James hilton collected n.., p.28
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.28
 

           James Hilton

  “But he will?”

  “I hope so, though he’s pretty bad at times. He has sudden nerve storms—you can’t imagine what they’re like until you’ve seen him…But he should improve gradually.”

  “It all sounds serious enough,” George said.

  “It is—though I’ve seen many worse. And he has heaps of courage. You know he got a D.F.C.?”

  “No?…When was that?”

  She mentioned a time earlier than that of George’s visit to the Mulcaster hospital.

  He said: “He never told me.”

  “I’m not surprised.”

  “But isn’t he proud of it?”

  She smiled. “He’s just shy about those things, that’s all. Do you know him well?”

  “Not very. But I—I like him a great deal.”

  “So do I.”

  They had reached the pavement where she said she would wait for a bus. George would have liked to go on talking, but the bus came up almost immediately. “And where are you off to now?” he asked, curious as always about the lives and work of others.

  “Back to the hospital here. They keep me busy.”

  “I’llbet they do,” he answered admiringly. The bus moved away and he walked back to the college room encouraged by a feeling of community with all who worked with such quiet, cheerful skill—the real aristocracy on earth, he reflected, if there ever were such a thing.

  Charles had put on his coat and was making sure the curtains were drawn over the windows. George apologized again for having arrived perhaps inopportunely.

  “Not at all…Sit down. You’ve had dinner, of course. How about some coffee? I make it here, on my own.”

  George agreed and watched Charles as he busied himself with the small but intricate task. It was as if he wanted to show how he could do things—as if embarrassment, aware of itself, could find relief in a kind of exhibitionism. He made excellent coffee, anyhow, and over several cups they fell to discussing the business that had brought George to London, which George explained in as much detail as was interesting to himself until it occurred to him that Charles might not be similarly enthralled. But the boy urged him to continue. “Go ahead. It’s shop talk, but I always enjoy that from anyone who knows what he’s talking about.”

  George acknowledged the compliment with a pleased “Aye,” and then, to keep it modest, added: “So long as it’s anything to do with Browdley…Now tell me your gossip.”

  “Nothing to tell except a lot of dull stories about hospitals.”

  “They moved you about a lot?”

  “Yes. Everybody who thought he could do anything had a go at me. Not that I’m complaining. They did rather well, I reckon. And the French johnny who fixed up my nose really improved on the original. I had to spend six weeks in his private nursing home in Leeds.”

  “Leeds? As near to Browdley as all that? Why didn’t you let me know? I’d have visited you.”

  Charles looked embarrassed. “Well, you stopped writing, so I thought you’d got a bit bored with that sort of thing. I wouldn’t blame you.”

  “I stopped writing?”

  And then, of course, the matter was explored; it appeared that George’s last two letters had never reached Charles; it was all as trivial as that. (They did arrive, eventually, after a series of fantastic reforwardings.) George exclaimed, laughing because his relief was so much greater than he could have believed: “And I thought it was you who didn’t want to write!”

  Just then the air-raid siren went off, effectively changing the subject. “There’s a shelter in the next court,” Charles said, “if you’d like to go there.”

  “What do you generally do?”

  “It’s only happened two or three times before, but I’ve always stayed here. I don’t think it’s a very good shelter anyway.”

  George said staying where they were was all right with him, so they went on talking. Now that the contretemps of the letters had been cleared up, the mood came on them both for subsidiary confessions; Charles, for instance, admitted that when he had caught sight of George outside the college that afternoon he had deliberately looked the other way. “It was partly because I thought perhaps you really didn’t want to see me—not now that you know I know who you are. There’s also a bit of a phobia I have about my new face. It gives me the most conflicting impulses—for instance, in your case, because you never saw my old face, I didn’t mind so much, yet because I also didn’t think you’d recognize me I was glad to think you wouldn’t realize I was avoiding you…Or is all that too complicated?”

  “Aye—and so are most human impulses, if you get down to analyzing ’em.”

  “I’m glad you think so. I’ve had a good deal of time to analyze myself lately—perhaps too much—and on the whole I prefer flying…I suppose you know I’ll never be able to do that again?”

  George had all along thought so, but deemed it best to appear surprised. Charles went on: “The doctors simply hooted when I mentioned it. Asked me whether I wasn’t satisfied with the way they’d fixed me up for a life of strictly civilian usefulness.”

  “And aren’t you?”

  “I guess I’ve got to be. I’m damned lucky compared with thousands. The fact is, though, I really wanted to fly again…As long as I could be useful that way I was satisfied. But now that I have to wonder how I can be useful, I’m not satisfied.”

  “What’s wrong with just being here?”

  “Probably quite a lot. And that’s what makes the big difference. There never was much wrong with the R.A.F., and even if there had been it was none of my business. My job was to fly.”

  “And now your job’s to get ready for some other job that’ll be just as useful in its way by then.”

  “I’d like to believe that. I’d like to think the things I’m being lectured about have the slightest connection with anything that matters. The Statute of Mortmain, for example—or the Amphictyonic Council.”

  “The Amphictyonic Council certainly has—because it was a sort of League of Nations, wasn’t it?”

  Charles gasped. “Good God! Now how the hell did you know that?”

  “Because I once studied history for a university examination same as you’re doing now.”

  “You did? You mean you…” The first gunfire could be heard in the far distance; it seemed to cause a break in the youth’s astonishment, giving him the chance to reflect, perhaps, that it was not very polite to be so astonished. He stammered: “It’s just that I didn’t realize you were—well, what I mean is…”

  George let him flounder with a certain grim joy. “Aye, I get what you mean,” he said at length. “You thought education wasn’t much in my line, I daresay. But you’re wrong there. I had great ambitions when I was a lad, and to get a university degree was one of ’em. But it didn’t come off—and perhaps it doesn’t matter so much when I look back on it now. I’ve done other things.”

  “That’s what my father used to say. His ambition was always to be an ambassador in one of the important capitals, but things didn’t work out that way. In fact they worked out damned badly…You know he’s probably dead?”

  George said gently: “Not probably. I don’t think anyone knows enough to say that.”

  “I wish they did. I wish it was a certainty. I can’t bear to think of him being—”

  George caught the note of hysteria and checked it by putting out his cup for more coffee. “Come now…I know it could be bad, but maybe it’s not as bad as that…Isn’t it possible to get word from him? Doesn’t anybody have an idea where he is?”

  The whole room began to shake as if a train were rumbling deeply underground. A flake of plaster fell from the ceiling with almost dainty nonchalance. Charles answered: “My mother thinks he’s in Japan. I don’t know what evidence she has—if any. She’s—she’s a little strange—in some ways. She’s been writing to all kinds of people in the Government—making rather extraordinary suggestions for rescuing him. Quite extraordinary. I’m terribly sorry for her.” His
voice trembled.

  The underground train noise began again. George took his refilled cup of coffee. “Thanks,” he said. And then: “I’m sorry too, lad.”

  Charles lit a cigarette. “Air-raid warden in Browdley, aren’t you?”

  George nodded.

  “Ever had a raid?”

  “Not so far, thank goodness. But I know what they’re like. I was at Mulcaster in one of the worst.”

  “I was in a few too.”

  “So I understand.”

  “Oh, I don’t mean those. I mean as one of the underdogs. A few hours after my mother landed there was a bad one on the docks there…She wasn’t scared. I was, though.” He smiled. “Not that I wouldn’t rather be here than in a shelter. It’s a bit of a bother for me to get down steps, and I hate strangers staring at my funny face.”

  “It’s not funny to me.”

  “That’s because you never saw it before. The really funny thing is that you should ever have seen it at all…Just coincidence, wasn’t it, that you noticed my name on the list at that hospital?”

  “Aye—but when you come to think of it, there’s a lot of coincidence in the world.”

  “That’s so…Boy meets Girl—always the perfect coincidence. My father meeting my mother…You meeting my mother. Where was it? In Browdley?”

  George nodded.

  “My father met her first in Vienna.”

  “Aye.”

  “You knew that?”

  George nodded. After a pause he asked: “By the way…did you…did you tell her you’d met me?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did she mind?”

  “She seemed a bit surprised, that’s all.” An explosion came, nearer than any before. Charles began to laugh.

  George said: “Steady, lad.”

  “Oh, I’m all right. I was just laughing at something she said about you when I happened to mention you were Mayor of Browdley. She said you were like a lion when you talked at public meetings, and behind that you were rather like a friendly old dog that nobody need be afraid of, but behind everything, else you had the secret strength of the dove.”

  “The what?”

  Charles repeated the phrase, after which they both laughed together. “Well, it’s the first time I ever heard of it,” George said. “And I still don’t know whether she meant that doves are strong or that I’m weak…Maybe she didn’t know herself when she said it.”

  “Maybe. My father once said she said things not because they meant anything but to find out if they did mean anything.”

  George made no comment.

  “And sometimes her mind seems full of words waiting for other words to set them off like firecrackers.” The distant underground rumbling died away and all was silence. “Sounds as if it might be over…Where d’you think it was? Just tip and run on some little place—they do that, don’t they?” With difficulty the boy got up and walked to the window. “George—do you mind if I call you George?—George, I wish I could be of some use—some real use—in this blasted country…If only I could fly again—but that’s out, and so far I can’t seem to settle to what’s in. I guess millions of us are going to feel like that after the war.” He moved restlessly. “How about a stroll? I can, if I’m careful.”

  “Not till the All Clear sounds. Take it easy.”

  “All right, all right. I’ll bet you make a good warden. When are you going back to that town of yours?”

  “Tomorrow night, I hope.”

  “So soon?”

  “I’ll have finished my work in London and I’ve got plenty waiting for me at home.”

  “They can’t do without you?”

  “They could, but they mightn’t want to.”

  “I’ll bet you’re a good mayor, too. I’ll bet everything in that town runs like clockwork.”

  “Oh, not so bad. I’d match it against any other place in England for being efficiently managed, if that’s what you mean.” George smiled to himself as he thought of the matter, then saw the other’s quizzical, slightly sardonic glance, and wondered if he were being baited. “Look here,” he continued, in some embarrassment. “I’m showing off too much…Aye, and I’d have been down that shelter too, but for showing off. Maybe that’s what kept us both here like a couple of fools.” Charles shook his head, so George added: “Or maybe not in your case.”

  “No, George. Oh God, no. If you must have a reason, it’s simply that I don’t give a damn what happens. To me personally, that is. I’m scared, and yet I don’t care. When you’ve seen a lot of your friends killed you can’t think you’ve survived by any special virtue of your own. Then why the hell have you survived? And the next step in argument is why the hell should you go on surviving?”

  George said quietly: “I don’t like to hear you talk like that.”

  “It’s better than having you think it was bravery—or even bravado…Well, let’s discuss something pleasanter. That town of yours, if you like.”

  “Provided it doesn’t bore you.”

  “Not at all. I wouldn’t even mind seeing the place sometime.”

  “Why don’t you then—sometime?”

  It was half an hour before the All Clear sounded, and George was just in time to catch his train.

  Of course they began to correspond again, and within a short time it happened that George was called to London for another official conference. This time it did not spread over a week end, and he was far too conscientious to pretend it did; but by routing his return journey, with much extra discomfort, through Cambridge, he was able to spend a whole afternoon with Charles. He was delighted to note an improvement in the boy’s physical condition; he could use his legs more easily, and since he had been recommended to do so for exercise, the two spent part of the time strolling slowly about the Backs, which at that time of the year were at their loveliest.

  Less reassuring to George was Charles’s state of mind, which still seemed listless and rather cynical, especially at the outset. He still questioned the value of anything he was doing at Cambridge, and George was too tactful to reply that even if it had no value at all, it was as good a way of passing a difficult time as any other. “But you like it here, don’t you?” George asked, “Or would you rather be at home?”

  “I haven’t a home,” Charles answered, so sharply that George did not probe the point. But then the boy smiled. “I’m sorry—you must think I’m very hard to please. Of course Cambridge is all right, and I’ve really nothing to complain of. Everybody’s perfectly charming to me. The dons don’t mind whether I work or not—the whole atmosphere is timeless. It’s a bit frightening at first. And that air of detachment people have here. One of the St. Jude’s dons—a little wizened fellow who’s the greatest living authority on something or other—began talking to me quite casually the other day about the Channing case—took it for granted that I didn’t mind everyone knowing that my grandfather served a long sentence in jail. And of course I don’t mind—why should I? After all, my father didn’t exactly distinguish himself either—ever heard of Kemalpan? Well, I won’t go into that…and damn it all, I don’t care—why should I care?”

  “Aye, why should you?” George interrupted. “You haven’t done so badly yourself—so far.”

  “So far and no further, though—that’s what it looks like.”

  George looked straight into the boy’s eyes. “You were talking about one of the dons here.”

  “Oh yes—the one who reminded me that my grandfather was a crook. But he must have studied the trail pretty closely from the way he talked. He said John Channing was quite a pioneer in his way, and that his scheme for reorganizing the cotton industry was very similar to the one sponsored by the Bank of England twenty years later. ‘Unfortunate that your grandfather was tempted to borrow money by printing too many stock certificates. He should have become Governor of the Bank, then he could have printed the money’.” Charles imitated the high-pitched voice of the don. “So utterly detached—it made things rather easy between us
afterwards. And then there’s another fellow—a very famous scientist—who remarked pleasantly to a small crowd of us at a tea party—‘The Germans really do have the most God-awful luck—you almost feel sorry for them’—but nobody turned a hair or thought anything of it, because everyone knows he’s working day and night on some poison gas to kill the whole German nation if they start that game themselves.”

  George answered: “You put your finger on a point, though, when you said ‘a very famous scientist.’ Anyone not so famous could get into trouble if he talked like that at the Marble Arch to a crowd.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. He might be booted out of the Park by a few bus drivers. Probably nothing more…Because the English, after all, are a race of eccentrics. They don’t think it’s odd that people should be odd. And they always bear in mind the possibility that the lunatic view might, after all, be right. That’s what makes them tolerant of their enemies.”

  George nodded. “Which is rather wise, because often it’s only from amongst your enemies that you can pick your friends.”

  “Has that been your experience, George?”

  “Aye—as a minority member on a town council where I’ve had more of my own way, I reckon, than most of the chaps on the other side with all their voting majority. But it’s taken time—and patience.”

  “But what happens to the battle, George, if you win over all your enemies to help you fight it?”

  “Why, I’ll tell you what happens—the battle’s over, and that’s what everybody’s after, isn’t it?”

  “No, not exactly. What everybody wants is victory.”

  “And everybody can’t get it. But you can make a lot of folks think they’ve got it. Remember Philip Snowden back in 1929—no, you’d be too young—anyhow, we all cheered like mad because he made France pay an extra million pounds of war debt! Think of it—one whole extra million pounds! The Fighting Yorkshireman! Wouldn’t have been easy to forecast how we’d all feel about the Fighting Frenchman a bit later!”

 
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