(1939-01-07) Purgatory in Piccadilly
Details for Purgatory in Piccadilly
Summary: Fabia (pug puppy in tow) confronts Gaillard at his lodgings and makes an impassioned accusation.
Date: 1st January, 1939
Location: Albany, Piccadilly, London
Related: A Tentative Guest
Characters
GaillardFabia

It is probably Mr. Gaillard Beauclaire’s favourite circumstance within his favourite hour, just before midnight; he sits at ease in a large chair in a small set of rooms, at the top of a fine pale house that forms part of the sublime cloister that is Albany. Not, of course, the Albany, and never Albany Courtyard, and by God, by no means the Albany Hotel, Albany is more of a way of life than a residence, occasionally referred to as ‘Paradise in Piccadilly’, a graceful way for a gentleman of certain means and discrimination to lead an existence as elevated and sequestered as an Oxford don’s, amid all the amenities of a great capital, and without being obliged to deliver any actual industry.

It is a mark of Albany’s standard that Beauclaire, rising critic and scion of the Ascendancy as he may be, is one of its more junior inhabitants, and his chambers, though carefully and almost perfectly appointed, are by no means spacious – a pokey antechamber filled with books (one wall new from Heywood Hill’s, one wall old from Bernard Quaritch’s, one wall falsely new and containing liquor, and the last genuinely old, containing spells); an even tinier bedroom, and a water-closet. But it suits Gally admirably, and as he leans back in his armchair, lights the fire by wand and a cigarette by match, selects a new Anthony Powell and pours himself a brandy, he has rarely, surely, looked more content with the world.

Thus the rapping at his door is as maddening as it is incongruous, burdening him as it does with the obligation to get up and answer the damned thing. He knows, of course, who it must be. "For goodness' sake, Guinness, at this time of night - ?" he utters, vexed, as he draws back the bolt and opens his portal to -

A small woman in a large sable coat, peering up at him via (at this hour!) a pair of violet-tinted sun-spectacles. Stupendous falls of absolutely genuine diamonds dangle from each of her ears, reflecting whatever light they catch through the curled and fractionally tousled dark red hair which fills the gap between her high coat collar and her matching toque hat — but her most notable accessory is the tiny pug puppy at the far end of the leash held tightly in her left hand. A creature of pale fur and a firmly-squashed face darkening with each day, wrapped up warmly against the January weather in a pink sweater and a hat with a bobble on it, who charges directly between Gaillard's feet in her haste to explore this wondrous place of unfamiliar scents.

Fabia Fairfax's precisely-outlined carmine lips have parted upon, one can only assume, a greeting — but whatever she had in mind is converted at the last instant into a gasp of: "Oh, Honey, my love!" as she pulls on the lead, bringing her little dog barking and snuffling backwards in protest, toenails scritching over the polished floorboards, into her kid-gloved grasp. Shoving the tiny, pink-attired pug under her arm (plenty of dog hair in the sables), she looks up again into Gally's face: "Mr Beckley, I really must protest!" she declares.

The many possible imprecations of horror, despair, fury and frustration that flourish and die upon Beauclaire's lips are at last supplanted by a peculiar oath indeed: "Bugger Byron. If it wasn't for him and his bloody bear, I could get you turned out at once, but of course they changed the constitutions and allowed in half the animal kingdom to oblige a peer of the realm and a poet. Nowadays it seems the porter even lets in women on occasion, though how he didn't recognise you, Mrs Fairfax, for the most…bloody-minded, dowager doxy it would be conceivable to…"

Words fail, and Gally gasps, falling back into his armchair with only the cigarette for moral support. "Very well. What is it? I want that creature out of here as quick as may be. A few of my books are even older than you, and almost all of them are more beautiful."

Woman and puppy surge as one into this formerly tranquil masculine preserve; a shapely but low-heeled shoe kicks the door shut, and then Fabia drops her heavily beaded red silk evening purse into a chair and sets her puppy upon (what an uncanny sense she has) the most expensive carpet Gaillard possesses. The lead slips from her hand, and the canine exploration commences! Oh, my, what a thrilling, thrilling new land Honey's mistress has guided her into tonight…

"The nerve of you!" Fabia is exclaiming, striding up and down Gally's study, her sable coat suddenly opening over turquoise satin. "The sheer galloping nerve of you!" She pauses mid-stride to fix him, where he sits, with a beam of concentrated feminine pique. "First that piece in your ghastly little rag, and what a thing to— I'm sure your books are all older than I am, and no more worth my trouble to dust off and open up than you would be, you grubby-minded, irresponsible, fish-eyed, scribbling bastard!"

"Stop that at once," Gally hastily addresses the more reasonable of his rooms' assailants, namely Honey the pug puppy. He even draws his wand and points it firmly at the animal, his grip barely quivering at all, but as it darts about and he attempts to keep his bead firmly fixed upon it, he becomes more and more evidently half-hearted. Giving that up as a bad job, he turns to remonstrate with the more implacable of the invaders, relieved, at least, that some precocious taste of the pug's has drawn it towards the liquor wall, which is relatively valueless and replaceable in bibliophilic terms.

"Piece? Rag? My dear…drat you, actually, Mrs Fairfax, you and your absurdity. I write for a number of organs, book reviews and literary essays. If you have written a novel I did not care for under a pseudonym, or have strong feelings about the blood-status of Coleridge, well, I confess I underestimated you, but I'd rather we discussed such a thing in a serener setting…and one which did not contain my entire, threadbare, but I confess, beloved catalogue of possessions…"

Still on her feet, still pacing, Fabia has switched with lightning efficiency to a different tack. "Christ, it's hot in here!" she complains, though any heat from which she may be suffering is more likely the fault of her own impassioned peregrinations. She drops her coat on the floor, heedless of its value, or of any possible depredations by her canine companion; beneath it is a smooth, bias-cut turquoise satin evening-gown which clings affectionately to her slender figure on its way to becoming a train which, unhooked from some secret mooring, chases her feet this way and that across Gally's floor.

The frock is halter-necked — in front it plunges and tapers, creating an unnbroken line of bare skin all the way down her long, preposterously graceful throat and halfway to her waist — as she strides this way and that in the cramped study, more slowly now but still unable to settle, it is revealed to be virtually backless into the bargain. A strand of rather large, gleaming white pearls is secured somehow inside the narrow band of turquoise at the back of her neck, then tied in a knot between her shoulder-blades, hanging down several inches further, luminous against her skin, swaying with each step.

"I haven't written a novel!" she declares crossly. "Where would I find the time? I'm speaking, Mr Beckley, of your clever little contribution to the gossip column in the Prophet's Sunday edition! I've only just had my attention drawn to it; and I don't mind, I've never minded, hearing anyone tell the truth about the way I've lived my life, but if you're just going to make things up and point at me, and let people think all sorts of things that aren't the case at all, well, you must have expected I'd find out it was you, and take it up with you in person! I can't bear that sort of coy, sneaking dishonesty, Mr Beckley, and from a man I thought had some faint, evanescent fondness for me! I know you can't have the paper print a retraction without drawing even more attention to it, I'm not such a fool as you paint me, but I'll have an apology from you, please, and your promise that you shan't lie about me again." Big green eyes regard him with plaintive, injured innocence.

In total contrast to Fabia's impromptu dance of the seven veils, Gally stays cemented in his armchair in appalled fascination. He has laid down his wand, in order more efficiently to replace the last ghost of his cigarette; in his almost trance-like, uncorporeal panic he stubs the old one out on the velvet upholstery of one of the fine old William and Mary thing's arms, without even noticing, while gripping the other arm hard enough to cause it almost equivalent damage. He opens his mouth several times to speak, but each time ends up simply inhaling rapidly before shutting it again. At last, he turns his greying face to the Anthony Powell. There is only one way to return to it with any guarantee of celerity.

"I'm very sorry that you were so upset by the item, Mrs Fairfax," he drawls out, as if patiently explaining a withheld treat to a child. "I have not the slightest intention of deceiving you, nor, in fact, do I spend all my waking hours contemplating your undoubted charm and distinction." Although he most certainly blushes a little at that, for some reason. "I have, in fact, quite a lot of other concerns. But I promise I shall never be mendacious about you, if that permits you to feel any measure of satisfaction." He has neither yet denied nor accepted authorship of the piece that has so inflamed his visitor, only quietly and implicitly clarifying the matter within the tight-lipped advice, "Also, I'd recommend you change your weekend reading. The Sunday Prophet is such dross, and far too expensive. Mean to its contributors too, meaner than the daily, which is saying something. They couldn't afford me nowadays, my dear."

A memory alighting, he glances over his shoulder for the pug; it seems to have found a stray tumbler of Scotch next to a disembowelled false Rob Roy, and is looking pretty merry. "Now for pity's sake, would you remove that beast before it vomits? If it does, my fondness will be quite vanescent, never you mind about ev. Look," he adds, seeming to relent a little, "let's have a long lunch soon, a good, civilised affair. Only not here." He blushes deeper as if suddenly aware how capable of misconstruction those last words really are…

Perhaps there was something in Gaillard's words to calm Fabia (charm… distinction…); or perhaps she's simply incapable of sustaining any particular mood over a period of time more extensive than three or four minutes. She has come to a stop, at any rate, standing over him, a pillar of turquoise topped still with sun-spectacles and a small fur hat. "You don't intend to offer me a cigarette?" she complains. "Well," she sighs, putting a white-gloved hand upon her hip (perhaps the self-same pair of gloves she had on when they met at the Dorchester, on the longest night of the year) and looking away to where Honey is quenching her thirst: "if you'll ensure it's a particularly good luncheon…." Two steps; and she kneels at her puppy's side in a pool of satin, picking up the glass in one hand and the dog in the other, tucking the one onto a bookshelf (pushing back several precious volumes) and the other against her small, high, not entirely concealed bosom. "Honey," she chides gently, "you don't want to pick up all your mama's habits, do you, my love?"

Still clasping her squirming bundle of inebriated pug she rises and sighs again at Gally. "How can you not like dogs?" she demands of him. "She's such a little one, too — when I had her as a Christmas present she was hardly seven weeks old! How well-behaved were you at seven weeks, Mr Beckley? I ought to write to your mama and ask! And then we'd see who had to be taken out of people's rooms now and again, wouldn't we." She sniffs, cuddling Honey.

Wordlessly, and quite evidently begrudgingly, Beauclaire rises from his comfortable, majestic, and slightly damaged seat, reaches into a drawer above the liquor-shelves, and produces a new carton of Chesterfields, handing one over with one of his expert examples of ill-grace. A faint improvement on this, though, is the automatic but accomplished gallantry with which he steps forward to light it for her, once she has positioned it in that affected holder. Despite the distancing of the last object, she may be able to catch a glimpse of how beautiful his silver cigarette-lighter is, embossed with an armorial bearing she may, for some reason, find faintly familiar.

"I spent my first seven weeks of my life in the same room, I believe," he allows himself to reminisce now, his tone surprisingly calm and gentle, "a big room, and a beautiful one. I don't think Mama entered it very much, and Nanny O'Leary is no longer with us, so I'm not sure you'd end up writing to, Fabia dear. In any case, …I prefer to be untrammelled…by…warm, breathing…things. Even the owl I find indispensable in my profession lives at the Prophet Offices in general. But we shall have time to talk of such things and many, I hope, more amusing, at our luncheon, Mrs Fairfax. Just for now," and for all his shattered dignity his voice assumes a certain firmness, "good night." He shows her not so much as the door as the corridor, peering furtively into the dingy stairwell as if in gloomy anticipation that Bryan Guinness might show up now after all.

If one hadn't the least notion that Fabia Fairfax, pub landlady, was once Fabia Iskanderova, ballet dancer, one might infer as much from the line of her wrist and her hand as she holds up her affected holder to have that reluctantly-surrendered cigarette lit for her. She glances at the lighter as it approaches, and then glances away — and then peers at it more intently. "Where did you get that gaudy thing?" she asks, in by far the most subdued tone he has heard from her this evening. And then she blows a smoke ring at him. "My hobby is being trammelled by warm, breathing things. It's the only life, sweetie, provided one has a knack for choosing the nicest ones. Do you really intend to give me luncheon, or are you only trying to get rid of me? Well, you did just promise not to be mendacious with me, so I suppose I shall have to believe you, shan't I? You know where to write to me with an invitation. I'm usually busy on Thursdays, but otherwise. Go on, help me with my coat," she sighs, and puts down the dog again — how can one, really, get into a heavy coat with a cigarette in one hand and a squirming puppy in the other?

And how can one get to bed with a cigarette in one hand and a squirming sometime dancer dangled from an ocean of fur in the other; get to bed, in any case, in splendid isolation? But Gally Beauclaire is a master of isolation, and, though much too wearied for further conversation, he accomplishes it. What seems like days later, he and Mr. Powell's latest, reassuringly mediocre work are alone together at last, and the door is shut and firmly rebarred.

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