10. THE “UNICORN AND HARP”
When Adrian opened his eyes, his first impression was that he was lying on a bed composed entirely of red-hot knitting needles. His whole body ached savagely, and his right arm felt numb and bruised, Above him the star, were jerking to and fro across the sky in the most unorthodox manner and for a moment this puzzled him, until he suddenly realised that he was lying in the back of the trap which was progressing slowly along the dark road.
How, he wondered, had he got there? At length he decided that it must have been Rosy (faithful, sagacious Rosy) who had picked up his battered and unconscious body and placed it in the back of the trap. He tried to sit up, but a white-hot pain seared through him and he fainted.
When he came round, the cart was stationary, and suspended over his head in a miraculous way was a large sign on which was written Unicorn and Harp, and underneath it a tiny picture showing this unlikely combination. How clever of Rosy, he thought blearily, to have found the place that they were heading for. If he had been feeling himself, he would, of course, have realised that Rosy, having performed her rescue operation, had made all speed towards what her trunk told her was an old and redolent public house. With a tremendous effort, wincing with pain, Adrian managed to get down into the road. His right arm hung limply and he felt sure that it was broken. His legs had no strength in them and he staggered as though he were drunk. Rosy uttered a small pleased squeal and flapped her ears. The Unicorn and Harp, Adrian saw, was a long, low, timbered house with a reed roof like a great shaggy pie crust on top of it. Golden light spilled out of the mullioned windows on to the road. Weaving uncertainly to and fro like a swallow, Adrian staggered across the road and leant against the door. He was beginning to feel terrible again and he was frightened that he would faint before he could get inside, into that friendly light He grasped the big brass knocker and beat a thunderous tattoo on the oak door, and then slumped against the jamb trying to fight down the waves of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him. He heard footsteps approaching, bolts were withdrawn from the door, and it was flung back.
There in the light stood one of the fattest men that Adrian had ever seen. He was in his shirt sleeves and trousers and wearing a pair of enormous carpet slippers richly embroidered with sunflowers, marigolds, chrysanthemums and similar brightly coloured flowers. His face was as round and as rubicund as a baby’s and the top of his vast head was covered with a faint, wispy halo of pale golden hair. Under the last of his double chins, his enormous stomach swelled out in a great and noble curve that would have made a pouter pigeon look positively emaciated. He stared at Adrian’s tattered, blood-stained form without any change of expression whatsoever.
“Good evening,” he said, in a sweet, shrill, flute-like voice. “Is there anything you desire?”
“Accident,” mumbled Adrian blearily. “I was hit by a train. Rosy’s outside.”
The pub and the fat man disappeared into blackness as Adrian slumped forward. The fat man, with remarkable speed caught him as he fell, wrapped his massive arms around him, and lifted him as effortlessly as though he had been a feather. He turned and waddled into the pub carrying Adrian with him. The front door led directly into a gigantic, stone-flagged kitchen at one end of which a log fire glowed and twinkled in a huge fireplace, reflecting in the polished surfaces of the rows and rows of copper pans that hung on the walls. The fat man laid Adrian down on a large horse-hair sofa, loosened his collar, and then waddled rapidly over to the bar at the far end of the room. He poured brandy into a tumbler and went back to the sofa, lifted Adrian’s head and forced a little of the liquid between his lips. Adrian coughed and spluttered and his eyes opened.
“Ah,” said the fat mail contentedly in his flute-like voice, “that’s better. Now you just lie still while I get something to cover you.”
Adrian peered myopically round the vast kitchen with its bar at one end and its huge fire at the other, and the brandy he had gulped warmed his stomach and seemed to ease some of the pains that racked his body. The fat man soon returned carrying a vast billowing eiderdown.
“I thought this would be warm,” he said shrilly, tucking it carefully round Adrian. “It’s genuine goose-down Warmest thing you can have. I always wore one when I was in Tibet.”
Even in his sorry condition, the mental image of the fat man wearing a goose-feathered eiderdown made Adrian grin.
“You’re very kind,” he said. “I’m sorry to be such a nuisance.”
“Not at all,” fluted the fat man. “A pleasure, my dear sir. Have some more brandy.” He held Adrian’s head while he gulped down the rest of the brandy.
“Wonderful thing, brandy,” said the fat man unctuously. “The barges used to bring it regularly from France when I was in Egypt.”
“I’m sorry to worry you still further,” said Adrian, “but there’s Rosy outside.”
“Ah, yes,” said the fat man. “I’d quite forgotten. You did mention her just before you fainted. How remiss of me; poor little thing.” And so saying, he turned with extraordinary nimbleness and surged to the front door.
“It’s . . .” began Adrian, but the fat man had disappeared.
There was a long pause broken only by a squeal from Rosy. It was one of her pleased squeals, but in a completely different key to the one she normally used. Adrian could only hope that this augured well. Perhaps she would think that the fat man was another elephant and take to him. Suddenly the fat man reappeared, his pink baby face wreathed in smiles. He danced across to the sofa his hands clasped as though in supplication, his eyes shining.
“An elephant,” he cooed shrilly. “A real, live elephant. My dear fellow, you couldn’t have brought me anything I’d like better. I haven’t had an elephant since I was in Nagarapore. And she likes me too. She actually put her trunk round my neck.”
“Oh, yes. She’s very friendly,” said Adrian.
“I remember,” said the fat man dreamily, “I used to have a hundred and one of them. Ah, those happy days. The tiger hunts, the pomp, the ceremony . . .”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” said Adrian, but I wonder if it would be possible for me to see a doctor? I rather think I have broken my arm.”
“My dear fellow, anything,” said the fat man. “But you must stay quite still and we’ll bring the doctor to you. Sam will be back in a minute and then everybody will be organised. In the meantime, might I have the privilege of putting your elephant in our barn?”
“Of course,” said Adrian. “It’s very kind of you.”
“I assure you,” said the fat man earnestly, “the privilege is mine.”
“Her shackles are in the back of the cart,” said Adrian, “and if you could possibly give her something to eat?”
“Don’t worry about a thing,” said the fat man, holding up one plump finger. “I will attend to everything.”
He disappeared through the front door, and Adrian heard his shrill voice talking to Rosy. Presently there was the rattling and the rumbling of the cart disappearing round the back of the pub and within ten minutes the fat man came back, dancing his way, pigeon-toed, across the great flagged kitchen, looking like an enormous pink cloud of goodwill.
“More brandy?” he fluted. “Deadens the pain.” He sloshed brandy into two glasses with great abandon and handed one to Adrian.
“Your very good health, Mister, er um . . .” said Adrian.
The fat man stared, round-eyed, looking ludicrously like a gigantic baby who has just had a safety-pin jabbed into its buttock.
“My dear sir,” he shrilled, “how remiss of me. I never introduced myself. What with the excitement of the elephant and everything. Peregrine Filigree at your service.” He bowed as low as his stomach would permit him.
“Adrian Rookwhistle,” said Adrian, not to be outdone in courtesy, “at your service.”
“Splendid,” said Mr. Filigree, “absolutely splendid. Now all we have to do is wait for Sam. Are you, by any chance, hungry?”
“Actually, no,” Adrian admitted. “I’m feeling too ghastly to eat anything.”
The fat man made his way over to an outsize leather chair and wedged himself into it securely.
“Now, tell me, my dear sir,” he said very solemnly, interlacing his fat fingers, “just before you fainted, you said that you had been attacked by a drain. Everything is possible in this world, I know, but I would simply adore to hear the details.”
“It wasn’t a drain, it was a train,” said Adrian, and he went on to tell Mr. Filigree of his adventures on the railway line. He was feeling warm and drowsy and the pains in his body somehow did not seem to belong to him. He was also feeling slightly drunk, for Mr. Filigree’s brandies were lavish, to say the least.
“Extraordinary,” said Mr. Filigree, round-eyed as he listened to Adrian’s story. “Quite extraordinary. I remember when I had to give orders to build the Great TransSiberian Railway, we had tremendous trouble with the wolves. Not only eating the labourers, you understand, but getting stuck on the lines as well. Huge packs of them, my dear sir.”
“Fashinating,” said Adrian, articulating with difficulty, “abschlutely fashinating.”
“Ah!” squeaked Mr. Filigree suddenly. “Listen!”
Dimly Adrian was conscious of the clop of horse’s hooves on the road outside.
“That’ll be Sam,” said Mr. Filigree beaming.
He leapt to his feet and danced away across the kitchen like an errant balloon. He threw open the front door.
“Sam! Sam!” he shouted into the night “Come quickly, we’ve got an elephant.” And then he danced back to Adrian and beamed down at him. “Such excitement,” he said.
For some reason, Adrian had expected Sam to be a tall, thin and rather lugubrious individual to counteract Mr. Filigree’s circular, baby-face charm; so he began to wonder whether the brandy was even more potent than he suspected when through the front door walked a slender girl of about twenty-three. Even her long skirts and the thick shawl that she had pinned around her shoulders could not disguise the slender attraction of her figure. She had a heart-shaped face and a nose with all the retrouss'e charm of a Pekinese, short bobbed hair the colour of burnished chestnut, and immense eyes that Adrian discovered later were leaf green flecked with gold. She paused in the doorway, looking at Adrian with astonishment, and Adrian, with a groan of pain, threw back the goose-down quilt and tried to get to his feet.
“No, no, no,” said Mr. Filigree in shrill anguish. “You mustn’t move. Sam, this poor man has been hit by a train and he’s brought us the most beautiful elephant.”
The girl drew off her gloves slowly and then moved across the kitchen towards them. To Adrian’s hazy gaze she appeared to float rather than to walk, but he attributed this to the brandy.
“What on earth are you talking about, father?” she said.
“He’s got an elephant,” said Mr. Filigree triumphantly, as though this explained everything. “Think of that, Sam. A real elephant here.”
The girl gave a short, exasperated sigh and then turned to Adrian and held out her hand.
“I am Samantha Filigree,” she said, smiling in a way that made Adrian, for no apparent reason, blush to the roots of his hair. “I’m afraid that my father’s not very good at explaining things. Perhaps you would care to fill in the gaps?”
Once more, his eyes fixed firmly on Mr. Filigree’s excitedly heaving stomach, Adrian told about his accident. Samantha drew in her breath sharply when he had finished and then turned and surveyed her father ominously while he made vague, flapping motions with his hands and turned pink.
“And what have you done about this?” she enquired. “Done?” said Mr. Filigree with injured innocence. “Why, everything, my dear. I’ve given him brandy and put the elephant in the barn.”
“Really,” said Samantha, “you are hopeless. Here’s this poor boy lying here, mortally injured for all you know, and all you can do is prattle on about elephants.”
“Well, I thought I’d leave it until you came back, my dear,” said Mr. Filigree placatingly. “You always do these things so much better.”
Samantha gave him a withering, look and turned to Adrian.
“I’ll get a doctor for you straight away,” she said. “But first, let me make sure how serious it is.”
Deftly the removed the quilt and examined Adrian as swiftly and as impersonally as though he had been a joint of meat. Adrian bit his lips in an effort not to cry out as she gently manipulated his right arm.
“Yes,” the said at last, going over to an oak dresser, pulling open a drawer and taking out an enormous pair of scissors, “you’ve got a broken arm, probably a cracked rib, and a lot of minor bruises.”
She walked back to the sofa twirling the scissors in her competent hands.
“I say,” said Adrian, nervously eyeing the flashing blades, “don’t you think we ought to wait until the doctor . . . ?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Samantha coolly. “We’ve got to get that coat off you before your arm swells up any more. It will be agony taking it off the normal way, so I’m afraid you will just have to sacrifice the coat.”
Skilfully, and to Adrian’s surprise without causing him any pain, she cut neatly up the sleeve of his coat and then performed a similar operation on the sleeve of his shirt.
“There,” she said with satisfaction. “Now, you just lie still while I go and get the doctor.”
“More brandy?” suggested Mr. Filigree, determined not to be outdone in medical proficiency by his daughter. “I remember in Egypt when the slaves were dropping off the pyramids, at sometimes two a day, we always got them brandy.”
“He can have some,” said Samantha firmly, “but I want you to remain sober. I shall be back in half an hour or so.” She nodded molly to Adrian and floated out into the night.”
“I do assure you,” said Mr. Filigree, handing Adrian a glass of brandy, “I do positively assure you that I, my dear sir, have never been drunk.” He gave a surreptitious look at the door then poured some brandy into his own glass. “Women,” he fluted, “women in moments of crisis are always apt to lose their heads and say things they do not mean.” He gulped the brandy down thirstily. “It’s the fragility of their nature,” he went on earnestly. “Samantha’s a good child, but rather apt to have a sharp tongue when she loses control of a situation. Do you follow me?”
To Adrian it appeared that Samantha had the situation under considerably more control than her father, but he did not like to say to. So he nodded portentously Mr. Filigree wedged himself once more into his arm chair and sat back beaming rosily and expansively at Adrian.
“I’m always telling Sam,” he said, wagging an admonitory finger at Adrian, “I’m always tailing her that if one follows the Scriptures one can’t go far wrong. ‘Take a little brandy to settle your stomach after a train accident.’ I think you’ll find it in Nebuchadnezzar, or somewhere like that, but alas, women are so frail compared to us men.”
He drank thirstily from his glass, shot a quick glance at the door and then leaned forward as far as his stomach would permit and fixed Adrian with a baleful eye.
“Do you realise,” he said, with such earnestness that his voice disappeared into a falsetto squeak like that of a bat, “do you realise that women cannot remember the past?”
By now Adrian was enveloped in a warm rosy haze of brandy and he was not following Mr. Filigree’s arguments with any great attention.
“Wash that?” he said.
“Women,” repeated Mr. Filigree very solemnly, “cannot remember the past.”
“All the women I’ve met do,” said Adrian bitterly. “Generally in the most ghastly detail.”
“Aha!” said Mr. Filigree, wagging his finger again, “the immediate past perhaps, but no further than that.”
“Well, how far do you want them to go?” asked Adrian, leaning back and closing his eyes.
“You can go right back,” squeaked Mr. Filigree, “if you try hard enough. But it’s the fact that women have such limited intelligence that makes my task all the harder.”
“Really?” said Adrian, half asleep.
“Yes,” said Mr. Filigree firmly, pouring himself some more brandy. “Even when they do remember, it’s some stupid, footling detail, like the colour that was being worn at court, or who was whose lover.”
Adrian mulled this over for a minute or so while Mr. Filigree watched him anxiously.
“Do you know?” said Adrian, opening his eyes suddenly, “I haven’t the least idea what you’re talking about.”
Mr. Filigree sighed in remorse, his double chins and his vast stomach rippling with the reverberations.
“You are not yourself,” he said sorrowfully. “To-morrow, when you are better, I will explain it all to you. Now you go to sleep, the doctor should be here very soon.”
“Thank you,” said Adrian, and he dosed his eyes and immediately sank into a deep and peaceful sleep.