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'And how," asked Hillier somewhat guiltily, 'is your husband?' He felt vaguely responsible for Mr Walters's coronary; he had propagandised for gluttony instead of, after at latest the filet mignon, standing up to denounce it in a Father Byrne-type sermon. But he had thought he stood a good chance of winning a thousand pounds, a useful sum for his retirement. Now he had to pay out all that in cash and he couldn't do it. At any rate, the money had been demanded, with the grace of a brief moratorium. He felt, though, with a spy's intuition, that it might not really come to that. The first thing was to find out more about Theodorescu. That was why he was here, on the touchline of the dance, drinking Cordon Bleu mixed with cr`eme de menthe – a reef of crushed ice below – at the simple graceful metal bar of the open-air recreation deck. He was looking for Miss Devi. It was proper anyway, quite apart from pumping her for information, to want to see Miss Devi on this delicious Adriatic summer night with its expensive stellar and ltaiar show put on for the dancing tycoons and their women. He would, alternatively, have liked to see something of Miss Walters, but her father was very ill, there were questions of decency.

But Mrs Walters seemed above such questions, knocking back large highballs while her husband snored desperately in the sickbay. Hillier was able to see her more closely now, even to glance with shamed favour into the deep cut of her midnight blue straight satin, a gauzy stole of evening blue loose on her shoulders. Her hair was a frizzed auburn, not too attractive; she had a mean heart-shaped face with eyes she narrowed in a habit of cunning; her ears were lobeless and j'angled no rings. She was no more than thirty-eight. She said now, in a contralto surprisingly unresonant: 'He brought this on himself. That's his third stroke. I warn him and warn him but he says he's determined to enj'oy life. Look where enj'oying life has put him.'

'In a decently-run order of things,' said Hillier senten-tiously, 'the pleasures of wealthy age would be reserved for indigent youth.'

'You kidding?' said Mrs Walters. A vulgar woman perhaps at bottom. 'He was brought up on bread and jam, he says. Weak tea out of a tin can. Now he's got the better of bread, he reckons, owning all these flour-mills. Those children of his, believe it or not, have not eaten one slice of bread since the day they were weaned. He won't have bread in the house.' All the time she talked, she looked distractedly beyond Hillier, as though expecting someone.

'But,' repeated Hillier, 'how is your husband?'

'He'll recover,' she said with indifference. 'They've been injecting things into him.' And now she flashed brilliantly, swaying her hips minimally, as a sort of paradigm of a fancy man approached-a man who, Hillier felt, must, beneath the green dinner-jacket, the pomade, talc, cologne, after-shave lotion, anti-sweat dabs in the oxters, have a subtle and ineradicable odour of cooking-fat. They were both vulgar: let them get on with it.

Hillier strolled away from the bar, drink in one hand, one hand in side-pocket, pleased that the thought of cooking-fat did not make him feel queasy. He had given most of the monstrous dinner to the sea-quietly, in a quiet corner near some lifeboats. It had all tasted of nothing as it came up, one flavour cancelling out another. Now he felt well, though not hungry. Gazing benevolently at the dancers, who were performing some teen-age hip-shake, jowls shaking in a different rhythm, he was happy to see that Miss Devi was on the floor, partnered by a junior ship's officer. Good. He would ask her for the next dance. He hoped it would be something civilised, in which bodies were clasped firmly against each other. These new youngsters, who could have all the sex they wanted, were very sexless really. Their dances were narcissistic. They were trying to make themselves androgynous. Perhaps it was the first stage in a long process of evolution which should end in a human worm. Hillier had a vision of human worms and shuddered. Let us have plenty of sex while it is still there. I warn him and warn him but he says he's determined to enjoy life. Mrs Walters and her fancy man had gone off somewhere, perhaps towards the lifeboats. Why were lifeboats aphrodisiacal? Perhaps, something to do with urgency. Adam and Eve on a raft.

The hip-shaking stopped, dancers returned to their tables. Miss Devi was alone with the junior ship's officer. He, a mere servant, could easily be seen off. Hillier waited, watching the two suck up something long through straws. The band-leader, who seemed very drunk, said: 'This next one would be for the oldsters, if there were any oldsters here.' Everything laid on, even flattery. The band started to play a slow fox-trot.

Miss Devi seemed quite pleased to be asked to dance by Hillier. 'I rather regret that silly wager now,' said Hillier as they did feather-steps. 'I don't mean because I lost – that's nothing – but because it was a sort of insult to India. I mean, look at it as a sort of tableau in a play by Brecht or somebody – two Western men gorging, a thousand pounds on it, and India watches, sad-eyed, aware of her starving millions.'

Miss Devi laughed. Her slender body, strained back in the dance, was delicious in his arms. Hillier, as he often did when close to a desirable woman, began to feel hungry. 'Starving millions,' she repeated, with a sort of cool mockery. 'I think that we all get what we want. Having too many children and not farming the land properly -that's as much as to say "I want to starve".'

'So you don't go in for compassion, pity, things of that sort?'

She thought about that, dancing. 'I try not to. We should know the consequences of our acts.'

'And if a mad stranger breaks into my house and knifes me?'

'It's pre-ordained, willed from the beginning. You can't fight God's will. To pity the victim is to resent the executioner. God should not be resented.'

'It's strange to me to hear you talking about God.' She looked coldly at him, stiffening. 'I mean here, on a luxury cruise, dancing a slow fox-trot.'

'Why? Everything's in God-slow fox-trot, saxophone, the salted peanuts on the bar. Why should it be strange? The universe is one thing.'

Hillier groaned to himself: it was like Roper talking, except that Roper wouldn't have God. 'And the universe has only one law?' he said.

'The laws are contained in it, not imposed. Whatever we do, we obey the law.'

'What does Mr Theodorescu say when you talk like that?'

'He tends to agree with me. He accepts the primacy of the will. We should do what we want to do. Never nurse unacted desires.'

Good. 'And if we desire a person, not just a thing?'

'There must be a harmony of wills. Sometimes this is predestined. Usually it has to be contrived out of one person's desire. It's the task of the d'esirer to bring about a reciprocal desire. That's perhaps the most Godlike function a human soul can take on. It's a kind of creation of destiny.'

As logic this made little sense to Hillier, but he wasn't going to tell her that. Nor did he just yet propose to swoop down to the practical and personal application of her theory. Plenty of time, all the night before you. Switch on the oven and stack the dishes in the warming-drawer. 'You yourself,' he said, 'whose desirability is not in question, must have had this reciprocity wished on you many times. And in many countries.'

'Some countries more than others. But I have little time for social life.'

'Mr Theodorescu keeps you pretty busy?'

'Oh, what a terrible sour note that was.' She screwed up her face delectably. 'That saxophone-player seems to be drunk. What did you say? Oh, yes, pretty busy.'

Hillier now saw the steward Wriste, smoking, watching the dancing from a far door. He had put on a shirt and spotted bow-tie for the evening. Catching sight of Hillier, he waved cheerily but discreetly, opening his mouth with a kind of toothless joy. Hillier said: 'Typing and so on? I've been working on the design of a cheap lightweight electrical typewriter. You can carry it about and plug it into a lamp-socket.'

'We're dancing,' said Miss Devi, 'under the starry Adriatic sky, and all you can think of to talk to me about is typewriters.'

'The universe is one thing. God and typewriters and drunken saxophonists. What sort of business does Mr Theodorescu do? Mr Theodorescu is also part of the universe.'

'He calls himself an entrep^ot of industrial information. He buys and sells it.'

'And is he always paid in cash?'

She didn't answer. But 'Look,' she said, 'if you're trying to find out whether Mr Theodorescu and I have a personal relationship, the answer is no. And if you're going to ask me to use my personal influence to get your debt rescinded, then the answer is again no. People shouldn't gamble with Mr Theodorescu. He always wins.'

'And supposing I refuse to pay him?'

'That would be most unwise. You might have an unfortunate accident. He's a very powerful man.'

'You mean he'd harm me physically? Well then, perhaps I'd better get in first. I can fight as dirtily as the best of them. I think a gentleman ought to be willing to accept the cheque of another gentleman. Mr Theodorescu wants cash and is ready to engineer unfortunate accidents. I don't think Mr Theodorescu is a gentleman.'

'You'd better not let him hear you say that.'

'Where is he? I'll say it to his face with pleasure. But I suppose he's flat out on his bunk or in his luxe suite or whatever it is.'

'Ah, no. He's in the radio-room, busy with messages. Mr Theodorescu is never ill. He can eat and drink anything. He is, I think, the most virile man I know.'

'Sorry,' said Hillier to a couple he'd nearly bumped into. And, to Miss dancing Devi, 'Yet he's not virile enough to want to draw you into a reciprocal nexus of desire.'

'You use very pompous words. Mr Theodorescu is interested in a different kind of sex. He has exhausted, he says, the possibilities of women.'

'Does that mean that the precocious Master Walters will have to watch out?'

'He is also the discreetest man I know. He is very discreet about everything.'

'My tastes are normal. I don't need so much discretion.'

'What do you mean?' But, before he could answer, she surveyed his face with cat's eyes. 'It seems to me,' she said, 'that you are for some reason trying to make yourself ugly. The face I am looking at doesn't seem to be your face at all. You are perhaps a man of mystery. That young and forward boy doesn't believe you have anything to do with typewriters. A minute ago you were too quick to bring typewriters into our discourse, as though you were trying to convince yourself that typewriters are your professional concern. Why are you here? Why are you taking this voyage? Who are you?'

'My name is Sebastian Jagger. I'm a typewriter technician.' Hillier sang those words gently in a free adaptation of Mimi's aria in the first act of La Boh`eme. This did not clash with the music of the fox-trot. The pianist, who seemed as drunk as his leader, was doing something atonal and aleatoric; meanwhile drummer and bassist assured the dancers that this was still the dance they had started off to dance. 'I've been doing some work for Olivetti. I'm returning to England for a time, but I'm taking a holiday first.'

'I would like to strip you,' she said, her eyes deliciously malicious, 'and see what sort of man you really are.'

'Let us,' said Hillier gallantly, 'have some reciprocal stripping.'

The music suddenly, except for the pianist, stopped. A glowingly healthy though tubby man with grey curls, evening dress and dog-collar was standing on the players' rostrum. 'My friends,' he intoned with easy loudness. The pianist came in with a recitative accompaniment but then was hushed. The congregation listened, arms still about each other as in a love feast. 'It has been suggested to me that we end now. As most of you will know, one of our fellow-passengers is in the sickbay. Our revelry is, apparently, all too audible there. The worst is feared, I fear, for the poor man. It would be reverent and considerate to end the evening quietly, perhaps even in meditation. Thank you.' He got down to some light applause. The band-leader called: 'You've had it, chums. Proceed quietly to your homes and do nothing naughty at street-corners.'

'I think,' said Miss Devi, her left arm still lightly about Hillier, 'you're being insolent.'

'You're a great one for the forms, aren't you?' said Hillier. 'You admire discretion, you resent insolence. An indiscreet God had the insolence to make me what I am. What I am you are more than welcome to find out. At leisure. Stripping,' he added, 'was the process you had in mind.'

'I shall lock my cabin door.'

'You do that. You lock it.' Hillier's stomach growled with hunger. Miss Devi's arm was still about him. He slowly dislodged it. 'That silver ring-thing on your nose,' he said. He tweaked it and she started back. 'Keep it on,' he said. 'Don't, whatever else you do, take off that.' She raised her head high as though with the intention of placing a water-vessel on it, sketched a small spitting gesture, and then, with Aryan dignity, made her way off through the dispersing crowd Wriste was still on the periphery. His friend the winger was with him, a lean, burnt, sardonic man in early middle age, still dressed as for the dining-saloon. 'I thought you was doing all right there,' said Wriste. 'Ta for the Guinness,' said the winger once more, leering. Hillier said: 'I want food brought to my cabin.'

'You've got to hand it to him,' nodded the winger. 'Unless, of course, he's just showing off.'

'All passengers' wishes must, providing they seem reasonable, be acceded to without question,' said Wriste primly. 'What can I get for you, sir?'

'Crustaceans, if you know what those are. No garnishings, but don't forget the red pepper. A painfully cold bottle of Sekt.'

'Right, sir. And the number of the cabin you have in mind, if you don't know it already, is fifty-eight. Gor-blimey,' said Wriste old-fashionedly, 'how the poor live.'

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