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Presently he drew a chair up to hers.

“I very much enjoyed your play,” he said. “Your best, up to date, I thought.”

“Did you? Good.”

“It’s very clever of you to be civilized as well as penetrating. I wanted to ask you, though—”

He talked intelligently about her play. It suddenly dawned on Verity that there was nobody in Upper Quintern with whom she ever discussed her work and she felt as if she spoke the right lines in the wrong theatre. She heard herself eagerly discussing her play and fetched up abruptly.

“I’m talking shop,” she said. “Sorry.”

“Why? What’s wrong with shop? Particularly when your shop’s one of the arts.”

“Is yours?”

“Oh,” he said, “mine’s as dull as ditchwater.” He looked at his watch. “Schramn is late,” he said. “Lost in the Weald of Kent, I daresay. We shall not wait for him. Tell me—”

He started off again. The butler came in. Verity expected him to announce dinner but he said, “Dr. Schramn, sir.”

When Dr. Schramm walked into the room it seemed to shift a little. Her mouth dried. She waited through an unreckoned interval for Nikolas Markos to arrive at her as he performed the introductions.

“But we have already met,” said Dr. Schramm. “Some time ago.”

iv

Twenty-five years to be exact, Verity thought. It was ludicrous — grotesque almost — after twenty-five-years, to be put out by his reappearance.

“Somebody should say: ‘what a small world,’ ” said Dr. Schramm.

He had always made remarks like that. And laughed like that and touched his moustache.

“He didn’t know me at first,” she thought. “That’ll larn me.”

He had moved on toward the fire with Mr. Markos and been given, in quick succession, two cocktails. Verity heard him explain how he’d missed the turn-off to Upper Quintern.

“But why ‘Schramm,’ ” she wondered. “He could have hyphenated himself if ‘Smythe’ wasn’t good enough. And ‘Doctor’? So he qualified after all.”

“Very difficult country,” Mrs. Field-Innis said. She had been speaking for some time.

“Very,” Verity agreed fervently and was stared at.

Dinner was announced.

She was afraid they might find themselves together at the table but after, or so she fancied, a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Markos put Schramm between Sybil and Dr. Field-Innis, who was on Verity’s right with the Vicar on her left. Mr. Markos himself was on Sybil’s right. It was a round table.

She managed quite well at dinner. The Vicar was at all times prolific in discourse and being of necessity, as well as by choice, of an abstemious habit, he was a little flown with unaccustomed wine. Dr. Field-Innis was also in talkative form. He coruscated with anecdotes concerning high jinks in his student days.

On his far side, Dr. Schramm, whose glass had been twice replenished, was much engaged with Sybil Foster, which meant that he was turned away from Dr. Field-Innis and Verity. He bent toward Sybil, laughed a great deal at everything she said and established an atmosphere of flirtatious understanding. This stabbed Verity with the remembrance of long-healed injuries. It had been his technique when he wished to show her how much another woman pleased him. He had used it at the theatre in the second row of the stalls, prolonging his laughter beyond the rest of the audience so that she, as well as the actress concerned, might become aware of him. She realized that even now, idiotically after twenty-five years, he aimed his performance at her.

Sybil, she knew, although she had not looked at them, was bringing out her armory of delighted giggles and upward glances.

“And then,” said the Vicar, who had returned to Rome, “there was the Villa Julia. I can’t describe to you—”

In turning to him, Verity found herself under observation from her host. Perhaps because the Vicar had now arrived at the Etruscans, it occurred to Verity that there was something knowing about Mr. Markos’s smile. You wouldn’t diddle that one in a hurry, she thought.

Evidently he had asked Mrs. Field-Innis to act as hostess. When the port had gone round once she surveyed the ladies and barked out orders to retire.

Back in the drawing-room it became evident that Dr. Schramm had made an impression. Sybil lost no time in tackling Verity. Why, she asked, had she never been told about him? Had Verity known him well? Was he married?

“I’ve no idea. It was a thousand years ago,” Verity said. “He was one of my father’s students, I think. I ran up against him at some training-hospital party as far as I can remember.”

Remember? He had watched her for half the evening and then, when an “Excuse me” dance came along, had relieved her of an unwieldly first-year student and monopolized her for the rest of the evening.

She turned to the young Prunella, whose godmother she was, and asked what she was up to these days, and made what she could of a reply that for all she heard of it might have been in mime.

“Did you catch any of that?” asked Prunella’s mother wearily.

Prunella giggled. Verity reminded herself that the child had taken second class honours in English at Somerville.

“I think I may be getting deaf,” she said.

Prunella shook her head vigorously and became audible. “Not you, Godmama V,” she said. ‘Tell us about your super chum. What a dish!”

Prue,” expostulated Sybil, punctual as clockwork.

“Well, Mum, he is,” said her daughter, relapsing into her whisper. “And you can’t talk, darling,” she added. “You gobbled him up like a turkey.”

Mrs. Field-Innis said: “Really!” and spoilt the effect by bursting into a gruff laugh.

To Verity’s relief this passage had the effect of putting a stop to further enquiries about Dr. Schramm. The ladies discussed local topics until they were joined by the gentlemen.

Verity had wondered whether anybody — their host or the Vicar or Dr. Field-Innis — had questioned Schramm, as she had been questioned, about their former acquaintanceship and if so, how he had answered and whether he would think it advisable to come and speak to her. After all, it would look strange if he did not.

He did come. Nikolas Markos, keeping up the deployment of his guests, so arranged it. Schramm sat beside her and the first thought that crossed her mind was that there was something unbecoming about not seeming, at first glance, to have grown old. If he had appeared to her, as she undoubtedly did to him, as a greatly changed person, she would have been able to get their confrontation into perspective. As it was he sat there like a hangover. His face at first glance was scarcely changed although when he turned it into a stronger light, a system of lines seemed to flicker under the skin. His eyes were more protuberant now, and slightly bloodshot. A man, she thought, of whom people would say he could hold his liquor. He used the stuff she remembered on hair that was only vestigially thinner at the temples.

As always he was, as people used to say twenty-five years ago, extremely well turned out. He carried himself like a soldier.

“How are you, Verity?” he said. “You look blooming.”

“I’m very well, thank you.”

“Writing plays, I hear.”

“That’s it.”

“Absolutely splendid. I must go and see one. There is one, isn’t there? In London?”

“At the Dolphin.”

“Good houses?”

“Full,” said Verity.

“Really! So they wouldn’t let me in. Unless you told them to. Would you tell them to? Please?”

He bent his head toward her in the old way. “Why on earth,” she thought, “does he bother?”

“I’m afraid they wouldn’t pay much attention,” she said.

     

 

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