James hilton collected n.., p.35
James Hilton: Collected Novels,
“But wasn’t there a disc or something you had to wear all the time on active service?”
“There was, but if you’d ever experienced levitation by high explosive you wouldn’t put much faith in a bit of metal tied round your neck. It’s quite possible there was nothing the Germans could identify me by when they took me prisoner.”
“What makes you think you were ever in Germany at all?”
“Surely if I’d been dragged in by my own men they’d have known who I was?”
“H’m, yes, I suppose so.”
He went on, after a pause: “I don’t blame you at all if you don’t believe a word of all this. And it’s just as well you’re the first person I’ve confided in for years—just as well for my reputation as a sober citizen.” He laughed with self-protective cynicism. “It’s been a conspiracy of events to make me talk like this—Armistice Day—our meeting on the train—and then something the dentist said tonight when I came out of his nitrous oxide.”
“The dentist? What’s he got to do with it?”
“He was making polite conversation while I spat blood. One of the things he said was, ‘So you were a prisoner in Germany?’ I asked him what gave him that idea, and he answered, ‘Because I notice you have a tooth filled with a substitute metal German dentists were having to use during the latter part of the war’—apparently he’d come across other instances of it.”
We were silent for a moment. I could hear the first stir of early morning traffic beginning along King’s Parade. Rainier heard it too, and as at a signal rose to go. “A strange business, the war. The English told the Germans exactly where I was, so that the Germans could kill me … then the Germans did half kill me, patched me up, and saw that my teeth were properly cared for … after which the English gave me a medal for having displayed what they called ‘conspicuous gallantry in the field.’ ” He fingered it on his lapel, adding: “I wear it at shows like this, along with the Most Noble Order of Something-or-Other which the Greeks gave me for arranging a loan on their currant crop in 1928.” He began putting on his overcoat, heedless of my assurance that there was no hurry and that I often sat up till dawn myself. “Please don’t bother to see me out—I’ll take a bath at my hotel and be in time for the first train.”
On his way across the room he paused at my shelves of books and asked what tripos I was taking.
“Economics. I took the first part of the History last year.”
“Really? I did the same when I was here. But where does the psychoanalysis come in?”
“Oh, that’s only a side line.”
“I see. Made any plans for when you go down?”
“I’d like to be a journalist.”
He nodded, shaking hands at the door. “Well I’ve got a few contacts in Fleet Street. Write to me when you’re ready for a job—I might be able to do something for you.”
Early the following year I took a Ph.D. and began looking around for the post which, it seemed to me then, ought to drop snugly into the lap of any bright young man who had written a two-hundred-page thesis on “The Influence of Voltaire on the English Laissez-Faire Economists.” Cambridge had deemed this worthy of a doctorate; nobody in Fleet Street, however, held it worth a regular job. I had a very small private income and could therefore afford to cadge snippets of highbrow reviewing from some of the more illustrious and penurious weeklies, reckoning myself well-paid if the books themselves were expensive and could be sold for more cash to Mr. Reeves of the Strand; but the newspaper world at that time was full of journalists out of work through amalgamations, and the chance of getting on the staffs of any of the big dailies was not encouraging. Of course I remembered Rainier’s offer, but apart from my reluctance to bother him, he was abroad—in South America on some financial business. But by the time he returned I had been disappointed often enough to feel I should take him at his word. He replied instantly to my note, asking me to lunch the next day.
Thus I made my first trip to Kenmore. “Near the World’s End pub,” Rainier used to say, and it was the fashion among certain guests to pretend it was at some actual world’s end if not beyond it—the world in this super-sophisticated sense being that part of London within normal taxi range. I went by bus, which puts you down at the corner of the road with only a hundred yards or so to walk. I had no idea how notable, not to say notorious, those Kenmore lunches were; indeed, since the invitation had come so promptly, I had beguiled myself with visions of an intimate foursome composed of host and hostess with perhaps a press magnate summoned especially to meet me. I did not know then that Mrs. Rainier gave lunches for ten or twelve people two or three times a week, enticing every temporary or permanent celebrity to meet other temporary or permanent celebrities at her house, and that these affairs were at frequently joked about as they were infrequently declined. She functioned, in fact, as a kind of liaison officer between Society and Bohemia, with a Maecenas glance at moneyless but personable young men; and though there is no kind of social service I would less willingly undertake myself, there are few that I respect more when competently performed by someone else.
Searching my memory for impressions of that first arrival, I find I cannot put Mrs. Rainier into the picture at all. She was there, she must have been; but she was so busy making introductions that she could not have given me more than a few words, and those completely unimportant. I came a little late and found myself ushered into a drawing room full of initiates, all talking with great gusto, and all—so it seemed to me (quite baselessly, of course)—resentful of intrusion by a stranger who had neither written a banned novel nor flown somewhere and back in an incredibly short time. I say this because one of the guests had written such a novel, and another had made such a flight, and it was my fate to be seated between them while they talked either to their outside neighbors or across me to each other. There was an empty place at the head of the table, and presently I gathered from general conversation that Rainier often arrived late and sometimes not at all, so that he was never on any account waited for. I had already written off the whole affair as a rather profitless bore when the guests rose, murmured hasty good-byes, and dashed out to waiting cars and taxis. (Mrs. Rainier’s lunches were always like that—one-fifteen sharp to two-fifteen sharp and not too much to drink, so that you did not kill your afternoon.) Just as I was following the crowd, a touch on my arm accompanied the whisper: “Stay a moment if you aren’t in a hurry.”
Mrs. Rainier led me a few paces back along the hall after the others had gone. “I didn’t quite catch your name—”
“Oh, yes. … You’re a friend of Charles’s—it’s too bad he couldn’t get here—he’s so busy nowadays.”
I murmured something vague, polite, and intended to be reassuring.
“It’s a pity people who can fly halfway round the world, haven’t any manners,” she went on, and I answered: “Well, I suppose there are quite a number of people who have manners and couldn’t fly halfway round the world.”
“But having manners is so much more important,” she countered. “Tell me … what … er … I mean, are you a … let me see … Harrison …”
I smiled—suddenly and rather incomprehensibly at ease with her. “You’re trying to recall a Harrison who’s written something, married somebody, or been somewhere,” I said. “But it’s a waste of time—I’m not that Harrison, even if he exists. I’m just—if I call myself anything—a journalist.”
“Oh … then you must come again when we have really literary parties,” she replied, with an eagerness I thought charming though probably insincere. I promised I would, with equal eagerness, and every intention of avoiding her really literary parties like the plague. Then I shook hands, left the house, and on the bus back to Fleet Street suddenly realized that it had been a very good lunch from one point of view. I had never tasted better eggs Mornay.
The next afternoon Rainier telephoned, profuse in apologies for his absence from the lunch, and though the matter could
“She didn’t take in mine. In fact it was pretty clear she didn’t know me from Adam.”
“My fault, I expect. Must have forgotten to tell her.”
“So a perfect stranger could walk into your house and get a free lunch?”
“They’re doing that all the time—though most of ’em have invitations. … Look here, if you’re not busy just now, why not come over to the House for tea?”
I said I would, and took the bus again to Chelsea. But at Kenmore the maid told me that Rainier hadn’t been in since morning and never by any chance took tea at home; and just then, while we were arguing on the doorstep (I insisting I had been invited less than twenty minutes ago), Mrs. Rainier came up behind me and began to laugh. “He meant the House of Commons,” she said, passing into the hall. “You’d better let my car take you there.”
Extraordinary how stupid one can be when one would prefer to impress by being knowledgeable. I knew quite well that the House of Commons, along with the Stock Exchange and Christ Church, Oxford, was called “the House,” yet somehow, when Rainier had used the phrase over the telephone, I could only think of Kenmore. Most of the way to Westminster in the almost aggressively unostentatious Daimler (so impersonal you could believe it part of an undertaker’s fleet), I cursed my mistake as a poor recommendation for any kind of job. I had feared Rainier might be waiting for me, and was relieved when, after sending in my name, I had to kill time for half an hour before a policeman led me through devious passages to the Terrace, where Rainier greeted me warmly. But his appearance was slightly disconcerting; there was a twitch about his mouth and eyes as he spoke, and a general impression of intense nervous energy in desperate need of relaxation. During tea he talked about his South American trip, assuming far too modestly that I had read nothing about it in the papers. Presently the division bell rang and only as we hurried across the Smoke Room did he broach the matter I had really come about. “I inquired from a good many people after I got your letter, Harrison, but there doesn’t seem to be a thing doing in Fleet Street just now.”
“That was my own experience too.”
“So I wondered if you’d care for a secretary’s job until something else turns up?”
I hadn’t really thought about such a thing, and maybe hesitation revealed my disappointment.
He said, patting my arm: “Well, think it over, anyway. I’ve had a girl up to now, but she’s due to get married in a few weeks—time enough to show you the ropes … that is, of course, if you feel you’d like the job at all. …”
So I became Rainier’s secretary, and Miss Hobbs showed me the ropes. It had been flattery to call her a girl. She was thin, red-faced, middle-aged, and so worshipful of Rainier that no husband could hope to get more than a remnant of any emotion she was capable of; indeed, I felt that the chance of marriage was tempting her more because she feared it might be her last than because she was certain she wanted it. She hinted this much during our first meeting. “I almost feel I’m deserting him,” she said, and the stress on “him” was revealing. Presently, showing me how she filed his correspondence, she added: “I’m so relieved he isn’t going to have another lady secretary. I’d be afraid of some awful kind of person coming here and—perhaps—influencing him.”
I said I didn’t imagine Rainier was the type to be influenced by that kind of woman.
“Oh, but you never know what kind of a woman will influence a man.”
We went on inspecting the filing system. “The main thing is to see he doesn’t forget his appointments. He doesn’t do much of his correspondence here—he has another secretary at his City office. So it won’t matter a great deal if you don’t know shorthand and typewriting.”
I said I did know shorthand and typewriting.
“Well, so much the better, of course. You’ll find him wonderful to work with—at least always have, though of course we’re more like old friends than employer and secretary. I call him Charles, you know, when we’re alone together. And he always calls me Elsie, whether we’re alone or not. We’ve been together now for nearly fifteen years, so it’s really quite natural, don’t you think?”
During the next few hours she gave me her own version of the entire Rainier ménage. “Of course the marriage never has been all it should be—I daresay you can imagine that. Mrs. Rainier isn’t the right kind of wife for a man like Charles. He’s so tired of all those parties she gives, especially the house-parties at Stourton—that’s their big place in the country, you know … they have no children—that’s another thing, because he’d love children, and I don’t know why they don’t have them, maybe there’s a reason. When you’ve worked with him for a time you’ll feel how restless he is—I do blame her for that—she doesn’t give him a proper home—Kenmore’s just a hotel with different guests every day. I do believe there’s only one room he feds really comfortable in, and that’s this one—with his poor little secretary slaving away while he smokes—and he shouldn’t smoke either, so he’s been told. … D’you know, he often locks himself in when he wants to work, because the rest of the house is so full of Goyas and Epsteins and whatnot that people wander in and out of all the rooms as if it were a museum. Of course there really are priceless things in it—why not?—he gives her the money to spend, and I suppose she has taste—that is if you like a home that’s like a museum. I sometimes wonder if Charles does.”
After a pause during which I made no comment she turned to the writing desk. “Charles gets hundreds of letters from complete strangers—about one thing and another, you know. If they’re abusive we take no notice—in fact, whatever they are, he doesn’t bother much about them, but I’ll let you into a secret—something he doesn’t suspect and never will unless you tell him, and I’m sure you won’t—I always write a little note of thanks to anyone who sends a nice letter … of course I write as if he’d dictated it … I really think a good secretary should do little things like that on her own, don’t you?”
I said nothing.
“Really, if he were to ask me to stay, I believe I would, marriage or no marriage—I mean, it would be so hard to refuse him anything—but then, he’s too fine and generous to ask—as soon as he knew about it he urged me not to delay my happiness on his account—just as if his own marriage had brought him happiness. … Not that Charles would be an easy man to make happy, even if he had got the right woman. But he isn’t happy now—that I do know—there’s always a look in his eyes as if he were searching for something and couldn’t find it.”
For two or three days Miss Hobbs continued to show me the ropes; Rainier was away in Lancashire. During this time Mrs. Rainier gave several lunch parties to which I was not invited, though I was in the house at the time and was even privileged to give assistance to a foreign plenipotentiary who spoke little English and had strayed into the study in search of a humbler apartment. I could better understand after that why Rainier sometimes locked the door.
Then he returned, having wired me to meet his train at Euston. As soon as we had found a taxi and were driving out of the station he asked me how I’d been getting on, and added without waiting for an answer: “I don’t suppose you’ll find it hard to be as good as your predecessor.”
I said I should certainly hope to be.
“Then you’ve already found out a few of the things I’ve been putting up with?”
“Yes, but not why you have put up with them, for so many years.”
“Pure sentiment, plus the fact that I’ve always had a submerged sympathy with crazy people, and Elsie’s crazy enough. She used to work at Stourton in my father’s time, then she worked for my brother, and when he naturally wanted to get rid of her there was no one
“Don’t believe it. My wife and I are the best of friends. I suppose she also hinted it was a marriage of convenience?”
I felt this was incriminating Miss Hobbs too much and was beginning a noncommittal answer when he interrupted: “Well, that happens to be true. I married her because it seemed to me she’d be just the person to turn a tired businessman into a thumping success. She was and she did. … Can you think of a better reason?”
“There’s generally considered to be one better reason.”
He switched the subject suddenly, pointing out of the window to a news placard that proclaimed, in letters a foot high: “Collapse of England.” At that moment I felt that one thing Miss Hobbs had said about him was true—that look in his eyes as if he were searching for something and couldn’t find it. He began to talk rapidly and nervously, apropos of the placard: “Odd to think of some foreigner translating without knowing it’s only about cricket … it was something you said about that on a train that first made me want to know you better—but really, in a sense, it doesn’t refer to cricket at all, but to how God-damned sure we are of ourselves—you can’t imagine the same phrase in the streets of Paris or Berlin—it would begin panic or riots or something. … Just think of it—‘Débâcle de France’ or ‘Unter-gang Deutschlands.’ … Impossible … but here it means nothing because we don’t believe it could ever happen—and that’s not wishful thinking—it’s neither wishing nor thinking, but a kind of inbreathed illusion. … Reminds me of that last plenary session of the London Conference when it was quite clear there was to be no effective disarmament by anybody and we were all hard at work covering up the failure of civilization’s last hope with a mess of smeary platitudes … Lord, how tired I was, listening to strings of words that meant nothing in any language and even less when you had to wait for an interpreter to turn ’em into two others … and all the time the dusty sunlight fell in slabs over the pink bald heads—godheads from the power entrusted to them and gargoyles from the way I hated ’em … and during all that morning, full of the trapped sunlight and the distant drone of traffic past the Cenotaph, there was only one clean eager thing that happened—young Drexel whispering to me during a tepid outburst of applause: ‘See the old boy in the third row—fifth from the end—Armenia or Irak or some place … but did you ever see anybody more like Harry Tate?’ … And by Jove, he was like Harry Tate, and Drexel and I lived on it for the rest of the session—lived on it and on our own pathetic fancy that foreigners were strange and at best amusing creatures, rather like music-hall comedians or one’s French master at school—tolerable if they happen to be musicians or dancers or ice-cream sellers—but definitely to be snubbed if they venture on the really serious business of governing the world. … Look—there’s another!” It was a later placard, proclaiming in letters equally large, “England Now without Hope.” Rainier laughed. “Maybe some fussy archaeologist of the twenty-fifth century—a relative of Macaulay’s sketching New Zealander—will dig tins up from a rubbish heap and say it establishes definite proof that we’d all been well warned in advance! … Has my wife got a party tonight?”