Their rivalry had been afoot for a few years now. Both were well-regarded young writers of novels and short stories, and both men’s work appealed to much the same sophisticated readership. Some reviewers had even ventured to opine that the two were like two peas in a pod, and that their names might almost be transposed on the dust-jackets of their respective books without manifest injury to either or anyone being any the wiser. But of course such parallel success, such nearness of literary character and quality, engendered their own fierce if politely concealed mutual apprehensions. Publishers were tightening their belts these days, as the Great Depression continued to bite (though you would scarcely think that there was a depression ongoing at all, here in prosperous and fashionable little Bermuda, where it seemed as if the interposing Gulf Stream had kept it effortlessly at bay, just as it did the chill of the North American winter), and if one of the two writers were to steal a march on the other, or to produce work that broke new ground or attained new heights of excellence, then the other might find himself disadvantaged as well as daunted.
If these two writers were apt at all times to regard one another warily, to cast searching sidelong glances at one another’s output and reputation, to read one another’s books and stories with both eagerness and jealousy, how much more so here, practically cheek by jowl, separated from one another by no more than an oleander hedge and a few yards of crabgrass, in their nearly-matching little rented holiday-cottages overlooking the very same stretch of terrace and hillside, sharing, indeed, the same driveway and the same cement path down to the same fine private beach and glorious sea?
This coincidence of their finding themselves staying next-door to one another, weird and galling though it was, was perhaps not quite as surprising as it might have seemed, for another well-known New York-based writer had not long ago published in a high-profile literary magazine a piece about what a good place Bermuda was for writers and artists to work; and this particular pair of seaside holiday-cottages had had an appealing little advertisement in the same publication. For all Ted Durbin knew, half of Manhattan’s literati might either already be, or be on their way to being, in temporary residence on this charming, distinctive and well-to-do island, with its white-roofed stone houses, its pink-fringed white beaches, its old-fashioned and unhurried carriages and carts, its bicycle-friendly white-limestone roads, and its splendidly-tinted surrounding waters. And why not, indeed? The late spring and early summer was a time when the profuse oleanders were at their richly-scented flowery best, and the handsome poinciana trees flaunted their lofty, crimson-petalled splendor, even as the ever-obliging hibiscus added its own sweet-scented and cheerfully-varied floral abundance, and native cedars garbed the rest of the land (at least, what was not golf-courses) in a restful darker verdure, with paler-toned palmettos here and there by way of added variety.
The typewriter was chattering and chiming away, intermittently but fairly busily, on the veranda of that next-door bungalow. It had been doing so for days now. It wasn’t by any means loud.
No doubt very few people would have deemed it to be in any way offensive; and indeed even Durbin (who generally preferred, especially when away from home, to do his writing in long-hand rather than on a typewriter) would not normally have found it bothersome. But of course it wasn’t just any typewriter, it was John Hentworth’s.
The sweat on Durbin’s brow was not, therefore, from the mounting afternoon warmth alone, or even from a normal transient patch of writer’s-block, but also from a growing unease – almost panic – at the other author’s seemingly untroubled working. Aware that anxiety feeds on itself, Durbin attempted to stay calm, to arrest his downhill emotional tumbling, but really, how could one be calm when one’s principal rival for acclaim was so evidently in fine fettle, tapping away at those damned typewriter keys with such seeming calmness and aloofness, and quite frequently producing sustained, rapid-fire, machine-gun bursts of letters and words, with each jaunty little line-changing mechanical whirr and chime sounding (to Durbin’s affrighted ears) like a celebratory bell ringing merrily in the enemy camp, even as his own spirits languished in the doldrums?
As Durbin sat poised for work at a table on the veranda of his own bungalow, even the rich fragrance of Hentworth’s pipe-tobacco intruded itself on him, its smug and mellow sharpness overcoming the nearby lush perfume of the oleander hedge. To Durbin, that pipe-smoke was almost as taunting as his rival’s typewriting: although from here he couldn’t see him, he could picture him all too well, sitting across the little way there on his veranda, not so much aloof as effortlessly superior, with his well-bred good looks and his elegant air not merely of success but of gentlemanliness, steady competence, and capacity to be daringly bold on occasion. Durbin stubbed-out another cigarette in the little bowl filled with beach-sand that served him as both ashtray and paperweight. He lit another cigarette and fumed in silent unproductive frustration, gathering his despondency around himself like a hair shirt, for want of anything more comforting, and stared anew at his lined writing-paper, with its unsightly, demoralizing crossings-out at the top and its accusatory blankness below.
A seemingly mutual revulsion at having to make conversation about their current writing-projects had made them shy of each other, coming on top of the fact that, socially speaking, they were only slightly acquainted with one another in the first place. It was, of course, true in general that people who were mere acquaintances at home could swiftly become fast friends and nearly inseparable if they chanced to meet on a ship or at a hotel while on vacation or otherwise when travelling abroad. But the starkly unpromising circumstances of the present case made any such togetherness a hazardous if not frightful prospect, certainly for Durbin. Writing was by its nature a solitary pursuit, even if one’s morale were high and one’s professional self-confidence rock-solid. His were not.
After a long while, ashamed at being unable either to think or write or even to relax, and worried that he might well incur yet another unrestful night in consequence, Durbin made up his mind to go for a swim.
He took care to arise from his chair as quietly as possible, however, for he was becoming neurotically preoccupied with not making any sounds that would be audible to his nearby rival, and in particular any that might betoken anything other than peaceful, efficient, unbroken literary toil. The scraping of chair-legs on cement might, he felt, betray restlessness, convey weakness. He found that he wanted to keep his rival guessing – if possible, indeed, to put him off his aim. Certainly, therefore, he did not think it appropriate to walk down to the beach in the usual direct way, on the shared pathway whose upper portion was plainly visible from (and within hailing-distance of) the verandas of both cottages. Instead, he opted for a more deviously circuitous route: quietly out the front door, past a whitewashed water-catchment area of hillside, scrupulously divided in two, that served to feed additional rainwater to the two little bungalows’ underground cisterns (there was no mains water thereabouts, and the rainwater that fell upon each cottage’s neatly-contrived whitewashed rooftop was otherwise the only source of its fresh-water supply), then down the bright and bumpy white-bedrock driveway to the quiet, nearly-indistinguishable white-bedrock private road that served the neighborhood, and then around to its communal path leading down through the baygrape trees to the pristine beach and its azure-and-turquoise waters.
You really should have done this earlier, he both reproached and congratulated himself a few minutes later, as he paddled around in the warm but still refreshing sea-water, water so clear and calm that he could plainly discern his own shadow on the white sandy bottom. Speaking of his shadow, he wondered – for perhaps the hundredth time recently, but more purposefully now – just what it was that his rival was working on so diligently.
Three-quarters-of-an-hour later found him back in front of his writing-paper on the veranda, glad to have swum but wishing that he might have felt able to have more than just a few moments of fresh-water showering afterwards – for he was aware of the water situation and the need to conserve the fresh stuff as much as possible. Indeed, he was already doing what he could in that regard by sipping undiluted the scotch that he had poured to accompany his quickly-gobbled sandwich and his cup of left-over coffee from that morning’s pot. But after a little time had passed in absentminded contentment, he again became uncomfortably conscious that he was not actually getting any work done.
In a sop to psychology, he took the current sheet of paper, with its embarrassing rash of false starts and discontented deletions, and moved it a little out of his direct sight, where it would do for jotting notes in the event that stray ideas should come to him. In its stead he carefully placed a new, unsullied sheet. Then he lit a cigarette, and drew on it in search of his elusive former calmness; not quite finding it, but hoping glumly for better things (yet aware that he was probably jinxing himself thereby).
These various doings were, of course, not uninfluenced by the intermittent clacking and whirring and ringing of next door’s typewriter, where his rival for the world’s esteem – his increasingly bitter and dangerous rival, it seemed to him – continued his own more disciplined (certainly his infinitely more productive-sounding) working.
Damn it, how could a man be expected to produce good work – or even any work at all – in such maddening circumstances? It was all too much!
It continued so through the remainder of the afternoon and early evening: on the one side of the hedge, progress, albeit of an enigmatic kind, all typewriting and muse-pleasing incense and moderate, thoughtful-seeming pauses; on the other, a sullen, unbroken silence that concealed chronic lassitude; a grim compositional wasteland of near-nothingness scratched in ink only to be scratched out again, all jumpy with nicotine and strained nerves, incensed with the unfairness of it all, but with thoughts otherwise wispy and elusive, inconsequential, all over the damned place, at length subdued and corralled a little by scotch, but still unstructured and with inventiveness gone, if it had ever been there in the first place; a paper-wasting, time-wasting, seemingly interminable thing altogether. Thus had his morale collapsed under the impact of next door’s calm fusillades of unknown words and unguessable ideas.
As if by unspoken mutual accord, they broke for their separate dinners (another sandwich in Durbin’s case; something a bit more elaborate across the way, judging from the mild clanging of cookware being got into action). Durbin, seeing a chance, took advantage of this lull in the battle and the more prolonged distraction in the enemy camp to attempt some further writing, only to find himself floundering around in the further profitless ramifications of his tired and demoralized thoughts. These were not improved by the eventual resumption of typewriting next-door. This typing sounded calm, measured, mild-mannered and mellow – which, in the context of Durbin’s own grim vortex of mangled spinning thoughts and simmering anger and deepening gloom, seemed somehow even more crushing than the busier, more determined, staccato bursts of earlier on – as if his enemy was signaling that he was doing very well, thank you, and that there was still plenty more where that came from.
The typing continued – calmly assertive, smug, intolerable – for what seemed a long time. Durbin, meanwhile, in a kind of despairing double-or-nothing effort to redeem the evening, had opted for indulgence in considerably more scotch, opening himself wide to whatever inspiration or solace it might bring. With mixed results: it didn’t, he eventually conceded, provide much fodder for serious creative work (not much more than a few notes, of probably dubious value; only the morrow would tell), though it did at least provide a kind of numbing, fast-acting mental relief, which was something; which seemed altogether necessary, in fact.
Eventually the typewriting torment itself ceased, and after a time he heard Hentworth arise from his labors and go inside his cottage. Hentworth’s return to his veranda a few moments later came in the form of his screen-door thwacking quietly back against the doorframe, followed by a creaking of rattan easy-chair, and what was quite possibly the popping-open of a beer. Quiet then belatedly settled over the battleground: an overdue, much-needed suspension of hostilities, in which chirping tree-frogs contentedly filled the aural void, albeit with a kind of pulsating fuzziness that seemed to accentuate what was now the unsettling, unsteady swaying of Durbin’s heavy-feeling and anaesthetized brain.
It occurred now to Durbin that this might have been an opportune time for impromptu parleying, or at least a little harmless casual fraternization mingled with intelligence-gathering, but Durbin by this stage was uncomfortably aware of having drunk too much after too wearing a day.
He could not hope to appear before Hentworth at this time as anything other than a clumsy-limbed, quite possibly staggering, certainly word-slurring, addle-brained and mutually-embarrassing figure. Such a thing, such grotesquerie, was out of the question. Indeed, it would be prudent to forestall any possible démarche along those lines by Hentworth by retiring to bed now while he still could – hopefully without knocking anything over in the process; conceding the field to the clear victor of that day but at least avoiding any further humiliation. Perhaps tomorrow things would be well again, or at least better. They could hardly be much worse.
Durbin awoke the next day feeling a little delicate but relieved to have slept as well as he had, after so very fraught a time of things lately. He got up for a bit, hoping that he might manage to re-start his writing refreshed, but when the sound of typing resumed pre-emptively next door he decided to retreat to his bed for a while longer.
Eventually beginning his new day for a second time an hour or so later, he thought it best to shave and shower, as he didn’t want to look too disreputable when he went over to see Hentworth. For Durbin had come now to the conclusion that it would be best for his own sanity to pay his rival a friendly visit during the course of the morning. It might or might not go well, but either way he would at least feel less intimidated by Hentworth and his aura of productivity if the two men could interact, at least briefly, on equal terms before battle was rejoined in earnest.
Hentworth the man, Hentworth the flesh-and-blood writer, was surely far less menacing than Hentworth the inscrutable idol behind his screen of oleander and smoke and typewriter noise. It would be good to dispel something of the mystery and awe with which Durbin had been imbuing him of late, and to be on terms of friendly civility at least for a few tension-releasing moments. Additionally, although Durbin felt considerably calmer now than he had recently, he remained as intrigued as ever to know what Hentworth was writing; and while he was reluctant for a variety of reasons to come right out and ask, his rival might possibly volunteer the information, or at least provide some vague, humanizing indication of what he was working on. To lessen that work’s mystery, to deprive it of some of its dread, would be a valuable – perhaps even a necessary – first step in affording it competition. He in turn could truthfully volunteer that he had not managed to accomplish much writing of late, but could blame it, plausibly enough, on the island’s beauty and his need to relax a little; and if such admissions were possibly to have the effect of lulling Hentworth into a less workaholic frame of mind, that also would be to Durbin’s advantage – would buy him more time to catch up a bit. It wouldn’t do to let Hentworth have the field all to himself. There was room enough for two.
Wandering over in search of Hentworth, with somewhat contrived casualness and a thought of inviting him to join him for a walk on the beach, he found his rival’s lair temporarily deserted, with no answer to his knocking and his call, and no-one visible through door or window.
On the veranda was placed a table not unlike his own, and before it a chair that might well be twin to his. On that table (as he knew that it would) sat his rival’s typewriter. Placed next to the machine were a little pipe-bowl, a box of matches, and a tobacco pouch; next to them, a leather portfolio. He carefully flipped-open the latter’s cover and saw, without surprise yet with a pulse-racing kind of fascinated intensity, a fairly thick sheaf of typescript pages.
There seemed as yet to be no title given to the work, just the typewritten heading NEW NOVEL: FIRST DRAFT. BERMUDA, MAY/JUNE 1932. He began to read the opening paragraph of what was headed Chapter 1, and soon knew he was hooked.
It actually did have the air of his own writing at its best: confident good work of the kind which he himself seemed entirely unable to produce just at present but which he would, with any luck, achieve again in due course – at least if he had succeeded (as he hoped) in getting past this acute bout of unwholesome and obsessive worry. He normally managed well enough, after all! And it had been a strange, unsettling, disagreeable thing, finding his rival in residence here of all places. Credit to Hentworth for evidently not having been fazed much by the oddness of their situation. He was probably a pretty decent fellow, and had discipline besides. He’d earned his success, and no doubt this new book of his would add further luster to his name. In any event, one had to admire his impressive output. It looked like there might already be half of a novel set out here; perhaps more.
Maybe a little of his blue streak might even rub off on me!? mused Durbin. Anyway, I’ll make a point of being friendly, and perhaps we’ll end up getting along famously? He might even be gracious enough to give me a little plug next time he’s talking to the press? Well, maybe not – maybe he’d much rather have me out of his hair completely? But you never know. Just now, I don’t have much to lose by being friendly with him.
It was in this ruminatively pragmatic and fairly mellow frame of mind that he closed (though rather reluctantly) the cover of his rival’s portfolio, and strolled down towards the beach with a view to running into the man himself. Somehow he didn’t think there was much point in trying to write anything just yet, even though it was nice and quiet for a change. First things first.
The beach, never crowded, was deserted, but Hentworth could be seen swimming, quite vigorously, just a few yards out. Durbin gave him a casual wave as he strolled nearer, but was unsure if it had been noticed, and to have repeated the gesture would, he considered, have been over-insistent, intrusive, peremptory. Anyway, it wouldn’t do to put the fellow off his stroke: he was obviously as determined in his swimming as he was in his writing.
The sea had grown less calm than it had been, with a certain rough-and-tumble, slightly erratic, quality that was, to Durbin’s way of thinking, better suited to wave-riding than to laboriously doing lengths. Still, to each his own. It occurred to him to wonder if Hentworth wasn’t perhaps showing off just a bit now? Well, let him, if he has the energy. I certainly wouldn’t. He’s making me tired just looking at him.
A rogue wave, rather larger than its fellows and mis-judged a little by the swimmer, capsized Hentworth now, rolling him underwater. He emerged from this unexpected dunking well enough, only to be caught, with gasping mouth wide open, by another quite hefty wave that had followed directly on its heels. Suddenly thrust back underwater again, he was in obvious difficulties, with what must have been quite a quantity of that intensely salty water in his throat and perhaps even in his lungs. This time he didn’t come up at all, but seemed to be convulsing below in the semi-transparent surf.
Durbin watched astonished, horrified yet also struck forcibly by a kind of engulfing wave of his own. Was this what Fate looked like? Was this how it operated? Taking and giving, or at least tempting – offering? beckoning? commanding? – with such exquisite timing, such dramatic yet oddly banal flair, such remorseless precision? What were the odds of this being a wholly random occurrence, as against something altogether more providential? It seemed to Durbin, standing there, that Hentworth was feebly imploring his aid, even as a higher authority had surely made plain that this snuffing-out was meant to be. Here, indeed, was where the rivalry would end, a new chapter unfold.