James hilton collected n.., p.26
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.26

           James Hilton
 

  So I looked up Carrigole on the map and found it was a dozen miles from Galway—a small place, not very accessible, in a district of lakes and mountains. And that’s why I asked you, Boswell, if you ever knew the Winslows in Ireland, because I should have liked your opinion of Carrigole.

  It began to rain when I first came within sight of it. I had hired a car for the last stage of the trip and all the way I felt oddly excited about getting there. Actually I had never been in Ireland before, and crossing the country from Dublin it had occurred to me that even the trains were antique—and not contemptibly, as on so many out-dated railways all over the world, but honorably, with dignity, like good sound Victorian mahogany furniture. And when, at Galway, my train reached its destination, there was again the contrast with other railheads I had seen; for here was no mere petering out into obscurity, but a grand finale in stone—the massive quayside station, far too large and almost as quiet as a cathedral, shaking a granite fist into the sea.

  But my first glimpse of Carrigole was equally memorable—or perhaps the mood I was in gave me extra percipience—a kind of mystic awareness I am naturally distrustful of, but can’t deny exists, at certain rare times and places. I knew Ireland was supposed to be like that, and therefore I was perversely surprised to find it so. Through the rainswept windows of the car I saw blue smoke drifting over the roofs of whitewashed cottages, and beyond them a mountain rising into clouds that totally covered the summit. I gathered, from the map on my knee, that this must be Slieve Baragh, not much higher than a hill, yet as I saw it then for the first time it seemed in another world of measurement. Presently the car slowed down for the village, and here the swollen clouds dipped lower, bringing no raindrops but emptying silently; Slieve Baragh was now hidden behind a curtain that suggested Himalayan heights—and yet, I remembered again, it was not much of a mountain—a mere two thousand feet. I couldn’t help making other mental notes of the near and the practical—the uneven walls and mud-brown pavements, the butcher who called himself a “flesher” and the chemist’s shop magnificently styled a “Medical Hall.” I wound down the side window to catch the whiff of peat on the wet breeze as the car bumped over a bridge across a river—only a minor river, like the minor mountain, but turbulent now as it filled almost directly from the sky.

  A mile or so past the village the Winslows’ house stood behind a drenched garden, and Jeffrey was waiting at the gate in the rain. He looked pale and worn, and there was intense nervousness in the way he greeted me.

  I ought to describe the house; it was substantially built, thick-walled and small-windowed, in a style conditioned by roaring Atlantic gales for half the year, and political troubles for half a century. These indeed had left the house, with its most conspicuous attribute—a large, burnt-out wing, blackened and roofless, which provided a ready topic of conversation. “They tried to burn the whole place down in ’twenty-two,” Jeffrey explained. “Livy got it cheap because it hadn’t been lived in since then and needed so much repairing, but part of it’s beyond repair—it would be too large for us, anyway. We have a couple of servants and the boy when he’s home from school—that only makes five…”

  By then we were in the square hall, from which the main rooms of the house opened on all sides, and it was there that Livia met me. Perhaps because of the dark afternoon it seemed to me that she appeared from nowhere, a sudden distillation of shadows. I was not surprised when she greeted me as a stranger, allowing Jeffrey to make the unnecessary introduction. I played up accordingly and thought it equally unnecessary when, a few minutes later in the bedroom I had been shown to, she closed the door behind her and said with a sort of conspiratory quietness: “Jeffrey still doesn’t know I came to see you in London.”

  I nodded and said I would have surmised that he didn’t.

  “And of course he doesn’t know anything else either.”

  I knew what she meant, and I nodded to that also.

  “I hope you won’t ever repeat what I told you in confidence,” she went on.

  I said temporizingly and in the bland way which I have cultivated as part of my official equipment: “My dear Mrs. Winslow, I wasn’t aware that you were telling me anything in confidence, but as a matter of fact I don’t usually gossip.” I added, to change the subject: “It’s so kind of you to have me here, and I hope it isn’t too much trouble.”

  “Not at all,” she answered, with cold politeness. “You’re on your way to Limerick, aren’t you?”

  That was as broad a hint as I needed, and clear proof of what I had already guessed—that she didn’t want me to stay, and that Jeffrey had invited me either without her knowledge or against her wishes. I had guessed this subconsciously enough to have wired my time of arrival too late for any cancellation of the invitation—and, as it happened, too late even for Jeffrey to meet me at Galway.

  “Yes,” I said. “I’m on my way to Limerick.”

  I had a bath, changed into drier tweeds, and went down to dinner. I met the boy then, Charles I think his name was—a youth of thirteen, at Charterhouse—tall, good-looking, shy, likable. Intelligent, too, as I discovered after a few casual remarks. He was piling turf on the old-fashioned fire as I entered, for it was chilly enough to have one, and that set us talking of turf and electricity, old and new, the Shannon hydroelectric scheme and the ancient Irish tongue that nobody spoke except illiterate peasants and modern schoolteachers. Livia then said: “We’re all half-mad with our opposites,” which seemed to end rather than clinch any discussion. She had a curious way of saying things that were never quite clear, yet never so meaningless as to be easy to ignore. Jeffrey noticed my interest in the boy and soon found a chance to tell me, like any other proud father, that Charlie was keen on music and by no means a bad piano player. We went on chatting desultorily throughout the meal; then the boy made a polite excuse and left us three adults together. I somehow had an impression that he got on better with his father than with Livia, accepting the shy approach more readily than the frontal assault; and it has amused me since to reflect that Livia ranged against the polite taboos of the English public-school system would be a unique example of an irresistible force meeting an immovable body.

  After he had gone there was a change of atmosphere that became almost baleful; it had been tense before, but now it was menacing, a curious hostility between Jeffrey and Livia that was due, I could not help feeling, to my own presence. A sort of invisible cat crouching on the table top to spring at any of our throats at an unknown signal—if the metaphor isn’t too farfetched. In an attempt to ease the conversation into some harmless groove I said, unimportantly: “It’s probably not a good day to sight-see, but I did at least get a good whiff of Ireland as I drove over.”

  Livia answered, as if she must dispute with me at all costs: “It is a good day to sight-see. Ireland’s a sad country, so you see it best when it looks sad, but the sadness is alive—it comes out of the earth—it isn’t like the dead sadness of London, especially the West End.”

  “Oh come now,” I said facetiously. “The Café Royal at midnight hasn’t got much dead sadness.”

  “Jeff and I love it here,” she went on, defensively, as if I had ever denied it. “That is, he could if he wanted to,” she added, as if Jeffrey had ever denied it.

  “But what do you do all the time?” I asked, still facetiously.

  “Livy looks after the farm,” Jeffrey answered. “She likes that sort of work, though it’s not very good land—far too stony, and the gales come in full of salt spray that sours the soil…I’ll take you round tomorrow.”

  “Mr. Millbay won’t have time,” Livia said pointedly. “He’s got to leave for Limerick tomorrow.” She added: “Jeffrey’s busy too. He has to write his book.”

  “If he can,” Jeffrey commented, with a note of ruefulness.

  “He doesn’t concentrate enough,” she countered. They were both talking at each other, it seemed, with me as a needed yet somehow exacerbating audience.

  The ques
tion of the book raised Jeffrey a notch higher in whatever emotion was being generated between them. “Livy,” he said, “appears to think that writing is just a simple matter of one page after another.”

  “Well, isn’t it?” Livia asked, appealing to me.

  I tried to lower the tension by asking Jeffrey how far the book had progressed.

  Livia answered for him: “About a hundred pages, and it ought to be easy for him to finish because it’s all about Far Eastern affairs that he’s an expert on.”

  Jeffrey said, still in the same mood of self-scarifying irony: “Livia thinks that with a record like mine people will be eager to accept me as an authority.”

  I gathered that this had been argued between them before, since Livia retorted: “What does his record have to do with what he writes?…That’s what I always ask him.”

  Jeffrey nodded. “Yes, that’s what she always asks me, and I think the answer is rather obvious. Wouldn’t you say so, Millbay?”

  I didn’t want to get into such an argument, so I said nothing.

  Livia went on, as if even my silence irritated her: “And what of his record, anyway? Who bothers about it except a few people in the Government?”

  Jeffrey answered heavily: “I think Charlie would bother about it if he knew—and perhaps he does know, or can guess.”

  “Charlie has no right to be ashamed of his father,” Livia retorted, and then she added, astoundingly: “My father spent twelve years in jail and I wasn’t ashamed of him.”

  I hadn’t known about that, and mentally made up my mind to look into the matter when I got back to London. And of course I afterwards found who her father had been. But in the meantime I felt I had to be honest and side with Jeffrey about the book. He was undoubtedly right, and his Far Eastern opus, however good, might well fall under the curse of Kemalpan—the more so since, if it were very good indeed, it might even attract publicity to what would otherwise have been ignored or forgotten. I didn’t bring up that point, but my general support of Jeffrey’s attitude led to what I had feared—and that was the whole Kemalpan issue spouting up like a volcano. Jeffrey muttered gloomily that he wondered if it were worth while even to finish the book at all, what he really wanted was a job, something he could work at to prove himself more than a failure and an idler. A job, a job …to get away from the everlasting western gales and the stony soured soil and the clouds dripping over the mountain and nothing to do…nothing to do…

  I could feel the tension mounting now like a physical wave through the shadows, and again to ease it I said: “You know, Jeffrey, there are jobs, if you really want one. It wouldn’t have to be in government service. Your Far Eastern experience would be a bargain for a good commercial firm, and it’s true, as you know, that a man can serve his country in, say, British-American Tobacco quite as valuably as in an embassy.”

  I saw his eyes light up at that. “Do you think they’d even consider me?”

  But then a strange and disconcerting thing happened. Livia got up from her chair and leaned across the table towards us with a gleam in her eyes that was of a very different kind. It gave her face a rather frightening radiance, emphasizing the curious profile of nose and forehead as she stared down at us like, I thought, the figurehead of a ship about to dive into a storm. “He’s not going!” she screamed, in a wild angry whisper. “He must stay here. This is the place for him…always…”

  After that there was little I could say. The scene subsided, leaving us to stammer a few commonplaces about this and that; Livia seemed to realize she had said too much, or had somehow been caught off-guard.

  We adjourned to the drawing room and sat up, the three of us, till it became clear that Jeffrey wanted to talk to me alone if there were any chance. Towards midnight I began yawning, to bring the thing to an issue, and Livia said it was time we all went to bed; whereupon Jeffrey announced that he and I would stay up and chat for a while. He said that with an air of challenge, and there was nothing much she could do about it except leave us together. Such a small victory, and yet, from his whole attitude, I gathered it was both a narrow and a crucial one.

  When we were alone he asked me again about the possibility of a commercial job—had I meant what I said—did I really think there was a chance of it? Certainly, I answered, if that was what he really wanted, and I offered there and then to put in a good word for him. But the imminence of something practical and decisive seemed to reverse his mood and deflate his eagerness, so that I told him to think it over carefully; maybe he didn’t want to go as much as he thought he did. He answered, far too carefully: “I’d go like a shot but for Livy.”

  Then he lapsed into a mumble of pitiful things about her—almost as if he had learned most of them by heart and were repeating them as much for his own benefit as for mine. She would be dead against his going abroad again; she had spent ten years in Malaya and that was understandably as much as she wanted; she loved Ireland and the farm; she worked so hard, was so good to him, they really got on all right together despite occasional bickerings…and so on.

  And of course, knowing what I did, it antagonized me to the point of saying: “So you really mean you’ll stay here for the rest of your life just to please her?”

  He answered: “Perhaps I ought to stay here. After all, she’s been very decent about the whole thing. The Kemalpan business, I mean. She’s never reproached me about it.”

  That did the trick. Accustomed as I am to the severest verbal self-discipline I simply couldn’t keep back my answer. “By God,” I explained, “she damn well oughtn’t to, since she was the whole cause of it herself!”

  Then I told him what I hadn’t promised Livia not to tell him, though I should have broken that promise anyway.

  Of course he was appalled. He wouldn’t believe it at first, even when I said I had documents, depositions, and so on, that I could send or show him later. “Besides,” I said, “she confessed to it even before there was proof.” That appalled him also, and I had to tell him about her visit to my office. When he still seemed unable or unwilling to grasp the situation, I said: “You mean you don’t think she’s capable of it?”

  He answered heavily: “She’s capable of anything.” And then he went on with a touch of anger: “Why did you tell me? Do you want me to think badly of her? After all, though what she did was quite dreadful, it only shows how much she loves me…in her way.”

  “Certainly, if you think so,” I answered. “She shows she loves you by ruining your career—to say nothing of sacrificing the lives of five strangers. I didn’t intend to say all this when I came here, and I admit I acted on impulse in doing so, but now I’m rather glad I did.” I thought it was a good moment then to say good-night and tell him I’d be leaving in the morning early. “Perhaps there’s somewhere in the village I can hire a car to take me on to Limerick…” He said there was, and pulled himself together enough to telephone about it. Then he took me up to my room. At the door we shook hands and I repeated my offer to try to find him a commercial job if he wanted one. I also said that in any case I hoped he’d give me a ring if ever he were in London.

  I slept badly and got up soon after dawn. The mists were over the mountain and a gale from the sea was already tearing them to shreds. I did not think Carrigole was a place I should like to stay in for long, much less to live in altogether. There was something elemental and primitive about it that would get on my nerves unless I could become elemental and primitive myself.

  The car had already arrived and stood in the lane beyond the garden, but as I was crossing the latter from the house I saw Livia hurrying towards me from a side gate. She was dressed in a sort of waterproof smock, tied loosely at the waist; her head was almost hidden behind a low-brimmed sou’wester, and she wore also knee-high boots caked with mud. I don’t know why I remember such things, except that I was aware of a curious half-hypnotized tension that made me stir my mind over details to keep it from somehow freezing at her approach.

  I was prepared for a scen
e, but there was none. “So you’re going now?” she greeted me.

  I said I had thought it better to leave early, so as to reach Limerick by midday.

  “Why yes, of course. Much better. I’m always up like this. There’s so much to be done on a farm.”

  I said I was sure she was kept very busy.

  “Of course Jeff’s still asleep,” she went on. “Nine’s early enough for him to start writing, don’t you think?” And then, with a bright smile; “What time would you begin writing if you were a writer?”

  I answered, smiling back: “Any time I damn well felt like it—and I speak with authority because I am a writer.”

  She didn’t seem to take offense—and yet I knew, from something in her eyes, that Jeffrey had told her I had told him everything, and that she hated me for it. And I had a feeling that to be hated by Livia Winslow was no mild experience.

  She accompanied me to the car. “Jeff is really happy here,” she said, as if I were again denying the fact. “And no wonder, is it?” And then she added, in a phrase I remember because I wasn’t quite sure what it meant: “When I first saw this place I thought I had found where I was born in another world…”

  So I finished my Irish holiday and returned to London with such thoughts about the Winslows as you can imagine. Some months later Jeffrey rang me up at my office, the tone of his voice conveying a certain urgency, but also, I thought, a very welcome quality of decision. He sounded like a man who had finally yet in a sense firmly reached the end of his tether. We lunched at my club, and afterwards he asked if my offer to aid him in finding a job still held.

  Not only it did, I told him, but it so happened that a few days before I had mentioned his name to a friend in one of the big oil companies, and the reaction had been distinctly favorable. “Only I didn’t know whether you’d changed your mind, so I hardly cared to approach you about it.”

 
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