zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







about zing


alexis vaillant
love for sale
lutwidge finch a novel: chapter 5
evil camouflage


Carrier, one would have thought, existed only in relation to his two young masters. But come summer, rather than submit to a Solomonic division of his services, he chose to remain in the deserted city, retaining for his use a small room within walking distance of the British Museum. Here, having left his Lordship at Rottingdean, he undertook to educate himself, standing, for hours sometimes, before a torn fragment of marble from the ancient world, or one of Shakespeare's six known signatures, or a rare T'ang Dynasty vase, painfully moving his lips in a child's translation of the accompanying plaque. For despite his sophisticated knowledge of etiquette, which after all is morality writ small, he had never been allowed the luxury of a schoolroom education. Instead he was set, from the earliest age he could remember, at polishing, first brass fittings, then silver. There followed a long course of instruction to which he eagerly submitted in everything from the rules of precedence to the proper conveyance of a brandy-and-soda. And now, at fifty-one, he had reached what many would consider the pinnacle of his profession, being gentleman's gentleman to two of the most prominent young men in the realm. Still, the dread feeling of a wrong turn taken, of a life wasted, gnawed at him whenever he was not occupied with his masters' needs. He felt this national treasure house was strewn with clues to some more worthy, he blushed to use the word, calling, though, as often as not, he was intrigued rather than informed, as was the case this day, confronting a Greek khouros that was simply a boy's torso, with no head or neck. A statue of Jesus he could understand. One looked at it and understood more clearly The Man of Sorrows, what He had sacrificed so we might live in civilization, not some heathen jungle. But the flat chest and segmented abdomen of this long-dead boy, all done in milky stone, puzzled him. What was he supposed to feel?

"A thousand," someone said.

He continued staring but could not help overhearing a conversation taking place behind a mounted frieze of marble to his left. The discutants were obviously unaware of his presence, the rest of the gallery was empty, nor of the acoustic oddity which carried every word to his ear, even though he was a good forty feet off.

"A thousand's a start," the other said.

"A start!"

Two men were speaking. The indignant one struggled to subdue his voice. The other, who thought the sum mentioned only a beginning, was sunny and taunting. Rather than glance, which would be rude, Carrier stared even more fiercely at the masterpiece in front of him and silently sounded out its name, After Phidias.

"You are fortunate the gentleman in question does not come to London personally and thrash you to within an inch of your life."

"He would as well cut his own throat. I mean politically, of course."

"A thousand is his final response. If you persist in this matter he will consult the authorities."

"A rash step," the sunny voice commented, as if it were no matter of his own, merely voicing an observer's opinion. He had the broad vowels of the north. "Though I may come to grief, the consequences to him would be far greater. People don't like their MPs having dirty linen at home, specially not when they make a habit of going round pointing fingers at others. Got to practice what you preach, you know."

There was a silence, announcing some act. When they resumed, the two voices were more intimate, if not amicable. Business had been transacted.

"The bonds are not redeemable for one year."

"So I see."

"In a year, elections will have been called. If nothing more has been heard of this matter at that time, the bonds will be redeemed with no questions asked."

"And after?"

"By then my client will either have been defeated, in which case your information is worthless, or he will have been elevated to the Cabinet, where he will have the power to crush you like a bug."

"Funny thing about bugs, though," the voice answered, unperturbed by the threat. "You kill one, ten more take its place."

"In either event, the sum involved shall suffice. Are we in agreement, sir?"

"Oh aye. This'll do fine."