James hilton collected n.., p.24
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.24
 

          

  “Nor me either. It’s merely that I’m content to let wiser men shape events that can’t yet be properly foreseen. Whereas you have to settle the whole destiny of mankind here and now to satisfy an itching conscience. Quite a handicap!”

  “I’d do better if I didn’t think for myself, is that what you mean? Maybe I would—depends on who did the thinking for me. But I want to choose who…see? And that’s democracy—even for a little fellow.”

  “You’re not a little fellow, George. You’re a very shrewd dictator who made up his mind years ago to have his own way in Browdley—and you have had it, against a big majority who’ve been either against your ideas or indifferent to them—and the methods by which you’ve succeeded have been slyness, smartness, blarney, importunity, intrigue, compromise, a certain amount of downright trickery, and a vast amount of personal charm! But you prefer to call it democracy!”

  By the time they reached that kind of point in argument George was usually in a good humor and his normal cheerfulness renewed.

  He never realized the majestic and in some ways rather terrifying alchemy of English life so much as when he attended official conferences in London. He had been attending them for years, until now they were something rather like routine, but he always remembered his first one—when, as a young man just elected to the Browdley Council, he had been sent as its delegate to a consultation with high officials of one of the Whitehall ministries. Because the government in power was of the opposite political party to his own he had expected to be frostily received and was full of carefully rehearsed truculence that evaporated at the first calm, polite, and curiously impersonal meeting with people whom he had thought of as his enemies. But it had left him baffled afterwards. “Talk about raising the standard of revolution!” he had reported, when he got back to Browdley. “It was hard enough to make anyone raise a couple of eyebrows!” Was it possible that London did not know what a potentially dangerous man he was? Or did not care? Or both knew and cared, yet was imbued with some classic spirit that would only return cool civility for warm antagonism? After he had attended half a dozen more such conferences, George’s bafflement lessened, not because he had entirely solved the problem, but because he had come to terms with it; it was as peculiar, yet could seem as normal, as the normally peculiar smell of the London tubes.

  By now, of course, he was not baffled at all. Whenever he visited the ministries on business he met important men who knew him, who called him George, who took him to lunch and kidded him good-humoredly about his being teetotal.

  The war years had only continued, with some intensification, the natural process of all the years; and when, as sometimes happened, George spent half a day at the House of Commons, he found himself surrounded by a platoon of ex-firebrands who held official positions. “Too bad you aren’t here, George,” he had often been told. “You’d have been at least an undersecretary by now.”

  “But then I wouldn’t have been Mayor of Browdley,” answered George, seeking to console himself from force of habit, yet no longer really needing to. He liked London; but to be a stranger to it, even a familiar stranger, kept him alive to that same majestic and rather terrifying alchemy of English life, as slow and sure and relentless almost as the grinding of the mills of God.

  That it had helped to save England after Dunkirk and during the blitz autumn of 1940, George thought very probable.

  For then its virtue had shown like good bones under the flesh—especially its abiding combination of firmness and benignity, so that the same machine of government could jail a baronet for a rationing offense and organize the distribution to small children of Mickey Mouse gas masks. Nothing was too small, and no one too great, to be beyond the range of that cool-headed but never cold-hearted survey. And George, administering Browdley, had tried to generate something of that dual mood in microcosm.

  And yet…whenever he went to London he felt the strength of Browdley in him, rebelling against certain things.

  One morning, walking briskly along Whitehall after a meeting with officials, George ran into a man named Sprigge whom he had first met years before on the Terrace of the House of Commons. George was pleased to be remembered, and willingly accepted the other’s invitation to have lunch at a near-by club. They talked about the war and politics; Sprigge said that since their previous meeting he had lived a good deal in China and the Malay States, getting out just in time after Pearl Harbor. It was natural then for George to ask, with an air of casualness, if he had ever come across the Winslows.

  “You mean Jeff Winslow, brother of Lord Winslow?”

  “Aye, that’s him.”

  “Knew him well, my dear chap. Often dined at his house. Good parties he used to give—not so starchy as the really official ones, because, as he used to say, he wasn’t really official. You see, he was attached to the Sultan of Somewhere-or-other, and that made a difference. The lady next to you at dinner might be an Italian spy or an Egyptian princess or a Japanese snake-charmer—used to be fun finding out…Was he a friend of yours—Winslow?”

  George answered: “Not—er—exactly, but I knew his father slightly—and I’ve also met his son.”

  “And as a result of that you’re sort of interested in the middleman, eh?”

  “That’s it,” George agreed. And then, to steer the conversation very gently: “I remember his father expected so much of his career.”

  “Well, he was a brilliant fellow—no doubt about that.” Sprigge paused, then added: “Wasted, though, the way things turned out.”

  “Wasted?”

  “Perhaps that’s too strong a word. But he’d have done well in the regular Diplomatic if he’d stayed in it…and also if…well, anyhow, perhaps it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t. Not altogether his fault.”

  George said nothing.

  “Of course I’m only repeating things I’ve heard—but there was said to have been some scandal about his wife—an earlier divorce or something. And then other matters…later…well, one shouldn’t gossip.”

  “Did you meet the boy?”

  Sprigge shook his head. “He was at school in England. I suppose he’s of age now to be in the fighting somewhere.”

  “Aye,” said George thoughtfully. He would have liked Sprigge to go on chattering, but just then a fellow club member said “hello” in passing and Sprigge insisted on making an introduction—Henry Millbay, the name was, which to George seemed familiar though he could not exactly place it. Millbay shook hands, declined a drink, and regarded George with a certain friendly shrewdness while, to restart the conversation, Sprigge went on: “We were just talking about Jeff Winslow—the one who was in Malaya…Boswell knows the family…Ever meet him out there, Millbay?”

  Millbay shook his head, and the subject was dropped.

  Half an hour later, after talk that would have been more agreeable had he not been thinking of other things all the time, George remembered an appointment and took his leave; but in the club lobby, as he was retrieving his hat and coat, Millbay overtook him. “I’m a busy man too,” he commented, with just the slightest derogatory implication that Sprigge was less so. “Wonder if we’re going in the same direction?”

  They found they were not; nevertheless Millbay kept George chatting for several minutes on the pavement outside. Presently he said: “I didn’t want to talk much in front of Sprigge, who’s the biggest male gossip in London, but he said you knew the Winslows—Jeff Winslow…”

  “I didn’t actually know him,” George answered.

  Millbay’s glance quickened. “Oh, you mean you knew her?”

  George experienced again, and for the first time in years, that old sensation of a fist grasping his insides. “Aye, but a long while ago.”

  “Rather remarkable woman.”

  “Aye.”

  “She’s just home from a Jap prison camp in Hong Kong. I saw her the other day.” Something in George’s face made Millbay add: “Part of my job, you know, to interview repatriates. The idea is to get inf
ormation about the enemy. They all knew plenty, but it was mostly horrors…Of course her story was particularly interesting to me because I’d known her and her husband before the war…Remarkable woman.”

  “Aye.”

  “Even if I hadn’t known that already I’d have thought so after interviewing some of the other women. They said she looked after English and American children in the prison camp. Seems to have been so bloody fearless that even the Japs let her have her own way as often as not. Anyhow, she got the kids extra food and medicines when nobody else could.”

  “What about her husband?”

  “She didn’t know. Nobody knows. After the first few months the Japs took to separating the men from the women and shipped the men to another camp—some said in Japan itself. Incidentally, she needn’t have been interned in the first place—there was a chance for some of the women to get away, but she insisted on staying with Jeff. At the Foreign Office we’re still pressing inquiries about him, but so far without luck, and it’s hard to be optimistic.”

  George then asked, so softly that he had to repeat the question: “Do you know anything about the boy?”

  “He was in the R.A.F. and got smashed in one of the Berlin raids. I think he’s discharged now, and up at Cambridge. The mother’s staying at the family place in the country.” Millbay paused as if to give George time to realize where the conversation stood again, but George, though realizing it, said nothing. Presently Millbay smiled and added: “I’ve told you a lot—now you tell me something. What do you think of her?”

  “Of…her?”

  “Yes. Of Livia Winslow.”

  The utterance of the name made George stammer: “I—I thought she was what you called her—remarkable.”

  “Did you know her at all well?”

  “Aye, pretty well…but years ago, as I said.”

  “Then maybe you can answer one specific question: was she—er—when you knew her—politically—er—reliable?”

  “Politically reliable? What’s that?”

  “Rather vague, I admit…but perhaps elastic enough to describe something a diplomat’s wife should be. After all, Jeff had to handle fairly important matters—important, I mean, to British policy.”

  “And you’re asking me if she always agreed with that policy? How on earth do I know? But I can tell you this much—I don’t always agree with it, and if that’s become a crime lately, by all means put me down on your black list.”

  George had reacted normally to a familiar stimulus, and Millbay reacted normally to that type of reaction, with which he was equally familiar. He smiled. “We’re not as stupid as all that, Boswell, even at the Foreign Office. And our black list is largely a gray list—or should I use the phrase ‘neutral tints’?” He paused a moment, then asked quietly: “Did you know her when she was in Ireland?”

  “No.” George caught the alertness of Millbay’s glance and countered it with a more humorous alertness of his own. Suddenly he laughed. “Look here…what are you driving at? Are you a detective or something?”

  Millbay also laughed. “I might be the ‘something.’ To tell you the truth, I’m just a government official who once wrote a few novels.” George then knew where he had seen Millbay’s name, and also why he had not clearly remembered it; he was not much of a novel reader. Millbay continued: “Perhaps that’s why I’m handed all these wartime psychological problems. They’re quite interesting, though, as a rule…Take this woman we’ve been talking about—from all accounts she’s top-notch for sheer physical and mental courage against appalling odds. Yet all that—and every novelist knows it—doesn’t guarantee that she couldn’t be a complete bitch in other ways. Did you, incidentally, ever discuss Hitler with her?”

  “Good God, no—the time I knew her was years before Hitler was even heard of. You’re not suspecting her of being a Nazi spy, are you?”

  Millbay laughed again. “Stolen treaties tucked away in the corsage, eh?…Hardly…So you don’t think she’d have made a good spy?”

  George answered: “From my judgment she’d make the worst spy in the world.”

  “What makes you say that?”

  George answered: “Of course it’s long ago that I knew her, but people don’t change their whole nature. What I mean is—if they’re…well, outspoken…not always too tactful…”

  Millbay touched George’s arm with a half-affectionate gesture. “Thank you for confirming my own private opinion. I never did believe there was anything really wrong with her in that way—especially on the basis of the incident that gave rise to most of the talk…You heard about it, perhaps?”

  “I don’t think so. What was it?”

  “Some big dinner party in Batavia, with a crowd of officials, attachés, Army people, and so on. I was told about it by several who were there. Before the war of course—1932 or 1933. Conversation turned on Hitler, and most of what was said was unflattering—especially from the viewpoint of the career diplomat. Suddenly Livia said—‘Isn’t it odd that people who profess to follow a religion founded by a carpenter are so ready to sneer at someone for having once been a house painter?’ Quite a sensation! Of course she was tabbed as pro-Hitler after that, but I really don’t think she had to be. I think she could have meant exactly what she said…Because it is odd, when you reckon it up. With all the perfectly sound reasons the democracies have for hating that man, they choose to sneer at him because he once followed a trade. How do house painters feel about it, I wonder? If I knew any, I’d ask ’em.”

  “I do know some, so I will ask ’em.”

  “And then tell me? Well, anyhow, you can imagine that sort of remark didn’t do her husband any good professionally.”

  “Aye, I can see that.”

  They were still at the curbside, but a government car had driven up and the chauffeur was waiting. Millbay said hastily: “Sorry there hasn’t been more time to talk. Always interesting to compare notes about people one knows…Incidentally, if you’re free tonight, why don’t you dine with me? Then we’d have more time.”

  George was free and accepted, though not without a misgiving that grew and crystallized during the afternoon into a determination to pursue a certain course of action if Millbay should make it necessary. Before they were halfway through the meal, at a service flat in Smith Square, Millbay had made it necessary. They had discussed general topics at first, but then Millbay had continued: “You know, Boswell, I’m still a bit curious about Livia Winslow. She always rather fascinated me, in a sort of way, and to meet someone else who knew her…well, I suppose it’s the novelist in me cropping up again, even though it’s years since I last published anything. And I certainly don’t intend to publish anything you tell me, so don’t worry.”

  “Anything I tell you?”

  “Yes—if you feel like it. I wish you would.”

  “About what?”

  “About Livia…that is, of course, unless you’d rather not discuss her.”

  George then said what he had made up his mind to say if this situation should arise. He said: “I don’t mind discussing her, but I’d better tell you something in advance. I was once married to her.”

  “Good God! You don’t say?”

  Till then George had felt slightly uncomfortable, but now, relaxed by his own candor, he could almost enjoy the other’s unbounded astonishment. He grinned across the table. “I dunno why I felt I had to tell you, but now I have done, I hope you’ll go ahead and give me any more news you have about her.”

  “So you’re just as interested as I am?”

  “Probably. That’s rather natural, isn’t it?”

  “You haven’t kept in touch with her at all?”

  “No—not since…” He left the sentence unfinished.

  “And that was—when?”

  “September first, 1921.”

  “Well remembered, eh?”

  George nodded.

  Millbay gave him a slow, shrewd glance, then continued: “Jeffrey happens to be a friend of mine…Would
you like me to talk about his marriage?”

  “Aye—if you feel like it.”

  “And you won’t mind if I’m frank?”

  “We’d both be wasting our time if you weren’t, wouldn’t we?”

  “Glad you think so. And in exchange will you give me your own frank opinion…afterwards?”

  George smiled. “Nay, I’ll not promise that. Let’s hear your story first.”

  I first met Jeffrey Winslow (Millbay said) in connection with the Kemalpan affair. I don’t suppose you heard much about that. It didn’t get publicized. Things like it are always apt to happen, and to happen with the same declension of eventfulness—that is to say, they begin excitingly—bloodshed in the jungle, perhaps—and end a year or so later with quiet voices pronouncing judgment across some departmental desk top in Whitehall. Mine was one of the quiet voices; I had all the papers relating to the affair before me, and I’d given several days to the most careful study of them. After all, you don’t squash a man’s career without good reasons, especially if he belongs to a family like the Winslows. I was as tactful as I could be. I rather liked the look of the fellow from the outset; he was neither truculent nor obsequious, and heaven knows he could have been either. He just sat at the other side of the desk—a little nervous, as was natural; he answered questions briefly and clearly, and there was a pleasant ring in his voice that I would have taken for sincerity had not the circumstances of the moment put doubts in my mind.

  Of course the Kemalpan affair needs some explanation—that is, if you don’t already know about it. (George said he didn’t.) Oh well, I can put it in a few sentences. Kemalpan is a technically independent Sultanate that the British Government has a treaty with; Jeffrey Winslow was adviser to the Sultan on matters connected with imperial relations—somewhat of a nebulous job, but semi-diplomatic, with tentacles reaching into commercial and military spheres. Decidedly no plum—but not badly paid, and easy enough, as a rule, if you didn’t mind burying yourself in a place like Kemalpan. That, I should add, is the name of the capital city as well as of the state; the capital is inland, in the midst of jungle and rubber plantations; Winslow preferred to live with his wife at a settlement on the coast fifty miles away—healthier there, or so he reckoned. There’s a telegraph line between the coast and the capital, and a sort of rough trail that you can drive over in a Ford—but no good roads, no railway, and in those days no airline. These details are important in view of what happened. Also I should add that a small colony of British and Dutch rubber planters lived on their estates near the inland capital, and were on good terms with the Sultan, whose subjects they employed. The Sultan didn’t mind low wages for the tappers so long as he got a cut of the plantation profits—which he did, more or less, in the form of thoroughly legalized taxation. Quite a nice setup as long as it lasted, and it lasted throughout the twenties, when rubber rose to four shillings a pound; but later the fall to sixpence led to labor troubles, and by the mid-twenties these had reached danger point. All this is necessary to give the background to what happened in October ’34, when an insurrection in the capital threatened to depose the Sultan in favor of some native “leader” whom the planters called a Communist—it’s a conditioned reflex, you know. But it was true that the plantations couldn’t pay higher wages without going bankrupt, and equally true that the mob was in a mood to overthrow things if the Millennium didn’t appear overnight. The Sultan, who was a sly old debauchee with no real interest in life but graft and women, rapidly slipped into panic; meanwhile the planters with their wives and families moved in from outlying districts to seek protection in the royal palace—protection being a few hundred of the Sultan’s private army, poor in quality and doubtful in allegiance.

 
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