The other brooded, his slab-like hands on the back of a ludicrously low chair that resembled an inefficiently converted hassock. In a moment he disclosed that the local composer and the amateur violinist were going to 'tackle' a violin sonata by some Teutonic bore, that an unstated number of recorders would then perform some suitable item, and that at some later time Johns might be expected to produce music from his oboe. Dixon nodded as if pleased.

He returned to Margaret to find her in conversation with Carol Goldsmith. This woman, aged about forty, thin, with long straight brown hair, Dixon regarded as one of his allies, though sometimes she overawed him a little with her mature air.

'Hallo, Jim, how's it going?' she asked in her abnormally clear voice.

'Badly. There's at least an hour of scraping and blowing in front of us.'

'Yes, that's badly all right, isn't it? Why do we come to this sort of thing? Well, I know why you come, Jim, and poor Margaret's living here. I suppose what I mean is why the hell do I come.'

'Oh, wifely support for your spouse, I take it,' Margaret said.

'Something in that, I suppose. But why does he come? There aren't even any drinks.'

'James has already noticed that.'

'It would hardly be worth coming just to meet the great painter, would it?' Dixon said, meaning to start a conversation that might diminish his retrospective embarrassment over the recent Loosmore-Callaghan imbroglio.

For a reason he didn't then understand, the reception of this remark was perceptibly unfavourable. Margaret looked at him with lifted chin as if ready to reprove some indiscretion, but to her any sort of adverse remark about anybody was, unless they were alone, indiscreet enough. Carol half-closed her eyes and smoothed her straight hair. 'What makes you say that?' she said.

'Well, nothing really,' Dixon said in alarm. 'I had a little brush with him just now, that's all. I got into some mix-up over his girl's name, and he was a bit offensive, I thought. Nothing drastic.'

'Oh, that's quite typical,' Carol said. 'He always thinks he's being got at. He often is, too.'

'Oh, you know him, do you?' Dixon said. 'I'm sorry, Carol; is he a great pal of yours?'

'Hardly that. We saw a bit of him last summer, you know, Cecil and I, before you got your job. He can be quite entertaining at times, actually, though you're quite right about the great-painter stuff; it does get you down occasionally. You've met him once or twice, haven't you, Margaret? What did you think of him?'

'Yes, I met him when he came down before. I thought he was all right when you got him on his own. I think he feels that when he's got an audience he's got to play up to it and impress everyone.'

A great baying laugh made all three turn round. Bertrand, leading Goldsmith by the arm, was approaching. With the remnants of his laughter still trickling from his face, he said to Carol: 'Ah, there you are, dear girl. And how are things with you?'

'Well enough, thank you, dear man. I can see how things are with you. A bit out of your usual run, isn't she?'

'Christine? Ah, now there's a grand girl for you, a grand girl. One of the best, she is.'

'Any plans for her?' Carol pursued, smiling slightly.

'Plans? Plans? No no, no plans at all. Unquestionably none.'

'Not like you, old boy,' said Goldsmith's furry monotone, so different from his bawling tenor in song.

'At the moment, quite frankly, she's made me more than a little piqued,' Bertrand said, making a circle of thumb and forefinger to emphasize the last word.

'How's that, Bertrand?' Goldsmith asked solicitously.

'Well, as you may imagine, despite my passionate interest in this kind of sport,' he nodded towards the piano, where the amateur violinist was tuning his violin with the cooperation of the local composer, 'it isn't quite enough to draw me down here unaided, glad as I am to see you all. No no; I had been promised a meeting with one Julius Gore-Urquhart, of whom you may have heard.'

Dixon had indeed heard of Gore-Urquhart, a rich devotee of the arts who made occasional contributions to the arts sections of the weekly reviews, who had a house in the neighbourhood where persons of distinction sometimes came to stay, and who was a fish that Welch had more than once vainly tried to land. Dixon looked again at Bertrand's eyes. They really were extraordinary: it seemed as if a sheet of some patterned material were tacked to the inside of his face, showing only at two arbitrary loopholes. What could a man with such eyes, such a beard, and (he noticed them for the first time) such dissimilar ears have to do with a man like Gore-Urquhart?

He learned what they had to do with each other in the next minute or two. As yet, the connexion was tenuous: the Callaghan girl, who knew Gore-Urquhart's family, or was even perhaps his niece, had arranged to introduce Bertrand to him during the current week-end. At some late stage it had been found that Gore-Urquhart was at present in Paris, so that a further visit to this part of the world would have to be undertaken to meet him. There was some reason, which Dixon at once forgot, why a meeting in London would be less satisfactory. And what was Gore-Urquhart going to do for Bertrand when they did meet?

When Margaret had asked for this information in her circumlocutory way, Bertrand raised his great head and looked down his cheeks from face to face before replying. 'I have it on more than ordinarily good authority,' he said in measured tones, 'that our influential friend will shortly be declaring his private secretaryship vacant. I doubt whether the post will be publicly competed for, and so I'm at the moment busily engaged in grooming myself for the part. Patronage, you see, patronage: that's what it'll be. I'll answer his letters with one hand and paint with the other.' He gave a laugh in which Goldsmith and Margaret joined. 'So I'm naturally anxious to strike while the iron's hot, if you'll pardon the expression.'

Why shouldn't they pardon the expression? Dixon thought. Why?

'When do you think you'll be down again then, old boy?' Goldsmith asked. 'We'll have to fix something up. Haven't had a chance this time.'

'Oh, in a fortnight or so, I expect,' Bertrand said, then added significantly: 'Miss Callaghan and I have another engagement for next week-end. You'll understand I don't want to miss that.'

'The week-end after's the Summer Ball at the College.' Margaret cut in quickly, in an attempt, Dixon supposed, to smother the overtones of this last declaration. How could Bertrand possibly bring himself to say things like that in front of one woman he hardly knew and one man he must guess hadn't liked him all that much at a first meeting?

'Oh, is it really?' Bertrand asked with apparent interest.

'Yes; will you be coming again this year, Mr Welch?'

'I might manage it, I suppose. I remember being not unentertained last time. Ah, I see cigarettes are being produced. I like cigarettes. May I detach one from your store, Cecil? Good. Well, what about this Ball, then? They won't be able to keep you away, I suppose?'

'Afraid they will this time,' Goldsmith said. 'There's a conference of teachers of history then at Leeds. Your father wants me to go to it.'

'Dear, dear,' Bertrand said. 'That's most unfortunate, most unfortunate. Isn't there anyone else he could send?' He looked over at Dixon.

'Afraid not. We went into all that,' Goldsmith said.

'Pity, pity. Ah well. Will any other members of the company be attending, I wonder?'

Margaret glanced at Dixon, and Carol said: 'What about you, Jim?'

Dixon shook his head firmly. 'No, I've never been much of a dancing man, I'm afraid. As far as I'm concerned it would be just money thrown away.' It would be terrible if Margaret blackmailed him into taking her.

'Oh well, we don't want that, do we?' Bertrand said. 'That wouldn't do at all. I wonder where young Callaghan has got to. Her nose must be fairly thickly encrusted with powder by now, I should hazard. And why the delay among the musicians?'

Dixon looked over and saw that the two performers, tuning evidently completed, music set up, and bow resined, were hanging about smoking and chatting. Welch was nowhere to be seen; he must be displaying his rather terrifying expertise as an evader. At the other end of the long, low, softly-lit room the door opened and the Callaghan woman came in. For so well-built a girl Dixon thought she moved awkwardly.

'Ah, my dear,' Bertrand said with a gallant bow, 'we were wondering what had become of you.'

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