James hilton collected n.., p.34
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.34

           James Hilton

  “By no means. It’s not an uncommon experience.”

  “Oh, it isn’t?” He looked slightly dismayed, perhaps robbed of some comfort in finding himself not unique.

  “Dunne says it’s due to a half-remembered dream. You should read his book An Experiment with Time. He says—this, of course, is condensing his theory very crudely—that dreams do foretell the future, only by the time they come true, we’ve forgotten them—all except your elusive wisp of memory.”

  “So I once dreamed about that mountain?”

  “Perhaps. It’s an interesting theory even if it can’t be proved. Anyhow, the feeling you have is quite a normal one.”

  “I don’t feel that it is altogether normal, the way I have it.”

  “You mean it’s beginning to worry you?”

  “Perhaps sometimes—in a way—yes.” He added with a nervous smile: “But that’s no reason why I should worry you. I can only plead this one-day-a-year excuse—the purging of the inhibitions, didn’t you call it? Let’s talk about something else—cricket—the Test Match. … Wonder what will happen to England … ?”

  “Somehow today that doesn’t sound like cricket talk.”

  “I know. After the silence there are overtones … but all I really wanted to prove was that I’m not a complete lunatic.”

  “Most people have a spot of lunacy in them somewhere. It’s excusable.”

  “Provided they don’t inflict it on strangers.”

  “Why not, if you feel you want to?”

  “I don’t want to—not consciously.”

  “Unconsciously then. Which makes it worst of all. Not that in your case it sounds very serious.”

  “You don’t think so? You don’t think these—er—peculiarities of memory—are—er—anything to worry about?”

  “Since you ask me, may I be perfectly frank?”

  “Of course.”

  “I don’t know what your work is, but isn’t it possible you’ve been overdoing things lately—not enough rest—relaxation?”

  “I don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell me that. My doctor does—every time I see him.”

  “Then why not take his advice?”

  “This is why.” He pulled a small notebook from his vest pocket. “I happen to be in what is vaguely called public life—which means I’m on a sort of treadmill I can’t get off until it stops—and it won’t stop.” He turned over the pages. “Just to show you—a sample day of my existence. … Here, you can read it—it’s typed.” He added, as I took the book: “My secretary—very neat. She wouldn’t let me forget anything.”

  “But she can’t spell ‘archaeological.’ ”

  “Why does she have to?” He snatched the book back for scrutiny and I had the feeling he was glad of the excuse to do so and keep it. “Calderbury Archaeological and Historical Society? … Oh, they’re my constituents—I have to show them round the House—guidebook stuff—an awful bore … that’s this afternoon. This evening I have an Embassy reception; then tomorrow there’s a board meeting, a lunch party, and in the evening I’m guest speaker at a dinner in Cambridge.”

  “Doesn’t look as if there’s anything you could cut except possibly tomorrow’s lunch.”

  “I expect I’ll do that, anyway—even though it’s at my own house. There’ll be a crowd of novelists and actors and titled people who’d think me surly because I wouldn’t talk to them half as freely as I’m talking to you now.”

  I could believe it. So far he had made no move towards an exchange of names between us, and I guessed that, on his side, the anonymity had been not only an encouragement to talk, but a temptation to reveal himself almost to the point of self-exhibition. And there had been a certain impish exhilaration in the way he had allowed me to glance at his engagement book for just those few seconds, as if teasing me with clues to an identity he had neither wish nor intention to disclose. Men in whom reticence is a part of good form have fantastic ways of occasional escape, and I should have been the last to embarrass an interesting fellow traveler had he not added, as the train began braking into St. Pancras: “Well, it’s been a pleasant chat. Some day—who knows?—we might run into each other again.”

  Spoken as if he sincerely half meant it, the remark merely emphasized the other half sense in which he did not mean it at all; and this, because I already liked him, irked me to the reply: “If it’s the Swithin’s Dinner tomorrow night we may as well introduce ourselves now as then, because I’ll be there too. My name’s Harrison. I’m on the Reception Committee.”

  “Oh, really?”

  “And I don’t know what your plans are, but after the show I’d be delighted if you’d come up to my rooms and have some coffee.”

  “Thanks,” he muttered with sudden glumness, gathering up his newspapers and brief case. Then I suppose he realized it would be pointless, as well as discourteous, to refuse the name which I should inevitably discover so soon. He saved it for a last unsmiling afterthought as he jumped to the platform. “My name’s Rainier … Charles Rainier.”

  Rainier nodded rather coldly when I met him again the following day. In his evening clothes and with an impressive array of decorations he looked what he was—a guest of honor about to perform his duties with the touch of apathy that so effectively disguises the British technique of authority. Not necessarily an aristocratic technique. I had already looked him up in reference books and found that he was the son of a longish line of manufacturers—no blue blood, no title (I wondered how he had evaded that), a public school of the second rank, Parliamentary membership for a safe Conservative county. I had also mentioned his name to a few people I knew; the general impression was that he was rich and influential, and that I was lucky to have made such a chance encounter. He did not, however, belong to the small group of well-known personalities recognizable by the man-in-the-street either in the flesh or in Low cartoons. On the contrary he seemed neither to seek nor to attract the popular sort of publicity, nor yet to repel it so markedly as to get in reverse; it was as if he deliberately aimed at being nondescript. A journalist told me he would be difficult to build up as a newspaper hero because his personality was “centripetal” instead of “centrifugal”; I was not quite certain what this meant, but Who’s Who was less subtle in confiding that hit recreations were mountaineering and music.

  On the whole I secured a fair amount of information without much real enlightenment; I hoped for more from a second meeting and traveled to Cambridge in a mood of considerable anticipation. It was the custom of the secretary and committee of the Swithin’s Society to receive guests informally before dining in the College Hall; so we gathered first in the Combination Room, where we made introductions, drank sherry, and exchanged small talk. It is really hard to know what to say to distinguished people when you first meet them—that is, it is hard to think of talk small enough to be free from presumption. Rainier, for instance, had lately been in the financial news in connection with a proposed merger of cement companies, a difficult achievement for which negotiations were still proceeding; but it was impossible to say “How is your merger getting on?” as one might say “How are your chrysanthemums?” to a man whom you knew to be an enthusiastic gardener. Presently, to my relief, some other guests arrived whom I had to attend to, and it was perhaps a quarter of an hour before I saw him edging to me through the crowd. “Sorry,” he began, “but I’ve got to let you down—awful toothache—where’s the nearest dentist?” I hustled him out as inconspicuously as possible and at the door of the taxi received his promise to return to the dinner if he felt equal to it. Then I went back and explained to the company what had happened. Somehow it did not sound very convincing, and none of us really expected to see him again. But we did. An hour later he took the vacant place we had left at the High Table and was just in time to reply to the toast with one of the best after-dinner speeches I had ever heard. Maybe the escape from physical pain plus the Cambridge atmosphere, with its mingling of time-honored formality and youthful high spirits, suit
ed a mood in which he began with badinage about toothache and ended with a few graceful compliments to the College and University. Among other things I remember him recalling that during his undergraduate days he had had an ambition to live at Cambridge all his life, as a don of some sort (laughter), but exactly what sort he hadn’t stayed long enough to decide (laughter), because fate had called him instead to be some sort of businessman politician, but even what sort of that he hadn’t yet entirely made up his mind (more laughter). … “So because of this fundamental indecision, I still hope that some day I shall throw off the cares of too many enterprises and seek the tranquillity of a room overlooking a quadrangle and an oak that can be sported against the world.” (Prolonged laughter in which the speaker joined.) After he had finished, we all cheered uproariously and then, relaxing, drank and argued and made a night of it in the best Swithin’s tradition; when eventually the affair broke up, it was Rainier himself who asked if my invitation to coffee still held good.

  “Why, of course—only I thought maybe after the dentist you’d feel—”

  “My dear boy, don’t ever try to imagine what my feelings are.”

  But he smiled in saying it, and I gathered he had forgiven not so much me as himself for having taken part in our train conversation. A few friends adjourned to my rooms near by, where we sat around and continued discussions informally. Again he charmed us by his talk, but even more by his easy manners and willingness to laugh and listen; long after most of the good-nights he still lingered chatting, listening, and smoking cigarette after cigarette. I didn’t know then that he slept badly and liked to stay up late, that he enjoyed young company and jokes and midnight argument, that he had no snobbisms, and that public speaking left him either very dull and listless or very excitable and talkative, according to the audience. Towards three in the morning, when we found ourselves sole survivors, I suggested more coffee, and at that he sank into an armchair with a sigh of content and put his feet against the mantelpiece as if the place belonged to him—which, in a sense, it did, as to any Swithin’s man since the reign of Elizabeth the Foundress. “I’ve been in these rooms before—often. Fellow with the disarming name of Pal had them in my time—‘native of Asia or Africa not of European parentage,’ as the University regulations so tactfully specify. High-caste Hindoo. Mathematician—genius in his own line—wonder what he’s doing now?—probably distilling salt out of sea water or lying down in front of trains or some other blind-alley behavior. Used to say he felt algebra emotionally—told me once he couldn’t read through the Binomial Theorem without tears coming into his eyes—the whole concept, he said, was so shatteringly beautiful. … Wish I could have got into his world, somehow or other. And there are other worlds, too—wish sometimes I could get into any of them—out of my own.”

  “What’s so wrong about your own?”

  He laughed defensively. “Now there you’ve got me. … Maybe, as you hinted yesterday, just a matter of overwork. But it’s true enough that talking to all you young fellows tonight made me feel terribly ancient and envious.”

  “Not envious, surely? It’s we who are envious of you—because you’ve made a success of life. We’re a pretty disillusioned crowd when we stop laughing—we know there won’t be decent jobs for more than a minority of us unless a war comes to give all of us the kind of job we don’t want.”

  He mused over his coffee for a moment and then continued: “Yes, that’s true—and that’s probably why I feel how different everything is here instead of how much the same—because my Cambridge days were different. The war was just over then, and our side had won, and we all of us thought that winning a great war ought to mean something, either towards making our lives a sort of well-deserved happy-ever-after—a long golden afternoon of declining effort and increasing reward—or else to give us chances to rebuild the world this way or that. It all depended whether one were tired or eager after the strain. Most of us were both—tired of the war and everything connected with it, eager to push ahead into something new. We soon stopped hating the Germans, and just as soon we began to laugh at the idea of anyone caring enough about the horrid past to ask us that famous question on the recruiting posters—‘What did you do in the Great War?’ But even the most cynical of us couldn’t see ahead to a time when the only logical answer to that question would be another one—‘Which Great War?’

  “There was a room over a fish shop in Petty Cury where some of us met once a week to talk our heads off—we called ourselves the Heretics, but I can’t remember anything said at those meetings half so well as I can remember the smell of fish coming up from the shop below. And J. M. Keynes was lecturing in the Art School, politely suggesting that Germany mightn’t be able to pay off so many millions in reparations, or was it billions?—in those days one just thought of a number and stuck as many naughts as one fancied after it. And there were Holland Rose on Napoleon and Pigou on Diminishing Returns, and Bury still explaining the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and one evening Pal and I—sounds sentimental, doesn’t it, Pal and I?—lined up in a queue that stretched halfway round Trinity Great Court to hear a lecture by a fellow named Eddington about some new German fellow named Einstein who had a theory about light bending in the middle—that brought the house down, of course—roars of laughter—just as you heard tonight only more so—good clean undergraduate fun at its best. And behind us on the wall the portrait of Catholic Mary scowled down on this modern audience that scoffed at science no less than at religion. Heretics indeed—and laughing heretics! But my pal Pal didn’t laugh—he was transfixed with a sort of ecstasy about the whole thing.

  “I did a good deal of reading on the river, and also at the Orchard at Grantchester—you remember Rupert Brooke’s poem? Brooke would be fifty today, if he’d lived—think of that. … Still stands the clock at ten to three, but Rupert Brooke is late for tea—confined to his bed with rheumatism or something—that’s what poets get for not dying young. The woman at the Orchard who served the teas remembered Brooke—she was a grand old chatterbox and once I got to know her she’d talk endlessly about undergraduates and professors past and present—many a yarn, I daresay, that I’ve forgotten since and that nobody else remembered even then. … Trivial talk—just as trivial as the way I’m talking to you now. Nineteen-twenty, that was—Cambridge full of demobilized old-young men still wearing dyed officers’ overcoats—British warms sent up to Perth and returned chocolate-brown—full of men still apt to go suddenly berserk in the middle of a rag and turn it into a riot, or start whimpering during a thunderstorm—aftereffects of shell shock, you know. Plenty of us had had that—including myself.”

  “As a result of the head injury you mentioned yesterday?”

  “I suppose so.”

  “You had a pretty bad time?”

  “No, I was one of the lucky ones—comparatively, that is. But when you’re blown up, even if you’re not physically smashed to bits …” He broke off awkwardly. “I’m sorry. It isn’t Armistice Day any more. These confessions are out of place.”

  “Not at all. I’m interested. It’s so hard for my generation to imagine what it was like.”

  “Don’t worry—you’ll learn soon enough.”

  “How long was it before you we rescued?”

  “Haven’t the faintest idea. I suppose I was unconscious.”

  “But you must have recovered consciousness later?”

  “Presumably. I don’t remember when or where or any of the details. But I’ve some reason to believe I was taken prisoner.”

  “Reason to believe? That’s a guarded way of putting it.”

  “I know—but it happens to be just about all I can say. You see, I literally don’t remember. From that moment of being knocked out my memory’s a complete blank till years later when I found myself lying on a park seat in Liverpool.”

  “Years later?”

  “Getting on for three years, but of course I didn’t know that at first. And it was a wet day, as luck would have it.” He
smiled. “You don’t find my story very plausible?”

  “I might if you’d tell me the whole of it—without gaps.”

  “But there are gaps—that’s just the trouble.”

  “What were you doing in Liverpool?”

  “Once again, I haven’t the faintest idea. I didn’t even know it was Liverpool at first. The main thing was to know who I was—where and when were easy enough to find out later.”

  “Do you mean you’d been going by some other name until then?”

  “Maybe. I suppose so. That’s another of the things I don’t know. It’s as if … well, I’ve sometimes worked it out this way—there were different rooms in my mind, and as soon as the light came on in one it had to go out in the other.”

  “Well, what did you do when you realized who you were?”

  “What anybody else would do. I went home. I felt in my pockets and found I had a small sum in cash, so I bought a new outfit of clothes, took a bath at a hotel, and then went to the railway station. It was as simple as that, because along with knowing my own name it had come to me without apparent effort that I lived at Stourton, that my father owned the Rainier Steelworks and all the other concerns, that we had a butler named Sheldon, and any other details I cared to recall. In fact I knew all about myself in a perfectly normal way up to the moment of that shell burst near Arras in 1917.”

  “Your father must have got a very pleasant shock.”

  “He was too ill to be allowed it, but the family got one all right. Of course, since I’d been reported missing in the casualty lists, they’d long since given me up for dead.”

  “It’s a very remarkable story.”

  “Remarkable’s a well-chosen word. It doesn’t give you away.”

  I thought for a moment; then I said: “But the Army authorities must have had some record of your coming back to England?”

  “None—not under the name of Rainier.”

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