100. A World Put Back in Balance with Love
James Holloway was the first to arrive, that is if one did not count Angus, who had spent most of the day in Domenica’s flat, helping her with preparations. While James and Angus talked together about the Raeburn portrait of Burns, she attended to the laying of the table in the kitchen. Then others arrived, let in by Angus, who, as usual on these occasions, was acting as host. How pleasant it would be, thought Domenica, to have Angus here all the time, helping about the place, doing the sort of things he was doing this evening. But no, she dismissed the thought; Angus, came with baggage – there was Cyril, and there was all that paint and turpentine and mess. There were few men, she reflected, who came without such clutter.
After she had finished in the kitchen she went through to the drawing room to meet her guests. Almost everybody had arrived now, and the din of conversation had risen markedly. Angus had opened a window, not only to ventilate the room, but also to allow some of the noise to escape. Domenica imagined the sentences spoken by her guests drifting out of the window and over Drummond Place Gardens, rising slowly, like Buddhist prayer slips, and then floating out over the Forth: little snippets of conversation, observations, small asides. Marconi had said, she recalled, that sound never dies – it merely gets fainter and fainter. And that meant that somewhere out there, floating above the cold plains of the Atlantic, was the ever-fainter sound of the Titanic’s band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” Such a strange thought…
And then she thought: I should have invited Antonia. The unsettling thought distracted her, and she crossed the room to where Angus was talking to Susanna Kerr.
“Yes,” said Susannah, “it will be marvellous if that is the real Raeburn portrait of Burns.”
“It is,” said Angus. “I’m absolutely convinced of it.”
He was drawn aside by Domenica. “We forgot to invite Antonia,” she whispered. “Should I go and see if she’s in?”
Angus thought for a moment. This was not a time to nurse a grudge. “I shall go and get her,” he said. “I’ll tell her the truth. We forgot.”
Angus was dispatched to deliver Antonia’s invitation and returned a few minutes later saying that Antonia had accepted, and would join them shortly. “I suspect that she had already eaten,” he said. “But she accepted nonetheless. It’s rather greedy, don’t you think, to have two dinners?”
“Not if you do it out of politeness,” said Domenica. “What appears to be greed in such a case becomes an act of courtesy. And we must be more charitable towards Antonia. She is, I fear, one of the weaker brethren and needs our help.”
After a while, they moved through to the kitchen and seated themselves around the extended table. Angus sat at one end, and Domenica at the other: host and hostess, with their guests ranged between them. The conversation, which started the moment they sat down, rose in a hubbub of opinion, conjecture and friendly refutation. Elspeth, seated next to Matthew, took his hand under the table and pressed it gently. He looked at her fondly and smiled. “It doesn’t matter about the clothes,” he whispered. “I can get new ones.” Relieved at his forgiveness, she pressed his hand again.
Each had his or her thoughts: pleasure at being in company – and such good company too; delight at the pungent smell of the white truffle sauce and the texture of the tagliatelle; eager anticipation of the course, and discourse, yet to come. For her part, looking down the table, Domenica caught Angus’s eye and raised her glass to him, a private toast, which he responded to with a toast of his own. And then, half-way through the meal, Domenica tapped her now empty glass with a spoon. It was the right moment, she thought; any later and people might feel maudlin, or tired. It was just the right moment.
“Every year,” she said, “Angus kindly recites a poem of his own composition. The time for that poem has now arrived.”
“We would not have it otherwise,” said Roger Collins.
“No indeed,” agreed Hugh Lockhart.
Angus looked down, in modesty. “Dear friends,” he said. “My heart is full…”
And he continued:
“But not so full that I cannot speak of love;
For that, you know, is the truest of words
Most profoundly spoken, in any tongue,
And in any circumstances.
May we who are blessed in friendship
Find it always in our hearts
To speak that word and make it the fulcrum
Of all our acts; proclaim it, too,
Our guiding light in moral gloaming.
Love heals, makes whole,
Restores the delicate balance
That so long ago went out of kilter,
When hatred and suspicion first
Uttered their beguiling, primeval snarl.
I am a Scot, and a patriot;
I love this country, for all its ways,
I am as moved as any when I see
That landscape of quiet glens,
Those pure burns and rivers,
Those blue seas and islands
Half blue. I love all that,
And the people who dwell therein;
But I love, too, our neighbours
And those who are not our neighbours;
I shall never relish their defeats,
Nor celebrate their human difficulties;
For, frankly, what is the alternative?
I see no other way.
I see no other way but that;
I see no other way but love.”
He finished. He may have had more words, but he could not utter them; not now. And nobody had anything to add to what he had said; no words of dispute or disagreement, for what he had said was all true, every word of it.