James hilton collected n.., p.12
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.12
 

           James Hilton

  There was that Council meeting, for instance, in the spring of 1918, at which he first spoke Livia’s name—and with a ring of challenge as he pitched his voice to the public gallery. “I’ve always held,” he began, “that no accident of birth should ever stand in the way of merit (cheers)—in fact it’s one of the few things I’m prepared to be thoroughly consistent about. (Laughter.) Councillor Whaley has just referred to the great injustice done to our fellow citizens many years ago by one whose name has a certain prominence in the history of this town. I think Councillor Whaley put the matter far too mildly in using the word ‘injustice.’ I’d prefer myself to call it the most damnable piece of financial knavery ever perpetrated by a self-acknowledged crook at the expense of thousands of honest hard-working folks. (Loud cheers.) Oh yes, I know the saying De mortuis nil nisi bonum—if I’ve got the pronunciation wrong perhaps some of the gentlemen on the other side who have had the advantage of a better education than mine will correct me (laughter)—at any rate, they’ll agree with me that the Latin words mean that you should speak no evil of the dead…But may I ask this question of Councillor Whaley—suppose the dead reach out from their graves to continue the harm they did during their lives—are we still to keep silent about them? (Loud and prolonged cheers.) Gentlemen…I wouldn’t have referred to such a matter unless the other side had thought fit to mention it first. But since they did, I’ll say this much—that in my opinion our town is still suffering from the effects of the Channing Mill crash and the iniquitous swindle that caused it! Its victims are to be found in every street—nay, almost in every house. Certainly in one of our houses—the workhouse. (Cheers.) What shall we say of any man, living or dead, who can be accounted personally responsible for such a thing? To inherit control of an industrial concern and then behave with such callous dishonesty that working people lose jobs and life savings together, so that hundreds of homes are sacrificed and broken up, so that health is imperiled and countless lives are embittered, so that children have their educations interrupted and old folks are hastened to their graves—if one causes all this havoc, then in God’s name what shall we call him, or the system that gave him such power and opportunity?”

  Here the cheers and shouts of the gallery were interrupted by a shabby little man in the back row who yelled out with piercing distinctness: “Don’t matter what you call ’im now, George. The bugger’s dead.” Whereupon cheers dissolved into laughter and George sensing the moment for a change of mood, dropped his voice to a much more prosaic level and continued:—

  “Aye…let’s cut the cackle and get down to the business in hand. There’s a war still on, and we must save a bit of our bad language for the Germans. (Laughter.) I was just then tempted—as we all are sometimes—to speak my mind. (Laughter.) I couldn’t help it, and I think those who elected me to this Council didn’t really expect me ever to do anything else. (Cheers and laughter.) And that’s why I’m urging you now, as a man still speaking his mind, not to pay off an old score on an innocent person. To begin with, the score’s too big. And then also, though we’re often told that the sins of the fathers get visited on the children, there isn’t one of us who thinks that’s really a fair thing, or ought to be encouraged…Well, now let me really come to the facts of the matter. We have tonight a subordinate municipal post to fill for which we invited public applications. As I see it—and not as some folks here seem to see it—there’s only one thing we ought to do, and that’s what we always have done—choose the best person for the job and let no other consideration matter. It’s a simple method, and I’m all against changing it.” And then, dropping his voice to a monotone as he consulted a sheet of paper: “I have here the list of applicants for the position of junior library assistant, together with their qualifications. On the basis of these facts, and these alone, I move that the application of Miss Olivia Channing be accepted.” (Cheers and some cries of dissent.)

  The foregoing has been worth quoting verbatim, not only because it was one of the events that shaped George’s destiny, but as a sample of his speechmaking in those days. He always said he was no orator, and sincerely believed it, but his opponents, though reluctant to use the complimentary term, were not so sure; at any rate they could call him a rabble-rouser. The speech is typical in its astute and somewhat excessive preliminary agreement with the other side (in this case his own side), putting them in a good humor by stating their case better than they could themselves, so that afterwards George’s real point came as an intended anticlimax. He had often by this means won victories almost by default. The jibe about his fellow members’ superior education was also typical; it was true that many of them had been to better schools, but extremely unlikely that any could remember as much Latin as George had recently learned.

  But most typical of all was his quixotic impulse to be fair; it was as if, having called the father a crook, he felt in duty bound to find the daughter a job.

  On this occasion victory was anything but by default. His speech failed to silence objectors, and there was further argument, some of it rancorous. But the motion was eventually passed by a narrow margin, with much cross voting; so that in due course Miss Olivia Channing did indeed become junior assistant in the Browdley Public Library at a commencing salary of forty-five shillings a week.

  “And a nice problem you’ve handed me,” Dick Jordan remarked, meeting George a few days later in Shawgate. The librarian was one of George’s closest friends and political supporters.

  “Why, Dick, isn’t she any good?”

  “She does the work all right, but—well, when you remember her father there’s a lot of things you can’t feel sure of.”

  “Aye, and one of them’s heredity,” declared George, advancing stoutly to a favorite topic. “Thank goodness it’s not as important as environment, because environment’s something you can change.”

  “Not when you’ve already had it. What d’you think her environment was like at Stoneclough—up there with a man who’d done a stretch in prison and drank heavily and was so impossible to live with that…oh well, you’ve heard some of the rumors, I daresay.”

  “I’ve heard ’em, but I don’t see why they should make us condemn the girl. Seems to me it’s more a case for sympathy.”

  “She’ll not find much of that in Browdley, George. It’s one thing to swing the Council by a speech, but when it comes to changing the minds of ordinary folks who’ve lost their hard cash—”

  “But she didn’t steal it—”

  “No, but she lived at Stoneclough, and for years that’s been the symbol in this town of being luckier than you deserve. And it’s still the symbol, George, in spite of all the mortgages on the place and no matter what the girl herself had to put up with there…”

  George did not meet her till some weeks after she had begun work. He was then studying hard for the final examination that might earn him a university degree, and it was this that occupied his mind when he entered the Reference Department of the library on a sunny April afternoon. But when he left, a couple of hours after, he could only think of the girl who had brought him Volume Four of the Cambridge Modern History.

  He always remembered her first words to him as she took his slip of paper, scanned it, then him, then stepped back a pace. “Councillor Boswell?”

  And his own first words as he stared at her for the first time: “Aye, that’s me.”

  “Then I want to thank you for—for—”

  “Oh…so you’re Olivia Channing?”

  “Yes, that’s why I want to thank you. It was kind of you to put in a word for me.”

  “I didn’t mean it as kindness—just fairness, that’s all. But I’m glad it turned out the way it did. How are you managing?”

  “You mean the work? Oh, it’s easy.”

  “Like it?”

  “Pretty well.”

  “Only that?”

  She smiled—a curious smile, for which George, who saw it often afterwards, long sought an adjective, and in the end could onl
y use Jordan’s description of the girl—he had said she looked “haunted.”

  She said now, with this smile: “People don’t like me, that’s the trouble.”

  He smiled back, robustly, cheerfully. “Can’t expect them to, yet awhile. You’ll just have to live things down a bit.”

  “Live things down?”

  “Aye…If you know what I mean.”

  He wondered if, or how much she did, especially as that ended their conversation rather abruptly. She fetched him his book and did not resume it.

  After that first meeting he began to feel emotionally the full force of the argument he had stated in abstract terms at the Council meeting—that the child should not suffer for the sins of the father. In this case the sins of the father had been so considerable that the sufferings of the daughter might well be on the same scale unless someone intervened on her behalf; and George, having intervened once, could not help the growth of a feeling of personal responsibility to match his awakening interest. He knew that John Channing had died practically without means, despite the fact that he had lived at Stoneclough from the time of his release from prison until his death; and though the daughter’s need to go out and earn her own living did not stir George to any particular pity (for, after all, that was what most Browdley girls had to do), he was nevertheless concerned that she should be happy in her job, the more so as he had obtained it for her. Not till he met her for the second time did it occur to him to wonder why on earth she had applied for any job at all in a place where there was so much local feeling against her family.

  He spoke this thought aloud when (on a bus top where he found himself next to her) she admitted having encountered a good deal of coldness and even a few personal insults at the library.

  “Then how about giving it up?” he asked, suddenly seeing things from her angle and becoming indignant about them. “Would you be happier?”

  “I need the money,” she said simply.

  “Aye, but there’d be other jobs in other places—why not try London, for instance?”

  “I’d rather stay here.”

  “You mean you like Browdley?”

  She shook her head.

  “Then why?”

  “It’s my home—Stoneclough.”

  “Stoneclough? You mean the actual house? It means so much to you? You still live there?”

  “Yes, it’s my home.”

  “I should have thought you’d have been glad to leave a place that had such—er—unhappy associations.”

  She shook her head again.

  After an awkward pause George continued: “Well, don’t worry. Most people have short memories.”

  “I haven’t.”

  “Oh, I didn’t mean that…I meant other people—they’ll change their minds about you if you stick it out.”

  (And yet as he said this he was aware of another phenomenon that became familiar to him later—the ease with which, to her or in her presence, he said things he did not really mean, or that his own judgment did not support. For instance, it simply was not true that Browdley people had short memories—on the contrary, though the Channing crash had taken place a generation before, it was still remembered with bitterness, and the fact that the girl had had unpleasant experiences at the library proved it.)

  She said: “Please don’t think I’m complaining about the job. It was you who asked me what it was like, otherwise I shouldn’t have said anything.”

  “Well, I’m glad it doesn’t bother you much. If it does, let me know.”

  (But that also was absurd. What could he do, even if she did let him know? Any other job in Browdley would have the same drawbacks, and outside Browdley he had no influence to find her a job at all.)

  She said, smiling: “Thanks. It’s very kind of you…I’m afraid this is my stop…Good night.”

  It was at the corner where the lane to Stoneclough left the main road. He suddenly realized that and detained her for a few seconds with an astonished: “But—but—are you going home now? How do you get there from here?”

  “I walk.”

  “But it’s three miles.”

  “I don’t mind. I love walking…Good night.”

  After she had gone and the bus had restarted he began to think it over. Six miles a day on foot oughtn’t to have shocked him (he was a good walker himself and had often, when he was her age, walked to and from jobs to save bus fares), but it was strange to realize that till then he had never wondered how or where the girl did live, travel to her work, and so on. So she was still at Stoneclough?…Too bad there were no other houses in that direction, or he might have asked the Transport Committee, of which he was a member, to start a new bus route.

  He met her several times again on that same trip and each time he found himself more interested. Up to a point they seemed to get along excellently; she was quick-minded and charmingly friendly, and when she spoke it was with a sort of grave ardor that made even chatter sound significant; yet beyond that a shadow seemed to fall between them. After thinking it over with some deliberation he decided what the shadow was; it must be the fact (doubtless known to her) that he had publicly attacked her father and family. He was prepared for some inevitable mention of this sooner or later, and planned to be completely frank and outspoken. “Now please,” he would say, “let’s not waste time over that. I said what I meant and I still mean it. But I don’t expect you to see things my way—after all, he was your father, whatever else he was.”

  But she never gave him the cue. One day, however, he met Dick Jordan in the street again and heard the story of a rather odd incident that had taken place at the library.

  “Iwas in my office, George, when I heard a bit of a row going on at the counter, so I went out to see what it was, and there was old Horncastle calling the girl names and shouting about her father having ruined him. You know Bob Horncastle?”

  Yes, George knew him. He was a gnarled industrial veteran who had lost both job and money in the Channing crash and had lived ever since on the verge of penury, his embitterment becoming a shade nearer lunacy each year. Browdley knew all about him. His was a hard case, but no harder than some others.

  “The girl was standing there, George, pale and not saying a word and with that haunted look I told you about, while the old chap poured out a stream of abuse. When he saw me approaching he stopped, and then the girl said very quietly—‘I’m sorry, Mr. Horncastle.’ She had to get his name from the library card she was holding, and the way she did that—the way she looked down, I mean, and then looked up again and spoke his name…well, it was just like a play, especially when she went on—‘But why don’t you scribble it in the margins of the book, as all the other people do?’ Then she just walked off and left him to me to calm down. Of course there wasn’t much I could say—he’s too old, for one thing, and the way he was carrying on I was afraid he was going to have a heart attack. Finally I got him to go, and then I went back to my office and nearly had a heart attack myself. That kind of thing upsets me.”

  George was troubled. “I must admit I didn’t think folks would take it out of the girl so much. And from what you say, Dick, it wasn’t her fault—she gave no provocation.”

  “The bare fact of her being there was provocation enough to Horncastle…But there’s a sequel. After he’d gone I was curious about the girl’s remark about people scribbling in the margins of the book…What book? There’s only one it could have been, and that’s the detailed report of Channing’s trial, so I thought I’d look to see if it was on the shelves. It was, and sure enough, the margins were messed up with penciled comments—including just about the foulest language I ever heard of—and in different handwritings too. Looked as if a good many Browdley readers had had a go at expressing their opinions…Of course it was our own negligence not to have spotted it earlier—we’re supposed to go through all the books at the annual stocktaking and rub out anything of that sort, but apparently this book had been overlooked. So I put it aside and thought I’d do the job myse
lf as soon as I had the time. But then another queer thing happened. Later in the afternoon the girl came to my office and asked where the book was. Seems rather as if she kept an eye on it and had already noticed it was gone—for of course she could check to see it hadn’t been lent out. I told her I’d taken it and that I intended to have the objectionable remarks removed, and then she said—and again I thought of somebody in a play—she said: ‘Oh please don’t on my account.’ I gave her a bit of a sharp answer—I said—‘It’s not on your account at all, young lady, it’s simply a library rule.’ And that ended the matter…But I must say, she’s a queer customer. You’d have thought she’d be glad I was going to do it. Frankly, I can’t make her out.”

 
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