The Wind in This Corner
The author of three novels, JOHN HEARNE grew up and was educated in Jamaica, an island whose customs and people he describes with dramatic force. He is now living in London and working on a new novel. His last book, THE EYE OF THE STORM,was published in 1958 by Atlantic-Little, Brown.
IN THE middle of the morning we drove out of the low, scrubby Queens haven Hills and into the Braganza Plain. It was very hot and dry outside, but in the car, going fast with the windows open, the heat was only pleasant: a warm, thick-textured rush of air, smelling of baked brick, and a peppery, grass tang of the deep country. Charlie McIntosh was driving us in his car, the big, always dusty, hard-used Buick that had covered every road in Cayuna bigger than a bridle path; I was sitting behind with my forearms resting on the back of the driver’s seat; and Roger Eliot sat beside Charlie.
“Well, it’s a good day for it,” Roger Eliot said.
“A good day for what?” Charlie McIntosh asked, before I could nudge him to keep quiet.
“A good day for murder,” Roger told him. “I don’t like committing murder in bad weather. That spoils everything. Don’t you think so, Charlie?”
“Cho, God!” Charlie muttered. “You don’t have to talk like that, Roger. It’s not funny.”
His florid, pleasant face was hurt and very Jewish, and as he squirmed in his seat I felt the big car surge forward on a burst of new speed. Charlie always finds comfort and release, in any situation that seems to go beyond his grasp, by driving too fast, or by swimming furiously across a harbor in which there are barracuda, or by getting drunk in a dozen widely separated bars.
“How are the other assassins?” Roger asked and turned to look back past me and through the rear window. “Good. They’re still keeping up. We won’t have to do all the knife work alone.”
“It might help if you shut up, Roger,” I told him. “None of us are going to enjoy what we have to do. So why not stop whining as if you’re the only one who hates it?”
His small green eyes were somber and forbidding as they turned to me, and his long, pale, ugly face was too vivid; it had been desolated by a conflict of irreconcilable sadness and resolution. I made a fist and punched Roger gently on the shoulder and smiled. “Go on,” I said. “I know what the Old Man means to you. But you think we don’t feel it too?” He made a wry, tired grimace of disgust and turned away and looked before him again. We were traveling through the cane fields now, but from the rear window I could still see the hills, close behind us and faded by the long dry season. They were a dusty gray-green, stark and inhospitable under the glowing sky. The other cars were strung out along the straight road: Osbourne’s Riley and Douglas’ black Jaguar close together, and a good way behind, Dennis Broderick’s old station wagon trailing a lot of dirty blue exhaust. The canes were all around us, close packed, tawny with the sun, stretching for ten miles down to the coast, where the sky above the swamps was gray and hazy. The pink earth from the fields was dusted on the black road, and occasionally, as the tires churned the soft surface, a tickling earth smell mingled with the sharpness of hot asphalt would swirl briefly about the car.
Red Shirt, Homosassa” by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of Mrs. Charles R. Henschel.
“Do we have time to stop for a drink at Sherwood Bridge?” Roger asked me.
“Sure,” I said. “Do you need one?”
“Good God, yes, man! I don’t want to go into him cold. Do you?”
“No,” I agreed. “A drink would be a good idea. Get rid of this lead in my stomach. We don’t want to get caught up in Sherwood Bridge, though. How long since you’ve been there?”
“About three months.” Roger said. “When I was speaking at the Agricultural Show. But it’s Charlie’s territory. When were you over last, Charlie?”
“Ten days ago,” Charlie told him. “There shouldn’t be much to hold us up today. They won’t have many new things that need listening to. Besides, it won’t be a bad thing for Eugene to show his face. He’s been so busy in the Eastmoreland divisions, he hasn’t had time for Braganza.”
“How’s he doing in Eastmoreland?” I asked. “Are we going to win down there?”
“You tell me,” Charlie said. “Does anybody ever know how Eastmoreland is going to vote? Those Eastmoreland boys kiss you on Monday and hang you on Tuesday, and nobody ever knows why they do either.”
“They’re not the only ones,” Roger said. His voice wasn’t pleasant. It was flat and too precise and full of that angry sadness I had seen on his face. “When it comes to kissing and killing, we’re doing all right, aren’t we, Charlie?”
I saw Charlie’s hands tighten on the wheel. He had big hands, firmly fleshed and virile like the rest of his body, covered with reddish freckles and a thick pelt of fine dark hairs. When he turned his face briefly to Roger, the full red lips were thinly compressed and the heavy bar of his mustache made a melancholy, decisive sweep across his profile. “When we stop at Sherwood Bridge,” Charlie said, dead and even, “you can take the car and drive back to town. Tony and I will go on with Eugene. If you don’t want to do this, then you can back out now. Do anything you want, but I’ve, had enough. You hear me?”
“Me too,” I said. “I know Charlie and me and the rest of us are pretty coarse, Roger, compared with you, but just stop reminding us how sensitive you are, eh?”
The strange thing about it was that we all knew we were trying to get angry with each other so that when we reached the Old Man there would be enough anger left for us to do the job properly.
“Oh, shut up, both of you,” Roger said. He passed his hand roughly over his pallid, heatshiny face. “Let me think what I’m going to say to him. You have any cigarettes left, Tony?”
“Sure,” I said and smiled at him as he turned around and took one from the package. “Take it easy, boy. We’ve given you a nasty job, but take it easy.”
“You want me to do it?” Charlie asked. “I’ll do it, Roger. It ought to have been me from the beginning. Not you. It was a son-of-a-bitch trick asking you to tell him.”
Roger looked at him sideways and gave a warm, harsh snort of laughter. “You know something, Charlie?” he said. “You’re a nice old bastard. Only your mother and I know it, lout you’re all right. No. I’ll do it. I have to. If you or Tony or Eugene or any of the others initiated this, it would finish him. When he thinks of the Party and the movement now, it’s your faces he sees. All of you who were with him from the beginning, or who went to prison with him during the war. No, you couldn’t do it. When I do it. I’ll be speaking for the new guard, for the hard young professionals who hope to govern this bloody island after the election. He’ll understand that, I hope.”
We drove on into the hot, sharp-shadowed plain. Nobody wanted to say anything more. We had said it all too often before this Sunday morning, and no amount of talking had made it any easier.
AT Sherwood Bridge we stopped beside the yellow, plastered wall of the Chinese grocery; when we climbed from the car and stood on the gritty pavement, the heat rose from the concrete and enfolded us. The water in the gutter ran slimy and tepid around the tires of the Buick, and a bright dense glare was flung into our faces from the white-limed wall of the courthouse across the street. The little town had the dreamy, suspended feeling of Sunday morning, and a church bell somewhere sounded thin and lost in the still air. In about a minute the first people began to gather around us, and by the time the other cars turned into the street there was a good crowd on the pavement outside the grocery. Even if only half of them meant to vote for us, it was good to sec that so many had collected so quickly.
There was a lot of excitement when Eugene Douglas’ gray head emerged from his car, and further excitement when Osbourne and Broderick pulled up. Listening to the voices, I realized that unless the Party did something very foolish, we were in, this time. Even allowing for the fact that this was the Old Man’s parish, there was a note of recognition and pleasure in the voices that I had been hearing for the last two months in other districts. It came from something more than the Old Man’s personal influence, and we all had waited a long lime for that sound from a crowd.
We went from the pulsing heat of the pavement into the green, bottle-glimmering coolness of the bar. Yap, the grocer, was standing behind the scarred wooden counter and smiling as he saw the crowd coming after us. Everyone was talking at once and somebody put a glass into my hand and Yap looked at me, pointing to a bottle of soda on the counter, and I nodded and he opened it and handed it to me over the shifting heads.
This was the sort of gathering in which you realized how good Roger Eliot was. As I talked to the people around me, 1 could sec him in the middle of his group, very tall, white-faced, with that distinctive, bony ugliness, turning from man to man unhurriedly. Each response was certain and intimate, and you knew that he enjoyed this campaigning in the grass roots as most men enjoy being with a pretty woman. This was his gift. Charlie McIntosh had it too, by background training and because being with the crowd made him feel happy, but he would never have the cold, legalistic authority that Roger could turn on in the House like the controlled bursts from a machine gun. In the House, apart from the Old Man, the only person who carried more weight than Roger was Eugene Douglas, and then only because he had more experience and had been with the Old Man from the very beginning. And nowadays, when you sat in the visitors’ gallery, facing the opposition benches, and saw Roger Eliot and Eugene Douglas lounging side by side, each with that bleakly exultant, histrionic, barrister’s keenness on his face, you realized that Roger was the greater man. He was greater because he was younger and we had given him a party and a machine to inherit. Sometimes I wondered if we had asked too much of him too soon. It seemed to me that a lot of youth and a lot of gentleness had vanished from that intense, tautly preoccupied face while none of us were really looking.
He began to tell a clever and destructive story about the government, and even the men talking with Eugene stopped to listen. I had heard it before, but listening to him tell it, I found myself grinning. It was all very personal and rather obscene, as stories like that tend to be in Cayuna. When he had finished, the laughter crashed around us like surf.
“Den tell me, Mister Eliot,” one of the men said — he looked like a cane worker or a small farmer in for the day. “How we gwine do when election come? Who gwine win dis time?”
Roger grinned and pushed him roughly, like a father pushing a grown son with affection. Nobody else but Charlie or the Old Man could have done it in quite that way without patronage. “Who gwine win?” he mocked the man, and appealed theatrically to the crowd. “Who gwine win? You hear him? We gwine win, of course. How you can ask a damn fool question like that, man? Lord, but we getting some milk-an’-water workers in the Party nowadays. Who gwine win?” He clapped the man on the shoulder, hard, and grinned down at him, enjoying what he was doing so genuinely that the man grinned too, with delight and confidence, as the rest had already begun to chuckie and repeat what Roger had said.
When it was time for us to go, the men in the bar came out to the pavement and watched us getting into the cars. They were very pleased that we were going on to see the Old Man, and they waved us down the street until we turned the corner by the Methodist Church.
Two miles from Sherwood Bridge, Charlie turned the Buick into a pink, rocky side road. On the left there was a big, dried-out pasture with the Old Man’s famous mules grazing on the dusty stubble, along with four lordly jacks and seven swollen mares. In the field on the right there was a stand of heavy maize and another of dense, coollooking tobacco. Then the road began to rise a little, and there, just under the crest of the hillock, was the Old Man’s house, and the Old Man, who must have heard the cars, standing against a pillar at the head of his steps, lifting his hand as we drove into the yard.
“Well, gentlemen,” he said, and came halfway down the steps to meet us, “what an unexpected pleasure. Charlie, you young scoundrel, I knew you were coming. But not everyone else.”
The great, square, cropped head moved forward on the enormous neck as he squinted into the yard to where Eugene Douglas, Broderick, and Osbourne were getting out of their cars.
“Eugene!” he called as he took my hand and Roger’s simultaneously. “I almost didn’t recognize you. I thought you must have left the island.”
“D.J.,” said Eugene and came up and put his hands on the Old Man’s shoulders. “How are you? I’ve been out of town every time you’ve come up. Things are tight in Eastmoreland and All Souls. We’re going to need you in both places before the election. If we don’t get at least one set of seats from those two, we might lose again.”
“We’ll get ‘em,” the Old Man said crisply. “I promise you that. We have to, eh? We can’t lose this time. Twice is as much as anyone can afford to lose in Cayuna. After that you’re bad luck.”
He stood, still holding Eugene by the arms and smiling at us with the slight half-twist of his lips that, for as long as we could remember, had always accompanied his brief, almost aphoristic lectures on the strategy of practical polities. Each of us there, except Roger Eliot, could have written down about two hundred sentences, nearly proverbs, with which, for over thirty years, the Old Man had taught all he had learned.
“No, gentlemen,” the Old Man continued. “We cannot lose this time. Do not even entertain the idea. Now let’s go in and spend a proper Cayuna Sunday morning. Good heavens, but it’s splendid to see you all like this.”
HE TURNED and led us up the broad steps — a short, bowlegged old man, with immense shoulders and a back as broad as a bank door, who yet managed to appear of a height in a crowd of tall men. Always, in the past, when you had bent your head to talk to him you had felt as if he were making the concession. And now, as I watched his stiff-collared, immaculately linen-suited figure between the bright-patterned, fluttering sport shirts and casual slacks of Roger and Eugene, there was still enough of the old demonic authority left to make those two towering men appear somehow slight.
“Mildred!” The marvelous gong of a voice carried through the darkened, cool rooms of the old house. “Mildred, we have guests. Tell the girl to bring ice and all the rest of it. Come, gentlemen. Draw up your chairs here. The wind in this corner is always cool for some reason. Some accident of architecture. On the hottest day it’s always pleasant here. I know how you Queenshaven people complain about our Braganza heat. It makes men, though. You need a furnace fora good sword.”
He watched us as we drew the wicker chairs into a semicircle on the broad, wooden veranda, and his old, wildly seamed face was firm and glowing with happiness. The huge, deerlike eyes sparkled. Once those enormous, liquid eyes and that compactly massive, squat body had been very nearly irresistible. All over Cayuna, now, you could see men and women, of all colors, with those same brown pools that beautified the plainest face, and with those same sloping, heavy shoulders.
“D.J.,” Charlie said, “you have any of that whisky you gave me when I was over last week? Jesus, but that was a whisky, man. Don’t give it to these crows. They wouldn’t appreciate it. Save it for you and me.”
The Old Man laughed, an emphatic, musical bark. He glared at Charlie with a furious love that became suddenly too naked to witness without embarrassment. From the beginning, he had respected Eugene and Osbourne as nearly his peers, or been fond of those like Broderick and myself, but it had been Charlie who filled his hunger for the legitimate son he had never been able to have. Now there was only his daughter, a gray, plump woman called Mildred, silent and distant like so many country spinsters.
“Any of that whisky?” the Old Man said. “Charlie McIntosh, you’re a damned blackguard, as I’ve always maintained. Gentlemen, that person you see making himself at home on my veranda came here last week and under the pretense of talking Party business filled his gut with over a quart of the whisky I keep for important guests. Mildred, for God’s sake, child, where is the drink? You want these poor men to die of thirst?”
He raised his voice to an unconstrained shout and rubbed his hands hard together as if crushing his pleasure to get its essence. Then, as the maid came out with the drinks and Mildred followed her, he sat down. We rose, and Miss Mildred nodded to our greetings with a disdain that we knew was not directed at us personally but at whatever fate or chance had caused men to leave her alone with only a genially tyrannical old father to care for. She saw to the maid as the girl set the big mahoe tray with its load of bottles, glasses, and a bowl of ice on the low veranda table. They both went inside again immediately.
“Now,” said the Old Man. He was alight with anticipation. Talking and drinking were two of the four or five things he had always liked doing best. He took us all in with one quick, hot glance. “Charlie, my boy, work for your living. Find out what these gentlemen would like and give me a whisky and water. You know how I like it.”
“Yes,” Charlie said, under his breath. “Five fingers of liquor and the dew off a blade of grass.”
“What’s that? What did you say?”
“Nothing, D.J. Nothing. Just thinking aloud.”
“I hope so. I hope that was all.”
I felt the smile on my face become unbearably strained and looked at Roger desperately, begging him in my mind to say what he had come to say and stop this ritual exchange between Charlie and the Old Man. Roger was carefully mixing himself a rum and ginger ale, not waiting for Charlie to help him and not looking at anybody. You could sense the crushing Braganza heat in the bright yard, but the wind in this corner of the veranda was cool and gentle. As the Old Man had said it would be. As I had known it would be. I had sat here often enough. After a long time, Charlie gave me my drink. “Here’s to victory, D.J.,” I said and lifted my glass.
“I’ll drink to that, Tony.”He smiled, raising his glass first to me and then to the others. “My God, I’ll drink to that. It’s been a long time, eh? Thirty years. You boys were in your twenties. And Roger — were you born yet, Roger?”
“Yes,” Roger told him. “I was born. I wasn’t taking much notice, but I was born.”
“My God,” the Old Man said again. “Sometimes it seems like thirty centuries and sometimes like thirty months. I used to think I was mad sometimes. Expecting this damned island to want independence. You remember what they called us then? The Black Man’s Party. Well, if we never win an election, we can be proud of that. There isn’t a politician in the island now who wouldn’t like to have that title for his party. That’s our doing.”
“You know what the government boys have started calling us these days?” Eugene asked him.
“The White Man’s Party. I heard Gomez saying that over in Eastmoreland the other day.”
The Old Man threw his head against the back of his chair and laughed. The wickerwork gave that peculiar shushing creak of cane as the chair shook under him. “Why?” he asked, and chuckled.
“Oh, because of Roger, I suppose. Charlie, too, if you count Jews. Mostly because Fabricus is standing in Eastmoreland and is being very popular. It’s his old parish, you know. Before he came to Queenshaven. He’s beginning to frighten the government now, so Gomez decided to use his color against him.”
“Lack of color, you mean,” the Old Man said with delight. “Good. That’s what I like to hear. Black Man’s Party. White Man’s Party. Jew Man’s Party. Chinaman’s Party. They’ll soon run out of labels. Each time they clap another one on us, it means we’re hurting them somewhere.”
“We’ve got them running, all right,” Charlie said, “but it’s going to be close.”
“Close!” the Old Man said. “Of course it’s going to be close. But it’s our election. I can smell it. If we get in this time, and the next, we’re set for a long inning. Good God! After thirty years’ fighting, to sit with men like you on a government front bench.”
He leaned forward and gave his empty glass to Charlie. The stretched, deeply grooved skin of his face was burnished with the drink he had just taken. Charlie mixed him another quickly, and he leaned back again. The long stomach was quite flat under the gleamingly starched linen waistcoat, and in the irreducible, worn bronze of his face the eyes were much too young and adventurous.
Now, I said to myself, now, Roger. He’s given you the cue. Say what you have to say.
I heard the shallow heave of Eugene’s breathing beside me. Broderick’s fat yellow face was beaded with little unattractive drops of sweat. Charlie was a still, untidy heap in his chair, and Osbourne had begun to finish his drink in small sips.
“Look, D.J.,” Roger said. “We haven’t come out just to finish your liquor. We want to talk a few things over with you. Election business. And about afterwards.” His precise and resonant lawyer’s voice was a little high. He looked into his drink, then swallowed half of it.
“Of course,” the Old Man said. “I have a number of points I want to raise myself. I shall be putting them before the executive, officially, when we meet in Queenshaven next week, but so many of you are here this morning that I’d like to discuss them now.”
“What we had in mind —” Roger said.
“I made a memorandum,” the Old Man said. “Mildred was typing it for me last night. I’ll go and get it. Gentlemen, your glasses are empty. Charlie McIntosh, you dog, see to your duties or I’ll cut you off without a shilling.”
HE STOOD up, and his stillness in getting from the chair was barely perceptible. And then we were looking at each other and listening to the slow, decisive footsteps going across the wooden floor of the old-fashioned drawing room.
“He never even listened,” Roger said. “Has he ever listened? He’s run this damned Party so long he thinks it’s his personal property. There’s no easy way out of it now, Eugene. I’m going to give it to him straight. He won’t understand it otherwise.”
“He was the Party,” Broderick said sullenly. “He was all the Party this island had when you were still wetting your pants, Roger. When I was half your age, he was burning up Cayuna like a bush fire. He has a right to say his say. More right than any of us. My God!”
Roger turned on him with the speed of a biting dog, and I could almost touch the relief and eagerness with which he fastened on a cause for anger, on the excuse for any heat that might drive him through what he had to tell the Old Man.
“Right, Broderick,” he said. “You do it. Or don’t let’s do it. Just as you all please. Say the word, gentlemen, and I’ll stop where I started, and we’ll listen to what he has to say, as we always have —” He was shaking with desolate rage.
“We’ll listen,” Eugene said quietly. “We’ll listen as we always have. And we’ll learn something, as we always have. But not until you’ve told him he can’t stand for election again, Roger. Not until you’ve told him that he has to leave the House. That’s what we came out here for, and you are going to do it, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Roger said, and the word was rough with the violence of his conflict. “Yes, I’m going to tell him what he should have realized for himself. But I don’t want any of you old comrades in arms looking at me as If it’s all my idea.”
“Nobody is doing that,” Charlie said heavily. “Just do what you have to and get it over. It’s going to be kinder that way.”
Then we heard the Old Man’s emphatic footfall coming back across the drawing room. He stood in the doorway studying two closely typed pages of foolscap, his rolled gold spectacles pushed up on his forehead. God knows why the Old Man had ever worn spectacles. His vision hadn’t altered much between the ages of seven and seventy-five. But he wouldn’t read the posters on a wall without an elaborate performance of takingout the ancient, faded morocco case, removing the spectacles, putting them on carefully, and then, as carefully, pushing them up his forehead, almost to the hairline. This had become part of his legend. Cartoonists used it. Little barefoot boys in the street acted it. Visitors to the House stayed to see it. It hadn’t done us any harm at all.
“Gentlemen,” the Old Man said, “I was considering our tactics the other night. I feel that we are going to need more emphasis in the North. Much more than we’ve given it up to now. It has always been our weak spot, and we’ve always dodged it. Not any more though, gentlemen. We’re going to take the fight to them —”
“D.J.,”Roger said; his voice was calm, now, and weary, but suddenly assured. As he sat there, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and holding his glass in both hands, I could see two hectic smears of color along the cheekbones beneath the very pale, normally waxen skin. “D.J., before you get on to the general plan of the campaign, there is something we’d like to discuss. It’s very important.”
The Old Man looked up, the frowning flicker of his impatience merely suggested within the lustrous vitality of his eyes, like the lightning you thought you saw behind the mountains at night. “Certainly,” he said to Roger. “We have all day. You’re staying to lunch, by the way. I’ve told Mildred. What’s come up, Roger? You sound worried.” He sprawled easily, in that longfamiliar slouch of confident readiness, his face tightening into the still, sharply edged cast of experienced attention, the face of an old hunter to whom any problem is a repetition of one known long ago, and yet one needing care because some detail is always new. “Elections!” he said happily. “They always bring more trouble than any blasted thing I know. Even women. They’re the price we pay for being politicians.”
“D.J.,” Roger asked him, “have you ever thought of giving up the House? Giving up parliamentary work, I mean, and using yourself on the trade union side?”
“Giving up the House?” We sat in a sort of hypnotized absorption as we watched bewilderment and then exasperated dismissal of an unworthy waste of time struggle for place in the Old Man. “Roger, boy, what the hell are you talking about? If that’s what’s on your mind, I’ll settle it right away. No. I’ve never thought of leaving the House.” He gave a short bark of laughter, half annoyed, half indulgent. “Not until the people of Braganza Parish vote me out, at least. And they’ve been sending me up for thirty years now. What in God’s name brought this on?”
“You,” Roger said. “And the elections. And thinking about you after the elections.”
“And what I’d be doing in trade union work at my age,” the Old Man said, ignoring him still with the same wry anger that was no more than the quick reflex of a stallion at stud, “I don’t know. What’s the matter, has Brod been neglecting his duties there?” He winked at Broderick, who was the leader of the trade union congress that during the years had grown into affiliation with the Party, and Broderick grimaced back at him stiffly as Roger got to his feet. He stood deliberately, and the three steps he made along the veranda and the three steps back were deliberate also, controlled and almost pensive, and when he stood above the Old Man I thought, Merciful heavens, he looks just like the Old Man did that afternoon during the war when they came to arrest him for sedition as he left the House. And it was true. Roger, as he stood there, was invested with the same moment’s quality that I had seen on the Old Man when they arrested him, a quality at once angry and serene, passionately implacable with the sense of utter conviction.
“D.J.,” Roger said. “Will you listen?” And the Old Man looked up quickly as the weight of that charged voice roused in him his first serious apprehension. “Yes,” the Old Man said. “Go ahead, Roger.”
“We’re asking you to resign your scat,” Roger said. “To resign and not make it an official executive matter. We want you to join Broderick in the trade unions and do the sort of field work you still do better than anyone else. The executive wants you to present them with your resignation when you come up next week.”
“The executive,” the Old Man said. “I didn’t know the executive. . . .” His voice had become thick and uncertain, and when I saw the papers in his hand begin to shake I looked away. I didn’t want to look at the others. “The executive,” the Old Man said again, astonishment — not protest, but stark incomprehension — lending strength to the uncertain voice. “Why? I must have a reason for this.” The great eyes, as they stared at Roger, were dulled, opaque, and absolutely still, and his face had a livid rigidity, as if he had gone beyond a point of disbelief to where the personal shock was much less than a sense of awed encounter with some fathomless and abstract phenomenon. “Why?” he demanded.
“Because we are going to win this time,” Roger said, “and you could not stand five years as chief minister. No, listen, D.J. Let me finish.” He was pleading and anxious now, hurrying what he could into the destruction we had chosen him to commit. “Do you have any idea what we’re going to have to do in the next five years, after we get in? What sort of mess we have to clear up? There’s five hours’ paperwork a night for any minister. Let alone the business in the House during the day. Half the year we’ll be beating around Europe and America raising capital investment. Off one damn plane into another, living out of suitcases, fighting it out at an all-day conference for an extra million dollars. Do you really think you could do that, D.J.?”
The Old Man’s gesture was unthinkably distant and disinterested. “I believe,” he said conversationally, almost absently, “that I have proved my capacity for work in the past. Go on. I should like to hear this to the end.”
His gaze traveled to each of us, with a flat, bleak absence of surprise that was far worse than recognition of treachery. It was then, I think, that the necessary, hungrily sought anger that had eluded Roger all morning finally seized him.
“Listen!” he shouted. “Listen, D.J.!'’ Not pleading and anxious now, but shivering in an ecstasy of inextricable rage and sadness. “You can’t do it. You know you can’t do it. However much you want to. It’s a government you’ll have to lead in October, not a radical opposition. You’d last a year, maybe two, and then you’d have to go. And even then you wouldn’t have done your work properly. Well, we’re not going to waste you like that, you hear? What you started in this island and what you built with us are too good to throw away. We want to use you where you’ll do a job. On the sugar estates or on the wharves, and among the fishermen. That’s what you know. That’s what you can do standing on your head. Tell me that isn’t so, if you dare.”
“I don’t agree,” the Old Man said.
“You don’t agree.” It was hard to tell whether the rasp in Roger’s voice was savagery or tears or triumph. “Of course you don’t agree. Not now. You want to be on the front bench with us. That’s what you saw thirty years ago. A front bench with men like Eugene and Charlie and Tony and me. Well, you’ve got it for us. But it’s not for you. And you’ll know it tomorrow. You probably know it already, because that’s the sort of man you are. If you weren’t, do you think I’d be standing on this blasted veranda saying what I’ve just had to say?”
He was bent over, folded from the waist in that slightly incredible fashion of the immensely tall, whose skeletons seem to struggle for release from the too-scanty flesh; his face, thrust close to the Old Man’s, suffused now with the uncontainable mixture of sadness and pure fury, compelling from the Old Man, by some sheerly visible, silent, and terrific explosion of will, an acknowledgment not only of those truths by which he had taught us to live in our work but of how well he had taught those truths to us, both men locked and isolated within that explosion of shared service, love, and integrity of purpose, neither man conceding one particle of his anger or sorrow or stubborn righteousness, until reluctantly, tentatively, then with sudden and prodigal generosity, the will of the older man recognized the faith behind the will of the younger, recognized that and saluted, also, what it must have cost a man as yet so young and vulnerable.
“Good God, boy,” the Old Man said softly, “don’t stand there like that. I feel as if you’re a tree about to fall on me. Sit down.”
Roger sat, in the slow careful fashion of a man who has been exhausted to a point where he dares not trust his muscles to perform the simplest action. As slowly, he took his right hand and a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the film of damp and grease from his face. He grinned lopsidedly at the Old Man. It was a hot day. Even in this corner of the Old Man’s veranda you could feel a declaration of heat, distinct and independent, parasitically attached to the accidental current of cool air.
“I did not realize,” the Old Man said, “that this was the feeling of the executive. Of course I shall be proud to accept whatever you may suggest. Gentlemen, your glasses are empty again. There is plenty of time for another before lunch. Charlie!”
His gaze, withdrawn but courteous, roved across our circle, not so much repudiating contact as, for now, impervious to what might mistakenly be offered as a substitute. Passed around us until it rested on Roger, where he sat wrapped in his own exhaustion like a Mexican in his blanket.
Hot, I thought. Dry hot. No rain. Much more of this and the Old Man will have to buy grass from the hills for his mules and his jacks and those mares in foal.
I don’t know why this occurred to me then. Perhaps to protect me from an act of intimacy we had all witnessed but from which all but two of us had been excluded.