James hilton collected n.., p.21
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.21
 

           James Hilton

  Those details included Livia’s remarriage, at the earliest legal date, to the Honorable Jeffrey Winslow, who had given up a diplomatic career to take some job in Malaya. Except that Lord Winslow died in 1925 and left a large fortune, some of which must have gone to the younger son, George knew nothing more. The Winslow name did not get into the general news, and George did not read the kind of papers in which, if anywhere, it would still appear. But when Singapore fell, early in 1942, he could not suppress a recurrent preoccupation, hardly to be called anxiety; it made him ask the direct question if ever he met anyone likely to know the answer and unlikely to know of his own personal relationship. “I think they must have got away,” he was told once, on fairly high authority. It satisfied him to believe that the fairly high authority had not said this merely because it was the easiest thing to say.

  Those years, 1941 and 1942, contained long intervals of time during which it might almost have been said that nothing was happening in Browdley while so much was happening in the rest of the world. But that, of course, was an illusion; everything was happening, but in a continuous melting flow of social and economic change; the war, as it went on, had become more like an atmosphere to be breathed with every breath than a series of events to be separately experienced. Even air raids and the threat of them dropped to a minimum, while apathy, tiredness, and simple human wear-and-tear offered problems far harder to tackle. But there were cheerful days among the dark ones, days when the Mayor of Browdley looked round his little world and saw that it was—well, not good, but better than it might have been. And worse, naturally, than it should have been. Sometimes his almost incurable optimism remounted, reaching the same flash point at which it always exploded into indignation against those old Victorian mill masters with no thought in their minds but profit, and the jerry-builders who had aided and abetted them in nothing less than the creation of Browdley itself. Yet out of that shameless grab for fortunes now mostly lost had come a place where men could have stalwart dreams. George realized this when—a little doubtfully, for he thought it might be regarded as almost frivolous in wartime—he arranged for an exhibition of postwar rehousing plans in the Town Hall—architects’ sketches (optimism on paper) of what could be done with Browdley if only the war were won and the tragedy of peacetime unemployment were not repeated. And by God, he thought, it wouldn’t be repeated—not if he had anything to do with it; and at that he wandered off in mind into a stimulating postwar crusade.

  One day he was visiting a large hospital near Mulcaster on official business; as chairman of a regional welfare association it fell to him to organize co-operation between the hospital authorities and various local citizen groups. He was good at this kind of organizing, and he was good because he was human; with a proper disregard of red tape he combined a flair for sidetracking well-meaning cranks and busybodies that was the admiration of all who saw it in operation. Indeed, by this stage of the war he had won for himself a local importance that had become almost as regional as many of the associations and committees on which he served. More and more frequently, within a radius that took in Mulcaster and other large cities, his name would be mentioned with a touch of legendary allusiveness; somebody or other somewhere, puzzled momentarily about something, would say to someone else: “I’ll, tell you what, let’s see if we can get hold of old George…” And if then the question came: “Who’s he?”—the answer would be: “Just the Mayor of Browdley, but pretty good at this sort of thing”—the implication being that George’s official position gave only a small hint of the kind of service he could render. And if a further question were asked: “Where’s Browdley?”—the answer to that might well be the devastating truth: “Oh, one of those awful little manufacturing towns—the kind that were nearly bankrupt before the war and are now booming like blazes.”

  After a meeting of the hospital board George was taken over the premises, and here too he was good; he knew how to say cheery words to soldiers without either mawkishness or patronage. And if any of the men were from Browdley or district he would make a point of drawing them into neighborly gossip about local affairs. It was noticeable then that his accent became somewhat more “Browdley” than usual, as if how as well as what he spoke made instinctive communion with those whose roots were his own.

  On this occasion his tour of the wards was to be followed by tea in the head surgeon’s room; and on the way there, waiting with his nurse escort for an elevator, he happened to glance at a list of names attached to a notice board near by. One of them was “Winslow.” It gave him a slow and delayed shock that did not affect the naturalness of his question; she answered that the list was of patients occupying private rooms along an adjacent corridor—all of them serious cases and most of them war casualties. He did not question her further, but a few moments later, meeting the head surgeon and others of the hospital staff, he found himself too preoccupied to join in general conversation; the name was already echoing disconcertingly in his mind—Winslow…Winslow…Not such a common name, yet not so uncommon either. Surely it would be too much of a coincidence—and yet those coincidences did happen. At least it was worth inquiry.

  So he asked, forgetting to care whether any of those present knew anything of his own personal affairs: “I noticed a name on my way here…a patient in one of the private rooms…Winslow…”

  “Winslow?”

  “Aye, Winslow.”

  Someone said: “Oh yes…rather badly smashed up, poor chap. You know him?”

  “Er—no…But I…I know of him—that is, if he belongs to the same family. Is he—er—related to Lord Winslow?”

  The head surgeon thought he might be. Somebody else said he was. The head surgeon then said: “You can see him if you want. He’s not too bad.”

  “Oh no, no—I wasn’t thinking of that.”

  But afterwards, while he was trying to talk about something else altogether, George wondered if he had been thinking of that. For the idea, once in his head, engaged those sympathies of his that were always eager for a quixotic gesture. Years before, he had come near to hating the man who had taken Livia from him—hating him because as well as in spite of the generosity with which he, George, had treated them both. But now there was no hate or near-hate left, but only a wry curiosity, plus the warmth George felt for any man broken by the war. Would it not be worth while to clinch this attitude by a few words of well-wishing? Could it possibly do any harm? Might it not, if it had any effect at all, do good?

  When he was about to leave he said that perhaps he would visit that fellow Winslow after all.

  “Certainly…Briggs here will take you over.” The head surgeon singled out a young colleague who responded with respectful alacrity. “Don’t stay too long, though.”

  “Oh no, only a few minutes. Not even that if you think it might—”

  The surgeon smiled. “It won’t. You’re too modest, Boswell.” But he added quietly to Briggs: “Better go in first, though, and see how he is.”

  As George accompanied the young man across lawns and courtyards to the block in which Winslow’s room was situated, they discussed the weather, the big raid on Mulcaster (history by now), the widening circle of war all over the world, and the difficulties of obtaining whisky and cigarettes that had lately become so acute that George had begun to feel almost ashamed of his own total exemption from such common hardships. But they provided a theme for conversation, and only when Briggs left him in the corridor did his thoughts recur to the nearer urgency, and then with a certain qualm. Was he doing a wise or a foolish thing, or merely an unnecessary one? While he was still wondering, Briggs emerged, his face youth- fully flushed as he stammered: “I’m afraid, sir, he—I mean, if you could perhaps come round again some other time—”

  “Why, of course…Not convenient, is that it?”

  “That’s it.” But the assent to such a vague explanation was so eager that George went on: “Is he asleep? Or isn’t he feeling good?”

  “No…he’s no worse…and he
s not asleep…”

  “Then what?”

  “Well, sir, to be frank, he—he said he—er—he’d rather not—er—”

  “Didn’t want to see me, eh? Well, that’s all right. Don’t bother about it.”

  “It’s a mood they get into sometimes. They feel so low they just don’t feel like having visitors at all.”

  George said he perfectly understood, and then, to cover an embarrassment that was more the young doctor’s than his own, added: “I’m glad it isn’t because he’s worse.”

  “No…he’s getting on as well as can be expected.”

  They walked away together, again discussing topics of general interest. At the hospital gate George said: “You did give him my name, I suppose?”

  “Oh yes. I also said you were the Mayor of Browdley, but—but—”

  “But it made no difference, eh? Well, why should it?”

  George laughed, and then they both went on laughing as they shook hands.

  But by the time he reached Browdley he could not see much of a joke in the situation, nor did he feel his usual zest for tackling the pile of clerical work on his desk. So he walked across the town to St. Patrick’s clergy house. Wendover was in, and George, on impulse, told him all about his visit to the hospital and his discovery of Winslow there. This led to a longer talk about Livia than George had had for years with anyone, and also to a franker expression of Wendover’s personal attitudes than George had yet encountered, despite his many years of close friendship with the priest.

  “You see, George, I never felt it my duty to discuss your affairs—especially as you never told me much about them.”

  “Aye, I never felt like it—which is no reflection on you, of course. And I wouldn’t say you’ve missed much. I’ll bet you find it hard listening to stuff about other people’s private lives.”

  “Even if I did, it would still be part of my job. Another part is to offer advice.”

  “And that’s even harder, I should think.”

  “Well, you know, a priest has one advantage—so many things are decided for him by authority. Take divorce, for instance. The view of my Church is very simple—we think it’s wrong, and therefore we’re against it.”

  “Aye, I know. And that makes me guilty of compounding a felony because I made it as easy as I could for the two of them? Isn’t that how you’d look at it—and at me?”

  Wendover gazed at George very steadily for a moment before saying: “Do you really want my opinion of you?”

  “Mightn’t be a bad moment to get it out of you.”

  “All right. I have it ready. Nothing new, either—I’ve had it for years. I think you’re much more like a Christian than many people who come to my Church.”

  “Quite a compliment.”

  “Less than you think.”

  It certainly failed to please George as most compliments did; indeed, for some reason it made him feel uncomfortable. He said, almost truculently, after a pause: “I’d do the same again if I had to. You can’t hold a woman if she’d rather be with someone else. And anyway, twenty-odd years is a long time to go on bearing a grudge. That’s what puzzles me—why should he bear a grudge?…Well, maybe I can guess. I can remember a few things Livia once told him.”

  “About what?”

  “About me.”

  “Do you mean against you?”

  George nodded.

  “Why should you think that possible?”

  And then, for the first time, after an almost quarter-century interval, George disclosed to another human being the events of that memorable day, September the first, 1921—the day of the foundation-stone laying at which Lord Winslow had officiated, and after which the two had had their long conversation in George’s study.

  When he had finished Wendover made no reply at first, though he did not seem particularly surprised. And George, with his usual revulsion of feeling in favor of someone he had lately been criticizing, hastened to continue: “Mind you, don’t get too bad an impression. If I’ve given you that, then—”

  “No, George—and I don’t rely on impressions. You’ve only told me that she lied, and that she may have been unfaithful while she was still legally your wife—”

  “Aye, it sounds bad enough. But the funny thing is, she had her good points.”

  “It would be very funny indeed if she hadn’t.”

  George caught the note in the other’s voice. “I know—you probably think I don’t blame her enough. But after all, she was my choice—and when she was only nineteen, don’t forget. Might have been my own fault for not making her happy too. Maybe she’s been really happy with this other chap. I’ve nothing against either of ’em. And if he’s ill or crippled, if there were anything I could do—though I don’t suppose there is…Well, I took the first step today and got snubbed for it, and that’s about the whole story. So with all this off my chest, I’ll now go home and try to work.”

  Wendover accompanied him to the street door. “Snubs are unimportant, George.”

  “Of course—and I’ve got a hide like an elephant for ’em. I’d call it my secret weapon, only it’s no secret.”

  “It never was. Most of the saints had it.”

  George grinned. “Oh, get along with you. Don’t you go calling me names!”

  “All right—I won’t. I can’t teach you much, but perhaps there is one thing—a piece of advice that Christians need sometimes. While you’re trying so hard to be fair to everybody, remember to include yourself. That’s all.”

  “I suppose the truth is, I get a bigger kick out of being fair to the other fellow. So there’s no credit in it.”

  “Was I offering you any?”

  George’s grin turned to a laugh. “Good night, Harry. Thanks for listening to me. That’s the help I really needed, because there’s nothing I can do if Winslow feels the way he does. Nothing at all…Good night.”

  “Good night, George.”

  George walked slowly across the dark town. From St. Patrick’s to Market Street was about a mile; it took him past the library and the Town Hall and the main shopping length of Shawgate. The night was moonless and cloudy—almost pitch-dark, therefore, in the blackout; but to George this made for no more than a little groping, and in the groping there was a sudden awareness of his whole life, shaped by and shaping those familiar streets and walls. It was as if, at the moment that things half-forgotten were coming back to trouble and confuse, the town rallied invisibly to his aid, assuring him that what he had done so far had not been in vain, and that what he had yet to do could be limitless within the same limits. That these were circumscribed, even narrow by some standards, was evident; but there was gain to match that loss—the gain of warm personal contacts, the “How do, Tom” and “Good night, Mr. Mayor” that he would not by now have exchanged for empire. And tonight, as he received and answered the greetings that his known footsteps drew from passers-by, he felt upon his heart the touch of benediction. These were his people, from whom he had sprung, and whom he would serve to the end, because he believed in them and in the destiny of their kind to make this world, if it can ever be, a happier place.

  Comforted, he reached his house, entered the study, and turned over the papers on his desk, driving himself to concentration. He still felt disturbed by the day’s curious incident, but somehow not as hurt as he had been or might have been. Presently he carried papers over to his armchair, and settled himself in comfort. They were the minutes of the last Council meeting and required his approval. The dry official phraseology merely emphasized the part of his life that had gone on for so many years; and would continue to do so—whether or not, whether or not. Like the rhythm of train wheels that go uphill and down dale, through cities and across country …whether or not. But that again, the blessed rhythm and routine of work he knew so well, led deeper into springs of comfort already found along the dark pavements; and soon a measure of tranquility was on him. He read every item of the minutes carefully, corrected a few, initialed others, the
n soon after midnight went to bed and slept dreamlessly till dawn, when the early morning buses wakened him as they started up in the garage just beyond the garden—Livia’s garden, as he still thought of it. Then he got up, went back to his desk, and dug deeper into the pile of work there; and at eight, when Annie brought in the morning mail and some tea, he was still working.

  Among the envelopes was one that bore the Mulcaster postmark. Like so many that reached him it was addressed merely to “The Mayor, Browdley,” but the handwriting looked like a child’s. Inside he found a note scribbled in pencil with the heading “Hospital,” and so briefly worded that he hardly grasped what it was all about till he had read it over twice. Just—“I don’t know what there is about mayors that got my goat this afternoon, but next time, if you want to see me, drop in.” And signed with the initial “W.”

  The note chilled George with its contrast of childish script and adult irony. Presently he surmised that the look of childishness might have come from writing with the left hand—doubtless an effort, yet not too great for the extra words that hurt and were probably meant to.

 
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