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Authors: Graham Greene

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BOOK: The Confidential Agent
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‘But your war goes on. There must be a reason.'
‘You have to feel something to stop a war. Sometimes I think we cling to it because there is still fear. If we were without that, we shouldn't have any feeling at all. None of us will enjoy the peace.'
A small village appeared ahead of them like an island – an old church, a few graves, an inn. He said, ‘I shouldn't envy us if I were you – with this.' He meant the casualness and quiet . . . the odd unreality of a road you could follow over any horizon.
‘It doesn't need a war to flatten things. Money, parents, lots of things are just as good as war.'
He said, ‘After all, you are young . . . very pretty.'
‘Oh, hell!' she said, ‘are you going to start on me?'
‘No. Of course not. I've told you . . . I can't feel anything. Besides, I'm old.'
There was a sharp report, the car swerved and he flung his arms up over his face. The car came to a stop. She said, ‘They've given us a dud tyre.' He put his arms down. ‘I'm sorry,' he said. ‘I do still feel that.' His hands were trembling. ‘Fear.'
‘There's nothing to be afraid of here,' she said.
‘I'm not sure.' He carried the war in his heart: give me time, he thought, and I shall infect anything – even this. I ought to wear a bell like the old lepers.
‘Don't be melodramatic,' she said. ‘I can't stand melodrama.' She pressed the starter and they moved bumpingly forward. ‘We shall hit a roadhouse or a garage or something before long,' she said; ‘it's too cold to change the wretched thing here.' And a little later, ‘The fog again.'
‘Do you think you should go on driving? Without a tyre.'
‘Don't be afraid,' she said.
He said apologetically, ‘You see, I have important work to do.'
She turned her face to him – a thin worried face, absurdly young: he was reminded of a child at a dull party. She couldn't be more than twenty. That was young enough to be his daughter. She said, ‘You lay on the mystery with a trowel. Do you want to impress me?'
‘It's such a stale gag.'
‘Have so many people tried it with you?'
‘I couldn't count them,' she said. It seemed to him immeasurably sad that anyone so young should have known so much fraud. Perhaps because he was middle-aged it seemed to him that youth should be a season of – well, hope. He said gently, ‘I'm nothing mysterious. I am just a business man.'
‘Do you stink of money, too?'
‘Oh no. I am the representative of a rather poor firm.'
She smiled at him suddenly, and he thought, without emotion, one could call her beautiful. ‘Married?'
‘In a way.'
‘You mean separated?'
‘Yes. That is to say, she's dead.'
The fog turned primrose ahead of them; they slowed down and came bumpingly into a region of voices and tail lights. A high voice said, ‘I told Sally we'd get here.' A long glass window came into view; there was soft music: a voice, very hollow and deep, sang, ‘I know I knew you only When you were lonely.'
‘Back in civilisation,' the girl said gloomily.
‘Can we get the tyre changed here?'
‘I should think so.' She opened the door, got out and was submerged at once in fog and light and other people. He sat alone in the car; now the engine wasn't running it was bitterly cold. He tried to think what his movements should be. First he had been directed to lodge at a number in a Bloomsbury street. Presumably the number had been chosen so that his own people could keep an eye on him. Then he had an appointment the day after next with Lord Benditch. They were not beggars; they could pay a fair price for the coal, and a profiteer's bonus when the war was over. Many of the Benditch collieries were closed down: it was a chance for both of them. He had been warned that it was inadvisable to bring in the Embassy – the Ambassador and the First Secretary were not trusted, although the Second Secretary was believed to be loyal. It was a hopelessly muddled situation – it was quite possible that really it was the Second Secretary who was working for the rebels. Anyway, the whole affair was to be managed quietly; nobody had expected the complication he had encountered on the Channel boat. It might mean anything – from a competitive price for the coal shipments to robbery or even murder. Well, he was somewhere in the fog ahead.
D. suddenly felt an inclination to turn off the lights of the car. Sitting in the dark he transferred his credentials from his breast pocket; he hesitated with them in his hand and then stuffed them down into his sock. The door of the car was pulled open and the girl said, ‘Why on earth did you turn out the lights? I had an awful business finding you.' She switched them on again and said, ‘There's nobody free at the moment – but they'll send a man . . .'
‘We've got to wait?'
‘I'm hungry.'
He came cautiously out of the car, wondering whether it was his duty to offer her dinner; he grudged every inessential penny he spent. He said, ‘Can we get dinner?'
‘Of course we can. Have you got enough? I spent my last sou on the car.'
‘Yes. Yes. You will have dinner with me?'
‘That was the idea.'
He followed her into the house . . . hotel . . . whatever it was. This sort of thing was new since the days when he came to England as a youth to read at the British Museum. An old Tudor house – he could tell it was genuine Tudor – it was full of arm-chairs and sofas, and a cocktail bar where you expected a library. A man in a monocle took one of the girl's hands, the left one, and wrung it. ‘Rose. Surely it's Rose.' He said, ‘Excuse me. I think I see Monty Crookham,' and slid rapidly sideways.
‘Do you know him?' D. said.
‘He's the manager. I didn't know he was down this way. He used to have a place on Western Avenue.' She said with contempt, ‘This is fine, isn't it? Why don't you go back to your war?'
But that wasn't necessary. He had indeed brought the war with him: the infection was working already. He saw beyond the lounge – sitting with his back turned at the first table inside the restaurant – the other agent. His hand began to shake just as it always shook before an air raid. You couldn't live six months in prison expecting every day to be shot and come out at the end of it anything else but a coward. He said, ‘Can't we have dinner somewhere else? Here – there are so many people.' It was absurd, of course, to feel afraid, but watching the narrow stooping back in the restaurant he felt as exposed as if he were in a yard with a blank wall and a firing squad.
‘There's nowhere else. What's wrong with it?' She looked at him with suspicion. ‘Why not a lot of people? Are you going to begin something after all?'
He said, ‘No. Of course not. . . . It only seemed to me . . .'
‘I'll get a wash and find you here.'
‘I won't be a minute.'
As soon as she had gone, he looked quickly round for a lavatory: he wanted cold water, time to think. His nerves were less steady than they had been on the boat – he was worried by little things like a tyre bursting. He pursued the monocled manager across the lounge; the place was doing good business in spite of – or because of – the fog. Cars came yapping distractedly in from Dover and London. He found the manager talking to an old lady with white hair. He was saying, ‘Just so high. I've got a photograph of him here – if you'd like to see. I thought of your husband at once . . .' All the time he kept his eye open for other faces; his words had no conviction: his lean brown face carved into the right military lines by a few years' service in the army was unattached, like an animal's in a shop window. D. said, ‘Excuse me a moment.'
‘Of course I wouldn't sell him to anyone.' He swivelled round and switched on a smile as he would a cigarette lighter. ‘Let me see. Where have we met?' He held a snapshot of a wire-haired terrier in his hand. He said, ‘Good lines. Stands square. Teeth . . .'
‘I just wanted to know . . .'
‘Excuse me, old man, I see Tony,' and he was off and away. The old lady said suddenly and brusquely, ‘No use asking him anything. If you want the w.c. it's downstairs.'
The lavatory was certainly not Tudor; it was all glass and black marble. He took off his coat and hung it on a peg – he was the only man in the place – and filled a basin with cold water. That was what his nerves needed: cold water on the base of the neck worked with him like an electric charge. He was so on edge that he looked quickly round when someone else came in – it was just a chauffeur from one of the cars. D. plunged his head down into the cold water and lifted it dripping. He felt for a towel and got the water out of his eyes. His nerves felt better now. His hand didn't shake at all when he turned and said, ‘What are you doing with my coat ?'
‘What do you mean?' the chauffeur said. ‘I was hanging up my coat. Are you trying to put something on me?'
‘It seemed to me,' D. said, ‘that you were trying to take something off me.'
‘Call a policeman then,' the chauffeur said.
‘Oh, there were no witnesses.'
‘Call a policeman or apologise.' The chauffeur was a big man – over six feet. He came forward threateningly across the glassy floor. ‘I got a good mind to knock your block off. A bloody foreigner coming over here, taking our bread, thinking you can do what . . .'
‘Perhaps,' D. said gently, ‘I was mistaken.' He was puzzled: the man, after all, might be only an ordinary sneak thief . . . no harm was done.
haps you were mistaken.
haps I'll knock your bloody block off. Call that an apology?'
‘I apologise,' D. said, ‘in any way you like.' War doesn't leave you the sense of shame.
‘Haven't even got the guts to fight,' the chauffeur said.
‘Why should I? You are the bigger man. And younger.'
‘I could take on any number of you bloody dagos . . .'
‘I daresay you could.'
‘Are you saucing me?' the chauffeur said. One of his eyes was out of the straight: it gave him an effect of talking always with one eye on an audience . . . and perhaps, D. thought, there was an audience. . . .
‘If it seems so to you, I apologise again.'
‘Why, I could make you lick my boots . . .'
‘I shouldn't be at all surprised.' Had the man been drinking – or had he perhaps been told by someone to pick a quarrel? D. stood with his back to the washbasin. He felt a little sick with apprehension. He hated personal violence: to kill a man with a bullet, or to be killed, was a mechanical process which conflicted only with the will to live or the fear of pain. But the fist was different: the fist humiliated; to be beaten up put you into an ignoble relationship with the assailant. He hated the idea as he hated the idea of promiscuous intercourse. He couldn't help it: this made him afraid.
‘Saucing me again.'
‘I did not intend that.' His pedantic English seemed to infuriate the other. He said, ‘Talk English or I'll smash your bloody lip.'
‘I am a foreigner.'
‘You won't be much of anything when I've finished.' The man came nearer, his fists hung down ready at his side like lumps of dried meat; he seemed to be beating himself into an irrational rage. ‘Come on,' he said, ‘put up your fists. You aren't a coward, are you?'
‘Why not?' D. said. ‘I'm not going to fight you. I should be glad if you would allow me. . . . There is a lady waiting for me upstairs.'
‘She can have what's left,' the man said, ‘when I've finished with you. I'm going to show you you can't go about calling honest men thieves.' He seemed to be left-handed, for he began to swing his left fist.
D. flattened himself against the basin. The worst was going to happen now: he was momentarily back in the prison yard as the warder came towards him, swinging a club. If he had had a gun he would have used it; he would have been prepared to answer any charge to escape the physical contact. He shut his eyes and leant back against the mirror: he was defenceless. He didn't know the first thing about using his fists.
The manager's voice said, ‘I say, old chap. Not feeling well?' D. straightened himself. The chauffeur was hanging back with a look of self-conscious righteousness. D. said gently with his eyes on the man, ‘I get taken sometimes with – what is it you call it? – giddiness?'
‘Miss Cullen sent me to find you. Shall I see if there's a doctor about?'
‘No. It's nothing at all.'
D. checked the manager outside the lavatory. ‘Do you know that chauffeur?'
‘Never seen him before, but one can't keep a check on the retainers, old man. Why?'
‘I thought he went for my pockets.'
The eye froze behind the monocle. ‘Most improbable, old man. Here, you know, we get – well, I don't mean to be snobbish, only the best people. Must have been mistaken. Miss Cullen will bear me out.' He said with false indifference, ‘You an old friend of Miss Cullen's?'
‘No. I would not say that. She was good enough to give me a lift from Dover.'
‘Oh, I see,' the manager said icily. He detached himself briskly at the top of the stairs. ‘You'll find Miss Cullen in the restaurant.'
He passed in: somebody in a high-necked jumper was playing a piano and a woman was singing, very deep down in the throat and melancholy. He went stiffly by the table where the other sat. ‘What's up?' the girl said. ‘I thought you'd walked out on me. You look as if you'd seen a ghost.'
BOOK: The Confidential Agent
10.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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