James hilton collected n.., p.37
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.37
 

           James Hilton

  “The blank patch in his life that he can’t remember.”

  “A rather inexact description.”

  “No doubt, and that’s why I’d very much like to hear your own.”

  He smiled. “It was an unusual case—but I’ve heard of several similar ones. They’re recorded, you know, in technical journals. Rainier had—if one might so put it—certain threads of recollection about the blank period, though they were so faint as to be almost nonexistent at first. After he left Cambridge we didn’t meet again for ten years—by that time the threads had become a little less faint. It was my aim, when I came to know Rainier again after the ten-year interval, to sort out those threads, to disentangle them—to expand them, as it were, into a complete corpus of memory.”

  “I understand. But you didn’t succeed.”

  “Are you asking me that or telling me?”

  “Both, in a way.”

  He said, smiling: “My expectation all along had been that his full memory would eventually return—a little bit here, a little bit there—till finally, like a key turning in a lock, or like the last few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the whole thing would slip into position. But I gather that it hasn’t yet happened?”

  “The bits are still being assembled, but nowhere near to completion.”

  “Tell me, Harrison, if I may ask the question—why are you taking such a keen interest in this matter? Hardly within the scope of secretarial duties. … Or is it?”

  “I like him and I hate to see him bothered by it as he still is. That’s the only reason.”

  “A good one.”

  “Now you tell me something—have you any theories about the blank patch?”

  “Theories? I can only guess it was a pretty bad time. He was injured, if I remember rightly, just above the left parietal bone of the …” He went off into a medical survey that conveyed nothing to me. “It was an injury that would require operative treatment—perhaps a series of operations. That’s why it’s perhaps a pity that he still bothers, as you say he does. Even if complete recollection were to return to him now, it would probably be only of pain, unhappiness, boredom.”

  “On the other hand, even such memories might be better than an increasing obsession about the loss of them?”

  “Possibly.”

  We were silent for a time after that. Presently I said: “You know he was taken prisoner by the Germans?”

  “Oh yes. But German or English—all hospitals are unhappy places, especially for a man who can’t tell anyone who he is. I imagine the Germans treated him namelessly or by error under someone else’s name, and eventually returned him to England under the same condition. Then there would be other hospitals in England, full of experiences nobody would wish to remember. There were a great many shell-shock and loss-of-memory cases that took years—some of them are still taking years, God help them. The whole thing happened so long ago I don’t see how we can ever expect to know all the details. Tell me your theory, if you have one.”

  “That’s the trouble, I haven’t.”

  “The real trouble, of course, is Mrs. Rainier.”

  Curious, the way people sooner or later led the talk to her. Freeman, reticent at first about a former friend, saw no reason now to conceal his opinion of a former friend’s wife. “She’s an unusual sort of woman, Harrison.”

  “Well, he’s not so usual, either.”

  “They get on well together? Is that your impression?”

  I answered guardedly: “I think she makes a good politician’s wife.”

  “And I suppose, by the same token, you think he makes a good politician?”

  “He has some of the attributes. Clever speaker and a good way with people.”

  “When he’s in the mood. He isn’t always. … Did you ever hear about the Bridgelow Antiquarian Dinner?”

  I shook my head.

  “It was—oh, several years ago. He was supposed to be helping the candidate, and during the campaign we asked him to our annual beano—strictly non-party—just a semi-learned society, with the accent on the semi. I was president at the time, and Rainier was next to me at the table. Halfway through his speech, which began pretty well, there was a bit of a disturbance caused by old General Wych-Furlough fumbling in late and apologizing—his car had broken down or something. He talked rather loudly, like most deaf people, and of course it was annoying to a speaker, but the whole incident was over in a minute, most people would have passed it off. Rainier, however, seemed to freeze up suddenly, couldn’t conceal the way he felt about it, finished his speech almost immediately and left the table rather sooner than he decently could. I went out with him for a moment, told him frankly I thought his behavior had been rather childish—surely age and infirmity entitled people to some latitude—it wasn’t as if there’d been any intentional discourtesy. He said then, in a rather panicky way: ‘It wasn’t that—it was something in the fellow himself—something chemical, maybe, in the way we react to each other.’ I thought his explanation even more peculiar than his behavior.”

  I checked myself from commenting, and Freeman, noticing it said: “Go on—what was it you were going to ask?”

  “I was just wondering—is it possible he had one of those submerged memories—of having met the General before?”

  “I thought of that later on, but it didn’t seem likely they could ever have met. He didn’t even know the General’s name. And if they had met before, I still can’t think of any reason for antagonism—the old boy was just a fussy, simple-minded, stupid fellow with a distinguished military career and a repertoire of exceptionally dull stories about hunting.”

  “Was Mrs. Rainier at the dinner?”

  “No, she wouldn’t come to anything I was president of—that’s very certain.” He added, as if glad to get back to the subject: “A strange woman. I’m not sure I altogether trust her—and that isn’t because I don’t particularly like her. It’s something deeper. She always seems to me to be hiding something. I suppose it’s part of my job to have these psychic feelings about people. … You know about her famous parties?”

  “Who doesn’t? I’ve sampled them.”

  “Mind you, let’s be fair. She’s not a snob in the ordinary sense—I mean about birth or money. Of course it would be too ridiculous if she were—since she began with neither herself. But what exactly is it that she goes for? Brains? Celebrity? Notoriety? I went to Kenmore once, and I must admit she plays the game loathsomely well. But all this relentless celebrity-hunting and party-giving doesn’t make a home—and I’m damned if I know what it does make.”

  “Some people say it’s made Rainier’s career.”

  “I’ve heard that too—from people who don’t like him. The people who don’t like her will tell you her methods have actually held him back. Still, I don’t deny she’s a good mate for a man of affairs. The real point is whether Rainier’s life ought to be cluttered up with business and politics at all.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Simply that I’ve always considered him—abstractly—one of the rare spirits of our time, so that success of the kind he has attained and may yet attain becomes a detestable self-betrayal.”

  “So you think the marriage was a mistake?”

  “Not at all, if he felt he had to have that sort of life.”

  “What other sort of life could he have had?”

  “Out of my province to say. I’m talking about the quality of the man, not his opportunities. I suppose it wasn’t his fault his father left him a small industrial empire to look after—steelworks and newspapers and interlocking holding companies and whatnot—all more or less bankrupt, though people didn’t know it at the time. Even the seat in Parliament was a sort of family inheritance he had to take over.”

  “Like Miss Hobbs?”

  “Yes like her—just as idiotic but not so loyal. He only scraped in by twelve votes last time. … But since you mention the Hobbs woman, let me assure you she’s a modernistic jewel compared with the old butler
they keep at Stourton … Sheldon, I think his name is.”

  “You don’t like him either?”

  Freeman shrugged. “It isn’t that I mind his eccentric impertinences—Scottish servants are like that and one takes it from them—even Queen Victoria had to. What makes me really uncomfortable is the same feeling I have about Mrs. Rainier—that he’s hiding something.”

  “Maybe they’re hiding something together?”

  His smile was of another kind and did not answer mine. “You haven’t been to Stourton yet, have you? It’s an amazing hiding place for anything they’ve got to hide.”

  Miss Hobbs left during the week that followed and I settled down to the task of becoming her successor. It was not quite as simple as she had led me to believe. Rainier’s interests were manifold; besides holding directorships of important companies he was a member of many societies and organizations—all this, of course, on top of his political work. I had plenty to do, and he expected it done quickly and efficiently. We had little chance to talk on other than business matters, and for the time he seemed to have dropped completely the preoccupation that had begun to interest me. One thing happened that I had not after Freeman’s remarks anticipated: Mrs. Rainier invited me to another of her lunch parties. This time it was really literary, as she had promised (Maurice Baring, Charles Morgan, Louis Bromfield, Henry Bernstein, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, H. G. Wells, and a pale young man whose name I have forgotten who wrote highbrow detective novels whose names I have also forgotten), and despite initial misgivings I found the whole affair quite pleasant. Once more there was the empty chair for Rainier, if he should turn up, but he failed to, and nobody seemed surprised. Again also Mrs. Rainier asked me to stay a moment after the others had gone, but now the request was less remarkable, since I had work in the same house. “Can you spare time to look at my garden?” she said, leading me to the back of the hall where the French windows were open.

  We sauntered across the lawn to a door in the high surrounding wall; unlocking it, she watched my face as I showed surprise, for within was a second garden, not much bigger than a large room, but so enclosed by trees and carpeted with flowers that one could hardly have believed it to exist in the middle of a London borough. “It’s a secret,” she confided. “I only show it to close friends—or to those who I hope are going to be.”

  I murmured something polite that might equally have referred to her last remark or to the garden itself.

  “You, see,” she went on, “I never cared for Miss Hobbs. I don’t think Charles did, either, but he was too kind to get rid of her. If she told you things against me, and I’m sure she did, just suspend judgment till you know me better.”

  I went on saying polite things.

  “You and Charles first met on a train, didn’t you?” She stooped to a vase. “One of those chance meetings—I’ve had them myself—when you tell all your secrets to a perfect stranger because you’re certain you’ll never meet him again. … Something like that?”

  I said guardedly: “I don’t know about secrets, but we certainly found it easy to talk.”

  “And you like your work here?”

  “Very much.”

  “I’m glad. It will be wonderful if you can really help Charles—apart from just office work. He needs the right sort of companionship sometimes—he has difficult moods, you know. Or perhaps you don’t know—yet. Anyhow, the thing to do is not to take him too seriously when he has them.” I waited for her to continue, knowing that she too was waiting for me; even if I were willing to suspend judgment I was also, like Freeman, unwilling to trust her completely. She suddenly smiled. “Well, now you know my secret. Keep it for me.” And she added, leading me back through the doorway: “This, I mean. It used to be the place where the gardener threw all the rubbish. I planned it myself—I do most of the work here still. Charles never looks in—hasn’t time. Hasn’t time for my lunches either—not that I mind that so much, but I do wish—sometimes—I’d find him sitting here—quietly—alone—like men you sometimes see outside their cottages in the country—at peace. He never is, you know.”

  I felt she would like to tell me something if I already knew enough to make it advisable, but she wasn’t certain I did know, to she hesitated. I asked her why she thought he Was never at peace.

  “For one thing, he’s so terribly overworked.”

  “Yes, I know, but apart from that?”

  “Oh, well, it’s hard for anyone to feel at peace these days. Don’t you think so?”

  “What about the men you sometimes see outside their cottages in the country?”

  She smiled, suddenly on the defensive, sure now that I didn’t know as much as she had half suspected, and for that reason anxious not to give me any further opening. “They’re probably not really at peace at all—just too old and tired to worry about things any more.” As we entered the house the social manner closed about her like the fall of a curtain. “Now that we’re becoming friends you must come to Stourton for week ends as soon as we open it up. There’s a real secret garden there—I mean one that everybody knows about.”

  I hadn’t expected Stourton to be quite so overwhelming. We drove there a few weeks later in four Daimlers—“like a high-speed funeral,” said Rainier, who was in a macabre mood altogether; three of them packed with luggage and servants from Kenmore, the first one containing ourselves and an elegant young man named Woburn, who was coming to catalogue the Stourton library. Most guests would arrive the following day—perhaps twenty-odd: politicians, peers, actors, novelists, crack tennis players, celebrities of all kinds. It was a warm morning and as we drove through Reading and Newbury the sun broke through the haze and kindled the full splendor of an English summer, with its ever-changing greens under a dappled sky.

  Presently we turned off the main road and curved for a mile between high hedges; then suddenly, in a distant fold of the downs, a vision in cream-colored stone broke through heavy parkland trees. Woburn, who had not seen it before, joined me in a little gasp of admiration. “You were intended to do that,” said Rainier. “In fact the architect and roadbuilder conspired about it two hundred years ago. My brother Julian, who fancied himself as a phrase maker, once called it ‘a stucco prima donna making a stage entrance.’ Now, you see, it goes out of sight.” Intervening upland obscured the house for another mile or so until, at a new turn of the road, it reappeared so much more intimately that one could only give it a nod of respectful recognition. “But here we are again, and for the rest of the way we simply have to give it all the stars in Baedeker.” We swooped into the final half-mile stretch that ended in a wide Palladian portico. “A house like this is like some kinds of women—too expensive even to cast off. Of course what you really pay for isn’t the thing itself, but the illusion—the sense of ownership, the intangible Great I Am. Nowadays a bankrupt illusion—the farms don’t pay, the hills that belong to me are just as free for anyone else to roam over, the whole idea of possessing this place is just a legal fiction entitling me to pay bills. I think it would sooner possess me, if I’d let it. … Hello, Sheldon.”

  Sheldon was waiting on the top step to welcome us. Neither plump nor cadaverous, obsequious nor pompous, he shook the hand that Rainier offered him, bowed to Mrs. Rainier, and gave Woburn and myself a faintly appraising scrutiny until Rainier made the introductions. Then he said: “Well, Mr. Harrison, if this is your first visit to Stourton it probably won’t be your last. Mr. Rainier keeps his secretaries a long time.” The remark struck me as rather offhandedly familiar as well as a somewhat gauche reminder of Mrs. Rainier’s former position, but there was a general laugh, from which I gathered that Sheldon enjoyed privileges of this kind, perhaps on account of age. He was certainly a well-preserved antiquity, with an air of serene yet somehow guarded responsibility; in different clothes he might have looked a cabinet minister, in contradistinction to those cabinet ministers who, even in their own clothes, look like butlers.

  By the time I had been shown to my room in the East W
ing (Stourton, like every grand house of its period, had to have wings) the sun was almost down over the rim of the hills and the slow magic of a summer twilight was beginning to unfold; through my window the vista of formal gardens and distant skyline was entrancingly beautiful. I was admiring it as Rainier entered with Woburn, whom he had been showing round the library. “I hope you don’t object to views,” he said. “I know it’s the latest artistic fad to consider them rather vulgar. I put in these large windows myself, against all the advice of architects who said this sort of house shouldn’t have them. Otherwise, except for a few extra bathrooms, I haven’t touched the place.”

  Behind the two of them stood Sheldon, announcing that our baths were ready; Rainier turned then and led us across the corridor into an extraordinary room of Moorish design embellished with fluted columns and Arabic gargoyles and a high domed ceiling. He watched our faces and seemed to derive a certain satisfaction. “My father built this,” he explained, “as what he called an extra billiard room. He made the bulk of his fortune, during the Edwardian era, when the social hallmark was to have a billiard room, and during the last year of the war, when money was coming in so fast he didn’t know what to do with it, he conceived the idea of an extra billiard room as a symbol of utter superfluity. … At least, that’s the only theory I can imagine. I don’t think a single game of billiards was ever played in it, and I turned it into a bathhouse without any feeling of impiety.” We passed through the room, which was furnished with divans and sun-ray lamps, into a further apartment containing a row of small but quite modern cubicle bathrooms, three of which Sheldon was already preparing for our use. “There were only four bathrooms in the entire house before I made these,” Rainier continued. “One was in the servants’ quarters and Sheldon had actually paid for it out of his own pocket. That gives you some idea of the times, even as late as 1919.” He added, after a pause and another glance at our faces: “And of my father too—I know that’s what you’re thinking. But it wasn’t really niggardliness. He gave a great deal during his lifetime to the more orthodox charities. What he mostly suffered from were a few strikingly wrong notions. One of them was doubtless that servants didn’t need bathrooms. Another was that he was really an English gentleman. And another was that the remaining saga of mankind would be largely a matter of tidying up the jungle and making the whole earth a well-administered English colony under a Liberal government. I think when the war ended he assumed that’s what was going to be done to Germany.”

 
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