James hilton collected n.., p.33
James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.33James Hilton
“Aye, if he just sits back and lets things happen. I told him that. There was a children’s ward next to where he was in the hospital, and I asked if he wasn’t afraid that those kids when they grew up—or his own kids for that matter—”
Her eyes sharpened.
“His? He’ll never have any. Maybe he can’t. It’s like that sometimes. I hope so, because that would be the best way to end it. My father, me, him, full stop…”
“Livia, that’s a terrible thing to say.”
“More terrible to mean.”
“I hope you’ll never let him know you do mean it.”
“I shan’t have to. It’ll come to him when we’re in Ireland.”
“Ireland? I doubt he’ll want to go there now so much.”
“He doesn’t know what he wants. He thinks he wants this girl, but that’s absurd. I can make him want what he really wants.”
“Livia…remember I said you were too late.” George paused, then added: “They’re married.”
“Three days ago in London. He was going to wire you about it tomorrow. Perhaps he ought to have done so before, but you can hardly blame him.”
George then saw something which, despite all Millbay had said, he had tried to believe did not exist. It was a look of implacability so vivid, so pure in a sense, that he recoiled from it less in revulsion than in elemental awareness of what it signified. For he was all against it, as a stream of yielding water is against the rock it will wear down in a million years or so. And suddenly, without bitterness, he saw Livia as a symbol of all that must so be worn down, no matter how hard or long the struggle, no matter how often the victories of greed and despair and intolerance seem to make nonsense of it.
With his own gentler implacability he stared at hers till the transfiguration disappeared.
She said at length: “So…you think…you’ve done the trick?”
“It’s no trick, Livia.”
“Last-minute victory, then? Narrow majority? And a hearty vote of thanks to Mister Mayor…?” But she was her masked self again, so that the stress on the prefix was only ironic. She went on: “Perhaps you still don’t know what I’m driving at? You never did—and you’re afraid Charlie might if he got the chance. You’re afraid he might see things my way. So’s Howard. He wants him to have lands and a title and riches—”
“Aye, I know, and I agree with you there. They’d be just a burden to him, and that’s why—”
“That’s why you’d rather give him your kind of burden. Speeches—promises—the same old never-again stuff. But you shan’t, George—I can stop that, even now. And as for the little schemer he’s been duped by, does she think her influence is going to count?”
“Nay, Livia, not hers. Nor mine, nor his uncle’s, nor yours. Let him get on his feet, build up his own ideas, see things with his own eyes when he has the strength to see clearly—that’s all I’m aiming for. He’ll influence me as much as I will him—I’m not so sure of my own opinions that I’d try to ram them down somebody’s throat. I’ll take his—if he can convince me. Or we can keep our own. It doesn’t matter. I know you look at things differently—”
“So does the man from Mars, maybe.”
That stumped him; he blinked bewilderedly till she continued: “If he could see the world today he’d think it was in charge of raving lunatics and the asylums were for sane people who’d gone there for safety. So if anybody thinks I’m a little out of my mind—Howard does, I know—”
“Livia, I don’t. But I do think—for the time being—you’re not able to help the boy as he most needs helping…Later, perhaps…”
“Too late—and already you talk of later…” She suddenly got up and began walking towards the door. “I can see this is wasting more time. I’d better start on my way back. The five-ten, isn’t it? I remember. Can I have a cup of tea first?”
“Why…of course, I’m only sorry you…” But then he stopped; he didn’t know what he was only sorry about, except that she had come.
She said, from the hall as she crossed it to the kitchen: “No pressing invitation to stay a few days, then?”
“Nay, Livia, and you know why. I’m anxious that Charlie shouldn’t have any shocks.” He had called the boy Charlie because she had and it seemed almost something shared and sharable at last between them, something that warmed his voice as he added: “Give him a chance, Livia. Leave him alone a bit. God knows that’s a hard thing to say, but I mean it.”
She said after a pause: “Do you hate me, George?”
He shook his head. “I never did and I never could. I’m not much use at hating folks, to be frank. But I can fight ’em when I have to…and I’d have to now, if you made me.”
“And you think you’d win?”
“I’m not so sure, but I’m not sure I’d lose, either. That’s why I say give him a chance. Give us all a chance this time.”
In the kitchen she prepared tea herself, not letting him do so, as if she were certain nothing had been changed (and practically nothing had). She began to cry a little while she moved about. George watched her unhappily, puzzled not so much by her behavior as by his own, for he found himself less moved by her tears than by her simple act of tightening a tap that had been leaking into the sink for days. Nobody could do things so deftly, quickly, tidily, uncontrovertibly. She had probably got her own way with Japs pretty much as she did with taps, George reflected whimsically; and then again he was touched by her next remark, clairvoyant in that old familiar blinding way of hers: “You think I’m acting, don’t you, George? And you think that means I’m not sincere?…You don’t understand that sometimes I mean things so much I have to act?…You don’t understand that, because you never mean things so much…Oh George, you don’t know how terrible it is to be alive in this world!”
“Perhaps I do, Livia, perhaps I don’t feel it the way you do, but I know it, and I also know this—there’s not only terror—there’s hope—and love—”
“But they’re the most terrible of all—”
“Nay, nay, not how I see things.”
“But do you see anything? Anything to match love and hate? I love my son and I hate that girl—I’d kill her if I got the chance…”
“That shocks you, doesn’t it?”
“Nay…it doesn’t exactly do that. But it makes me think.”
“And you think it’s awful…yet all the other killing that’s going on—killing without hate—oh, that you can take for granted. Duty. Honor. Jeffrey did too—and with better brains than yours…What do you see, George? In the future, I mean? What chance is there? This humanity you do everything for—what do you see in it?”
George saw the grayness round the edges of the curtains; he looked at his watch, then crossed to the window and let in the summer dawn. Already it was staring the moon out of the sky. It seemed to him that the world, like Livia, was snarled with memories and desires, beauty and blackness and lies and truth and hope and despair; you might as well leave it alone unless you had a driving love for the thankless job of tackling it. But if you had that love, then you could go ahead. George saw the roofs across the street as they took form and substance, and knew that the love in his own heart was more than he could speak or even make a speech about—and least of all to Livia; but the thought of it, and the continual vision of it, had governed all he had ever done that seemed either weak or strong.
“Aye,” he said as he turned back to her. “I’ve often wondered that myself, but it doesn’t make any difference.” He came over and touched her shoulder with a kindliness induced by his own thoughts rather than by any more personal emotion. “Drink up, Livia—we’ll have to hurry if you want to catch the five-ten. And no more arguments, because we’ll not change each other, I reckon, from now till doomsday…”
“According to a British Official Report, bombs fell at Random.”
—GERMAN OFFICIAL REPORT
ON THE MORNING OF the eleventh of November, 1937, precisely at eleven o’clock, some well-meaning busybody consulted his watch and loudly announced the hour, with the result that all of us in the dining car felt constrained to put aside drinks and newspapers and spend the two minutes’ silence in rather embarrassed stares at one another or out of the window. Not that anyone had intended disrespect—merely that in a fast-moving train we knew no rules for correct behavior and would therefore rather not have behaved at all. Anyhow, it was during those tense uneasy seconds that I first took notice of the man opposite. Dark-haired, slim, and austerely good-looking, he was perhaps in his early or middle forties; he wore an air of prosperous distinction that fitted well with his neat but quiet standardized clothes. I could not guess whether he had originally moved in from a third or a first-class compartment. Half a million Englishmen are like that. Their inconspicuous correctness makes almost a display of concealment.
As he looked out of the window I saw something happen to his eyes—a change from a glance to a gaze and then from a gaze to a glare, a sudden sharpening of focus, as when a person thinks he recognizes someone fleetingly in a crowd. Meanwhile a lurch of the train spilt coffee on the table between us, providing an excuse for apologies as soon as the two minutes were over; I got in with mine first, but by the time he turned to reply the focus was lost, his look of recognition unsure. Only the embarrassment remained, and to ease it I made some comment on the moorland scenery, which was indeed somberly beautiful that morning, for overnight snow lay on the summits, and there was one of them, twin-domed, that seemed to keep pace with the train, moving over the intervening valley like a ghostly dromedary. “That’s Mickle,” I said, pointing to it.
Surprisingly he answered: “Do you know if there’s a lake—quite a small lake—between the peaks?”
Two men at the table across the aisle then intervened with the instant garrulousness of those who overhear a question put to someone else. They were also, I think, moved by a common desire to talk down an emotional crisis, for the entire dining car seemed suddenly full of chatter. One said there was such a lake, if you called it a lake, but it was really more of a swamp; and the other said there wasn’t any kind of lake at all, though after heavy rain it might be “a bit soggy” up there, and then the first man agreed that maybe that was so, and presently it turned out that though they were both Derbyshire men, neither had actually climbed Mickle since boyhood.
We listened politely to all this and thanked them, glad to let the matter drop. Nothing more was said till they left the train at Leicester; then I leaned across the table and said: “It doesn’t pay to argue with local inhabitants, otherwise I’d have answered your question myself—because I was on top of Mickle yesterday.”
A gleam reappeared in his eyes. “You were?”
“Yes, I’m one of those eccentric people who climb mountains for fun all the year round.”
“So you saw the lake?”
“There wasn’t a lake or a swamp or a sign of either.”
“Ah. …” And the gleam faded.
“You sound disappointed?”
“Well no—hardly that. Maybe I was thinking of somewhere else. I’m afraid I’ve a bad memory.”
“For names too, Mickle, did you say it was?” He spoke the word as if he were trying the sound of it.
“That’s the local name. It isn’t important enough to be on maps.”
He nodded and then, rather deliberately, held up a newspaper throughout a couple of English counties. The sight of soldiers marching along a Bedfordshire lane gave us our next exchange of remarks—something about Hitler, the European situation, chances of war, and so on. It led to my asking if he had served in the last war.
“Then there must be things you wish you had forgotten?”
“But I have—even them—to some extent.” He added as if to deflect the subject from himself: “I imagine you were too young?”
“Too young for the last, but not for the next, the way things are going.”
“Nobody will be either too young or too old for the next.”
Meanwhile men’s voices were uprising further along the car in talk of Ypres and Gallipoli; I called his attention and commented that thousands of other Englishmen were doubtless at that moment reminiscing about their war experiences. “If you’ve already forgotten yours, you’re probably lucky.”
“I didn’t say I’d forgotten everything.”
He then told me a story which I shall summarize as follows: During the desperate months of trench warfare in France an English staff officer reasoned that if some spy whom the Germans had learned to trust were to give them false details about a big attack, it might have a better chance of success. The first step was to establish the good faith of such a spy, and this seemed only possible by allowing him, over a considerable period, to supply true information. Accordingly, during several weeks before the planned offensive, small raiding parties crawled across no man’s land at night while German machine gunners, having been duly tipped off as to time and place, slaughtered them with much precision. One of these doomed detachments was in charge of a youth who, after enlisting at the beginning of the war, had just begun his first spell in the front line. Quixotically eager to lead his men to storybook victory, he soon found that his less-inspiring task was to accompany a few wounded and dying survivors into a shell hole so close to the enemy trenches that he could pick up snatches of German conversation. Knowing the language fairly well, he connected something he heard with something he had previously overheard in his commanding officer’s dugout; so that presently he was able to deduce the whole intrigue of plot and counterplot. It came to him as an additional shock as he lay there, half drowned in mud, delirious with the pain of a smashed leg, and sick with watching the far greater miseries of his companions. Before dawn a shell screamed over and burst a few yards away, killing the others and wounding him in the head so that he saw, heard, and could think no more.
“What happened to him afterwards?”
“Oh, he recovered pretty well—except for partial loss of memory. … He’s still alive. Of course, when you come to think about it logically, the whole thing was as justifiable as any other piece of wartime strategy. The primary aim is to frustrate the enemy’s knavish tricks. Anything that does so is the thing to do, even if it seems a bit knavish itself.”
“You say that defensively, as if you had to keep on convincing yourself about it.”
“I wonder if you’re right.”
“I wonder if you’re the survivor who’s still alive?”
He hesitated a moment, then answered with an oblique smile: “I don’t suppose you’d believe me even if I said no.” I let it go at that, and after a pause he went on: “It’s curious to reflect that one’s death was planned by both sides—it gives an extra flavor to the life one managed to sneak away with, as well as a certain irony to the mood which one wears a decoration.”
“So I should imagine.”
I waited for him to make some further comment but he broke a long silence only to summon the waiter and order a whiskey and soda. “You’ll have one with me?”
“You don’t drink?”
“Not very often in the morning.”
“Neither do I, as a rule. Matter of fact, I don’t drink much at all.”
I felt that these trivial exchanges were to cover an inner stress of mind he was trying to master. “Coming back to what you were saying,” I coaxed, eventually, but he interrupted: “No, let’s not come back to it—no use raking over these things. Besides, everybody’s so bored with the last war and so scared of the next that it’s almost become a social gaffe to bring up the matter at all.”
“Thanks to the rather theatrical device of the two minutes’ silence?”
“Yes, and ‘thanks’ is right. Surely we English need some release from the tyranny of the stiff upper lip.”
He smiled into his drink as the waiter set it before him. “So you think it does no harm—once a year?”
“On the contrary, I think it makes a very healthy purge of our normal—which is to say, our abnormal—national inhibitions.”
Another smile. “Maybe—if you like psychoanalyst’s jargon.”
“Evidently you don’t.”
“Sorry. If you’re one of them, I apologize.”
“No, I’m just interested in the subject, that’s all.”
“Ever studied it—seriously?”
I said I had, which was true, for I had written several papers on it for the Philosophical Society. He nodded, then read again for a few score miles. The train was traveling fast, and when next he looked up it was as if be realized that anything he still had to say must be hurried; we were already streaking past the long rows of suburban back gardens. He suddenly resumed, with a touch of his earlier eagerness: “All right then—listen to this—and don’t laugh … it may be up your street … Sometimes I have a feeling of being—if it isn’t too absurd to say such a thing—of being half somebody else. Some casual little thing—a tune or a scent or a name in a newspaper or a look of something or somebody will remind me, just for a second—and yet I haven’t time to get any grip of what it does remind me of—it’s a sort of wisp of memory that can’t be trapped before it fades away. … For instance, when I saw that mountain this morning I felt I’d been there—I almost knew I’d been there. … I could see that lake between the summits—why, I’d bathed in it—there was a slab of rock jutting out like a diving board—and the day I was there I fell asleep in the shade and woke up in the sun … but I suppose I’ve got to believe the whole thing never happened, just because you say there isn’t a lake there at all … Does all this strike you as the most utter nonsense?”
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