James hilton collected n.., p.3
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.3
 

           James Hilton

  “Perhaps not in time, though, to stop him from making an utter fool of himself.”

  Winslow paused and seemed suddenly aware of the extent of George’s library, though his ranging glance was hardly one of interest in it. At the same moment Annie entered with some letters and was about to hand them to George, but the latter shook his head and gestured her to put them on his desk. Winslow intervened: “Don’t mind me if there’s anything important you ought to attend to.”

  “They can wait, whatever they are.”

  “It’s good of you to let me take up your time like this.”

  George was amazed at the humility of such a remark from a man of Winslow’s age and importance. He could only reply: “Not at all, sir. Besides, you say I can help—though I wouldn’t pretend to be much good at advice about—er—family matters and so on.”

  “Perhaps because your own family affairs have been happy?”

  “Oh, I’ve had my troubles, same as most folks, I reckon.”

  “But you’ve settled them all?”

  “I’ve never had any to settle about a grown-up lad.” And George added, wryly: “Worse luck.”

  “Perhaps that itself makes a sort of trouble? I mean if—if—of course I don’t know what your—”

  “Aye…aye…but let’s get back to your lad. What’s the mistake he made? Surely when you told him—”

  Winslow leaned forward with his hands pressed down on his knees; he seemed to be seeking mastery of some strong emotion. “Forgive me for not keeping to the point…Yes, I told him. We had long conversations, but only by telephone, unfortunately, because I was compelled to return to England for an important government conference. That was a further complication—not being in personal touch with him. It was very hard to telephone. Of course if he’d been his normal self the mere facts would have been enough—he’s always been quick to do the right thing. But—you see—he’s not his normal self any more. This emotion—love or whatever you call it—perhaps madness or infatuation’s a better word—”

  “Doesn’t seem to matter much what you call it if it’s there.”

  “I agree—provided one doesn’t fall into the error of idealizing. I’d say, for instance, that I love my own wife, but I can easily think of things I wouldn’t do to please her—things which, even if she asked me to do them, would destroy the bond between us—like betraying my friends or my country…But infatuation’s different—it seems to glory in doing things in spite of, rather than because of…if you know what I mean.”

  George made no comment.

  “Well, anyhow, the point is, he hasn’t dropped her, even though he knows the truth and she’s been forced to admit it. He’s behaving, in fact, as if he can’t drop her. The last time I talked to him, which was from Paris, I gathered he’d not only forgiven her for the deception, but she’s made him believe a long story about an unhappy past and a husband she ran away from because she couldn’t stand him…and the upshot of it all is, Jeff’s now urging her to get a divorce so that he can marry her himself.”

  “What’s her attitude?”

  “I only know through him—and of course he’s so completely prejudiced in her favor that it’s not much to go by. But remember he’s quite a catch, even if it does ruin his career.”

  “And it would? Because of the scandal?”

  “Possibly…But worst of all, as I see it, is the thing itself—to put himself at the mercy of someone who has such evident power to distort and overthrow his judgment …judgment…the most valuable attribute a man of his profession can have…because if he still had any of it left, he’d drop her. After all, how could he expect a marriage of that sort to turn out a success?…It’s a sad thing, Boswell, to see a first-class intelligence functioning like a baby’s.”

  “Why don’t you go out and talk to him personally as soon as you have the time?”

  “Yes, I shall do that—I wired him today about it. But somehow I’m not sure that I can do much on my own—that last telephone talk was simply shattering—the most I could get was a promise that he’d think it over, but he can’t think, that’s the trouble—he’s in a world utterly beyond logic and argument—you can’t prove anything to him—he just believes this woman’s a sort of martyr heroine and her husband’s an impossible brute and—”

  “How do you know he isn’t?”

  Winslow got up suddenly, walked to the window, then came back and touched George on the shoulder with a queerly intimate gesture. “I didn’t know—definitely—until today. But I’m a bit positive at this moment…” And after a second pause, standing in front of George, he stammered unsurely: “I hope I haven’t been so damned tactful that you’re going to ask me what all this has got to do with you….”

  Then George looked up and saw in a flash what it had got to do with him.

  He felt himself growing cold and sick, as if a fist were grasping him by his insides. Try as one might, he reflected with queer and instant detachment, the actual blow of such a revelation must be sudden; there was no way of leading up that could disperse the shock over a period; one second one did not know, the next second one did know; that was all there was to it, so that all Winslow’s delicacy had been in a sense wasted. He might just as well have blurted out the truth right at the beginning.

  George knew he must say something to acknowledge that Oxford had managed to convey with subtlety in an hour what Browdley could have tackled vulgarly in five minutes. After a long pause, he therefore spoke the slow Browdley affirmative that, by its tone, could imply resignation as well as affirmation.

  “You mean you do understand, Boswell?”

  “Aye,” George repeated.

  “I’m terribly sorry—I could think of no other way than to put it to you—”

  “Of course, man, of course.”

  Winslow gripped George’s arm speechlessly, and for several minutes the two seemed not to know what to say to each other. Presently George mumbled: “Is that—all—you can tell me—about it? No more details of any kind? Not that they’d help much, but still—”

  “Honestly, Boswell, I’ve told you just about everything I know myself.”

  “I understand…But how about the people on the tour whom she was supposed to be looking after?”

  “Maybe she just left them stranded…It would be crazy and irresponsible—but no more so than—than—”

  “Than anything else. That’s so.”

  “I admit the whole thing sounds—must sound to you, in fact—well, if you were to tell me you simply didn’t believe a word of it, I’d—”

  “Aye, it’s a bit of a facer.”

  “But you do believe it?”

  “Reckon I have to, don’t I? After all, you took a good look at that photograph…”

  “Yes, it’s the same. I knew that at once…” Winslow’s voice grew almost pathetically eager. “And you will help me, won’t you—now that you know how it is? What I had in mind was this—if you agreed—that we go out there together—quite soon—immediately, in fact—before there can be any open scandal involving him—you see what I mean?”

  “Aye, I see what you mean.”

  “And you agree?”

  To which George retorted with sudden sharpness: “Why not, for God’s sake? He may be your son, but she’s my wife too. Don’t you think I’m interested?”

  “Of course. I’m sorry. I’m afraid I—I—”

  “Now, now, don’t apologize. Come to that, we’ve neither of us much to apologize for.”

  “I thought we might leave tomorrow—”

  “Aye, if we’re going, might as well—”

  “Boswell, I can’t tell you how much I—”

  “None o’ that either, man. Let’s get down to some details. I’ll need a passport—”

  And somehow from then on, in spite of what might have been held more humiliating for George than for Winslow in the situation, it was nevertheless George who took the leadership, a certain staunch four-squareness in his make-up easily dominating t
he other. They both belonged to a world in which the accomplishment of any suddenly urgent task requires the canceling or postponement of other less urgent ones; and now, as they eased themselves back into chairs, there was nothing left but such routine adjustments. Winslow pulled out a little black notebook and began crossing off this and that; George reached for a sheet of paper on his desk and jotted down a few memoranda. Into the momentary silence there came the distant chiming of the hour on Browdley church clock, and a newsboy shouting familiarly but incoherently along Market Street. Good news, perhaps, about the international situation…but it did not seem to matter so much now, so quickly can world affairs be over-shadowed by personal ones in the life of even the most public man.

  Winslow looked up. “You’re optimistic, Boswell? From your own knowledge of her—do you feel that—that somehow or other you’ll be able to persuade her to—to”

  George’s face was haggard as he replied: “I wouldn’t call my own knowledge so very reliable—not after this.”

  “Then perhaps you could talk to my son—try to influence him—”

  “Aren’t you the one for that?”

  “But a new angle, Boswell—your point of view in the matter—he may not have realized—”

  “All right, all right—no good badgering me.” The first shock had been succeeded by anger—helpless anger, which Winslow’s concern for his own son merely exacerbated. “I’m damned if I know what I’ll do—yet.”

  “I’m sorry again.” And the two faced each other, both driven out of character and somehow aware of it, for it was not like

  George to be angry, nor was Winslow accustomed to pleading and apologizing. Presently an odd smile came over his face.

  “Badger…badger…” he repeated. “It’s a long time since I heard that word, and you’ll never guess why it makes me smile.”

  “Why?”

  “My nickname at school—Badger.”

  Then George smiled too, glad of the momentary side issue. “Because you looked like one or because you did badger people?”

  “Both—possibly.”

  “They once called me Apple-Pie George in Browdley, but it sort of died out.”

  “Apple-Pie George?”

  “Aye…because somebody threw some apple pie in my face during an election. The pie stuck but the name didn’t.” He laughed and Winslow laughed, and it was as if one of several barriers between them were from then on let down. “Too bad I haven’t that drop of whisky for you,” George continued. “But how about changing your mind about another cup of tea?”

  “Thanks, I will.”

  George went to the door and shouted down the corridor to Annie, then came back and began to search a timetable on his desk. “If we’re both going to start in the morning, maybe you’d like to spend the night here?”

  “That’s very kind, but I think I’d better go back to London as I planned and join you there tomorrow.”

  “Just as you like. There’s a good train at five-eighteen—that still gives you an hour, so take it easy.”

  Winslow seemed now better able to do this, and until the time of leaving they both relaxed, arranged further details of their meeting the next day, and talked quite casually on a variety of subjects—some even verging on the intellectual, though George was not in the best mood for appreciation. Then he took Winslow to the train, and only in the final minutes before its departure did they refer to the personal matter again. Winslow muttered, leaning out of a first-class compartment: “I—I must say it, Boswell—I—I really don’t know how to thank you for—for taking all this in the way you have…”

  “What other way was there to take it?”

  “I know, I know…but it’s such an extraordinary situation for you to have been able to come to terms with.”

  “Who says I’ve come to terms with it?”

  “Yes, but I mean—when I try to imagine myself in your place—”

  “Don’t.” And there was just the ghost of a smile on George’s face to soften the harsh finality of the word.

  “All right…but I can’t help feeling more hopeful already—thanks to you.

  Of course the affair’s still incomprehensible to me in many ways—for instance, to fathom the kind of person who could do such a thing…of course you know her, but then I know Jeff, and he’s not a fool—that’s what makes his side of it so hard to understand.”

  “Oh, maybe not so hard,” George replied. “It’s probably what you said that you couldn’t find a name for.”

  “Infatuation?”

  “If you like.” And then, abruptly and without caring for the awkwardness of time and place, George began to tell something about Livia that he had never mentioned to anyone before. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of a railway station that reminded him, for it had happened (he said) at the end of their honeymoon when they were to catch a night train from a seaside place back to London. They had spent the last day pottering about the promenade between showers, and during one of these, while sheltering, they had got into conversation with a well-dressed and rather distinguished-looking man of sixty or so. It was one of those chance acquaintanceships that flourish amazingly without either background or future prospects; almost immediately the stranger offered to conduct them through an adjacent art gallery which, though full of very bad canvases, gave him the chance to talk so fascinatingly about paintings that they thought he must belong to that world himself until later he talked with equal fascination about literature, music, and politics. Within an hour they were all chattering together like old friends, and as evening approached it seemed perfectly natural to accept the stranger’s invitation to dine. (He had given them his name and told them he was French, which had further amazed George because of his completely accentless English.) The two newlyweds were presently entertained in a manner to which they were wholly unaccustomed and which they could certainly not have afforded—George smilingly declined to break his temperance pledge, but ate two dozen oysters with gusto while Livia drank champagne and laughed a great deal. After dinner it seemed equally natural that the stranger should drive them back to their hotel in his car and later take them on to the railway station. The train was already drawn up to the platform, so the three of them sat together in an otherwise unoccupied compartment with half an hour to wait. Suddenly George discovered the hotel-room key in his pocket and, excusing himself, walked down the platform to the station office to arrange for its return. He wasn’t away more than ten minutes, and when he got back the three resumed their conversation until the train’s departure.

  About a year later (George went on), Livia exclaimed suddenly, during a rather trivial quarrel: “That Frenchman sized you up all right—he said I oughtn’t ever to have married you!” More startled than angry, George then asked for an explanation. She wouldn’t give any at first, but on being pressed said that during the few minutes he had left her alone in the train with the stranger, the latter had made her an ardent profession of love and had actually implored her to run off with him.

  When George reached this point in the story he commented rather naïvely: “I suppose that could happen, with a Frenchman, even though he’d only set eyes on her a few hours before.”

  “Perhaps in that particular way he was unbalanced.”

  “No—or at least there wasn’t much other evidence of it. You see, having once got interested in the man, I’d found out a few things about him and followed his career. He’d been married and raised a family long before his meeting with us, and recently he’s become fairly well known as one of the financial experts to the Peace Conference. You’d recognize the name if I told you, but I don’t think that would be quite fair because a few months ago he and his wife came to London on some official mission, and there were photographs of them in the papers looking as if they’d both had a lifetime of happiness.”

  “Maybe they had.”

  A sudden commotion of door banging and engine whistling drowned George’s reply and caused him to repeat, more loudly: “I sho
uldn’t wonder.”

  “There’s one other thing that occurs to me, Boswell, if you’ll forgive my mentioning it—”

  “Of course—”

  “How do you know the incident really happened?”

  The train began to move and George walked with it for a few seconds, hastily pondering before he answered: “Aye…I can see what you mean…Funny—I hadn’t ever thought of that. And yet I should have, I know.” His walk accelerated to a scamper; there was now only time to wave and call out: “Good-bye…see you tomorrow…Good-bye….”

  When the train had left he stood for a moment as if watching it out of sight, but actually watching nothing, seeing nothing. A porter wheeling a truck along the platform halted and half-turned. “’Night, George.”

  “Good night,” responded George mechanically, then pulled himself together and walked down the ramp to the station yard.

  He felt he must at all costs avoid the main streets where people would stop him with congratulations on the success of the day’s events. There was a footpath skirting the edge of the town that meant an extra half-mile but led unobtrusively towards the far end of Market Street. Nobody went this way at night except lovers seeking darkness, and darkness alone obscured the ugliness of the scene—a cindery wasteland between town and countryside and possessing the amenities of neither; it had long been a dream of his to beautify the whole area with shrubs and lawns, to provide the youth of Browdley with a more fitting background for its romance. But Browdley youth seemed not to care, while those in Browdley who were no longer youthful objected to the cost. Perhaps for the first time in his adult life George now traversed the wasteland without reflecting ruefully upon its continued existence; he had far more exacting thoughts to assemble, and in truth he hardly knew where he was. The day that had begun so well was ending in trouble whose magnitude he had only just begun to explore, and with every further step came the deepening of a pain that touched him physically as well as in every other way, so that he felt sick and ill as he stumbled along. He was appalled by the realization that Livia still had such power to hurt him.

 
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