James hilton collected n.., p.27
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.27

           James Hilton

  “I’ll take the job whatever it is,” he said. “Where do I go and when can I start?”

  “Look here,” I answered, “I don’t own the company. You’ll have to fix all that yourself—but if you like I can telephone my friend this afternoon and let him know you’re in town. I should imagine, from the way he talked, that it would be something fairly immediate, and he did also tell me where it was—Hong Kong…How does that suit? You speak Cantonese?”

  He said he did.

  “They’ll probably jump at you then.”

  He seemed so relieved that I told him how glad I was to see him in such a different mood from the last time we had talked.

  “Yes,” he said. “You can call it that if you like—a different mood.”

  I asked him what had happened to make the change, and then he told me something so extraordinary that if I hadn’t known enough about Livia beforehand I should have disbelieved it, or him, or both of them, and even now I’m not a hundred per cent certain. It seemed that after my one-night visit they had had many arguments about his taking another job abroad, Livia becoming more and more obstinate in her insistence that he should stay at Carrigole. It was almost as if she had some obsession about the place—and perhaps, for that matter, she had. Most of her ideas were obsessions, anyhow, just as most of her affections were passions—she did nothing by halves. In such an atmosphere as had developed between them Jeffrey found it impossible to write his book and presently did not even wish to; what he craved was a job, and that too was for him an obsession. Their disagreements had culminated, he said, in an angry scene in which she accused him of pretending to want the job when what he really wanted was to leave her; this he denied emphatically, but in the very act of doing so caught himself wondering if it were half true. And then she staged an astonishing climax. She told him she would never leave him, that she loved him too much, that wherever he went she would follow, and that rather than lose him she would kill anyone who stood in the way of their life together. He took that for melodrama till she added, with a terrifying sort of casualness: “I did that once, you know.”

  He thought she meant the five victims at Kemalpan, and though he knew she could be held accountable for their deaths, he thought it was going too far to say that she had actually killed them. But then she always did go too far, and he always tried to drag her back by being severely and irritatingly logical; it was almost a routine. So he said: “Oh come now, don’t put it that way. They might have lost their lives in any event.”

  “They?” she echoed. And then it turned out that she hadn’t been thinking of Kemalpan at all. “Then who?” he asked, puzzled but also wryly amused.

  “Don’t you remember Anne Westerholme?” she answered.

  He told me that when she spoke that name he first had to make an effort to recollect it, but that when he did so he felt himself growing pale and cold with an emotion he would have called fear, except that he had known fear before, and this was nothing like it.

  He also told me about Anne Westerholme, and the story took him back almost ten years, to the time when he was adviser to another Sultanate and lived with Livia at a place called Tanjong Palai. It was not such a good job as the one he obtained later, but the district was healthier and they had a pleasant bungalow in the hills, with the usual neighborhood society of tea and rubber planters. One of these, a friend of Jeffrey’s, was bringing out a young governess from England to look after his three small boys, but as they developed scarlet fever while she was en route he had arranged with the Winslows that the girl should stay with them until the end of quarantine. So Anne Westerholme arrived one afternoon at the Winslows’ bungalow, and the next morning she was dead. She had been bitten by a five-foot krait, the most venomous of Malayan snakes, and as it could be surmised that she had opened her bedroom window without fixing the screen there was no hitch in the presumption of accidental death. Thousands die from snakebite every year in that part of the world; it was tragic, but hardly remarkable.

  But now, a decade later, Livia had more to say about this, and what she said was quite dreadful. She said that very early in the morning she had entered the girl’s room and seen her asleep with the krait curled up at the foot of the bed. It would have been easy then to kill the snake (she had killed scores) but she simply did not do so. She went back to the kitchen, calmly gave the Chinese houseboy his daily orders, played some Mozart records on the phonograph, and waited for the call that summoned her, along with the servants, too late.

  Jeffrey said that when she told him this, sitting over the turf fire at Carrigole late one night, he was so horrified that it did not occur to him at first that he had only her word for the story; but that later, when he did realize that, his feelings of horror hardly diminished. He made her go to bed, he said, and himself spent the night in his downstairs workroom, arranging the manuscript of the book he knew he would never finish—not at Carrigole, anyhow. And in the morning he took the train for Dublin en route for Holyhead and London.

  We sat over coffee in the club smoke room discussing the matter throughout most of the afternoon.

  “But do you really think she was speaking the truth?” I asked.

  “I think she could have been,” he answered, with no kind of reluctance. “But I also think she could have made up the story.”

  “But what motive could she possibly have had? A girl fresh from England—how could Livia have had any concern with whether she lived or died?”

  “Jealousy,” Jeffrey answered. “She saw in this girl some menace to her own life with me—or so she said when she made the confession.”

  “But that’s equally absurd!” I persisted. “How long had you known the girl? A few hours, I suppose…Had you had any chance to…but of course it’s preposterous…and what sort of a girl was she? I suppose you hardly remember—even the name didn’t stay in your mind—”

  Jeffrey nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I’d almost forgotten that, but I do remember her—she had reddish hair and a rather calm face.”

  “Not pretty, though?”

  “No, but calm…calm.”

  “And Livia was with you the whole of the time—”

  “Oh yes. The three of us just talked during dinner, that’s all.”

  “Well, it’s still absurd,” I repeated. “Even for Livia it’s absurd. How could she possibly imagine there was anything for her to be jealous of?”

  He nodded again, but then suddenly moved restlessly in the club armchair. “You know,” he said at length, “I’ll be perfectly frank with you, since you deserve that much for all you’ve done for me lately…It’s true of course that there was nothing between me and that girl. Yet…there almost might have been…eventually. I knew that, in a queer sort of way, while we were just chatting during dinner. Nothing special or exciting or significant or provocative—and yet—and I was aware of it—that girl’s calmness came over to me…and Livy intercepted it, just as later on she intercepted the cable.” He got up, clenching and unclenching his hands. “That’s the really frightening thing about it,” he exclaimed, when he had let me order a second brandy. “Livy knew. She always knew. She doesn’t miss a thing…”

  The Mayor of Browdley sat for a long time in silence after Millbay had finished. He was—and he was aware of it—a little out of his depth. This world of rubber planters and Sultans and five-foot kraits was so foreign to him, or seemed so when he tried to get it into extempore focus; how different from that other world of cotton mills and council meetings? And yet, after all, it was the same world, governed by the same passions, the same greeds, the same basic gulf between those who take and those who give. True, there were no snakes in Browdley, but there was diphtheria that could kill (and had killed, hadn’t it?) just as effectively; and there had once been a murder in a street not far from Mill Street, a particularly lurid murder that had made headlines in all the Sunday papers. From Browdley to Kemalpan and Tanjong Palai was only a matter of miles, but from Livia’s mind to his own…how far was that?

  Millbay interrupted his musings. “Well, Boswell, you stipulated for my story first. Now what about yours?”

  George answered at length: “Aye … but I haven’t one. Nothing to match what you’ve told me, anyhow. I can’t say I’m glad to have heard it, but it’s been good of you to give me so much time.”

  “No need to be grateful. I’d rather know how it all strikes you.”

  “That’s just it,” George answered. “It does strike me. It strikes me all of a heap.”

  “You mean you don’t altogether believe it?”

  “I don’t disbelieve it, because I’ve been struck all of a heap before by some of the things Livia did.”

  “Oh, you have?”

  “Aye…When she left me I was a bit like that for years. But I got over it…”

  And that was all. Millbay, though disappointed, was tactful enough not to press him. “Seems to me,” he said later, “that those who want to plan the future with everything neatly laid out in squares and rectangles are going to find the Livias of this world sticking out like a sore thumb.”

  “Maybe,” replied George. “But maybe also if the world was planned a bit better there wouldn’t be so many Livias.”

  “You evidently accept that as a desirable state.”

  “Nay,” said George quickly. “I’ll not say too much against her. We had some good times. And this jealousy you’ve talked about—I never noticed it particularly…”

  Millbay smiled. “May I be very personal?”

  “Anything you want.”

  “It’s perhaps such ancient history that you won’t feel hurt if I suggest it…that perhaps she wasn’t as jealous in your case because she didn’t…love you…as much.”

  “Aye, that might have been it.”

  It was getting late and George took his leave soon after that. He thanked Millbay again, walked from Smith Square to his hotel in a street behind the Strand, and rather to his surprise slept well and did not dream. The next day was a Saturday and he was busy at a conference. The conference was about nothing more or less momentous than the co-ordination of local authorities in the grouping of road-transport services throughout the northern industrial areas; and George, again to his surprise, found it quite possible to intervene in the discussion and secure for Browdley favorable treatment in the proposed setup. The conference then adjourned till Monday, and with a day to spare George could not think of anything better to do than visit Cambridge. He had never been there before, and thought it would be a good opportunity to compare it with Oxford, which he had visited once, in a mood of envy and adoration, thirty years earlier. So he took the train at Liverpool Street and eventually arrived, after a journey in which wartime and Sunday discomforts were incredibly combined, at a railway station whose form and situation roused in him the most drastic instincts of the rebuilder. He then took a bus into the town, got off at the post office, had a late and rather bad lunch at a restaurant, and entered the nearest of the colleges.

  Here at last he felt an authentic thrill that years had scarcely dimmed; for George still worshiped education and could still think nostalgically of never-tasted joys. To be young, to live in one of these old colleges, to have years for nothing but study, and then to emerge into the world’s fray already armored with academic letters after one’s name—this was the kind of past George would like to have had for himself, and the kind of future he would have wanted for his own boy, if his own boy had lived. The multiple disillusionments of the interwar years had not dulled this dream, because it had been a dream only—for George, in Browdley, had never heard about fully trained university men having to cadge jobs as vacuum-cleaner salesmen. So he could pass through the college archway and stare across the quadrangle at sixteenth-century Gothic buildings with the feeling that here, at any rate, was something almost perfect in a far from perfect world.

  Civilian sight-seers being rare in wartime, the college porter, scenting a tip, came out of his office to ask George if he would like to be shown over. George said yes, with some enthusiasm, and for the next hour was piloted through various courts, and into a quiet garden containing a famous mulberry tree; he was also shown the rooms in which there had lived, during the most impressionable years of their lives, such varied personages as John Milton and Jan Smuts. George was entranced with all this, and by the time the tour was completed had absorbed much assorted information about the habits of undergraduates in pre-war days. It did not entirely conform to what he had imagined, or even thought desirable. But perhaps after the war things would be a little different in some respects. He soon found that everything the porter was afraid of, he himself most warmly hoped for; and presently he summed the man up as an incurable snob, of a kind almost never met in Browdley. However, all that did not matter in wartime, since the man, from his own statements, was an air-raid warden and doubtless doing his duty like everyone else. George gave him five shillings, which he thought was enough; and the man took it as if he thought it just about enough.

  “By the way,” George added, as an afterthought, “have you a list of all of the men in the University—not just this college only?”

  He had, and George inspected it. It did not take him more than a moment to find that Winslow was at St. Jude’s. The porter then told him where St. Jude’s was and he walked there across the town.

  He did not know whether he really intended to visit Winslow or not, but as he was strolling towards the college entrance he saw a man leaning on two sticks walk out towards the curb and there hesitate, as if uncertain whether to risk crossing. George caught his glance from a distance and immediately changed direction to help him; whereupon the man turned away, evidently deciding not to cross after all. But the whole maneuver puzzled George, so that he approached nevertheless and asked if he could be of any service. The man was a tall young fellow in a rather ill-fitting tweed jacket and gray-flannel trousers, with a hat turned down over his forehead in such a way that, with the further obstruction of dark glasses, the face was hardly to be seen. Yet immediately—from some curious instinct rather than from any arguable recognition—George knew who it was. He had never seen him dressed before, or even standing up before, yet there was not a shadow of doubt as he exclaimed: “Why, Charles…” and took the other’s arm.

  The youth stared at him for a moment before forcing a smile. “I—I didn’t expect you’d recognize me.”

  “Don’t say you didn’t want me to!”

  “I won’t say it if you’d rather not.” The voice and the tone were ironic. “What are you doing in these parts, anyhow?”

  George explained and added heartily: “No need to ask what you’re doing.”

  “Isn’t there? At present I’m going to have my hair cut by a barber who most obligingly does it for me privately every third Sunday afternoon. I can’t face that sort of thing when there’s the usual audience.”

  George nodded with understanding. “Then I mustn’t keep you. But perhaps afterwards…How about having a meal with me?”

  Charles declined with a brusqueness that softened into an only slightly irritated explanation that he hardly ever left the college after dusk. “For one thing there’s the damned blackout.” And then, either shyly or grudgingly (George could not be sure which): “I’m in Room D One in the First Court. Come up tonight after dinner if you like. About eight.”

  George had been intending to return to London by the seven-thirty train, but he canceled the arrangement quickly enough to accept without an appearance of hesitation. A later train, however inconvenient, would do all right. He said: “Thanks, I will. And now, since you were wanting to cross the street…”

  He helped the boy as far as the opposite curb, then left him after a few conversational commonplaces. George’s sense of timing was never, indeed, so infallible as when he found himself up against that rare phenomenon—someone who didn’t seem particularly glad to see him.

  He spent an hour or two in further sight-seeing, then made his way to St. Jude’s after another b
ad meal. The night was cloudy, and the staircase leading to D One proved hard to find, even by inquiry. To George’s astonishment, after he had knocked, the door was opened by a rather pretty girl in nurse’s uniform who admitted him to a large pleasant room in which Charles, with one arm bared to the shoulder, had evidently been undergoing some sort of treatment which George’s arrival had interrupted. George apologized for being early (though actually he was punctual), but Charles assured him the job was finished and introduced the girl, who joined in unimportant conversation while she packed her equipment. She seemed very charming, friendly, and efficient, and George, whose mind always flew to Browdley on the slightest provocation, wished he had her in the town’s health department. He had also noticed the state of the arm, and Charles, aware of this, felt constrained to cover a certain embarrassment by making light of it. “Still have to be patched up, but I’m sure a lot of fellows would envy me the method.” The girl laughed and made businesslike arrangements for her next visit. She demurred at first as George picked up her bag, but when he insisted she let him carry it down the stairs. Outside the door he said: “It isn’t just that I’m being polite. I’d really like to know how that boy is, and I thought you’d be the one to give me the true facts.”

  She replied calmly as they walked across the court and through the gateway into the street: “He’s not well at all—but that’s a usual experience after the sort of crash he had. They seem to improve, and then they get worse again. It’s partly because they expect to recover too soon and too completely—and it doesn’t happen.”

  “But it will eventually—in his case?”

  “He has a good chance. Physically he’s doing fine. He fractured both ankles, and one of his hands and arms had bad burns—that’s the one I’m working on—the muscle’s damaged. And his face, too—that was burned, but they did a wonderful job with plastic surgery—I’ve seen a photograph of him as he used to be and it’s really remarkable. Of course the shock is really the hardest thing to get over.”

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