James hilton collected n.., p.38
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.38
 

           James Hilton

  “Maybe it should have been,” said Woburn quietly. He had done little but smile until then, and I noticed Rainier give him a look of sharpened interest. Then we went into our respective cubicles, but the walls were only neck-high and conversation rose easily with the steam. I could hear Rainier and Woburn veering on to a political argument, while in my own cubicle Sheldon, arranging towels, saw me notice the slightly brown color of the water as it filled the tub. “Won’t harm you,” he remarked. “We tell some of our guests it’s due to mineral springs that are good for rheumatism, but as you’re one of the family I’ll let you into a family secret—it’s just the rust in the pipes.”

  He was going out chuckling when I retorted, quite without secondary meaning: “I hope all the family secrets are as innocent.”

  The chuckle ended sharply as he turned on me a look that evidently reassured him, for his mouth slanted into a slow smile as he resumed his exit. “I trust you will find them so, Mr. Harrison.”

  Meanwhile Rainier had come back to the subject of Stourton, and I heard him saying to Woburn: “My father bought it after it had bankrupted the Westondales, and the Westondales inherited it from ancestors who had built it out of profits from the African slave trade. This made my father’s purchase almost appropriate, since my great-great-grandfather made his pile out of the first steam-driven cotton mills in Lancashire. You may imagine Stourton, therefore, peopled with the ghosts of Negroes and little children.”

  A short while later we dressed and dined in the vast room that would have seated fifty with ease, instead of our four selves. Mrs. Rainier, I noticed, was particularly gracious to Woburn, whom she probably felt to be shy in surroundings of such unaccustomed grandeur. There was talk of how he would set about the library-cataloguing job; most of the books, it appeared, had been taken over from the Westondales along with the house. “My father was not a great reader, but he had a curious knack of reading the right things. One day he read that some pine forests in Hampshire were supposed to be healthy to live amongst, so he promptly bought several hundred acres of them—on which part of Bournemouth now stands. Quite an interesting man, my father. He played the cornet, and he also cried over all Dickens’s deathbed scenes—Little Nell and Paul Dombey, especially. He liked to have them read to him, for preference, and his favorite reader was an old governess of mine named Miss Ponsonby, who hated him and used to come out of one of those tearful séances muttering “The old humbug!’ But he wasn’t altogether a humbug—at least no more than most of us are. I’m not quite certain what he was. … Somebody ought to write a really good biography of him some day. He did have one written just before he died, but it was a commissioned job and made him into a not very convincing plaster saint—and, of course, it would be easy to write the other sort, showing him as a sinister capitalistic villain. … But in between, somewhere, is probably the truth—if anyone thought it worth while to make the search.”

  “Why shouldn’t Mr. Woburn try?” asked Mrs. Rainier.

  “Not a bad idea, if he wants to. But let him finish the cataloguing first. Ever write anything, Woburn?”

  “A few stories, Mr. Rainier. You read one of them—probably you’ve forgotten it—”

  “Ah yes, of course. The one about the unfortunate Russian?”

  Woburn nodded, and the somewhat mysterious reference was not explained. After coffee Mrs. Rainier said she was tired and would go to bed; Rainier mentioned letters he had to write; so there seemed nothing left for Woburn and me but to pass the evening together, somehow or other.

  Sheldon suggested the library, ushering us into the fine somber room with a touch of evident pride, and obligingly switching on a radio in time for the news summary of a Hitler speech delivered in Berlin earlier that day. We listened awhile, then Woburn snapped off the machine with a gesture—the meager residuum of protest to which modern man has been reduced. “I hope there isn’t a war this year,” he remarked, as one hoping the weather would stay fine. “You see, as soon as I finish this job I have another with the Kurtzmayers—they have a big collection at Nice and I daresay I shall spend all the autumn there—unless,” he added with a half-smile, “Mr. Hitler’s plans interfere with mine.” I smiled back with a touch of the uncomfortableness that afflicts me when some facetious travel-film commentator refers to “Mr. and Mrs. Hippopotamus” and waits for the laugh. I was thinking of this, and also wondering how a youngster like Woburn (at least ten years my junior) had managed to establish this cataloguing racket amongst the rich and eminent, when he disarmingly told me all about it. “It was the Rainiers who gave me an introduction to the Kurtzmayers—they’ve been rather good at putting things in my way.”

  I asked him how long he had known the Rainiers.

  “Only a few months. And you?”

  “About two years. I met him first—quite by accident—in a train.”

  “I met him first in a public library.”

  “By accident?”

  “No, I had a job there and he came to see me. Mrs. Rainier sent him.”

  “Mrs. Rainier?”

  “Yes, I met her before him. It was her idea I should do the Stourton job—that’s why she sent him to see me.”

  “I should have thought she’d have asked you to see him.”

  “So should I, but it seems he had a queer idea he wanted to see me first without either of us knowing who the other was, so that if he didn’t like me the whole thing could be dropped.”

  “I see.”

  “Haven’t you ever noticed that for all his glib speech and ease of manner he’s really shy of meeting new people—in a rather odd way?”

  I said perhaps I had, and asked him how his own meeting had happened.

  “He didn’t have far to come—the library was only just across the river in Lambeth. Of course I took him for just an ordinary visitor. He first of all asked at the counter if we had any illustrated books on English villages. It’s the sort of vague request you fairly often get from people, so I picked a few books off the shelves and left him at a table with them. Presently he handed them back with a few words of thanks, and out of politeness I then asked if he’d found what he’d been looking for. He said, well no, not exactly—he’d just thought the pictures and photographs in some illustrated book might happen to include one of a place he’d once seen but had forgotten the name of. They hadn’t though, and it didn’t matter.”

  “You must have thought it curious.”

  “Yes, but the really curious thing was that I’d just written a short story based on a similar idea. He seemed quite interested when I told him this and we talked on for a while—then finally he stared round rather vaguely and said, ‘I’m supposed to see a man who works here called Woburn.’ I said I was Woburn and he pretended to be surprised and pleased, but somehow I felt he had known all the time, though his pleasure seemed genuine. He then said his wife had talked about me and thought I might do some cataloguing, and of course he had to say then who he was. I told him I’d be very glad, and he said that was fine, he’d let me know; then he shook hands hurriedly and left.”

  “Did he let you know?”

  “Not immediately. After a few weeks I wrote to him, because I really wanted the job if I could get it—I was only earning three pounds a week. Of course I’d found out all about him in the interval—about his Fleet Street interests—that’s really why I sent him that short story I’d written, because I thought maybe he’d pass it on to one of his editors.” Woburn smiled. “He returned it a few days later, without comment, but said I could begin the cataloguing any time I liked.”

  “Tell me about the story.”

  “Oh, it was nothing much—just a rather feeble yarn about a Russian soldier returning from the front after the Revolution.”

  “What happened to him?”

  “Nothing exciting. He just roamed about the country trying to find where he lived.”

  “Had he—had he lost his memory?”

  “No, he was just a simple fellow—couldn’t read an
d write—all he could give was the name of the village and a description of it that might equally have applied to ten thousand other Russian villages. The government officials wouldn’t bother with him, because he couldn’t fill out the proper forms, so he just had to go on wandering vaguely about trying to find the place.”

  “And did he—eventually?”

  “He was run over by a train and carried to a neighboring village where he died without knowing that it actually was the one he’d been looking for … of course you might have guessed that.”

  “Having read Gogol and Chekhov, I think I might.”

  “I know, it was just an imitation. I haven’t any real originality—only a technique. I suppose Rainier realized that. So I’d better stick to the catalogues.”

  It seemed to me a courageous, but also a rather desolate thing for a young writer to admit.

  “Why not try the biography, if they give you the chance?”

  “I might, but I doubt if it would work out You can’t be sure they’d really want anyone to be impartial. That’s why it’s an affectation of Rainier’s to run down his ancestors. A sort of inverted snobbery put on to impress people because the direct kind isn’t fashionable any more. … Mind you, I like him immensely.”

  “And her?”

  “Oh, she’s marvelous, isn’t she? The way she can remember dozens of names when she introduces people. …” I remembered Rainier had once commented on that too. But Woburn added: “Rather a mistake, though, in English life—never to make a mistake. Like knowing too much—such as the names of all the states in America. Stamps one as a bit of an outsider.”

  “You seem to have sized things up pretty well.”

  “Probably because I am an outsider.”

  “So am I. So are most of the people who come here. So are half the names in Debrett. Come to think about it, that’s one healthy symptom of English so-called society—its inside is full of outsiders.”

  “I suppose the Rainiers are outsiders—in a sense.”

  “Well, they haven’t a title, but that makes no difference. Owning Stourton’s almost a title in itself.”

  “Yes, it’s a wonderful place. There’s an odd atmosphere here, though, don’t you think?”

  “Do you think so?”

  “You don’t know everything, you don’t know everything—that’s what the place seems to say.”

  “Maybe those ghosts of Negroes and little children?”

  “They haven’t got any children, have they?”

  “No.”

  “Did they ever have?”

  “I don’t know. One somehow doesn’t get to know things like that.”

  “Do you think they’re happy?”

  Before I could attempt an answer we both turned sharply to see Sheldon carrying in a tray with siphon, glasses, and whiskey decanter. “I thought perhaps you two gentlemen might like to help yourselves, either now or later.” Without offering to serve us he placed the tray on a table and walked out of the room, pausing at the door to deliver a quizzical goodnight.

  We returned the salutation and then, as soon as the door closed, looked at each other rather uneasily. “I didn’t hear him come in,” said Woburn, after a pause. “He didn’t knock.”

  “Good servants don’t—except at bedroom doors.”

  “Oh? I don’t know things like that. My mother never had a servant.”

  “Now who’s being an inverted snob? My mother had one servant, whom we called the skivvy. That sets us both pretty equal so far as Stourton’s concerned.”

  “You probably went to a good school, though.”

  I mentioned the name of my school and agreed that it was generally considered fairly good. “As good as Netherton, which is where Rainier went. Anyhow, from a social angle, the main thing is the accent—which you and I both seem to have. Nobody’s going to ask us where we picked it up.”

  “I don’t mind if they do. I was at a board school up to the age of twelve—then I won a scholarship to a suburban grammar school. I took a London degree last year, working in the evenings. I never try to conceal the truth.”

  “Conceal it? I should think you’d boast about it.”

  “I suppose that’s really what I am doing. Will you have a drink?”

  “Yes, please.”

  He began to mix them and presently, while working off a certain embarrassment, added: “How does that fellow Sheldon strike you?”

  I said I thought he was the kind of person one could avoid a decision about by calling him a character. “Maybe the keeper of the family skeleton,” I added.

  “No—because if there were one, Rainier would take a perverse delight in dragging it out of the cupboard for everyone to stare at.”

  We laughed and agreed that that might well be so. It was past eleven before we yawned our way upstairs. When I reached my room I found it full of cool air and moonlight; in the vagrant play of moving curtain shadows I did not at first see Rainier sitting by the window in an armchair. He spoke as I approached: “Don’t let me scare you—I’m only admiring your view. It’s exactly the same as mine, so that isn’t much of an excuse. … How did you and Woburn get along?”

  “Quite well. I like him. An intelligent young fellow.”

  “Spoken with all the superiority of thirty to twenty?”

  “No, I don’t think so. I do like him, anyhow.”

  “He’s my wife’s protégé. She wants to see him get on in the world—made me root him out of a municipal library to do this card-indexing job. … Yes, he might go far, as they say, if there’s anywhere far to go these days.”

  “That’s the trouble, and he probably realizes it as much as we do.”

  “Well, we can’t change the world for him, but it’s nice to have him around—company for Helen, if nothing else. I like him too, for that matter. I like most boys of his age—and of your age. Wish I had an army of ’em.”

  “What would you do with an army of them?”

  “Something better, I hope, than have them catalogue books or write biographies of my ancestors.” He read my thoughts enough to continue: “I daresay you’re rather surprised at my lack of enthusiasm for the family tree. That may be because I didn’t have a very satisfactory home life. When I was a small boy my father was just something distant and booming and Olympian—a bit of a bully in the house, or at least a bit of a Bultitude (if you remember your Vice-Versa)—all of which made it fortunate for the family that he wasn’t much in the home at all. My mother died when I was ten.”

  “But you liked her?”

  “I loved her very dearly. She was a delicate, soft-voiced, kind-hearted, sunny-minded, but rather helpless woman—but then most women would have been helpless against my father. He loved her, I’ve no doubt, in his own possessive way. Perhaps a less loving and more thoughtful husband would have sent her to a warmer climate during the winters, but my father wasn’t thoughtful—at best his thoughtlessness became comradely, as when he insisted on taking her for brisk walks over the hills on January days. It was a cherished saying of his that fresh air would blow the cobwebs out of your lungs. It also blew the life out of my mother’s lungs, for it was after one of those terrible walks, during which she gasped and panted while my father shouted Whitmanesque encouragement, that she called in Sanderstead, our local doctor, who diagnosed t.b. My father was appalled from that moment and spent a small fortune on all kinds of cures, but it was too late—she died within the year, and my father, I have since felt, promptly did something about her in his mind that corresponded to winding up or writing off or some other operation that happens even in the best financial circles.”

  He suddenly stood up and moved to the open window, staring out as if facing something that challenged him. “Those are the hills where he made her walk. You can see the line of them against the sky.” Then he turned abruptly and said he was sure I was tired and would want to go to bed.

  I assured him I wasn’t sleepy at all.

  “But you came in yawning.”

&
nbsp; “Maybe, but I’m wide-awake now. The breeze is so fresh … You must have hated your father.”

  He answered slowly: “Yes, I suppose I did. Freud would say so, anyhow. But of course when I was a boy and even up to my undergraduate days people only admitted the politer emotions.”

  “The war changed all that.”

  “Yes, indeed, and so many other things too.”

  He was silent for a moment; then I went on: “You once told me about a certain day, sometime after the war ended, when you found yourself on a park seat in Liverpool.”

  “When did I tell you that?” He controlled a momentary alarm, then added with a smile: “Ah yes, I remember—in your rooms at St. Swithin’s. I’m always garrulous after public speeches. … Well, if I told you, you know. That’s how it was. And don’t ask me about anything before the park seat because I can’t answer.”

  “But how about after the park seat?”

  He seemed relieved. “After? Oh, I can stand any amount of cross-examination there—I’m on safe ground from about noon on December 27, 1919.”

  “I wish you’d begin your story there, then, and bring it up to date.”

  “But there is no story—except my life story.”

  “That’s what I’d like to hear.”

  “How I Made Good? From Park Seat to Parliament?”.

  “If you like to call it that.”

  He laughed. “It’s mostly a lot of sordid business details and family squabbles. You don’t know the family, either.”

  “All the same, I wish you’d tell me. The effort of setting it all out might even help you towards the other memory—if you’re still anxious for it.”

 
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