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By Evelyn Waugh

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Upper-class scoundrel Basil Seal, mad, bad, and dangerous to know, creates havoc wherever he goes, much to the despair of the three women in his life-his sister, his mother, and his mistress. When Neville Chamberlain declares war on Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for more action and adventure. So Basil follows the call to arms and sets forth to enjoy his finest hour-as a war hero. Basil’s instincts for self-preservation come to the fore as he insinuates himself into the Ministry of Information and a little-known section of Military Security. With Europe frozen in the “phoney war,” when will Basil’s big chance to fight finally arrive?

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Preface

This is the only book I have written purely for pleasure. It is none the better for that, but it gives me an affectionate regard for it when I recall the happy circumstances of its composition. It was the summer of 1941. For two years of military service I had been entirely divorced from writing. After the fall of Crete the Commandos in the Middle East were disbanded, and officers and men returned to their regiments. I found myself in a comfortable liner, full below decks with Italian prisoners, returning to the United Kingdom by the long route round the Cape, which then, for fear of enemy attack, followed the Westerly course. I was returning to my wife and children. I had comfort and leisure and negligible duties, a large cabin with a table and a pile of army stationery. I wrote all day, and the book was finished in a month.

The characters about whom I had written in the previous decade came to life for me. I was anxious to know how they had been doing since I last heard of them, and I followed them with no preconceived plan, not knowing where I should find them from one page to the next.

I may add that I had no personal knowledge of the Ministry of Information and relied on gossip for my caricature. I did, in the first weeks of the war, before I got my commission, suffer severely from "evacuees."

E. W.

Combe Florey 1966




One

Autumn

In the week which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War—days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace—and on the Sunday morning when all doubts were finally resolved and misconceptions corrected, three rich women thought first and mainly of Basil Seal. They were his sister, his mother and his mistress.

*

Barbara Sothill was at Malfrey; in recent years she had thought of her brother as seldom as circumstances allowed her, but on that historic September morning, as she walked to the village, he predominated over a multitude of worries.

She and Freddy had just heard the Prime Minister's speech, broadcast by wireless. "It is an evil thing we are fighting," he had said and as Barbara turned her back on the house where, for the most part, the eight years of her marriage had been spent, she felt personally challenged and threatened, as though, already, the mild, autumnal sky were dark with circling enemy and their shadows were trespassing on the sunlit lawns.

There was something female and voluptuous in the beauty of Malfrey; other lovely houses maintained a virginal modesty or a manly defiance, but Malfrey had no secret from the heavens; it had been built more than two hundred years ago in days of victory and ostentation and lay, spread out, sumptuously at ease, splendid, defenseless and provocative; a Cleopatra among houses; across the sea, Barbara felt, a small and envious mind, a meanly ascetic mind, a creature of the conifers, was plotting the destruction of her home. It was for Malfrey that she loved her prosaic and slightly absurd husband; for Malfrey, too, that she had abandoned Basil and with him the part of herself which, in the atrophy endemic to all fruitful marriages, she had let waste and die.

It was half a mile to the village down the lime avenue. Barbara walked because, just as she was getting into the car, Freddy had stopped her saying, "No petrol now for gadding about."

Freddy was in uniform, acutely uncomfortable in ten-year-old trousers. He had been to report at the yeomanry headquarters the day before, and was home for two nights collecting his kit, which, in the two years since he was last at camp, had been misused in charades and picnics and dispersed about the house in a dozen improbable places. His pistol, in particular, had been a trouble. He had had the whole household hunting it, saying fretfully, "It's all very well, but I can get court-martialled for this," until, at length, the nursery-maid found it at the back of the toy cupboard. Barbara was now on her way to look for his binoculars which she remembered vaguely having lent to the scoutmaster.

The road under the limes led straight to the village; the park gates of elaborately wrought iron swung on rusticated stone piers, and the two lodges formed a side of the village green; opposite them stood the church, on either side two inns, the vicarage, the shop and a row of gray cottages; three massive chestnuts grew from the roughly rectangular grass plot in the center. It was a Beauty Spot, justly but reluctantly famous, too much frequented of late by walkers but still, through Freddy's local influence, free of charabancs; a bus stopped three times a day on weekdays, four times on Tuesdays when the market was held in the neighboring town, and to accommodate passengers Freddy had that year placed an oak seat under the chestnuts.

It was here that Barbara's thoughts were brought up sharply by an unfamiliar spectacle; six dejected women sat in a row staring fixedly at the closed doors of the Sothill Arms. For a moment Barbara was puzzled; then she remembered. These were Birmingham women. Fifty families had arrived at Malfrey late on Friday evening, thirsty, hot, bewildered and resentful after a day in train and bus. Barbara had chosen the five saddest families for herself and dispersed the rest in the village and farms.

Punctually next day the head housemaid, a veteran of old Mrs. Sothill's regime, had given notice of leaving. "I don't know how we shall do without you," said Barbara.

"It's my legs, madam. I'm not strong enough for the work. I could just manage as things were, but now with children all over the place…"

"You know we can't expect things to be easy in war time. We must expect to make sacrifices. This is our war work."

But the woman was obdurate. "There's my married sister at Bristol," she said. "Her husband was on the reserve. I ought to go and help her now he's called up."

An hour later the remaining three housemaids had appeared with prim expressions of face.

"Edith and Olive and me have talked it over and we want to go and make aeroplanes. They say they are taking on girls at Brakemore's."

"You'll find it terribly hard work, you know."

"Oh, it's not the work, madam. It's the Birmingham women. The way they leave their rooms."

"It's all very strange for them at first. We must do all we can to help. As soon as they settle down and get used to our ways…" but she saw it was hopeless while she spoke.

"They say they want girls at Brakemore's," said the maids.

In the kitchen Mrs. Elphinstone was loyal. "But I can't answer for the girls," she said. "They seem to think war is an excuse for a lark."

It was the kitchen-maids, anyway, and not Mrs. Elphinstone, thought Barbara, who had to cope with the extra meals…

Benson was sound. The Birmingham women caused him no trouble. But James would be leaving for the Army within a few weeks. It's going to be a difficult winter, thought Barbara.

These women, huddled on the green, were not Barbara's guests but she saw on their faces the same look of frustration and defiance. Dutifully, rather than prudently, she approached the group and asked if they were comfortable. She spoke to them in general and each felt shy of answering; they looked away from her sullenly towards the locked inn. Oh dear, thought Barbara, I suppose they wonder what business it is of mine.

"I live up there," she said, indicating the gates. "I've been arranging your billets."

"Oh, have you?" said one of the mothers. "Then perhaps you can tell us how long we've got to stop."

"That's right," said another.

"D'you know," said Barbara, "I don't believe anyone has troubled to think about that. They've all been too busy getting you away."

"They got no right to do it," said the first mother. "You can't keep us here compulsory."

"But surely you don't want to have your children bombed, do you?"

"We won't stay where we're not wanted."

"That's right," said the yes-woman.

"But of course you're wanted."

"Yes, like the stomach-ache."

"That's right."

For some minutes Barbara reasoned with the fugitives until she felt that her only achievement had been to transfer to herself all the odium which more properly belonged to Hitler. Then she went on her way to the scoutmaster's, where, before she could retrieve the binoculars, she had to listen to the story of the Birmingham schoolmistress, billeted on him, who refused to help wash up.

As she crossed the green on her homeward journey, the mothers looked away from her.

"I hope the children are enjoying themselves a little," she said, determined not to be cut in her own village.

"They're down at the school. Teacher's making them play games."

"The park's always open you know, if any one of you care to go inside."

"We had a park where we came from. With a band Sundays."

"Well. I'm afraid I can't offer a band. But it's thought rather pretty, particularly down by the lake. Do take the children in if you feel like it."

When she had left the chief mother said: "What's she? Some kind of inspector, I suppose, with her airs and graces. The idea of inviting us into the park. You'd think the place belonged to her the way she goes on."

Presently the two inns opened their doors and the scandalized village watched a procession of mothers assemble from cottage, farm and mansion and make for the bar parlors.

*

Luncheon decided him; Freddy went upstairs immediately he left the dining-room and changed into civilian clothes. "Think I'll get my maid to put me into something loose," he said in the voice he used for making jokes. It was this kind of joke Barbara had learned to recognize during her happy eight years in his company.

Freddy was large, masculine, prematurely bald and superficially cheerful; at heart he was misanthropic and gifted with that sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich; his indolence was qualified with enough basic bad temper to ensure the respect of those about him. He took in most people, but not his wife or his wife's family.

Not only did he have a special expression of face for making jokes; he had one for use when discussing his brother-in-law Basil. It should have conveyed lofty disapproval tempered by respect for Barbara's loyalty; in fact it suggested sulkiness and guilt.

The Seal children, for no reason that was apparent to the rest of the world, had always held the rest of the world in scorn. Freddy did not like Tony; he found him supercilious and effeminate, but he was prepared to concede to him certain superiorities; no one doubted that there was a brilliant career ahead of him in diplomacy. The time would come when they would all be very proud of Tony. But Basil from his earliest days had been a source of embarrassment and reproach. On his own terms Freddy might have been willing to welcome a black sheep in the Seal family, someone who was "never mentioned," to whom he might, every now and then, magnanimously unknown to anyone except Barbara, extend a helping hand; someone, even, in whom he might profess to see more good than the rest of the world. Such a kinsman might very considerably have redressed the balance of Freddy's self-esteem. But, as Freddy found as soon as he came to know the Seals intimately, Basil, so far from being never mentioned, formed the subject of nearly half their conversation. At that time they were ever ready to discuss with relish his latest outrage, ever hopeful of some splendid success for him in the immediate future, ever contemptuous of the disapproval of the rest of the world. And Basil himself regarded Freddy pitilessly, with eyes which, during his courtship and the first years of marriage, he had recognized in Barbara herself.

For there was a disconcerting resemblance between Basil and Barbara; she, too, was farouche in a softer and deadlier manner, and the charm which held him breathless, flashed in gross and acquisitive shape in Basil. Maternity and the tranquil splendor of Malfrey had wrought changes in her; it was very rarely, now, that the wild little animal in her came above ground; but it was there, in its earth and from time to time he was aware of it, peeping out, after long absences; a pair of glowing eyes at the twist in the tunnel watching him as an enemy.

Barbara herself pretended to no illusions about Basil. Years of disappointment and betrayal had convinced her, in the reasoning part of her, that he was no good. They had played pirates together in the nursery and the game was over. Basil played pirates alone. She apostatized from her faith in him almost with formality, and yet, as a cult will survive centuries after its myths have been exposed and its sources of faith tainted, there was still deep in her that early piety, scarcely discernible now in a little residue of superstition, so that this morning when her world seemed rocking about her, she turned back to Basil. Thus, when earthquake strikes a modern city and the pavements gape, the sewers buckle up and the great buildings tremble and topple, men in bowler hats and natty, ready-made suitings, born of generations of literates and rationalists, will suddenly revert to the magic of the forest and cross their fingers to avert the avalanche of concrete.

Three times during luncheon Barbara had spoken of Basil and now, as she and Freddy walked arm in arm on the terrace she said, "I believe it's what he's been waiting for all these years."

"Who, waiting for what?"

"Basil, for the war."

"Oh… Well, I suppose in a way we all have really… the gardens are going to be a problem. I suppose we could get some of the men exemption on the grounds that they're engaged in agriculture, but it hardly seems playing the game."

It was Freddy's last day at Malfrey and he did not want to spoil it by talking of Basil. It was true that the yeomanry were not ten miles away; it was true, also, that they were unlikely to move for a very long time; they had recently been mechanized, in the sense that they had had their horses removed; few of them had ever seen a tank; he would be back and forwards continually during the coming months; he meant to shoot the pheasants; but although this was no final leave taking he felt entitled to more sentiment than Barbara was showing.

"Freddy, don't be bloody." She kicked him sharply on the ankle for she had found, early in married life, that Freddy liked her to swear and kick in private. "You know exactly what I mean. Basil needed a war. He's not meant for peace."

"That's true enough. The wonder is he's kept out of prison. If he'd been born in a different class he wouldn't have."

Barbara suddenly chuckled. "D'you remember how he took mother's emeralds, the time he went to Azania? But then you see that would never have happened if there'd been a war of our own for him to go to. He's always been mixed up in fighting."

"If you call living in a gin palace in La Paz and seeing generals shoot one another…"

"And Spain."

"Journalist and gun runner."

"He's always been a soldier manqué."

"Well, he hasn't done much about it. While he's been gadding about the rest of us have been training as territorials and yeomanry."

"Darling, a fat lot of training you've done."

"If there'd been more like us and fewer like Basil there'd never have been a war. You can't blame Ribbentrop for thinking us decadent when he saw people like Basil about. I don't suppose they'll have much use for him in the army. He's thirty-six. He might get some sort of job connected with censorship. He seems to know a lot of languages."

"You see," said Barbara. "Basil will be covered with medals while your silly old yeomanry are still messing in a Trust House and waiting for your tanks."

There were duck on the lake and she let Freddy talk about them. She led him down his favorite paths. There was a Gothic pavilion where by long habit Freddy often became amorous; he did become amorous. And all the time she thought of Basil. She thought of him in terms of the war books she had read. She saw him as Siegfried Sassoon, an infantry subaltern in a mud-bogged trench standing to at dawn, his eyes on his wrist watch, waiting for zero hour; she saw him as Compton Mackenzie, spider in a web of Balkan intrigue, undermining a monarchy among olive trees and sculptured marble; she saw him as T. E. Lawrence and Rupert Brooke.

Freddy, assuaged, reverted to sport. "I won't ask any of the regiment over for the early shoots," he said. "But I don't see why we shouldn't let some of them have a bang at the cocks round about Christmas."

II

Lady Seal was at her home in London. She had taken fewer precautions against air raids than most of her friends. Her most valuable possession, her small Carpaccio, had been sent to safe keeping at Malfrey; the miniatures and Limoges enamels were at the bank; the Sèvres was packed in crates and put below stairs. Otherwise there was no change in her drawing-room. The ponderous old curtains needed no unsightly strips of black paper to help them keep in the light.

The windows were open now on the balcony. Lady Seal sat in an elegant rosewood chair gazing out across the square. She had just heard the Prime Minister's speech. Her butler approached from the end of the room.

"Shall I remove the radio, my lady?"

"Yes, by all means. He spoke very well, very well indeed."

"It's all very sad, my lady."

"Very sad for the Germans, Anderson."

It was quite true, thought Lady Seal; Neville Chamberlain had spoken surprisingly well. She had never liked him very much, neither him nor his brother—if anything she had preferred the brother—but they were uncomfortable, drab fellows both of them. However, he had spoken very creditably that morning, as though at last he were fully alive to his responsibilities. She would ask him to luncheon. But perhaps he would be busy; the most improbable people were busy in war time, she remembered.

Her mind went back to the other war, that until that morning had been The War. No one very near to her had fought. Christopher had been too old, Tony just too young; her brother Edward had begun by commanding a brigade—they thought the world of him at the Staff College—but, inexplicably, his career had come to very little; he was still brigadier in 1918, at Dar-es-Salaam. But the war had been a sad time; so many friends in mourning and Christopher fretful about the coalition. It had been a bitter thing for them all, accepting Lloyd George, but Christopher had patriotically made the sacrifice with the rest of them; probably only she knew how much he had felt it. The worst time had been after the armistice, when peerages were sold like groceries and the peace terms were bungled. Christopher had always said they would have to pay for it in the long run.

The hideous, then unfamiliar shriek of the air-raid sirens sang out over London.

"That was the warning, my lady."

"Yes, Anderson, I heard it."

"Will you be coming downstairs?"

"No, not yet at any rate. Get all the servants down and see they are quiet."

"Will you require your respirator, my lady?"

"I don't suppose so. From what Sir Joseph tells me the danger of gas is very slight. In any case I daresay this is only a practice. Leave it on the table."

"Will that be all, my lady?"

"That's all. See that the maids don't get nervous."

Lady Seal stepped on to the balcony and looked up into the clear sky. They'll get more than they bargain for if they try and attack us, she thought. High time that man was taught a lesson. He's made nothing but trouble for years. She returned to her chair thinking, Anyway I never made a fuss of that vulgar man von Ribbentrop. I wouldn't have him inside the house, even when that goose Emma Granchester was plaguing us all to be friendly to him. I hope she feels foolish this morning.

Lady Seal waited with composure for the bombardment to begin. She had told Anderson it was probably only a practice. That was what one told servants; otherwise they might panic—not Anderson but the maids. But in her heart Lady Seal was sure that the attack was coming; it would be just like the Germans, always blustering and showing off and pretending to be efficient. The history Lady Seal had learned in the schoolroom had been a simple tale of the maintenance of right against the superior forces of evil and the battle honors of her country rang musically in her ears—Crecy, Agincourt, Cadiz, Blenheim, Gibraltar, Inkerman, Ypres. England had fought many and various enemies with many and various allies, often on quite recondite pretexts, but always justly, chivalrously, and with ultimate success. Often, in Paris, Lady Seal had been proud that her people had never fallen to the habit of naming streets after their feats of arms; that was suitable enough for the short-lived and purely professional triumphs of the French, but to put those great manifestations of divine rectitude which were the victories of England to the use, for their postal addresses, of milliners and chiropodists, would have been a baseness to which even the radicals had not stooped. The steel engravings of her schoolroom lived before her eyes, like tableaux at a charity fête—Sydney at Zutphen, Wolfe at Quebec, Nelson at Trafalgar (Wellington, only, at Waterloo was excluded from the pageant by reason of the proximity of Blücher, pushing himself forward with typical Prussian effrontery to share the glory which the other had won) and to this tremendous assembly (not unlike in Lady Seal's mind those massed groups of wealth and respectability portrayed on the Squadron Lawn at Cowes and hung with their key plans in lobbies and billiard rooms) was added that morning a single new and rather improbable figure, Basil Seal.

The last war had cost her little; nothing, indeed, except a considerable holding of foreign investments and her brother Edward's reputation as a strategist. Now she had a son to offer her country. Tony had weak eyes and a career, Freddy was no blood of hers and was not cast in a heroic mould, but Basil, her wayward and graceless and grossly disappointing Basil, whose unaccountable taste for low company had led him into so many vexatious scrapes in the last ten years, whose wild oats refused to correspond with those of his Uncle Edward; Basil who had stolen her emeralds and made Mrs. Lyne distressingly conspicuous; Basil, his peculiarities merged in the manhood of England, at last was entering on his inheritance. She must ask Jo about getting him a commission in a decent regiment.

At last, while she was still musing, the sirens sounded the All Clear.

*

Sir Joseph Mainwaring was lunching with Lady Seal that day. It was an arrangement made early in the preceding week before either of them knew that the day they were choosing was one which would be marked in the world's calendars until the end of history. He arrived punctually, as he always did; as he had done, times out of number, in the long years of their friendship.

Sir Joseph was not a church-going man except when he was staying at one of the very rare, very august houses where it was still the practice; on this Sunday morning, however, it would not have been fantastic to describe his spirit as inflamed by something nearly akin to religious awe. It would be fantastic to describe him as purged, and yet there had been something delicately purgative in the experiences of the morning and there was an unfamiliar buoyancy in his bearing as though he had been at somebody's Eno's. He felt ten years younger.

Lady Seal devoted to this old booby a deep, personal fondness which was rare among his numerous friends and a reliance which was incomprehensible but quite common.

"There's only ourselves, Jo," she said as she greeted him. "The Granchesters were coming but he had to go and see the King."

"Nothing could have been more delightful. Yes, I think we shall all be busy again now. I don't know exactly what I shall be doing yet. I shall know better after I've been to Downing Street tomorrow morning. I imagine it will be some advisory capacity to the War Cabinet. It's nice to feel in the center of things again, takes one back ten years. Stirring times, Cynthia, stirring times."

"It's one of the things I wanted to see Emma Granchester about. There must be so many committees we ought to start. Last war it was Belgian refugees. I suppose it will be Poles this time. It's a great pity it isn't people who talk a language one knows."

"No, no Belgians this time. It will be a different war in many ways. An economic war of attrition, that is how I see it. Of course we had to have all this A.R.P. and shelters and so on. The radicals were making copy out of it. But I think we can take it there won't be any air raids, not on London at any rate. Perhaps there may be an attempt on the seaports, but I was having a most interesting talk yesterday to Eddie Beste-Bingham at the Beefsteak; we've got a most valuable invention called R.D.F. That'll keep 'em off."

"Dear Jo, you always know the most encouraging things. What is R.D.F.?"

"I'm not absolutely clear about that. It's very secret."

"Poor Barbara has evacuees at Malfrey."

"What a shocking business! Dear, dreaming Malfrey. Think of a Birmingham board school in that exquisite Grinling Gibbons saloon. It's all a lot of nonsense, Cynthia. You know I'm the last man to prophesy rashly, but I think we can take one thing as axiomatic. There will be no air attack on London. The Germans will never attempt the Maginot line. The French will hold on forever, if needs be, and the German air-bases are too far away for them to be able to attack us. If they do, we'll R.D.F. them out of the skies."

"Jo," said Lady Seal, when they were alone with the coffee. "I want to talk to you about Basil."

How often in the last twenty years had Sir Joseph heard those heavy words, uttered with so many intonations in so wide a variety of moods, but always, without fail, the prelude, not, perhaps to boredom, but to a lowering of the interest and warmth of their converse! It was only in these maternal conferences that Cynthia Seal became less than the perfect companion, only then that, instead of giving, she demanded, as it were, a small sumptuary duty upon the riches of her friendship.

Had he been so minded Sir Joseph could have drawn a graph of the frequency and intensity of these discussions. There had been the steady rise from nursery, through school to the university, when he had been called on to applaud each new phase of Basil's precocious development. In those days he had accepted Basil at his face value as an exceptionally brilliant and beautiful youth in danger of being spoiled. Then, towards the end of Basil's second year at Balliol had come a series of small seismic disturbances, when Cynthia Seal was alternately mutely puzzled or eloquently distressed; then the first disaster, rapidly followed by Christopher's death. From then onwards for fifteen years the line had dipped and soared dizzily as Basil's iniquities rose on the crest or fell into the trough of notoriety, but with the passing years there had been a welcome decline in the mean level; it was at least six months since he had heard the boy's name.

"Ah," he said. "Basil, eh," trying to divine from his hostess's manner whether he was required to be judicial, compassionate or congratulatory.

Genre:

  • "Waugh's particular genius at its best....His most important book....He constructs not only the funniest but also the most cruelly searching image to date of England in her last fateful moment of history."—TIME
  • "Extremely amusing....It starts out as a wicked satire in the well-known Waugh manner and ends up as a morality play."—John Chamberlain, New York Times
  • "Very witty....An exceptional novel."—Boston Globe
  • "Triumphant....The greatest of Evelyn Waugh's great novels. As such it deserves to be revived and reread as long as we read English."—E. Sissman, Atlantic Monthly

On Sale
Dec 11, 2012
Publisher
Hachette Audio
ISBN-13
9781619693906

Evelyn Waugh

About the Author

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), whom Time called “one of the century’s great masters of English prose,” wrote several widely acclaimed novels as well as volumes of biography, memoir, travel writing, and journalism. Three of his novels, A Handful of Dust, Scoop, and Brideshead Revisited, were selected by the Modern Library as among the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.

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