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Authors: Graham Greene

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BOOK: The Confidential Agent
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‘Prove it. Prove it,' she said fiercely.
‘I don't suppose that's possible.' He began to dig with his nail at the wall, looking for something: the bullet might have wedged. . . . He said, ‘They are getting desperate. There was the business in the lavatory yesterday – and then what you saw. To-day somebody has searched my room, but that may be one of my own people. But this – to-night – is going pretty far. They can't do much more now than kill me. I don't think they'll manage that, though. I'm horribly hard to kill.'
‘Oh, God,' she said suddenly, ‘it's true.' He turned. She held a bullet in her hand: it had ricocheted off the wall. She said, ‘It's true. So we've got to do something. The police . . .'
‘I saw nobody. There's no evidence.'
‘You said last night that note offered you money.'
‘Yes.'
‘Why don't you take it?' she asked angrily. ‘You don't want to be killed.'
It occurred to him that she was going to be hysterical. He took her arm and pushed her in front of him into a public-house. ‘Two double brandies,' he said. He began to talk cheerfully and quickly. ‘I want you to do me a favour. There's a girl at the hotel where I'm staying – she's done me a service and got the sack for it. She's a good little thing – only wild. God knows what mightn't happen to her. Couldn't you find her a job? You must have hundreds of smart friends.'
‘Oh, stop,' she said, ‘being so damned quixotic. I want to hear more about all this.'
‘There's not much I can tell you. Apparently they don't want me to see your father.'
‘Are you,' she said with a kind of angry contempt, ‘what they call a patriot?'
‘Oh no, I don't think so. It's they, you know, who are always talking about something called our country.'
‘Then why don't you take their money?'
He said, ‘You've got to choose some line of action and live by it. Otherwise nothing matters at all. You probably end with a gas-oven. I've chosen certain people who've had the lean portion for some centuries now.'
‘But your people are betrayed all the time.'
‘It doesn't matter. You might say it's the only job left for anyone – sticking to a job. It's no good taking a moral line. My people commit atrocities like the others. I suppose if I believed in a god it would be simpler.'
‘Do you believe,' she said, ‘that
your
leaders are any better than L.'s?' She swallowed her brandy and began to tap the counter nervously with the little metal bullet.
‘No. Of course not. But I still prefer the people they lead – even if they lead them all wrong.'
‘The poor, right or wrong,' she scoffed.
‘It's no worse – is it? – than my country, right or wrong. You choose your side once for all – of course, it may be the wrong side. Only history can tell that.' He took the bullet out of her hand and said, ‘I'm going to eat something. I haven't had anything since last night.' He took a plate of sandwiches and carried them to a table. ‘Go on,' he said, ‘eat a little. You are always drinking on an empty stomach when I meet you. It's bad for the nerves.'
‘I'm not hungry.'
‘I am.' He took a large bite out of a ham sandwich. She began to squeak her finger up and down on the shiny china top. ‘Tell me,' she said, ‘about what you were – before all this started.'
‘I was a lecturer,' he said, ‘in medieval French. Not an exciting occupation.' He smiled. ‘It had its moment. You've heard of the Song of Roland?'
‘Yes.'
‘It was I who discovered the Berne MS.'
‘That doesn't mean a thing to me,' she said. ‘I'm bone-ignorant.'
‘The best MS. was the one your people had at Oxford – but it was too corrected – and there were gaps. Then there was the Venice MS. That filled in some of the gaps, not all . . . it was very inferior.' He said proudly, ‘I found the Berne MS.'
‘You did, did you?' she said gloomily, with her eyes on the bullet in his hand. Then she looked up at the scarred chin and the bruised mouth. He said, ‘You remember the story – of that rearguard in the Pyrenees, and how Oliver, when he saw the Saracens coming, urged Roland to blow his horn and fetch back Charlemagne.'
She seemed to be wondering about the scar. She began to ask, ‘How? . . .'
‘And Roland wouldn't blow – swore that no enemy could ever make him blow. A big brave fool. In war one always chooses the wrong hero. Oliver should have been the hero of that song instead of being given second place with the blood-thirsty bishop Turpin.'
She said, ‘How did your wife die?' but he was determined to keep the conversation free from the infection of his war.
He said, ‘And then, of course, when all his men are dead or dying, and he himself is finished, Roland says he'll blow the horn. And the song-writer makes – what is your expression? – a great dance about it. The blood streams from his mouth, the bones of his temple are broken. But Oliver taunts him. He had had his chance to blow his horn at the beginning and save all those lives, but for his own glory he would not blow. Now because he is defeated and dying he will blow and bring disgrace on his race and name. Let him die quietly and be content with all the damage his heroism has done. Didn't I tell you Oliver was the real hero?'
‘Did you?' she said. She was obviously not following what he said. He saw that she was nearly crying, and ashamed of it: self-pity, probably. It was a quality he didn't care for, even in an adolescent.
He said, ‘That's the importance of the Berne MS. It re-establishes Oliver. It makes the story tragedy, not just heroics. Because in the Oxford version Oliver is reconciled, he gives Roland his death-blow by accident, his eyes blinded by wounds. The story, you see, has been tidied up to suit. . . . But in the Berne version he strikes his friend down with full knowledge – because of what he has done to his men: all the wasted lives. He dies hating the man he loves – the big boasting courageous fool who was more concerned with his own glory than with the victory of his faith. But you can see how that version didn't appeal – in the castles – at the banquets, among the dogs and reeds and beakers: the jongleurs had to adapt it, to meet the tastes of the medieval nobles who were quite capable of being Rolands in a small way – it only needs conceit and a strong arm – but couldn't understand what Oliver was at.'
‘Give me Oliver,' she said, ‘any day.' He looked at her with some surprise. She said, ‘My father, of course, would be like one of your barons – all for Roland.'
He said, ‘After I had published the Berne MS. the war came.'
‘And when it's over,' she said, ‘what will you do then?'
It had never occurred to him to wonder that. He said, ‘Oh, I don't suppose I shall see the end.'
‘Like Oliver,' she said, ‘you'd have stopped it if you could, but as it's happened . . .'
‘Oh, I'm not an Oliver any more than the poor devils at home are Rolands. Or L. a Ganelon.'
‘Who was Ganelon?'
‘He was the traitor.'
She said, ‘You are sure about L.? He seemed to me pleasant enough.'
‘They know how to be pleasant. They've cultivated that art for centuries.' He drank his brandy down. He said, ‘Well, I'm here. Why should we talk business? You asked me to come and I've come.'
‘I just wished I could help you, that's all.'
‘Why?'
She said, ‘After they'd beaten you up last night I was sick. Of course Currie thought it was the drink. But it was your face. Oh,' she exclaimed, ‘you ought to know how it is – there's no trust anywhere. I'd never seen a face that looked medium honest. I mean about everything. My father's people – they're honest about – well, food and love perhaps – they have stuffy contented wives anyway – but where coal is concerned – or the workmen . . .' She said, ‘If you hope for anything at all from them, for God's sake don't breathe melodrama – or sentiment. Show them a cheque-book, a contract – let it be a cast-iron one.'
In the public bar across the way they were throwing darts with enormous precision. He said, ‘I haven't come to beg.'
‘Does it really matter a lot to you?'
‘Wars to-day are not what they were in Roland's time. Coal can be more important than tanks. We've got more tanks than we want. They aren't much good, anyway.'
‘But Ganelon can still upset everything?'
‘It's not so easy for him.'
She said, ‘I suppose they'll all be there when you see my father. There's honour among thieves. Goldstein and old Lord Fetting, Brigstock – and Forbes. You better know what you'll be up against.'
He said, ‘Be careful. After all, they are
your
people.'
‘I haven't got a people. My grandfather was a workman, anyway.'
‘You're unlucky,' he said. ‘You are in No Man's Land. Where I am. We just have to choose our side and neither side will trust us, of course.'
‘You can trust Forbes,' she said, ‘about coal, I mean. Not of course all round the clock. He's dishonest about his name – he was a Jew called Furtstein. And he's dishonest in love. He wants to marry me. That's how I know. He keeps a mistress in Shepherd's Market. A friend of his told me.' She laughed. ‘We have fine friends.'
For the second time that day D. was shocked. He remembered the child in the hotel. You learned too much in these days before you came of age. His own people knew death before they could walk – they got used to desire early – but this savage knowledge, that ought to come slowly, the gradual fruit of experience. . . . In a happy life the final disillusionment with human nature coincided with death. Nowadays they seemed to have a whole lifetime to get through somehow after it. . . .
‘You are not going to marry him?' he asked anxiously.
‘I may. He's better than most of them.'
‘Perhaps it's not true about the mistress.'
‘Oh yes. I put detectives on to check up.'
He gave it up: this wasn't peace. When he landed in England, he had felt some envy . . . there had been a casualness . . . even a certain sense of trust at the passport control, but there was probably something behind that. He had imagined that the suspicion which was the atmosphere of his own life was due to civil war, but he began to believe that it existed everywhere: it was part of human life. People were united only by their vices; there was honour among adulterers and thieves. He had been too absorbed in the old days with his love and with the Berne MS. and the weekly lecture on Romance Languages to notice it. It was as if the whole world lay in the shadow of abandonment. Perhaps it was still propped up by ten just men – that was a pity. Better scrap it and begin again with newts. ‘Well,' she said, ‘let's go.'
‘Where?'
‘Oh, anywhere. One must do something. It's early yet. A cinema?'
They sat for nearly three hours in a kind of palace – gold-winged figures, deep carpets, and an endless supply of refreshments carried round by girls got up to kill: these places had been less luxurious when he was last in London. It was a musical play full of curious sacrifice and suffering: a starving producer and a blonde girl who had made good. She had her name up in neon lights on Piccadilly, but she flung up her part and came back to Broadway to save him. She put up the money – secretly – for a new production and the glamour of her name gave it success. It was a revue all written in no time and the cast was packed with starving talent. Everybody made a lot of money; everybody's name went up in neon lights – the producer's too: the girl's, of course, was there from the first. There was a lot of suffering – gelatine tears pouring down the big blonde features – and a lot of happiness. It was curious and pathetic; everybody behaved nobly and made a lot of money. It was as if some code of faith and morality had been lost for centuries, and the world was trying to reconstruct it from the unreliable evidence of folk memories and subconscious desires – and perhaps some hieroglyphics upon stone.
He felt her hand rest on his knee. She wasn't romantic, she had said: this was an automatic reaction, he supposed, to the deep seats and the dim lights and the torch songs, as when Pavlov's dogs salivared. It was a reaction which went through all social levels like hunger, but he was short-circuited. He laid his hand on hers with a sense of pity – she deserved something better than a man called Furtstein who kept a girl in Shepherd's Market. She wasn't romantic, but he could feel her hand cold and acquiescent under his. He said gently, ‘I think we've been followed.'
She said, ‘It doesn't matter. If that's how the world is I can take it. Is somebody going to shoot or a bomb go off? I don't like sudden noises. Perhaps you'll warn me.'
‘It's only a man who teaches Entrenationo. I'm sure I saw his steel glasses in the lobby.'
The blonde heroine wept more tears – for people predestined for success by popular choice they were all extraordinarily sad and obtuse. If
we
lived in a world, he thought, which guaranteed a happy ending, should we be as long discovering it? Perhaps that's what the saints were at with their incomprehensible happiness – they had seen the end of the story when they came in and couldn't take the agonies seriously. Rose said, ‘I can't stand this any more. Let's go. You can see the ending half an hour away.'
They got out with difficulty into the gangway; he discovered he was still holding her hand. He said, ‘I wish sometimes I could see
my
ending.' He felt extraordinarily tired; two long days and the beating had weakened him.
BOOK: The Confidential Agent
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