James hilton collected n.., p.13
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.13

           James Hilton

  George nodded thoughtfully. “Aye, she’s a problem, I can see that. Maybe I made a mistake in getting her the job, but it’s done now and can’t be undone. If I were you, though, I’d try to find her some kind of work where she doesn’t have to meet folks so much…Isn’t there something?”

  “She might tackle the indexing. Yes, that’s not a bad idea, George. I daresay she’s smart enough.”

  “Attractive-looking too, don’t you think?”

  Jordan gave George a shrewd glance. “Can’t say. Maybe I’m no judge, or maybe she’s just not my style. She attracts attention, if that’s what you mean, but whether it’s by her looks or a sort of personality, or something else, I can’t be sure. I know I wouldn’t want her in my office.”

  “She’d give you more heart attacks, is that it?” said George, laughing.

  The librarian joined in the joke, as boisterously as a man may who actually does have a weak heart as well as a nagging wife.

  So it was arranged that the girl should tackle the indexing, and George wondered how it had worked out when next he met her, for she certainly seemed happier and greeted him with a smile whose warmth he felt, for the first time, was somehow intimate and personal. They chatted—on the bus top as usual—without mentioning anything important till she said, apropos of nothing in particular: “Aren’t you soon taking a university degree?”

  “Aye, if I can pass the exam, and that’s a pretty big ‘if.’ Who told you?”

  “I heard someone saying something about it at the library. You see, you ask for so many books.” She added: “Such difficult books too…and yet…” And then she hesitated.

  “And yet what?”

  “Those ‘ayes’ of yours.”

  “My eyes?”

  “I mean the ‘ayes’ you say instead of ‘yes.’ ”

  He flushed, and for a moment fought down a humorless impulse to be offended. Then he laughed. “Aye,” he answered, with slow deliberation. “I daresay I could drop them if I disliked them enough. But I don’t. And if anybody else does…well, let ’em.” And then he suddenly gave himself the cue that he had waited for in vain from her. “Maybe you feel about your dad like that. You just don’t care what other people think—because it’s what you yourself feel that matters. I don’t blame you. I’ve done my share in attacking your family in this town—you probably know about that—and I’m not going to make any apologies or take back a single word. But I can’t see why that should come between you and me, and for my part it doesn’t have to.”

  He paused to give her a chance to say something, but she said nothing, so he went on: “Well, thank goodness that’s off my chest. I’ve been looking for the chance to say it, because if you and I are going to get to know each other well there has to be some sort of understanding about how we both feel about ancient history. Aye, ancient history, that’s what it is.” He was relieved to have found the phrase until he saw her face, turned to him with a look so uninterpretable that it might have been slight amusement or slight horror, but mixed, in either case, with a preponderance of simple curiosity. She seemed to be waiting to hear what he would say next, and that, of course, put him off so that he stopped talking altogether. Just then the bus reached the corner of the Stoneclough lane, surprising them both, and as she sprang down the steps with a quick smile and a good-night he had an overmastering urge to follow her, if only not to leave the conversation poised for days, perhaps, at such an impossible angle. So he ran after her and overtook her a little way along the lane. “I don’t need to study tonight,” he said breathlessly (she knew that he spent most of his evenings with the difficult library books). “I can walk part of the way with you—that is, if you don’t mind…”

  “Why, of course not. I don’t mind at all. But on one condition.”


  “Let’s not mention my father again… please.”

  “All right.”

  “Ever again? You promise?”

  “Why, certainly—if that’s what you wish, but I assure you I do understand how you feel—”

  “No, no, you don’t—you can’t…but you’ve promised, remember that. From now on. From this minute on.” And over the strained emphasis of her words there came, like a veil slowly drawn, that curious “haunted” smile.

  So he walked with her, puzzled and somewhat discomfited at first, as he changed the subject to Browdley and its affairs. He did so because, after his promise, that seemed the easiest way to keep it; and sure enough, he was soon at ease amidst the torrent of his own plans and ambitions, both personal and for the town. She made few comments and when they said good-bye at the gates of Stoneclough he could not forbear the somewhat chastened afterthought: “I hope that didn’t bore you. Or weren’t you listening?”

  She answered, smiling again, but this time differently: “Well, not all the time. But I don’t have to, do I? Can’t I like you without liking the new gas works?”

  “Aye,” he said, smiling back as he gave her arm a farewell squeeze. “But I can like you and still like the new gas works. Why not?”

  But could he? That was to some extent, both then and afterwards, the question.

  He soon realized that he loved her—probably on the way home after that first walk to Stoneclough. And immediately, of course, she became the object of a crusade, for in those days that was the pattern of all George’s emotions, his passion for education, his eagerness to tear down the slums of Browdley (already he had a scheme), his secret ambition to become the town’s Member of Parliament—all were for the ultimate benefit of others as well as to satisfy personal desire. And soon, eclipsing everything else in intensity, came his desire to marry Livia—that is to say, to rescue her. To rescue her from Stoneclough, from the thraldom of ancient history; and now, additionally, to rescue her from a situation he had himself got her into, where she was at the mercy of casual insults from strangers as well as of her own morbid preoccupation with a book about her father’s trial. All this, as George had to admit, totaled up to a rather substantial piece of rescue work, but he had the urge to do it, and his Galahad mood rose as always to put desire into action. It did not take more than a few weeks to bring that desire to fever point, especially when the chance of prompt action was denied. For she refused his first proposal of marriage. She seemed genuinely bewildered, as if it were the last thing she had ever expected. She liked him, she admitted—oh yes, she liked him a great deal; but as for marrying—well, she thought she was far too young, and anyhow, she didn’t think she would ever want to marry anybody. And she was quite happy where and how she was—at Stoneclough. In fact, to bring the matter to its apparently crucial issue, she couldn’t and wouldn’t leave Stoneclough.

  George took his “no” for an answer exactly as he had begun to do on the Council whenever he brought up his housing scheme—that is to say, he seemed to accept it good-humoredly and as final while all the time he was planning how he could best bring the matter up again. Besides which, in this case, he was in love. He had supposed he had been in love before, on several occasions, but the difference in what he felt for Livia convinced him that this was love; because why else should he begin to neglect his Council work—not much, not even in a way that could be noticed by anyone else, but enough to give him qualms of conscience only to be stifled by reflecting that as soon as he had won her he would make up for lost time. He gave himself the same consolation over similar neglect of his examination studies. After all, even in battles, the first must come first. He had confidence that he would win her eventually, not only because he had confidence about most things in those days, but because—as he saw it—there was no considerable rival in the field—only Stoneclough, and he felt himself more than a match for bricks and mortar, however darkly consecrated. How could she long hesitate between the past and the future, especially as there were moments when he felt so sure of her—physical moments when she seemed to withdraw into a world of her own sensations that offered neither criticism nor restraint, in contrast to her us
ual behavior, which was to make of most contacts a struggle for mastery? He was a clumsy lover, and ruefully aware of it; as he said once, when she emerged from her private world to laugh at him: “Aye, I’m a bit better on committees…”

  The fact that she would never say, in words, that she loved him mattered less after she had said, both doubtfully and hopefully, in reply to his fifth or sixth proposal: “I might marry you, George, some day. If I ever marry anyone at all…”

  He never passed beyond the gates of Stoneclough; she never invited him, and he never suggested it. She told him little about herself, and the promise he had given not to mention her father set limits to his personal questions about other matters, though not to his curiosity. He wondered, for instance, why old Richard Felsby, her father’s former partner, had not helped her financially, for Richard had dissolved partnership and sold out his interest in the firm before the crash, so that he was still rich and could well have afforded some gesture of generosity. But when once George spoke Richard Felsby’s name he knew he had in some way trespassed on forbidden territory. “I don’t see him,” was all she said, “and I don’t want to. I never want to see him.”

  She said little, either, about her life at Stoneclough, except to reiterate, whenever he brought up the matter, that she would rather live there than anywhere else, despite the inconvenience of the three-mile walk. He gathered that there was some old woman, a kind of housekeeper, living there also, and that the two of them shared cooking and other domestic jobs; but she gave him few details and he did not care to probe. Most of his time with her was spent along the Stoneclough road, walking evening after evening during that long fine summer; but as the days shortened and the bad weather came, they sometimes met in the library at midday, when she had an hour off and they could talk in one of the book-lined alcoves of the Reference Department. They spoke then in whispers, because of the “Silence” notice on the wall; and there was piquancy in that, because as Chairman of the Municipal Library Subcommittee he had a sort of responsibility for seeing that library rules were enforced.

  One lunch hour she greeted him in such a distraught way that he knew immediately something was wrong. Soon she told him, and even in face of her distress his heart leapt with every word of the revelation. By the time she had finished he knew that fate had played into his hands, so he proposed again, with all his quiet triumph hidden behind a veil of sympathy. For George could not avoid a technique of persuasion that made his last thrust in battle—the winning one—always the kindest. And by sheer coincidence, in that odd way in which at important moments of life the eye is apt to be caught by incongruous things, he noticed while he was talking that just above her hair, and glinting in the same shaft of sunshine, lay an imposing edition of Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. He couldn’t help smiling and thinking it a good omen.

  The news that had so distressed her was that the bank had foreclosed the mortgage on Stoneclough, so that she would have had to leave the house in any event. George tried to feel that this did not detract from his triumph, but merely contributed to it. He assured her that she would find it more fun living in a small house than in a great barracks of a place like Stoneclough. “I’d like to know what the bank thinks it can do with it… ”

  She made no comment, but asked after a pause: “Do you like dogs?”

  “Aye, I like ’em all right. Used to have one when I lived with my Uncle Joe—a big black retriever.”

  “My dog’s small—and white. His name’s Becky.”

  He suddenly realized what she was driving at. “You mean you want to bring your dog to live with us? Why, of course…And I like any dog, for that matter.”

  They were married a few weeks later at Browdley Registry Office, with only a few friends of George’s in attendance. She was nineteen, and the fact that he was getting on for twice that age was only one of the reasons why the affair caused a local sensation.

  Councillor Whaley, a seventy-year-old confirmed bachelor and one of those political opponents whom George had converted into a staunch personal friend, took him aside after the ceremony to say: “Well, George, she’s smart enough, and ye’ve got her, so God bless ye both…I doubt if it’ll help ye, though, when ye come up for re-election.”

  “And d’you think that worries me?” George retorted, with jovial indignation. “Would you have me marry for votes?”

  Tom Whaley chuckled. “I’ll ask ye ten years hence if ye’d vote for marriage—that’s the real question.” George then laughed back as he clapped the old man on the shoulder and reflected privately that Tom Whaley mightn’t be alive ten years hence, and how lucky he himself was, by contrast, to have so much time ahead, and to have it all with Livia. For he was still young enough to think of what he wanted to do as a lifework, the more so as the world looked as if it would give him a chance to do it.

  George, ever ready to be optimistic, was particularly so on that day of his marriage.

  So were millions of others all over the earth—for it was the month of November, 1918.

  The honeymoon, at Bournemouth, was a happy one, and by the time it was over George knew a great many things—a few of them disconcerting—about Livia, but one thing about himself that seemed to matter and was simple enough, after all—he loved her. He loved her more, even, than he had thought he would, or could, love any woman. When he woke in the mornings and saw her still sleeping at his side he had a feeling of tenderness that partly disappeared as soon as she wakened, but somehow left a fragrance that lasted through the day, making him tolerant where he might have been unyielding, amused where he might have been antagonized. For she was, he soon discovered, a person with a very definite will of her own. He thought she was in some ways more like an animal than any human being he had ever met; but she was like a real animal, he qualified, not just a human animal. There was intense physicality about her, but it was unaware of itself and never gross; on the other hand, she had a quality of fastidiousness that human beings rarely have, but animals often. He could only modestly wonder how he had ever been so confident of winning her, because now that he had done so she seemed to him so much more desirable that it was almost as if he had to keep on winning, or else, in some incomprehensible way, to risk losing. And when he returned to Browdley that was still the case. He had hoped, after marriage, to concentrate more than ever on his Council work and on study for the university examination—to make up for such splendidly lost time with a vengeance; yet to his slight dismay there came no relief at all from a nagging preoccupation that he could not grapple with, much less analyze. He found it actually harder to concentrate on the Cambridge Modern History, harder to generate that mixture of indignation and practical energy that had just barely begun to move the mountains of opposition to everything he wanted to do as town Councillor. It was as if the fires with which she consumed him were now seeking to consume other fires.

  For instance, her sudden change of attitude in regard to Browdley, and her naïve question, within a few weeks of their return: “George, I’ve been thinking—couldn’t you do your sort of work somewhere else?”

  “Somewhere else? You mean move into a better part of the town?”

  “No, I mean move altogether. Out of Browdley.”

  He was too astonished to say much at first. “Well, I don’t know…” And then he smiled. “That’s just what I suggested to you once, and you said you’d rather stay here.”

  “I said I’d rather stay at Stoneclough. But I haven’t got Stoneclough now.”

  “Well, I’ve still got the Guardian and my Council position. Wouldn’t be so easy for me to give all that up.”

  “You think it would be hard to find a newspaper or a council job in some other town?”

  “Aye, that’s true too. But what I said is just what I meant. It wouldn’t be easy for me to give up Browdley.”

  She was not the sort of woman to say, “Not even to please me?”—and although he did not think it was in her mind, he knew it was rather uncomfortably in h
is own.

  “It’s probably silly of me, George, even to ask you.”

  “No, I wouldn’t call it silly—it’s just not practical. Of course I can understand how you feel about the place, but surely it’s easier to put up with now than it used to be when you worked at the library?”

  “Oh, it isn’t a question of that. I can put up with anything. I did, didn’t I? It’s just that—somehow—I don’t think Browdley will bring us any luck.”

  “Oh, come now—superstitions—”

  “I know—I can’t argue it out. It’s just a feeling I have.”

  He laughed with relief, for the unreasonable in those days did not seem to him much of an adversary. “All right, maybe you won’t have to have it long, because I’ve a bit of news to tell you…”

  He told her then what he had known for several days—that the Parliamentary Member for Browdley was expected to retire on account of age within a few months. When this happened there would be a by-election and George would be a possible candidate; if he won, he would be obliged to live in London during Parliamentary sessions, so Livia would enjoy frequent escapes from Browdley that way.

  She was much happier at the thought of this, and soon also for another reason—she was going to have a baby.

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