She seemed disconcerted.' Oh, I've only been…'

'We've been discussing Mr Gore-Urquhart, and wondering whether he'll be available the week-end after next, there being a species of dancing festivity at the College during that time. Can you enlighten us, I wonder?'

'Well, his secretary said he'd probably be in Paris till the middle of next month, which would be too late for that, wouldn't it?'

'Yes, I think it would. Yes, it would. Oh well, it'll have to be another time, won't it?' He didn't appear at all put out by this news.

'I've written to Uncle asking him to let me know when he's coming back.'

Dixon wanted to laugh at this. It always amused him to hear girls (men never did it) refer to 'Uncle', 'Daddy', and so on, as if there were only one uncle or daddy in the world, or as if this particular uncle or daddy were the uncle or daddy of all those present.

'What's the joke, Jim?' Carol asked. Bertrand stared at him.

'Oh, nothing.' He returned Bertrand's stare. He wished there were some issue on which he could defeat Bertrand, even at the risk of alienating his father. Any measure short of, or not necessitating too much, violence would be justified. But there seemed to be no field of endeavour where he could employ a measure of that sort. For a moment he felt like devoting the next ten years to working his way to a position as art critic on purpose to review Bertrand's work unfavourably. He thought of a sentence in a book he'd once read: 'And with that he picked up the bloody old towser by the scruff of the neck, and, by Jesus, he near throttled him.' This too made him smile, and Bertrand's beard twitched, but he said nothing to break the pause.

As ever, Margaret had thought of something to say: 'I was reading about your uncle only recently, Miss Callaghan. There was a piece about him in the local paper. He was presenting some water-colours to our Gallery here. I don't know what we should do without someone like him to keep things going.'

This remark, in itself virtually unanswerable, had the effect, familiar to Margaret's acquaintances, of dumbfounding its audience by the obviousness of its intention - namely, the intention of forcing them to talk. Some feet away the amateur violinist could be heard laughing huskily at something the local composer was telling him. Where was Welch?

'Yes, he is very generous,' the Callaghan girl said.

'It's a good job there are some people still about who can afford to be, in that way,' Margaret said. Dixon looked up to catch Carol's eye, but she was exchanging a glance with her husband.

'Well, there won't be much longer, I fear, if the lads at Transport House go on running our lives for us,' Bertrand said.

'Oh, I don't think this crowd have done too badly,' Goldsmith put in. 'After all, you can't…'

'Their foreign policy might, I agree, have been a good deal worse, with the exception of their spectacular inability to pour water on troubled oil.' Bertrand looked quickly round the group, then went on: 'But their home policy… soak the rich… I mean…' He seemed to be hesitating. 'Well, it is that, pure and simple, isn't it? I'm just asking for information, that's all. I mean that's what it seems to be, don't we all agree? I take it that it is just that and no more, isn't it? or am I wrong?'

Pretending not to notice Margaret's warning frown and Carol's expectant grin, Dixon said quietly: 'Well, what's wrong with it, even if it is that and no more? If one man's got ten buns and another's got two, and a bun has got to be given up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns.'

Bertrand and his girl were looking at each other with identical expressions, shaking their heads, smiling, raising their eyebrows, sighing. It was as if Dixon had just said that he didn't know anything about art, but he did know what he liked. 'But we don't think anybody need give up a bun, Mr Dixon,' the girl said. 'That's the whole point.'

'Hardly the whole point, I should have thought,' Dixon said at the moment when Margaret said 'Don't let's get involved in a set-to about…' and Bertrand said 'The whole point of this is that the rich…'

It was Bertrand who won the little contest. 'The point is that the rich play an essential role in modern society,' he said, his voice baying a little more noticeably. 'More than ever in days like these. That's all; I'm not going to bore you with the stock platitudes about their having kept the arts going, and so on. The very fact that they are stock platitudes proves my case. And I happen to like the arts, you sam.'

The last word, a version of 'see', was Bertrand's own coinage. It arose as follows: the vowel sound became distorted into a short 'a', as if he were going to say 'sat'. This brought his lips some way apart, and the effect of their rapid closure was to end the syllable with a light but audible 'm'. After working this out, Dixon could think of little to say, and contented himself with 'You do', which he tried to make knowing and sceptical.

It seemed to encourage Bertrand. 'Yes, I do,' he said even more loudly, so that all his listeners looked quickly at him. 'And shall I tell you what else I happen to like? Rich people. I take pride in the contemporary unpopularity of that statement. And why do I like them? Because they're charming, because they're generous, because they've learnt to appreciate the things I happen to like myself, because their houses are full of beautiful things. That's why I like them and that's why I don't want them soaked. All right?'

'Come along, dear,' Mrs Welch called from behind them. 'If we wait for Father we'll be here all night. Shall' we make a start? If you'll come over here we can all sit down.'

'All right, Mother,' Bertrand said over his shoulder, and the group began to dissolve, but before he moved himself he said, his eyes on Dixon: 'That's quite clear, is it?'

Margaret pulled at Dixon's sleeve and he, not wanting to go on fighting after the end of the round, said amicably: 'Oh yes. You seem to have been luckier in the rich people you've come into contact with than I have, that's all.'

'That wouldn't surprise me in the least,' Bertrand said with some contempt, standing aside so that Margaret could pass him.

Dixon said angrily: 'Well, you'd better make the most of them while you've got them, then, because you won't have them much longer, you know.'

He began to push past after Margaret, but the Callaghan girl halted him by saying: 'I'd rather you didn't talk in that strain, if you don't mind.'

Dixon looked about him; the rest of the company were seated, and the amateur violinist was snuggling his instrument in under his chin. Dropping into the nearest chair, Dixon said in a lowered voice: 'You say you'd rather I didn't talk in that strain?'

'Yes, if you don't mind.' She and Bertrand also sat down. 'I always get a bit irritated by that sort of thing. I'm sorry, I can't do anything about it; it's just a thing about me, I'm afraid.'

If Dixon hadn't learnt to dislike this argument when offered by Margaret, he probably wouldn't have answered as he did. 'Seen anybody about it yet?'

The amateur violinist nodded the top half of his body and, supported by the local composer, burst into some scurrying tunelessness or other. Bertrand leaned over towards Dixon. 'What the hell do you mean?' he asked in a loud undertone.

'Who's your alienist?' Dixon said, broadening his field of fire.

'Look here, Dixon, you're talking as if you want a bloody good punch on the nose, aren't you?'

Dixon, when moved, was bad at ordering his thoughts. 'If I did, you don't think you're the one to give me one, do you?'

Bertrand screwed up his face at this enigma. 'What?'

'Do you know what you look like in that beard?' Dixon's heart began to race as he switched to simplicity.

'All right; coming outside for a bit?'

The latest of this string of questions was drowned by a long rumbling shake in the bass of the piano. 'What?' Dixon asked.

Mrs Welch, Margaret, Johns, the Goldsmiths, and the contralto woman all seemed to turn round simultaneously. 'Ssshh,' they all said. It was like a railway engine blowing out steam under a glass roof. Dixon got up and tip-toed to the door. Bertrand half rose to follow, but his girl stopped him.

Before Dixon could reach the door, it opened and Welch entered. 'Oh, you've started, have you?' he asked without dropping his voice at all.

'Yes,' Dixon whispered. 'I think I'll just…'

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