A WEEK later, a little after three, I was at home doing some work on a new novel. My wife was puttering around. Later on I was to call for Ernest. A knock came on the door. And there were Scott and Ernest. The two old friends seemed to be in the best of humour. I could hardly conceal my pleasure.
When I had come to Paris I had wanted to enjoy the company of these two men. Now they were together and they had come to my place—my friends. They had had lunch, Ernest said, and had decided to pick me up rather than wait for me. And Scott now was having his way. Ernest was carrying the bag that held the gloves. While I was getting ready, Scott talked to Loretto. But Ernest, having spotted a copy of The New York Times Book Review on top of our trunk, began to go through it carefully. I can still see him standing by the window, slowly turning the pages. I can see us waiting at the door until he had finished reading a review.
On the way to the American Club in the taxi, it seemed to me that Scott and Ernest were at ease with each other. There was no sense of strain and Scott looked alert and happy. We joked a bit. At the club—I remember the scene so vividly—I remember how Scott, there for the first time, looked around in surprise. The floor had no mat. Through the doorway opening into the next room, he could see two young fellows playing billiards. Scott sat down on the bench by the wall, while Ernest and I stripped. Then Ernest had him take out his watch and gave him his instructions. A round was to be three minutes, then a minute for a rest. As he took these instructions, listening carefully, Scott had none of Miro’s air of high professionalism. He was too enchanted at being there with us. Moving off the bench, he squatted down, a smile on his face. “Time,” he called.
Our first round was like most of the rounds we had fought that summer, with me shuffling around, and Ernest, familiar with my style, leading and chasing after me. No longer did he rush in with his old brisk confidence. Now he kept an eye on my left hand and he was harder to hit. As I shuffled around I could hear the sound of clicking billiard balls from the adjoining room.
“Time,” Scott called promptly. When we sat down beside him, he was rather quiet, meditative, and I could tell by the expression on his face that he was mystified. He must have come there with some kind of a picture of Ernest, the fighter, in his head. For Ernest and me it was just like any other day.
We chatted and laughed. And it didn’t seem to be important to us that Scott was there. He had made no comment that could bother us. He seemed to be content that he was there concentrating on the minute hand of his watch. “Time,” he called.
Right at the beginning of that round Ernest got careless; he came in too fast, his left down, and he got smacked on the mouth. His lip began to bleed. It had often happened. It should have meant nothing to him. Hadn’t he joked with Jimmy, the bartender, about always having me for a friend while I could make his lip bleed? Out of the corner of his eye he may have seen the shocked expression on Scott’s face. Or the. taste of blood in his mouth may have made him want to fight more savagely. He came lunging in, swinging more recklessly. As I circled him, I kept jabbing at his bleeding mouth. I had to forget all about Scott, for Ernest had become roughter, his punching a little wilder than usual. His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me. I had to punch faster and harder myself to keep away from him. It bothered me that he was taking the punches on the face like a man telling himself he only needed to land one big punch himself.
Out of the corner of my eye, as I bobbed and weaved, I could see one of the young fellows who had been playing billiards come to the door and stand there, watching. He was in his shirt sleeves, but he was wearing a vest. He held his cue in his hand like a staff. I could see Scott on the bench. I was wondering why I was tiring, for I hadn’t been hit solidly. Then Ernest, wiping the blood from his mouth with his glove, and probably made careless with exasperation and embarrassment from having Scott there, came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing must have been just right. I caught him on the jaw; spinning around he went down, sprawled out on his back.
If Ernest and I had been there alone I would have laughed I was sure of my boxing friendship with him; in a sense I was sure of him, too. Ridiculous things had happened in that room. Hadn’t he spat in my face? And I felt no surprise seeing him flat on his back. Shaking his head a little to clear it, he rested a moment on his back. As he rose slowly, I expected him to curse, then laugh.
“Oh, my God!” Scott cried suddenly. When I looked at him, alarmed, he was shaking his head helplessly. “I let the round go four minutes,” he said.
“Christ!” Ernest yelled. He got up. He was silent for a few seconds, Scott, staring at his watch, was mute and wondering. I wished I were miles away. “All right, Scott,” Ernest said savagely, “If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake,” and he stomped off to the shower room to wipe the blood from his mouth.
As I tried to grasp the meaning behind his fierce words I felt helpless with wonder, and nervous too; I seemed to be on the edge of some dark pit, and I could only stare blankly at Scott, who, as his eyes met mine, looked sick. Ernest had told me he had been avoiding Scott because Scott was a drunk and a nuisance and he didn’t want to be bothered with him. It was plain now it wasn’t the whole story. Lashing out with those bitter angry words, Ernest had practically shouted that he was aware Scott had some deep hidden animosity towards him. Shaken as I was, it flashed through my mind, Is the animosity in Scott, or is it really in Ernest? And why should it be in Ernest? Did Scott da something for him once? Is it that Scott helped him along and for months and months he’s wanted to be free of him? Or does he think he knows something knows Scott has to resent him? What is it? Not just that Scott’s a drunk. I knew there was something else.
Then Scott came over to me, his face ashen, and he whispered, “Don’t you see I got fascinated watching? I forgot all about the watch. My God, he thinks I did it on purpose. Why would I do it on purpose?”
“You wouldn’t,” I said, deeply moved, for he looked so stricken. For weeks he had been heaping his admiration of Ernest on me, his hero worship, and I knew of his eagerness for the companionship. Anyone who could say that he was under some secret and malevolent compulsion to let the round go on would have to say, too, that all men are twisted and no man knows what is in his heart. All I knew was that for weeks he had wanted to be here with us, and now that he was here it had brought him this.
“Look, Scott,” I whispered. “If you did it on purpose you wouldn’t have suddenly cried out that you had let the round go on. You didn’t need to. You would have kept quiet. Ernest will see it himself.” But Scott didn’t answer. He looked as lonely and as desperate as he had looked that night when he had insisted on coming to the Deux Magots with Loretto and me. The anguish on his face was the anguish of a man who felt that everything he had stood for when he had been at his best, had been belittled.,
“Come on, Scott,” I whispered. “Ernest didn’t mean it. It’s a thing I might have said myself. A guy. gets sore and blurts out the first crazy thing that comes into his head.”
“No, you heard him. He believes I did it on purpose,” he whispered bitterly. “What can I do, Morley?”
“Don’t do anything,” I whispered. “Forget the whole thing. He’ll want to forget it himself. You’ll see.”
He moved away from me as Ernest returned from the shower . room. With his face washed, Ernest looked much calmer. He had probably done a lot of thinking, too. Yet he offered no retraction. For my part, I tried to ignore the whole incident. Since we had had a good two or three minutes’ rest to make up for the long round, why couldn’t we go on now? I asked. It gave us something to do. Ernest and I squared off.
Scott, appearing alert and efficient, and hiding his terrible sense of insult and bitterness, called “Time.” As I look back now I wonder why it didn’t occur to me, as we began the round, that Ernest might try to kill me. But between us there was no hostility. The fact that I had been popping him, and then had clipped him and knocked him down, was part of our boxing. We went a good brisk round, both keeping out of trouble. When we clinched, my eye would wander to Scott, sitting there so white-faced. Poor Scott. Then suddenly he made it worse. The corner of a wrestling mat stuck out from under the parallel bars, and when I half tripped on it and went down on one knee, Scott, to mollify Ernest, called out foolishly, but eagerly, “One knockdown to Ernest, one to Morley,” and if I had been Ernest, I think I would have snarled at him, no matter how good his intentions were.
But it was to continue to be a terrible and ridiculous afternoon for Ernest. It is a wonder he didn’t go a little mad.
As soon as we had finished the round, that slender young fellow who had been playing billiards, the one wearing the vest, who had been standing watching, his cue in his hand, came over to us. He might have been an inch taller than me, but he was very slender; he couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and thirty-five pounds. A student probably. “Excuse me,” he said to Ernest in an English accent. “I’ve been watching. Do you mind me saying something? Well, in boxing it isn’t enough to be aggressive and always punching. If you don’t mind getting hit.”
It was incredible. The student was prepared to tell Ernest how to box. I was shocked and fearful. But Scott and I, gaping at the student, must have been sharing the same sense of dread. What would Ernest do? A man can stand only so many mortifications in a single afternoon. If Ernest had grabbed the presumptuous fellow’s billiard cue and broken it over his head, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Yet Ernest, after waiting a moment, the moment of astonishment, asked quietly, “Do you think you could show me?”
“Well, I could try,” the young fellow said modestly.
“Good,” said Ernest. “No, wait. Don’t show me. Show him,’ and he pointed to me. “I’ll watch.”
Now I, in my turn, felt a twinge of resentment against Ernest. The student didn’t want to show me how to box; he wanted to show Ernest, didn’t he? I was to be used as a timing fork. And who could tell whether or not this slender fellow was an English lightweight champion? Scott hadn’t said a word. Nor did he speak as he removed Ernest’s gloves and laced them on the intruder. Squaring off with him, I was ready to cover up like a turtle. As we circled around each other, I tried warily to make him lead at me. A feeble left did come at me, but it seemed to be only a feint. This boy was obviously a counter-puncher. Sooner or later I would have to lead at him. He had probably worked with pros. He was probably a hooker; I had always been rattled by a good hooker. I would lead now, then he would blow my head off. But gradually I was forcing him into a corner. Suddenly I caught a familiar expression in his eyes. I could see he was more scared of me than I was of him. As I began to flail away happily at the young fellow’s head, Ernest suddenly shouted, “Stop!”
Now Ernest had a very good moment. In a beautiful bit of acting, not a trace of mockery in his tone, he said to the student, “I think I understand what you meant. Now show me.” The student looked pale and worried. Against me he had been inept and he knew it, and he knew, too, that he had in effect invited Ernest to knock his block off. Then he caught the derision in Ernest’s eyes. Shaking his head apologetically, he would have withdrawn. “No, come on. You’ve got to show me,” Ernest insisted.
The student still believed, no doubt, that Ernest was wide open. As he faced him he crouched a little, his hands high, ready to demonstrate his defence. Smiling faintly, Ernest spread his legs, stood rooted there like a great stiff tree trunk, and simply stuck his long left arm straight out like a pole and put his right glove on his hip, contemptuously. He refused to move. It was a splendid dramatic gesture of complete disdain. In fairness to him, he didn’t try to clobber the boy, didn’t try to strike a single blow. As the student circled around him, he, himself, turned slowly like a gate, the hand still on his hip, the great pole of an arm thrust out stiffly.
The student grew humiliated. Without hitting a blow or being hit, he quit. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really haven’t done much boxing. I’ve read a lot about it. It looked much easier than it is,” and he held out his gloves to me and let me unlace them. I didn’t feel sorry for him. He went back quickly to his billiard table.
The student’s absurd intervention, adding to the general sense of humiliation, must have put Scott more on edge. He must have felt bewildered. Yet now my two friends began to behave splendidly. Not a word was said about the student. We were all suddenly polite, agreeable, friendly and talkative. I knew how Scott felt; he had told me. He felt bitter, insulted, disillusioned in the sense that he had been made aware of an antagonism in Ernest. Only one thing could have saved him for Ernest. An apology. A restoration of respect, a lifting of the accusation. But Ernest had no intention of apologizing. He obviously saw no reason why he should. So we all behaved splendidly. We struck up a graceful camaraderie. Ernest was jovial with Scott. We were all jovial. We went out and walked up to the Falstaff. And no one watching us sitting there at the bar could have imagined that Scott’s pride had been shattered.
Yet he had some class, some real style there at the bar. I told Ernest that Scott agreed with me that the chapters of a novel I had started ought to be abandoned. I remember Ernest saying, “There are two ways of looking at it. You can think of a career, and would it help your career to have it published? Or you can say to hell with a career and publish it anyway.” Scott said he was glad I wasn’t going on with the book. As we exchanged opinions I noticed that two of the patrons, two young fellows at a nearby table, were craning their necks, listening and watching. And I laughed and said that by tomorrow word would go around the cafe that I, shamefully, was letting Fitzgerald and Hemingway tell me what to do about a book. Ernest said, “What do you care? We’re professionals. We only care whether the thing is as good as it should be.” And again, as I say, anyone watching would have believed that we were three writers talking about a literary problem. No one could have imagined anything had happened that could be heartbreaking. Well, I had come a long way to have my two friends get together with me, and here they were.
Перевод: глава 26 (А. Бураковская).