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Out Of Depth

I

Rip had got to the decent age when he disliked meeting new people. He lived a contented life between New York and the more American parts of Europe and everywhere, by choosing his season, he found enough of his old acquaintances to keep him effortlessly amused. For fifteen years at least he had dined with Margot Metroland during the first week of his visit to London, and he had always been sure of finding six or eight familiar and welcoming faces. It is true that there were also strangers, but these had passed before him and disappeared from his memory, leaving no more impression than a change of servants at his hotel.
Tonight, however, as he entered the drawing room, before he had greeted his hostess or nodded to Alastair Trumptington, he was aware of something foreign and disturbing. A glance round the assembled party confirmed his alarm. All the men were standing save one; these were mostly old friends interspersed with a handful of new, gawky, wholly inconsiderable young men, but the seated figure instantly arrested his attention and froze his bland smile. This was an elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits. It was like Mother Hippo in Tiger Tim; it was like an evening shirt-front in a du Maurier drawing; down in the depths of the face was a little crimson smirking mouth; and, above it, eyes that had a shifty, deprecating look, like those of a temporary butler caught out stealing shirts.
Lady Metroland seldom affronted her guests’ reticence by introducing them.
“Dear Rip,” she said, “it’s lovely to see you again. I’ve got all the gang together for you, you see,” and then noticing that his eyes were fixed upon the stranger, added, “Doctor Kakophilos, this is Mr. Van Winkle. Doctor Kakophilos,” she added, “is a great magician. Norah brought him, I can’t think why.”
“Musician?”
“Magician. Norah says there’s nothing he can’t do.”
“How do you do?” said Rip.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said Dr. Kakophilos, in a thin Cockney voice.
“Eh?”
“There is no need to reply. If you wish to, it is correct to say ‘Love is the law, Love under will.’”
“I see.”
“You are unusually blessed. Most men are blind.”
“I tell you what,” said Lady Metroland. “Let’s all have some dinner.”
It took an hour’s substantial eating and drinking before Rip began to feel at ease again. He was well placed between two married women of his own generation, with both of whom, at one time and another, he had had affairs; but even their genial gossip could not entirely hold his attention and he found himself continually gazing down the table to where, ten places away, Dr. Kakophilos was frightening a pop-eyed débutante out of all semblance of intelligence. Later, however, wine and reminiscence began to glow within him. He remembered that he had been brought up a Catholic and had therefore no need to fear black magic. He reflected that he was wealthy and in good health; that none of his women had ever borne him ill-will (and what better sign of good character was there than that?); that it was his first week in London and that everyone he most liked seemed to be there too; that the wine was so copious he had ceased to notice its excellence. He got going well and soon had six neighbours listening as he told some successful stories in his soft, lazy voice; he became aware with familiar, electric tremors that he had captured the attention of a lady opposite on whom he had had his eye last summer in Venice and two years before in Paris; he drank a good deal more and didn’t care a damn for Dr. Kakophilos.
Presently, almost imperceptibly to Rip, the ladies left the dining room. He found himself with a ballon of brandy and a cigar, leaning back in his chair and talking for about the first time in his life to Lord Metroland. He was telling him about big game when he was aware of a presence at his other side, like a cold draught. He turned and saw that Dr. Kakophilos had come sidling up to him.
“You will see me home tonight,” said the magician. “You and Sir Alastair?”
“Like hell I will,” said Rip.
“Like hell,” repeated Dr. Kakophilos, deep meaning resounding through his horrible Cockney tones. “I have need of you.”
“Perhaps we ought to be going up,” said Lord Metroland, “or Margot will get restless.”
For Rip the rest of the evening passed in a pleasant daze. He remembered Margot confiding in him that Norah and that silly little something girl had had a scene about Dr. Kakophilos and had both gone home in rages. Presently the party began to thin until he found himself alone with Alastair Trumptington drinking whiskeys in the small drawing room. They said good-bye and descended the stairs arm in arm. “I’ll drop you, old boy.”
“No, old boy, I’ll drop you.”
“I like driving at night.”
“So do I, old boy.”
They were on the steps when a cold Cockney voice broke in on their friendly discussion.
“Will you please drop me?” A horrible figure in a black cloak had popped out on them.
“Where do you want to go?” asked Alastair in some distaste.
Dr. Kakophilos gave an obscure address in Bloomsbury.
“Sorry, old boy, bang out of my way.”
“And mine.”
“But you said you liked driving at night.”
“Oh God! All right, jump in.”
And the three went off together.
Rip never quite knew how it came about that he and Alastair went up to Dr. Kakophilos’s sitting room. It was certainly not for a drink, because there was none there; nor did he know how it was that Dr. Kakophilos came to be wearing a crimson robe embroidered with gold symbols and a conical crimson hat. It only came to him quite suddenly that Dr. Kakophilos was wearing these clothes; and when it came it set him giggling, so uncontrollably that he had to sit on the bed. And Alastair began to laugh too, and they both sat on the bed for a long time laughing.
But quite suddenly Rip found that they had stopped laughing and that Dr. Kakophilos, still looking supremely ridiculous in his sacerdotal regalia, was talking to them ponderously about time and matter and spirit and a number of things which Rip had got through forty-three eventful years without considering.
“And so,” Dr. Kakophilos was saying, “you must breathe the fire and call upon Omraz the spirit of release and journey back through the centuries and recover the garnered wisdom which the ages of reason have wasted. I chose you because you are the two most ignorant men I ever met. I have too much knowledge to risk my safety. If you never come back nothing will be lost.”
“Oh, I say,” said Alastair.
“And what’s more, you’re tipsy,” said Dr. Kakophilos relapsing suddenly into everyday speech. Then he became poetic again and Rip yawned and Alastair yawned.
At last Rip said: “Jolly decent of you to tell us all this, old boy; I’ll come in another time to hear the rest. Must be going now, you know.”
“Yes,” said Alastair. “A most interesting evening.”
Dr. Kakophilos removed his crimson hat and mopped his moist, hairless head. He surveyed his parting guests with undisguised disdain.
“Sots,” he said. “You are partakers in a mystery beyond your comprehension. In a few minutes your drunken steps will have straddled the centuries. Tell me, Sir Alastair,” he asked, his face alight with ghastly, facetious courtesy, “have you any preference with regard to your translation? You may choose any age you like.”
“Oh, I say, jolly decent of you ... Never was much of a dab at History you know.”
“Say.”
“Well, any time really. How about Ethelred the Unready?—always had a soft spot for him.”
“And you, Mr. Van Winkle?”
“Well, if I’ve got to be moved about, being an American, I’d sooner go forwards—say five hundred years.”
Dr. Kakophilos drew himself up. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
“I can answer that one. ‘Love is the law, Love under will.’”
“God, we’ve been a long time in that house,” said Alastair as at length they regained the Bentley. “Awful old humbug. Comes of getting tight.”
“Hell, I could do with another,” said Rip. “Know anywhere?”
“I do,” said Alastair and, turning a corner sharply, ran, broadside on, into a mail van that was thundering down Shaftesbury Avenue at forty-five miles an hour.
When Rip stood up, dazed but, as far as he could judge, without specific injury, he was scarcely at all surprised to observe that both cars had disappeared.
There was so much else to surprise him; a light breeze, a clear, star-filled sky, a wide horizon unobscured by buildings. The moon, in her last quarter, hung low above a grove of trees, illumined a slope of hummocky turf and a herd of sheep, peacefully cropping the sedge near Piccadilly Circus and, beyond, was reflected in a still pool, pierced here and there with reed.
Instinctively, for his head and eyes were still aflame from the wine he had drunk and there was a dry, stale taste in his mouth, Rip approached the water. His evening shoes sank deeper with each step and he paused, uncertain. The entrance of the Underground Station was there, transformed into a Piranesi ruin; a black aperture tufted about with fern and some crumbling steps leading down to black water. Eros had gone, but the pedestal rose above the reeds, moss grown and dilapidated.
“Golly,” said Mr. Van Winkle slowly, “the twenty-fifth century.”
Then he crossed the threshold of the underground station and, kneeling on the slippery fifth step, immersed his head in the water.
Absolute stillness lay all around him except for rhythmic, barely audible nibbling of the pastured sheep. Clouds drifted across the moon and Rip stood awed by the darkness; they passed and............

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