Читать онлайн "Put Out More Flags" автора Во Ивлин - RuLit - Страница 13

 
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Ambrose was irredeemably bourgeois. Parsnip often said so. Damn Parsnip, damn Pimpernel! Do these atrocious young people never discuss anything else?

They were disputing the bill now, and forgetting what he or she had eaten; passing the menu from hand to hand to verify the prices.

“When you’ve decided what it is, tell me.”

“Ambrose’s bill is always the largest,” said the redheaded girl.

“Dear Julia, please don’t tell me that I could have fed a worker’s family for a week. I still feel definitely peckish, my dear. I am sure workers eat ever so much more.”

“D’you know the index figure for a family of four?”

“No,” said Ambrose wistfully, “no, I don’t know the index figure. Please don’t tell me. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. I like to think of it as dramatically small.” (Why do I talk like this? — nodding and fluttering my eyelids, as though with a repressed giggle; why can I not speak like a man? Mine is the brazen voice of Apuleius’ ass, turning its own words to ridicule.)

The party left the restaurant and its members stood in an untidy group on the pavement, unable to make up their minds who was going with whom, in what direction, for what purpose. Ambrose bade them good-bye and hurried away, with his absurd, light step and his heavy heart. Two soldiers outside a public-house made rude noises as he passed. “I’ll tell your sergeant-major on you,” he said gaily, almost gallantly, and flounced down the street. I should like to be one of them, he thought. I should like to go with them and drink beer and make rude noises at passing aesthetes. What does world revolution hold in store for me? Will it make me any nearer them? Shall I walk differently, speak differently, be less bored with Poppet Green and her friends? Here is the war, offering a new deal for everyone; I alone bear the weight of my singularity.

He crossed Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street, walking without any particular object except to take the air. It was not until he was under its shadow and saw the vast bulk of London University insulting the autumnal sky that he remembered that here was the Ministry of Information and that his publisher, Mr. Geoffrey Bentley, was working there at the head of some newly formed department. Ambrose decided to pay him a call.

It was far from easy to gain admission; only once in his life, when he had had an appointment in a cinema studio in the outer suburbs, had Ambrose met such formidable obstruction. All the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry. Not until Mr. Bentley had been summoned to the gate to identify him was Ambrose allowed to pass.

“We have to be very careful,” said Mr. Bentley.

“Why?”

“Far too many people get in as it is. You’ve no conception how many. It adds terribly to our work.”

“What is your work, Geoffrey?”

“Well mostly it consists of sending people who want to see me on to someone they don’t want to see. I’ve never liked authors — except of course,” he added, “my personal friends. I’d no idea there were so many of them. I suppose, now I come to think of it, that explains why there are so many books. And I’ve never liked books—except of course books by personal friends.”

They rose in a lift and walked down a wide corridor, passing on the way Basil, who was talking a foreign language which sounded like a series of expectorations to a sallow man in a tarboosh.

“That’s not one of my personal friends,” said Mr. Bentley bitterly.

“Does he work here?”

“I don’t suppose so. No one works in the Near East Department. They just lounge about talking.”

“The tradition of the bazaar.”

“The tradition of the Civil Service. This is my little room.”

They came to the door of what had once been a chemical laboratory, and entered. There was a white porcelain sink in the corner into which a tap dripped monotonously. In the centre of the oilcloth floor stood a card table and two folding chairs. In his own office Mr. Bentley sat under a ceiling painted by Angelica Kauffmann, amid carefully chosen pieces of Empire furniture. “We have to rough it, you see,” he said. “I brought those to make it look more human.”

“Those” were a pair of marble busts by Nollekens; they failed, in Ambrose’s opinion, to add humanity to Mr. Bentley’s room.

“You don’t like them? You remember them in Bedford Square.”

“I like them very much. I remember them well, but don’t you think, dear Geoffrey, that here they are just a weeny bit macabre?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Bentley sadly. “Yes. I know what you mean. They’re really here to annoy the civil servants.”

“Do they?”

“To a frenzy. Look at this.” He showed Ambrose a long typewritten memorandum which was headed Furniture, Supplementary to Official Requirements, Undesirability of. “I sent back this.” He showed a still longer message headed Art, Objets d’, Conducive to Spiritual Repose, Absence of in the quarters of advisory staff. “Today I got this. Flowers, Framed Photographs and Other Minor Ornaments. Massive Marble and Mahogany, Decorative features of, Distinction between. Quite alliterative with rage, you see. There for the moment the matter rests, but as you see, it’s uphill work to get anything done.”

“I suppose it would make no difference if you explained that Nolleykins had inspired the greatest biography in the English language.”

“None, I should think.”

“What terrible people to work with! You are brave, Geoffrey. I couldn’t do it.”

“But, bless my soul, Ambrose, isn’t that what you came about?”

“No. I came to see you.”

“Yes, everyone comes to see me, but they all come hoping to be taken on in the Ministry. You’d better join now you’re here.”

“No. No.”

“You might do worse you know. We all abuse the old M. of I., but there are a number of quite human people here already, and we are gradually pushing more in every day. You might do much worse.”

“I don’t want to do anything. I think this whole war’s crazy.”

“You might write a book for us then. I’m getting out a very nice little series on ‘What We Are Fighting For.’ I’ve signed up a retired admiral, a Church of England curate, an unemployed docker, a Negro solicitor from the Gold Coast, and a nose-and-throat specialist from Harley Street. The original idea was to have a symposium in one volume, but I’ve had to enlarge the idea a little. All our authors had such very different ideas it might have been a little confusing. We could fit you in very nicely. ‘I used to think war crazy.’ It’s a new line.”

“But I do think war crazy still.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Bentley, his momentary enthusiasm waning. “I know what you mean.”

The door opened and a drab precise little man entered. “I beg your pardon,” he said coldly. “I didn’t expect to find you working.”

“This is Ambrose Silk. I expect you know his work.”

“No.”

“No? He is considering doing a book in our ‘Why We Are at War’ Series. This is Sir Philip Hesketh-Smithers, our departmental Assistant Director.”

“If you’ll excuse me a minute, I came about memorandum RQ/1082/B4. The Director is very worried.”

“Was that Documents, Confidential, Destruction by fire of?”

“No. No. Marble, Decorative features.”

“Massive Marble and Mahogany?”

“Yes. Mahogany has no application to your sub-department. That has reference to a prie-dieu in the Religious Department. The Church of England advisor has been hearing confessions there and the Director is very concerned. No, it’s these effigies.”

     

 

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