James hilton collected n.., p.36
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.36

           James Hilton


  “What sort of a crowd?”

  “Mostly sporting and dramatic, I think.”

  “Then I’ll dine and sleep at the Club. Borotra’s the only dramatic sportsman I care about, and he probably won’t come.”

  He put his head out of the cab window, giving the change of address, and also telling the man to drive more slowly. I could see he was nervously excited, and I was beginning to know by now that when he was in such a mood he talked a good deal in an attempt to race his thoughts—an attempt which usually failed, leaving a litter of unfinished sentences, mixed metaphors, and unpolished epigrams, with here and there some phrase worthy of one of his speeches, but flung off so carelessly that if the hearer did not catch it at the time Rainier himself could never recall it afterwards. I have tried to give an impression of this kind of talk, but even the most faithful reportage would miss a curious excitement of voice and gesture, the orchestration of some inner emotion turbulent under the surface. Nor, one felt, would such emotion wear out in fatigue, but rather increase to some extinguishing climax as an electric globe burns brighter before the final snapping of the filament. It was of this I felt suddenly afraid, and he noticed the anxious look I gave him.

  “Sorry to be a chatterer like this, Harrison, but it’s after a bout of public speech-making—I always feel I have to use up the words left over, or perhaps the words I couldn’t use. … I suppose you’d call me a rather good speaker?”

  I said I certainly should.

  “And you’d guess that it comes easily to me?”

  “It always sounds like it.”

  He laughed. “That’s what practice can do. I loathe speaking in public—I’m always secretly afraid I’m going to break down or stammer or something. Stammering especially … of course I never do. … By the way, you remember that mountain in Derbyshire I thought I recognized?”


  “The same sort of thing happened in Lancashire, only it wasn’t quite so romantic. Just a house in a row. I was helping Nixon in the Browdley by-election—we held meetings at street corners, then Nixon dragged me round doing the shake-hands and baby-kissing stuff—that’s the way his father got into the Gladstone Parliaments, so Nixon still does it. I admit I’m pretty cynical about elections—the very look of the voting results, with two rows of figures adding neatly up to a third one, gives me the same itch as a company balance sheet, exact to the last penny … whose penny? Was there ever a penny? … My own majority in Lythamshire, for instance—precisely twelve—but who were the twelve? Twelve good men and true, maybe, or twelve drunken illiterates … ? Don’t you sometimes feel how false it all is, and how falsely reassuring—this nineteenth-century gloss of statistical accuracy, as if the flood tide of history could run in rivulets tidy enough for garden irrigation, safe enough for a million taps in suburban bathrooms … but when the storm does come, who’ll give a damn if the rows of little figures still add up—who’ll care if the sums are all wrong provided one man knows a right answer?”

  “You were talking about a house.”

  “Oh yes. … Just an ordinary four-room workingman’s house—tens of thousands like it. A cold day, and as we stood waiting at the door I could see a great yellow glow of firelight behind the lace curtains of the parlor window. Nothing extraordinary in that, either, and yet… it’s hard to describe the feelings I had, as if that house were waiting for me—a welcome—out of the wintry dusk and into the warm firelight … a welcome home.”

  His eyes were full of eagerness, and I said, trying to hasten his story before we reached the end of the journey: “Did the feeling disappear when a stranger answered the door?”

  “I’m coming to that. … There were three of us, Nixon, myself, and Ransome, the local party secretary, nice little man. We knocked and knocked and nobody came. Then I saw Ransome fumbling in his pocket. ‘Can’t think where she is,’ he said, ‘but I expect she’ll be back in a jiffy.’ I realized then that it was his house, and that we were being invited in. He found a key, unlocked the door, and we entered. No lobby or hall—straight into the warmth and firelight. There was a kettle steaming on the hob, cups and saucers set out, plates of bread and butter. Everything spotlessly neat, furniture that shone, a clock ticking loudly somewhere. It was all so beautiful, this warm small room. The man kept talking about his wife—how proud she’d been at the thought of having two such men as Nixon and myself to tea in her home—such an honor—she’d never forget it—and how embarrassed she’d be when she came back and found us already there. ‘I’ll bet she’s gone round the corner for a Dundee cake,’ he laughed. But as time passed he began to be a bit embarrassed himself, and presently suggested having tea ourselves without waiting for his wife. So we did—I sat in a rocking chair by the fireside, and the flames were still leaping up so brightly we didn’t need any other light, even though it was quite dark outside by the time we left.”

  “So you never saw his wife at all?”

  “No, she didn’t come back in time. … But that room—the feeling I had in it—of comfort, of being wanted there … It’s just another thing of the same kind. That part of my life—well, you remember what I told you at Cambridge.”

  “Why do you worry about it so much?”

  “I wouldn’t if it would leave me alone. But it keeps on teasing me—with clues. So what can I do?”

  “I still say—more rest and less work.”

  He patted my arm. “It’s good to know I can talk to you whenever I’m in this mood. Watson to my Sherlock, eh? Or perhaps that’s not much of a compliment?”

  “Not to yourself, anyhow. Watson was at least an honest idiot.”

  He smiled. “That must be the Higher Criticism. Of course you were born too late to feel as I did—Sherlock’s in Baker Street, all’s right with the world.”

  “Since we now realize that most things are wrong with the world—”

  “I know—that was part of the illusion. I remember Sheldon taking me on a trip to London when I was six or seven years old … the first place I asked to see was Baker Street, and being a sympathetic fellow he didn’t tell me that the stories were just stories. We walked gravely along the pavement one afternoon early in the century—a small boy and his father’s butler—looking up at the tall houses with respectful hero worship. Distant thrones might totter, anarchists might throw bombs, a few lesser breeds might behave provokingly in odd corners of the world, but when all was said and done, there was nothing to fear while the stately Holmes of England, doped and dressing-gowned for action, readied his wits for the final count with Moriarty! And who the deuce was this Moriarty? Why, just a big-shot crook whom the honest idiot romanticized in order to build up his hero’s reputation! Nothing but a middle-aged stoop-shouldered Raffles! And that, mind you, was the worst our fathers’ world could imagine when it talked about Underground Forces and Powers of Evil! … Ah well, happy days. You’d better keep the cab to go home in. Good night!”

  I hadn’t taken Rainier’s problem very seriously till then. For one thing, loss of memory is normal. We all forget things, and are equally likely to be reminded of them long after we think they have been forgotten for good. Often, too, the reminder is faint enough to be no more than a clue which we fail to follow up because the matter does not seem important. The unusual part of Rainier’s experience was that he did think it important, so that from something merely puzzling it was already on the way to becoming an obsession.

  Some part of his story could doubtless be verified, and I already felt enough curiosity to make the attempt. I said nothing to him, but the next time the chance occurred I led Miss Hobbs to talk in a general way about her employer’s early life and career. She was more than willing—except for a continual tendency to drift into later and somewhat disparaging gossip about Mrs. Rainier. “Wasn’t he in the war?” I began, putting the leading question that anyone might have asked.

  “Oh yes. He got a medal—didn’t you know that? And the strange thing was—they thoug
ht he was dead. So it was given post—post—”


  “Yes, that’s it. But you couldn’t blame them, because after the attack he was reported missing and nothing was heard about him till—oh, it was years later when he suddenly arrived home without any warning. And then it turned out he’d lost his memory.”

  “Seems to me the sort of story for headlines.”

  “You mean in the papers? Oh no, it was kept out—the family didn’t want any publicity.”

  “That wouldn’t have been enough reason for most of the journalists I know.”

  “Ah, but Sheldon arranged it.”


  “He’s the butler at Stourton. You haven’t been to Stourton yet, have you?”


  “It’s really a marvelous place.”

  “Sheldon sounds a marvelous butler if he knows how to stop journalists from getting a good story and editors from printing it.”

  “Well, he is rather marvelous, and I don’t suppose there’s much he doesn’t know—not about the family, anyhow. He really rules Stourton—lives there all the year round, even during the winter when the family never go out of town. I really owe him a good deal—I was only just a local girl in those days, I used to do bookkeeping and secretarial work at the house, and that brought me into contact with Sheldon constantly.” She added, rather coyly: “You know—perhaps you don’t know—how difficult it can be for a girl employed in a big house if the butler isn’t all he should be.”

  I said I could imagine it.

  “Sheldon was always a gentleman. Never a word—or a gesture—that anyone could object to.”

  I said nothing.

  “And later, when Mr. Charles took over Stourton, Sheldon personally asked him if he could do anything for me, otherwise I don’t suppose I’d be here.”

  “I see. … But coming back to the time when Mr. Rainier—our Mr. Rainier, I mean—suddenly returned to Stourton. Were you working there then?”

  “Not just then. It was Christmas and as old Mr. Rainier was ill they canceled the usual parties and gave me a holiday. It was parties that always kept me busy—writing out invitations and place cards and things.”

  “What was Mr. Rainier like when he returned?”

  “I didn’t see him till a good while afterwards, but I do know there was a lot of trouble about it, one way and another—Sheldon would never tell us half that went on.”

  So there the trail ended; she didn’t know much of what had actually happened; and since then a great many years had passed, old Mr. Rainier was dead, and probably the same fate had overtaken most of the personnel from whom any elucidating inquiries might have been made at the time. Perhaps there were traces somewhere, a dossier preserved in forgotten files, memoranda hidden away in official archives; but there seemed small chance of unearthing them, or even of finding if they existed at all.

  “Quite a mystery,” I commented. “Didn’t Mr. Rainier himself ever try to solve it?”

  “You mean, did he try to remember things?”

  “Well, more than that—didn’t he ever consult anybody—specialists, psychoanalysts, or anyone?”

  “You don’t know him, or you wouldn’t ask that. The last thing he’d ever do is to go to anybody and tell them things about himself. The only person he ever did talk to was someone he’d known at Cambridge, some professor—Freeman, I think his name was.”

  “You mean Dr. Freeman—the Dr. Freeman?”

  “Maybe he was a doctor.”

  “A tall white-haired man with a stoop?”

  “Yes, that was him—he used to visit Charles a good deal before the marriage. You know him?”

  “Slightly. Why not since the marriage?”

  “He didn’t like parties, and I don’t think he liked Mrs. Rainier for beginning all that sort of life for Charles. She’s very ambitious, you know. People say she’ll make him Prime Minister before she’s finished.”

  I laughed—having heard similar remarks myself, followed at a rule by some ribald comment on her party-giving technique. Miss Hobbs added: “Not that she isn’t a good hostess—that I say.”

  Since the point was raised, it seemed to me that Mrs. Rainier was too good, and that for this reason she might miss the secret English bull’s-eye that can only be hit by guns sighted to a 97 or 98 per cent degree of accuracy. Anything more than that, even if achievable, is dangerous in England, because English people mistrust perfection, regarding it in manners as the stigma of foreigners, just as they suspect it in teeth to be the product of dentistry. All this, of course, I did not discuss with Miss Hobbs.

  I saw Freeman a few days later. He had been a rather impressive figure at Cambridge, in my time as well as Rainier’s, but had recently retired to live at Richmond with an unmarried sister. It was probably a lonely life, and he seemed glad to hear my voice on the telephone and to accept an invitation to dinner. I had known him fairly well, since he had long been president of the Philosophical Society and I in my last year its vice president, and though he had written several standard works on psychology he was not psychologist enough to suspect an ulterior motive behind my apparent eagerness to look him up and talk over old times.

  We met at Boulestin’s that same evening.

  After waiting patiently till the inevitable question as to what I was doing with myself nowadays, I said that I had become Rainier’s secretary.

  “Ah, Rainier—yes,” he muttered, as if raking over memories. And he added, with a thin cackle: “Well, history won’t repeat itself.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “He married one of them.”

  “You mean Mrs. Rainier? You mean she was his secretary before Miss Hobbs?”

  “Oh, the Hobbs woman was with him all the time—a family heirloom. Must be forty now, if she’s a day. What did she do at last—retire?”

  “She’s leaving to get married.”

  “Heavens—I never thought her turn would come. Who’s the lucky man? … But I can answer that myself—Rainier is, to get rid of her.”

  “You know her then?”

  “Hardly at all, I’m glad to say. But she used to write me the most ridiculous notes whenever Rainier made an appointment to see me. They were supposed to be from him, but I found out quite casually afterwards that she forged his name to ’em. … Absurd notes—it interested me, as a psychologist, that she should have thought them appropriate.”

  “But to come back to Mrs. Rainier—”

  “Oh, she worked in his City office, I think. A different dynasty. These great magnates have platoons of secretaries.”

  “Queer Miss Hobbs never mentioned it. I should have thought it was something she’d have liked to drive home.”

  “On a point of psychology I think you’re wrong. She’d prefer to conceal the fact though they were both, so to say, equal at the starting post, the other woman won.”

  “Maybe. I gather you know Rainier rather well?”

  “I used to. You see, I began with the initial advantage of meeting him anonymously.”

  “I’m not quite clear what you mean.”

  He expanded over a further glass of brandy. “Rainier’s a peculiar fellow. He has a curious fear of his own identity. He lets you get to know him best when he doesn’t think you know who he is. … It’s an interesting kink, psychologically. I first met him through Werneth, who was his tutor at St. Swithin’s. Apparently he told Werneth about—er—well, perhaps I ought not to discuss it, but it was something interesting to me—as a psychologist—but not particularly to Werneth, who was a mere historian.” Again the cackle. “Anyhow, Werneth could only get his permission to pass it on to me by promising not to divulge his name, and on hearing what it was all about I was so interested that we actually arranged a meeting—again anonymously—I wasn’t supposed to know who he was. … But I’ll let you into a secret—Werneth had told me, privately, beforehand—unscrupulous fellow, Werneth. And then one morning several months later I couldn’t
find my bicycle outside the college gate after a lecture, but in its place was a similar model with the name ‘Charles Rainier’ on it. I made his mistake an excuse to call on him—and I must say—after the opening embarrassment—we very soon became friends.” He added: “And now, of course, I know what you’re going to ask me, but being less unscrupulous than Werneth I can’t tell you.”

  “I don’t think you need, because I already know about Rainier’s—er—peculiarity. I suppose it was that.”

  “Suppose you tell me first of all what that is.”

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