|‘The Emperor Karl is a descendant of Jesus Christ,’ said Pennyweight with the confidence of the amiably mad. ‘I expect you know that, being a Varsity chap.’
I make a point of not arguing with self-educated men. It isn’t that they stick to their opinions – though they always do – but that they’ve studied their subject and, likely as not, are right about meaningless details, which will defeat any attempt at opposition. The founders of the world’s great religions have been largely unlettered, and, whether as truth-sayers or charlatans, have turned their hard-won learning into messages of extraordinary potency. No, I don’t despise Pennyweight and his kind. They have mountains of corpses to their credit.
We met on the Kildonan Castle, sailing to South Africa with a stop at Madeira. An outsider would have recognised a broad similarity between us: a resemblance more widespread among men of my generation – those who had served in the Great War – than any previous one. I mean that we were men in our twenties and thirties from middle class homes, who, from a passing familiarity with Latin, had become officers in His Majesty’s Armed Forces, and found ourselves at the close of hostilities without skills, hopes or convictions. In its declining years, the British Empire sent gangs of such loveless vagabonds to labour as white coolies in distant possessions. It was no surprise that two of us – three when one includes Fairbrother – should fetch up on a liner bound for the Cape.
I’d noticed Pennyweight in the dining room but not spoken to him. Despite the general similarity of our type, we have no natural affinities. Some of us are clubbable and will scrape an acquaintance on the least occasion. Others, including myself, are by character or experience morose. One of my reasons for leaving England was that hostesses, seeing two of us together in the same room, would make introductions and leave us to chat over old times as if we’d been at the same jolly school.
Contrary to what one may suppose, there is no common language among veterans of war, or perhaps we wish to turn language to an unintended purpose. For we have no message to convey, merely a burden to discharge.
Pennyweight – he gave me the name like a guide naming a famous monument – had a lurking manner and wore a strange suit, part hairy and agricultural and part cut for the town, that looked as if it might have been fashionable in Yorkshire. At first I thought him middle-aged, but in fact he was only thirty-one. He was of average height, not definitely fat, but generally stout so that one would call him fat without thinking. His hair was ginger, his eyebrows invisible and his skin pale, turning to a vivid red with emotion or a touch of sun. His colourless eyes protruded in a manner that left one impaled, and I’d turned hurriedly away from him one night in the bar when he tipped his glass at me and winked.
Matters might have continued in this way if the ship hadn’t hit heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay. The storms closed the decks and caused most of the passengers to retire to their cabins. A few, however – mostly men – had strong stomachs or a need for company or a belief that mal de mer could be overcome by exotic concoctions of alcohol and spices. They gathered in the lounge to chat about cricket or the war or play a hand at cards. I wanted none of these, but melancholy, to be enjoyed to the full, requires the presence of strangers with whose happy or sad condition one can compare one’s own.
In London I’d bought a Celtic bracelet for Margaret, and now I was regretting it. I was unsure if she would welcome a present and had a vague feeling that the style had gone out of fashion. It was in front of me on a table when I heard Pennyweight speak.
He said, ‘This is a turn up for the book! It isn’t often one comes across a fellow Druid.’
I looked up and saw him, large and friendly and expectant. ‘I’m sorry…?’ I muttered.
‘Say no more.’ He looked around shiftily. ‘Not the place to talk about these things, I understand,’ he said. But, if there were a more appropriate occasion to pursue the subject, it never arose. He made only one other mention of the Druids that I recall, and that was to indicate that, while the Order possessed a portion of the Truth, he, Pennyweight, had meantime been initiated into Higher Things.
‘We were wondering,’ he went on, ‘whether you’d like to join me, Fairbrother and Doctor Crippen in a game. Don’t get the wrong idea,’ he added, ‘we’re not a gang of those sharper fellows one hears about on these boats. Strictly small stakes. Ha’penny a point, solo whist and jokers wild. Name’s Pennyweight – Captain, though I don’t like to use the rank; in fact scarcely ever mention it.’ He offered me a fleshy hand with close-bitten nails and I took it and agreed to join the game because the alternative was to brood over Margaret and my father.
Doctor Crispin was the ship’s medical officer, a cool customer who spoke in an idle drawl. I fancy he’d passed a deal of time in the tropics, because he had the tanned, drawn look of someone who spent too long in the sun and whose blood was thinned with gin and quinine. With the passengers out of harm’s way on their bunks and the more sensitive souls duly drugged, he had time on his hands. Fairbrother was another former soldier, but I suspected he had caught only the end of the affair, having spent his time in training at Camberley. I doubt he was more than twenty-five, unselfconfident, tall and on the willowy side with blond hair and a faint narrow moustache that contrasted with Pennyweight’s ginger jungle.
To digress a little, I knew the name Fairbrother in the conjunction Fairbrother & Cadogan, a firm of wine importers who supplied small hotels on the south coast. Charlie Fairbrother was a gentlemanly villain and my father was such another. Between them they’d passed off some very inferior wines and no doubt contributed to the English sense of wonder at what foreigners saw in the stuff. One of the reasons for my visit to England was to persuade Charlie to take some third-rate malmsey off my hands. We had stocks of it left over from wartime when the drinking of Madeira had declined while production continued. Alas, he died while I was on the ocean and no one else was in a position to agree to such a dubious transaction despite my equally dubious offers of financial encouragement. I didn’t suppose any connection between the present Fairbrother and dear dead Charlie.
We played a few rounds, which were mostly won by Crispin. Fairbrother was an over-cautious player and revealed his cards in his anxious face. Pennyweight was superstitious and relied on inspiration. He kept a metal cigarette case by his right hand and I noticed the dent from a bullet.
‘My lucky charm,’ he explained. ‘The Hun put that dent on it. Saved a chap’s life.’
It was unclear whether he was the chap in question. Whatever the truth, the charm was of no effect and, although he maintained his good humour, I saw that he couldn’t afford even his small losses
‘A misfit,’ was Doctor Crispin’s verdict as we smoked a cigarette together that evening on deck during a lull in the storm. ‘And a dreadful cheat, though too incompetent to pull it off. I took fifteen bob off the pair of them and you must be half a crown up on the night.’ I remarked that his cigarette case bore the same tell-tale mark as Pennyweight’s. He turned it indifferently in his fingers. ‘They make ’em in Sheffield. I’ve got half a dozen in my cabin. I give ’em to the ladies, when I want to make an impression.’
There had been little mention of females in our all-male company. Fairbrother revealed briefly that he had a fiancée. Pennyweight made passing references to “the womenfolk”, “the mother” and “the girlfriend”, but as if they were ranks in a foreign army to which he was allied but which he didn’t especially like.
‘I suppose you see all sorts,’ I observed. I suspected that the Doctor held his passengers in contempt but made exceptions since contempt was more perfect if one could express it to persons within its general purview.
‘A lot of fellows at a loose end after the war have gone out to the colonies, though I understand the bottom’s been knocked out of rubber and tin. Some of ’em come back, but not many, so I suppose they do all right.’ His tone was disbelieving. ‘Of course, drink, disease and les femmes do for a lot of ’em. Fairbrother looks as if he might manage, but I can’t see the life suiting Pennyweight. He’s the sort who’s never satisfied but always looking over the next horizon.’
As it happens neither of my fellow passengers was going to the colonies. To our surprise we were all getting off at Madeira.
‘An omen,’ said Pennyweight. ‘We’re three of a kind. Like the Musketeers. All for one and each for the others, and all that. I don’t mind admitting I’ll be glad to have a couple of pals. Can’t say I know much about the place. I got out a pile of books, but was distracted by other stuff I was looking into. It’ll be rum, living among darkies.’
‘The people are Portuguese,’ I said; but my point passed him as most things did that failed to fit his preconceptions.
‘Much the same thing, I’ll warrant. I saw quite a few Chinese digging trenches in France and learned how to handle them, which should stand me in good stead.’
What is your business there?’
Pennyweight gave an evasive response. ‘Engineering. Roads, bridges, that sort of thing.’
‘The island could certainly do with them,’ I said. ‘Would I know your firm?’
‘I’m not exactly with a firm, though I’ve talked to a few. I’m more in the way of a roving representative. We saw eye to eye on that – my talents lying in the freelance direction without all the red tape of being actually employed. Give me plenty of scope, that’s the idea. And it makes it easier if some funny business is needed to grease the way with the locals, if you take my meaning.’
‘And you?’ I asked Fairbrother.
‘I’m in the wine trade. My father has just died and I’m making a tour of our suppliers to familiarise myself with things.’
‘Not Fairbrother & Cadogan?’
Yes.’ Fairbrother was astonished. ‘Don’t say you’ve heard of us?’
‘I’m in the same line, though on the production side. House of Pinfold. I called on Charlie while I was in London – or, at least, tried to. Oh, sorry, I suppose I should express my condolences. Why is it I didn’t see you?’
‘I’ve just got back from the Médoc.’ He looked at me curiously and my heart sank that he knew the rumours which had recently sprung up. ‘Pinfolds? Oh, gosh! Now we’re both embarrassed. I didn’t think anything of your name either. The story I heard was that Pinfolds had gone bust.’
Once we were out of the storms, life on the Kildonan Castle resumed a more leisured pace, but, having got to know Pennyweight and Fairbrother, I couldn’t ignore them. In particular I had hopes that, if Fairbrother were as disingenuous as he seemed, I might sell him the quantity of doubtful malmsey that was among my many problems.
Somewhere off the Portuguese coast the sun came out and we took the air. Fairbrother and I were in our semi-tropical ducks, but Pennyweight stuck to his stout woollen suit with its faint odour of Players. When I hinted at the unsuitability of his clothes, he said only, ‘Oh, there’ll be time to get kitted out later. In any case a good suit is never out of place. I had this one cut to my own design. Good for town or country, see?’
A small party was playing quoits.
Pennyweight said, ‘That’s the British Empire Exhibition Mission. They’re off to the Cape and all points east.’
I’d heard of the planned exhibition. In the aftermath of war and depression, it was designed to make economic sense of the whole imperial venture. The result was a great affair at Wembley, though I wasn’t there to see it.
‘Lucky devils,’ Pennyweight added.
‘What! Off around the world on a jaunt paid for by someone else! That’d be just the ticket for yours truly.’
‘Well, I suppose they’ve got a job to do: finding exhibitors and so forth.’
‘Don’t you believe it. It’s chaps like me who drum up the trade that keeps the home fires burning – and precious small thanks we get for it. That little lot know damn all about working for a living. Spongers, the lot of them. It’s all a question of connections. Freemasons,’ he said, then relented. ‘Sorry, you don’t happen to be a member of the Craft, do you?’
‘No.’ I recalled that Pennyweather was a Druid and wondered if there were a mortal enmity between the two secret societies.
‘I tried to join,’ he resumed and shook his head. ‘In fact I did join briefly. I could see they’d got some notions of the Truth. I wanted to start a debate going, but they’re a snobbish lot and set in their ways. They’ve got no time for Advanced Thinking.’
I didn’t want to hear any Advanced Thinking, so I drew his attention back to the quoits players. ‘Do you know any of them?’ I asked.
‘Not a one. I had a word with a steward – thought I might pick up a useful tip. That one – no, not the pretty one, Miss Torbitt-Bayley – the other,’ he pointed out a plain woman of thirty or so, dressed in white, ‘ is a writer. A writer, for God’s sake!’
‘Is she famous?’ I thought he might know. In one of those incidents that throw an unlikely light on others, I’d seen him at a table on deck with a pile of old books and yellowed pamphlets, which he guarded from closer inspection. It seemed he was pursuing a course of private study, but I didn’t know what it was except that it excluded acquiring any knowledge of his present destination.
‘I shouldn’t think so,’ he said. ‘At least I’ve never heard of her, and I’ve forgotten her name. She wrote something called The Mysterious Fairy Stiles. A book for kiddies, I imagine.’
I didn’t recognise the book either and we turned to different things. The subject of Madeira came up and I gave some description of the island.
At this point I recall an old adage that, if one spends enough time in Piccadilly, one will sooner or later meet everyone one ever knew. This was scarcely true of Madeira in those days, but, if the scope of enquiry is confined to the rich and famous, then it was approximately so. I give Churchill as an instance. He could be come across painting in odd corners of the island a few years after Hitler’s war. It was in this context that the subject of Karl von Habsburg came up. I remarked, as a piece of local colour, that the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, having been deposed for being on the losing side of the war, was in exile there. It was then that Pennyweight observed casually that the Emperor was a descendent of Jesus.
I held no strong opinion as to the divine ancestry of the Habsburgs and would have thought nothing of it. Fairbrother, however, showed an unexpected side of his character. He said, apparently seriously, ‘Our own King George is a relative of the prophet Mohammed. One of his forebears married a Spanish princess, who got it from the Moors of Granada. Or so I’ve heard – I don’t say I’m an expert on the subject.’
‘It wouldn’t surprise me,’ Pennyweight said. He had caught a note of deference in Fairbrother’s voice. ‘And there’s a touch of Jew blood there, too.’
‘Steady on, old man. You’re talking about the King.’
Pennyweight quickly retreated. ‘Only a touch, old man. Only a touch. There’s nothing wrong with a touch of Jew. It sharpens up the senses.’
Seeing that Fairbrother was mollified, he built on his superiority by reciting various alleged facts to which I paid no attention at the time.
However, as Fairbrother rightly summarised the matter, ‘It’s an awesome idea to think the Emperor Karl may carry the blood of the Son of God. It quite takes some getting used to.’
Indeed it does. But the truth is that the larger themes of life get buried in the detail, though I say this cautiously since I am not certain it was so of Pennyweight. I lost interest in the conversation and directed my gaze again at the quoits players. The sun was playing on the dress of the woman who wrote children’s stories and it was dazzling. I thought of Margaret and wondered what on earth I was going to say to her.
If I’d been granted a degree of foresight, I should have wondered, too, about Robinson, who in a special sense made up the fourth of our little party. It was poor Robinson who got himself murdered. One or two people thought that I killed him.