Maria By Patrick Paddington
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By Patrick Paddington
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The roar of the waves as they crash upon the stones at the bottom of the cliff can be quite frightening at night when there is a storm hereabouts. Sometimes when the wind blows and the skies turn a dirty grey and the waves rush headlong to the rocks, it is difficult to imagine that anyone could want to spend a life on that heaving mass.
There used to be a rude shelter we called a boathouse just by the large rock at the bottom of the cliff. Years of neglect have taken their toll and it is now a tumbledown collection of boards and planking. That boathouse once sheltered a skiff, an old motorised launch and two rowing boats. I kept a yacht, the Vesper, but she, of course, remained in the harbour when she was not in dry dock.
As I sit in my study, I can hear the waves crashing onto the rocks in a never-ending crescendo. The wind rushes through the trees, swishing and sighing. All over the house the storm shutters are secure. The storm that threatens to break promises to be a destructive one. The last one cost me enough: it was on such a night as this that Maria perished.
Maria was a woman whose passions ruled her life. There had been no half measures with her. Sometimes the thought would creep upon me that she had been born in the wrong times. Several hundred years back, she could have been some pirate queen driving a cutthroat crew of buccaneers by sheer force of will. Maria could trace her forebearers to Spanish Grandees whose family had dissipated over the years due to various ills and scandals. Her family was more ancient than mine, but there was some streak of self-destruction which seemed to run through it.
Before our marriage I had known Maria for several years, but I had never really been one of her set. She was always fashionably dressed and flirted from one rake to the next, living the gay, meaningless life of a social butterfly. In those days people were more class conscious, and the right clothes and accent were an automatic entrée to the fashionable crowd. This was the crowd which went to the theatres, played at cards for fantastic amounts, and attended the races wearing the most ridiculous clothes which were only acceptable because most people could not afford such fine foolishness. Maria was like a jewel among this lot. There was no doubt that she was beautiful. She had that sparkling beauty which drew everyone’s eyes to her as she mingled among her friends like a polished diamond. Though I held her dissolute lifestyle in disdain, I was captivated by her charms. As I could afford to go to most of the fashionable places, play the right sports and join the accepted clubs, I had ample opportunity to run into Maria.
The truth of it was, I had more money than I needed. My family had always been well-off, and the old man always carried a loose purse. One of my forbearers had enjoyed the favour of his king, who had endowed him with lands and a crest. The lands had brought wealth, and the crest had ensured that the family’s thievery in the hurry to amass wealth had been hidden under an aura of respectability.
My parents had been generous to me, securing a bijou residence for me in a perfectly respectable neighbourhood, and ensuring that I had sufficient funds to enjoy my salad days. My mother hoped that outside the activities of the university I would have ample opportunity of finding a good woman to marry. She did not believe in being actively involved in the selection of my bride, and trusted me to find a wife for myself who would be perfectly acceptable to all the family. My father’s motives were more convoluted. The allowance placed me under an obligation to come back home and settle down to the running of the estates which had provided the funds for my leisure. He need not have worried. There was no other place which held as much appeal for me as my home. My interests had always focused on the welfare of the estates, and I can remember going about with a factor when I was a little boy. The factor was an old man who had served my grandfather in his time, and there was nothing he was not privy to on the estates. He took pride in showing me around and unravelling the coils which were attendant to agricultural and rural life. I hated the time I had to spend away from home, as it seemed to me that the education I was getting was unnecessary if I were to end up nothing but a landowner.
I met Maria in my rounds of parties at the Bobolink, Muscatel’s, and other clubs. Sometimes I wish I could recall in detail that first meeting, but try as I may it eludes me. We were never formally introduced but gradually we became members the same cliques. Back in those days she was very close to a man named Phillip, who had no known means of support. Phillip was a hanger-on. He did not follow any occupation and lacked the social refinements necessary in a gentleman. There was a story whose veracity had not been established that he had been sent down from school over some bad business about forging his father’s name to a cheque. However, as a man he was a fine example of what a well-proportioned individual should be. I overheard some silly woman saying that he reminded her of Michelangelo’s statue of David. It became generally accepted that some understanding existed between Maria and Phillip. This did not stop Maria from seeking my company and trying to include me in the various high jinks her set pulled. I think I intrigued Maria. I did not drink much, and I was usually more interested in hearing what others had to say rather than speak much myself. The company in which I typically found myself was extremely high-spirited but I refrained from joining in some of their hairier pranks. I could be relied upon, however, to undo the purse strings when the occasion demanded.
Towards the end of the year I had to hit the books pretty hard. My final examinations were coming up and, I had no intention of failing at the last hurdle. Though fairly industrious by nature I was an average student at best, so I had to cram very hard for the examinations. The woman who came in and "did" for me once found me seated at my reading table with a wet towel wrapped around my head. A friend studying at the medical college had given me some vile concoction which made my mind wonderfully clear and kept me awake for long periods. This brew gave me red, wild looking eyes and the tendency to mumble to myself. On the one occasion when she came in the morning and found me thus, she must have thought my mind had given way, and it was all I could do to persuade her that I had just been reading through the night, completely unaware of the time. However the effort paid off and I was able to leave university with the evidence that I had actually spent some time there.
During this time I saw no-one of the old set, and Maria was a distant recollection in the back of my mind. Later a rather sordid story reached my ears about some complication that had occurred which had thrown Maria’s life into disorder. The details were not very clear but Maria and Phillip had become engaged. Understandably Phillip’s father washed his hands of the whole thing and would not suffer it to be spoken of in his presence. The engagement did not survive the rude shocks which were suddenly pressed upon the couple and it was generally believed that there was a feeling of relief among everyone concerned when it was later broken off at the insistence of a relative.
I was abroad for a year pursuing business interests on my father’s behalf. The endless travelling to foreign cities lost its charm after the first few months. I came to hate hotel rooms and the inedible food that was invariably the same whatever the country. My father’s interests were diverse, and nothing I had learnt had prepared me to deal with the business cultures of some of his foreign associates. I usually sent a report to my father’s agent who would, by way of return, relay further instructions and recommendations.
This would have gone on for much longer had I not received the news that my parents had perished in a motor accident. Numb with shock, I returned home to find that I had obligations greater than I had ever imagined. There were solicitors to be seen, bequests under my father’s will to be honoured, tenants to receive and creditors whose accounts needed to be settled. While I had always had money, I now controlled a vast empire of businesses which generated a prodigious amount of money. It was a shock to discover that the old man had had interests in sheep and cattle in the Argentines. There was a gold mine in Australia, a silk factory in Shanghai as well as a cocoa plantation on the Gold Coast. This was besides sundry interests on the Continent and further afield.
My father’s agent had his offices in the city, and it was to his offices I repaired after a few weeks at the country house. The office was handy for my club and only a few minutes from the theatres. It takes time to settle into a new routine after a major upheaval. I spent the next few months going back to my old haunts, and after one night at my club with a few mates I ran into Maria.
That night was destined to end up in some unfortunate way. There were three of us who sat down to dinner, and I remember Jack suggesting that we try to find the most horrible wine kept in the cellar. The sommelier seemed rather offended at first, but by the time the fish was removed he had gotten into the spirit of the game and was actively supervising the hunt for a bottle of the "worst plonk," as Podge called it. Finally, a bottle of uncertain vintage was triumphantly produced from who knows where. It contained a resinous sludge that was slightly greenish in colour, thick and sticky as paste and tasting of vinegar and some acidic compound. Podge tossed off a couple of glasses and his face assumed a greenish hue which resembled the odious wine. His enthusiastic dash across the floor as he made for the bathroom door startled some of the more sedate diners. Podge was hoping to become a big tiger in the political jungle, but the odds were against him. He had broken off an engagement to a lady of a well-known family, and the affair had made a great noise. He had the tendency to stutter when he became excited, which was often, especially when he had looked at the wine when it was red.
Jack was employed at a weekly paper to which I had promised to subscribe to, but had never done so. He had an unfortunate penchant towards satire, and his articles contained that languid disdain readers found slightly insulting to their intellect. It seemed obvious to everyone that he would not progress in his chosen career and become another Randolph in the world of journalism. Jack and Podge were capital fellows who were bound to me because we had spent our miserable formative years together at boarding school.
When it was time for the biscuits we discovered that we had sampled over nine bottles, and most of these were below the half way mark. An air of scandalised tolerance was evident in the atmosphere of the place; no doubt had we been anyone else, we might have been thrown out. Such drinking was not expected in that kind of establishment. We were all tight, and when Podge suggested that we visit the nearest dance place, just to see if we could pick up some girls, the suggestion was received with noisy enthusiasm. Jack called it a capital idea worth receiving in a glass of Merlot. The commissionaire at the door was persuaded, on the presentation of a fairly large note, to provide the address of a "low dive," and we drove our cars in convoy to Watermeyer Street. Podge wanted to start a race, but I was having none of that.
It was one of those nights read you about in stories or seen in an old movie; the moon hung in the wide, midnight blue sky like a great silver light. It had been drizzling earlier on and the light gave off a silvery glint where it was reflected in the puddles. It was a perfect night for being young and alive. I remember thinking that it was perfectly ridiculous that I had a great big house in the country with no-one to share it with but old family retainers. By the time we got to the dance hall it had become clear that Jack was going to need help to get home. His car had the disturbing propensity to mount the pavement on the corners. I was glad that we did not run into any enthusiastic policemen that night.
I don’t remember much about what happened after that. I remember thinking that the music in the hall was too loud and badly played. There seemed to be a disagreeable smell of fried fish and chips about the place. I must have asked someone to get me a brandy for I remember receiving some fiery spirit that almost cauterised my tongue. I heard later that Podge had been thrown out of the place for making an offensive suggestion to one of the serving girls. Podge had come to the place with a fixed idea in his mind, and I suppose it did him credit that he had wanted to carry it through. Jack slept in his car. He had left the top down and the rain which fell during the night failed to wake him.
Somehow during the course of that night I had acquired the company of a girl. Her face seemed vaguely familiar, and I remember trying to impress upon her the importance of a correctly knotted tie. I may have sung a fairly risqué interpretation of some old nursery rhyme, but I am not completely sure. Several times I think I made the effort to leave, but I somehow never carried the conviction through.
At one point I pulled myself out of a half doze and saw that the table was covered with uncollected glasses. Along these were some plates which showed the remains of congealed food, but I had no recollection of having ordered a meal. A previous day’s evening edition of some racy tabloid lay in a pool of red wine, and someone had marked the date in a bold pencil. There was a shout of laughter, and I saw without surprise that there were several people at the table. The effort to recall my manners and attend to the conversation proved to be too much for me and I dozed off. The next time my senses were slightly clear, the lady was asking me to take off my jacket. This was accomplished solely under her own efforts as my arms refused to cooperate. Later that night I remember her paying the bill out of my pocketbook. How she had come to have it I had no idea. I remember feeling the cool night air on my face as my car sped through the city. I was not driving, and for a moment the problem of how this could be occupied me until I sank into a deep sleep.
I woke up in a bed that smelt of lavender. For a moment I wondered where I was, but these thoughts were suddenly cut off by the sight of my dress clothes carefully draped over a high wooden chair. Panic seized me as I realised I was stark naked under the bedclothes. Where the hell was I, and what had happened last night? I had a dull ache in my head and the grey light coming in through the small window hurt my eyes. Wave after wave of nausea seemed to wash through me, but the effort to get up was beyond me. My tongue seemed glued to the roof of my mouth. The door suddenly opened and in walked a woman I had not seen for a long time.
"Good God, Maria!" I exclaimed in amazement.
"Finally you are awake. And you recognise me."
"You mean last night I –"
"Last night you hadn’t a clue who I was except that you kept insisting that you had seen me somewhere before." Her eyes regarded me with cool amusement.
Maria was wearing an old robe which was knotted at the waist. Some odd movement made me realise that underneath the robe she was as naked as me. With a suddenly dry mouth, I realised that the other side of the bed showed evidence of having been slept in. My pocketbook was on the bedside table and on top of that was a saucy little hat which I vaguely recalled having seen last night. An evening frock was flung carelessly over one of the wing mirrors of a wooden dresser which was set in the corner.
Maria moved around the room picking up some things which were on the floor, totally at ease. When she had finished she took me to the bathroom which was no larger than a cupboard. The sight of it depressed me. The bath was chipped. There was a flannel cloth spread on the bottom to prevent people from cutting themselves on the chipped places. I don’t think that there has ever been a time in my life that I have had to go without anything I really wanted because I had no money. It was a shock to see Maria reduced to these sort of circumstances. That little bedsitter was a hovel, and Maria deserved better. When I came out of the bathroom Maria had brushed my clothes and pressed them.
"I’m sorry there is no hot water," she apologised with a blush upon her cheeks.
"I didn’t miss it. You get used to all sorts of things abroad, and luxury is not one of them." The moment I said it I could have bitten off my tongue. Maria raised her head and looked at me. I felt terrible. It was boorish of me to compromise this young woman who had been so kind to me and then insult her into the bargain.
"Maria. I want to apologise about last night. I don’t know what came over me. What I did –"
"What did you do that was so terrible? I don’t regret any of it."
"I didn’t… I couldn’t have…?" My voice trailed off into a miserable silence.
I think at the back of my mind my worst fears had been realised as soon as I had seen Maria in that robe. I had been guilty of ungentlemanly behaviour. There was no excuse for being so drunk that I had had to take advantage of Maria. And here she was telling me that it had been right. There is a silence which is as loud as thunder. I must have betrayed my agitation in some little but unmistakable way, for Maria looked at me, her suddenly eyes hurt and brimming with tears. What good will it do to go over that awful scene? My path had been laid out for me. I knew what to do. What gentleman could do less?
We stayed in without breakfast until Maria was sure that her landlady had left. Then we crept downstairs and I went through the back way, my senses shrieking from the shame. Maria was waiting for me at the corner of the block and a few steps took us to the garage where my car had been parked. I don’t know what story she had told them. We went to the little shop where she was employed in some menial capacity and both of us maintained a strained silence. She chose to be set down a few streets away as she was afraid of exciting talk amongst the people she worked with.
The streets in the northern suburbs are narrow and not very clean. All the roads are full of little urchins in ragged clothes. The smoke which rises from the nearby factories gives the district a dull colouring which is especially depressing towards evening. Almost all the houses are cramped and derelict. It was a side of the city I had rarely seen, even in my university days. I drove to the north road and opened up the car. There was a light shower falling, but the air had a salty tang to it, almost as if a sea breeze was blowing inland. The roads were wonderfully clear, and after an hour I was back at the home of my ancestors.
I did not call the office. That weekend was spent in idle pursuits. The old man’s study was being converted into a more modern office which I hoped to use when I eventually came down to stay for good. The plans called for some structural changes, and I was anxious that these should come out well. I hung around and gave uncalled for suggestions until the foreman politely but firmly asked me to leave. That was my cue to go and annoy the fish at my favourite spot by the bend in the river a few miles before it met the sea. A packed lunch stood ready for me. It made me smile to think that they could have guessed so well in the kitchen that I was going out. Some of the dogs wanted to follow me, but as I have always found them a hindrance to the quiet enjoyment of fishing, I forbade them to come. I was anxious to test a fly I had been working on for some time. This was made with bright feathers and I was sure I would have some success with it.
My thoughts were in turmoil and I was hoping that I would receive some sign that I was doing the right thing. It’s funny how a chap can have all the advantages that are necessary in life but fail in some small commonplace thing. It was important to me that I should find a good girl who couldn’t live without me and would want to be with me because I made her happy. It may sound like a small thing, but I had never come that close to it. Women liked me and I had a good many friends, but as soon as it appeared that I was heading towards a more intimate understanding, they were quick to let me know that it was no good. I could not think what was different with Maria that she had found something to like about me. Do you know how painful it is to have to admit to yourself that you have nothing (except for money) to offer a girl as she sees nothing special about you? No amount of money could turn the frog into prince charming, and it was something that I had to live with. This was not to say I was not good company. My manners were almost perfect, and I was extremely well read. Music played an important part in my life, my mother having made sure that by the time I was twelve I could play the piano tolerably well and other instruments well enough to carry myself through an evening of music.
I had no concentration that afternoon, and it was no surprise that I caught nothing worth mentioning. By the time it was early evening I was thoroughly wet and heartily sick of the whole thing. One of the dogs had broken bounds, and found me so I was glad to have an excuse to chuck the whole miserable show and return home to a roaring fire and a whisky. Back in those days, dinner was always an ordeal for me. My mother had always insisted on formality, so there was no sloppiness at her table. Everyone dressed for dinner which was punctually served and consisted of numerous courses. This tradition had been kept up because I had been too weak to argue with the housekeeper and because in some strange way I felt faithful to my mother’s memory by sticking to the things which had been important to her.
The cook had made a gazpacho, which was some sort of raw soup with cucumbers and spices. Whoever first made that vile concoction deserved a special place in gourmet hell. I forget what I had after that. The spectre of that awful soup was with me all through my solitary meal. After dinner, I wrote a number of letters which set certain events into motion. There were rooms in the main wing of the house to be opened up again, and this I left in the hands of the servants. My mother had always had the place exactly as she wanted, and it was going to upset me if some things were going to be changed.
I got into town rather late on Monday. The sky was overcast. It was the kind of weather that made you think it was early evening although it was mid-morning. I needed my fog lights that morning, and I was glad when I was able to find the dingy little place where Maria was employed. There was a heavy smell of perfumed tobacco about the place which was not unpleasant. The bell rang as I opened the door and in the half-light I saw Maria look up. Her eyes lit up when she saw me, and in that instant all my doubts flew away. She had not taken much care with her make-up that morning and her worry lines were very visible. There was no-one else in the shop and I was glad of this. I hoped I would not have to stay long and as it turned out I was very quick. There are moments when you feel that you are the only man in a woman’s world. When you look into her eyes you see nothing but love and trust reflected there. I did not stay long, but what we spoke about was the ancient language of love. Maria seemed to have no doubts of her own and this calmed me down. When I left the engagement ring my mother had worn in her time was on Maria’s hand.
There was a legend attached to the diamond, but no doubt it was just a story. The diamond was reckoned to have been stolen from a pasha in some Indian district. There was a jungle district which, in past times, had been plagued by a ferocious tiger. This tiger had turned man-eater and devoured the frightened villagers almost at will. Some village mystic convinced the people to appease the spirit of the tiger by providing it with a mate. What the villagers conceived was a huge statue of a tiger which bore various precious embellishments. The teeth were of gold and the fiercely glittering eyes were polished diamonds. Years later foreigners had chanced upon the statue, which may or may not have served its purpose. The eyes had been forcibly removed, and one of these found its way into our family’s keeping. Nasty things were reputed to have occurred to the desecrators, one of whom was mauled by a tiger. Another committed suicide by jumping into a river infested with crocodiles. If there was a curse attendant to the stone it had lain dormant for several generations.
I had removed this ring from trust early that morning. The family solicitor made it quite clear that he did not approve of the what he termed "the indecent haste with which I was approaching so important a step," but the dry old stick seemed much happier after he had delivered his warning and mentioned that what the family needed was a lot of "young ’uns of the old stock."
Maria and I had a quiet wedding. Within a month of our running into each other again Maria moved into my home. There were trips to the boutiques as Maria positively declared that she wanted to take nothing with her which reminded her of the life she was leaving behind. She did not want anyone to know that she had been employed in a shop as she was afraid that this would count against her in polite society. The story she insisted we tell was that we met on holiday and fallen in love. I hated this duplicity and this furtive side of Maria I had not seen before, but I played my part and gave her story my support whenever she had the occasion to recount it.
Our honeymoon, what there was of it, was spent in Crete. We spent a few glorious days of bright sunshine and blue seas lazing on the white sands or tramping up and down the paths to the village. By the seventh day Maria had picked up a stomach bug, so that was that. The feta cheese and village ouzo may have had something to do with it. We packed up our bags and went to Athens, where a doctor assured Maria that she would be fine in a couple of days. I left her, wan and listless in the hotel suite where we were to stay until I could make the arrangements for us to go home.
That same afternoon, as I was walking in the markets, trying to find a gift for my new wife, I ran into Pongo. I had been to school with Pongo, but we had not been close friends. His name was short for "pongo-pongo," as I recalled, but I could not, for the life of me, remember why we had called him that. He had an uncle in oil, I seemed to recall, and after much hand-shaking and "It’s a small world", "Good Lord. Pongo, it’s never you!" he confirmed that he was working as a pilot for his uncle’s firm. He had just arrived from Basra, where he had taken some drilling spares and had come to Athens with some big-wig who was going off to a site where they had found some clay pots which were sending archaeologists into raptures. I invited him to dinner at our hotel.
When he arrived, the first thing he did was to immediately attack my character.
"My dear," he said to Maria, whom he was meeting for the first time, "Did you know that your husband was cashiered from his regiment after repeated bankruptcies?"
"What Pongo ought to tell you, Maria, is that he was turned down for the membership of my club because he is a dipsomaniac!"
"Is your name really Pongo?" Maria asked, bewildered by this banter.
Pongo proved to have an easy humour and his reminiscences about his life in the Gulf had us doubled over with laughter. It was very pleasant to be able to spend a convivial evening with someone from home, and our discussions on the various friends and acquaintances we had in common took us back to the schooldays. As it turned out, he was proceeding on his way home the following morning, and insisted on us joining him when he learnt that we, too, were making our way there. It was very sad when I heard later that he had been killed when an oil well in Oman exploded into a ball of flames.
We may not have been rapturously happy, Maria and I, but we quickly settled into a comfortable routine. Maria was clever and ran the household efficiently. She took to the duties which had occupied my mother and after some time there was some gradual acceptance that she was equally good if not better in some ways than my mother had been. If there was one worry, it was that she went through the household purse with alarming rapidity.
The first time I became aware of this was when one of the tradesmen insisted on presenting his bill to me. Barney was a jolly old soul with a head as bald as a billiard ball. Almost all his custom came from our estates, and the bulk of that came from my household. He was extremely apologetic about "bothering your honour, but circumstances had made it necessary." The old bird was so afraid that I would take offence that in the end I took pity on him, and gently guided him to his business. He was at pains to explain that he understood that a man in my position was obviously so busy that mundane matters such as his were of small consequence. ("Cut it out, Barney! You know you used to paddle my bottom when you caught me lifting toffees from your shop when I was a little ’un") His bill had probably been overlooked over the months by weightier matters, he persisted. To cut the interview short I asked for the reckoning, which he proceeded to put into my hand with much bowing and excuses.
The bill itself was not very large, but the fact that it had been unpaid for some time was annoying. More so when I distinctly remembered telling Maria that household accounts were to be settled promptly. To ensure that she never found herself short I doubled the allowance which had previously fallen under the charge of my faithful housekeeper. I saw no need to check the accounts since I knew there would always be some necessary purchases which Maria would need to keep from me and I would prefer not to know. I settled the trade bill and insisted on seeing all the rest. Very few of them had been met, and Maria confessed to me that the money had been exhausted. Rather than have a scene I promptly settled all the outstanding accounts, and instructed my solicitor to arrange a trust from which my wife could draw funds at regular intervals. The details I left to his discretion, but I insisted that any large withdrawals would need my express authority. Jarvis was extremely conservative, and his firm had been the family’s solicitors for several generations.
Maria at first appeared disturbed by all this but she rallied when I explained that the arrangement left her with a carte blanche, more or less, on the trust fund. When we were married, I asked Maria to tell me if she had any financial affairs which needed tying up. To my mind I had been a gentleman about the whole thing. When she insisted that there was nothing I made a large cash settlement over to her so that she could buy "clothes and all the other things a lady might need." I had not enquired how this money had been spent and indeed it had appeared to me as though she had not spent much of it. I had no wish for my wife to be embarrassed by want of money when the family finances could support any number of extravagant follies.
My grandfather had been a keen gardener. That is to say, he had employed a whole army of gardeners to whom he entrusted the growing of flowers. A visit to Brazil had resulted in a passion for orchids. He had started a massive greenhouse for his hobby, and over the years his interest had spread to other flowers with the result that there was a profusion of exotic flowers which were carefully tended and logged into a gardening catalogue. My father had let no such nonsense interfere with his hunting and golf, and as long as there were enough flowers for her vases my mother was content. As a result the greenhouses had fallen into neglect. When Maria arrived she took an immediate interest in the flowers, and started subscriptions to various gardening societies. She kept herself fully occupied but by the time winter came, it was evident that there was going to be an addition to the household. The nursery had not been in use since my time. A lot of preparations were necessary. When the time came, Maria had all the help she needed. There was no need for her to go to hospital. The doctor was in attendance and we had brought in two nurses. The child was born with respiratory problems. There were some other complications, but the doctor was certain these were of no consequence. I remember looking at the little mite fighting for every breath he had to take. Unlike me, his colouring was dark, and there was no mistaking that he was his mother’s son.
It was then that the horrible business first started. We had a disagreement over the name and I found out what sort of steel my wife had in her character. Before he was born we had settled on two names for our child – May if it were a girl and Edward if it were a boy. Edward was a family name which meant a lot to me because that had been my father’s name. I felt slightly chilled when Maria told me with her steady eyes on me that she had decided to call our son Phillip.
"Really, Maria! We agreed. And why Phillip, for God’s sake?"
"Because that’s the name best suited for him. He doesn’t look like an Edward, now does he? In any case, I’ve quite made up my mind!"
"You cannot do that, Maria. This is something we have to agree on, and I thought we settled this long ago." I was trying to understand what all of this meant.
"His name is going to be Phillip. You might as well get used to that." There was a hint of flinty hardness in her voice.
It seemed absurd to be arguing about a name when our little son was fighting for his life. I could not help thinking that she had chosen the name because of her former lover. What hurt me was the fact that she still cared for him enough to want to name her child after him.
Little Phillip was a fighter. He fought his way through one illness to the next. We had to be extremely careful about his health. It got to a point where Maria would not let him out of her sight. I had long since resigned myself to the fact that I now came second in her affections. During the times when he was caught up in the grips of his illness Maria never slept, constantly keeping guard at his bedside. Children have a way of knowing things, and by the time Phillip was five he was a real mother’s baby. I can’t say we had much in common. My efforts to interest him in my hobbies were to no avail. He kept his distance from me and preferred his mother’s company.
By this time I had lost touch with the old crowd. Business pursuits took up most of my time. I proved to have a head for business and the family finances grew considerably under my charge. Whereas in the past I had undertaken the foreign travel, this odious task was now performed by my agent or his junior associates while I remained at home. On the rare occasions when we entertained at home, Maria was an able hostess. She was gracious, kind and had a fund of entertaining stories which made our dinner table ring with laughter. She seemed to thrive on attention. Now and again Maria inexplicably caught the urge to go away. She would be moody and snappy for a couple of days; then she would announce with startling suddenness that she was going away for some days. Where she went I never knew, but when she came back she would be the old Maria who was loving and carefree. I suppose the life of a rustic was too slow for her after her time with the fun-loving set of the city. Sometimes, when she was feeling talkative, she would state that she could not understand why a man of my education (whatever that meant) and influence chose to hide in the country like hind when I could be living in the city, directing my energies towards occupying some exalted position where I could influence the policy and direction of my country.
For his seventh birthday I took Phillip out on the yacht I had taken in exchange for a debt. It was called the Vesper, a name I despised but could not change because Maria was afraid that it would be bad luck to do so. Maria came down with us at the last moment changed her mind, deciding to go into the city on some errand or other. I have done a bit of sailing but I know my capabilities, or rather, lack of them. I left the crew to their own devises, hoping that the day would keep fine for Phillip. It was obvious from the moment he stepped on the deck that he was enchanted. He followed the captain, a gruff bearded man, asking endless questions and imitating his manner. We had not been sailing for an hour when the sky turned a dirty grey colour. The seas we began to meet were fairly big ones. Phillip suddenly became quiet and when it started raining and the yacht began to yaw about, he became violently sick. There was no choice but to fight our way back, and this was no mean feat because of the wind. When we got to the quay, we were all wet and uncomfortable. I had to carry Phillip wrapped up in a blanket and listen to Maria’s reproaches in silence.
The fall-out from that outing was severe. Phillip was confined to bed with a raging temperature for a long time. It became clear that it was not pneumonia, but something else equally bad or even worse. There was a discoloured lump the size of a golf ball on his left leg. Maria became intolerable to live with. She would neither eat nor sleep. She spent every possible moment with little Phillip and would snap at anyone who dared interfere with her. What made it worse for me was the realisation that she blamed me for the whole thing. She never said a word to this effect, but there was a look in her eyes which made it plain that this was what she felt. There was no warmth when I touched her and she refused all my offers to sit up with Phillip. Maria was a light sleeper and she hated closeness which she said made her feel like a caged animal. Because of this we had kept separate bedrooms almost from the outset of our marriage.
I found this arrangement cumbersome and inconvenient, but I tolerated it despite the malicious talk which I was sure this caused among the family retainers. Since Phillip’s illness Maria’s door had not been opened to me.
We made several consultations. Our doctor referred us to several men in the profession. The one man who came highly commended and had a suite of offices in an unpretentious place in the city advised us that he wanted to run some tests. He wanted to know little Phillip’s medical history, and Maria was able to more than satisfy this request by launching into a whole catalogue of all the ailments which Phillip had suffered and supporting this with a formidable folder which she presented to the doctor. By the very next day Phillip was installed in a private ward and some tests were being carried out. The results must have been inconclusive for Maria was called upon to submit to a blood test. That evening we received a comprehensive briefing from the doctor who was showing signs of strain. What our son was suffering from was a form of cancer which was destroying the marrow in his left leg.
Maria was distraught at the news, and it was all I could do to comfort her. She became even more upset when I was called in to undergo the blood test because her blood type had turned out to be incompatible with little Phillip’s. We were told that we had to wait for a period of a week while tests were being carried out.
Nothing much happened that week. There was a plane which went missing in clear weather on its way to Bahamas. It was a passenger plane carrying thirty-seven people. The captain had been in radio contact with the tower off Key West when he suddenly broke off. The bodies of four frozen mountaineers were found almost at the top of Everest. It was believed that they were members of the ill-fated expedition of ’39. A house collapsed in Savannah exposing the gruesome remains of thirteen people who had been butchered and buried in the foundation. A famous surgeon who had successfully operated on a prince of the blood was discovered to be a fraud. He admitted that he had never been to medical school and had left school at the age of thirteen to assist a travelling vet. A king in some foreign country was assassinated when some blackguard drove a short spike to his heart and wrenched it out again on the pretence of embracing him. A peace treaty was signed between two neighbouring countries and the plane carrying the president of one of the countries from the peace conference exploded in mid-air killing all on board. A weather phenomenon thought to be responsible for prolonged drought spells was discovered in the southern hemisphere. A woman poured boiling oil over her husband of thirty years because she discovered that he had spent their combined life-savings on a pretty little thing at the local pub. There was an earthquake in Japan that week. Some seven tourists were taken hostage by a group of guerrillas in an obscure South American country. A mine collapsed in Southern Africa, trapping sixty-two miners underground. A new land speed world record was set in a Nevada desert. A film actress was accused of bigamy which she vehemently denied having married one man under her real name and the other under her stage name. I also discovered that my wife had never loved me.
When the week was out we held a conference with the specialist. The doctor was grave.
"The bone marrow transplant is a fairly radical procedure for this type of disease, but the chances of success are fairly high."
The doctor looked at Maria and asked if she would like to be alone with me. Maria, looking puzzled, shook her head. The doctor then asked if he could speak to Maria alone.
"What do you mean, doctor? Whatever it is, you can say it to both of us," I said before Maria could reply.
"As I told you before, it is imperative to perform a bone marrow procedure on your son. But before we can do that we have to find marrow with a low rejection rate. I’m sorry to say your blood type is incompatible with your son’s."
"That can’t be right, doctor. I mean, his blood type has to be either mine or Maria’s. Isn’t that correct? You gave us to understand that it wasn’t my wife’s and now you are saying that …" Shock rippled through me like a wave of pain. I looked at Maria and her face was set and hard.
"Don’t say anything. Please – not when my son is fighting for his life!" Her face was like a marble statue, beautiful and cold.
Phillip. It had to be Phillip. The doctor continued talking with an uncomfortable air but his words were lost to me.
All the way home we maintained a strained silence. Every time I tried to speak Maria turned a forbidding countenance towards me. "Not now. Please. I have to think."
"I have located Phillip, but I need your help to bring him here. You can charter a plane and get him here in less than three hours. He says he wants some money to set himself up again, and unless you speak to him and agree to this, he won’t come. Please don’t criticise or say anything. He has never had your advantages, so don’t try to read anything into this."
I could hardly speak for crying. My heart was breaking. My wife was asking me to bribe a man into saving his own child.
"If you ever loved me you will do this for little Phillip. Don’t punish an innocent child because you are angry with me. I swear on my son’s head that if you do this, I will do anything you want me to."
I knew then that I had lost everything. What was all my money good for if I had no wife and child to share it with?
I made three telephone calls and when I gave Maria the two cheques drawn on my bank she clasped them into her hands fervently. She ran out of the room without even saying goodbye. My thoughts were on that second cheque and what it had bought me. I had bought myself loneliness and sorrow. My wife was now lost to me; my son and heir had been taken away from me. I would never know peace of mind.
I went to my club that afternoon. There were no other members and I was able to sit in the corner of the study in perfect solitude. The fireplace had a good crackling fire in the grate which sent out a comforting warmth. Berry, the steward, looked in several times to see if I wanted anything but my bottle of whiskey remained unopened beside me. Early evening brought the fog and a few members came in from a smoking concert which had not lived up to their expectations and started a game of cards over at the card table. Some of them went in to dinner which was announced early for some reason.
I must have dozed off because I came to with Berry gently shaking my shoulder. He had brought me a piece of pie which he insisted the chef had personally recommended. I didn’t want to hurt the dear fellow’s feelings so I refrained from telling him what to do with his pie, and managed a couple of mouthfuls before I let the fork drop. Some damn fool went to the piano and started a wretched number from The Barber of Seville. He didn’t know all the parts and tended to flub the demanding notes, which having gotten wrong the first time, he tried to perfect by constant repetition. It wasn’t a quiet number and by the time he made the fifth or sixth of his infernal blunders, I was heartily sick of the whole show. I called for my coat and took my hat. The commissionaire looked rather startled when I responded to his greeting with a growl.
As I drove out of the city, the swirling fog seemed to turn into pea soup. I was glad I had those great big Marchal fog lights as on my machine. The rain had started to fall and an icy draught was coming in from somewhere, cutting through my driving coat. There was no traffic on the road and an hour later I had left the rain and fog behind me. The dark shape of my ancestral home loomed ahead and only a few rooms showed some light through the curtains. I noticed that Maria’s foreign little car was parked by the garage and wondered why she had come back from the hospital.
She was sitting in total darkness in the hall. She did not move as I set about switching on some soft lights. Her eyes were stony and clear but, there was a haunted look to her face that gave it a haggard aspect.
"He’s dead." Her voice was empty. She gave a shiver a turned a look of pure hatred upon me.
"If you had given me the money sooner he might have been saved. I tried to find you this afternoon. Where were you? Phillip said the money you had given him was not enough. He’s had some bad luck recently. He said you would understand."
I could not believe it. Maria was blaming me for the death of little Phillip. And there was Phillip, the natural father who had tried to use his son’s condition as an opportunity to get some money. I remembered when my son had been born – he would always be my son – I had looked at him and promised to look after him with everything in my power. I had loved him and cared for him and now that he was dead I felt cheated. I had not been able to keep my promise. Even though I had loved him I knew that Maria’s love for him had been greater than her love for anyone and anything else. I could not even begin to understand her grief.
"I am so sorry, Maria but I swear to you I –’’
"You utter hypocrite!" Maria screamed at me. "How dare you pretend? You killed him! I hate you!"
I had stretched out my hand in an uncertain gesture of supplication, but at her words I fell back with the sudden pain of astonished bewilderment.
A bolt of lightning lit up the room but neither of us took any notice. A steady wind was now blowing through the trees making a swishing noise which carried into the house.
Maria’s words were like blows. I stood there paralysed by incredulity. How could she ever doubt that I had loved little Phillip? Given a choice I would have preferred not to have known the truth about the paternity of little Phillip. There was a flash of lightning, and as if galvanised by the sound of thunder which followed Maria leapt off her chair, and came for me her fingers curved into talons.
A white hot fury shot through me and I was goaded into shouting back at her.
"And where was your lover, while his son was dying? What was he doing besides trying to extort money? And where were you - busy making eyes at your lost lover?"
"Lost? He has never been lost to me!" replied Maria, scornfully. "How do you think I was able to find him so quickly? I knew where he was all along."
I covered my ears to stop the painful words. Maria’s mocking laughter filled the hall.
"You fool! Did you ever think I could ever give up a man like him for you?"
Her eyes were bright with malice. There could be no mistaking the truth of what she said. What had I ever given her except respectability? I stumbled from the room. Her mocking laughter which followed me held the wild edge of hysteria. The wind was howling like a banshee. It was fierce. There was something primeval about the atmosphere. It was easy to imagine Grecian gods fighting on Olympus. I don’t know where I was going, but I suppose at the back of my mind there was some idea to find Maria’s lover and beat him to a quivering pulp. I heard someone shout something at me as I let out the clutch of my car, but I did not stop to see who it was. The big car roared out of the driveway with the wheels spinning. I nearly lost control for a moment, but I fought that wheel like a demon. There was a spray of gravel before the wheels caught and the car held onto the road. By now the wind was a continuous blast which brought in waves of rain. Lightning lit the countryside in brief flashes which gave the trees ominous shadows. The waving movement of the branches took on a sinister aspect and it seemed that the very road itself had changed. On the sharp bend, just before you get to the ruins of the old chapel, I lost control of the car. I felt the back wheels lose traction and the car went into an uncontrollable skid. It went into the ditch with sickening force. My head hit something hard.
When I came to, the horn was ringing in a continuous blast. The rain had started falling and it was drumming on the glass, making it almost impossible to see outside. Something warm and wet was dripping down my left leg. For a moment I thought it was water, but when I tried to move the leg I realised dully that it was blood. It took quite an effort to remove my leg, which had become trapped under the crumpled metal. The door would not open. In the end I clambered through an open window, dragging my bleeding leg which hurt abominably.
Several paces from the car I was utterly wet. The rain was threatening to turn into sleet. It was deathly cold as it slashed against me, driven by a ferocious wind which almost carried me off my feet. There was an inn nearby as I remembered, and I thought that it would be possible to reach it and telephone for assistance.
That walk was one of the hardest things I have ever undertaken. Whole branches torn from trees by that gale whizzed past me, some of them missing me by mere centimetres. The telephone lines had come down across the road at one point in the road.
I nearly went past the inn in that terrifying darkness. They must have put up their storm shutters because no light gleamed from the windows. A chance flash of lightning lit up the area for a brief second and I was startled by the sudden sight of the old building which seemed to leap up at me from the gloom.
I had to hammer for several minutes before the door of the inn was unbarred to admit me. The eyes that beheld me had a touch of fear.
"Good God! You out on a night such as this?" The landlord was solicitousness itself. He directed me to a room where I was given a change of clothing. When I rejoined the others a hot punch stood waiting for me.
It was one of the worst nights I have ever experienced. Several times it seemed that the huge oak tree just outside the main parlour of the inn was going to fall. The branches performed a crazy dance as they swept about in the fierce wind. I fell asleep in the armchair placed a judicious distance to the huge fireplace.
The morning brought a view of devastation that was almost impossible to comprehend.
"Sir, the boat is missing and my lady is not at home!" It was one of the men from the estate.
The place was in an uproar. Several teams had been dispatched to look for me and Maria. The discovery of my crashed car led the men to the inn. Maria must have taken the boat. But what was she trying to do? Where was she trying to go?
The boat came in with the morning tide. One person would never have been able to hold it in the maelstrom which had occurred during the night. The skies were clear and there was a slightly sweet and cool breeze which usually follows a heavy downpour. On the beach, the men who were stumbling through the bits of driftwood, weed and other junk left by the crashing waves turned to look at me. I saw one of them turn over something that looked like a bundle of rags. It took me a moment to realise that it was a body. Suddenly I was running, running in the wet sand and calling heaven knows what. I fell on my knees and the white face of Maria stared back at me. My stomach rebelled and I turned aside as dry retching sounds escaped me. I had nothing to bring up but the retches would not stop.
If only Maria had loved me.