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“You know the police in Toronto are still not satisfied that you told them all you know about Staunton’s death?”

“I told them all I thought proper.”

“Which wasn’t everything?”

“Certainly not. The police must work with facts, not fancies and suppositions. The facts were simple. I met him, for the first time in my life, when I visited you at your school in Toronto on the night of November 3, 1968; we went to your room and had a talk that lasted less than an hour. I accepted his offer to drive me back to my hotel. We chatted for a time, because we were both Deptford boys. I last saw him as he drove away from the hotel door.”

“Yes. And he was found less than three hours later in the harbour, into which he appeared to have driven in his powerful car, and when the police recovered the body they found a stone in his mouth.”

“So I understand.”

“If that had been all there was to it, would the police still be wondering about you?”

“No indeed.”

“It was my fault,” said Liesl. “If I had been more discreet, the police would have been satisfied with what Magnus told them. But one has one’s pride as an artist, you know, and when I was asked a question I thought I could answer effectively I did so, and then the fat was in the fire.”

Would anyone who saw us at this moment have thought we were talking about murder? I was convinced that Magnus had murdered Staunton, and with reason. Was not Staunton the initiator of most of what we had heard in the subtext of the life of Magnus Eisengrim? If, when both he and I were ten years old, Percy Boyd Staunton had not thrown a snowball at me, which had instead hit Mrs. Amasa Dempster, bringing about the premature birth of her son Paul and robbing her of her wits, would I at this moment be in bed with Magnus Eisengrim and Liselotte Vitzliputzli in the Savoy Hotel, discussing Staunton’s death?

We had come to this because we were inclined to share a bed when we had anything important to talk about. People who think of beds only in terms of sexual exercise or sleep simply do not understand that a bed is the best of all places for a philosophical discussion, an argument, and if necessary a showdown. It was not by chance that so many kings of old administered justice from their beds, and even today there is something splendidly parliamentary about an assembly of concerned persons in a bed.

Of course it must be a big bed. The Savoy had outfitted Magnus’s room with two splendid beds, each of which was easily capable of accommodating three adults without undue snuggling. (The Savoy is above the meanness of “single” beds.) So there we were, at the end of our long day of confession and revelation, lying back against the ample pillows, Liesl in the middle, Magnus on her left, and I on her right. He wore a handsome dressing-gown and a scarf he twisted around his head when he slept, because he had a European fear of draughts. I am a simple man; a man of blue pyjamas. Liesl liked filmy nightrobes, and she was a delightful person to be in bed with because she was so warm. As I grow older I fuss about the cold, and for some reason I feel the cold for an hour or so after I have removed my artificial leg, as of course I had done before climbing in with them. My chilly stump was next to Liesl.

There we lay, nicely tucked up. I had my usual glass of hot milk and rum, Liesl had a balloon glass of cognac, and Magnus, always eccentric, had the glass of warm water and lemon juice without which he thought he could not sleep. I am sure we looked charmingly domestic, but my frame of mind was that of the historian on a strong scent and eager for the kill. If ever I was to get the confession that would complete my document—the document which would in future enable researchers to write “Ramsay says…” with authority—it would be before we slept. If Magnus would not tell me what I wanted to know, surely I might get it from Liesl?

“Consider the circumstances,” she said. “It was the final Saturday night of our two weeks’ engagement at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto; we had never taken the Soiree of Illusions there before and we were a huge success. By far our most effective illusion was The Brazen Head of Friar Bacon, second to last on the programme.

“Consider how it worked, Ramsay: the big pretend-brass Head hung in the middle of the stage, and after it had identified a number of objects of which nobody but the owners could have had knowledge, it gave three pieces of advice. That was always the thing that took most planning; the Head would say, ‘I am speaking to Mademoiselle Such-A-One, who is sitting in Row F, number 32.’ (We always called members of the audience Madame and Monsieur and so forth because it gave a tiny bit of elegance to the occasion in an English-speaking place.) Then I would give Mademoiselle Such-A-One a few words that would make everybody prick up their ears, and might even make Mademoiselle squeal with surprise. Of course we picked up the gossip around town, through an advance agent, or the company manager might get a hint of it in the foyer, or even by doing a little snooping in handbags and pocket-books—he was a very clever old dip we valued for this talent. I was the Voice of the Head, because I have a talent for making a small piece of information go a long way.

“We had, in the beginning, decided never to ask for questions from the audience. Too dangerous. Too hard to answer effectively. But on that Saturday night somebody shouted from the gallery—we know who it was, it was Staunton’s son David, who was drunk as a fiddler’s bitch and almost out of his mind about his father’s death—’Who killed Boy Staunton?’

“Ramsay, what would you have done? What would you expect me to do? You know me; am I one to shy away from a challenge? And there it was: a very great challenge. In an instant I had what seemed to me an inspiration—just right in terms of the Brazen Head, that’s to say; just right in terms of the best magic show in the world. Magnus had been talking to me about the Staunton thing all week; he had told me everything Staunton had said to him. Was I to pass up that chance? Ramsay, use your imagination.

“I signalled to the electrician to bring up the warm lights on the Head, to make it glow, and I spoke into the microphone, giving it everything I could of mystery and oracle, and I said—you remember what I said—He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone. You remember how well it went.”

“Went well! Liesl, is that what you call going well?”

“Of course; the audience went wild. There was greater excitement in that theatre than the Soiree had ever known. It took a long time to calm them down and finish the evening with The Vision of Dr. Faustus. Magnus wanted to bring the curtain down then and there. He had cold feet—”

“And with reason,” said Magnus; “I thought the cops would be down on us at once. I was never so relieved in my life as when we got on the plane to Copenhagen the following morning.”

“You call yourself a showman; It was a triumph!”

“A triumph for you, perhaps. Do you remember what happened to me?”

“Poor Ramsay, you had your heart attack, there in the theatre. Right-hand upper stage box, where you had been lurking. I saw you fall forward through the curtains and sent someone to take care of you at once. But would you grudge that in the light of the triumph for the Soiree? It wasn’t much of a heart attack, now, was it? Just a wee warning that you should be careful about excitement. And were you the only one? Staunton’s son took it very badly. And Staunton’s wife! As soon as she heard about it—which she did within an hour—she forgot her role as grieving widow and was after us with all the police support she could muster, which lucidly wasn’t enthusiastic. After all, what could they charge us with? Not even fortune-telling, which is always the thing one has to keep clear of. But any triumph is bound to bring about a few casualties. Don’t be small, Ramsay.”

I took a pull at my rum and milk, and reflected on the consuming vanity of performers: Magnus, a monster of vanity, which he said he had learned from Sir John Tresize; and Liesl, not one whit less vain, to whom a possible murder, a near-riot in a theatre, an outraged family, and my heart attack—mine—were mere sparks from the anvil on which she had hammered out her great triumph. How does one cope with such people?

One doesn’t; one thanks God they exist. Liesl was right; I mustn’t be small. But if I was allowed my own egoism, I must have the answers I wanted. This was by no means the first time the matter of the death of Boy Staunton had come up among the three of us. On earlier occasions Magnus had put me aside with jokes and evasions, and when Liesl was present she stood by him in doing so; they both knew that I was deeply convinced that somehow Magnus had sent Staunton to his death, and they loved to keep me in doubt. Liesl said it was good for me not to have an answer to every question I asked, and my burning historian’s desire to gather and record facts she pretended to regard as mere nosiness.

It was now or never. Magnus had opened up to the filmmakers as he had never done to anyone—Liesl knew a little, I presume, but certainly her knowledge of his past was far from complete—and I wanted my answers while the confessional mood was still strong in him. Press on, Ramsay: even if they hate you for it now, they’ll get cool in the same skins they got hot in.

One way of getting right answers is to venture a few wrong answers yourself. “Let me have a try at identifying the group you called ‘the usual cabal’,” I said. “He was killed by himself, because it was he who drove his car off the dock; the woman he did not know, I should say, was his first wife, whom I think I knew quite well, and certainly he did not know her nearly so well; the woman he did know was certainly his second wife; he came to know her uncomfortably well, and if ever a man stuck his foot in a bear-trap when he thought he was putting it into a flower-bed, it was Boy Staunton when he married Denyse Hornick; the man who granted his inmost wish I suppose must have been you, Magnus, and I am sure you know what is in my mind—you hypnotized poor Boy, stuck that stone in his mouth, and headed him for death. How’s that?”

“I’m surprised by the crudeness of your suspicions, Dunny. ‘I am become as a bottle in the smoke: yet do I fear thy statutes.’ One of those statutes forbids murder. Why would I kill Staunton?”

“Vengeance, Magnus, vengeance.”

“Vengeance for what?”

“For what? Can you ask that after what you have told us about your life? Vengeance for your premature birth and your mother’s madness. For your servitude to Willard and Abdullah and all those wretched years with the World of Wonders. Vengeance for the deprivation that made you the shadow of Sir John Tresize. Vengeance for a wrench of fate that cut you off from ordinary love, and made you an oddity. A notable oddity, I admit, but certainly an oddity.”

“Oh, Dunny, what a coarsely melodramatic mind you have! Vengeance! If I had been as big an oddity as you are I would have embraced Boy Staunton and thanked him for what he had done for me. The means may have been a little rough, but the result is entirely to my taste. If he hadn’t hit my mother on the head with that snowball—having hidden a rock in it, which was dirty play—I might now be what my father was: a Baptist parson in a small town. I have had my ups and downs, and the downs were very far down indeed, but I am now a celebrity in a limited way, and I am a master of a craft, which is a better thing by far. I am a more complete human being than you are, you old fool. I may not have had a very happy sex-life, but I certainly have love and friendship, and much of the best of that is in bed with me at this moment. I have admiration, which everybody wants and very few people achieve. I get my living by doing what I most enjoy, and that is rare indeed. Who gave me my start? Boy Staunton! Would I murder such a man? It is to his early intervention in my life I owe what Liesl calls the Magian World View.

“Vengeance, you cry. If anybody wanted vengeance, it was you, Dunny. You lived near Staunton all your life, watched him, brooded over him, saw him destroy that silly girl you wanted—or thought you wanted—and ill-wished him a thousand times. You’re the man of vengeance. I never wanted vengeance in my life for anything.”

“Magnus! Remember how you withheld death from Willard when he begged for it! What did you do today to poor Roly Ingestree? Don’t you call that vengeance?”

“I admit I toyed with Roly. He hurt people I loved. But if he hadn’t come back into my life by chance I should never have bothered about him. I didn’t harbour evidence of his guilt for sixty years, as you harboured that stone Staunton put in the snowball.”

“Don’t twist, Magnus! When you and Staunton left my room at the College to go back to your hotel you took that stone, and when next it was seen the police had to pry it out of poor Staunton’s jaws, where it was clenched so tight they had to break his teeth to get at it!”

“I didn’t take the stone, Dunny; Staunton took it himself.”

“Did he?”

“Yes. I saw him. You were putting your box back in the bookshelves. The box that contained my mother’s ashes. Dunny, what on earth made you keep those ashes? It was ghoulish.”

“I couldn’t bear to part with them. Your mother was a very special figure in my life. To me she was a saint. Not just a good woman, but a saint, and the influence she had in my life was miraculous.”

“So you’ve often told me, but I knew her only as a madwoman. I had stood at the window of our miserable house trying not to cry while Boy Staunton and his gang shouted ‘Hoor!’ as they passed on their way to school.”

“Yes, and you let the police think you had never met him until the night he died.”

“Perfectly true. I knew who he was, when he was fifteen and I was five. He was the Rich Young Ruler in our village, as you well know. But we had never been formally introduced until you brought us together, and I presumed that was what the police were talking about.”

“A quibble.”

“An evasion, possibly. But I was answering questions, not instructing my questioners. I was working on advice given me long ago by Mrs. Constantinescu: don’t blat everything you know, especially to cops.”

“You didn’t tell them you knew that Boy had been appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the province when nobody else knew it.”

“Everybody knew it was in the air. I knew it the second night he came to the theatre, because he had the letter of appointment in the inner pocket of his handsome dinner jacket. Liesl has told you we had a member of our troupe—our company manager—who welcomed important patrons in the foyer. I suppose our man found out that the rumour had become a fact by means which I always thought it better not to investigate too closely. So I knew. And the Brazen Head could have spilled the beans that evening, from the stage, but Liesl and I thought it might be just a teeny bit indiscreet.”

“That was another thing you didn’t tell the police. Boy Staunton came twice to the Soiree of Illusions.”

“Lots of people used to come twice. And three and four times. Its a very good show. But you’re right; Staunton came to see me. He was interested in me in the way people used to be interested in Sir John. I suppose there was something about my personality, as there was about Sir John’s, that had a special attraction for some people. My personality is a valuable part of our bag of tricks, as you very well know.”

Indeed I did. And how it had come pressing off the screen in Un Hommage a Robert-Houdin! I had always thought personal attributes lost something in the cinema; it seemed reasonable that a photograph of a man should be less striking than the man himself. But not when the art of Lind and that rumpot of genius Kinghovn lay behind the photograph. I had sat in the little viewing-room at the B.B.C. entranced by what I saw of a Magnus more vivid than ever I had seen him on the stage. True, his performance was a tiny bit stagey, considered as cinematic acting, but it was a staginess of such grace, such distinction and accomplishment, that nobody could have wished it otherwise. As I watched I remembered what used to be said of stage favourites when I was a boy: they were polished. They had enviable repose. They did nothing quite the way anyone else did it, and they had an attitude toward their audiences which was, quite apart from the role they were playing, splendidly courteous, as if a great man were taking friendly notice of us. I had thought of this when Magnus told us how Sir John accepted applause when he made his first entrance in Scaramouche, and later gave those curtain-speeches all across Canada, which seemed to embrace audiences of people who yearned mutely for such attention. Magnus had this polish in the highest and most subtle degree, and I could understand how Boy Staunton, who was a lifelong hero-worshipper and had not got it out of his system even at the age of seventy, would have responded to it.

Polish! How Boy had honed and yearned after polish! What idols he had worshipped! And as a Lieutenant-Governor elect I could imagine how he coveted what Magnus displayed on the stage. A Lieutenant-Governor with that sort of distinction—that would astonish the Rubes!

We were silent for a while. But I was full of questions, mad for certainties even though I understood there were no certainties. I broke the silence.

“If you weren’t the man who granted his inmost wish, who was it? I have swallowed the pill that I was ‘the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone’— though I accept that only as Liesl’s oracular phraseology. But who granted his wish? And what was the wish?”

This time it was Liesl who spoke. “It could very well have been his son, Ramsay. Don’t forget David Staunton, who represented continuance to his father. Have you no understanding of how some men crave for continuance? They see it as their immortality. Boy Staunton who had built up the great fortune, from a few fields of sugar-beets to a complex of business that was known all over the world. You must pardon my nationalist bias, but it is significant that when Staunton died—or killed himself, as it was supposed—his death was reported at some length in our Neue Zurcher Zeitung. That paper, like the London Times, recognizes only the most distinguished achievements of the Angel of Death. Their obituary columns are almost the Court Circular of the Kingdom of God. Well, who inherits an important man’s earthly glory? People like Staunton hope it will be a son.

“A son Staunton had, we know. But what a son! Not a disgrace. One might find the spaciousness of tragedy in a disgrace. David Staunton was a success; a notable criminal lawyer, but also a sharp critic of his father’s life. A man whose cold eye watched the glorious Boy growing older, and richer, and more powerful, and was not impressed. A man who did not admire or seek to emulate his father’s great success with women. A man who understood, by tie of blood and by a child’s intuition, the terrible, unappeasable hunger that lies at the bottom of ambition like Boy Staunton’s. I don’t know whether David ever understood that consciously; but he thwarted his father’s terrible craving to be everything, command everything, and possess everything, and he did it in the way that hurt most: he refused to produce a successor to himself. He refused to continue the Staunton line and the Staunton name and the glory that was Staunton. That was pressing the knife into the vital spot. But don’t jump to conclusions: the man who granted his inmost wish wasn’t David Staunton.”

“Aren’t you doing a lot of fancy guessing?”

“No. Staunton told Magnus and Magnus told me.”

“It was one of those situations Liesl is always talking about,” said Eisengrim. “You know: a man reaches the confessional time in his life. Sometimes he writes an autobiography; sometimes he tells his story to a group of listeners, as I have been doing. Sometimes there is only one listener, and that was how it was with Staunton.

“Surely you remember what it was like in your room that night of November 3? Staunton and I had clicked, in the way people sometimes do. He wanted to know me: I was more than commonly interested in him because he was from my past, and not at all what one would have predicted for the fattish, purse-proud kid who had shouted ‘Hoor’ at my mother. You understood that we’d clicked, and you didn’t like it at all. That was when you decided to spill the beans, and told Staunton who I was, how he had literally brought about my birth, how you knew about the rock in the snowball and had kept it all those years. You even had my mother’s ashes in a casket. And through it all Staunton was cool as a cucumber. Denied everything that he had not—quite honestly, I believe—forgotten. Chose to regard the whole affair as something only very remotely connected with himself. Considering the way you went at him, I thought he showed enviable self-possession. But he said some sharp things about you.

“When we were in his car, driving down the long avenue from the school, he expanded on what he’d said. He cursed you very thoroughly, Dunny. Told me that for boyhood friendship he had kept an eye on your money all through the years, and made you secure and even well-off. Befriended you and brought you to the notice of really important people—people in a very big way of business—as a guest in his house. Confided in you when his first marriage was going on the rocks, and was patient when you sided with his wife. Put up with your ironic attitude toward his success, because he knew it had its root in jealousy.

“He was offended that you never mentioned Mary Dempster—he never spoke of her as my mother—and her long years in asylums; he would have been glad to help a Deptford woman who had come to grief. And he was angry and hurt that you kept that damned stone on your desk to remind you of a grudge you had against him. A stone in a snowball! The kind of thing any boy might do, just for devilment. He would never have thought the dark, judgmatical Ramsay blood in you was so bitter with hate—you, who had made money out of saints.

“It was then I began to know him. Oh yes, I came to know him quite well during the next hour. We’d clicked, as I said, but I’ve always distrusted that kind of thing since I first clicked with Willard. It’s unchancy. There was sympathy of character, I suppose. There was a wolfishness in Boy Staunton that he kept very well under, and probably never recognized in himself. But I know that wolfishness. Liesl has told you I have a good measure of it in myself, and that was why she suggested I take the professional name of Eisengrim, the name of the wolf in the old fables; but the name really means the sinister hardness, the cruelty of iron itself. I took the name, and recognized the fact, and thereby got it up out of my depths so that at least I could be aware of it and take a look at it, now and then. I won’t say I domesticated the wolf, but I knew where his lair was, and what he might do. Not Boy Staunton. He had lived facing the sun, and he had no real comprehension of the shadow-wolf that loped after him.

“We wolves like to possess things, and especially people. We are unappeasably hungry. There is no reason or meaning in the hunger. It just exists, and possesses you. I saw it once, in myself, and though I didn’t know what it was at the time, I knew that it was something that was at the very heart of my being. When we played Scaramouche through Canada, I had a little meeting with Sir John, every night, just before Two, two; we had to stand in front of a mirror, to make sure every detail of costume and make-up was identical, so that when I appeared as his double the illusion would be as perfect as possible. I always enjoyed that moment, because I am wolfish about perfection.

“There we stood, the night I speak of; it was in Ottawa, in his dressing-room at the old Russell, and we had a good mirror, a full-length one. He looked, and I looked. I saw that he was good. An egoist, as only a leading actor can be, but in his face, which was old under the make-up, there was gentleness and compassion toward me, because I was young, and had so much to learn, and was so likely to make a fool of myself through my driving greed. Compassion for me, and a silvery relish for himself, too, because he knew he was old, and had the mastery of age. But in my face, which was so like his that my doubling gave the play a special excitement, there was a watchful admiration beneath which my wolfishness could be seen—my hunger not just to be like him but to be him, whatever that might cost him. I loved him and served him faithfully right up to the end, but in my inmost self I wanted to eat him, to possess him, to make him mine.

“He saw it, too, and he gave me a little flick with his hand as though to say, ‘You might let me live out my life, m’boy. I’ve earned it, eh? But you look as if you’d devour my very soul. Not really necessary, quonk?’ Not a word was spoken, but I blushed under my make-up. And whatever I did for him afterward, I couldn’t keep the wolf quiet. If I was a little sharp with Roly, it was because I was angry that he had seen what I truly thought I had kept hidden.

“That was how it was with Boy Staunton. Oh, not on the surface. He had a lovely glaze. But he was a devourer.

“He set to work to devour me. He went at it with the ease of long custom, and I don’t suppose he had an instant’s real awareness of what he was doing. He laid himself out to be charming, and to get me on his side. When he had finished damning you, Dunny, he began to excuse you, in a way that was supposed to be complimentary to me: you had lived a narrow, schoolmaster’s life, and had won a certain scholarly reputation, but he and I were the glittering successes and breathed a finer air than yours.

“He was extremely good at what he was doing. It is not easy to assume an air of youth successfully, but when it is well done it has extraordinary charm, because it seems to rock Age, and probably Death, back on their heels. He had kept his voice youthful, and his vocabulary was neither stupidly up-to-the-minute nor flawed with betraying fossil slang. I had to keep reminding myself that this man must be seventy. I have to present a professional picture of physical well-being, if not actually of youth, and I know how it is done because I learned it from Sir John. But Boy Staunton—an amateur, really—could teach me things about seeming youthful without resorting to absurdities. I knew he was eager to make me his own, to enchant me, to eat me up and take me into himself. He had just discovered a defeat; he thought he had eaten you, Ramsay, but you were like those fairy-tale figures who cut their way out of the giant’s belly.

“So, not at all unlike a man who loses one girl and bounces to another, he tried to eat me.

“We really must talk, he said. We were driving down from your school to my hotel, and as we were rounding Queen’s Park, quickly he pulled off the road into what I suppose was a private entry beside the Legislature; there was a porte-cochere and a long flight of steps. It won’t be long before this is my personal entrance to this building, he said.

“I knew what he was talking about: the appointment that would be announced next morning; he was full of it.”

“I’ll bet he was,” I said; “it was just his thing—top dog in a large area—women curtsying to him—all that. And certainly his wife wanted it, and engineered it.”

“Yes, but wait: having got it, he wasn’t so sure. If you are one of the wolfish brotherhood you sometimes find that you have no sooner achieved what you wanted than you begin to despise it. Boy’s excitement was like that of a man who thinks he has walked into a trap.”

“Well, the job isn’t all fun. What ceremonial appointment is? You drive to the Legislature in a carriage, with soldiers riding before and behind, and there is a lot of bowing, because you represent the Crown, and then you find you are reading a speech written by somebody else, announcing policies you may not like. If he didn’t want to be a State figurehead, he should have choked off Denyse when she set to work to get him the job.”

“Reason, reason, reason! Dunny, you surely know how limited a part reason plays in some of our most important decisions. He coveted the state landau and the soldiers, and he had somehow managed to preserve the silly notion that as Lieutenant-Governor he would really do some governing. But already he knew he was mistaken. He had looked over the schedule of duties for his first month in office, and been dismayed by the places he would have to go, and the things he would have to do. Presenting flags to Boy Scouts; opening a home for old people; eating a hundredweight of ceremonial dinners to raise money to fight diseases he’d rather not hear about. And he couldn’t get out of it; his secretary made it clear that there was no choice in the matter; the office demanded these things and he was expected to deliver the goods. But that wasn’t what truly got under his skin.

“Such appointments aren’t done in a few days, and he had known it was coming for several weeks. During that time he had some business in London and while he was there he had thought it a good idea to take care of the matter of his ceremonial uniform. That was how he put it, but as a fellow-wolf I knew how eager he must have been to explore the possibilities of state finery. So—off to Ede and Ravensoroft to have the job done in the best possible way and no expense spared. They happened to have a uniform of the right sort which he tried on, just to get the general effect. Even though it was obvious that the uniform was for a smaller man, the effect was catastrophic. ‘Suddenly I didn’t look like myself at all.’ he said; ‘I looked old. Not shaky old, or fat old, or grim old, but certainly old.’

“He expected me to sympathize, but wolf should never turn to wolf for sympathy. ‘You are old.’ I said to him. ‘Very handsome and well preserved, but nobody would take you for a young man.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but not old as that uniform suggested; not a figurehead. I tried putting the hat a little on one side, to see if that helped, but the man with the measuring-tape around his neck who was with me said, O no, sir; never like that, and put it straight again. And I understood that forever after there would always be somebody putting my hat straight, and that I would be no more than the animation of that uniform, or some version of it.’

“As one who had spent seven years as the cunning bowels of Abdullah, I didn’t see that fate quite as he did. Of course, Abdullah wasn’t on the level. He was out to trounce the Rubes. A Lieutenant-Governor can’t have any fun of that kind. He is the embodiment of everything that is correct, and on the level, and unsurprising. The Rubes have got him and he must do their will.

“ ‘I have lost my freedom of choice,’ he said, and he seemed to expect me to respond with horror. But I didn’t. I was enjoying myself. Boy Staunton was an old story to you, Dunny, but he was new to me, and I was playing the wolf game, too, in my way. I had not forgotten Mrs. Constantinescu, and I knew that he was ready to talk, and I was ready to hear. So I remembered old Zingara’s advice. Lull ‘em. So I lulled him.

“ ‘I can see that you’re in a situation you never would have chosen with your eyes open. But there’s usually some way out. Is there no way out for you?’

“ ‘Even if I found a way, what would happen if I suddenly bowed out?’ he said.

“ ‘I suppose you’d go on living much as you do now,’ I told him. ‘There would be criticism of you because you refused an office you had accepted, under the Crown. But I dare say that’s been done before.’

“I swear I had nothing in particular in mind when I made that comment. But it galvanized him. He looked at me as if I had said something of extraordinary value. Then he said: ‘Of course it was different for him; he was younger.’

“ ‘What do you mean?’ I said.

“He looked at me very queerly. ‘The Prince of Wales,’ he said; ‘he was my friend, you know. Or rather, you don’t know. But many years ago, when he toured this country, I was his aide, and he had a profound effect on me. I learned a great deal from him. He was special, you know; he was truly a remarkable man. He showed it at the time of the Abdication. That took guts.’

“ ‘Called for guts from several of his relatives, too,’ I said. ‘Do you think he lived happily ever after?’

“ ‘I hope so,’ said he. ‘But he was younger.’

“ ‘I’ve said you were old,’ said I, ‘but I didn’t mean life had nothing for you. You are in superb condition. You can expect another fifteen years, at least, and think of all the things you can do.’

“ ‘And think of all the things I can’t do,’ he said, and in a tone that told me what I had suspected, because with all the fine surface, and bonhomie, and his careful wooing of me I had sensed something like despair in him.

“ ‘I suppose you mean sex,’ I said.

“ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Not that I’m through, you know; by no means. But it isn’t the same. Now it’s more reassurance than pleasure. And young women—they have to be younger and younger—they’re flattered because of what I am and who I am, but there’s always a look you surprise when they don’t think you’re watching: He’s-amazing-for-his-age-I-wonder-what-I’d-do-if-he-had-a-heart-attack-would-I-have-to-drag-him-out-into-the-hall-and-leave-him-by-the-elevator-and-how-would-I-get-his-clothes-on? However well I perform—and I’m still good, you know—there’s an element of humiliation about it.’

“Humiliation was much on his mind. The humiliation of age, which you and I mustn’t underestimate, Dunny, just because we’ve grown old and made our age serve us; its a different matter if you’ve devoted your best efforts to setting up an image of a wondrous Boy; there comes a time when the pretty girls think of you not as a Boy but as an Old Boy. The humiliation of discovering you’ve been a mug, and that the gorgeous office you’ve been given under the Crown is in fact a tyranny of duty, like the Crown itself. And the humiliation of discovering that a man you’ve thought of as a friend—rather a humble, eccentric friend from your point of view, but nevertheless a friend—has been harbouring evidence of a mean action you did when you were ten, and still sees you, at least in part, as a mean kid.

“That last was a really tough one—disproportionately so—but Boy was the kind of man who truly believes you can wipe out the past simply by forgetting it yourself. I’m sure he’d met humiliations in his life. Who hasn’t? But he’d been able to rise above them. These were humiliations nothing could lift from his heart.

“ ‘What are you going to do with the stone?’ I asked him.

“ ‘You saw me take it?’ he said. ‘I’ll get rid of it. Throw it away.’

“ ‘I wouldn’t throw it a second time,’ I said.

“ ‘What else?’ said he.

“ ‘If it really bothers you, you must come to terms with it,’ I said. ‘In your place I’d do something symbolic: hold it in your hand, re-live the moment when you threw it at Ramsay and hit my mother, and this time don’t throw it. Give yourself a good sharp knock on the head with it.’

“ ‘That’s a damned silly game to play,’ he said. And would you believe it, he was pouting—the glorious Boy was pouting.

“ ‘Not at all. Consider it as a ritual. An admission of wrongdoing and penitence.’

“ ‘Oh, balls to that,’ he said.

“I had become uncomfortable company: I wouldn’t be eaten, and I made peculiar and humiliating suggestions. Also, I could tell that something was on his mind, and he wanted to be alone with it. He started the car and very shortly we were at my hotel—the Royal York, you know, which is quite near the docks. He shook hands with the warmth that I suppose had marked him all his life. ‘Glad to have met you: thanks for the advice,’ said he.

“ ‘It’s only what I would do myself, in the circumstances,’ I said. ‘I’d do my best to swallow that stone.’ Now I swear to you that I only meant what I said symbolically—meaning to come to terms with what the stone signified. And he seemed not to notice.

“ ‘I meant your advice about the Abdication,’ he said. ‘It was stupid of me not to have thought of that myself.’

“I suddenly realized what he meant. He was going to abdicate, like his hero before him. But unlike his Prince of Wales he didn’t mean to live to face the world afterward. There it is, Dunny: Liesl and I are convinced that the man who truly granted his inmost wish, though only by example, was the man who decided not to live as Edward VIII.

“What should I have done? Insisted that he come to my room, and plied him with hot coffee and sweet reasonableness? Not quite my line, eh? Hardly what one expects of a brother wolf, quonk?”

“You let him leave you in that frame of mind?”

“Liesl likes to talk about what she calls my Magian World View. She makes it sound splendid and like the Arabian Nights, and dolls it up with fine phrases from Spengler—”

“Phantasmagoria and dream-grotto,” said Liesl, taking a swig of her cognac; “only that’s not Spengler—that’s Carlyle.”

“Phantasmagoria and dream-grotto if you like,” said Magnus, “but—and it is a vital but—combined with a clear-eyed, un-deluded observation of what lies right under your nose. Therefore—no self-deceiving folly and no meddlesome compassion, but a humble awareness of the Great Justice and the Great Mercy whenever they choose to make themselves known. I don’t talk about a Magian World View; I’ve no touch with that sort of thing. In so far as it concerns me, I live it. It’s just the way things strike me, after the life I’ve lived, which looks pretty much like a World of Wonders when I spread it out before me, as I’ve been doing. Everything has its astonishing, wondrous aspect, if you bring a mind to it that’s really your own—a mind that hasn’t been smeared and blurred with half-understood muck from schools, or the daily papers, or any other ragbag of reach-me-down notions. I try not to judge people, though when I meet an enemy and he’s within arm’s length, I’m not above giving him a smart clout, just to larn him. As I did with Roly. But I don’t monkey with what I think of as the Great Justice—”

“Poetic justice,” said Liesl.

“What you please. Though it doesn’t look poetic in action; it’s rough and tough and deeply satisfying. And I don’t administer it. Something else—something I don’t understand, but feel and serve and fear—does that. It’s sometimes horrible to watch, as it was when my poor, dear old master. Sir John was brought down by his own vanity, and Milady went with him, though I think she knew what the truth was. But part of the glory and terror of our life is that somehow, at some time, we get all that’s coming to us. Everybody gets their lumps and their bouquets and it goes on for quite a while after death.

“So—here was a situation when it was clear to me that the Great Justice had called the name of Boy Staunton. Was it for me to hold him back?

“And to be frank why would I? You remember what was said in your room that night, Dunny. You’re the historian: surely you remember everything important? What did I say to Boy when he offered me a lift in his car?”

I couldn’t remember. That night I had been too overwrought myself by the memories of Mary Dempster to take note of social conversation.

“You don’t remember? I do: I said—’What Ramsay tells me puts you in my debt for eighty days in Paradise, if for nothing in this life. We shall call it quits if you will drive me to my hotel.’ “

“Eighty days in Paradise?”

“I was born eighty days before my time. Poor little Paul. Popular opinion is very rough on foetuses these days. Horrid little nuisances. Rip them out and throw them in the trash pail. But who knows what they feel about it? The depth psychologists Liesl is so fond of think they have a very jolly time in the womb. Warm, protected, bouncing gently in their beautiful grotto light. Perhaps it is the best existence we ever know, unless there is something equally splendid for us after death—and why not? That earliest life is what every humanitarian movement and Welfare State seeks to restore, without a hope of success. And Boy Staunton, by a single mean-spirited action, robbed me of eighty days of that princely splendour. Was I the man to fret about the end of his life when he had been so cavalier about the beginning of mine?”

“Oh, Magnus, that’s terribly unjust!”

“As this world’s justice goes, perhaps. But what about the Greater Justice?”

“I see. Yes, I really do see. So you let him dree his weird?”

“You’re getting really old, Dunny. You’re beginning to dredge up expressions from your Scotch childhood. But it says it all. Yes, I let him dree his weird.”

“I can very well understand,” I said, “that you wouldn’t have got far explaining that to the police.”

Liesl laughed, and threw her empty brandy balloon against the farthest wall. It made a fine costly crash.

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