James hilton collected n.., p.23
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.23
 

           James Hilton

  “And what does that prove? Merely that we all get saddled with old debts. You had the Victorian mess to deal with—I’ve got yours.”

  “Mine?”

  “Who else’s? You surely don’t claim that you used those twenty years successfully? The last war mightn’t have been so worthless unless you’d made it so…” Charles added, smiling: “Not that I mean anything personal, of course. You risked your life, same as I have, and then you came home and did what seemed to you worth doing. But it wasn’t worth doing—because the main thing wasn’t right. And the main thing was the peace. Why weren’t you a conscientious objector to that?”

  George answered gravely: “Aye, you’ve a right to ask. I’m quite ready to take blame for plenty that I did—and plenty that I didn’t do. I can see now, like a lot of folks, that I was living in a fool’s paradise—if by any stretch of imagination you can call Browdley any sort of paradise. Maybe if I’d had a better education—”

  “Depends on what you call a better education.”

  “I daresay I’d call yours one. What was it—Eton and Oxford?”

  “No. Charterhouse and Cambridge…and also Berlin.”

  “What? You were educated in Berlin?”

  “Not in Berlin—over Berlin.” And then the boy laughed rather wildly. “Sorry. I’ve been waiting to work that off on somebody, but you were the first to give me a cue.”

  George smiled. “I see what you mean.”

  “You ought to. After all, you were at the University of the Somme yourself.”

  “Aye, but don’t let’s be overdramatic. War doesn’t teach anybody much—except to hate it. If you hate it beyond a certain point you go out of your mind, so if you don’t want to do that you have to forget it somehow or other, and I suppose that’s mostly what I and millions of others did.” George paused a moment before taking a further plunge in intimacy: “And that’s what you’ll do too, my lad, unless you’re the exception that proves the rule. Maybe you are. But if you aren’t…well, there’s a maternity ward next door for you to think of. Aren’t you afraid that someday all those kids will blame you as you’re blaming me—not personally, but as a generation?”

  “A damned hard question, and the answer is yes, I am afraid. I’m scared stiff…and I’m not hopeful. But what the hell can I do? Lads of my age, as you call them, have the war to win first, before we can bother with anything else. Give us a chance to do one thing at a time, for Christ’s sake.”

  “Give us a chance, then, too—even if it’s only a chance to help you. Some of us still have one foot out of the grave.”

  The door opened and the nurse entered. She had heard the raised voices and the laughter sound as she walked along the corridor, and now she was in time to catch George’s last sentence. It must have seemed to her a strange conjunction, justifying the acerbity with which she approached the wheel chair, whipped out a thermometer, and said to George: “You mustn’t make him laugh, Mr. Boswell—it would be very bad for the new skin. And you really have talked to him enough, I think…if you don’t mind…”

  It was true; it was the longest time George had yet stayed. “I understand,” he said, smiling to both of them.

  Charles then asked the nurse if she would fetch him some more of the lozenges.

  She went out exclaiming: “My goodness, Lieutenant, have you used them up already?”

  “Seems like it, Nurse.” Then, when the door closed, he turned quietly to George. “Just a moment—before you go. I wanted to say this, but we got talking about so many other things…I’ve had the tip they mean to transfer me somewhere else—for facial surgery and what not. Probably before you come again…so if they do, and I send you my new address, would you—would you have the time—to—to write to me—occasionally?”

  George laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Aye,” he answered. “I will that.” The long argument had given him such mental stimulation that now emotion came to him with an impact; after those four words he was speechless, stricken at the sudden thought of an end to the visits.

  The nurse came hurrying back with a fresh bottle of lozenges, then spied one still half-full on the table beside the bed. “Well, I do declare—you didn’t finish the others after all! He’s so absent-minded, Mr. Boswell…Aren’t you, Lieutenant?”

  George stammered his good-byes, and wondered as he left the hospital what was the matter with him to have used up so much time in talking politics. Of course it was the mere zest of a debate that had led him on, exhilarating him as it always did—recalling the remark once made by a teetotal friend that drink would have been wasted on George, since a good hard-hitting argument produced on him the same effects, even to the hangover the next day, when he wondered what he had said in the heat of the moment that might have given offense, or that he didn’t exactly mean.

  But now his emotions were of a different kind. Sadness grew in him all the way back to Browdley, coupled with and finally outweighed by a breathless satisfaction that the boy had asked him to write. Of course he would write.

  Winslow was transferred during the following week to a hospital in the South of England, where specialists were reputed to work miracles with skin and cartilage; but it was not of this that he wrote in his first letter to George. He wrote:—

  DEAR MR. BOSWELL—Just a line to let you know my new address. I expect to be here several months, as the work they do here takes time—and patience too, I expect, by all concerned. The men call it the beauty shop. But the main thing I have to tell you is about my mother. I’ve had news that she is among those to be repatriated from a Jap prison camp. The Foreign Office sent me word a few hours ago, and though they couldn’t give me any information as to how she is, or about my father at all, it certainly is great news that she is actually out of enemy hands and on the first stage of her way home. They don’t expect her to arrive for at least six or eight weeks, as the ship is slow and has to take a roundabout route. By that time I hope to be well enough myself to meet her—though the doctors here only smile when I say it. I’m a bit stubborn, though, when I set my mind on anything, which is a quality I inherit from her. Incidentally, I’d like you to meet her, because I’m sure she’ll want to thank you personally for your great kindness to me while I was at Mulcaster…

  When George took this over to Wendover the latter read it through and turned on his friend a somewhat quizzical expression. “Well, George,” he commented at length, “it settles one thing.”

  “Aye, I’ve got to tell him.”

  Wendover nodded. “And quickly too. You don’t want him writing to her about you.”

  “I don’t see how he could.”

  “There might be some port of call where he could send air mail.”

  “That’s so. Anyhow, I agree with you. Spill the beans and get it over. Might even have been better to tell him in the first place.”

  “One of the penalties of being too subtle, George. I could never quite make out what your aim was—or still is, for that matter.”

  “My aim?”

  “Yes—in regard to the boy.”

  George answered: “I haven’t got an aim—except that I’d like to help him because I like him. I never realized how much I like him till now that I can’t see him. And I don’t think it’s because he’s Livia’s boy—it’s because I like him. He’s a fine young chap—and a brain too…But I suppose it’ll be an impossible situation when Livia gets back.”

  “It might be. You’ll have to take that chance. But take it now—by telling him.”

  “Aye, I will. I’ll write tonight.”

  George wrote a short letter containing the simple fact, and received in reply by return the following:—

  DEAR MR. BOSWELL—What a hell of a surprise! I’ll admit you could have knocked me down with a feather, as they say. I’m a bit puzzled why you didn’t tell me earlier, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Of course I’d known that my mother was previously married, but I was never told any of the details. Frankly, the whole thing makes no
difference to me, but of course it may to her when she gets here. I don’t want to worry her, because from what I hear and can guess, she must have had a pretty bad time…

  George wrote back, and they both kept up the correspondence without ever referring to the personal matter again; nor did the youth even mention his mother, or the progress of her homeward journey across the world. George could not but feel that a barrier—temporarily, at any rate—had come between them, and there returned to him his earlier shyness, diffidence, and reluctance to believe that Charles really wanted to continue the friendship. Then one day he read that the ship containing some hundreds of women and children repatriated from Japanese prison camps had put into an English harbor. It was his turn to write, but he put it off, thinking that even out of turn he could expect a letter from the boy about his mother—telling of her arrival, condition, and attitude. When such a letter did not come he eventually wrote briefly and rather meaninglessly about nothing in particular, but to that letter he received no answer, and when, after writing again, there was still no answer, he could reach only one conclusion.

  “I’m not surprised,” he told Wendover. “He probably thought it as good a way as any other to close an episode.”

  “That’s a rather tragic interpretation, George.”

  “I don’t think so. I wanted to help him, nothing more—and now Livia’s back, perhaps he doesn’t need help. Or at any rate, perhaps I’m no longer one who can help him.”

  “I hope it isn’t going to worry you.”

  “No.” George’s answer was decisive. “Give me something to do and I’ll worry over it. But when I can do nothing…”

  But George did worry, nevertheless, if that was an adequate word for the quiet intrusion of thoughts about the boy into every momentarily unoccupied fragment of his time and mind. Those fragments, however, were few on account of increasing pressure of official work. There was, for instance, Browdley’s annual budget which, as Chairman of the Finance Committee, he must prepare for annual presentation. More urgent still was a general tightening up of air-raid precautions and civilian defense, for which London had issued specific instructions, believing that northern England’s long period of relative freedom from enemy air attacks might be coming to an end. There were also meetings and conferences on other matters—with the Medical Officer about a chicken-pox outbreak, with local union officials and plant-management committees, with regional groups in charge of War Loan drives, charitable funds, and so on. Least arduous of all—indeed, a kind of optional luxury in which George frankly indulged himself amidst all the urgent necessities—was an interview with an idealist town planner whose vision of a new Browdley included wide boulevards, American-style apartment houses, and glass-walled factories.

  George almost forgot his personal affairs as he turned over the nicely water-colored drawings and marveled at large green blobs representing trees that could not possibly grow to such a size in less than twenty years. But there was an even more fundamental anachronism. “Do you realize,” he said, a trifle impishly, “that your plan would mean pulling down practically the whole town?”

  “That was rather the idea,” came the quiet reply.

  George laughed. “I see. And it might be a good one except that if you once did pull the place down I can’t really imagine why anyone should want to rebuild it at all. It’s really only here because it’s here, so to say. A century ago they needed coal for the cotton mills, so they had to build the cotton mills near the coal—but now they don’t need the coal so much, in normal times, or the cotton mills either. I doubt if they’d put up half of these towns if they had the chance to begin all over again.”

  “I know what you mean, sir. Growth and then decay. It happens with towns as with human beings.”

  “With countries, too, and empires.”

  “And down to the smallest villages. There’s a place near here called Stoneclough—”

  George started at the sound of the mispronounced word. “Cluff—they call it. You’ve been there?”

  “Yes, I just happened along—by accident. Very interesting. Seems to be completely uninhabited, including the big house at the top of the hill.”

  “Aye—there’s nobody at Stoneclough any more.”

  “I took some photographs—thought of working it up into an article—the Forsaken Village, or some such title. But I doubt if it would be of enough general interest till after the war.”

  “And maybe not then,” George answered, moodily. But he liked all such contacts with enthusiasts in their own special fields. As a contrast, it fell to him the same week to visit the Parliamentary Member for Browdley, none other than that same Wetherall (now Sir Samuel) who had defeated him in the 1919 by-election, again in the general election of 1923, and had represented the town in the House of Commons ever since. An old man now; and like most former enemies, he had made his peace with George. The political truce since the war began had brought them even closer, so that George was genuinely sorry to hear that Wetherall was ill. They spent an afternoon together in the manufacturer’s house just outside Browdley, talking over old times and old squabbles. Wetherall was still rich, still worried about taxes, still unaware that anything had happened to make the world vitally different since he was a boy. His solution for the problems of the postwar cotton trade was that all Indians should wear their shirts a few inches longer, and he couldn’t understand how the Japs could possibly have taken Singapore after the place had cost the British taxpayer so much money to fortify. Capping it all, he persisted in believing that George had changed during the years into someone much more like himself; it gave him satisfaction to say (as if to justify his own liking for the Mayor)—“Ah, you’re not such a firebrand as you used to be. You’ve seen a bit of reason these last few years.”

  George, reflecting what he had seen—the blitz raid on Mulcaster, for instance—hardly thought he would call it reason. But why argue with an old fellow who looked as if only his illusions could nourish him precariously for a few more years at most?

  Wetherall went on: “Just as well I’ve kept you out of Parliament till you’ve grown sensible, George. You’ll not do so bad when your time comes.”

  “Why…what…what, makes you say that?”

  “George, you old twister, don’t pretend it never entered your mind before! Listen—and this is in confidence—I probably won’t stand at the next election. God knows when that’ll be—after the war or after I kick the bucket, whichever comes first. But I’m telling you this so you’ll be ready.”

  George was suddenly aware of the peculiar truth that it hadn’t been on his mind, not for quite a time, and that it revisited him now as an almost strange idea, with all kinds of new angles and aspects to be considered. He said, sincerely enough: “I’m sorry you’re thinking of giving up, Sam. Over twenty years for the same constituency must be pretty near the record…”

  “Yes, and it’s meant a lot of hard work, one way and another, but I don’t grudge anything I’ve done for the town, any more than you do, George. After all, it’s Browdley that made me what I am.”

  George thought that was very possible.

  “So when they sent me to Parliament I made up my mind I’d do the best I could for them.”

  George thought that was very possible also, since during the entire period of his membership of the House, Wetherall had made only two speeches. One was about the local sewage scheme, which George had persuaded him to be for; the other was against the revision of the Anglican Prayer Book, which nothing could persuade him to be anything but against.

  George said cheerfully: “Well, Sam—don’t give up yet. And I wish you’d try to fix things with the Ministry about our Children’s Home. We ought to get an extra grant for that, what with all the kids from the bombed areas we’ve taken in…”

  Sometimes the cheerfulness sagged a little and George saw the future in a hard bleak flash of momentary disillusionment; but even then he was prone to diagnose his mood as due to overwork, and therefor
e not to be taken too seriously. The cure was usually a good night’s sleep or a chat with Wendover. The priest’s help was all the more tonic because of the fixity of their disagreements, and also because (as George once laughingly confessed) he was far too modest to suppose that he could exercise any influence in reverse; but Wendover, with equal banter, wouldn’t even concede that this was modesty. “It’s your instinct for self-preservation, George. We authoritarians keep you going. How would you know your opinions were free unless you had ours to attack?…But I’ll suggest this—that before the century ends, it may not be freedom that the world values, so much as order. Order out of chaos. A new world, George, with an old discipline.”

  “Aye, but suppose that road leads to Moscow, not to Rome—what would you chaps do then?”

  “I should follow my Church, of course. But why assume that the two roads are ultimately so far apart? One thing I do know—that if the Church so decided, it would be very easy for a Catholic to change his mind about Communism, just as Moscow could doubtless make terms with Rome for as good a reason as Constantine ever had…And what a tremendous bond that is in a chaotic world—two major disciplined forces that know their own power to enforce a decision!”

  “You’ve forgotten the Standard Oil Company. That makes three.”

  “Let’s say, then, forces that can command not only obedience, but willing sacrifice.”

  “Which lets in Hitler. He could command all that at first. But in the end he was defeated by free men.”

  “Only when they themselves learned to organize, obey, and sacrifice. And as soon as they forget that lesson there’ll be other Hitlers.”

  “Aye, and as soon as we forget we’re free we’ll have Hitlers in our own ranks.”

  “There’s danger in whatever we do, George…But don’t misunderstand me…I’m not pleading a cause.”

  “Well, I am—and millions are fighting for it too! Today’s my future—like theirs—and what happens by the end of the century doesn’t give us much comfort—”

 
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