James hilton collected n.., p.16
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.16

           James Hilton
 

  “Only because he might find you some work. I thought it was a stroke of luck when I met somebody who knew him—he’s very influential in the newspaper world, so Mrs. Wallington told me. And it would get us out of Browdley—that is, if he did say he could find you something.”

  George gritted his teeth and replied: “Aye, he said he could. He offered me six pounds a week in his London office—provided I learned enough.”

  “Oh, but George, that’s—that’s wonderful! You don’t make nearly so much out of the Guardian—not lately, anyhow.”

  “Livia…” He stopped suddenly in the street and faced her. “Do you really mean you’d have me give up my own paper and all the work I do on the Council—just to have a job under a man like that? And what a job—writing patent-medicine ads…Livia, would you really have me do that?”

  He knew what her answer would have been but for the look on his face, which made her temporize: “Maybe it isn’t exactly the life you’d choose. But I don’t choose the life I have, either…And why keep on saying ‘a man like that’? They can’t all be men like you.”

  He began walking again. “Livia, let’s not quarrel. You did a silly thing, but I daresay you meant well. You asked this man to find me a job—you made yourself agreeable to him—you were pretending just as you were with Tom Whaley, weren’t you?” His eagerness to think so fanned a warmth between them. “I believe you really thought you were doing the best for me.”

  “No…I was thinking about Martin more than you. That was the real reason.”

  Then she told him the bare economic facts of his own household (which he had hardly guessed, so preoccupied had he been with the bare economic facts of the whole town)—the fact, for instance, that sometimes lately she hadn’t been able to afford the kind of food and clothing the child most needed, and had had to make do with the second-best. Though this was a condition common all over Browdley, and formed the subject matter of countless speeches he made, he was nevertheless shocked to find it so close to his own personal affairs—not because he thought he ought to have been exempt from what afflicted others, but simply because it had never occurred to him. And once it did, of course, why, of course, something must be done about it. But what could be done? persisted Livia, coolly stemming his indignation. It was no use her asking for more money because she knew, and none better, that the Guardian didn’t make it; she knew also there were no more business economies possible. Nor were there domestic ones; she herself did all the housework, and some of the office work too, now that she knew how careless Will Spivey was. As she very calmly explained: it had become her honest opinion after George’s electoral defeat that it would be a wise thing to leave Browdley, even apart from her own desire to do so.

  “But—my Council work, Livia—”

  “Where’s it getting you?”

  “I don’t know, but I’ve not been defeated in that…yet. I don’t have all my own way—after all, who does?—but I am on the Council, pretty safely on too, judging by my last majority. And the job’s worth doing. I know you’re not interested in it—I don’t ask you to be, but do believe me when I say this—it’s worth doing…Livia, don’t hinder me in it—even if you can’t help me…And as for the extra things you need for Martin, you shall have them. Of course you shall—I had no idea you were doing without…I’d rather go without everything myself—”

  “But you can’t, George. You don’t drink or smoke—there’s nothing you could give up…except Browdley. That’s your hobby, or your luxury—whatever you’d rather call it. And I don’t say you’re not entitled to it—you personally, that is—everyone has his own tastes. But what sort of a place is it for a child to grow up in?”

  But that only gave him his own private cue for optimism, as she would have known if she had attended more of his meetings. For he answered, beginning quietly but with rising confidence as he proceeded: “Not such a bad place as it used to be…and I’ll make it better. You wait. You don’t know all the plans I have. And they’re not just dreams—they’re practical. I don’t tell you much—because I know you don’t want to hear about it—I wish you did…but never mind that. Mark my words, though. I’ll do things with this town. I’ll get the slums off the map. I’ll build schools…and a new hospital…I’ll…well, laugh at me if you like—I don’t care.”

  She did not laugh, but she smiled as she took his arm. “I wouldn’t care either, but for Martin. You’d do anything for Browdley—I’d do anything for him.”

  “So would I too—I just don’t see any conflict between them. Don’t you think I’m as devoted to the kid as you are?”

  He was; but nevertheless in his heart he looked forward to the time when Martin would be a little older—old enough for the friendly father-and-son relationship to develop, old enough also to start the kind of education on which George set so much store. Whereas for Livia every tomorrow seemed a future far enough ahead and complete in itself; it was almost as if she hoarded the days of babyhood, unwilling to lose the separate richness of each one.

  She was wrong, though, in saying there was nothing he could give up. There was, and he gave it up. She never knew, because she had never known anything about it at all. The fact was, after his electoral defeat George had gone back to his earlier ambition, the university degree. The long interval he had let pass meant digging over a good deal of old as well as new ground, but he tackled the job, as he did all his chosen jobs, with enthusiasm. Most of the necessary time he put in late at nights, in the room which he had now begun to call his “study”; and without actually telling Livia a direct lie, he allowed her to think he was busy preparing material for the Guardian. As she was generally asleep when he came up to bed she did not know how long he worked; sometimes it was half the night. He had a curious unwillingness to let her know what he still hankered after, partly because he was not sure he would ever succeed in winning it, but chiefly out of a sort of embarrassment; he was sure she would smile as at a grown man caught playing with a toy, for book learning to her was something you had forced on you during youth and then were mercifully released from ever afterwards. She might also (a more valid attitude) feel that if he had such time to spare it would be better spent in trying to sustain his own precarious livelihood. Anyhow, he did not tell her, and having not done so, it was easy to give the whole thing up without a word to anyone in the world. There were the examination fees he would now avoid, and he could also sell some of the expensive textbooks he had had to purchase. He did this and gave her everything thus saved, spreading it over a period so that she needed no explanation.

  But the habit of reading in his study at night continued—in fact, the whole habit of study continued, for it was something bigger than a mere competitive examination that had inspired George. The fringe of scholarship he had touched had left him with an admiration for learned men all the more passionate because he almost never met them either in business or in politics; and there came to him a constant vision, the memory of the dome-headed spectacled examining professor who had been so indulgent to him about the Pathetic Fallacy.

  Perhaps Martin would grow up into a learned man—which was another reason for not discussing the matter with Livia.

  One thing, however, became both an immediate and a practical ambition—that the boy should have a vastly different childhood from his own. Not that his own had been cruel or vicious; merely that, in recollecting it, he was aware of how far it had been from the ideal. Perhaps equally far from the worst that it might have been, in Browdley, for George’s father had always had regular employment in a job that set him among the aristocracy of cotton-mill labor—a spinner’s wage being at that time more than twice that of the lowest-paid. And though Mill Street became a byword later, it was no worse during George’s childhood than nine tenths of Browdley; for the Boswells, like many other families, had lived in a four-roomed bathroomless house more because there were no others available than because they could not have afforded

  better. Anyhow, Number 24, in which
George was born, had been clean and decently furnished, and its occupants, though overcrowded, were never without enough plain food and strong soap and good winter fuel; they were “respectable chapel folk,” moreover, which meant that their children were nagged at without the use of technical bad language; and if the young Boswells feared their father too much, and their father feared his Heavenly Father, it was doubtless on general principles rather than for any more definite reason.

  Even George’s early education, which was poor enough, had had a few passable things in it; indeed, at the old-fashioned prisonlike elementary school he was taught reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic far more thoroughly than were the youngsters in the luxurious modern school that George persuaded the Council to build years later. But there was a drawback to the thoroughness, for the teacher, a Mr. Rimington, was dull-witted enough to think history and geography “easy” subjects, and therefore somewhat to be despised. All George learned of the former was that somebody was a “good” king and somebody else a “bad” one, plus a few scraps of information such as that Henry the Second never smiled again and that Oliver Cromwell had a wart on his nose; while geography consisted largely of memorizing “what belongs to England,” and of copying maps—an occupation which Mr. Rimington approved of because it took so long and kept the class quiet. He was also dull-witted enough to think that a boy who turned over a page during a reading lesson without waiting for the order to do so was guilty of a serious breach of discipline. George had been punished for this once or twice, after which he hated and feared Mr. Rimington and formed a self-protective habit of concentrating his attention and disengaging his intelligence whenever he crossed the school threshold. Not till years afterwards when, as Chairman of the Browdley Education Committee, he had the task of choosing applicants for teaching posts, did he realize that Mr. Rimington had made himself thus terrifying because when he first became a teacher the rougher products of Browdley homes had terrified him.

  And now, as the father of the product of another Browdley home, George turned over in his mind his own childhood memories, not without a certain nostalgia, but with a resolute determination that Martin’s early life should contain happier ones. He remembered the crowded house in Mill Street, his mother’s continual nagging (behind which he had failed to diagnose the harassed affection that was really there), his father’s doomful voice at home and from the pulpit; the canal bank where he sneaked off to play when his father was at work and his mother was ill (the only time of real freedom he enjoyed); the elementary school round the corner and Mr. Rimington’s classroom, with its torn maps and dirty walls, the smell of wet clothes and steaming waterpipes in winter, and of sweat in summer; the slabs of dust-laden sunlight into which he so often stared after finishing tasks adjusted to the speed of the stupidest pupil; terrifying Mr. Rimington himself, and the not-quite-so-terrifying headmaster, old “Daddy” Simmons, whose habit, fascinating to all, was to stick his little finger into his ear and waggle furiously; and the paragraph in the tattered reading book that said: “Harrow is one of the great schools of England. Many famous Englishmen went there when they were boys. Some of them carved their names on the school desks, and these names can still be read. You must not carve your name on your school desk, but you can make up your mind to become a famous Englishman when you grow up…”

  George’s own ambitions, even if he should ever become both a Member of Parliament and a Bachelor of Arts, had never permitted themselves to soar as far as being “a famous Englishman.” But for Martin…why not? What obstacles were there? Surely not boyhood in Browdley, since winning scholarships was no harder from there than from anywhere else. Perhaps Martin might win such scholarships—not to Harrow (for George, though he could admire some of their products as individuals, was of the opinion that public schools encourage snobbery), but to Oxford—or Cambridge, at least. That faint preference in favor of Oxford was nothing but a recollection of Gladstone’s Double First.

  There came a day when Martin seemed old enough to be taken by his father to the Browdley Town Hall, there to imbibe some vague first impression which George could hardly seek to clarify at such an early age, but which would later, he hoped, inspire the lad to an interest in civics, local government, the history of his country, the parliament of man, and the federation of the world. (After all, there was no limit to the effects of a child’s first impression.) So George held the boy lovingly in his arms in front of the rather bad stained-glass in the main lobby of the Town Hall—stained glass depicting a woman carrying some sheaves of wheat in one hand and what looked like a coffee grinder in the other (“mechanical power,” it was supposed to represent); he hoped Martin would at least notice the bright colors. And in due course the child’s eyes rounded with all the excitement, nay more than the excitement that George had hoped for, but unfortunately those eyes were not on the stained glass at all.

  George looked down and saw a large rat scampering across the Town Hall floor.

  He was horrified, not only that the child should have seen such a thing, but that such a thing should exist; it argued bad drains or something—he would certainly bring the matter up at the next meeting of the Building Committee.

  But Martin was by no means horrified. He knew nothing about rats, but perhaps he thought that what he had seen was some extremely swift and fascinating kind of pussycat (for pussycats were known to him), and with this to wonder about the visit to the Town Hall did indeed enshrine an experience.

  Martin loved his father less than his mother and perhaps even than Becky, but George did not mind this, reflecting magnanimously that the balance would be evened up later on. After all, it was a result of the physical contacts of mother and child, the domestic routine, the humble, serio-comic intimacies; and Livia made a perfect mother—unexpectedly so, indeed. It was as if all the nonsense that cropped up so often in her behavior with adults were resolved into complete naturalness between herself and Martin; she never raised her voice to him, or was angry, or even irritated. In an odd way she gave the appearance of being with the boy in his own world, rather than of looking into it from hers; perhaps there was a sense in which she had never grown up herself, or perhaps it was just the animal quality in her that George had noticed before, that extraordinary paradoxical knack of being shameless and fastidious at the same time. When George came upon his wife and child romping together, he sometimes felt that to make them even aware of him was an intrusion, the breaking of a lovely spell, and he would tiptoe away rather than do this; for again he was able to fortify himself by thinking that his own time would come later.

  One night, as he sat with a book in his study, the impulse came to write something that might, if anything untimely should happen, be a help to the boy or at least a reminder that a man had once existed who had dreamed things about him and hoped things for him; and in this mood, rare because of its slightly melancholy flavor, George wrote:—

  Everything depends on childhood, Martin, and if you ever have children of your own, remember that, just as I, remembering my childhood, intend to make yours good to remember. When I was a boy of seven my parents died and I went to live with an uncle who kept a newspaper and stationery shop in Shawgate, and living in his house gave me, I think, the germ of all my later interest in printed things—perhaps even in politics too, because it so happened that at the time of my arrival there was an election in progress, and Uncle Joe, who was a Liberal (the only thing he had in common with my father), sent me out to distribute hand-bills. All I had to do was to walk about Browdley slipping them under doors and through letter boxes, yet I don’t think the world was or ever could be more wonderful to me than during those few weeks. I kept hearing about some mysterious person called the Candidate, who was opposed in some mysterious way to another person who was called the Other Candidate, and it seemed to me that the great battle of Good and Evil was being fought in the streets of this town, and that I and my uncle were soldiers fighting it. I suppose it was then, before I really knew what things
were all about, that I had the first hankering that made me later decide to go on fighting the same sort of battle when I grew up. And if that’s a strange reason for a young man to enter politics, then perhaps it isn’t the real reason, but just the flick of a button in the signal cabin that can send a train to any one of a hundred different places.

  But of course all that was years ago—and in another age, because 1914 was really the end of an age. It was not only that things happened differently before then—they happened to people who felt them differently. Take chapel-going, for instance. If you had walked up Mill Street almost any Sunday forty years ago, you would have seen from the notice board outside that William Boswell was to preach there. That man was my father. It would be a cold, raw night, maybe, with mist peeling off the moors, but the folk who wanted to hear him wore hard-wearing stuff; in twos and threes they mustered, till by six o’clock the little gaslit pitch-pine interior was almost full. Punctually on the hour old Jack Slater went to the pedal harmonium (the Methodists of the sect my father belonged to did not believe in pipe organs) and let his fingers wander over the keys according to a style of his own, beginning softly and working up to a great roar, his feet pounding as if he were bicycling uphill to save a life. By this time my father had emerged from the side vestry, Bible in hand, and climbed the steps to the pulpit, where he prayed standing (for the sect did not believe in kneeling or stooping), and announced the opening hymn in the boomingest voice I ever heard. He was a fine-looking man, as you can judge from the photograph in my study; his hands were big and thick-fingered; his hair, black and bushy, crowned a well-shaped head set firmly on broad shoulders. He never drank, smoked, played cards, went to Browdley’s one theater (there were no cinemas in those days), or read a novel or a Sunday newspaper. A life that might have seemed, to an outsider, full of hardships relieved only by boredoms had somehow or other produced in him an air of somber majesty that I could never come to terms with, and I don’t think my mother ever could either. We lived at Number 24, a four-roomed house identical with eleven on one side of it and thirty-two on the other. Parallel with Mill Street stood Jenny Street and Nathaniel Street, composed of houses exactly similar. From the pavement one entered by a single step through the usually unlatched front door; at the back, however, there was an exit through the kitchen into a small paved yard where coal was stored and clothes were hung to dry. I suppose there was no labor-saving device in general use in those days except the Singer sewing machine that, surmounted by a plant pot with or without a plant in it, stood behind the lace curtains in nearly every front window. And there was gaslight downstairs, but not upstairs; and sanitation had but recently progressed in Browdley from the stinking midden to the back-to-back water privy. There were no bathrooms, and baths were taken once a week by heating pans of water over the kitchen fire. I give you all these details because I hope by the time you grow up most of them will be a bit historic—at any rate I hope Mill Street won’t be in existence for you to verify. Mind you, these houses were not slums (as they are today), but typical dwellings of respectable working folk such as my parents were. Respectability even imposed a toll of extra labor, for it was a sort of ritual to wash and scrub the street pavement from the front door to the curb, a task undone by the next passer-by or the next rain shower. When my mother was ill, as she often was during the last years of her life, this necessary tribute to tribal gods was made on her behalf by an obliging neighbor, though I doubt if my mother would have cared much if it hadn’t been. She was a merry little woman with an independent mind uncoupled with any determination to stake out a claim for itself; this made her easy to get on with and rather hopeless to rely on. My father only saw her between six and ten in the evenings (the rest of the time he was either at work or asleep), and during the annual holiday which they took together, always at Blackpool, the strain of trying to seem familiar to a man whose life was so separate from hers made her almost glad when the week was over and she could return to the far more familiar routine of Mill Street. She loved my father well enough, but the emotion of being in love had probably not survived courtship, and by her thirties, with an already numerous family to look after, she had worn her life of household drudgery into an almost comfortable groove. Every morning in the bedroom overlooking the backs of the houses in Nathaniel Street, the alarm clock rang at five-fifteen; without a word my mother would get up, come downstairs in her nightdress, and poke up the kitchen fire that had been banked with small coal overnight. Then she would fill the kettle to make tea, and by the time this was ready my father would be down himself, washing at the kitchen sink and ready to leave as soon as the clock hand approached the half-hour. He was never exactly bad-tempered, but the fact that they were both sleepy made them reluctant to talk; there was, anyhow, nothing much to talk about. A few minutes after he had left the house the whole town resounded with the crescendo of the mill “buzzers,” but by that time my mother was back in the warm bed, content to doze again while the clogged footsteps rang along the pavement outside. To her this pause between my father’s departure for work and the beginning of her own was the pleasantest time of the day—and the only time she was really alone. By eight o’clock she was dressed and downstairs, glancing at the morning paper, making more tea and frying a rasher of bacon for herself. Then came attendance on us children, getting us off to school when we were old enough, and after that a routine of housework and the morning walk along Mill Street to the shop at the corner where nearly everything could be bought, from feeding bottles to fly papers. She would chat there to Mr. and Mrs. Molesworth while they served her; she liked a joke and an exchange of gossip, and often, if the jokes and the gossip were good enough, she would stay talking and laughing until other customers joined in, so that the shop became a sort of neighborhood club for housewives.

 
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