À la Recherche du Temps Perdu - Part 41 of many
(continued from previous entry)
Oliver!” she exclaimed.
Eliza, good God!” I replied.
We both stood staring at the other in shock. Eliza was first to recover her composure.
“Auntie, General Aubrey, may I present Colonel Percival Harding-Royce.
"Colonel, my Aunt Mrs. Tennyson, our dear friend General Aubrey, and Captain Butler of the United States Marine Corps."
“Enchanted,” replied He who Strikes from Afar. “General Aubrey,” he continued with a nod. “Captain Butler.”
“Colonel, you remember Captain Winningstad. You met at Grovetown in the Spring,” said Eliza.
The Lord of the Silver Bow, seeing the VC on my chest, saluted me first which I returned.D@mn him for his military courtesy. Two can play that game. You’ll not show me up this time, by God.
“I congratulate you, Captain Winningstad. You’ve risen far since our first meeting,” he said.Too far for your liking, my dear Apollo?
“Thank you, sir. Congratulations to you as well. You were wounded recently. No too badly, I trust.
“It was trivial,” he replied.
“My dear we thought you’d given us the slip.” Interjected Aunt Rhea.
“No, Auntie. They sent the others out but then Queen Alexandra invited all the Nursing Sisters to tea.”
Smokey and I left together. He’d only just arrived and having not yet found accommodations we collected his kit at Victoria Station and set out to the RAC where the VC once again did its work. My room as it turned out attached en suite to the one next door, which as chance would have it was recently vacated. Problem solved. Smokey, much to his annoyance, remained attached to Pershing’s headquarters in some capacity which he could not discuss for reasons of security. Over an afternoon of hard exercise with the accompanying time in the Turkish bath I caught him up on the past two months.
“That’s an ill wind, my friend,” he said, “but it blows of its own accord and has naught to do with you. Eliza’s wounded in some fashion.”
___________________________________________________ "Dinner at the Savoy was an excruciating affair."
I’d made arrangements at the Savoy for the five of us, so there was no path forward that did not include Eliza and Colonel Harding-Royce. Dinner at the Savoy was an excruciating affair, perfectly civil and with the occasionally interesting conversation but the gulf of what was unspoken between Eliza and me was like a dead body on the table which everyone by some tacit agreement chose to ignore.
“I do feel like dancing,” Eliza blurted suddenly. “Oh, but you boys are in uniform. Shall we go to Murrays, then?” Impossible. Clarissa might be there!
“Grafton Galleries,” I countered, trying to hide my panic.
“Capital idea,” spake the Lord of the Silver Bow. “Murray’s is so often crowded, practically overrun with you Flying Corps chaps, what?”
General Aubrey made some sort of harumphing noise, interspersed with an “I don’t know,” as if to beg off.
“Oh General,” trilled Aunt Rhea, “do come along. It will be a grand time and I remember you as quite the dancer in years past.”
“Please, General. It won’t be the same without you,” joined Eliza.
Eliza had forced the issue. There was nothing for it but to soldier on.
Apollo, he of the golden sword, together with Eliza swept across the dance floor with Olympian grace. The General and Aunt Rhea after cutting a magnificent pair returned to our table.
“Thank you General,” said Aunt Rhea. “Your skills have in no way diminished.”
After seating Aunt Rhea, General Aubrey clipped the end of his cigar and set it alight, puffing up a great cloud of smoke. Smokey gave me a kick from under the table.
“Mrs. Tennyson, may I have the honor of this dance?” I said, standing and extending my hand. Did she flush a little?
“Why Captain Winningstad, you may indeed. My heart is atwitter!”
"Captain Butler, have I ever told you about South Africa?" said General Aubrey with a knowing look in my direction. "Paardeberg, there was a battle! Captain Winningstad, you remember the positions...”
I pushed the second ashtray within the General's reach and set the bottle of champagne next to him.
"Thank you, my boy. Off you go now...
"Here was Cronjé in his Laager. Guns, Guns, Guns! On the right, completely exposed, the low rising Kopje..."
Arm about her waist I twirled Aunt Rhea onto the dance floor.
“It took you long enough to figure this out. And it’s Aunt Rhea, in case you've forgotten.
“What’s become of you two?” she asked.
“She broke things off. Rather suddenly. I would have thought you knew that from Eliza,” I replied.
“Talk to her,” said Aunt Rhea.
“And say what exactly? There was no equivocation in her last letter. She made her wish to be left alone quite clear,” I replied.
“Eliza doesn’t know her own mind right now,” said Aunt Rhea.
Could that be true?
“Shall we pay our dancing companions a visit?” I asked, indicating Eliza and He Who Strikes from Afar.
“Oh, yes, let’s. I’m sure there’s more than meets the eye with that Colonel, but what does is a public school dandy and he’s far too tall for her. I’d be a better match for him, I think. Beh HEH!” she said, her contralto rising in a laugh.
“Mrs. Tennyson!” I cried, feigning shock.
“Naughty!” she said, eyes twinkling.
We did the Foxtrot over to Percy and Eliza and swapped partners.
It was a mistake. I could have devised no greater test for myself than to dance with Eliza and not fold her in my arms, kiss those familiar lips and speak my love to her. In a hell of my own creation, I maintained respectful distance, my hand decorously about the higher part of her back as if our love, and those intimate moments we shared were now consigned to some other life. All the pain, hurt and anger I’d locked away these last two months, now burst their bonds. I felt like a detached observer, a spectre who had no agency to prevent those events that were soon to unfold.
“I’m glad today wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable,” I said.
“Such a surprise,” she said woodenly.
“Phoebus Apollo is back in your life I see. He is a very handsome man, and he’s added the MC to his DSO since last we met. A wound stripe too. They used to hand out DSOs to staff officers for a sharply worded memo, not so the Military Cross. I’m glad our Lord of the Silver Bow is taking his chances before the guns. Can’t spend all his time safely eating ambrosia back at Brigade.
“Oliver, this pettiness is beneath you,” she said. “Percy has been nothing if not unfailingly courteous to you.”
“Percy is it? That seems rather sudden, or has he been there all along?”
I regretted the words before their echo faded but it was too late to take them back. They struck Eliza like a slap. Her shock and hurt was plain to see. Far worse was the look of utter betrayal. I never felt so low.
Eliza’s eyes filled but no tears fell. We danced the remainder of the number in silence, no longer making eye contact. Soon the music was ended. Returning to our table Eliza said her farewells. General Aubrey and Aunt Rhea followed suit.
“So very proud of you, my boy,” said General Aubrey, shaking my hand with both of his. “Tremendous show. Splendid record. Splendid! You’re always welcome at Aldermaston Park. We’ll get that shooting in yet, what?
"Captain Butler, a distinct pleasure.”
Unlike our previous farewell on the train platform, Aunt Rhea abandoned herself and gave me a crushing embrace as she kissed me on both cheeks.
“Don’t give up,” she whispered in my ear.
“Be well, Oliver,” said Eliza her voice fluttering and her eyes red.
“And you, Eliza,” I replied with a formal nod.
The four departed. I turned to Smokey, my mind reeling.
“I’ve made a mess of things, Old Bull. I don’t know about you, but I feel the need to get thoroughly embalmed.”
“Not here, my friend. It won’t do for a VC man to be seen in his cups. I bought a good bottle I was saving for France but under the circumstances, I say we broach it and see what truth and mysteries lie therein.”
We repaired to Smokey’s rooms and settled in.
“I was going to give you this in parting but now seems like a more appropriate moment,” I said handing Smokey the small case containing the two Dunhill pipes and the package of tobacco.
The whiskey grew smoother with time. With half the bottle drained Smokey and I were much wiser men.
I resumed our old game. Smokey was never without a deck of cards. I cut the eight of clubs.
“Only eight guesses this time, Captain Butler? Hector, Hercules, Hadrian, Heneage?”
Smokey lowered his whiskey half an inch and gazed back at me with the exasperating inscrutable expression I knew so well and puffed on his new pipe.
“It’s not one of those gruesome Old Testament names is it? Hosea, Hachaliah, Habbakkuk?”
“All these years and now you’re closer than you know, Young Bull,” he said.
Smokey paused, took another deep drink of his whiskey before drawing again on his pipe, then examining the implement. “A generous gift, this. One that deserves another in return."
“Hezekiah,” he said, then extended his hand to me. “Hezekiah Augustine Butler. My father was most devout. Augustine was the name of my mother’s family.”
I sat in shock that Smokey would express such an excessively personal revelation. I’d been waiting for years for this tale and here it was at last. I said nothing for fear of breaking the spell.
“You asked me how as a Marine I knew so much of seafaring. As I said, I was born to it. My father was captain of a tea clipper.”
Smokey recounted the tale of his early life, and the many adventures sailing the Pacific and the trade routes to London. It was expected he would follow in his father’s path to the Naval Academy, but father and son quarreled and in a fit of youthful willfulness, Smokey enlisted as a Marine in 1898. As to any reconciliation between father and son, Smokey didn’t elaborate.
We saved our most profound observations about life and the nature of the world for the very last bit of the now transcendent whiskey. I staggered back to my room two hours before dawn.