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, 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' 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 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 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."

 

 

Bookmark and Share