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Under the Waves

Chapter Text

The man who was walking down the path was the owner of the estate. It was Sunday morning and very early, but he was dressed in a suit he usually wore on weekdays. He and his wife Anne had decided they would not attend the church service in the village later on. She was feeling a bit poorly. When he had brought her a cup of tea in her bedroom, she had smiled said she did not want any breakfast.

He himself had slept fitfully in his study that night, constantly woken by cries and laughter that he had heard in his inexplicable dreams. ‘I’m going for an early morning stroll,’ he had told Anne when she had finished her tea. ‘I might as well, since we’re being very naughty and cutting church today.’ This had made them both giggle.

He stopped at a clearing at the edge of a clump of fir trees that was lined with blackberry bushes and sat down on a wooden bench. From there he had a good view of the deck and the pond.

He checked his pocket watch. It was a quarter past seven and all was quiet but for the sounds of Nature – rustling leaves, a myriad of melodies from songbirds, jackdaws quarreling noisily in the poplars beyond.

Lighting a cigarette, he let his eyes wander across the scenery. The morning mist was still over the pond but he felt the specks of sunlight that reached him under the trees gradually growing warmer.

Then two figures appeared outside the boathouse, both wearing only undershirts and drawers. They were about twenty yards away but the brief scraping sound of a match being lit sounded like thunder. A little later a faint waft of smoke from Egyptian cigarettes drifted in his direction.

The two men paced up and down the deck, talking softly. Then the smaller one of them left and returned with a parcel. They stared at the wooden planks and then the merry twitter of a blackbird flying up could be heard.

The taller man now took off his underclothes and walked to the edge of the pier. The other, wearing only drawers now, scuttled past him and lowered himself into the water. When he had paddled a few yards away from the pier, he called out to the man standing on its edge.

The naked figure, broad-shouldered and slightly tanned, stretched and held up his arms over his head. Then there was a supple movement of skin and muscles and limbs as he flew off the pier in a wide arc until he disappeared under the glistening surface of the water.

The man in the weekday suit got up from the bench and walked down the path towards the pond. He hid behind the thick trunk of an old poplar, got out his gilded cigarette case, looked at it and then stuffed it back into his pocket.

The taller of the two swimmers now held the other as they floated on the pond. Their laughter inspired the sparrows to respond with song.

Voices carried far across the water. ‘Will you learn me how to swim?’ the smaller man asked. ‘Of course I’ll learn you how to swim,’ the other replied sweetly, in his unmistakable, neat upper-class London accent.

Now the man in the suit left his hiding place and walked down the path until he reached the deck. He took off his jacket, hung it on a railing post and squatted down on the edge of the pier.

The two other men were floating yards away, talking and laughing and kissing and occasionally keeping silent. After minutes or hours or ages, one of them turned around and looked at the deck. ‘Oh, blast,’ he said loudly. The other one cursed as well and paddled away clumsily, eventually disappearing behind a jetty on the far side of the pond.

The man who had dived in now swam towards the main deck with long, powerful strokes. When he got close to the pier, he stopped and started treading water. ‘Clive,’ he panted. ‘I wasn't expecting this.’

‘Neither was I,’ Clive said.

They stared at one another. ‘I can’t get out now,’ Maurice grinned. ‘I’m not…er…Oh, would you get me that large calico bag from the porch of the boathouse?’

Clive got up, walked around the building and found a large piece of rough cloth, which probably served as a towel, hanging over a rickety kitchen chair. He took it and hung it over another railing post on the pier. ‘I’ll turn around now,’ he said to Maurice, who was still floating, his body below his shoulders only visible as an amber blur in the water.

While Clive kept his gaze averted, taking in the firs and the poplars and the deserted cricket pitch, he could hear splashing, then creaking of boards and the patter of drops on wood. ‘I’m decent now,’ Maurice said.

Clive turned around and saw the other man, with his black hair streaming over his brow and the cloth neatly tied around him like an Indian garment, covering him from his chest to his knees.

‘I thought you had left by now,’ Clive said.

Maurice nodded. ‘We are leaving, never you worry,’ he retorted. ‘We intend to catch the train at noon.’

‘Into London?’ Clive asked. ‘I shan’t tell you,’ Maurice said bluntly.

Clive got out his gilded case and offered Maurice a cigarette. Maurice accepted and bent over to light it from the match the squire had struck. ‘Thank you,’ he muttered.

They stood on the deck, smoking, casting glances at one another, keeping silent.

‘I might still tell on you,’ Clive then said softly as a flock of noisy pheasants flew up from a nearby clearing. ‘Beg your pardon?’ Maurice asked. ‘Oh, never mind,’ Clive stammered.

‘Fair enough,’ Maurice said. ‘I’ll go back to the boathouse and put on my clothes.’

Clive watched him walk to the porch, barefoot but unhindered by the sharp cobblestones. He went inside and returned five minutes later, dressed but not wearing a jacket or tie and with his waistcoat unbuttoned.

‘It’s odd, but I found you looking more decent in that calico cloth just now,’ Clive remarked softly as Maurice stepped onto the pier. ‘Beg your pardon?’ Maurice asked again. ‘Oh, nothing,’ Clive smiled.

They lit up cigarettes and started pacing up the deck. ‘I shan’t write to you,’ Maurice said. ‘You would only burn my letters without reading them. Wherever Alec and I choose to settle will remain oblivious to you.’ ‘Alec?’ Clive asked. ‘Scudder, your former gamekeeper,’ Maurice explained. ‘He has a first name, you know.’

They were both facing the pond. The sun was slowly disappearing behind a haze of clouds. ‘We’re in for rain, I’m afraid,’ Clive observed.

Maurice made a sound that either indicated boredom or suppressed anger. ‘We might be in for a war, Clive,’ he said. ‘The peoples of Austria are growing restless. The Sokol movement is gaining power. There have been uprisings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, never mind the Italian provinces. It’s too much to handle for the old emperor. He can rely on willing help from the German Kaiser if need be. If that happens, Britain will have no choice but to fight on the Continent.’

‘Will you and Scudder be all right?’ Clive asked.

Maurice shook his head and laughed mirthlessly. ‘No, of course we won’t. Good God, not if there’s going to be a war. Don’t you read the newspapers, Clive…? Oh, it was never any use talking sense into you. Whatever will happen, Alec and I will stand it together, and that’s final.’

Maurice crushed out his cigarette, lit another and pointed at the boathouse. ‘He’s in there now, scared out of his wits because he saw you. I told him not to worry, but to no avail, and…’

Clive opened his mouth to speak, but Maurice raised his hand. ‘I wasn’t finished yet, old sport…He and I have a million reasons to flee apart from the legal threats we might face. In a few minutes, you and I shall part ways for good.’

He relaxed his shoulders, drew from his cigarette and watched the first drops of rain fall around him.

‘And that is why I’ll tell you now what I never got around to when I made my announcement to you in your garden last night…You will be happy, Clive. Soon your beautiful house will fill up with sons and daughters. Your political career will face interesting challenges when the time comes to defend our country. I will not be around to congratulate you.’

‘If we should ever meet again,’ Clive said, ‘then it will be purely by chance. We might not even recognize one another then, or we’ll exchange nods and move on. And that will be all.’

‘I do hope that will never happen,’ Maurice said. ‘But if it does, I won’t embarrass you in public. Enduring embarrassment and defying odds or fighting them were never your style, old chap.’

They shook hands. ‘Goodbye,’ Clive whispered. ‘Take care of yourself.’