CHAPTER FOUR

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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