James hilton collected n.., p.18
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.18

           James Hilton

  “And Martin might have caught one! Or a flea perhaps! So to save him from that you let him catch diphtheria—”

  She interrupted in a dead-level voice: “I don’t want to quarrel, George. But don’t you remember I asked if it couldn’t be done by a private doctor? And do you remember what you said?”

  Yes, he remembered. There had been a wrangle, though a less bitter one, about that also. Couldn’t she realize, he had asked her indignantly, that for months he had been making speeches all over the town in favor of free public immunization? What would it look like if, after all that, he took his own child to a private doctor? Couldn’t she see what a fool and a hypocrite it would make him appear? So Martin must go to the clinic. “Livia, I wouldn’t insist if it meant that the child would be getting anything second-best. But the free immunization’s just as good—just the same, in fact—as anything a private doctor could give. The only difference is in where you take him to get it. Don’t you see we have to set an example to the town in these things? If we don’t use the new facilities ourselves, if we behave as if we thought them not good enough for our own children, how can we expect anyone else to trust them?”

  Thus the argument when Martin was six months old. George had thought it ended in his own victory; now, six months later, he realized that the end was neither victory nor defeat, but just postdated disaster.

  He cried out, desperately: “I know all that, Livia…And I don’t want to quarrel, either—it’s no good now—it’s too late. But why…whatever you did…why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you take him to a private doctor if you absolutely refused to do what I wanted? Oh, anything—anything rather than this…Or why didn’t you let me do it?…Why didn’t you tell me, anyway? Why did you lie to me?”

  He saw her hurt, stung face, and knew she was suffering so profoundly that his accusations made little difference. But she could sting back and make him suffer more, as when she answered with deadly irrelevance: “I did tell you one thing.

  I said we ought to leave Browdley.”

  “Oh no, that’s not the point—”

  “It is and always will be. If we hadn’t stayed here, nothing like this would have happened.”

  Even that wasn’t certain, he knew, but he saw the certainty in her eyes, and knew also that she would never believe otherwise, however much he went on arguing.

  The arrival of the doctor interrupted them. His visit lasted an hour, and when it ended there was nothing more to argue about, only a dreadful possibility to face.

  The local hospital was already overcrowded, so Martin lay in the spare room above the printing office. Livia shared it with him, while George slept on his study couch—so far, that is, as he could sleep at all. Becky, banished from upstairs, curled mournfully under the desk. George had not realized till then the depth of his affection for the child. He was like that with all his affections—they grew, and then lurked, and then sprang to give him pain. He was torn unutterably by remorse at having been so busy those past few months, so busy with the affairs of the town, too busy to look after the physical safety of his own household. He should have made sure that the immunization had taken place, instead of just mentioning the matter to Livia and taking it for granted that she had done it. It was her fault—and yet it was his fault too, for leaving everything of that sort to her. It was the streak of unreasonableness in her cropping up again, and this time tragically—he should have been prepared for it, in all vital matters he should have watched for it. He wished…he wished…and one of the things he did wish now, but dared not wish aloud, was that he had left Browdley. He almost dared not wish it in thought, lest there should pass some spark between his eyes and hers, some spark to set off a conflagration, or—even worse—to indicate a mood which she would take to be surrender. So it had come to that—that he thought of her as an enemy, or of his love for her as an enemy? Which—or both? He puzzled over it, far too modest to think his own emotions unique, but wondering if there were outsiders who would understand them better than he did—novelists, say, or psychoanalysts. Or that fellow Wendover, if ever he got to know him well enough? Though how could a priest…and yet, after all, it was a spiritual matter in some ways. Thus he argued with himself, and as the days passed and Martin did not improve, it occurred to him that the greatest single difference between Livia and himself was that she was too utterly fearless to be reasonable, while he was too reasonable to be utterly fearless. And at a certain level of experience there was simply no compromise, between them.

  Just before dawn one morning he dozed off in the chair and dreamed of his own boyhood, a dream he had had recurrently before, though never with such clarity. It was about his Uncle Joe, whom he had gone to live with when he was seven years old, and of whom he had had more fear (on one occasion only) than ever before or since of anything or anyone. What had happened actually, though not always in the dream, was that uncle and nephew had met for the first time at the house in Mill Street, when no one else was there. This was a few months after his father had died, a week after the funeral of his mother, and a few hours after the door had closed on his elder brother Harry, his elder sister Jane, and the furniture removers.

  George had been the youngest of a family of six, with a gap so wide between himself and the rest that at the time he was left parentless all the others were grown-up and some of them married. Their bickerings about who should take care of him (each one having a completely plausible alibi) had made them jump at an unexpected offer from their mother’s brother, despite the fact that he and their father had quarreled years before over some point of behavior which (according to the latter) “just shows what a wicked man Joe is.” Nobody ever told George more than that; all Harry would add was an especially sinister: “You’ll find out soon enough, Georgie.” And when the Mill Street household was broken up, Jane and Harry watched the last of the furniture stowed away in the van, then looked at George as if it were somehow disobliging of him to be alive. Finally Jane whispered: “We might as well go now, Harry—George’ll be all right by himself till Uncle Joe comes—he said he’d be along as soon as he closed the shop.”

  Which made an excellent excuse to go about their respective affairs and leave a boy of seven alone in an empty house in which both his parents had recently died, there to await (with no lights and dusk approaching) the arrival of a man he had never seen before, and who, from mysterious hints and rumors he had heard, must surely be some kind of monster.

  And about nine o’clock this legendary Uncle Joe, having paused longer than he intended at the Liberal Club, came striding along Mill Street to knock at Number 24. George could not, at that moment of panic, decide whether he were more frightened of the darkness or of his uncle; he could only crouch under the stairs until the knock was repeated. Then he decided that the unknown peril was worse and that he would not open the door at all. But in the meantime Uncle Joe had gone round to the back of the house and found a door there unlocked, so that he simply walked in, stumbling and making a great commotion in the dark while he struck matches and called for George.

  George saw his face first of all in the light of the quick-spurting flame—not, perhaps, the most reassuring way for anyone bordering on hysteria to encounter a feared stranger. He saw a big reddish face, with bristling mustaches, tufts of hair sticking out of the nose and ears, and eyebrows which, owing to the shadow, seemed to reach across the entire forehead.

  The result of all this was that by the time Uncle Joe, groping after a series of wild screams that jumped alarmingly from room to room, finally traced them to the corner of an upstairs cupboard, George had fainted and the old man had used up all his matches.

  The only thing he could think of was to carry the boy downstairs in his arms and thence out of the house into the street. They had reached the corner before George came to, where-upon Uncle Joe, panting for breath, gladly set him down on the edge of the curb with a lamppost to lean against. Then, being a man of much kindness but little imagination, he could think of no
thing further but to relight his pipe while the boy “got over it,” whatever “it” was.

  Presently George looked up from the curb, saw the big man bending over him, and, despite the now less terrifying eye-brows, would have raced away in renewed flight had there been any power left in his legs. But there seemed not to be, so he sat there helpless, resigned to the worst as he heard his captor fumbling around and muttering huskily: “Bugger it! No more matches—wasted ’em all looking for you, young shaver!”

  Suddenly then, by a sort of miracle, the heartening message came through—that everything was all right; but only years afterwards was George able to reflect that in that same first kindly breath there had been the two things that had made his father call Uncle Joe a wicked man—namely, a “swear” and the smell of whisky.

  All this was what really happened…but in the dream it did not always end like that; sometimes the fear of the stranger’s footsteps in the empty house lasted till the crisis of waking.

  And now, years later, while his son lay desperately ill in the room above, George dreamed of this fear again, and was wakened by the doctor’s hand. “Sorry, George…but I think you’d best go up.”

  “Is it—is it—bad?”

  “Pretty bad…this time.”

  George went upstairs, still with the agony of the dream pulsating in his veins; and then, from the bedroom doorway, he saw Livia’s face. There was no fear in it as she glanced not to him, but to the doctor.

  The doctor walked over to the bed, stooped for a moment, then looked up and slowly nodded.

  One thing was now settled more definitely than ever; George would not leave Browdley, and if she should ever ask him again he would answer from a core of bitterness in his heart. But she did not even mention the matter. She seemed not to care where they lived any more, and if an absence of argument were the only test, then they were at peace during the days that followed. But George knew differently, and he knew that Livia knew also. It was no peace, but an armistice on terms, and one only tolerable so long as both parties fenced off large parts of their lives as individual territory.

  They both grieved over Martin, and comforted each other up to the boundary line, but that was fixed, and beyond it lay inflexibility. When, for instance, she said a week or so later: “Tom Whaley telephoned while you were out to say that the Council reconvenes on the seventeenth—” George simply nodded, and went to his study.

  She followed him, adding: “He wanted to know if you’d be there.” She waited for him to reply, then said: “I don’t mind you going, George. I don’t mind being left alone in the evenings.”

  He answered: “Aye, I shall go.”

  “Perhaps you’d better let him know then—”

  “Don’t worry—I met him in the street after he telephoned you. I told him I’d be going.”

  And there was finality in that.

  He went to the meeting and found there an atmosphere not only of warm personal sympathy, but of eagerness to accept him as a prophet; so that he scored, almost without opposition, the biggest personal triumph of his career. The housing scheme he had urged for years went through the first stage of its acceptance that very night; even his bitterest antagonists gave way, while to his friends he became manifestly the leader of a cause no longer lost. There was irony (unknown to any but himself) that at such a moment of easy victory he had never felt grimmer in spirit. When he reached home late that night Livia was in bed, and he would not disturb her, for the news he had did not seem enough excuse; she could read about it if she wished (and there was irony there too) in the pages of the next Guardian. But the excitements of the evening had made him sleepless, so he sat up in his study till daylight, reading and writing and thinking and working out in his mind the terms of the unspoken armistice.

  One afternoon he found her with Fred, the messenger boy from the printing works, busily engaged in clearing up the yard behind the office that had always (as far back as anyone could remember) been a dumping ground for old papers, cardboard boxes, tin cans, and so on. It was such a small area, enclosed on two sides by buildings and on the remaining ones by high brick walls, that nobody had ever thought of any other use for it. But now, when she saw his curiosity, she asked if he would mind her turning it into a garden.

  “Why, of course not,” he answered, pleased that she should show such an interest. “But I doubt if anything’ll grow there.”

  “We’ll see,” she said.

  “I’ll give you a hand with it if you like.”

  “No, there’s no need. Fred will dig it over, and then I can do all the rest myself.”

  “What’ll you plant?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “I’ll get you some books about gardening if you like.”

  “Oh no, no…I don’t want books.”

  And there was just the hint of a barb in that. It was as if she had chosen books as a symbol of his world, just as flowers were to be of hers. The books, too, were increasing all the time; some of them came as review copies addressed to the Guardian by publishers who did not realize how small and unimportant the paper was; many he bought, a few were sent him as chairman of this or that municipal committee. He had no collecting spirit, no special desire to make a show of what he had read. Yet as the books filled up the room, and new shelves had to be rigged till they covered most of the wall space, he could not help a little pride in them to match Livia’s pride (and his own too) in the transformed dumping ground below. And his pride grew definite from the moment that Councillor Whaley, visiting him once while Livia was out, exclaimed: “George, I reckon this must be just about the best library in Browdley—in anyone’s house, I mean. What does your wife think about it?”

  “Livia?…Why…why do you ask that?”

  “Only because she once worked in a library herself—I thought maybe books were in her line too.”

  “No,” George answered. “She likes gardening better.” And he took Tom to the window and pointed down to the rectangle of cleared ground. “She says she’ll plant roses.”

  “Why, that’ll be fine.” And then as an afterthought: “Nobody’ll see it, though—except you. Maybe that’s the idea—to give you something to look at.”

  George smiled. “I don’t know, Tom. But my idea is that it gives her an interest in life. She needs it—since losing the boy.”

  “Naturally. But I’ll tell you what, George, if you don’t mind plain speaking from an old bachelor.” He whispered something in George’s ear about Livia’s youth and having more children. “Aye,” George replied heavily, and changed the subject.

  Martin’s death seemed to bring him into immediate friendship with Father Wendover. Neither ever referred to the curious “coincidence” that both must often have recollected; nor did the priest talk much from the standpoint of his profession. He showed, however, considerable interest in George’s family background, and once he said: “You’d have made a fine upstanding atheist, George, if only your father had lived a bit longer.”

  “Maybe,” George answered, “but Uncle Joe didn’t continue the training, and the result is I’m no more an atheist today than you are…Not that he was against religion, mind you. He even sent me to Sunday School.”


  “To be frank, I think it was because he thought Sunday Schools were a good way of giving kids something to do when they were too dressed up to do anything else.”

  “An appalling idea.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. He was all right.” George mused for a moment. “It’s odd we should be discussing him, because I dreamed about him the night Martin died…Aye, he was all right. And he liked his Sundays too—in his own way. To my father they were days of gloom and mystery and foreboding, and that was the way he wanted ’em, but to my uncle they were nice comfortable days when you had a late breakfast and took a walk along the canal bank while dinner was cooking and then had a snooze in the afternoon and high tea at five o’clock—and that was the way he wanted ’em.”

Did he ever go to church?”

  “Aye, when he felt like it. It’s true he felt like it less and less as he grew older, but he still counted church as part of a proper Sunday program. He used to say he’d attend regularly if only Aunt Flo were a bit better on her feet, and he’d have liked to put more in the collection plate if only he hadn’t lost so much in cotton investments, and he’d have been proud as punch if I’d had a voice to sing in the choir—but I hadn’t…Altogether what he’d have liked to do was so well-meaning you could hardly call him irreligious, while what he actually did was so little that he interfered with nobody—not even me.”

  Wendover, having watched George’s face during all this with a growing conviction that its look of guilelessness was sincere, now slowly smiled. “Is that your portrait of a good man, George?”

  “Well, he was good to me,” George answered, simply.

  Trade remained sluggish in the town, but the Guardian, mainly because of Livia’s reorganization, began to show a small profit. George was then able to give her more money, but she seemed to care as little about it as about anything else over which he had any control. Yet she did not mope, brood, or look particularly unhappy. Nor did she nag, upbraid, or quarrel. It was merely that she seemed in some peculiar way to have withdrawn into a world of her own, where George was not invited nor could have followed her if he had been.

  One evening early in 1921 he came home after a long day out of the town on municipal business, having left in the morning before she was awake. But now, hearing him enter, she came scampering down the stairs, and at the instant of recognition he gasped with the sensation of pain suddenly switched off inside him. Then, as always when he saw her afresh after even a few hours’ absence, recognition dissolved into a curious feeling of never having seen her before, but of experiencing some primitive thrill that the few years of their marriage had neither enhanced nor made stale. Whatever that was to him, it had been from their first moment of meeting and would be till their last; it was something simple that only became complex when he sought to analyze it. Just now he was glad to hold her in a brief hug of welcome and feel that everything was miraculously all right, even if it wasn’t, and nothing needed explaining, even if it did.

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