James hilton collected n.., p.2
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.2
 

           James Hilton

  “Not even that if he didn’t want to,” George replied. “Take my father and the Boers, for instance. Thoroughly approved of them, he did, especially old Kruger, whom he used to pray for as ‘that great President and the victor of Majuba Hill, which, as Thou knowest, Lord, is situated near the border of Natal and the Transvaal

  Republic.…’ He always liked to make sure the Lord had all the facts.”

  Despite Winslow’s laugh, George checked his flow of reminiscence, for he had begun to feel he had been led into talking too much about himself. Taking advantage, therefore, of a curve in the street that afforded the view of a large derelict weaving shed, he launched into more appropriate chatter about Browdley, its history, geography, trade conditions, and so on, and how, as Councillor, he was seeking to alleviate local unemployment. Winslow began to look preoccupied during all this, so George eventually stopped talking altogether as he neared his house—smiling a little to himself, though. He suspected that Winslow was already on guard against a possible solicitation of favors. “Or else he thinks I’m running after him because he’s a lord,” George thought, scornfully amused at such a plausible error.

  The factor George counted on to reveal the error was the room in which they were both to have tea. It was not a very large room (in the small mid-Victorian house adjoining the printing office in Market Street), but its four walls, even over the door and under the windows, were totally covered with books. One of George’s numerous prides was in having the finest personal library in Browdley, and probably he had; it was a genuine collection, anyhow, not an accumulation of sets for the sake of their binding, as could be seen in the mansions of rich local manufacturers. Moreover, George really read his books—thoroughly and studiously, often with pencil in hand for note-taking. Like many men who have suffered deficiencies in early education, he had more than made up for them since; except that he had failed to acquire the really unique thing a good early education can bequeath—the ability to grow up and forget about it. George could never forget—neither on nor off the Education Committee of which he made the best and most energetic chairman Browdley had ever had. What he chiefly hoped was that during the interval before Winslow must catch his train back to London, they might have a serious intellectual talk—or perhaps the latter would talk, Gamaliel-wise, while George sat metaphorically at his feet.

  Unfortunately the great man failed to pick up the desired cue from a first sight of the books; indeed, he seemed hardly to notice them, even when George with an expansive wave of the hand bade him make himself at home; though there was consolation in reflecting that Winslow’s own library was probably so huge that this one must appear commonplace.

  “Make yourself thoroughly at home, sir,” George repeated, with extra heartiness on account of his disappointment.

  “Thank you,” answered the other, striding across the room. He stood for a few seconds, staring through the back window, then murmured meditatively: “H’m—very nice. Quite a show. Wonderful what one can do even in the middle of a town.”

  George then realized that Winslow must be referring to the small oblong garden between the house and the wall of the neighboring bus garage. So he replied quickly: “Aye, but it’s gone a bit to pieces lately. Not much in my line, gardening.”

  “Must compliment you on your roses, anyhow.”

  “My wife, not me—she’s the one for all that if she was here.”

  “She’s away?”

  “Aye—on the Continent. Likes to travel too—all over the place. But books are more in my line.”

  “It’s certainly been a good season for them.”

  George wasn’t sure what this referred to until Winslow added, still staring out of the window: “My wife’s another enthusiast—she’s won prizes at our local show.”

  George still did not think this a promising beginning to an intellectual conversation, but as Annie was just then bringing in the tea he said no more about books. Winslow, however, could not tear himself away from the spectacle of the roses—which were, indeed, especially beautiful that year. “Too bad,” he murmured, “for anyone who loves a garden to miss England just now…So you’re not keen on foreign holidays, is that it, Boswell?”

  “Oh, I wouldn’t say no if I had the chance, but I don’t suppose I’d ever be as keen as Livia is. Anyhow, I’ve got too much to do in Browdley to leave the place for months on end.”

  “Months? Quite a holiday.”

  “Aye, but it’s not all holiday for her. She has a job with one of those travel tours—‘Ten Days in Lovely Lucerne’—that kind of thing. Pays her expenses and a bit over.”

  “Convenient.”

  “For anyone who likes seeing the same sights with different folks over and over again. I wouldn’t.”

  “Sort of guide, is she?”

  “I reckon so. She runs the show for ’em, I’ll bet. She’s got a real knack for managing folks when she feels like it.”

  “I wouldn’t say you were entirely without it yourself.”

  “Ah, but with her it’s an art.” George was too genuinely modest to realize that his own sterling naïveté was just as good a knack, art, or whatever else it was. “Maybe you won’t believe me, but when I was a young fellow I was so scared of meeting folks I could hardly get a word out. And even now I’m not as happy on a platform as I am sitting alone in this room with a good book.” He jerked his head towards the surrounding shelves in another attempt to steer the conversation, and when Winslow did not immediately reply, he added more pointedly: “I expect you’re a great reader yourself?”

  “Oh fairly—when I can find the time.”

  “Aye, that’s the worst of being in public life.” At least they had that bond in common. “You know, sir, there’s only one reason I’d ever wish to be young again—really young, I mean,” he added, as he saw Winslow smile—“and that’s to have sum-mat I missed years ago—a right-down good education….I’ll never forget when I visited Oxford and saw all those lucky lads in the colleges…” A sincere emotion entered his voice. “And the professors in their libraries—I tell you frankly, I…” He saw that Winslow was still smiling. “Well, I’ll put it this way—there’s only one thing I’d rather be than in politics, and that’s one of those university dons, as they call themselves.”

  “Yet I doubt if many of them are doing any better work than you are here—judging by what I’ve seen today.”

  George was pleased again, but also slightly shocked by the comparison; he could not believe that Winslow really meant it, and he was surprised that such a distinguished man should stoop to mere flattery. “Oh come now, sir, I’ll never swallow that. After all, think of the books they write—I’ve got shelves of ’em here—heavy stuff I admit, but grand training for the mind.”

  “Yes, books are all right.” Winslow gave a little sigh. “Though it’s remarkable how little help they offer in some of the more curious problems of life.” George was thinking this a rather strange remark when an even stranger one followed it. “Look here, Boswell, I’m going to do something I wasn’t sure about before I met you—partly because I wasn’t sure you were the right man, and partly because even if you were, I couldn’t be positive how you’d take it.”

  George looked up with a puzzled expression. There flashed through his mind the intoxicating possibility that Winslow might be going to ask his advice about some matter of departmental policy—low-rent housing, say, or an extension of the school-leaving age.

  But Winslow continued: “Quite a coincidence meeting you like this. Several months ago when I promised to speak at your ceremony today I hadn’t even heard of you—but when quite recently I did, I decided it might be a good chance to—to approach you—if—if you seemed the sort of man who might be approachable. You see, it’s a somewhat unusual and delicate matter, and there aren’t any rules of etiquette to proceed by.”

  And then there flashed through George’s already puzzled mind another though less-welcome possibility—that Winslow was an emissary of the G
overnment deputed to find out in advance whether George would accept a title in recognition of his “public services” to the town of Browdley. It was highly unlikely, of course, since he was a mere town Councillor and did not belong to the Government party, but still, anything could happen when parties and politics were fluid and Lloyd George was reputed to cast a discerning eye upon foes as well as friends. Anyhow, George’s reply would be a straight “no,” because he very simply though a trifle truculently did not believe in titles.

  He saw that Winslow was waiting for a remark, so he called his thoughts to order and said guardedly: “I’m afraid I don’t quite catch on so far, but whatever it is, if there’s any way I can help—”

  “Thanks, that’s very kind of you. I hope there is. So if you’ll just let me go ahead and explain…”

  George nodded, now more puzzled than ever; he could not help thinking that Winslow was terribly slow in getting to the point, whatever it was. Meanwhile the great man had opened up into an account of a semiofficial tour he had lately undertaken to inspect housing projects, mostly on paper, in some of the Continental countries. At this George nodded with enthusiastic comprehension, and to show that, even without foreign travel, he kept himself well abreast of such matters, he reached for a book that happened to be to hand. “You’ll have seen it, I daresay,” he interrupted eagerly. “I got the architect of our local scheme to adopt several of this fellow’s ideas—I’ve always said we should all pool our postwar experience—allies and ex-enemies alike. Take Vienna, for instance, where the Socialists are very strong—”

  “Yes, yes indeed,” Winslow agreed, though with a note in his voice to check all chatter. However, he seemed willing enough to take Vienna, for he continued: “That was one of the cities I visited recently. Apart from business, I had a special reason because my son Jeff happens to be there too. He has a job—er—connected with the Embassy.” He paused and pulled out a small pocketbook; in it he found a snapshot which he passed to George. It showed a smiling young man in ski costume in company with several pretty girls against a background panorama of snow-covered mountains. “Taken at Kitzbühel,” he added.

  George had not heard of Kitzbühel, but he knew a fine-looking fellow when he saw one, and now quite sincerely expressed his admiration. To reciprocate the intimacy he pointed to one of a number of photographs on top of a revolving bookcase of encyclopedias. “Reminds me a bit of the lad just behind you.”

  Winslow turned to look and confirmed after a scrutiny: “Yes, quite a resemblance. Your son? I wouldn’t have thought you were old enough—”

  “I’m not…That’s one of my brothers—killed on the Somme on July first, 1916. Fifty thousand killed with him the same day—according to the records. Something for folks to remember when they attack disarmament.”

  “And this?” said Winslow, still seemingly preoccupied with the photographs.

  “That’s my wife.”

  “Ah, yes.”

  George then felt it was time to relieve his guest of any further obligation to appear interested in his family, so he returned the snapshot with the comment: “Aye, he’s a bonny lad—and brainy too, by the look of him.”

  “They seemed to think so at Oxford.”

  “He did well there?”

  “Pretty well.”

  “What did he get?”

  “Get? Oh, a Rowing Blue and he was also President of the Union—”

  “And a good degree? A First, I suppose?”

  “Er…yes, I think so.”

  “Double First?”

  Winslow smiled. “I believe he took several Firsts in various subjects, but they don’t seem to use the term ‘Double First’ any more.”

  “Gladstone got it.”

  “Did he? You seem to know a good deal about these matters, Boswell….”

  “Aye, as an outsider. Though it was my father who told me about Gladstone. I think he was the only man except Bible characters whom my father really admired…But go on about your boy.”

  “Well, as I said, Jeff did pretty well at Oxford till the war cut into his career. Then he served in Egypt and got a D.S.O., and soon after the Armistice he went to France and Germany for languages, because he was entering the Diplomatic Service and the usual thing is to get attached for a few years to one of the embassies, or legations. He’s only twenty-five.”

  “Sounds like a future in front of him.”

  “That—er—is what I have hoped. We’ve always got on excellently together—good friends, I mean, as well as father and son. When I arrived in Vienna recently the first thing he did was to take me off to some restaurant where we could talk—because I hadn’t seen him for six months, and that’s a long time for family gossip to accumulate.” Winslow began to smile again. “I thought from the outset he didn’t seem exactly himself—he was preoccupied, somehow, in the way he behaved and talked—and later I asked if there’d been any trouble at the Embassy, but he said no, nothing like that. At last I got out of him what had caused the change.” The smile became suddenly forced and wan. “Perfectly natural, you may think.”

  “Been worrying about conditions in Austria? I understand things are pretty bad, what with the famine and inflation—”

  “No—not even all that…He’d fallen in love.”

  George chuckled. “Well, sir, that quite often happens to good-looking chaps of twenty-five. The only surprising thing is that it hadn’t happened before.”

  “Oh, but it had. That’s one of the—er—complications. He was engaged to a very charming girl, a neighbor of ours in Berkshire, but he said he’d already written to her to break it off—on account of the—er—new attraction.”

  “I see.” And at this George frowned slightly. A whiff of truculence was generated in him as, momentarily, he saw in Winslow no longer an unworldly scholar but a hidebound aristocrat conforming to type; for already the probable outlines of the story seemed clear—a father anxious for his son to make a socially correct marriage, the son’s romance with some pretty but penniless Austrian girl…and George, of course, was all on the side of the son and the girl, though he would wait to say so till Winslow had finished. All he commented now was a blunt: “Everyone has a right to change his mind.”

  “Of course. It wasn’t my place to interfere—provided the supplanter was all right.”

  “Not even if you thought she wasn’t. A chap of twenty-five must choose for himself.”

  “Yes, in theory, though when—”

  “In theory and in practice, sir. I don’t say a father can’t give advice in these matters, but that’s about all he can give. And if a young fellow makes a mistake, well, it’s his mistake, and he can’t blame anyone else. Haven’t we all made mistakes? And besides, even if she is a foreigner and recently an enemy—”

  “Oh, that wouldn’t worry me, and anyhow, she isn’t—she’s English.”

  “Then what does worry you?”

  “Perhaps I’d better go on with what happened. Jeff naturally described her to me in glowing colors and suggested an early meeting, so we all three dined together the next day, and I must admit my first impression was favorable—at any rate, she struck me as both charming and intelligent…”

  George was about to pour his guest another cup of tea, but Winslow made a declining gesture. “Very kind of you, Boswell, but—but I really feel in need of something a little stronger—I wonder—if you—if it isn’t too much trouble—if I could have a whisky-and-soda?”

  At which George could only in his own turn look embarrassed. “To tell you the truth I don’t have such a thing in the house—you see, I’m teetotal. But if you’re not feeling well I could send Annie out for a drop of brandy—”

  “Oh, please no, I’m perfectly well—just tiredness, that’s all. I really shouldn’t have mentioned it. Of no consequence at all, I assure you.” What had really been demonstrated was a social distinction far more revealing than any question of blood or accent—the fact that Winslow, though he drank sparingly, nevertheless belon
ged to the class for whom whisky is as much a household commonplace as salt or soap; whereas George, though by no means a bigot, had inherited enough of his father’s puritanism to think of liquor in terms of drunkenness and social problems.

  After the gulf had been bridged by renewed apologies on both sides, Winslow continued: “To come to the point—” (at last, thought George)—“I told Jeff afterwards that if they’d both made up their minds there was nothing much for me to say. I was just a bit worried, though, because I gathered it had been a very sudden affair, and I didn’t think he could really know enough about her.”

  “You mean her family and so on?”

  “Partly. You may think me a snob, but I had to ask myself whether, as a diplomat’s wife, she would have the right background.”

  “Aye, I suppose that’s what counts.” George’s voice was severe.

  “Yes—though not as much as it used to.”

  “I’m glad to hear it. I don’t know much about the Diplomatic Service, but I’m all for democracy in these things. And since you have to admit the girl was all right herself—”

  “Oh yes, she seemed so. I could imagine her a good hostess, and she certainly had intelligence enough to pull wires.”

  “Do diplomats’ wives have to do that?”

  “They don’t have to, but it can help. Don’t the wives of your local councillors sometimes do it?”

  George grinned. “Not mine, anyhow. I could never get her to take an interest in local affairs at all…But about your son and this girl…So I suppose you consented to the match?”

  “I should have done, but for finding out something about her that was—as I think even you will agree—rather insuperable. Simply that she was already married. The fact came out quite accidentally—someone I happened to meet in Switzerland on my way home was able to tell me about her. She had, it appeared—at least there was no other conclusion to be drawn—deliberately misled Jeff. And a rather pointless deception too—unless of course she was prepared to commit bigamy.”

  George pondered a moment. “Well, you found out in time, that’s the main thing.”

 
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