James hilton collected n.., p.31
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.31

           James Hilton

  “I was saying you’re going to get better—and meaning it too. That is, if you tackle the future the right way.”

  “I know. And avoid scenes. Scenes don’t help. And when I feel better enough to tell my mother about Julie there’ll be a scene. And then I’ll feel worse again…Sort of a vicious circle, isn’t it?”

  George nodded. “All the same, though, I wouldn’t wait too long.”

  “You mean, before I tell her?”

  “Nay, don’t bother your head about that. I mean, before you marry the girl.”

  A strained smile came over Charles’s face. “Where’s the hurry?” he asked, with sudden excitement. “What makes you give me that advice?”

  George answered: “Because it seems to me there’s another vicious circle knocking around. You say you won’t marry till you know for certain you’re going to get all right, but perhaps marriage is one of the things that would help to make you certain.”

  Charles laughed. “I see! Dr. Boswell’s advice to those about to get married—Do! Advice based on his own experience of long, happy, and fruitful wedlock!” After a wilder outburst of hilarity, the laughter drained suddenly from the boy’s face and a scared look took its place. He clutched frantically at George’s arm. “Oh God, I’m sorry—I didn’t mean that…I never thought…I forgot for the moment…George…Oh George, please forgive me…” His voice and body began to shake convulsively.

  It was the first time George had seen the kind of thing Julie had told him about, and it shocked him immeasurably. He put his arms round the boy and fought the enemy with a silent, secret strength of his own. There was not much to say. He kept saying: “Steady, lad…it’s all right…all right…”

  “George, I didn’t mean…I swear I didn’t mean anything personal—”

  “Aye, I know you didn’t. And what if you did, for that matter? To blazes with everything except you getting well again…Quiet down a bit more, lad, and then let’s take a walk…”

  All this took place during another of George’s visits to one of those fairly frequent conferences that had often been a nuisance in the past, but which now he looked forward to with an excitement entirely unshared by his colleagues. Nobody had at times been more severe than he in castigating the week-end hiatus in official circles, but now on a Saturday morning in some Whitehall government office he found himself almost gleeful over slow-moving procedure, actually hoping in his heart for an adjournment till Monday.

  This had happened, once more, so he was enjoying the intervening day with a clear conscience. And another item of good fortune was that Charles could now walk short distances, with only one stick, and relish the exercise. Perhaps it was this that made him seem more boyish, even school boyish on occasions; and for the first time George ceased to be startled when he reflected that Charles was only in his twenty-second year.

  But other startling ideas filled the gap, and one of them was unique because it came to George in—of all places—a public house.

  Charles had mentioned this pub as being a rather pleasant place within easy walking distance in the country, and after an evening meal George let him lead the way there. The scene of a few hours earlier seemed to have drawn them closer together, though in a way that neither could have expressed or would have wished to talk about; but George, at least, was aware of it and satisfied. It gave an edge to his enjoyment of the full moon over the fields, and the scents of crops and flowers that lay heavy on the warm air. Familiar as he was with the grimmer landscape of the north, he thought he had never known anything so richly serene as those rural outskirts of the university town—a quality enhanced, somehow, by the counterpoint of events overhead. For while they walked the hum and throbbing never ceased, sometimes increasing to a roar as planes in formation flew directly above. The R.A.F. was evidently out in force, heading for the Continent, and George guessed and was a little apprehensive of Charles’s mood as he heard and was perhaps reminded.

  For that reason George tried to keep the conversation on trivialities. During the walk they overtook several other pedestrians, which George commented must make a red-letter event in Charles’s post-hospital experience, even though the slower movers were only old bent men plodding along at a mile an hour. Charles dryly rejoined that there was a good deal of rheumatism locally, which was a peculiar thing in an otherwise healthy district.

  “Maybe not so peculiar,” George countered, getting onto one of his favorite topics. “Give people decent houses, in town or country, and don’t think that roses round the door make up for bad drains and damp walls.”

  Charles laughed. “Not bad, George. You might win a Parliamentary election yet. Castle Winslow would give you a chance, anyway. It’s a family constituency—with the Winslow influence you’d probably romp home. Unfortunately the old boy who represents it now may hang on for another twenty years.”

  George laughed also, and in the same mood. “Pity. But in the meantime there might be a chance for you—in Browdley. Then I could demonstrate a bit of my influence.”

  They both went on with the joke till the passage of planes in even greater numbers changed the subject back to an earlier one. “I once tried to write a poem,” Charles said, “about the contrast between those old chaps and the boys upstairs. I thought of it actually while I was flying back from Germany after a raid. You have to think of something then, when your nerves are all on edge. I can’t remember more than one of the verses—I think it went—

  Each with a goal his own—

  Beginner’s or Ender’s luck—

  Four hundred miles to Cologne,

  Two to the Dog and Duck….

  It’s less than two from where we are now, but some of those veterans wouldn’t miss their nightly pint if it were twice that…By the way, though, you don’t drink?”

  “No, but I’ll swill lemonade while you have all the beer you want.”

  “All I can get, you mean. Don’t be so bloody optimistic.” Presently they reached the pub and pushed into the already crowded bar, where Charles received a few cordial but quiet greetings from people whom he had presumably met there before. A few air crews from the near-by station were taking their drinks, and others were having a dart game, but perhaps half the crowd were civilians, mostly old farm laborers with tanned and wrinkled faces. The changing world met here with the less changing earth, tilled throughout the ages by men who had worked heedless amidst clashes of knights in armor, and were now just as heedless up to the very edge of runways and bomb craters. Heedless? But the word failed to express the rueful sagacity, the merry ignorance, that flourished nightly in the bar parlor of the Dog and Duck. Like all genuine English country pubs, it was always a cheerful but rarely a boisterous and never a Bacchanalian place—it was a microcosm of that England in which so many things are not done, including the act of wondering too truculently why they are not. George, even with his small personal knowledge of pubs, recognized at once the same spirit that usually obtained at Council meetings and Whitehall conferences, and thus he felt immediately at home. And in that heart-warming mood, while he leaned over his glass of lemonade and Charles over his tankard, George’s startling idea came to him for the second time, but really startlingly now because, in a fantastic way, he half meant it. “Why don’t you stand for Browdley at the next election?”

  Charles looked puzzled. “You mean—for Parliament?”

  “Aye. It’s an idea.”

  “No, it’s a joke, George, and not a very good one.”

  “Of course there won’t be an election till after the war—so far as one can foresee. But there might be worse things that a chap like you could do when the time comes.”

  Charles smiled and drank deep. “And better things, I hope.”

  “Listen…When I visited you in that hospital at Mulcaster you said something I hope you remember. You said you blamed my generation for not making a proper peace after the last war. And I asked you then if you weren’t afraid that the kids now in their prams won’t grow up to blam
e your generation for the same thing…Well, lad, they will—unless you do something about it.”

  “Maybe—but not in politics.”

  “How else?”

  “I don’t know, George—don’t ask me. I can’t fly any more, or I might drop a few bombs somewhere. But I do know I couldn’t face the political racket. Nobody would ever vote for me, anyway—I’m not the type that goes around kissing babies and promising everything to everybody. I’d say the wrong thing, and probably think it too—because, to be frank, I’ve never seen an election without feeling that the whole machinery of it is a bit ridiculous—”

  “And it is. But it’s the machinery we’ve got, and we’d better use it while we’ve got it.”

  “Oh certainly—but leave it to the right man. You’re probably the right man for Browdley—you were born there, and you know the people. I wouldn’t understand them—factory workers and miners—not because I’m a snob, but because I’ve never lived in that sort of a place.”

  “They’d understand you, that’s the main thing. They’d understand you because they’re doing a job same as you’ve done a job, and some of them are risking lives and health at it same as you’ve risked yours. You wouldn’t be talking to them except as equals. Besides, it might be years off yet—there’s plenty of time.”

  “You really are a most persistent fellow, George. Anyone would think it was something I’d agreed to.”

  George laughed. “Aye, we’ll not worry about it. Twenty-one’s full young.” And then he laughed again as he added: “Though William Pitt was Prime Minister at twenty-four. You won’t beat that.”

  But a dark look came into Charles’s face. “There’s one final reason, George, even if there weren’t any other. You’ve heard me spout my opinions, and you’re taking it for granted I’d think it worth while to convert others to them. But I’m not sure that I would, even if I could. Don’t think me cynical—it’s merely that I’m not sentimental. As I’ve found the world, so far, it’s a pretty lousy place, especially when you get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes. Most people don’t—and perhaps they’re better off. That’s why I wouldn’t make a good vote-catcher. He has to be such a bloody optimist—like you. Even if he warns of doom he has to promise that if only you’ll elect him he’ll prevent it. Frankly, I don’t kid myself to that extent and I don’t think I’d find it easy to kid Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

  “Aye, things are bad enough, I’ll admit that.” George drank the rest of his lemonade in slow gulps. “But as for what goes on behind the scenes, that’s just what gives me hope. Go behind the scenes of everyday life and see the courage and decency most folks have—see the raw material we’ve got to work on, if only those who have the brains for the job can keep faith in it.”

  “I know what you’re driving at, George. Just a simple little job of rebuilding the world.”

  “Ah now, that is cynical. Of course it’s not simple—was it simple to invent a plane? It’s appallingly difficult and complicated—and that’s where chaps like you come in. It’ll need all your brains and education, but it’ll also need something I’ve got—and that’s a bit of faith in Tom, Dick, and Harry.” George then added softly, administering the gentle shock with which he had wheedled so much of his own way in his time: “Since you once said you’d like to, why don’t you come to Browdley when term ends and have a look at the place?”

  “You mean—visit Browdley?”

  “Aye, why not? Or were you only joking when you said you’d like to?”

  “No, I wasn’t joking—matter of fact I wouldn’t mind coming, only—” He hesitated and then added: “I hate disappointing so many other people.”

  “But you can’t please ’em all, no matter what you do. Why not please yourself for a change? And of course you needn’t stay longer than you want…”

  George felt very happy as he sat in the London train that night. Thinking back upon the long conversation at the Dog and Duck he could not exactly remember when the idea of taking Charles to Browdley had first occurred to him, but he knew that as soon as it had, there had come to him the feeling of instant rightness. It was like trying a new key in a strange lock and knowing, even before the turn, that somehow it would work. And it had all happened, as so many things happened in George’s life, because he got talking and couldn’t stop. He hadn’t, of course, been really serious about Charles embarking on a political career. It was much too soon to be serious about any kind of career for a youth who was still so far from mental and physical health. But that led straight to the point; for part of the cure lay in being serious about something. And suddenly George saw beyond the merely personal relationship between them; he saw the boy’s problem as that of every boy returned from battle with body, mind, and spirit scarred by experience; and he knew that the problem must be tackled better than the last time, when millions who had faced the realities of war were too embittered, or too apathetic, or (like George himself) too easy-optimistic to face those of peace. But Charles was not optimistic enough; and that, for George, made the task of rehabilitation even more congenial. So if he could interest him in Browdley, why not? And if, in due course, interest should deepen into faith…faith in the things George had faith in …?

  George’s heart was already warm to the prospect, but his head cautioned him against that same overoptimism while optimism gave him answer that the boy himself would check that. He’s got a better mind than I have, George reflected humbly; he’ll be good for me, too; he’ll not stand any of my nonsense…And then optimism soared ridiculously as George daydreamed them both as co-workers for Browdley—Mayor and Member—what a team! His eyes filled as he thought of it…highly unlikely, of course, but not quite impossible…and what more need a dream be?

  Before taking the train he had mentioned to Julie his plan to have Charles at Browdley. He had only a few moments with the girl because she was going on night duty; they had met by appointment in the market square where she had to change buses. She had told him then, since her arriving bus brought up the subject, that she lived in a suburb of the town and that her father was a schoolmaster there. George rode with her on another bus to the big hospital not far from the railway station, and perhaps because they found a seat on the top deck he was reminded of other bus rides, so many of them, years before, with Livia. And the reminder, of course, emphasized the difference of everything else, for no one in the world, he was sure, could be less like Livia than Julie was…

  She was delighted with his idea. “Oh, I’m so glad, Mr. Boswell. It’ll be a real holiday for him.”

  “Not much of a holiday resort, Browdley, but I’ll do my best to give him a good time.”

  “He’ll be with you, that’s the main thing, because I’ve noticed how good for him you are.”

  “You’ll be better, though, one of these days.”

  “I hope so.” And then she added: “By the way, I know who you are now. He told me.”

  “He did. That’s fine. Now we none of us have any secrets from one another.”

  And suddenly again the same impulse he had had with Charles made him add: “Why don’t you marry him soon?”

  She seemed startled by a word rather than by the question. “Soon?…You mean—before he—before he gets better?”

  “Aye, why not? Don’t you want to?”

  “I’d love to, but…in a way it would be taking an advantage. So many men in hospitals fall in love with their nurses—think they’ve fallen in love, anyhow. It often makes part of the cure, so the nurses don’t mind. But a sensible nurse doesn’t take it too seriously, even if she falls in love herself. That’s why I don’t consider our engagement as binding—not on Charles, anyway. When he gets better he may prefer someone else.”

  “And if he prefers someone else he may not get better. If I were you I’d take that seriously.”

  “You mean…”

  “Aye, but think it over first. You’re pretty right and reasonable about most things, I’d say.”

  That was
all they had time for, but he was left with a comfortable reassurance that to be right and reasonable was not always to be prim and cold; and this, for him personally, was like a pat on the back from the Almighty.

  So he enjoyed his thoughts during the journey back to Browdley.

  A couple of weeks later, as he left a Council meeting, the Town Hall porter handed him a wire that read: HAVE JUST


  George stood for a few seconds in the Town Hall lobby, holding the wire under the dim lamp; then his face broke suddenly into a wide slow smile that made Tom Roberts grin back with cheerful impudence. “Backed a winner, Mr. Mayor?” he quipped—the joke of that being the Mayor’s well-known antipathy to betting of all kinds.

  “Nay, Tom…two winners!” George answered, surprisingly, as he strode down the Town Hall steps into Shawgate.

  On his way to Browdley station to meet them, he could not help reflecting what an extraordinary thing it really was that he should be welcoming Livia’s son to his home.

  He had spent the evening with Wendover, being far too excited to settle to any solitary work; and towards midnight, for a change and because of the bright moon, he chose the slightly longer route through the wasteland on the fringe of the town, where factories met fields and—less metaphorically—lovers met each other. And he thought of that evening, so many years before, yet so well remembered, when he had passed that way in the other direction, having taken old Lord Winslow to his train after the unforgettable interview. And now it was that man’s grandson and a young wife whom he was meeting—as happily as if he himself were young again and happy about most things.

  In fact he was momentarily so excited that when the train drew in and they had all exchanged the first greetings, he was glad that a heavy suitcase provided something immediate and practical to attend to—there being neither cabs nor luggage delivery till next morning. Meanwhile Charles was smiling and assuring George that he didn’t in the least object to a walk on such a night, if it wasn’t too far. “Not far at all,” George answered, chiefly for something to say to the stationmaster as they passed the exit. “Except when I’m hurrying for the nine-five to Mulcaster—eh, Ted?”

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