House of Cards [CHAPTER 44]

 


Forty-Four


To lie about one’s strength is the mark of leadership; to lie about one’s faults, the mark of politics.

Friday, November 26

The following morning’s weather was still well below freezing, but a new front had passed over the capital bringing crystal skies to replace the leaden cloud of the previous day. It felt like a fresh start. From the window of his office Urquhart gazed out at what seemed for him to be a future as bright as the sky. After Woolton’s endorsement he felt invulnerable. He was almost home.

  Then the door burst open with the sound of an exploding shell and from the rubble emerged the tattered figure of Roger O’Neill. Even before Urquhart could demand to know what on earth he was doing, the babbling commenced. The words were fired like bullets, being hurled at Urquhart as if to overwhelm him by force.

“They know, Francis. They’ve discovered the file is missing. The locks were bent and one of the secretaries noticed and the Chairman’s called us all in. I’m sure he suspects me. What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

  Urquhart was shaking him to stop the incomprehensible gabble. “Roger, for God’s sake shut up!”

  He pushed him bodily into a chair and slapped his face. Only then did O’Neill pause for breath.

“Now slowly, Roger. Take it slowly. What are you trying to say?”

“The files, Francis. The confidential party files on Samuel you asked me to send to the Sunday newspapers.” He was panting from both physical and nervous exhaustion. The pupils of his eyes were dilated, the rims as raw as open wounds, the face the color of ashes. “You see, I was able to use my pass key to get into the basement without any trouble, that’s where all the storage rooms are, but the files are in locked cabinets. I had to force the lock, Francis. I’m sorry but I had no choice. Not very much but it bent a little. There’s so much dust and cobwebs around that it looked as if no one had been in there since the Boer War, but yesterday some bitch of a secretary decided to go in there and noticed the bent lock. Now they’ve gone through the whole lot and discovered that Samuel’s file is missing.”

“You sent them the original file?” Urquhart asked, aghast. “You didn’t just copy the interesting bits as I told you?”

“Francis, the file was as thick as my arm, it would have taken hours to copy. I didn’t know which bits they’d be most interested in, so—I sent them the lot. It could have been years before anyone noticed the file was missing, and then they’d have thought it was simply misplaced.”

“You absolute bloody fool, you…”

“Francis, don’t shout at me!” O’Neill screamed. “It’s me who’s taken all the risks, not you. The Chairman’s personally interrogating everyone with a pass key and there are only nine of us. He’s asked to see me this afternoon. I’m sure he suspects. And I’m not going to take the blame all on my own. Why should I? I only did what you told me…” He was weeping. “Francis, I can’t go on lying. I simply can’t stand it anymore. I’ll go to pieces!”

  Urquhart froze as he realized the truth behind O’Neill’s desperate words. This quivering man in front of him had neither resistance nor judgment left; he was beginning to crumble like an old wall without foundations. Not even for a week, not even for this week of all weeks, could O’Neill control himself. He was on the edge of his own personal disaster, the slightest wind would send him hurtling down toward destruction. And he would take Urquhart with him.

  When he spoke his voice was firm but conciliatory. “Roger, you are over-anxious. You have nothing to fear, no one can prove anything and you must remember that I’m on your side. You are not alone in this. Look, don’t go back to the office, call in sick and go home. The Chairman can wait till Monday. And tomorrow I would like you to come and be my house guest in Hampshire. Come for lunch and stay overnight while we talk the whole thing through—together, just the two of us. How does that sound to you?”

  O’Neill gripped Urquhart’s hand like a cripple clinging to his crutch. “Just you and me, Francis…” he wept.

“But you mustn’t tell anyone you’re coming to visit me. It would be very embarrassing if the press were to find out that a senior party official was my house guest just before the final leadership ballot—it wouldn’t look right for either of us. So this must be strictly between the two of us. Not even your secretary must know.”

  O’Neill tried to mutter words of gratitude but was cut short by three enormous sneezes that had Urquhart reeling in disgust. O’Neill didn’t seem to notice as he wiped his face and smiled with the newfound eagerness of a spaniel.

“I’ll be there, Francis. You can trust me.”

“Can I, Roger?”

“Course you can. Even if it kills me, I’ll be there.”


Saturday, November 27

Urquhart slipped from his bed before dawn. He hadn’t slept but wasn’t tired. He was alone, his wife away for the weekend, he wasn’t entirely sure where, but it was his choice, he had asked her for a little time alone. She had searched his face carefully, trying to spot the reflection in his eye of some lover or inappropriate entanglement. He wouldn’t be so stupid, of course, not on the weekend before such a week, yet men had the capacity to be so inexplicably stupid.

“No, Mortima,” he had whispered, understanding her concern. “I need a while to reflect, walk a little, read a little Burke.”

“Whatever it takes, Francis,” she had replied, and left.

  It was early, even before the first light of morning was breaking above the New Forest moors. He dressed in his favorite hunting jacket, pulled on his boots, and walked out into the freezing morning air along a bridle path that led across Emery Down toward Lyndhurst. The ground mist clung closely to the hedgerows, discouraging the birds and damping down all sound, a cocoon in which only he and his thoughts had any existence. He had walked nearly three miles before he began a long, slow climb up the southern face of a hill, and slowly the fog began to clear as the rising sun cut through the damp air. He had just emerged from a bank of swirling mist when he saw the stag across the patch of sun-cleared hillside, browsing among the damp gorse. He slipped gently behind a low bush, waiting.

  He wasn’t prone to introspection but there were moments when he needed to dig inside himself, and in that inner space he found his father, or elements of him. It was on a patch of moor similar to this, but in the Highlands of Scotland, beneath a bush of yellow flowering gorse, that they had found his body. Beside him had been his favorite twenty-bore Purdy, handed down from his own father, only one cartridge used. That was all it had taken to blow off half his head. A stupid man, weak. Brought shame upon the name of Urquhart that still made the son twist inside and feel somehow lessened.

  The stag, a fallow deer, had his head high, sniffing the morning air, his broad oar-like antlers catching the young sun, a scar on his mottled flank suggesting he might have fought a recent rut and lost. This was a young buck, he would have another day, but Urquhart knew he wouldn’t be so fortunate. The fight in which he was engaged would be his last, his time wouldn’t come round again.

  The stag edged closer as it continued to browse, oblivious of his presence, the rich chestnut coat shining in the light, its short tail twitching. It was a sight that when he was younger he might have watched for hours, yet he couldn’t sit here now, not with his father. Urquhart stood, not thirty yards in front of the buck. It froze in confusion, sensing it should already be dead. Then it leaped to one side and in an instant was gone. Urquhart’s laughter followed it into the mist.

  When he returned home he walked straight to his study, without changing, and picked up the phone. He called the editors of the four leading Sunday newspapers. He discovered that two of them were writing editorials supporting, one was waving the flag for Samuel and the other was noncommittal. However, all four were in varying degrees confident that he had a clear advantage, a conclusion confirmed by the Observer’s pollsters who by now had succeeded in contacting a substantial majority of the Parliamentary Party. The survey predicted that Urquhart would win comfortably with 60 percent of the vote.

“It seems it would take an earthquake to stop you winning now,” the editor had said.

“Or the truth,” Urquhart whispered, after he had put down the receiver.

  Urquhart was still sitting in his study when he heard O’Neill’s car draw up sharply on the gravel driveway outside. The Irishman parked carelessly and clambered out wearily. As he stepped into the hallway, Urquhart couldn’t help but note that his guest was almost unrecognizable as the man he had taken to lunch in his club less than six months before. The casual elegance had turned into outright scruffiness, the hair that was once informal was now unkempt, the clothes were creased, the collar unbuttoned and crumpled. The once suave and fashionable communicator now appeared like a common tramp and those deep, twinkling eyes, the features which both women and clients had found so captivating, had sunk without trace, replaced by two wild, staring orbs that flashed around the hallway in constant pursuit of something they could never find.

  Urquhart led O’Neill to one of the second floor guest rooms. He said little as they climbed the stairs, every space in time filled by O’Neill’s babbling and breathless commentary. The guest showed little interest in the fine views across the New Forest afforded by the room; he threw his overnight bag carelessly on the bed. They retraced their way down two flights of stairs until Urquhart led him through an old, battered oak door into his book-lined study.

“Francis, this is beautiful, truly beautiful,” O’Neill said, gazing at the collection of leather-bound books, paintings covering a range of traditional topics from ships under full sail in heavy seas to clansmen in a distinctive green tartan, and a pair of antique globes. It wasn’t beautiful, that was typical exaggeration, but it was intimate and entirely Urquhart. Cut crystal glasses surrounded two decanters that stood in an alcove in the dark wooden bookcase.

“Help yourself, Roger,” Urquhart invited. “There is a rare Speyside and an island whiskey full of peat and seaweed. You choose.” He watched with clinical concentration as O’Neill overfilled a tumbler with whiskey and began draining it.

“Oh, can I get one for you, Francis?” O’Neill spluttered, finally remembering his manners.

“My dear Roger, not just at this moment. I must keep a clear head, you understand. But please feel free.”

  O’Neill poured another enormous glass and slumped into a chair. And as they talked the alcohol began to do battle with whatever else was inside his system and the raging in his eyes became a touch less frenetic even as his tongue became thicker and his conversation increasingly lost its coherence. Depressant fought stimulant, never achieving peace or balance, always leaving him on the point of toppling into the abyss.

“Roger,” Urquhart was saying, “it looks as though we shall be in Downing Street by the end of the week. I’ve been doing some thinking about what I’ll need. I thought we might talk about what you wanted.”

  O’Neill took another gulp before answering.

“Francis, I’m drenched in gratitude that you should be thinking of me. You’re going to be a class act as Prime Minister, Francis, really you are. As it happens, I’ve also been giving some thought to it all, and I was wondering whether you could use someone like me in Downing Street—you know, as an adviser or even your press spokesman. You’re going to need a lot of help and we seem to have worked so well together and I was thinking…”

  Urquhart waved his hand for silence. “Roger, there are scores of civil servants to take on those responsibilities, people who are already doing that work. What I need is someone just like you in charge of the political side of things, who can be trusted to avoid all those wretched mistakes that the Party organization has been making in recent months. I’d very much like you to stay at Party Headquarters—under a new Chairman, of course.”

  A look of concern furrowed O’Neill’s brow. The same meaningless job, watching from the sidelines as the civil service ran the show? Wasn’t that what he’d been doing these last years? “But to do something like that effectively, Francis, I shall need support, some special status. I thought we’d mentioned a knighthood.”

“Yes, indeed, Roger. That would be no more than you deserve. You’ve been absolutely indispensable to me and you must understand how grateful I am. But I’ve been making inquiries. That sort of recognition may not be possible, at least in the short term. There are so many who are already in line to be honored when a Prime Minister retires and there’s a limit on the number of honors a new Prime Minister can hand out. I’m afraid it could take a while…”

  O’Neill had been slumped in his chair, slipping forward on the leather seat, but now he pulled himself up straight, confused, indignant. “Francis, that’s not what we said.”

  Urquhart was determined to test O’Neill, to bully him, prod him, stick a finger in his eye or up his arse, shower him in offense and disappointment, put him to a little of the pressure he would inevitably come under in the next few months. He wanted to see how far O’Neill could be pushed before reaching the limit. He hadn’t a moment longer to wait.

“No, that’s not what we fucking said, Francis. You promised! That was part of the deal! You gave your word and now you’re telling me it’s not on. No job. No knighthood. Not now, not soon, not ever! You’ve got what you wanted and now you think you can get rid of me. Well, think again! I’ve lied, I’ve cheated, I’ve forged, and I’ve stolen for you. Now you treat me just like all the rest. I’m not going to have people laughing at me behind my back anymore and looking down their noses as if I were some smelly Irish peasant. I deserve that knighthood—and I demand it!”

  The tumbler was empty and O’Neill, shaking with emotion, hauled himself from the chair to refill it from the decanter. He chose the second decanter, not caring what was in it, spilling the dark malty liquid over the rim of the glass. He slurped a huge mouthful before turning to Urquhart and resuming his avalanche of outrage.

“We’ve been through all of this together, as a team, Francis. Everything I’ve done has been for you and you wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near Downing Street without me. We succeed together—or we get fucked together. If I’m going to end up on the shit heap, Francis, I’m damned if I’m going there on my own. You can’t afford that, not with what I know. You owe me!” He was trembling, spilling more whiskey. The pupils of his eyes were like pinpricks. He was dribbling.

  The words had been spoken, the threat made. Urquhart had offered O’Neill a gauntlet of provocation that, almost without pause for breath, had been picked up and slapped into Urquhart’s face. It was clear it was no longer a matter of whether O’Neill would lose control, but how quickly, and it had taken no time at all. There was little point in continuing to test him. Urquhart brought the moment to a rapid conclusion with a broad smile and shake of the head.

“Roger, my dear friend. You misunderstand me entirely. I’m only saying that it will be difficult this time around, in the New Year’s Honors List. But there’s another one in the spring, for the Queen’s Birthday. Just a few weeks away, really. I’m only asking you to wait until then.” He laid his hand on O’Neill’s trembling shoulder. “And if you want a job in Downing Street, then we shall find you one. We work as a team, you and I. You’ve deserved it. On my word of honor, Roger, I will not forget what you deserve.”

  O’Neill was unable to respond beyond a murmur. His passion had been spent, the alcohol burrowing its way inside, his emotions torn to pieces and now pasted back together. He fell back into his chair, ashen, exhausted.

“Look, have a sleep before lunch. We can sort out the details of what you want later,” Urquhart suggested, refilling O’Neill’s glass himself.

  Without another word, O’Neill closed his eyes. He drained the glass yet again and within seconds his breathing had slowed, yet even asleep his eyes still flickered beneath their lids in constant turmoil. Wherever O’Neill’s mind was wandering, it had found no peace.

  Urquhart sat looking at the shrunken figure. Mucus was dripping from O’Neill’s nose. The sight reminded Urquhart yet again of his childhood, and of a Labrador that had been with him through years of faithful service as a gun dog and constant companion. One day the gillie had come and explained that the dog had suffered a stroke; it must be put down. Urquhart had been devastated. He had rushed to the stable where it slept and was greeted with the pitiful sight of an animal that had lost control of itself. The rear legs were paralyzed, it had fouled itself, and its nose and mouth, like O’Neill’s, were dribbling uncontrollably. It was as much as it could do to raise a whimper of greeting. There was a tear in the old gillie’s eye as he fondled its ear. “There’ll be no more chasing o’ rabbits for you, old fella,” he had whispered. He had turned to the young Urquhart. “Time for you to go, Master Francis.”

  But Urquhart had refused. “I know what is needed,” he had said.

  So together they had dug the grave at the back of the orchard near a thick hedge of yew, had lifted the dog to a bright spot nearby where it could feel the warmth of an autumn sun. Then Urquhart had shot it. Put an end to its suffering. As he stared now at O’Neill, he remembered the tears he had shed, the times he had visited the spot where he had buried it, and wondered why some men deserved less pity than dumb animals.

  He left O’Neill in the library and made his way quietly toward the kitchen. Under the sink he found a pair of rubber kitchen gloves and stuffed them, along with a teaspoon, into his pocket before proceeding through the back door toward the outhouse. The old wooden door groaned on rusty hinges as he entered the potting shed. The mustiness hit him. He used this place rarely but he knew precisely what he was looking for. High on the far wall stood an ancient, battered kitchen cupboard that had been thrown out of the old scullery many years before and which now served as a home for half-used tins of paint, stray cans of oil, and a vigorous army of woodworm. At the back, behind the other cans, he found a tightly sealed tin. He put on the rubber gloves before taking it from its shelf and walking back toward the house, holding the can as if he were carrying a flaming torch.

  Once back in the house he checked on O’Neill, who was still profoundly asleep and snoring like a distant storm. He made his way quietly upstairs to the guest room and was relieved to discover that O’Neill hadn’t locked his overnight case. He found what he was looking for in the toilet bag, crammed alongside the toothpaste and shaving gear. It was a tin of men’s talcum powder, the head of which came away from the shoulders when he gave it a slight wrench. Inside there was no talcum but a small self-sealing polyethylene bag with the equivalent of a large tablespoonful of white powder. He took the bag to the polished mahogany writing desk that stood in the bay window and extracted three large sheets of blue writing paper from the drawer. He placed one sheet flat and poured the contents of the bag into a small mound on top of it. He placed a second sheet beside it and, still in his rubber gloves, opened the tin he had brought from the potting shed and spooned out another similarly sized pile of white powder. Using the flat end of the spoon as a spatula he proceeded with the greatest care to divide both mounds of white powder into two equal halves, scraping one half of each onto the third page of writing paper that he had creased down its middle. The grains were of an almost identical color and consistency, and he mixed the two halves together to hide the fact that they had ever been anything but one. With the aid of the crease along the middle of the paper, he prepared to pour the mixture back into the polyethylene bag.

  He stared at the sheet of paper, and his hand. It had a gentle tremble. Was that nerves, age, indecision? Something he had inherited from his father? No, never that. Whatever it took, never that! The powder slipped unprotesting into the polyethylene bag, which he then resealed. It looked as if it had never been touched.

  Five minutes later, in a corner of the garden near the weeping willow, where his gardener always had a small pile of garden rubbish ready to burn, he lit a fire. The tin was now empty, its contents flushed away, and he buried it in the midst of the blaze along with the blue writing paper and the rubber gloves. Urquhart watched the flames as they flared, then smoked, until there was little left but a battered old can covered in ash.

  He returned to the house, poured himself a large whiskey, swallowed it almost as greedily as had O’Neill, and only then did he relax.

  It was done.





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