An Alternative Ending to A Handful of Dust


The liner came into harbour at Southampton, late in the afternoon.
They had left the sun three days behind them; after the Azores there had been a high sea running; in the Channel a white mist. Tony had been awake all night, disturbed by the fog signals and the uncertainty of homecoming.
They berthed alongside the quay. Tony leant on the rail looking for his chauffeur. He had cabled to Hetton that he was to be met and would drive straight home. He wanted to see the new bathrooms. Half the summer workmen had been at Hetton. There would be several changes to greet him.
It had been an uneventful excursion. Not for Tony were the ardours of serious travel, desert or jungle, mountain or pampas; he had no inclination to kill big game or survey unmapped tributaries. He had left England because, in the circumstances, it seemed the correct procedure, a convention hallowed in fiction and history by generations of disillusioned husbands. He had put himself in the hands of a travel agency and for lazy months had pottered from island to island in the West Indies, lunching at Government Houses, drinking swizzles on club verandahs, achieving an easy popularity at Captains’ tables; he had played deck quoits and Ping-Pong, had danced on deck and driven with new acquaintances, on well-laid roads amid tropical vegetation. Now he was home again. He had thought less and less of Brenda during the passing weeks.
Presently he identified his chauffeur among the sparse population of the quay. The man came on board and took charge of the luggage. The car was waiting on the other side of the customs sheds.
The chauffeur said, “Shall I have the big trunk sent on by train?”
“There’s plenty of room for it behind the car, isn’t there?”
“Well, hardly, sir. Her ladyship has a lot of luggage with her.”
“Her ladyship?”
“Yes, sir. Her ladyship is waiting in the car. She telegraphed that I was to pick her up at the hotel.”
“I see. And she has a lot of luggage?”
“Yes, sir, an uncommon lot.”
“Well ... perhaps you had better send the trunks by train.”
“Very good, sir.”
So Tony went out to the car alone, while his chauffeur was seeing to the trunks.
Brenda was in the back, shrunk into the corner. She had taken off her hat—a very small knitted hat, clipped with a brooch he had given her some years ago—and was holding it in her lap. There was deep twilight inside the car. She looked up without moving her head.
“Darling,” she said, “your boat was very late.”
“Yes, we had fog in the channel.”
“I got here last night. The people in the office said you’d be in early this morning.”
“Yes, we are late.”
“You can never tell with ships, can you?” said Brenda.
There was a pause. Then she said, “Aren’t you going to come in?”
“There’s a fuss about the luggage.”
“Blake will see to that.”
“He’s sending it by train.”
“Yes, I thought he would have to. I’m sorry I brought so much ... You see, I brought everything. I’ve turned against that flat ... It never quite lost the smell. I thought it was just newness, but it got worse. You know—radiator smell. So what with one thing and another I thought, how about giving it up.”
Then the chauffeur came back. He had settled everything about the luggage.
“Well, we’d better start right away.”
“Very good, sir.”
Tony got in beside Brenda, and the chauffeur shut the door on them. They ran through the streets of Southampton and out into the country. The lamps were already alight behind the windows they passed.
“How did you know I was coming this afternoon?”
“I thought you were coming this morning. Jock told me.”
“I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Jock said you’d be surprised.”
“How is Jock?”
“Something awful happened to him, but I can’t remember what. I think it was to do with politics—or it may have been a girl. I can’t remember.”
They sat far apart, each in a corner. Tony was very tired after his sleepless night. His eyes were heavy and the lights hurt them when the car passed through a bright little town.
“Have you been having a lovely time?”
“Yes. Have you?”
“No, rather lousy really. But I don’t expect you want to hear about that.”
“What are your plans?”
“Vague. What are yours?”
And then in the close atmosphere and gentle motion of the car, Tony fell asleep. He slept for two and a half hours, with his face half hidden in the collar of his overcoat. Once, as they stopped at a level crossing, he half woke up and asked, deep down in the tweed, “Are we there?”
“No, darling. Miles more.”
And then he fell asleep again and woke to find them hooting at the lodge gates. He woke, too, to find that the question which neither he nor Brenda had asked, was answered. This should have been a crisis; his destinies had been at his control; there had been things to say, a decision to make, affecting every hour of his future life. And he had fallen asleep.
Ambrose was on the drawbridge to greet them. “Good evening, my lady. Good evening, sir. I hope you have had an agreeable voyage, sir.”
“Most agreeable, thank you, Ambrose. Everything quite all right here?”
“Everything quite all right, sir. There are one or two small things, but perhaps I had better mention them in the morning.”
“Yes, in the morning.”
“Your correspondence is all in the library, sir.”
“Thank you. I’ll see to all that tomorrow.”
They went into the great hall and upstairs. A large log fire was burning in Guinevere.
“The men only left last week, sir. I think you will find their work quite satisfactory.”
While his suitcase was being unpacked, Tony and Brenda examined the new bathrooms. Tony turned on the taps.
“I haven’t had the furnace lighted, sir. But it was lit the other day and the result was quite satisfactory.”
“Let’s not change,” said Brenda.
“No. We’ll have dinner right away, Ambrose.”
During dinner, Tony talked about his trip; of the people he had met, and the charm of the scenery, the improvidence of the Negro population, the fine flavour of the tropical fruits, the varying hospitality of the different Governors.
“I wonder if we could grow Avocado pears, here, under glass,” he said.
Brenda did not say very much. Once he asked her, “Have you been away at all?” and she replied “Me? No. London all the time.”
“How is everybody?”
“I didn’t see many people. Polly’s in America.”
And that set Tony talking about the excellent administration in Haiti. “They’ve made a new place of it,” he said.
After dinner they sat in the library. Tony surveyed the substantial pile of letters that had accumulated for him in his absence. “I can’t do anything about that tonight,” he said. “I’m so tired.”
“Yes, let’s go to bed soon.”
There was a pause, and it was then that Brenda said, “You aren’t still in a rage with me, are you? ... over that nonsense with Mr. Beaver, I mean?”
“I don’t know that I was ever in a rage.”
“Oh yes you were. Just at the end you were, before you went away.”
Tony did not answer.
“You aren’t in a rage, are you? I hoped you weren’t, when you went to sleep in the car.”
Instead of answering, Tony asked, “What’s become of Beaver?”
“It’s rather a sad story, do you really want to hear it?”
“Well, I come out of it in a very small way. You see, I just couldn’t hold him down. He got away almost the same time as you.
“You see, you didn’t leave me with very much money, did you? And that made everything difficult because poor Mr. Beaver hadn’t any either. So everything was most uncomfortable..... And then there was a club he wanted to join—Brown’s—and they wouldn’t have him in, and for some reason he held that against me, because he thought I ought to have made Reggie help more instead of what actually happened, which was that Reggie was the chief one to keep him out. Gentlemen are so funny about their clubs, I should have thought it was heaven to have Mr. Beaver there, but they didn’t.
“And then Mrs. Beaver turned against me—she was always an old trout anyway—and I tried to get a job with her shop, but no, she wouldn’t have me on account she thought I was doing harm to Beaver. And then I had a job with Daisy trying to get people to go to her restaurant, but that wasn’t any good, and those I got didn’t pay their bills.
“So there was I living on bits from the delicatessen shop round the corner, and no friends much except Jenny, and I got to hate her.
“Tony, it was a lousy summer.
“And then, finally, there was an American vamp called Mrs. Rattery—you know, the Shameless Blonde. Well, my Mr. Beaver met her and from that moment I was nowhere. Of course she was just his ticket and he was bats about her, only she never seemed to notice him, and every time he met her she forgot she’d seen him before, and that was hard cheese on Beaver, but it didn’t make him any more decent to me. And he wore himself to a shadow chasing after her and getting no fun, till finally Mrs. Beaver sent him away and he’s got some job to do with her shop buying things in Berlin or Vienna.
“So that’s that ... Tony, I believe you’re falling asleep again.”
“Well, I didn’t get any sleep at all last night.”
“Come on, let’s go up.”

That winter, shortly before Christmas, Daisy opened another restaurant. Tony and Brenda were in London for the day, so they went there to lunch. It was very full (Daisy’s restaurants were often full, but it never seemed to make any effect on the resulting deficit). They went to their table nodding gaily to right and left.
“All the old faces,” said Brenda.
A few places away sat Polly Cockpurse and Sybil with two young men.
“Who was that?”
“Brenda and Tony Last. I wonder what’s become of them. They never appear anywhere now.”
“They never did much.”
“I had an idea they’d split.”
“It doesn’t look like it.”
“Come to think of it, I do remember some talk last spring,” said Sybil.
“Yes, I remember. Brenda had a fancy for someone quite extraordinary. I can’t remember who it was, but I know it was someone quite extraordinary.”
“Wasn’t that her sister Marjorie?”
“Oh no, hers was Robin Beasley.”
“Yes, of course ... Brenda’s looking pretty.”
“Such a waste. But I don’t think she’d ever have the energy now to get away.”
At Brenda and Tony’s table they were saying, “I wish you’d see her.”
“No, you must see her.”
“All right, I’ll see her.”
Tony had to go and see Mrs. Beaver about the flat. Ever since his return they had been trying to sublet it. Now Mrs. Beaver had informed them that there was a tenant in sight.
So while Brenda was at the doctor’s (she was expecting a baby) Tony went round to the shop.
Mrs. Beaver was surrounded with a new sort of lampshade made of cellophane and cork.
“How are you, Mr. Last?” she said, rather formally. “We haven’t met since that delightful weekend at Hetton.”
“I hear you’ve found a tenant for the flat.”
“Yes, I think so. A young cousin of Viola Chasm’s. Of course I’m afraid you’ll have to make some slight sacrifice. You see the flats have proved too popular, if you see what I mean. The demand was so brisk that a great many other firms came into the market and, as a result, rents have fallen. Everyone is taking flats of the kind now, but the speculative builders are letting them at competitive rents. The new tenant will only pay two pounds fifteen a week and he insists on its being entirely repainted. We will undertake that, of course. I think we can make a very nice job of it for fifty pounds or so.”
“You know,” said Tony, “I’ve been thinking. It’s rather a useful thing to have—a flat of that kind.”
“It is necessary,” said Mrs. Beaver.
“Exactly. Well I think I shall keep it on. The only trouble is that my wife is inclined to fret a little about the rent. My idea is to use it when I come to London instead of my club. It will be cheaper and a great deal more convenient. But my wife may not see it in that light ... in fact ...”
“I quite understand.”
“I think it would be better if my name didn’t appear on that board downstairs.”
“Naturally. A number of my tenants are taking the same precaution.”
“So that’s all right.”
“That’s quite satisfactory. I daresay you will want some little piece of extra furniture—a writing table, for instance.”
“Yes, I suppose I had better.”
“I’ll send one round. I think I know just what will suit you.”
The table was delivered a week later. It cost eighteen pounds; on the same day there was a new name painted on the board below.
And for the price of the table Mrs. Beaver observed absolute discretion.
Tony met Brenda at Marjorie’s house and they caught the evening train together.
“Did you get rid of the flat?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s all settled.”
“Mrs. Beaver decent?”
“Very decent.”
“So that’s the end of that,” said Brenda.
And the train sped through the darkness towards Hetton.