James hilton collected n.., p.4
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.4

           James Hilton

  Somberly he reached his house and, as he entered it, suddenly felt alone. Which made him think; for he had been just as alone ever since Livia had left six months before; and if he had not felt it so much, that proved how hopefully, in his heart, he had looked upon the separation. She would come back, he must all along have secretly believed; or at least the bare possibility had been enough to encourage his ever-ready optimism about the future. Night after night he had entered his empty house, made himself a cup of tea, spent a last hour with a book or the evening paper, and gone to bed with the comforting feeling that anything could be endured provided it might not last forever. There was even a half-ascetic sense in which he had found tolerable his enforced return to bachelorhood, and there was certainly a peace of mind that he knew her return would disturb—yet how welcome that disturbance would be! And how insidiously, behind the logic of his thoughts, he had counted on it!…He was aware of that now, as he entered his house and felt the aloneness all-enveloping. Heavily he climbed the stairs to his bedroom and began to throw a few necessary articles into a suitcase. Even that he did with an extra pang, for it reminded him of times when Livia had packed for him to attend meetings or conferences in other parts of the country; she was an expert packer as well as very particular about his clothes. And the first thing she did when he returned was to unpack and repair the ravages of his own carelessness about such things. There was that odd streak of practicality in her, running parallel to other streaks; so that she not only loved classical music but could repair the phonograph when something went wrong with it. And the garden that Winslow had admired was further evidence; it had been a dumping ground for wastepaper and old tin cans before she started work on it. Recent months without her attention had given the weeds a chance, but still her hand was in everything, and the roses seemed to have come into special bloom that week as if expecting her return. In a sort of way she had done for that patch of wasteland what George himself had tried to do for Browdley as a whole (yet would never have bothered to do for his own back garden); but of course she had done it without any civic sense, and for the simple reason that the place belonged to her. George sighed as he thought of that, recognizing motives that were so strong in her and so absent in him; but with the sigh came a wave of tolerance, as for someone who does simple natural things that are the world’s curse, doubtless, but since they cannot be changed, how pointless it is to try. Yet the world must be changed…and so George’s mind ran on, facing an old dilemma as he snapped the locks on his suitcase. All at once the house, without Livia in it, became unbearable to him; he knew he would not sleep that night, and as his train left early in the morning he might as well not even go to bed; he would take a walk, a long walk that would tire him physically as well as clarify some of the problems in his mind. He went downstairs and put on a hat, then passed through the partition doorway that separated the house from the printing office. It was the middle of the week, the slack time between issues; copy for the next one lay littered on his desk—mostly local affairs—council meetings, church activities, births, marriages, and funerals. Occasionally he wrote an editorial about some national or international event, and the one he had composed that morning faced him from the copy desk as unfathomably as if someone else had written it in another language. It read:—

  These are times when the clouds of war roll back and THE SUN OF HUMAN BETTERMENT shines out to be a lamp of memory for the future. Let us hope, therefore, that AUGUST 31st, NINETEEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY-ONE, the date selected as that of the official end of the Great War, will have more than a merely legal significance, that it will symbolize the actual dying out of hatreds and bitterness both at home and abroad. In this connection it is good news that the Washington Conference is soon to convene, and that the problem of world-wide DISARMAMENT will then be tackled in real earnest. We of this town, who have just dedicated our first postwar plan for a BETTER BROWDLEY, can feel especially proud, for our own achievement makes us part of a mighty movement in which men of goodwill all over the world are straining to participate.

  (A pretty fair example, incidentally, of George’s editorial writing—typical, at any rate, in its use of capitals, in its opening metaphor that almost gets out of hand, and in its tendency to glib phrases. Typical also of George’s fondness for linking local and world affairs into a pleasing dish of optimism.)

  But now, reading it over, he had difficulty in gathering what it was all about. Disarmament? Disarmament?…The word echoed meaninglessly in his mind as he sought, even for a moment, to concentrate on something nonpersonal. What did he know about disarmament? And at the form of that question he smiled, because of the oddest recollection that came to him there and then, as he crossed the printing office to the door leading into Market Street.

  It was of something that had happened several years before, when he had just acquired the almost bankrupt Guardian and was full of visions of the kind of influence a small-town paper could wield, perhaps even nationally, if its editor were the right sort, and surely the right sort must be well-educated, which surely in its turn could mean nothing less than a university degree. So that had become one of his numerous ambitions, and since Oxford and Cambridge were out of the question for a man who had a job to do, he had concentrated on a near-by provincial foundation of decent repute that offered degrees by examination only. It had been a hard struggle, even so, for he had originally left school at the age of thirteen, and though the following decade and a half had contained a good deal of self-education there were many deplorable gaps. He could write and speak forcefully, for instance, but before beginning to study he had scarcely heard of the technicalities of grammar, he had small knowledge of history, and none at all of any foreign language. At the first of the two necessary examinations he was baffled by the academic atmosphere, by the courtesy bordering on indifference of the pedagogue in charge (so unlike the nagging, shouting schoolmasters of his boyhood days), and he was rather dashed by an English paper which, though offering the most generous choice of questions, could not avoid the discovery of so much that he did not know. To one question, couched in that very phrase—“What do you know of the Pathetic Fallacy?”—he had replied, pathetically enough: “Nothing”; and there were other matters nearly as hopeless. Leaving the examination hall after that three-hour battle he had been fairly certain of failure.

  But a few weeks later he received a note asking him to appear at the same place for oral questioning—which, he was cautioned, did not necessarily imply that he had passed the written tests. The coolness of the warning reinforced his pessimism, so that he was in a thoroughly black mood by the time he faced the ordeal. A tall, thin, spectacled man with a domelike forehead and very precise clipped speech presided at the interview. (Ever afterwards he was the personification of an ideal in George’s mind—the pure scholar, unworldly, incomparable, serenely aloof; so that on meeting Lord Winslow, for instance, he felt he already knew the type.)

  The prototype had talked pleasantly and informally with George’s examination papers before him, and also (though George had not known this) notes of reminder that the examinee was thirty-one years old, had had nothing but an elementary-school education, but was already owner and editor of a local newspaper as well as a town Councillor with reputedly advanced views—altogether a rather remarkable specimen. Clearly George both puzzled and attracted him, though he gave no sign of it; he merely steered the conversation from one subject to another—which was not difficult, for George loved to talk. After half an hour or so the older man nodded, picked up the examination papers, cleared his throat, and began rather uncomfortably: “A pity, Mr. Boswell, that you have done so badly in one paper—English—that your total marks do not reach the required minimum.”

  George’s conviction of failure, which had somehow become suspended during the conversation, now returned with a hard hit to the pit of the stomach. “Aye,” he said heavily. “I guessed as much.”

  “Do you think you will try again, Mr. Boswell?”

bsp; “I dunno, sir. I dunno if I’ll have the time to.”

  “Why not?”

  “You see I’m on the local Council and I run a newspaper—there’s a heap of work in all that—work that I can’t cut down on. If it was just a question of giving up fun or a hobby I wouldn’t mind, but when it means important things…”

  “Such as?”

  “Well, sir, I doubt if you’d be interested in all the details, but I’m trying to get a postwar slum-clearance scheme adopted by the Council, and that’s a job, I can tell you—if you knew the sort of place Browdley is.”

  “H’m, yes… I understand. And I do not dispute the importance of such work, or the priority you feel you must give to it. What does puzzle me—a little—is your motive in entering for this examination at all. Did you feel that a university degree would help you politically—or professionally?”

  “No sir, it isn’t that. But I thought it might help me—sometimes—inside myself—to feel I was properly educated.”

  “And what do you mean by ‘properly educated’?”

  George pondered a moment, then replied: “I’ll put it this way, sir—sometimes I read a book that seems to me just plain stupid, but because I’m not properly educated I can’t be sure whether it’s stupid or whether I’m stupid.”

  A smile creased over the older man’s face as he burrowed afresh among the papers, finally discovering one and holding it up before his spectacles. “H’m… h’m…Such a pity, Mr. Boswell—such a pity…Mind you, I didn’t mark these English papers myself, so of course I don’t know whether…” And then a long pause, punctuated by more throat clearings and spectacle fìdgetings. “Take this question, for instance—‘What do you know of the Pathetic Fallacy?’ I see, Mr. Boswell, that your answer is ‘Nothing,’ for which you have been given no marks at all.”

  George felt it was rather unfair to rub it in; if he had failed, he had failed; and when (since the examination) he had found out what the Pathetic Fallacy really was, it had turned out to be so different from anything he could possibly have guessed that he thought he had at least done well not to try. So with this vague self-justification in mind he now blurted out:

  “Well, sir, it was the truth, anyway. I did know nothing and I said so.”

  “Precisely, Mr. Boswell. I have no reason to suppose that your answer was not a perfectly correct one to the question as asked, and if the questioner had wished to judge your answer on any other merits it seems to me he should have used the formula ‘State what you know’—not ‘What do you know?’ I shall therefore revise your rating and give you full marks for that particular question—which, I think, will just enable you to reach the minimum standard for the examination…My congratulations…I hope you will find time to work for the final examination next year….”

  “Oh yes, sir—yes, indeed, sir!”

  But George hadn’t found time, after all, because the year ahead was the one during which he had met and married Livia.

  And what did he know of Livia, for that matter?

  Browdley streets were deserted as he closed the door of the newspaper office behind him. From Market Street he turned into Shawgate, which is Browdley’s chief business thoroughfare; he walked on past all the shops, then through the suburban fringe of the town—“the best part of Browdley,” people sometimes called it. But the best part of Browdley isn’t, and never was, so good. The town consists mainly of four-roomed bathroomless houses built in long parallel rows, dormitories of miners and cotton operatives who (in George’s words to Lord Winslow) had piled up money like muck for a few local families. George had not added that his wife belonged to one of those families, even when the mention of Channing and Felsby’s Mill would have given him a cue. For Livia was a Channing—one of the Channings of Stoneclough…and suddenly he decided that, since he was trying to kill time by walking, he would walk to Stoneclough. It was even appropriate that he should take there his problem, his distress, and that brooding subcurrent of anger.

  Presently his walk quickened and his head lifted as if to meet a challenge; and in this new mood he reached the top of a small rise from which Browdley could be seen more magically at night than ever in the daytime; for at night, especially under a moon, the observer might be unaware that those glinting windows were factories and not palaces, and that the shimmer beneath them was no fabled stream, but a stagnant, stinking canal. Yet to George, who had known all this since childhood, there were still fables and palaces in Browdley, palaces he would build and fables he would never surrender; and as he walked to Stoneclough that night and looked back on the roofs of the town, he had a renewal of faith that certain things were on his side.

  The trouble with Livia, he told himself for the fiftieth time, was that there was no reason in so many things she did; or was there a reason this time—the reason he had been reluctant to face?

  He climbed steadily along the upland road; it was past one in the morning when he came within sight of Stoneclough. The foothills of the Pennines begin there; there is a river also, the same one that flows dirty and sluggish through Browdley, but clean and swift in its fall from the moorland, where it cuts a steep fissure called a “clough,” and in so doing gives the place a name and provides Browdley citizens with a near-by excursion and picnic ground. The first cotton mills, driven from a water wheel, were set up in such places towards the end of the eighteenth century, and one of them belonged to a certain John Channing of whom little is known save that he died rich in the year of Waterloo. The shell of the old graystone mill that made his fortune still stands astride the tumbling stream; but the rows of hovels in which the workpeople lived have long since disappeared, though there are traces of them on neighboring slopes, where sheep huddle in rain against weed-grown fireplaces.

  Gone too is the first Channing house that adjoined the mill; it was demolished about the time of Queen Victoria’s accession, when the Channing family, by then not only rich but numerous, built a new and much more pretentious house on higher ground where the clough meets the moorland. About this time also it became clear that steam would oust water power in the cotton industry, and with this in their shrewd minds the Channings took another plunge; five miles away, on meadows near what was then the small village of Browdley, and in partnership with another mill-owner named Felsby, they built one of the first large steam-driven mills in Lancashire. Other speculators obligingly built Mill Street for the new workers to live in, and the same process, repeated during succeeding decades with other mills and other streets, made Browdley what it is and what it shouldn’t be—as George said (and then waited for the cheer) in his popular lecture “Browdley Past and Present,” delivered fairly frequently to local literary, antiquarian, and similar societies. Yes, there was one question at any rate to which he could return a convincing answer—“What do you know of Browdley?”—and that answer might well be: “More than anyone else in the world.”

  Suddenly George saw the house—the house which, like the locality, was called Stoneclough. It showed wanly in the moonlight against the background of moorland and foreground of treetops. The moon was flattering to it, softening its heavy Victorian stolidity, concealing the grim under-shadow that Browdley’s smoke had contributed in the course of half a century of west winds. This was the house the Channings had lived in, the Channings of Stoneclough. A succession of Channings had traveled the five miles between Stoneclough and the Browdley mill on foot, on horseback, by pony carriage and landau, by bicycle and motorcycle and car, according to taste and period; and the same succession had added to the house a hodgepodge of excrescences and outbuildings that had nothing in common save evidence of the prevalent Channing trait throughout several generations; one of them might construct a billiard room, another remodel the stables, yet another add terraces to the garden or a bow window to the drawing room—but whatever was done at all was done conscientiously, always with the best materials, and with a rooted assumption of permanence in the scheme of things.

  George saw Stoneclough a
s a symbol of that assumption, and—because the house was now empty and derelict—as a hint that such permanence would have received its virtual deathblow in 1914, even apart from the special fate of the Channings. Only the gardens had any surviving life, the shrubs growing together till they made an almost unbroken thicket around the house, the fences down so that any straggler from the clough could enter the once-sacred precincts out of curiosity or to gather fuel for a picnic fire. All the windows were broken or boarded up; everything lootable from the interior had long ago been looted. Yet the fabric of the house still stood, too massive to have suffered, and in moonlight and from a distance almost beautiful. George wondered, not for the first time, what could be done with such a property. No one would buy it; no one who could afford repairs and taxes would want to live there or anywhere near Browdley, for that matter. Once or twice he had thought of suggesting that the Council take it over for conversion into a municipal rest home, sanatorium, or something of the kind—but then he had cautioned himself not to give his opponents the chance for another jibe—that he had made Browdley buy his wife’s birthplace.

  He did not walk up to the house, but turned back where the road began its last steep ascent; here, for a space of a few acres, were the older relics—the original Channing Mill, the broken walls of cottages that had not been lived in for a hundred years. George never saw them without reflecting on the iniquity of that early industrial age—eight-year-old children slaving at machines for fourteen hours out of the twenty-four, sunlight falling on the treetops in the clough as later on rubber forests of the Congo and the Amazon. Thus had the first Channings flourished; and it might be nemesis, of a kind, that had given their grand house to the bats and the rats. But its quality showed even in ruin; it was a substantial ruin.

  By four o’clock George was back in Browdley, tired and a little footsore. As he turned into Market Street and fished in his pocket for the door key there came a voice from the pavement near his house. “’Ow do, George. Nice night—but I’d rather be in bed all the same.”

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