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'You think it good, the cuisine?' asked Theodorescu. The dining-saloon was very far from being like that fried-egg-on-horsesteak restaurant that, in Hillier's post-war London days, had stood just across the street from the Fitzroy. Conditioned air purred through the champagne light and, only a little louder, stringed instruments played slow and digestive music from a gallery above the gilded entrance. The musicians all seemed very old, servants of the Line near retirement, but they made a virtue of the slow finger movements that arthritis imposed on them: Richard Rodgers became noble, processional. The appointments of the dining-saloon were superb, the chairs accommodating the biggest bottom in comfort, the linen of the finest Dunfermline damask. Theodorescu's table was by a soft-lit aquarium; in this, fantastic fish-haired, armoured, haloed, spined, whiptailed – gravely visiting castles, grottos and gazebos, ever and anon delivered wide-mouthed silent reports to the human eaters. There were just Theodorescu, Miss Devi and Hillier at the table. The Walters family, Hillier was mainly glad to see, were seated well beyond a protective barrier of well-fleshed and rather loud-talking tycoons and their ladies. Mainly but not wholly glad: Miss Walters seemed to look very delightful in a shift dress of flame velvet with a long heavy gold medallion necklace. She was reading at table, and that was wrong, but her brother sulked and her father and stepmother ate silently and solidly, Mrs Walters urging further helpings on her dim but gulous husband.

So far Hillier had joined Theodorescu in a dish of lobster medallions in a sauce cardinale. The lobster had, so the chief steward had informed them, been poached in white wine and a court-bouillon made with the shells, then set alight in warm pernod. The saloon was full of silent waiters, many Goanese, some British (one, Wriste's winger-pal, had come up to whisper 'Ta for the Guinness'). There was no harassed banging and clattering through the kitchen doors; all was leisurely.

'I think,' said Theodorescu, 'you and I will now have some red mullet and artichoke hearts. The man who was sitting in that place before you was not a good trencherman. I tend to feel embarrassed when my table companions eat very much less than I: I am made to feel greedy.' Hillier looked at Miss Devi's deft and busy long red talons. She was eating a large and various curry with many side-dishes; it should, if she ate it all, last her till about midnight. 'I think we had better stay with this champagne, don't you?' said Theodorescu. It was a 1953 Bollinger; they were already near the end of this first bottle. 'Harmless enough, not in the least spectacular, but I take wine to be a kind of necessary bread, it must not intrude too much into the meal. Wine-worshipping is the most vulgar of idolatries.'

'You must,' said Hillier, 'allow me to have the next bottle on my bill.'

'Well now,' said Theodorescu, 'I will make a bargain with you. Whoever eats the less shall pay for the wine. Are you agreeable?'

'I don't think I stand a chance,' said Hillier.

'Oh, I think that nauseous boy has impaired your self-confidence. At table I fear the thin man. The fat laugh and seem to cram themselves, but it is all so much wind and show. Are you at all a betting man?'

'Well-' In Hillier's closed tank a sort of fermentation was taking place; a coarse kind of Schaumwein of the spirit made him say: 'What do you have in mind?'

'Whatever sum you care to name. The Trencherman Stakes.' Miss Devi tinkled a giggle. 'Shall we say a thousand pounds?'

Could that, should he lose, be charged to his expenses, wondered Hillier. But, of course, it didn't apply. A cheque signed by Jagger was only a piece of paper. 'Done,' he said. 'We order the dishes alternately. All plates to be thoroughly cleaned.'

'Splendid. We start now.' And they worked away at the red mullet and artichoke hearts. 'Slowly,' said Theo-dorescu. 'We have all the time in the world. Speaking of champagne, there was some serious talk-in 1918, I think it was, the second centenary of the first use of the name to designate the sparkling wines of Hautvillers – some talk, as I say, of seeking canonisation for Dom P'erignon, champagne's inventor. Nothing came of it, and yet men have been canonised for less.'

'Very much less,' said Hillier. 'I would sooner seek intercession from Saint P'erignon than from Saint Paul.'

'You're a praying man, then? A believer?'

'Not exactly that. Not any longer.' Careful, careful. 'I believe in man's capacity to choose. I accept free will, the basic Christian tenet.'

'Excellent. And now, talking of choosing-' Theo-dorescu beckoned. The chief steward himself came across, a soft-looking ginger-moustached man. Hillier and Theo-dorescu ordered ahead alternately. Hillier: fillets of sole Queen Elizabeth, with sauce blonde; Theodorescu: shellfish tart with sauce Newburg; Hillier: souffl'e au foie gras and to be generous with the Madeira; Theodorescu: avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce. 'And,' said Theodorescu, 'more champagne.'

They ate. Some of the nearer diners, aware of what was going on, relaxed their own eating to watch the contest. Theodorescu praised the red caviar that had been heaped on the avocado, then he said: 'And where, Mr Jagger, did you receive your Catholic education?'

Hillier needed to concentrate on his food. 'Oh,' he said, at random, 'in France.' He had given away too much already; he must maintain his disguise. 'At a little place north of Bordeaux. Cantenac. I doubt if you'd know it.'

'Cantenac? But who doesn't know Cantenac, or at any rate the Ch^ateau Brane-Cantenac?'

'Of course,' said Hillier. 'But I'd understood that you weren't a wine man. The Baron de Brane who made Mouton-Rothschild great.'

'A strange place, though, for a young Englishman to be brought up. Your father was concerned with viticulture?'

'My mother was French,' lied Hillier.

'Indeed? What was her maiden name? It's possible that I know the family.'

'I doubt it,' said Hillier. 'It was a very obscure family.'

'But I take it that you received your technical education in England?'

'In Germany.'

'Where in Germany?'

'Now,' said Hillier, 'I suggest filet mignon `a la romana, and a little butterfly pasta and a few zucchini.'

'Very well.' The chief steward was busy with his pencil.

'And after that some toast lamb persill'ee and onion and gruy`ere casserole with green beans and celery julienne.'

'And more champagne?'

'I think we might change. Something heavier. '55 was a great year for clarets. A Lafite Rothschild?'

'I could ask for nothing better.'

'And for you, my dear?' Miss Devi had eaten a great deal, though not all, of her curries. She wanted a simple cr`eme br^ul'ee and a glass of madeira to go with it. She had had her fill of champagne: her eyes were bright, a well-lighted New Delhi, no smouldering jungles. Hillier grew uneasy as, while they awaited their little fillets, Theo-dorescu bit hungrily at some stick-bread. It might be bluff: watch him. The dining-saloon was emptying at leisure: in the distance a dance-band was tuning up: the aged fiddlers had departed. The diners nearest the contestants were less interested than before: this was pure gorging, their full stomachs told them; the men were, behind blue smokescreens, now satisfying hunger for the finest possible Cuban leaf. The Walters family was still there, the girl reading, the boy inhaling a balloon-glass, the wife smoking, the husband looking not very well.

'Whereabouts in Germany?' asked Theodorescu, cutting his fillet. 'I know Germany. But, of course, I know most countries. My business takes me far and wide.' I have been warned, thought Hillier. He said: 'What I meant was that I studied typewriters in Germany. After the war. In Wilhelmshaven.'

'Of course. A great naval base reduced to a seaside centre of light industries. You will probably be acquainted with Herr Luttwitz of the Olympia Company.'

Hillier took a chance, frowning. 'I don't seem to remember a Herr Luttwitz.'

'Of course, stupid of me. I was thinking of a quite different company altogether.'

'And what,' asked Hillier, when the roast lamb came -he could tell it was delicious, but things would soon be ceasing to be delicious – 'is your particular line of business?'

'Pure buying and selling,' shrugged Theodorescu massively. Was it imagination, or was he having difficulty with that forkful of onion and gruy`ere casserole? 'I produce nothing. I am a broken reed in the great world -your great world – of creativity.'

'Pheasant,' ordered Hillier, 'with pecan stuffing. Bread sauce and game chips.' Oh, God. 'Broccoli blossoms.'

'And then perhaps a poussin each with barley. And sauce b'echamel velout'e. Some spinach and minced mushrooms. A roast potato with sausage stuffing.' He seemed to Hillier to order with a pinch of defiance. Was he at last feeling the strain? Was that sweat on his upper lip?

'That sounds admirable,' said Hillier. 'Another bottle of the same?'

'Why not some burgundy? A '49 Chambertin, I think.'

The eating was growing grimmer. Miss Devi said: 'I think, if you will excuse me, I shall go out on deck.' Hillier rose at once, saying: 'Let me accompany you.' And, to Theodorescu, 'I'll be back directly.'

'No!' cried Theodorescu. 'Stay here, please. The ocean is a traditional vomitorium.'

'Are you suggesting,' said Hillier, sitting again, 'that I would play so mean a trick?'

'I'm suggesting nothing.' Miss Devi, turning before going through the vomitory of the dining-saloon, smiled rather sadly at Hillier. Hillier, without half-rising, gave her a little bow. She left. 'Let us push on,' frowned Theodorescu.

'I don't like this talk of pushing on. It's an insult to good food. I'm thoroughly enjoying this.'

'Enjoy it, then, and stop talking.'

Enjoying it doggedly but with a lilt of potential triumph, Hillier suddenly heard a crash, a flop, a groan, and little screams from, he now saw, the Walters table. The head of the head of the family had cracked down among the fruit-parings, upsetting cruet and coffee-cups. A stroke or something. A coronary. The stewards who, as the dining-saloon emptied, had been discreetly closing in to watch the eating contest, now converged, with the remaining diners, on to the Walters table, a sudden boil on the smooth skin of holiday. Both Hillier and Theodorescu looked down guiltily at their near-empty plates. A steward ran off for the ship's doctor. 'Shall we,' said Hillier, call it a draw? We've both done pretty well.'

'You yield?' said Theodorescu. 'You resign?'

'Of course not. I was suggesting we be reasonable. Over there a horrible example has been presented to us.' The ship's doctor, in evening dress of the mercantile marine, was shouting for the way to be cleared.

'It's time we moved on,' said Theodorescu. He called the chief steward. 'Bring,' he said, 'the cold sweet trolley.'

'This gentleman's in a pretty bad way, sir. If you don't mind waiting a minute-'

'Nonsense. This isn't a hospital ward.' It looked like it, though. A couple of orderlies had come in with a stretcher. While Mr Walters, snoring desperately, was being placed upon it, a Goanese steward trundled the cold sweet trolley along. Mrs Walters was weeping. The two children were nowhere to be seen. Mr Walters, in cort`ege, was carried out. Theodorescu and Hillier very nearly had the dining-saloon to themselves. 'Right,' said Theodorescu. 'Harlequin sherbet?'

'Harlequin sherbet.' They served each other.

'I think,' said Theodorescu, 'a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux.'

'What an excellent idea.'

They got through their sweets sourly. Peach mousse with sirop framboise. Cream dessert ring Chantilly with zabag-lione sauce. Poires H'el`ene with cold chocolate sauce. Cold Grand Marnier pudding. Strawberry marlow. Marrons panach'e vicomte. 'Look,' gasped Hillier, 'this sort of thing isn't my line at all.'

'Isn't it? Isn't it, Mr Jagger? What is your line then?'

'My teeth are on fire.'

'Cool them with some of this nectarine flan.'

'I think I shall be sick.'

'That's not allowed. That is not in the rules.'

'Who makes the rules?'

'I do.' Theodorescu poured Hillier a wonderful chill tumbler of frothing Blanquette. Hillier felt better after it. He was able to take some chocolate rum dessert, garnished with whipped cream and Kahlua, also some orange marmalade cr`eme bavaroise, loud with Cointreau. 'How about some apple tart normande with Calvados?' asked Theodorescu. But Hillier had an apocalyptical vision of his in-sides – all that churned mess of slop and fibre, cream sluggishly oozing along the pipes, the flavouring liqueurs ready to self-ignite, a frothing inner sea of souring wine. A small Indian township could have been nourished for a day on it all. This was the West that Roper had deserted. 'I give up,' he gasped. 'You win.'

'You owe me one thousand pounds,' said Theodorescu. 'I wish to be paid before we reach Yarylyuk. No. I may leave the cruise before then. I wish to be paid before noon tomorrow.'

'You can't leave before Yarylyuk. It's our next port.'

'There are such things as helicopters. Much depends on certain messages I may receive.'

'You can have a cheque now.'

'I know I can have a cheque now. But what I want is cash.'

'But I haven't any cash. At least, not that amount.'

'There's plenty in the purser's safe. You have, I take it, traveller's cheques or a letter of credit. Cash.' He now lit a cigar as unshakily as if he'd merely dined on a couple of poached eggs. Then he walked out of the dining-saloon dead straight. Hillier ran, pushing against him. That traditional vomitorium.

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