James hilton collected n.., p.29
James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.29James Hilton
“Does it prove we shouldn’t have cheered?”
“Maybe not. Perhaps it proves that though it’s hard to get the victory you want, it’s even harder to want the victory you got ten years back.”
“Which is the devil of a way to look at things in the middle of a war.”
“Aye, I can see it might be.”
Charles walked on for a little way, then said thoughtfully: “You know, George, you have a rather Machiavellian mind.”
George laughed. “Twisty, you mean, eh? That’s what my opponents say. But I’ll give you one good tip in politics—keep straight from year to year, and you can twist as much as you find convenient from day to day. And as for the really big fellows—the great men of the world—if they keep straight from century to century, they can do their twisting on a yearly basis. Does that make any sense?”
Charles laughed. “What doesn’t make sense to me is that you didn’t try for Parliament. Or did you—ever?”
“Aye, a few times.”
“And no luck? How was that?”
George answered after a pause: “Hard to say. Perhaps just what you said—no luck.”
But the recollection was now without a pang, or at any rate the pang was smothered in much greater pleasure; for George had made a discovery—that he could talk to Charles as he had never been able to talk to anyone—even Wendover, with whom there had always been the prickly territory of dogma. But the boy, less schooled in dialectic than the priest, nevertheless had a clear, intricate mind—almost too intricate, almost ice-clear; and George argued with him joyfully every foot of the way from St. Jude’s to Queens and then back again, on that lovely May afternoon. All the time a curious happiness was growing in him—something he did not diagnose at first, but when he did, it came in the guise of a guess—that this must be what it felt like to have a grown-up son. During the last half-mile they increased pace, because Charles was in a hurry to get to his rooms. “That’s what your arguments do, George—make me forget the time…And I don’t want to keep Julie waiting.”
“The…er…the nurse you met. Miss Petersham.”
George didn’t think it could matter much if she did wait for a few minutes, but he said merely: “And a very nice girl, too.”
“You thought so?”
“Aye.” George smiled and added: “We had quite a conversation on the way to her bus. She told me one thing you didn’t let out.”
To George’s immense astonishment Charles flushed deeply and began to stammer: “You mean—about—our—engagement?”
George swallowed hard. “Well, no—as a matter of fact, it was your Distinguished Flying Cross.”
George could see that Charles regretted having given himself away. He held the youth’s arm as they began to climb the staircase. He said: “I’m sorry if they were both things you didn’t want me to know, but now I do know I’d like to offer my congratulations…and double ones.”
“Thanks…Of course there’s no secret about a D.F.C…The other thing is more or less—has to be—because—well, it depends on what sort of a recovery I make. I wouldn’t have her tie herself to an old crock. Or even a young one.”
He had left his room unlocked, and the girl was already there when they entered it. She greeted them both and immediately set about preparing the equipment for massage treatment.
Charles said abruptly: “He knows all about us, Julie.” She looked up, startled—to Charles, then to George, then to Charles again. “Did you tell him?”
“No…it sort of slipped out. But I don’t really mind.” Then Charles laughed and George shook hands with the girl and said how pleased he was. “I was praising you to him even before I knew,” he said. It was a happy moment. “And now I’d better leave if I’m going to catch my train…I’ll see you both again before long, I’m sure.”
He shook hands again, but the girl followed him to the door. “My turn to see you to the bus this time.”
Crossing the court towards the college entrance she said: “I’m glad you know. Charles thinks such a lot of you.”
Something in his voice made her laugh and ask: “Why, are you surprised?”
And George, who was so used to being liked yet could never somehow get over the surprise of having it happen to him again, replied truthfully: “In a way, I am, because it’s hard for a lad of his age to get along with an old chap like me. Yet we do get along.”
“I know. And you’re not old.”
“You can be a great help to him anyhow.”
“You too, lass. And far more than I can.”
“Well…he needs all the help we can both give him.”
“He’s getting better, though?”
“Oh yes—physically. It’s in other ways we can help him most.”
“I understand. There’s something he hasn’t got—yet. It’s a sort of reason to be alive. He doesn’t know why he wasn’t killed like so many others—he’s said that to me more than once. Does he talk like that to you?”
“Sometimes,” she answered.
They walked a little way in silence; then, as they reached the curb, she said: “Mr. Boswell, I’m going to be very frank and ask you something—as a friend of his …”
“Will you…would you help him…even against his mother?”
A bus to the station came along. “The next one will do,” George muttered. And then, as they stepped back from the commotion of passengers getting on and off, he went on muttering: “Help him—against his mother—eh? Why, what’s wrong about his mother?”
She answered: “I only saw her once, when she came to visit him, and of course to her I was only a nurse. And I was only a nurse—then. But I could see that she wasn’t good for Charles. She got on his nerves. She wants to possess him—her whole attitude was like that—and I don’t think she’s the right person, and even if she were, I don’t think he’s the sort of person who ought to be possessed—by anyone. He should be free.” She continued after a pause: “Maybe you’re wondering about my motives in all this. Well, so far as I’m concerned he is free. I love him, that’s true, but I only agreed to the engagement because I thought it would help him—which it did, and still does. But when he’s better he may feel differently. I shan’t try to hold him. He’s too young, anyhow, to decide about a wife…I want him to be free. I don’t want him to be possessed.”
“And you think…his mother…?”
“That’s what she wants. I know it. I think he knows it too, but he can’t easily resist, for the time being—that is, till he’s recovered. She’s so strong.”
“Yes, but there are two kinds of strong people. There’s the kind that make you feel strong yourself, and there’s the other kind that make you feel weak…She’s that kind. And he’s so sorry for her—naturally, on account of what’s happened. Everybody is—she’s a tragic figure…Which makes another reason. He’s had enough tragedy.”
George could sense the girl’s emotion from the way she suddenly stopped at the word “tragedy” and laughed, as if that were the only thing left to do. She said, after the laugh:
“Well, I’ve told you now. I don’t know what you can do, but you’re a friend of Charles and I took advantage of it. Don’t do anything at all if you’d rather not. I really haven’t any right to ask.”
Another bus was approaching along King’s Parade. George answered: “Nay, Julie, we’ve all a right to ask anything when it’s a matter of helping somebody.”
She smiled. “That’s a nice way to look at it…You’d better catch this bus or you’ll be late.”
He nodded. And then at the last minute: “I wonder…do you know who I am?”
She replied, in a rather puzzled voice: “Why yes—you’re the Mayor of Browdley, isn’t that it?”
“Aye,” he answered, with a slow s
Inside the bus and all the way to Browdley, by various slow-train connections that took all evening and half the night, George still did not know how he would keep his promise, though his determination to do so surged into the familiar dimensions of a crusade.
George might have a Machiavellian mind, as Charles had said, or he might have made a Jesuit, as Wendover had once said; but there were times when he knew that nothing is more effective than the direct approach. So after pondering long on the problem of how to help Charles, he decided that the first step must be to meet Livia himself and judge what help was needed; and to meet Livia the simplest method seemed to write and ask for a meeting.
She returned a characteristic brief note that he could visit her any time he wanted while she was at Castle Winslow.
It was a week before George could arrange to be away from Browdley long enough to make the trip, and once again there was the complicated uncomfortable journey by a series of trains. He was not surprised when no one met him at Castle Winslow station, and as it was fine weather and there were no cabs he walked the three miles from the station to the lodge gates, wearing down by sheer physical fatigue a mounting excitement over the fact that at last, after over twenty years, he was about to see Livia again. It was curious how something had lingered to produce that excitement still. He remembered the months immediately after he had known definitely that she would not return to him—how she had been on his mind night and day, so that he had scarcely been able to work; he remembered how he would wonder whether to avoid the Stoneclough road with all its memories, or to exorcise them deliberately by the self-torture of walking there; and how for weeks he would try the one method and then, in despair, the other. But for years now there had been nothing particular to remember or to try to forget.
At the lodge an old man hoeing potatoes in a patch of garden pointed further along the road when George spoke the name Mrs. Winslow. “She’s at the Dower House—that’s about a mile. Turn left at the signpost and then it’s the first place on the right behind the trees. There’s a lot of kids there—you can’t miss it.”
George walked on, puzzled at the reference to “a lot of kids,” and more so when he came, near enough to hear their shrill cries and screams. At length he glimpsed a rather large rambling house, well set back from the road behind tall poplars. In the space between the road and the building children of all ages from three or four to ten or eleven were romping as in a school playground.
George walked in and the children took no notice of him, but a buxom middle-aged woman who looked like a farmer’s wife changed her direction across the yard as he approached. He gave his name and repeated who it was he wanted to see.
“I don’t know whether she will,” answered the woman, doubtfully. “She won’t see anybody as a rule. You’re not from a newspaper, are you?”
George assured her he wasn’t.
He waited till a moment later the woman beckoned him from a doorway. As she led him through the cool interior she explained the presence of the children. They had been bombed out of their homes in some of the big industrial cities, and this was one of the rehabilitation centers set up by the Government for the recovery of special cases—“like shell shock,” some of them, she said. George knew all about it, for there was a similar center not far from Browdley, which he had visited. “And does Mrs. Winslow help in looking after them?” he asked, eager for some clue to what he might expect.
“Yes, she helps. She’s all right with the children.”
Presently the woman opened a door leading to a kind of veranda in which a few children were lying asleep or strangely awake in open cots. That strangeness was another thing George had seen before—the tense stare, the twitching muscles; these were the worst cases. And beyond them, arranging pots of geraniums along a ledge, was Livia. She wore a large shabby straw hat and a bright-colored dress.
At the instant of recognition he gasped with the sensation of something suddenly switched off inside him, but it was not pain any more; and as always when he had seen her afresh after an absence recognition dissolved into a curious feeling of never having seen her before, but of experiencing some primitive thrill that time had neither enhanced nor made stale; but it was no longer a thrill entirely of pleasure.
“Livia…” he said.
She looked up. “Hello, George.” She gave him an odd sort of smile. She had not changed much in appearance—at least, not as much as he had expected. She went on: “I didn’t think you’d be coming today when you didn’t get here earlier.”
“I walked from the station.”
“Oh, didn’t Howard send the car? I asked him to.”
“My brother-in-law. He probably didn’t do it deliberately. I mean he did do it deliberately. I mean, he deliberately didn’t send the car. Just because I asked him. He doesn’t like me. None of them do—except these.” As her eyes ranged over the cots something came into her face that made George reflect how beautiful she still was, provided one had ever thought her beautiful at all.
“Well, it didn’t matter. I enjoyed the walk.”
“Come into the garden.”
He followed her. She had been taking cuttings from geraniums, planting them in pots for the veranda, and without a word of apology or excuse she now resumed the task, and with such concentration that George did not feel she was giving him more than a part of her attention. At any rate, there was to be no such dramatic or over-dramatic encounter as he had half expected, and for this at least he was thankful.
He stammered: “I hope you’re well, Livia—after—after all the—the trouble—you’ve had.”
“Oh, I’m all right. Poor Jeff, though. He’s in Japan, only nobody knows where. If only the Government would send me out I’d find him—surely it’s possible by submarine? They could put me ashore on a dark night—like Casement in Ireland. Don’t they do that sometimes? Do you know anyone at the Admiralty you could ask? I told Jeff I would…People thought I was against his work—and so I was—because I could see all this coming. In Hong Kong, I mean. The place stank of what was coming…And then he had to go back into it all like a fool. I’d never have left him no matter where he went, but they took him away. They took him away, George. I wish I was with him still, even in a prison camp. Where you are doesn’t really matter. The earth is all the same.” She began to pick up a handful of soil and sprinkle it into a pot. “I always liked planting things. Then you can let history slip through your fingers—like peasants do. That’s why I want Charlie to give up Cambridge and live on a farm.”
“To give up Cambridge?”
“Yes—what’s the good of it? We argued about it but he didn’t understand. Nobody ever does. They argue and argue but they don’t feel. It’s a little farm off the coast of Galway. I’d like him to settle down there and rest from thinking, arguing, books …all that…dead things that have caused all the upset…”
George watched her with curious intensity. She went on: “You don’t know what the world is all about, George. You never did. All your meetings and speeches—must have been thousands of them…what did they do? Or what did they stop?”
George did not reply. The heedless fever of her voice had not only been hard to keep pace with as a listener, but it had given him an inward tension that left him without power or will to reply. Presently she exclaimed: “Well? Don’t say you agree with me—that would be too amazing!”
He still couldn’t answer.
“Never mind,” she smiled, after another pause. “Tell me about Browdley.”
“Browdley’s all right,” he managed to say, in hardly more than a whisper.
“Not been bombed to bits yet?”
“Thank God, no.”
“Annie still with you?”
“And Will Spivey?”
“And there’s still the little garden I made?”
“It’s still there.” He added: “And Stoneclough too.”
She suddenly began to cry, but without any sound. The tears fell into the soil as she went on filling up the pot. “Oh George, what a long time ago. I hope you’ve been happy.”
“You have, haven’t you?”
“Yes…it was a thing to try for, wasn’t it? Love, I mean—not happiness.” She stopped crying as abruptly as she had begun. “Poor Jeff…I wish I knew someone at the Admiralty—Howard knows them all but he won’t help. He doesn’t like me—Howard, I mean—Lord Winslow, that is. He thinks I ruined Jeff’s career. And now he thinks I want to ruin Charlie’s. Ruin…ruin…how can anyone make more than there is? I loved my father and then I loved my husband and now I love my son…anything wrong in all that? Or in these children…these have been ruined too, but not by love. I’ll tell you what I do about them—are you interested?”
George murmured assent and she began to chatter with eager animation. “They’re in need of almost everything when they come here—they have to be clothed, as a rule, as well as fed—I got some of the older ones to help in cooking and serving their own meals, also repairing their own clothes—that is, if they can—and of course we grow most of our own fruits and vegetables, so there’s always plenty of work in the garden. But the worst cases can’t do anything at all for a time—they just scream and cry and there’s nothing helps but when I talk to them, and I do that. I talk nonsense mostly. When bad things are on their minds that’s all they want to hear. Nothing serious. Not even politics.” She smiled. “Charlie told me you were Mayor of Browdley now?”
George said that was so.
“You should have come here wearing your Mayor’s chain. To make the children laugh. Always a good thing to make them laugh.”
George smiled back. “Aye, I might have.”
“You would, I know. You’re very kind. It’s just that you don’t think of things, isn’t it? Or rather you think of too many other things…”
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