James hilton collected n.., p.10
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.10
 

           James Hilton

  He got up and walked to the door, while she ran past him to open it.

  “Martin…”

  “I’m really all right, Livia—I didn’t even intend to tell you but for—”

  “Martin, I’ll look after you. You know that?”

  “Why, yes, but—”

  “Even if you were to go blind—”

  “Oh come now, there’s no question of that…” And then a laugh. “You do like to dramatize, don’t you?…But you’re very kind. I sometimes wonder why. I never did anything for you—except bring you into the world, and God knows whether you thank me for that, in the end…Yes, it puzzles me sometimes—why you are so kind to me.”

  “Because I love you,” she answered simply, and then she laughed too, as if to join him in any joke there was. “Good night, Martin.”

  “Good night.”

  Back in the drawing room she listened to his footsteps creaking on the floor above. Then she ate a sandwich and walked to the window, opened it, and breathed the cold air. The blanket of silence was still covering the world.

  The next morning he asked her not to tell Sarah anything about his fainting, or the trouble he had mentioned, because Sarah would fuss, and fussing was just as bad as worrying. And it was useless to tell Sarah not to fuss, because she would do so anyway; whereas if he told Livia not to worry, then he was sure of her compliance. Livia said she was far too happy to worry about anything, which was the truth, and it puzzled her. Perhaps it was because he looked so much better after his night’s sleep. Or perhaps it was just that he was home again. Or perhaps it was her own penchant for having the oddest emotions at the oddest times.

  Anyhow, she was so happy she decided to put the old work horse between the shafts of the garden cart and drive over the hill to fetch eggs and butter from one of the farms; Watson usually did this in the car, but he was afraid the snow might be too deep in places, though the horse would manage all right. So she sat on the plank seat, surrounded by the rich smells of the empty cart, and jogged down the road as far as the side turning that climbed again steeply to the moorland. The sky over the snow was an incredible deep blue, and when she had gone a little way and looked back, there was Stoneclough, a huddle of white roofs against the black-and-white trees. And above her now, the mountain lifted up. In that strange snow-blue light it seemed to her that she had never been so near it before, though actually she had climbed to the summit many times; she felt a sudden wild ecstasy that made her lie down on the floor of the cart amidst the smells of hay and manure, to exult in the whole matchless beauty of that moment. The horse jogged on, presently stopping before a closed gate. She jumped down to open it, laughing aloud. Then the lane narrowed to a stony track, and there were other gates. At last she reached a farmhouse and saw a fat woman standing at the doorway wiping her arms on an apron and smiling. “Laws amussy,” she cried, as Livia approached, “I didn’t expect anybody’d come up this morning. Are you from Stoneclough?”

  Livia said she was, and had the impression she was being taken for a servant girl; and that, somehow, added to the pleasantness of the occasion. Smiling also, she handed over the note on which Sarah had written out so much butter, so many eggs, and so on; but then another strange and pleasant thing happened. The fat woman pushed back the note with a loud chuckle. “Nay, that’s no use to me, girl—ye’ll have to tell me what it says. I never was a scholar.”

  “You mean you can’t read?” queried Livia.

  “That’s so—and I don’t know as I’ll ever bother to learn, now I’ve let it go so long.”

  Livia then told her what she wanted, whereupon the woman disappeared

  into the farmhouse, returning after a few minutes with the various items, a handful of carrots for the horse, and a jug containing a pale frothing liquid. “Nettle drink,” she cried, triumphantly, “and it’ll be the best ye’ve ever tasted.”

  That could be easy, thought Livia, who had never tasted any before. But it was delicious, whether because of the woman’s special brew, or for some curious extra congeniality of time and place…but the truth was, everything that morning was to Livia miraculously right—the drive, the sky, the sunshine, the mountain, the nettle drink, and the fact that the woman could not read. Never again, as long as she lived, was she quite so happy.

  She would hold his arm firmly (for he was apt to stumble a little), and walk with him up and down the level paths along the terraces, sometimes as far as the fence, but not much beyond, because there might be strangers in the clough, and he did not want to be seen. All at once a secret between them was removed, so far as this was concerned; he made no more effort to conceal from her certain things that he still wished to conceal from others. She was a co-conspirator in a small but necessary deception. For some reason he did not want outsiders to know that his eyes were bad; he seemed not to realize that few would care, or even think that a man walking slowly along with a girl holding his arm was behaving in any abnormal way for father with daughter. But she did not mind the pretense, if it satisfied him. And inside the garden, with no one to see or hear, with the empty moorland above and the dark clough below, she learned the special trick of sharing whatever mood he was in, even to extremes; if he wanted to laugh, she would laugh too, and if he had wanted to cry she believed she could have done that also. Sometimes she would tell him the only funny stories she knew, which were about Cheldean or the Geneva school; they were mostly rather silly yarns, even if they were funny at all, and it was odd to feel their schoolgirl importance dwindling in retrospect while she narrated them, so that she could tick them off afterwards as things never to be told again. He seemed interested, however, and often asked about her school friend, Joan Martin, suggesting again that she should write and try to re-establish the friendship. But Livia said it was no use now; she was sure they wouldn’t have a thing in common, even apart from the doubtful incident of the watch.

  “But you ought to have friends, Livia—young friends. I know it would be hard for you to make them in Browdley—for various reasons…but you ought to have them—there ought to be people of your own age whom you could spend holidays with at their homes.”

  “Or they could come here to spend holidays with me—how would you like that?”

  The point was taken. He replied: “I wouldn’t mind it so much. I wouldn’t have to see a great deal of them, and if they were your friends, I’d do my best to make them feel at home.”

  She smiled. “But they wouldn’t be, they couldn’t be, and I’d mind them here, anyway. Martin, don’t you worry about me, either.” And then sharply: “Who’s been talking to you? Sarah? She had no business to…Why should she interfere?”

  He did not deny that Sarah had talked to him.

  “All right,” he said temporizingly, “but don’t go and nag Sarah about it. She means well.”

  “That’s not always a good defense,” she said, thinking of it suddenly, “when people do the wrong thing.”

  She often gave him cues like that, as they occurred to her on the spur of the moment, hoping they might lead him into talk of the past. But they never did, and she wondered if he ever guessed that they were deliberately put out, and if he just as deliberately ignored them. One evening, however, without any cue at all, he began to talk of his years in prison. They were walking in the garden, with the stars especially bright in the frosty air, and that drew him to remark that the books he had read in prison were mostly about astronomy and philosophy. “You see, in prison after the first period of getting used to it, which is rather dreadful, you slip into a mood of timelessness that isn’t either happy or unhappy, and in that mood—for me, at any rate—the things to think about were the tuneless ones—the mysteries of life and existence that have sent many men into cells not very different from mine…the cells of monasteries, or the other kind where mad people are put. Not that I invented any special philosophy or had any special vision to match those I read about. I don’t have the right quality of mind.”

  “Neither do I,”
she answered. “You liked that kind of book because you were in prison, but I’d feel in prison if I had to read that kind of book.”

  “I know,” he smiled. “But a very kind and gentle prison. A prison within the other prison. It wasn’t so bad—although, as I said, my mind wasn’t exactly equal to it—because, after all, I’d only been a smart business man most of my life.”

  “And not even so smart,” she said softly, taking his arm.

  “That’s so. Well, let’s say just a businessman. Perhaps that’s why I think now of the end of a man’s life as a sort of taking over by a junior partner—some cheeky young fellow whom at first you thought of no account, but he grows and grows inside your affairs till he begins to touch them all—you’d like to get rid of him but you can’t, he’s the fellow you try to forget when you go to sleep, but he wakes you in the morning with his nagging and needling…the first step you take you know he’s still there, at your elbow, jogging and shoving and hurting like the devil…you’re at his mercy—his strength grows all the time at the expense of yours—he knows he’s going to have his own way in the end—it’s only a matter of time, and a horrible time at that…and from his point of view, of course, everything’s going exactly as it should—he is healthy, striving, spreading—you are just an old decaying out-of-date thing he feeds on.” He checked himself. “Am I talking too much?”

  “No,” she answered, transfixed.

  “Do you know what I’m talking about?”

  “Not altogether.” She added quickly: “But I don’t mind not knowing altogether. You remember once I said I didn’t mind being bored. When you don’t mind being bored, it isn’t boredom, really. And it’s like that when you don’t mind not understanding—perhaps it means that you do understand—a little.”

  “I hope so,” he said, holding closely to her as they reached an uphill part of the path. “Now tell me some more about Cheldean.”

  She racked her brains to think of a story because she knew that in some obscure way those yarns about school life took his mind in a pleasant direction, even if he did not always listen carefully; but she had already told him most that had happened, and now she could only think of something that had not happened. It was an incident she had once invented during a rather dull service in the Cheldean School chapel. The preacher was a local divine who came regularly and always devoted a large part of his extempore prayer to the weather; he was never satisfied with it and always wanted God to change it to something else, so that the slightest sign of floods, drought, a cold wave or a heat wave, gave him an excuse. One sunny Sunday after a week of consecutive fine days, he prayed most eloquently for rain—which the girls definitely did not want, since there was a school holiday the next day; and Livia, sharing this resentment, suddenly noticed a sort of trap door in the roof of the chapel just over the pulpit.

  What fun, she thought, if one had climbed up there with a bucket of water and, at the moment of the appeal, had poured it down over the preacher’s head! The thought was so beguiling that she had giggled quietly in the pew; but now, telling the story to Martin as a true one, she had him laughing aloud.

  “What really made you do it?” he asked. “Just for a lark?”

  “I wanted to see his face when he looked up,” she said, still using her imagination. “I thought he might think I was God.”

  She had to invent the sequel of her own discovery and punishment, at which he kept on laughing. In doing so he half stumbled to his knees; and while she was helping him up Watson entered the garden from the yard. He gave them both a rather long and curious stare, and a few hours afterwards, catching Livia alone, asked how her father was. She answered “All right,” as she always did to that question.

  Watson grinned. “Just a little drop too much sometimes, eh?”

  “What do you mean?” Then Livia realized what he did mean and was immensely relieved. She had been afraid for a moment that he might have deduced some real illness, and his mistake seemed the happiest and simplest alibi, not only for past but possibly future events also.

  She therefore smiled and retorted: “You ought to know the symptoms, Watson, if anyone does.”

  From then on, Livia cared less about what was seen and heard, even though Watson’s knowing impertinences increased.

  One evening Martin called her attention to a white dog walking along the path towards them, but she saw it was not a dog, but a piece of newspaper blown in the wind; but he still insisted it was a dog and stopped to touch it, then said it had run away. That made her realize how bad his sight was becoming, and she begged him to see some other eye doctor; perhaps a special kind of glasses or treatment would help; even if Dr. Whiteside were no use, surely there must be someone in Mulcaster or London…But he said no; it had all been diagnosed and prescribed for before; there was really nothing anyone could do about it—perhaps it would not get any worse. And he could still see many things perfectly well—colors, for instance. The red geraniums, the blue lobelias, the yellow sunflowers; he welcomed them all each day. That gave her the idea to put on a scarlet dress the next time she walked with him, and he was delighted. From which she promptly derived another idea, and that evening, though she was poor at sewing, she worked hard after he had gone to bed, cutting up an old patchwork quilt and making it into a multicolored dress to wear the following day. And he was delighted again.

  She then thought he might like a real white dog, and asked Watson to get one; but when the dog appeared and was duly presented to his master in the garden, he wriggled loose and scampered into the the clough. “There you are,” Martin laughed, when she fetched the animal back. “That’s what happened before. The white dog will have nothing to do with me.”

  “Then I must be a white cat,” she answered, breathlessly. She had noticed before that the silliest repartee of this kind seemed to lift his mood; it was strange, indeed, how much of their talk had recently been either silly or abstruse, seeming to skip the ordinary world in between. And as usual, the silliness worked; he was lifted. “Come along, little white cat,” he laughed again.

  “Yes—and the white cat won’t run away,” she answered.

  She could see that he was recalling something. “But a holiday, though…that would be all right. Why don’t you take one?”

  “A holiday?”

  “Yes, why not?”

  “Away…from you?”

  “Well, only for a time…”

  Suspicion filled her mind. “One of Sarah’s ideas?”

  “Now, now, don’t get cross with Sarah. She’s not the only one who thinks you need a holiday.”

  “Who else, then?”

  “Oh…several people…”

  “Who? Who?”

  He wouldn’t tell her, but it was easy to worm the truth out of Sarah, and the full truth proved even darker than her suspicion. For it seemed that old Richard Felsby (he of all people) had visited Stoneclough recently and talked to Martin not merely about her taking a holiday, but about her leaving Stoneclough altogether. Some friends of Richard’s who lived on the coast of North Wales had been approached and had agreed to have her stay with them indefinitely; Richard had offered to pay all expenses, and Martin had actually approved the idea. This was the biggest blow of all; yet after a wild scene with Sarah she could only reproach him somberly. How could he have even considered such a thing? And that awful old man, Richard Felsby—how dared he interfere with her and her affairs? “Oh, Martin, I thought he never visited you any more. I thought you’d quarreled. I hoped you were enemies forever.”

  “Livia, he just called on business the other day—while you were out. Something about a new mortgage on the house.”

  “But he talked about me—you both did—planning to have me sent away—and Sarah already getting my clothes ready—all of you—behind my back—against me—plotting—and then pretending it was just a holiday—”

  “Livia, please—it wasn’t like that at all—”

  “Do you know what I’ll do? I’ll hate them both as
long as I live—I’ll never forgive them—either of them—”

  “They were only thinking of what might be your own best interests—”

  “To send me away from you? Is that what you think too? You don’t want me here?”

  “Livia, please…You know how much I like you—”

  “I like you too. I love you. I’ve told you that before. And I wouldn’t go, even for a holiday. I’ll never leave you. They’d have to drag me out of the house and if they took me anywhere else I’d run away and I’d fight them all the time. I’d kill anybody who tried to send me away from you.”

  “Now, Livia, Livia…why should you talk like that?”

  “Because I’m so happy here. What on earth would I do alone in a strange place?”

  “You wouldn’t be alone—”

  “I’d be alone if I left you alone. I won’t go anywhere unless you go with me. Then I’ll go—wherever it is. Even if you went out of your mind I’d go out of mine too. That’s a bargain…So don’t try to get rid of me.” She put her hands up to his face and clawed him gently with her fingernails, suddenly and rather hysterically laughing. “The little white cat will scratch you to death if you even think of it.”

  ***

  Dr. Whiteside happened to meet Livia in Browdley one afternoon. She did not mention her father, until asked, and then she said he was “all right.” The doctor was an old man now, long retired from practice, and for that reason even readier to think out the problems of the families he had once attended. He well remembered advising Emily to tell Livia the truth and send her to school lest the life at Stoneclough, without playmates of her own age, should make her grow up neurotic and self-centered; he had not seen the girl often since then, but now, even to his dimmed perceptions, she looked as if everything had happened just as he had feared. There was the peculiar rapt expression, the angular tension of her whole body as she stopped to speak to him in the street. And he made up his mind there and then to visit Stoneclough unasked; he did not care how John received him, it was the girl he was thinking about. She ought to be sent away, and he would tell John this and be damned to the fellow.

 
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