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Iris Murdoch

A Jaundiced View

'Flavia says that Hugo tells her that Augustina is in love with Fred.'

Sir Alex Mountaubon stood with his wife Lavinia in one of the deeply recessed mullion windows of the long gallery at Bishop's Breeches, looking out at the topiary peacocks on the terrace beyond. In front of them the fountain, topped with statuary in which a naked Mars played joyously with a willing Venus, gently coruscated, its tinkle audible through the open windows. The scene before them was of order and peace. They could look down the park at the mile-long drive of lindens, the colour of jaundice; to one side, away from its necessary order, stood one dark and contingent cedar tree. Beneath it their older daughter, Flavia, could be seen from the window, sitting on a white wooden seat, in her unutterable otherness, her pet marmoset on her shoulder, her cap of auburn hair shining like burnished gold on her head. Nearer to the house, in the rose-garden, their younger daughter, seven-year-old Perdita, strange, mysterious and self-absorbed as usual, was beheading a litter of puppies with unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arm. Her cap of golden hair shone like burnished auburn on her head.

Alex turned, catching sight of himself in the big, gilt, rather battered cupid-encrusted mirror that soared over the mantel. Mortality was there in the darkened eyes, but most of what he saw there, the solid, round face of a man of principle, pleased him exceedingly. His book, a philosophical study of Niceness, was almost complete; in its writing Lavinia, his second wife, had proved the perfect helpmeet and companion. No one lay dying upstairs. He looked around at the familiar objects, the Titians and Tintorettos, glowing in their serried ranks with jewelled beneficence, the twined, golden forms of bodies twisted together suggesting a radiant vision of another world. In cases stood the Sung cups, the Ting plates, the Tang vases, the Ming statuettes, the Ching saucers; these last must, almost certainly, go.

'Who says whom tells her that who is in love with whom?'

Lavinia, her arms full of lilies, did not turn. 'Flavia,' she said.

'And are they?'

'They think so. I don't think they quite know.'

'But at least we know. About us,' said Alex lovingly He looked out of the window and saw Perdita staring strangely up at the house; and suddenly, involuntarily, he recalled again that experience of utter freedom he had known for the first time when he and Moira LeBenedictus had lain naked together in the Reading Room of the British Museum, after hours of course; he, as a senior civil servant, had been entitled to a key. Other moments came back: Moira walking through Harrods without her shoes, Moira on the night they had boxed together on the roof of St Paul's Cathedral, Moira threatening him in the Tottenham Hotspurs football ground at midnight with her whaler's harpoon.

Two miles away, in the bathroom at his house, Buttocks, Sir Hugo Occam laid down his razor. He walked through into the bedroom where Moira LeBenedictus lay. She was his good towards which he magnetically swung. She lay on the bed, gathering her hair together into a cap of black.

'Are we acting rightly?'

'I think we are,' she said. 'Oh, Moira.'

'Come, come, Hugo,' she said. From the alcove, Leo Chatteris, a spoiled priest, long in love with Moira, watched them in protective benediction. Could he surrender her? The pain was so much he knew it was right.

'Do we?' Lavinia had thrown down her lilies and now stood facing Alex. 'Alex,' she said with sudden passion, 'I have resigned from the presidency of the WI.' The words struck a sudden chill over him, and he knew that the shapeliness and order about him were about to be violated. 'I am in love with Fred.'

'You can't be,' said Alex, speaking without thought, absorbed in his own misery, Augustina is in love with Fred, Hugo is in love with Augustina, Flavia is in love with Hugo, Fred is in love with Flavia, Moira is in love with Fred, I am in love with Moira, and you are in love with me.'

'No, Fred ... Hugo ... Alex rather,' said Lavinia, her voice trembling, I'm afraid you have it all the wrong way round. I am in love with Fred, you are in love with me, Moira is in love with you, and you utterly missed out Leo, who is as unutterably particular as anyone else, and who is in love with Moira.'

'But how, why?' Alex murmured, his hands over his face.

'It's one of the wonders of the world.'

'All right,' he said, 'Here we go again. Will you call them, or shall I?'

'Do be careful of the Gainsboroughs,' said Alex to the men, And I do think the Renoirs ought to have a van to themselves, and not be put in with the fountain, which is liable to wet them irreparably.'

Already seven of the thirteen furniture vans had been filled, and were on their way to Buttocks, where Moira was awaiting him. Bishop's Breeches, descending through the female line, stayed with Lavinia, but most of its exquisite contents, including some singularly heavy statuary, belonged to Alex. He stood in the noble portico, feeling the familiar, loved house around him, so fit for free characters to live in, and knowing he must leave soon, for the last time. The heavy van lumbered away down the drive, beneath the yellow of the lindens, towards the North Lodge. He turned to go back into Bishop's Breeches, and then heard a strange splintering noise. He walked towards the drive, passed under the deep yellow lindens. A very dove-grey Rolls was parked at the side. 'I'm afraid there's been a rather nasty accident,' said Fred Tallin, getting out, 'Your first van ran into my first van. There's stuff spilled all over the road. We can't tell whose Titians are whose. As for the Sung and the Ting and the Tang and the Ming and the Ching, I'm afraid all that's gone bang. Awful business, this packing. How the deuce do you pack up a herd of deer? Lav all ready for me?'

'She's in her room, holding daffodils,' said Alex.

A flotilla of pantechnicons was turning in by the West Lodge and coming up the other avenue. 'I say, that's funny,' said Fred, resting his very white hand on the bonnet of the very dove-grey Rolls, 'Those vans aren't mine. Mine are from Harrod's.'

'They're not mine, either,' said Alex, 'You don't think Moira's got it all wrong? She did know I'm going to Buttocks, not her coming here to me?'

'It rather looks as if not,' said Fred, 'In any case, I thought Buttocks belonged to Hugo.'

'Moira told me it belonged to Leo, who had given it to her,' said Alex.

'Very funny girl, Moira,' said Fred, 'Did she ever show you her sarcophagus?'

A horn blared behind them, and they both turned. There, on the gravel in front of the house, stood another row of pantechnicons, which had evidently come in from the East Lodge, and drawn up unnoticed. 'I say,' said Fred.

'Now whose ...?' began Alex, but his question was quickly answered. For now Flavia came running from her white seat by the cedar, the marmoset chattering after her.

'Have these to do with you?' he asked.

'Dear Hugo,' said Flavia. She put her arms behind her and suddenly released her hair, which fell across her shoulders and down her back like a shower of gold.

'Flavia,' said Alex. Then he stood spellbound. For the unused gate at the South Lodge had been swung open, and up the drive came another line of vans.

'We live in a realm of startling coincidences,' said Fred .

They stood and watched as they saw a figure, bounding with joy, running to meet the vans. It was Perdita, strange and mysterious, her puppies forgotten.

*

Sir Alex Mountaubon stood with his wife Lavinia in one of the deeply recessed mullion windows of the long gallery at Bishop's Breeches, looking down the mile-long drive of lindens to the tightly locked gates at the bottom. The trees, the colour of jaundice, stood in their necessary order; to one side, beneath the dark, contingent cedar tree, their daughter Flavia sat on the white wooden seat, unutterably particular, while in the rose- garden Perdita, still strange and mysterious, was twisting the neck of Flavia's marmoset. 'You know, Lavinia, I'm glad matters have reverted to normal,' said Alex, 'I know it's philosophically wrong, and I'm afraid we've done little for the plot. Am I wicked to say it?'

He leaned forward and, putting his arms round Lavinia, gently loosened her hair. His book on Niceness was now complete, and Lavinia was proving a perfect proof-reader. Lavinia turned her face and then, her arms full of roses, she smiled at him. 'No, it's marvellous,' she said, 'I love you, you love Moira, Moira loves Fred, Fred loves Flavia, Flavia loves Hugo .. .'

'You missed out Leo,' said Alex.

'To hell with Leo,' said Lavinia, 'I don't care how unutterably particular he is. There is one thing that worries me, though, Alex. Why is it that, when we sleep with all these people, they're all either titled or in the Civil Service?'

'I don't know I suppose you might say it's a condition of our world,' said Alex, looking around the gallery. Only a few gaps on the wall among the Tintorettos revealed the ravages of the last days. 'However,' he said, as they both turned and looked out at the Mars and Venus sporting in stone on the fountain, and then, further beyond, the deep yellow light under the lindens, 'I do know this. Love is a strange, mysterious and wonderful revelation of others. But, for people in our station in life, it's really far too much of a bother.

Malcolm Bradbury




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