had not its principal divine and diabolic protagonists been derived, through theological extrapolation, from cosmic sources - in Timothy's view, the Galaxy's central star and the sun.... Though that applied more to Old Testament theology, he maintained, than to Christianity, which, appertaining to the New Testament, had sought to accommodate a 'Son of God', namely Christ, and was thus less cosmic than humanistic, with, in all probability, a less-elevated alpha God, namely the Father, and a less-elevated alpha Devil, namely the Antichrist, since no cosmic contiguity could be inferred to exist between the central star of the Galaxy and the Earth, corresponding to the Mother, and consequently it appeared that Christian theology had been obliged to lower alpha divinity from the stellar to the solar plane - in reality, that of the Alpha Diabolic from an objective, or Judaic, standpoint - in order to accommodate the Earth and thus, by implication, a lunar Son, the moon always equivalent to a child in relation to 'Mother Earth'.  At least this seemed, on deeper reflection, the underlying implications of having a 'Son of God'.  Though Timothy was also aware that Christianity had been obliged to accommodate the Father to the phallic worship of pagan precedent, the 'dark gods of the loins' in Lawrentian parlance, in which case it seemed that the Blessed Trinity was less alpha and omega with a worldly, or humanistic, deity coming in-between ... than co-existentially humanistic on the basis of phallus, heart, and mind, or body, soul, and spirit, with the Father symbolic of the body, Christ of the soul, and the Holy Ghost of the spirit, albeit a spirit that was less alpha or omega than humanistic and, hence, rather more consciously perceptual (fantasies) and conceptual (thoughts) than either subconsciously or superconsciously extreme, as germane, so he contended, to that which, rooted in alpha objectivity, had preceded the Christian civilization, and that which, centred in omega subjectivity, would hopefully one day supersede it. 

     In fact, it was probably less correct to speak in evolutionary terms from alpha to omega, as Timothy generally preferred to do out of a literary need to simplify, than in devolutionary terms from the Alpha to the world, and thence in evolutionary terms from another point in the world, necessarily contrary to the first point, towards the Omega that lay beyond it ... in the 'Kingdom of Heaven' which, as Christ Himself taught, lay within, and could therefore only be reached through self-realization of, presumably, a meditative order.

     Such was the general nature, give and take a few political diversions of the sort which were guaranteed to infuriate those clerics who believed the Church should stay out of politics instead of coming down fairly and squarely on the side of justice and the people's freedom struggles in general, of Timothy's voice recording, and by the time the writer had finished reading from his notes, O'Donnell was scratching his head and wondering whether this was the sort of material that could in fact be used in his booths in future, and whether it wasn't likely to arouse more opposition from vested interests than even Huxley had done, given the radically transcendental and even gnostic nature of the bulk of its paradoxical subject-matter which, despite certain contradictions and inconsistencies, pointed man towards a completely new order of religious moralizing which left no room for concepts like the Creator whatsoever.  Nevertheless, he was impressed by Timothy's intellectual and spiritual depth, and warmly congratulated him on his contribution to the Voice Museum, which, so he gallantly assured him, would extend freethinking at the expense of natural determinism as never before!

     For his part, Timothy simply smiled and bowed his head.  This world, he knew, was not cut-out for people like himself, but only for liberals, or amoral people who kept in touch, no matter how intermittently, with the Alpha, and he was under no illusions as to the difficulty of the struggle to defeat strength in order that truth, and truth alone, could come fully into its own and receive the recognition it ultimately deserved, and he, the self-styled thinker of thinkers, the idealistic philosopher king, along with it.  But until he sat on the world's throne, so to speak, in the name of heavenly salvation, his amoral enemies would continue to sit on it and for very different, if not diametrically opposite, reasons.  That much was certain!

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

It was about 7.30 the following Wednesday evening when Timothy Byrne arrived at Lord Handon's South Kensington address and was shown into the drawing room by an officiating manservant.  The house itself was part of a terrace of white-washed, neo-classical buildings with single Ionic columns on the porch.  Inside, the drawing room fronted this porch and one could see an identical row of terraced houses across the far side of the square.

     The room in which Timothy now found himself was decorated in a restrained neo-classical manner, with delicate touches of floriate stucco on the walls, which, in contrast to the white ceiling, were of a pale-green matt tone.  It wasn't long, however, before he abandoned his initial interest in this craftsmanship and plunged into reflections on the spiritual superiority, as he saw it, of photographic reproductions over actual materialistic productions.  He had no desire to get carried away by the all-too-palpable productions in front of him!

     Meanwhile, Lord Handon had emerged from the library at the rear of the house to welcome his guest with outstretched hand.  "Come into the library," he insisted, "since it's warmer there at present and, being an author yourself, you'll probably prefer it."

     Timothy obligingly followed the viscount back along the passageway and into a small brightly-lit room, where he was offered a seat in one of its two dark-blue velvet armchairs.  Bookshelves lined the walls on opposite sides of it, whilst an expensive-looking electric fire, complete with imitation coals, burned away in an unostentatious chimney-piece set deeply into a wall exclusively dedicated to modern paintings, and a fourth wall, which also contained some modern paintings, was graced by a pair of french windows through which part of the elongated back garden could be glimpsed.  A mahogany table and a walnut writing-desk were the chief items of furniture in the room - the table standing in the middle, the desk against the chimney-piece wall at a discreet remove from the fire (as of course were the paintings).  A dark-blue settee and the armchairs were its other large possessions.

     "Here's a drop of liqueur to warm you up, assuming you don't object," said Lord Handon, handing Timothy a small glass of brandy.  "I wait on people myself more often than not on quiet evenings like this, especially where drink is concerned."  He sat down opposite his guest to the other side of the fire and gazed across at him in silence awhile, before adding: "We'll be having dinner shortly, when Geraldine has finished with the bathroom and is ready to join us.  She has been out most of the day with a friend."

     "Oh, really?" Timothy responded, momentarily looking-up from his brandy.  He had quite forgotten about her.  "Not Lawrence Gowling, by any chance?"

     "No, a girlfriend actually," Lord Handon corrected.  "One of her fellow-undergraduates."  After a brief pause, he continued: "As for Lawrence, it appears she has lost interest in him, since the poor chap hasn't been mentioned recently.  Though I'm fully aware that she was flirting quite shamelessly with him on New Year's Eve.... Incidentally, those two paintings to your left are both by Gowling, in case you're interested."  He was referring to a pair of abstracts of a geometrical nature, reminiscent of Piet Mondrian, which were hung to the left of the chimney-piece in close proximity to each other.  At first glance one could have taken them for Mondrians, but a lingering inspection revealed that the vertical black grids in them quite outnumbered the horizontal ones and were of an altogether stronger appearance.  The paintings were also elongated in favour of the vertical, thereby attesting, it seemed to Timothy, to a distinctly masculine bias.  For, as he well knew, Mondrian's work emphasized a kind of balance between the vertical and the horizontal, or masculine and feminine elements, which reflected his belief in a perfect society of interrelated, harmoniously-proportioned parts.  To him, equilibrium was the hallmark of perfection, and he resolutely strove to symbolize it in his paintings, giving approximately equal importance to both the masculine and the feminine.  These two works by Gowling, on the other hand, rejected such a balance in favour of the vertical, thereby transcending Mondrian's criteria of plastic perfection.  They challenged the dualistic order of things.  And to anyone with a predilection for the philosophy that evolution was essentially a struggle from alpha to omega, the Devil to God, they were bound to make a deep impression, reflecting aspirations towards a stage of evolution in which the masculine element, symbolized by the strong vertical grids, had gained the ascendancy over the feminine element, as symbolized by the thin horizontal grids, being thereby indicative of a post-dualistic or predominantly transcendental society of unisexual tendency.  It was precisely such an impression they made on Timothy, at any rate, as he stared now at the one, now at the other, in rapt attention.  Far from being copies of Mondrian's grid-and-square paintings, these two masterpieces struck him as being spiritually superior to them, a further advance in Neo-Plasticism.  And they reposed, of all places, in an aristocrat's library!  Really, it was almost beyond belief!  "You like them?" asked Lord Handon, patently intrigued by the writer's response.

     "Do I!" replied Timothy impulsively.  "They're two of the finest paintings I've ever seen.  Really, I had absolutely no idea Gowling was such a gifted and sensitive artist!"

     "No, he doesn't talk all that much about his work actually," Lord Handon remarked.  "But I only bought them because I couldn't get hold of any Mondrians at the time and wanted something approximately similar.  Then I saw these two works advertised in a catalogue, one day, and snapped them up as quickly as possible.  If one can't get hold of the real thing, one has to make do with copies, I suppose."

     Timothy's feelings plummeted drastically, and not only because of the viscount's obviously predatory instinct to snap things up!  "But these aren't copies," he objected.

     "I must say, they look rather derivative to me," Lord Handon averred.  "Although the balance of the parts is, on the whole, less good than in Mondrian, probably on account of Gowling's homosexual tendencies."

     It was obvious to Timothy that Lord Handon didn't really appreciate the value of what he possessed!  There was a Biblical maxim concerning pearls and swine which seemed not inappropriate here - the very same maxim which had briefly crossed his mind when confronted by Lady Handon's religious intransigence, not so many weeks ago.

     "As for these paintings here," the viscount continued, drawing his guest's attention to a pair of slightly larger abstracts which reposed on the wall to the right of where he was sitting, "they're by the Swiss artist, Max Bill, and are in his most geometrically cubist style, if one can so term it.  A series of different-coloured rectangles and squares in regular juxtaposition.  Quite absorbing, don't you think?"

     "Indeed!" Timothy admitted, though he couldn't see them properly from where he sat because of the dazzling reflection of the electric light on their shiny surfaces.  Nevertheless there were a number of other paintings, including a Victor Pasmore to the left of the Gowlings, which he could see quite plainly, and these also briefly captured his attention.  He hadn't bargained for even one abstract painting in the library. 

     "I also have a number of other modern works scattered about the house," Lord Handon offhandedly revealed.  "Which is one of the reasons why my wife absolutely refuses to live here.  As you may have noticed, during your visit to my country residence, there are no twentieth-century works hanging there.  It's very much as it was when I inherited it from my father."

     "Yes, I'd been especially puzzled by the apparent absence of modern literature from the library actually," Timothy confessed, slightly changing the subject.

     "Ah well, that's because it's mostly here," rejoined Lord Handon, who waved an arm in the general direction of the bookshelves lining the wall behind him.  "I couldn't very well fit these smaller, modern works into so traditional a library as the one at Rothermore House, even had I wanted to.  Instead, I prefer to maintain two distinctly separate collections - the bigger and more traditional one at Rothermore, the smaller and more contemporary one here in what is, culturally speaking, a house of my own making.  At any rate, I allow myself a degree of modernity here that I would never countenance in the country.  I'm torn, if you like, between two worlds - unable to exclusively reconcile myself to either one of them."

     "I much prefer this one," Timothy affirmed, staring across at the tightly-packed shelves of modern literature.

     "Yes, I thought you would," said Lord Handon, smiling. "Unfortunately, not being of your class, I'm less than comfortable with just the modern."

     Timothy blushed slightly on reception of this startling confession.  He wouldn't have expected the adverb in Handon's second sentence.

     "I've inherited a ton weight of tradition, you see," the viscount continued, "and to a certain extent I'm chained to it.  My constitution isn't such that I can break away from it merely at the suggestion of doing so.  My country residence does, after all, mean a great deal to me.... Of course, I'm quite aware that, despite what you said in the Voice Museum last week, you didn't really like it and would under no circumstances wish to live in such a large property yourself.  I wasn't blind to certain of your facial responses in several of the rooms there, least of all the library, where you virtually went pale with revulsion ..."

     "Oh, but really...!" Timothy protested.

     "Aha! You needn't feel obliged to pretend otherwise tonight!" Lord Handon countered.  "I could tell from the moment you set foot in the driveway leading up to the house that you weren't particularly looking forward to your visit.  I was watching you discreetly from one of the drawing-room windows, you know.  Saw you shake your head a couple of times before mustering sufficient courage to approach."

     Timothy's blush had perceptibly deepened with these remarks - so much so, that he sought temporary distraction in another sip of brandy.

     "And I continued to keep a discreet eye on you throughout the evening," Lord Handon went on, "particularly during that hour following your religious lecture, as it were, when I took you and a couple of the others on a guided tour of the rooms.  There were moments, when you thought I had my attention elsewhere, during which your distaste for certain of my antique possessions was clearly manifest, believe me!"

     There was no alternative, seemingly, but for Timothy to confess the truth.  "Very well, I'll admit that certain of your possessions and, indeed, your house in general was obnoxious to me," he sighed.  "As you know, I'm chiefly interested in spirituality, not in the worship, conscious or otherwise, of materialism, no matter how cultivated or elaborate it may happen to be.  All that is somehow distasteful to me."

     "So I realize," Lord Handon responded, lighting himself a mild cigar of the type Timothy had seen him smoking in the Voice Museum.  "And I respect you for it, don't think otherwise!  I, too, find a lot of my inheritance obnoxious, but I continue to hold-on to it out of respect for tradition and also because of my wife's wishes.  If I sold off most of what you dislike, I should probably cause a public scandal.  But I do at least have this house in which to seek refuge when the burden of living in the past becomes too onerous.  I don't always like living in large, ill-heated, antique rooms, you know."

     "No, I suppose not," Timothy conceded, smiling faintly over his brandy.  "Although it's not just the size of your country house that I object to, nor, for that matter, the amount of cumbersome furniture or number of antiquated paintings there."

     "Presumably you don't like the fact that it stands in close proximity to nature and is thus surrounded by the sensual offspring of both the sun and the earth's core?" Lord Handon conjectured.

     "No, I don't much like that either," Timothy admitted, growing bolder.  "For as you'll doubtless be aware, nature is a predominantly subconscious phenomenon.  However, I have to say, by way of attempting to mollify you slightly, that I quite admired the way it had been considerably tamed and shaped into aesthetically-pleasing motifs in the immediate vicinity of your house.  The well-trimmed texture of the lawn was also commendable, as was the total absence of overgrowth on the exterior walls of the house."

     Lord Handon smiled his pleasure at this unexpected commendation.  "You mean you were relieved that nature hadn't been allowed to directly impinge upon them?"

     "Absolutely!" Timothy confirmed.  "It's one of the saddest and most distasteful sights I know, these days, to see the walls of a beautiful old house overgrown with creepers, as though under siege from the Diabolic Alpha.  One feels that, at any moment, nature may completely overrun the place, erasing all traces of civilization.  But, fortunately, that wasn't the kind of feeling I got while standing in the vicinity of your house.  No, if I must confess to my other main objections, it was to what might be termed the pagan, or pseudo-pagan, content of the house - the fact, namely, of its having been built with so marked a classical influence and containing so many objects  -  statues, objects d'art, and the like - of pagan association."

     "No doubt, you're alluding to the nude or semi-nude gods and goddesses in rooms like the library," Lord Handon declared, with a gentle though evidently self-critical frown.  "I had noted your aloofness with regard to my Venus statuette in imitation of Phidias, not to mention your disdain for the first-century Greek vase in the billiards room, where there was also a certain amount of classical statuary."

     "Indeed!" Timothy concurred, becoming freshly embarrassed by the accuracy of Lord Handon's memory.  "Well, yes, I was alluding to them, as also to the abundance of pilasters and columns with which the house is supplied.  Unfortunately, the spectacle of so many pagan trappings has a distinctly depressing effect on me these days, whether the buildings in question be secular or religious, private or public.  I'm rather more in favour of buildings which transcend pagan associations altogether, as do virtually all truly modern ones.  Indeed, those of us of a progressive disposition are relatively fortunate to be living in an age which has completely turned its back on the pagan architecture of classical antiquity, in favour of a uniquely modern style.  Not since the great age of Gothic cathedrals has Europe witnessed anything of the kind."

     Lord Handon nodded his antique head in apparent agreement and, smiling weakly through the dense haze of cigar smoke he had just exhaled, said: "I take it you're in favour of the Gothic, then?"

     "To the extent that it represented Christian progress rather than pagan or classical nostalgia - yes, at least in its historical context," Timothy responded.  "For I'm much more in favour of that which represents transcendental progress and thereby testifies to a still higher development - like, for example, the great works of Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe."

     "You'd get on well with Nigel Townley, were you to talk to him about this," Lord Handon averred, referring to the architect Timothy had first met on New Year's Eve.  "His architecture happens to be very transcendental or, at any rate, contemporary too - mostly window space with slender infills of a synthetic order.  One of the most uncompromisingly modern architects currently at work in this country."  He puffed a moment on his cigar, looking towards the bookshelves that lined the wall behind his guest, then continued: "But I take your point as regards the abundance of classical decoration in my other house, which, personally, I'm not that terribly keen on myself.  Of course, one shouldn't assume that all architecture since the Gothic age and up to the modern one is necessarily decadent or reactionary, for it certainly isn't!  No ancient Greek or Roman could have conceived of the majority of country houses still in existence, least of all those which have no truck with the classical at all, such as the early Manor Houses and Tudor dwellings.  But there are, however, a large number of buildings that can be described as decadent or reactionary and, to some extent, I share your distaste for them.  My own Baroque mansion isn't exactly reactionary, but it does contain a sufficiency of classical detail to render it - how shall I say? - unacceptable or even obnoxious to anyone with a transcendental bias, I'll concede.  Which, to a certain extent, also applies to this town house, with its restrained neo-classicism, à la Nash.  I can tolerate it, but you would doubtless prefer your little Neo-Plasticist flat, or whatever it is.

     "However, don't think I begrudge you your objections to my property," Lord Handon went on, following a short pause.  "In light of your spiritual views, they make perfect sense to me.  And I'm rather taken by the idea that, in any ultimate sense, God is the outcome of the Universe instead of its initiator, and consequently that human progress has to do with gradually overcoming nature, both internal and external, so that sensual, materialistic matters come, by degrees, to play a less pervasive role in society.  I think you're probably right, though I can't go as far as you in opposing it.  You despise me, I know, since you see the extent to which materialism has a hold on me and calculate my position in relation to this envisaged spiritual outcome of evolution to be rather a low one.  Very well, you're entitled to judge according to your transvaluated lights!"

     Here Timothy made a half-hearted attempt at protesting in Lord Handon's favour, but the latter would have none of it.

     "No, I know how you feel and wouldn't wish you to pretend otherwise," he rejoined, undaunted.  "You're the only one of the seven New Year's Eve guests who took a dim view of me, and that I can now understand.  I couldn't quite understand it at first however, in fact not until a few days after you'd gone and a number of your religious views began to rise to the surface of my mind, like bubbles of enlightenment.  Then I started to see the world as though through your eyes.  Perhaps I underwent a sort of religious conversion, or rebirth?  For I immediately abandoned my wife to her pagan predilections and came up here, where I proceeded to read Huysmans' À Rebours.  I hadn't read that great Manichean novel in years, but the artificial pursuits of its principal character struck me as having a profound bearing on what you'd said concerning the necessity of our gradually overcoming nature, which is fundamentally evil, in order to attain to God; overcoming the subconscious darkness in order to attain to the superconscious light.  Des Esseintes was somewhat over-ambitious in his anti-natural endeavours and succumbed, in the end, to nervous crises which precipitated his enforced return to Paris and, so one is led to believe, a less-radical lifestyle.  You remember the story?"

     "More or less," Timothy admitted, nodding vaguely.

     "Well, formerly, when I first read the book, many years ago, it seemed to represent an implicit condemnation of Des Esseintes' artificial aspirations, being a lesson in what would almost inevitably happen to anyone who was too much against nature.  But now, since re-reading it, I've come to doubt that assumption and to believe instead that, although its protagonist ultimately failed in his spiritual endeavours, the attempt was inherently praiseworthy, signifying a general evolutionary trend towards greater artificiality, which would seem to be increasingly pervasive in modern society.  Rather than being reactionary, the novel struck me as somehow prophetic."

     "From what I can recall of À Rebours, I would say that it was both reactionary and prophetic," Timothy commented.  "Reactionary so far as certain aspects of the protagonist's Catholicism were concerned; prophetic in relation to his anti-natural or, rather, artificial aspirations.  However, I'll admit to a tendency I sometimes have, these days, of asking people whether they're Lady Chatterley types or À Rebours types.  If the former, then I automatically take a dim view of them, since they're more likely to be heathen bastards who either lack the courage or intelligence to go against nature.  If the latter, then I'm inclined to adopt a respectful attitude towards them, since they seem to be on the side of moral progress and to whatever pertains, in Christ-like transvaluation, to a supernatural rebirth, a rebirth which takes its cue from the spirit rather than nature, and is totally against anything cosmic.  There are some, of course, who don't know how to answer, never having read either book.  But most people whom I come into contact with tend to fall into one or other of these two categories, and are thus autocratic or theocratic rather than simply democratically liberal."

     Lord Handon saw fit to guffaw through the defensive haze of his cigar smoke.  "I take it you dislike D.H. Lawrence, then?" he surmised.

     "When he's a nature-mongering heathen and paganized advocate of salvation through sex, like Wilhelm Reich - yes, I most certainly do!" Timothy averred.  "For he has put his salvation in the world rather than in God or the spirit, as the case may be, and the one necessarily excludes the other.  That seems to be truly 'against the grain' of evolutionary progress.  Indeed, his would be among the first books I'd ban, if I had the power."

     The viscount guffawed anew, this time less boisterously.  "There would be a lot of people in this country who would oppose any intended proscription of D.H. Lawrence!" he opined, a mischievous glint of light in his eyes.

     "I for one!" asseverated the voice of a young woman.  It was Geraldine Handon, who, having taken a bath, was now dressed for dinner in a pale-green satin dress with complementary dark-green stockings.  Her hair was pinned-up behind her head, rendering both her neck and a pair of emerald earrings clearly visible on either side.  She wafted a refreshing scent of sweet perfume into the library.

     "I was only alluding to one or two of his books," Timothy confessed, blushing at the sudden sight of a female who, though attractive in herself, was dressed in too autocratic a manner for his tastes.

     "He was joking really," Lord Handon declared.

     "So I would hope!" Geraldine smilingly remarked.  Then, offering the writer her hand, she added: "Delighted to see you again, Mr Byrne."

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

He was late arriving home from Lord Handon's and, feeling tired, went straight to bed, where he quickly fell into a deep sleep.  During the course of it he dreamed that he was alone with Geraldine in her father's library.  She was dressed more or less as she had been earlier, with her dark-brown hair pinned-up as before and a décolleté dress of indeterminate colour exposing a good deal of her firm, shapely breasts.  She had extracted a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover from one of the bookshelves and was languidly turning over the pages with a strange, gently-alluring smile on her lips.  Timothy stood beside her, looking-on and wondering what was in her mind, when, moving closer to him, she suddenly said: "I like this book.  Do you?"

     He was on the point of saying 'yes' ... when he checked himself and, turning away from her, replied firmly in the negative.

     "But why ever not?" she gasped.

     "Because ..." But the words wouldn't come, despite the attempt he was making to force them, and he grew angry. Automatically he turned round to snatch the book from Geraldine's hands but discovered, to his utter surprise, that she had already returned it to the shelf and was now standing in front of him in the nude.

     "Perhaps you prefer the real thing?" she suggested, smiling seductively, and, before he could say anything or even move away from her, she threw her arms round his neck and drew herself closer to him.

     He struggled to free himself from her embrace.  "Not with you!" he cried.

     "But why-on-earth not?" she protested, becoming more determined to cling to him.

     "Because you're an aristocrat's daughter, and I don't wish to associate with you!" he shouted.

     Yet, already, her determination was beginning to weaken his resistance, both physically and psychologically; for she had now wrapped her legs about his waist and was drawing him down to the carpet while showering his face with kisses.  "Don't be silly!" she admonished him, as they tumbled to the floor.  "You know I'm better-looking than Sarah."

     "You're too young for me," he objected.  "Besides ..."  But his penis was beginning to respond positively, in spite of the effort he was still making to free himself from her, and, as his mouth encountered one of her breasts, more by accident than design, he felt it slide into her and he involuntarily began to succumb to the motions of coitus.

     "Ah yes, I knew you'd prefer me," Geraldine was saying, as she clung to him even more tightly.  "We have so much in common."

     "No!" he protested.  "That's where you're dead wrong!"

     But she simply smiled back at him from her ecstasy of sexual stimulation, while he hesitated on the brink of orgasm.

     "No!" he protested again.  "You shan't fucking-well have it!"  But he was too late.  For his orgasm had attained to its implacable climax and now spurted into her almost before he knew what was happening.  He awoke with a sudden start!  His blood vessels beat fiercely in his temples, his mouth hung open in fright, his eyes stared wildly into the darkness.  It was over!  Underneath him a sticky mess of sperm stuck uncomfortably to his lower abdomen and hung in expanding globules from his pubic hair, soiling the sheet.  He had simply experienced a wet dream!  In reality, Geraldine was still in South Kensington - presumably sound asleep.

     The following evening he telephoned Sarah, to discuss his visit to Lord Handon's with her.  She was interested to hear what he had to say about the conversation which had taken place in the library, but not too keen, for reasons best known to herself, to reveal much about her own experiences there the previous week.  In fact, she was slightly taken-aback that Timothy seemed to know something about it, and, learning that Geraldine had raised the subject over dinner, asked him what he thought of her.

     "What is one supposed to think?" he responded, clearly puzzled.

     "Well, did she give you the impression that she was jealous of our relationship and more interested in seducing you than in simply being present at dinner?" Sarah bluntly asked.

     "Oh, quite definitely!" Timothy admitted, blushing in spite of his physical solitude at his end of the line.  "I even got the impression that I was being primed by Lord Handon for just such a seduction.  After all, why else would he invite me over to dinner with no-one except his daughter there?  And she had certainly gone to some pains to make herself as attractive as possible, I can tell you!  Had even taken a bath prior to dinner."

     Sarah giggled briefly at her end of the line.  "And did you fall for it?" she wanted to know.

     "I could hardly do that!" Timothy gasped.  "She is only nineteen and, besides, I don't particularly like her, as I think you know.  But I had a bad dream last night during which I more or less did fall for her, and in more than a metaphorical sense."

     "I think you'd better keep the sordid details of that to yourself," Sarah advised him.

     "I had no intentions of revealing them to you," Timothy retorted.  "Anyway, considering that she is going back to Oxford in a few days' time, it seems a bit thick of her to imagine I could be induced to fall for her overnight, as it were, and resign myself to the consequences."

     "You have no idea how the perverse minds of such young women function," Sarah rejoined.  "Besides, she would have expected you to follow her there."

     "What, pack my bags and abandon my little flat in order to live in that stuffy old town?" Timothy objected.  "You're kidding!"

     Sarah giggled anew, this time less briefly, before saying: "You apparently have little notion of the lady's self-importance or of the extent to which her noble birth has convinced her that she can get what she wants simply by wanting it.  By all accounts, you ought to be prepared to live in Timbuktu with her, if that's her destination.  And feel privileged, moreover, at the prospect of doing so!"

     "Humph!" exclaimed Timothy, becoming indignant.  "Well, if by any chance I ever did decide to make a mistress of her, she'd be living on my terms, not I on hers."

     "I can well imagine," said Sarah.  "Yet Joe Handon was evidently keen to test your integrity by placing this temptation before you, to see whether you'd bend.  He probably conjectured that your moral theory would be well in advance of your mundane practice, so that you'd be susceptible to Geraldine's charms.  And then, when you fell for her, the pair of them could start undermining your theory, reducing your spiritual standing still further.  Besides, just supposing you did follow Geraldine to Oxford, think of the impression you'd be bound to create on her friends.  She would show you off to them and get you to lecture them on your religious beliefs, thereby enhancing her own prestige in their eyes.  People would envy her the fact that you were her lover and admire her for having seduced you.  And she'd attribute it all to her noble birth and good looks."

     "Stop it, Sarah!" protested an irate Timothy Byrne.  "I don't want to hear any more of this crap!  She'll never get me as far as South Kensington in future, never mind bloody Oxford!  And the same applies to Lord frigging Handon, especially if what you say about him is true.... But where exactly do you come in?  I mean, what kind of a relationship has he been having with you behind my back?"

     "Nothing that should give you any cause for alarm," Sarah replied, smiling to herself.  "I haven't seen all that much of him anyway - no more than you actually.  On Friday, when we dined together, he simply talked and ... well, patted and caressed me a little, that's all."

     "Like he did on the wooden bridge in his grounds at Rothermore House the week before?" Timothy blurted out, unable to restrain the impulse to reveal his secret.

     Sarah blushed violently and almost dropped the receiver from her hand.  It shocked her that Timothy had seen that, especially since he couldn't have been the only one!  At length, steadying her nerves, she plied him for more information.  It was rather embarrassing, even on the phone.  He hadn't been unaffected by the scene, he let her know, but had felt quite humiliated with Geraldine standing beside him, slyly taking pleasure in his discomfort.

     "Well, I'm sorry you should have felt that way," she duly remarked, her voice fraught with tension.  "And sorry, too, that you should have seen us.  But, really, what else could I do, under the circumstances?  I had to let him have his way because he was so persuasive and, besides, as his guest, I wasn't exactly in a position to be negative.  Neither was Sheila Johnston who, in any case, seemed to enjoy his physical attentions more than myself, and thus made it seem all the more acceptable.  I just didn't have the nerve to object, not with Irene and Girish standing nearby as well.  Although I did check him when he took his liberties a little too far and tried to reach under my briefs, the dirty bugger!"

     "So I recall," said Timothy with a faint smile.  "But he presumably took his liberties a little further in the privacy of his town house the other night, did he?"

     "I'd rather not answer that, if you don't mind," Sarah responded.  "What I think you ought to know, however, is that the old bugger is impotent, and consequently unable to do anything more than kiss and caress women."

     "Oh really?"  It came as quite a pleasant surprise to Timothy, who elected to conjecture: "You mean, he's reduced to a kind of Havelock Ellis level of merely fingering women?"

     Sarah knew precious little about Havelock Ellis, but found the suggestion slightly amusing, in spite of her seriousness.  "Unfortunately for him, that is precisely the case, Tim, and the main reason why he no longer gets on so well with his wife.  Consequently you have nothing to fear from his relationship with me, which, in any event, is of little account.  Friday was my first and, so far as I'm concerned, last visit to his other house.  His sexuality bores me."

     "And bores his daughter too, I shouldn't wonder!" Timothy averred, allowing himself the luxurious benefit of a little incestuous speculation.  "She was present with him on Friday, presumably?"

     "No, as a matter of fact she was out during the greater part of the evening and only returned home towards eleven o'clock, after I'd declined an invitation to stay the night and was on the point of leaving," Sarah revealed.  "Had she not turned-up when she did, Joe Handon might have persuaded me to change my mind, so I'm rather glad of the fact.  You can't imagine how uncomfortable it would be, having to pass the night in his bony company!"

     "Maybe he thought you'd be able to cure him of his impotence?" Timothy suggested.

     "I don't think even the combined efforts of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy would have succeeded in doing that," said Sarah, giggling down the line, as was her habit when on the phone.  It was partly nerves.  For, unlike Timothy, she generally disliked using the instrument.  He, on the other hand, preferred this conversational context to any other - largely, one should add, on principle.  It signified higher civilization to him, despite the expense.

     "Well," he said after a brief pause, during which time only some faint crackling on the line could be heard, "now I begin to understand why Handon behaved towards you as he did, on the bridge at Rothermore House.  It may even explain why he has certain spiritually progressive tendencies one would ordinarily hesitate to associate with such a man.  Hmm, very interesting!  Perhaps he imagined that I, too, was impotent, to be so spiritual, and hoped to have someone of his own sex in whom to confide?"

     "He was making a big mistake if he did imagine that!" Sarah declared.  "And it wouldn't exactly explain his endeavour to get you off with his daughter - assuming that was really his intention.  Not unless, however, it led to his finding out, through her, whether you were impotent, too.  For she could probably be depended upon to tell him one way or another, once she learnt the score, couldn't she?"

     "I expect so," conceded Timothy, who was quite impressed by Sarah's speculative capacity at this moment.  "Although he could have found that out more easily by asking you, surely?  After all, you know more about my sexual status than anyone else right now."

     "You needn't remind me," the opera singer retorted, blushing profusely in her Hampstead living-room.  "But he isn't aware of what I know, and neither, for that matter, is his daughter.  He wasn't in the least aware that we slept together at Rothermore House, and what has happened since then is completely unknown to him.  Had he realized that you became my lover recently, I rather doubt he'd have invited me over to South Kensington last week.  Admittedly, he saw us dancing together on New Year's Eve, but since it was more or less compulsory to dance, and everyone else had formed into couples, it didn't make a particularly deep impression on him - as the little episode on the bridge, the following morning, should attest.  Now, since I didn't mention you to him, he had cause neither for alarm nor suspicion, and certainly no way of knowing whether or not you were impotent."

     "Well, I'm blowed!" cried Timothy, raising his brows in surprised relief.  "And he never once asked you about me?"

     "Never," Sarah confirmed.  "He evidently didn't think I'd have anything to tell him.  Naturally, he did mention you, telling me what a rampant freethinker you were and of how puzzled and strangely impressed he had been by some of your ideas, not all of which he considered crazy or contradictory.  But that was as far as it went.  Fundamentally, he was more interested in finding out what he could about me and my work.  Even the fact of our simultaneous presence at the Voice Museum, last Thursday, seems not to have aroused any suspicions on his part."

     "That does surprise me, I must say," declared Timothy.  "After all, we were the only two recording participants there at the time."

     "Yes, but he probably didn't realize we came together, and as he prevented us from leaving together by taking me for a drink, while you were in the recording studio, he had little cause to dwell on the possibility.  It appears, anyway, that Nigel Townley turned up just after you'd left.  For Joe Handon mentioned him to me on Friday.  They apparently met outside the recording studio, following Handon's return from the pub at approximately a quarter-to-five.  You must have just missed him."

     "Yes, it was about four-thirty when I took my leave of the damn place," Timothy admitted frowningly.  "And how relieved I was to get out of it, what with all those noisy kids and stupid tourists!"

     "As you told me on Sunday," Sarah reminded him.  "Anyway, we won't have to visit it again for some time - assuming we ever do, that is!  I, for one, am not convinced that my incipient fame will endure for much longer anyway."

     Timothy was slightly puzzled by this.  "How d'you mean?" he asked.

     "Well ..." and she hesitated a moment, as though afraid to continue "... there's always the possibility that someone to my liking will oblige me to become a mother before long."

     "Ah, so that's it!" cried Timothy, who sent a sharp burst of nasal smile down the line.  Yes, there was always that possibility where such an attractive young woman as Sarah Field was concerned, and he knew full-well, at this moment, about his own position in relation to her and the fact that he might well pose such a threat to her professional status himself in the future.  He might, though as yet there was no absolute guarantee of it, since he wasn't deeply in love with her and had no immediate desire to become a father.  Then, too, the Werther recording she had lent him confirmed him in his high regard for her singing, and made him feel uncomfortable at the prospect of subsequently imposing motherhood upon her and thereby depriving the opera-loving public of her voice.  It was as though her operatic talents were too great to be sacrificed to marriage and its numerous domestic and maternal responsibilities, even for a relatively short period of time.

     And yet, if she meant what she had said, that first time she visited his flat, about being a woman first and foremost and a singer secondly, then a mother she would eventually have to be, regardless of whatever loss to the public her absence from opera, temporary or otherwise, might entail.  And a mother, in all probability, of more than one child, since Timothy had himself been an only child and, assuming he married Sarah, had no wish to inflict a similar fate on anyone else, considering the amount of loneliness and solitude involved.

     But would he marry her?  Ah, that was the rub, and he had yet to come to anything like a final decision on the matter.  True, he wasn't deeply in love with her, but was it absolutely necessary to be deeply in love, these days, before deciding to get married and have children?  Indeed, was it possible to be deeply in love with anyone at all, given the environmental and technological circumstances under which most people lived, and the fact that, certainly in his case, one was no longer an emotional young adolescent in the first spring of life?  If deep love was the necessary criterion for marriage, then perhaps Timothy would never marry, neither Sarah nor anyone else.

     Naturally, he had known true love as an adolescent, and as an adolescent, moreover, accustomed to suburban and provincial environments.  There was something about relatively close proximity to nature that fired the blood, granting emotional depth to one's love.  But what of the adult confined for years in a big city, where nature is comparatively scarce and the artificial predominates?  Can one expect the same degree of love from him and, if not, why should he waste time waiting for it, like a provincial adolescent?  Surely, therefore, the absence of deep love should not be seen as a reason for scorning marriage and its parental concomitants?  Surely one should rather equate this absence with the comparatively non-sensuous influence of the urban environment and consequently resign oneself to the possibility of getting married and having children without being deeply in love?  And if the marriage subsequently broke up, as so many modern marriages did, and the mother was obliged to seek welfare, might not the absence of deep, lasting love - to some extent due to the urban environment and its artificial pressures - be the chief explanation of this phenomenon, and might it not be indicative, moreover, of an evolutionary trend, in spite of all the short-term hardships?  It was an interesting thought, and Timothy Byrne had more than once weighed the possibility in recent weeks, seeking in it an explanation of his relative coolness towards Sarah, who was, after all, an extremely attractive and highly intelligent person.  Of course, there was also the fact that they hadn't known each other for very long, though this hardly seemed to explain everything, least of all his physical intimacy with her.

     Be that as it may, he had even tried to pin his coolness towards her on her less progressive lifestyle.  But this assumption didn't particularly convince him of the whole truth either, especially since he was keen on French opera too, and shared similar tastes in instrumental music.  Admittedly, his tastes might be more eclectic than hers, embracing some modern jazz, though that wasn't to say she couldn't be brought around to the virtues of musical eclecticism herself in due course.  On the contrary, there was every chance that she would come to appreciate the subtleties and ingenuities of the best electric music, if given the right encouragement.  As yet, she hadn't expressed any overt disapproval of it - at any rate, not of such electric music as he collected.  Her temperament was, after all, fairly well-attuned to his and, since women were generally a complaisant and ductile sex, liberated exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, he had scant grounds for imagining that she would inevitably remain aloof from his higher tastes, even if she couldn't quite relate to them with the same fervour as himself ... largely on account of her professional commitments to opera.

     No, in all likelihood, his relative coolness towards her chiefly stemmed from the artificial influence of the urban environment in which he had lived or, rather, existed, as though in exile from sensuous life, for the past decade.  He would never fall deeply in love with her, or, for that matter, with anyone else.  Yet if she was in love with him, as he had been led to believe the previous week, might it not be largely attributable to the fact that she was a woman, and thus inherently more emotional?  A woman, moreover, who lived in a comparatively less-urbanized part of north London, in closer proximity to nature's sensuous influence, as embodied by Hampstead Heath, Kenwood, Parliament Hill Fields, and surrounding areas of grassland or garden?

     Yes, there was no reason for one to exclude that possibility, since different types of environment were bound, sooner or later, to engender different influences.  To pretend otherwise was unrealistic.  One would simply be turning one's back on the facts.  And if these facts were leading one to the conclusion that being unable to fall deeply in love with another person wasn't necessarily a disgrace or a misfortune, well then, one simply had to accept it, irrespective of what conventional criteria might suggest.  And if this meant that the family, conceived as an atomic entity, was on the way out in this increasingly post-atomic age - well then, so be it!  Let evolution take its inexorable course towards a better future, a future in which spiritual rather than sensual love came to play a greater role, and men broke free of cosmic determinism.  Let us continue to turn away from the sun's fiery influence and aspire ever more keenly towards establishing the Holy Spirit, the eternity of spiritual bliss in which not us ... so much as the transcendent spirit of human beings will reign supreme in the Universe.  Let us look forwards to the Divine Omega, not backwards to the Diabolic Alpha.  And if this meant that Timothy should marry Sarah without being deeply in love with her, well then, marry her he damn-well would - provided she let him.

     "Yes," he at length said, following his bout of amused surprise, "you might well find yourself with a husband before long."

     "Any idea who?" she playfully asked, over a slight giggle.

     "Well, if you're prepared to accept me, you'd have the answer to that question right here and now," he calmly informed her, somewhat to his own surprise.

     There was a puzzled silence at Sarah's end of the line, as she endeavoured to assimilate the implications of his response.  Then, somewhat tentatively, she asked him: "Are you actually proposing to me over the phone?"

     "Yes, I guess so," he admitted.  "In point of fact, I can think of no better way of doing so."

     Another puzzled silence on Sarah's part, before she could bring herself to say: "And have you seriously considered the matter?"

     "Quite a few times."

     "And you love me?"

     "As much as I shall ever do."

     Yet another silence from Sarah - this time more stunned than puzzled - which was broken by: "Well, if that's the case, I can only say - yes!"

     "Good, that settles it then," he concluded, his heart by now beating twice as fast as normally.  "We'll get married in a registry office as soon as possible.  And this time I mean it, honestly."

     "I believe you," responded Sarah, who was almost in tears.  In fact, her right hand was beginning to shake, so that she could barely hold the telephone receiver up to her ear.

     "Well, until we meet again, I had better say goodbye," said Timothy, who had no desire to prolong the conversation, now that he had seemingly committed himself to a thing he would ordinarily have considered himself incapable of doing.  "We can talk about this some more tomorrow," he added, as though for his own benefit.  At which point he gently replaced the receiver and, slumping back into his armchair, emitted a heartfelt sigh of relief.  It hadn't occurred to him before that he might one day find himself proposing marriage over the phone.  But now that it had actually happened, he felt that, as far as he was concerned, nothing could have been more inevitable!  A more naturalistic proposal would simply have detracted, in his eyes, from his transcendental integrity.  He was sincerely grateful that Sarah hadn't turned him down.  She had evidently learnt a lesson from him the previous week.  Either that or the Voice Museum had taught her a thing or two about the power of the disembodied human voice!

 

    

LONDON 1981 (Revised 1982-2010)

 

 

SUBLIMATED RELATIONS

 

 

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