James hilton collected n.., p.25
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.25

           James Hilton
 

  The crisis developed within a matter of hours, while the Winslows were at their home on the coast; Winslow wired the news to London, which was part of his job, and was told to await instructions. A day later those instructions were sent. He was told to assure the Sultan that the British Government would back him to the full in suppressing the revolt, and that therefore the capital must be held at all costs until such assistance was forthcoming…

  Now this was the point. Those instructions were sent, and we had evidence later that they reached the coast settlement where Winslow lived; but he swore he never got them. Thus he didn’t give the Sultan any assurance of British help and the Sultan promptly gave in to the rebels. There followed a nasty little affray at the palace in which three white men and two white women were butchered. Well, that was the Kemalpan affair…nothing very remarkable, but thoroughly reprehensible from every official standpoint, and a year later we were still holding inquiries about it in Whitehall, still collecting more evidence that the instructions to Winslow had actually been transmitted and must have been received by him, though he still swore that they hadn’t.

  A further point cropped up: the telegraph line from the coast to the inland capital had been cut, so that if Winslow had received his orders he could only have properly obeyed them by making the fifty-mile trip in person over the rough trail; and this, with most of the intervening country in the hands of the rebels, might not have been so safe. In fact, it might have been decidedly unsafe—which was why he couldn’t have relied on anyone else to do the job. So you see where all this is leading…and where it had already led on that foggy Friday in November ’35, when I first talked to the fellow in my office. Was his denial of having received instructions just the only thing he could think of as an excuse for having been scared? If that were the true interpretation, it added up to something rather serious.

  You know, it’s a queer thing when you have to talk to a gentleman in the social sense who has somehow broken the code of a gentleman in the ethical sense. You can never quite come to grips with the situation. You fence and evade and know that he knows all the time what you’re really thinking. I never, for instance, came anywhere near hinting to Winslow that he might be both a liar and a coward, yet he must have known that that was the inevitable implication behind all the questioning. And presently it all boiled down to that simple question: Had he or had he not received those instructions? He stuck to it that he hadn’t, and he sounded convincing, but long experience has left me with the opinion that lies are, if anything, easier to tell convincingly than the truth. Besides, evidence that the instructions had reached him was almost watertight, so I had to accept it. But of course I did not say so. I said, quietly and politely: “Well, Winslow, we seem to have reached a deadlock. Maybe there’ll be some further evidence…if so, perhaps you’ll be good enough to come here again.”

  He answered then, with a certain austere dignity which I liked (whether he were a liar and a coward or not): “Of course I will, but it’s nine months now since I was advised to come home on leave, and since then I’ve been kept waiting for the inquiry to finish. It’s rather a strain, in some ways. Besides, I should very much like to go back to my job.”

  It was then my duty to tell him that there was little chance of his ever resuming that kind of job under government service. He took it very well. He said he was sorry—which I knew did not mean any kind of confession, but merely that the outcome was a blow to him. I said I was sorry too—and by that I did not mean that as a liar and a coward he deserved any special leniency, but merely that it grieved me, as a member of the so-called ruling class, to see another member acquitting himself out of style. You see what snobs we all are…Anyhow, I shook hands with him and wished him well and didn’t expect to see him again.

  But I just couldn’t get the fellow out of my mind. He’d interested me—not only because the departure from tradition is always more interesting than the tradition itself, of which one gets a little bored when one is, as I am, a somewhat cynical conformist. I should be believed, no doubt, if I said that after talking to Winslow I paced up and down my office floor wondering if, in his place, I should have behaved any better. Yet actually I didn’t wonder at all, because I knew. I have fought in wars, and there have been several occasions on which I risked my life, not because I was brave, nor because I hated the enemy, but because risking my life was the thing to do in those particular circumstances, and all my training had been to make me act both accordingly and automatically. That’s one of the reasons why Winslow interested me—because his training had been, if anything, more traditional than mine. Who’s Who and Debrett were sufficient authorities for that. He’d been to a good public school and to Oxford, had then passed into the Diplomatic and been an attaché at the embassy in Vienna. Quite brilliant at Oxford, by the way, and with his family connections he must have been exactly the type for whom one would forecast a distinguished future. All of which added to the mystery—for why, if one came to think of it, should such a fellow ever fetch up at Kemalpan? That was decidedly not the thing to have done…and since it was unlikely that anybody would take Kemalpan from choice, what had forced him into it? Well, there were people I knew who could throw out a few hints. Our friend Sprigge is the expert there. Scandals, women, mésalliances, bad checks—he can usually tell you. In Winslow’s case it was a divorce—which in those prim days didn’t help anyone…and I needn’t say more about that to you.

  I also discovered that Winslow had written a book of essays on moral philosophy that had attracted some attention in its field, and might have led to a useful subsidiary reputation had not his main career gone off at such a tangent. I was interested enough to get hold of the book. I found it a bit above my head, but I thought it showed signs of a first-class mind, and first-class minds are such rare things in our time and land that it becomes a crime, in my opinion, to frustrate, sidetrack, or otherwise stultify them. And his, at least, had been sidetracked at Kemalpan, for—apart from the career—there had been no succeeding books.

  During the following months a trickle of further evidence came in, but none of it helpful to his case. A Chinese clerk reported that he had personally delivered the coded message from the telegraph station to Winslow’s bungalow, where he had handed it to a responsible servant; the servant said Winslow was out at the time, so he had placed it on his desk along with other messages and letters…The case also began to look blacker from another angle, for at the time the message was received it was known at the coast settlement that the lives of white refugees in the Sultan’s palace were endangered, so that if Winslow had been concerned with his own personal safety he must also have weighed it against the safety of others. About twenty, to be precise—including women and children. And to complete the indictment, it seemed reasonably probable that if he had managed to get the message through to the Sultan, the latter would have put up a defense instead of a surrender, and the five lives might have been saved. Altogether there was very little excuse for Winslow, and when, just about the time this later evidence came in, I got a letter from him in Ireland I was in a rather unsympathetic mood for considering it, especially as the first few sentences showed me he was asking the impossible. Briefly, he wanted a job. Not, of course, the same job in Kemalpan, or even that kind of job in that kind of place; yet, he argued, could not a decade of experience in the East, plus the knowledge of several obscure languages and dialects, be put to some use somehow and somewhere? What he hinted at was a job in some government office, where he could continue in the public service, however humbly.

  I wrote back and told him how little chance he had. And a week later Mrs. Winslow herself came to see me.

  It was another interesting meeting. I had heard of this Mrs. Winslow once before, in connection with her oft-quoted and misquoted remark about Hitler at the Batavia dinner party; I hadn’t disliked her for that (because it seemed to me she had probably been misunderstood), but it had given me an impression that she was a dangerous partner for a m
an of affairs. And now, when I saw her across my desk, I was immediately struck by a certain controlled intention in her whole look and attitude. She faced me as if she knew what she wanted and meant to get her own way at all costs. After a mere good-morning she plunged right in—couldn’t I possibly find her husband some desk job in Whitehall? Apparently my letter had been the final blow to his hopes, and she was afraid of a breakdown if he didn’t find some work where he felt he could be useful. And though she herself preferred to live in Ireland, she would not say no to London if Jeffrey had to be there. She talked of living in London as a sort of sacrifice she would make for her husband if the Government in return would do its part.

  I told her flatly it was impossible, and when she stressed the personal angle I delicately hinted that government posts were not handed out to prevent breakdowns. The Kemalpan incident, I said, was of a kind that they must both recognize had called at least a halt to Jeffrey’s career. At that she began to protest and argue, but of course I wouldn’t go over all the details with her. “Even assuming some tragic mistake, one can do nothing about it now. Men’s careers have been ruined before by mistakes—it would be nothing new.”

  “You look at it very coldly,” she said.

  “I look at it very logically,” I answered. “The whole incident, affair, or whatever you call it, is closed now and can’t be reopened unless some totally new item of evidence should crop up. And that’s so unlikely that we can almost say it won’t happen.”

  She then said quietly: “It can happen. That’s what I came here for—to tell you something. It was I who intercepted the cable. I decoded it, found out what it meant, then decided that Jeffrey shouldn’t ever see it. Of course he doesn’t know I did that, or that I’m admitting it now to you.”

  She waited for me to show surprise, and perhaps I did, but it was not surprise at what she said so much as surprise that she should expect me to believe it. Naturally I didn’t. But it would have been equally unwise to dismiss the matter without further probing.

  “What made you do such a thing?” I asked guardedly.

  “I just had to,” she answered. “The telegraph line was cut, so I knew he’d want to take the message himself, and as the country was in the hands of the rebels I didn’t think he’d have much chance of getting through. And he might have got killed.”

  “He might,” I agreed. “And five others did.”

  She said nothing.

  “Probably as a result of the message not being delivered.”

  “I wouldn’t say probably. Possibly.”

  “You knew the planters and their families were in danger when you intercepted the message?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you deliberately let them take their chance in order to ensure your husband’s personal safety?”

  “Yes.”

  “Don’t you think that rather indefensible?”

  “I’m not defending it. I’m just saying it’s what I did. My husband was dearer to me than a crowd of people I didn’t know.”

  “How many people would you be willing to sacrifice for such a reason?”

  She didn’t answer.

  I went on, with more sarcasm: “Or shall I put it this way—at what point would the lives of strangers, by sheer weight of numbers, tilt the balance against the life of the man you love?”

  She answered: “Never.”

  “So you’d sacrifice millions, if one can conceive of such a situation?”

  She nodded.

  She really was at this point beginning to surprise me. It’s rare that people, especially women, are willing to let a logical point be pressed home. I said, rather severely: “I’m glad to think you are probably unique in looking at things that way.”

  “Oh, but I’m not,” she answered. “In wartime wouldn’t you press a button, if you could, to destroy a million of the enemy rather than lose a single life on your own side? Then why is my attitude so extraordinary?”

  What was extraordinary, of course, was her argument, and it was one that didn’t seem to me profitable to continue. I was still disinclined to believe her confession, but I was clear in my mind as to the implications of the alternatives. Either she was lying to save her husband’s reputation—in which case one could possibly like her for it; or she had actually told the truth—in which case she was ruthless, unprincipled, and wholly the kind of wife whom a man in a responsible position should not have.

  But in any case nothing could be done. Even if her confession were accepted at its face value it would not help Jeffrey to get his job back. The most it could do would be to win him a measure of half-incredulous sympathy.

  I explained all this to her, and it seemed to me that she picked up the cue, as it were, and from then on made a bid for the sympathy. Jeffrey, she repeated, was on the verge of a breakdown. All he asked was some job, however small and ill-paid, just to give him the feeling—perhaps even the illusion—that he had not been dishonorably discharged. It had even come to the point, she said, that their marriage might founder if he could not get such a job; he was finding it hard to settle down in Ireland, and the book he was trying to write was not going well. This was the first I had heard about another book and I asked her for details. She said it was a book about the Far East—one he had long projected—something rather scholarly and definitive. She had been urging him to use up his time that way ever since he came home, and surely conditions in Ireland were ideal for authorship—a quiet place in the country, nothing else to do, and ample money to live on. “Really,” she added, “he’s quite well off—there’s no reason why he should worry about a career, or about writing books either, so far as that goes. The whole Kemalpan business wouldn’t matter if only he didn’t think it mattered.”

  “Perhaps, though, the relatives of the people who were killed there might still think it mattered.”

  “Oh, them. I wasn’t thinking about them.”

  And she wasn’t. She was just thinking of herself and Jeffrey. That seemed to close the argument quite finally. I got up and made it clear that there was nothing more I could say or do.

  During the next few weeks I found myself wondering even more compellingly about the Winslows. First, he had interested me, then she; but now my interest in each of them separately was more than redoubled in them both. What went on between such a pair? What sort of thing was their life together? If she had been lying on his behalf, it was possible that the appalling selfishness of her argument might not have been sincere. Or had she been telling the truth, as to both fact and attitude? To summarize it another way: if she were a liar, one liked her better and her husband less; but if she were not a liar, one disliked her intensely and felt sympathy for her husband. And I still could not properly make up my mind. I have rarely been so puzzled about anything. Then suddenly more evidence filtered through—I needn’t go into details, but it was a kind that weighed down one of the scales pretty conclusively. She had told the truth. She had intercepted the message. Which meant that Jeffrey himself was neither a liar nor a coward, but at worst a victim. The revelation swung me into a mood in which I recollected our meeting and how much, from first appearance, I had liked him. I remembered his quietness, his austere dignity, the simple unassumingness which, I knew, concealed a mind whose quality had been demonstrated. So on impulse I wrote him a friendly letter, saying nothing much except that I hoped he was getting on all right and that if he ever visited London he might find time to have lunch with me. To my surprise he answered by return and took the invitation with far more seriousness than I should have thought. He would have been so glad, he said, to come to London and see me (I hadn’t suggested that, by any means), but he was not very well and couldn’t get away…would I, however, visit him in Ireland—stay a week or two—there was good shooting, fishing, climbing, if that sort of thing appealed to me? He would be very happy, and please make it soon, because the late summer (and it was then August) was perhaps the best time of the year at Carrigole.

  It happened that I had n
ot had a holiday that year, and though the idea of visiting the Winslows seemed quite fantastic at first, I soon found myself thinking of reasons why I might take Jeffrey at his word. After all, I liked him; it might even be that if he were feeling low-spirited I could help him by talk and companionship. But I will not disguise that my overmastering motive was sheer curiosity. I wanted to find out what sort of people they both were, in their own home and with their own domestic problems. And at least it could do no harm to call on them if I happened to be holiday-making thereabouts.

 
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