James hilton collected n.., p.19
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.19
 

           James Hilton

  He said he was sorry he was late, and she answered brightly: “Oh, that’s all right—the dinner won’t spoil. Lamb stew—can’t you smell it?”

  He sniffed hard and joyfully; lamb stew was one of his favorite dishes, and he would relish it all the more from thinking that perhaps she had prepared it to please him.

  “Ah,” he gasped.

  “And we’ll have it in the kitchen to save time,” she said, evidently reaching an impromptu decision. “Annie—did you hear? We’ll all eat in the kitchen, so hurry up.”

  That was like her; the knack of taking short cuts to get what she wanted—the quick plan, or change of plan, generally based on something so elemental that only a child could have avoided the mistake of reading into it more than was there. This eating in the kitchen, for instance, had nothing to do with any feeling on Livia’s part that Annie was an equal (only George could, and did, sometimes think of such a thing); really, it was just that Livia was hungry and, as with all her desires, could not bear to be kept waiting. George was generally amused by this, and often quoted the occasion when, having attended a Council meeting at which he presided, she had left exclaiming: “Oh, George, I’ll never go to one of those affairs again! They drive me silly—all that proposing and seconding and moving the nominations closed and appointing a subcommittee to report to the next meeting…No wonder nothing ever gets done!” But something does get done, had been George’s slightly hurt rejoiner—unspoken, however, because he knew she would then argue that what he called something was not much more than what she called next to nothing…

  But now, walking after her into the kitchen, his spirits rose, crowning the physical ease that came over him as he entered the warm small room and sat at the scrubbed table between the gas stove and the meat safe. A curious half-painful happiness clutched at him as he watched her across the table top; she was, he had to admit, as sheerly fascinating to him as ever, with those dark, almost violet-blue eyes that glowed rather than sparkled and gave her whole face a rapt, almost mystic expression; the hair so straw-pale that it could look white against mere gold, the mouth too big for the nose, but the nose so small and perfect that he had sometimes thought that if he were a sculptor he would model it and stick it on a model of someone else’s face—yet he had never found that more matching face, and doubtless never would.

  She was talking—most unusually for her—about events of the day, conditions in Europe, and how interesting it must be to visit foreign countries now that the basic comforts of peacetime travel had begun to return.

  “Aye,” he agreed. “I’ll bet it’s interesting. I’ve got a book about postwar Europe if you’d like to—”

  “Oh, I don’t mean books, George. It isn’t here where you can understand things always—” and she touched her head—“it’s more like this—” and he expected her to touch her heart, but instead she put up her small fist and shook it in his face, laughing meanwhile. “Oh George—you and your books and meetings and speeches.”

  He did not mind the mockery he was accustomed to, especially as she seemed so happy over it. She went on chattering till the meal was ended; then, as they left the kitchen for Annie to wash up, he said—and it was the truth: “Livia, that’s the best lamb stew I ever tasted. How about a cup of tea with me in the study before I get down to some work?”

  “You’ve got work to do tonight?”

  “Aye—just a bit to finish up. The Education Committee meets tomorrow and I’ve got to hammer at them again for that new school.”

  She accompanied him to the study and presently Annie brought in tea. He was so happy, sitting there with her, in his own room with the books in it, and with her own garden below the window outside. And suddenly, as if to signalize the height of his content, the vagrant thought came to him that this was the moment, if a man were a smoker, to light up a pipe, or a cigar, or a cigarette. He laughed to himself at the notion, and then had to tell her what he had been laughing at.

  “Well, why don’t you?” she asked. “I’ve got some cigarettes.”

  “Nay…I was only joking, Livia.”

  “But George, if you want to—”

  “I don’t want to—it was just that now would be the time if I ever did want to.”

  And then he saw her face cloud over as if something in his words had sent her into a new mood. She went to the window, stared out over the dark garden for a moment, then turned round and said very quietly: “Now’s the time for me too. George, I want to leave you.”

  “What?”

  The happiness so passing, so brief—drained away from mind and body, so that he felt older by years within seconds. “Livia…what? What’s that?”

  “I—I must leave you, George.”

  “But Livia—why—what on earth—” He was on his feet and crossing the room towards her.

  “No, George—don’t—don’t…Or you can if you like—I don’t mind. It isn’t that I’ve changed in how I feel toward you. And there’s nobody else…but I’m not happy, George, since Martin died.”

  “Livia—my little Livia—neither am I—you know that—but after all—” And then he could only add: “I thought you did look happy tonight.”

  “That’s because I’d made up my mind.”

  “To do what?”

  “To leave you, George.”

  Then she went into further details. It seemed that years before (and he had never known this) she had been to some school in Geneva and had made friends with local people there; she had lately been in correspondence with them and they had asked her to visit them and stay as long as she liked. So she had accepted.

  “But…” And even amidst his unhappiness the germ of optimism began to sprout. “But Livia—that’s another matter altogether! You have friends in Geneva, so you want to spend a holiday with them! Well—why not, for heaven’s sake?” And he began to laugh. “My little Livia—what a dramatic way of putting it—that you’re going to leave me! Of course you are—for as long as you like—I daresay you do need a holiday—I’d come with you if I could spare the time—but as you know, I can’t. I don’t mind you going at all—or rather, I don’t mind so much, because although I’ll miss you I’ll be happy knowing you’re having such a good time.”

  “I may not have a good time, George.”

  “Of course you will, and when you’ve had enough of it you’ll come back to smoky old Browdley like a new woman. I’ll take care of things here while you’re away—I’ll look after Becky—”

  “Oh no, I’ll take Becky with me.”

  “You will?…All right, if you want. Anything you want…You’re run-down, Livia—a holiday’s just what you need—I’m sure a doctor would say so. And don’t worry about money—I’ll go to the bank tomorrow and see if there’s a bit extra I can find for you…”

  “Thank you, George, but I have enough…And now I know you want to work.”

  “I did want to, but I don’t know as I’ll do much after this. When—when are you going to go?”

  “Tomorrow. I have all the tickets and things and I’m pretty nearly packed.”

  “Oh Livia, Livia…” And for a moment the battle was on again between despair and optimism, the latter winning by a hairline in the end. “All right, Livia—all right.”

  “Good night, George. Please do your work. Please.” And she ran out of the room.

  A little later, when he went up to bed, she was asleep. He smiled gently and with relief as he saw her thus, for he had already schooled and chilled his optimism, and that she could sleep so soon, as calmly as a child, was reassurance to all his hopes; while into his bones, as he watched her quiet breathing through slightly parted lips, there came an ache of pity for her—as if in sleep she told the plain wordless truth, that it was not in his power to make her happy enough. She was so small, so mysterious, and to him a part of something so incurable that he wondered, watching her in the light that came in from a street lamp, what would have happened had he been a shade less eloquent at that Council meeting three
years earlier—if, for instance, the voting had been seventeen to fifteen against the motion instead of for it? Why then, so far as he could see, he would never have met Livia at all. And he would have taken that second examination according to plan and have obtained his university degree. And possibly also he would have won the by-election that would have sent him to Parliament as Member for Browdley. And also he would not have known such happiness, or such unhappiness either…

  “My little Livia,” he whispered, stooping to touch her forehead with his lips. He knew she would not wake.

  The next morning she left. He traveled also as far as Mulcaster, shepherding her and her luggage and her dog during that first stage of the journey, and fending off all sad thoughts by the resolute pretense that it was just a holiday. He was disappointed when a friend and fellow Councillor entered the same compartment at Browdley station; it was hard to concentrate upon a discussion of local political news, but then, later on, he thought it was probably easier than to have made conversation with Livia. She sat cozily, almost demurely, in a corner by the window, staring with quiet interest upon the familiar scenes. The hour-long journey, with stops at every station, built up in George a certain resignation, so that when the train reached the terminus he was well able to take command of the situation when Councillor Ridyard noticed the luggage. “Why, what’s all this?” Ridyard exclaimed, reading the labels. “Geneva? Who’s going to Geneva?”

  “My wife,” said George, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “She’s visiting friends there.”

  “Well, well! You don’t say! Just for the moment I thought they’d appointed you to the League of Nations, and I was wondering how on earth we’d manage without you on the Housing Committee…”

  At which they all three laughed.

  Just before George saw her off on the London train, Ridyard’s joke put him in mind of something to say at a time when it is always hardest to think of anything to say to anybody. “Geneva must be pretty interesting these days, Livia. There’s probably a place for the public at the League of Nations meetings—you might find some of them worth looking in at…but of course they do everything in French, don’t they?”

  “Do they?” she answered. “But I know French, anyhow.”

  “You do?”

  “Yes.”

  “I never knew you did. You never told me.”

  “I never told you lots of things.”

  “Aye, that’s about it…”

  And then the train began to move, and there was no more time for anything but the last shouted good-byes.

  Two hours later he was back in Browdley, desperately unhappy, fighting again to believe that it was just a holiday. But after a little while to get used to it he established a fairly permanent victory over his misgivings; for she wrote several letters, quite normal ones, reporting what sort of time she was having, where she went, and whom she met. And he, in return, reported upon his doings in Browdley—his continuing struggle to maneuver the housing scheme towards its first stage of accomplishment. When she had been away a couple of months she wrote that she had found a job with a tourist agency, conducting travel parties about Switzerland and Austria, and this, though it seemed to make her near return less likely, reinforced his belief that she was benefiting by the change. After all, it was quite natural not to stay too long as a guest in a friend’s house, and if a temporary job offered itself, was it not sensible to take it? What really cheered him was the knowledge that those tourist-guide jobs were temporary—the season began about May and did not last beyond October. So that when October should come …

  But before October came, Lord Winslow came, on that first of September, 1921, to lay the foundation stone of the first unit of the Mill Street Housing Scheme.

  Part Four

  BETWEEN 1921 AND 1938 much happened in the world; America had the biggest boom and then the biggest slump in history; England went on the gold standard and then off again; Germany rose from defeat to power and then from power to arrogance; flying became a commonplace and radio the fifth estate; people changed from being bored with the last war to being scared of the next—with one short interval of cynical, clinical absorption.

  And those were the years during which, in Browdley, the Mill Street Housing Scheme was progressing unit by unit.

  One afternoon in the first week of October, 1938, the Mayor of Browdley presided at official ceremonies to mark the scheme’s completion. It had taken a long time, with many intervals of delay and inaction, but at last it was finished, and clusters of cheerful little red-brick semi-detached cottages covered the entire area of what had once been slums. George Boswell himself was also cheerful; in his early fifties he wore both his years and his mayoralty well; except for gray hair he had not changed much, it was remarked, since the day so long before when the foundation stone had been laid upon the first unit.

  “Remember that day, George?” someone buttonholed him afterwards. “You had Lord Thingumbob here, and my wife slipped on the way home and busted her ankle—that’s how it sticks in my mind.”

  This ancient mishap seemed to amuse the husband more than it did the Mayor, whose face momentarily clouded over as he answered: “Aye, I remember that day.”

  “And so you should, after the fight you’ve had. Seventeen years, George, and without a Council majority till lately, so that you couldn’t vote ’em down, you just had to wear ’em out…Well, it’s all over now, and a big job well done.”

  “Aye, but there’s plenty more to do.”

  The cloud then lifted, and the Mayor was seen to be enjoying the triumph he deserved. True, there was no noble lord on hand this time, but there was to have been a personage of equal if not superior importance, none other than a Cabinet Minister—and everyone knew that his absence was not George’s fault, but Hitler’s. George did not like Hitler—for other reasons than that; but now that the Pact of Munich had been signed he could not help seeing a certain symbolism in what had happened—the removal of the threat of war by a last-minute miracle so that the final ceremonies of the Mill Street Housing Scheme could take place as planned. And a further touch: the very same workmen who had erected the flags and platform had been taken right off the job of building an air-raid shelter under the Town Hall. George mentioned this in his speech, and again in a Guardian editorial that concluded:—

  We people of Browdley—quiet folks who ask for nothing more than to do our work in peace and live our lives in decency—we do not profess to understand the complicated geographic, ethnographic, and historical problem of the Sudetenland which has come so close to plunging a whole continent into the infinite disaster of war. We cannot be sure even now that the settlement just reached will be administered fairly to all parties, or whether, in certain phases of the negotiations, the threat of the sword did not prevail over the scales of justice. What we do know, by and large, is that at the eleventh hour a decision has been made that every honest citizen of every country will endorse in principle—because it is AGAINST WAR. Let every man of Browdley whose death sentence has thus been commuted, let every woman of Browdley, who will not now face sorrow and bereavement, let every child of Browdley who will grow up to inherit a happier world—let them face anew THE TASKS OF PEACE AND RECONSTRUCTION.

  After the ceremonies George walked home across the town and had tea alone in his study—the same study, though enlarged by a bay window built over the garden, as well as by inclusion of a book-lined alcove that had formerly been part of the lobby. For George’s library was now more certainly than ever the largest private one in Browdley, the years having just about doubled its contents.

  Everything else was much the same, including Annie, and the printing office, and Will Spivey. When George handed in his Munich editorial, the old fellow, a little crustier but otherwise unchanged by the years, read it through, grunted, and said at length: “Do you want this as well as the one about the new sewage scheme?”

  “No,” answered George. “Instead of.”

 
“What’ll I do with the sewage one then?”

  “Keep it till next week.”

  But by the next morning George’s slight misgiving about Munich had thriven, and he took the opportunity to cut out that final sentence. Instead he wrote:—

  …For the rest, we must wait and see whether Hitler’s word is to be trusted. If his desire for “peace in our time” is as sincere as our own, we should expect to see some corresponding reduction in German armaments, and until we have evidence of this we can only continue, however reluctantly, the process of bringing our own armaments up to a minimum safety level. THAT THE GOVERNMENT WILL DO THIS WE DO NOT DOUBT.

  George’s optimism had merely swerved in another direction.

  Like most Englishmen, he was shocked rather than surprised when war came. Nineteen thirty-eight had been the year of hypnosis, the sleepwalk into tragedy, but the first half of 1939 brought a brand of disillusionment that made the actual outbreak of hostilities almost an anticlimax. After that there was so much to be done, and so little time for self-scrutiny that George was spared the full chagrin of awakening; like all mayors of towns, he found his office had become practically a branch of the national government, with his own tasks and personal responsibilities greatly increased. He shouldered them with gusto from before dawn till often past midnight while England slowly dissolved into a new era—slowly, it seemed, because it had been natural to expect change and catastrophe overnight. When no bombs fell on London, and when all continued to be quiet along the Western Front, a curious hangover of illusion recurred; it was a “phony” war, said some; perhaps it was not even a war at all. One morning at his editorial desk, aware of this unreality and not knowing how else to handle it, George indulged in a little spree of optimism. After all, he reflected, the good citizens of Browdley deserved a pick-me-up; they had done wonders in response to all his war-emergency appeals, had enlisted splendidly for air-raid protection and civilian defense, and were resolutely creating a strong Home Front while across the Channel hundreds of their sons were already facing the enemy, but so far, thank heaven, not being killed by him. It was astonishing, compared with the First World War, how few casualties there were along that Western Front. And thinking things out, George composed the following:—

 
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