There were two letters waiting for him, propped against the tooth-glass on the washstand. The first he opened, contained letter-paper headed The Entrenationo Language Centre: a typed message ‘Our charge for a course of thirty lessons in Entrenationo is six guineas. A specimen lesson has been arranged for you at 8.45 o’clock tomorrow (the 16th inst.), and we very much hope that you will be encouraged to take a full course. If the time arranged is for any reason inconvenient, will you please give us a ring and have it altered to suit your requirements?’ The other was from Lord Benditch's secretary confirming the appointment.
The Entrenationo Language Centre was on the third floor of a building on the south side of Oxford Street: over a bead shop, an insurance company, and the offices of a magazine called Mental Health. An old lift jerked him up: he was uncertain of what he would find at the top. He pushed open a door marked ‘Inquiries’ and found a large draughty room with several armchairs, two filing cabinets, and a counter at which a middle-aged woman sat knitting. He said, ‘My name is D. I have come for a specimen lesson.’
‘I'm so glad,’ she said and smiled at him brightly. She had a wizened idealist’s face and ragged hair and she wore a blue woollen jumper with scarlet bobbles. She said, ‘I hope you will soon be quite an old friend,’ and rang a bell. What a country, he thought with reluctant and ironic admiration. She said, ‘Dr Bellows always likes to have a word with new clients.’ Was it Dr Bellows, he wondered, whom he had to see? A little door opened behind the counter into a private office. ‘Would you just step through?’ the woman said, lifting the counter.
No, he couldn't believe that it was Dr Bellows. Dr Bellows stood in the little tiny room, all leather and walnut stain and the smell of dry ink, and held out both hands. He had smooth white hair and a look of timid hope. He said something which sounded like ‘Me tray joyass’. His gestures and his voice were more grandiloquent than his face, which seemed to shrink from innumerable rebuffs. He said, ‘The first words of the Entrenationo Language must always be ones of welcome.’
‘That is good of you,’ D. said. Dr Bellows closed the door. He said, ‘I have arranged that your lesson I hope I shall be able to say lessons will be given by a compatriot. That is always, if possible, our system. It induces sympathy and breaks the new world order slowly. You will find Mr K. is quite an able teacher.’
‘I'm sure of it.’
‘But first,’ Dr Bellows said, ‘I always like to explain just a little of our ideals.’ He still held D. by the hand, and he led him gently on towards a leather chair. He said, ‘I always hope that a new client has been brought here by love.’
‘Love of all the world. A desire to be able to exchange ideas with everybody. All this hate,’ Dr Bellows said, ‘these wars we read about in the newspapers, they are all due to misunderstanding. If we all spoke the same language . . .’ He suddenly gave a little wretched sigh which wasn't histrionic. He said, ‘It has always been my dream to help.’ The rash unfortunate man had tried to bring his dream to life, and he knew that it wasn't good the little leather chairs and the draughty waiting-room and the woman in a jumper knitting. He had dreamt of universal peace, and he had two floors on the south side of Oxford Street. There was something of a saint about him, but saints are successful.
D. said, ‘I think it is a very noble work.’
‘I want everyone who comes here to realize that this isn’t just a commercial relationship. I want you all to feel my fellow-workers.’
‘I know we haven't got very far yet . . . But we have done better than you may think. We have had Italians, Germans, a Siamese, one of your own countrymen as well as English people. But of course it is the English who support us best. Alas, I cannot say the same of France.’
‘It is a question of time,’ D. said. He felt sorry for the old man.
‘I have been at it now for thirty years. Of course the War was our great blow.’ He suddenly sat firmly up and said, ‘But the response this month has been admirable. We have given five sample lessons. You are the sixth. I mustn't keep you any longer away from Mr K.’ A clock struck nine in the waiting-room. ‘La hora sonas,’' Dr Bellows said with a frightened smile and held out his hand. ‘That is the clock sounds.’ He held D.’s hand again in his, as if he were aware of more sympathy than he was accustomed to. ‘I like to welcome an intelligent man . . . it is possible to do so much good.’ He said, ‘May I hope to have another interesting talk with you?’
‘Yes. I am sure of it.’
Dr Bellows clung to him a little longer in the doorway. ‘I ought perhaps to have warned you. We teach by the direct method. We trust to your honour not to speak anything but Entrenationo.’ He shut himself back in his little room. The woman in the jumper said, ‘Such an interesting man, don't you think, Dr Bellows?’
‘He has great hopes.’
‘One must don't you think?’ She came out from behind the counter and led him back to the lift. ‘The tuition rooms are on the fourth floor. Just press the button. Mr K. will be waiting.’ He rattled upwards. He wondered what Mr K. would look like surely he wouldn't fit in here if he belonged to the ravaged world he had himself emerged from.
But he did fit in with the building if not with the idealism. A little shabby and ink-stained, he was any underpaid language master in a commercial school. He wore steel spectacles and economized on razor blades. He opened the lift door and said, ‘Bona matina.’
‘Bona matina,’ D. said, and Mr K. led the way down a pitch-pine passage walnut-stained: one big room the size of the waiting-room below had been divided into four. He couldn’t help wondering whether he was not wasting his time somebody might have made a mistake but then, who could have got his name and address? Or had L. arranged this to get him out of the hotel while he had his room searched? But that, too, was impossible. L. had no means of knowing his address before he had the pocket-book.
Mr K. ushered him into a tiny cubicle warmed by a tepid radiator. Double windows shut out the air and the noise of the traffic far below in Oxford Street. On one wall was hung a simple child-like picture on rollers a family sat eating in front of what looked like a Swiss chalet. The father had a gun, and one lady an umbrella; there were mountains, a forest, a waterfall; the table was crammed with an odd mixture of food apples, an uncooked cabbage, a chicken, pears, oranges and raw potatoes, a joint of meat. A child played with a hoop, and a baby sat up in a pram drinking out of a bottle. On the, other wall was a clockface with movable hands. Mr K. said, ‘Tablo’ and rapped on the table. He sat down with emphasis on one of the two chairs, and said, ‘Essehgo.’ D. followed suit. Mr K. said, ‘El timo es . . .’ he pointed at the clock, ‘neuvo.’ He began to take a lot of little boxes out of his pocket. He said, ‘Attentio.’
D. said, ‘I'm sorry. There must be some mistake. . .’
Mr K. piled the little boxes one on top of the other, counting as he did so, ‘Una, Da, Trea, Kwara, Vif.’ He added in a low voice, ‘We are forbidden by the rules to talk anything but Entrenationo. I am fined one shilling if I am caught. So please speak low except in Entrenationo.’
‘Somebody arranged a lesson for me . . .’
‘That is quite right. I have had instructions.’ He said, ‘Que son la?’ pointing at the boxes and replied to his own question, ‘La son castes.’ He lowered his voice again and said, ‘What were you doing last night?’
‘Of course I want to see your authority.’
Mr K. took a card from his pocket and laid it in front of D. He said, ‘Your boat was only two hours late and yet you were not in London last night.’
‘First I missed my train delay at the passport control then a woman offered me a lift: the tyre burst, and I was delayed at a roadhouse. L. was there.’
‘Did he speak to you?’
‘He sent me a note offering me two thousand pounds.’
An odd expression came into the little man's eyes it was, like envy or hunger. He said, ‘What did you do?’
‘Nothing, of course.’
Mr K. took off the old steel-rimmed spectacles and wiped the lenses. He said, ‘Was the girl connected with L?’
‘I think it's unlikely.’
‘What else happened?' He said suddenly, pointing at the picture, ‘La es un famil. Un famil gentilbono.’ The door opened and Dr Bellows looked in. ‘Excellente, excellente,’ he said, smiling gently and closed the door again. Mr K. said, ‘Go on.’
‘I took her car. She was drunk and wouldn't go on. The manager of the roadhouse a Captain Carrie followed me in his car. I was beaten up by his chauffeur. I forgot to tell you he tried to rob me in the lavatory the chauffeur, I mean. They searched my coat, but of course found nothing. I had to walk. It was a long time before I got a lift.’
‘Is Captain Currie . . . ?’
‘Oh no. Just a fool, I think.’
‘It's an extraordinary story.’
D. allowed himself to smile. ‘It seemed quite natural at the time. If you disbelieve me there's my face. Yesterday I was not quite so battered.’
The little man said, ‘To offer so much money . . . Did he say what exactly for?’
‘No.’ It suddenly occurred to D. that the man didn’t know what he had come to London to do it would be just like the people at home to send him on a confidential mission and let other people whom they didn’t trust with a knowledge of his object to watch him. Distrust in civil war went to fantastic lengths: it made wild complications; who could wonder if it sometimes broke down more seriously than trust? It needs a strong man to bear distrust: weak men live up to the character they are allotted. It seemed to D. that Mr K. was a weak man. He said, ‘Do they pay you much here?’
‘Two shillings an hour.’
‘It isn't much.’
Mr K. said, ‘Luckily I do not have to live on it.’ But from his suit, his tired evasive eyes, it wasn’t probable that he had much more to live on from another source. Looking down at his fingers the nails bitten close to the quick he said, ‘I hope you have everything arranged?’ One nail didn’t meet with his approval; he began to bite it down to match the rest.
‘Everyone you want is in town?’
He was fishing, of course, for information, but his attempts were pathetically inefficient. They were probably right not to trust Mr K. on the salary they paid him.
‘I have to send in a report,’ Mr K. said. ‘I will say you have arrived safely, that your delay seems to have been accounted for. . .’ It was ignominious to have your movements chocked up by a man of Mr K.'s calibre. ‘When will you be through?’
‘A few days at most.’
‘I understand that you should be leaving London at latest on Monday night.’
‘If anything delays you, you must let me know. If nothing does, you must leave not later than the eleven-thirty train.’
‘So I understand.’
‘Well,’ Mr K. said wearily, ‘you can’t leave this place before ten o’clock. We had better go on with the lesson.' He stood up beside the wall-picture, a little weedy and undernourished figure what had made them choose him? Did he conceal somewhere under his disguise a living passion for his party? He said, ‘Un famil tray gentilbono,’ and pointing to the joint, ‘Vici el carnor.’ Time went slowly by. Once D. thought he heard Dr Bellows pass down the passage on rubber-soled shoes. There wasn’t much trust even in the centre of internationalism.
In the waiting-room he fixed another appointment for Monday and paid for a course of lessons. The elderly lady said, ‘I expect you found it a teeny bit hard?’
‘Oh, I feel I made progress,’ D. said.
‘I am so glad. For advanced students, you know, Dr Bellows runs little soirées. Most interesting. On Saturday evenings at eight. They give you an opportunity to meet people of all countries Spanish, German, Siamese and exchange ideas. Dr Bellows doesn't charge you only have to pay for coffee and cake.’
‘I feel sure it is very good cake,’ D. said, bowing courteously.
He went cautiously up the unlighted stair: once a board creaked. The staircase made a half-turn and he came suddenly upon the landing. A door stood open; an electric globe, under a pink frilly silken shade, shone on the two figures waiting for him with immense patience.
D. said gently, ‘Bona matina. You didn’t teach me the word for night.’
The manageress said, ‘Come in and shut the door.’ He obeyed her there was nothing else to do; it occurred to him that never once yet had he been allowed the initiative. He had been like a lay figure other people moved about, used as an Aunt Sally. ‘Where have you been?’ the manageress demanded. It was a bully’s face; she should have been a man, with that ugly square jaw, the shady determination, the impetigo.
He said, ‘Mr K. will tell you.’
‘What were you doing with the girl?’
‘Enjoying myself.’ He looked curiously round at the den that was the best word for it. It wasn’t a woman’s room at all, with its square unclothed table, its leather chairs, no flowers, no frippery, a cupboard for shoes. It seemed made and furnished for nothing but use. The cupboard door was open full of heavy, low-heeled, sensible shoes.
‘She knows L.’
‘So do I.’ Even the pictures were masculine of a kind. Cheap coloured pictures of women, all silk stockings and lingerie. It seemed to him the room of an inhibited bachelor. It was dimly horrifying, like timid secret desires for unattainable intimacies. Mr K. suddenly spoke. He was like a feminine element in the male room; there were traces of hysteria. He said, ‘When you were out at the cinema somebody rang up to make you an offer.’
‘Why did they do that? They should have known I was out.’
‘They offered you your own terms not to keep your appointment tomorrow.’
‘I haven't made any terms.’
‘They left the message with me,’ the manageress said.
‘They were quite prepared, then, that everybody should know? You and K.’
Mr K. squeezed his bony hands together. ‘We wanted to make sure,’ he said, ‘that you still have the papers,’
‘You were afraid I might have sold them already. On my way home.’
‘We have to be careful,’ he said, as if he were listening for Dr Bellows’ rubber soles. He was dreadfully under the domination even here of the shilling fine.
Mr K.’s voice became shrill. He said, ‘If you go behind our backs . . .’ His underpaid jumpy Entrenationo eyes gave away unguardedly secrets of greed and envy . . . What could you expect on that salary? How much treachery is always nourished in little overworked centres of somebody else’s idealism. The manageress said, ‘You are a sentimental man. A bourgeois. A professor. Probably romantic. If you cheat us you’ll find — oh, I can think up things.’ He couldn’t face her; it was really like looking into the pit — she had imagination. The impetigo was like the relic of some shameful act from which she had never recovered. He remembered Else saying, ‘She acts like mad.’
Captain Currie said, ‘Seen any good shows?’
‘I have been rather busy.’
‘Mustn't overdo it.’
‘And I've been learning Entrenationo.’
‘Good God, what for?’
‘An international language.’
‘When you get down to it,’ Captain Currie said, ‘most people talk a bit of English.’
SOURCE: Greene, Graham. The Confidential Agent: An Entertainment (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971), pp. 40-41, 42-47, 70-71, 73, 84. (Original editions: William Heinemann Ltd., 1939; New York, The Viking Press, 1939.)
Graham Greenes Entrenationo (2)
Graham Greenes Entrenationo (3)
Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo
Graham Greene @ Ĝirafo
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