James hilton collected n.., p.40
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.40
 

           James Hilton

  After a pause Sheldon answered: “I doubt if there is any formula for what you must be feeling, Mr. Charles. I could give you a bed in my own apartments if that would suit.”

  “Excellent. … Thank heaven something’s settled. … Been having decent weather here lately?”

  “Fairly, sir, for the time of the year. I noticed the barometer’s rising.”

  “Good. It was raining in Liverpool this morning.”

  He slept a heavy troubled sleep, full of dreams he could not clarify, but which left him vaguely restless, unsatisfied. December sunlight waked him by pouring on to his bed; he stared round, wondering where he was, then remembering. But he could not recognize the room—somewhere in the servants’ wing, he supposed, and he confirmed this by leaning up to the window. The central block of Stourton faced him grandly across the courtyard—there was the terrace, the big curving windows of the dining room, the East Wing with its corner turret. The spectacle found and fitted into a groove of his mind—somehow like seeing a well-known place and deciding it was reasonably like its picture postcards. … He was still musing when Sheldon came in with a tray.

  “Good morning, Mr. Charles. I brought you some tea.”

  “Thanks.”

  “The barometer’s still rising. Did you sleep well?”

  “Pretty well. What time is it?”

  “Eight o’clock. The family usually begin to come down about nine, but perhaps this morning—we stayed up rather late, you see … on the other hand, they may be anxious. …”

  “I understand. You can’t ever be certain how people will react, can you?”

  “No, sir.”

  “You should have brought an extra cup for yourself. Sit down and tell me all about it. What time did you go to bed? You look fagged out.”

  “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to bed at all. There were so many things to do—I had to talk to Dr. Sanderstead—and then your clothes—you’d hardly wish to wear them again, I think.”

  “No?”

  “I took the liberty of borrowing a suit from Mr. Chetwynd—”

  “Look here, never mind about all that—let’s have first things first. You told them all?”

  “Not your father, sir—but I told the others.”

  “How did they take it?”

  “They were naturally surprised—in fact they could hardly believe me at first.”

  “And then?”

  “Well, I suppose they did believe me—eventually. They expect to see you at breakfast.”

  “Good … but you say you haven’t yet told my father?”

  “That was why I went to see Dr. Sanderstead—to ask his advice.”

  “Ah yes, of course. You always think of the sensible things, Sheldon.”

  “He was rather troubled about the danger of giving the old gentleman a shock—he says he’d like to have a talk with you about it first.”

  “All right, if he says so.”

  “I also took the liberty of telephoning to Mr. Truslove.”

  “Truslove?”

  “It seemed to me that—er—he ought to be informed also, as soon as possible.”

  “Well, maybe that’s sensible too, though it hadn’t occurred to me. … How about a bath?”

  “Already waiting for you—if you’ll follow me.”

  “What about the servants, if I meet any of them?”

  “They don’t know yet, except Wilson and Lucas—I shall call the others together during the morning and tell them. And Mr. Truslove will be here for lunch—along with Dr. Sanderstead and Dr. Astley from London.”

  By that time they were at the door of the bathroom. “Quite elegant, Sheldon—new since I was here, isn’t it?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “From which I gather the family income remains—er—not so bad?”

  A wrinkled smile. “Like the barometer, sir—still rising. …”

  He bathed, smoked a cigarette, and put on the clothes Sheldon had laid out for him. Brown tweeds—Chet had always favored them, and they fitted pretty well—as children he and Chet could generally wear each other’s suits. And a Netherton tie—trust Sheldon to think of details. Netherton; and a whole cloud of memories assailed him suddenly: strapping on cricket pads in front of the pavilion; strawberries and cream in the tuckshop; the sunlight slanting into the chapel during Sunday services; hot cocoa steaming over the study gas ring in wintertime; the smell of mud and human bodies in a Rugby scrum. … Netherton. And then Cambridge. And then the cadet school. And then France. And then … the full stop. … He controlled himself, leading his thoughts back from the barrier, gently insinuating them into the immediate future. He found he could best do this by adopting a note of sardonic self-urging: come along—trousers, waistcoat, tie, shoes, coat—button up for the great family reunion. “All aboard for the Skylark”—which set him recollecting holidays with his mother as a small boy—never with his father; his father had always been too busy. They used to rent a house at Brighton, in Regency Square, taking servants with them—Miss Ponsonby and a maid named Florrie, and every morning they would walk along the front not quite as far as Portslade, turning back so inevitably that Portslade became for him a sort of mysterious place beyond human access—until, one afternoon while his mother was having a nap, he escaped from the house and reached Portslade a dauntless but somewhat disappointed explorer. “I hope the clothes will do for the time being, Mr. Charles.”

  “Fine—just a bit loose in front. Chet must be putting on weight.”

  “I’ll have a talk with Mr. Masters sometime today. He has your old measurements, but it might be safer to have him visit you again.”

  “Much safer, I’m sure. You think I’ve changed a lot, Sheldon?”

  “Not in appearance, sir. You took very fit.”

  “And yet there is a difference?”

  “In your manner, perhaps. But that’s natural. It’s a nervous strain one can well understand after all you’ve been through.”

  “I’d understand it better if I knew what I have been through. But never mind that. Time for breakfast.”

  He walked across the courtyard, entering the house from the terrace. No one had yet appeared; the usual new-lit fire was burning, the usual blue flames distilling a whiff of methylated spirit from under the copper dishes. The Morning Post and Times on the little table. A cat on the hearthrug—a new cat, who looked up indifferently and then resumed a comprehensive toilet. Wilson was standing by the dishes, trying hard to behave as if the return of a long-lost son were one of the ordinary events of an English household.

  “Good morning, Mr. Charles.”

  “Morning, Wilson.”

  “What can I get you, sir? Some kedgeree—or ham and eggs—kipper—kidneys—”

  “Suppose I have a look.”

  He eased a little of his embarrassment by the act of serving himself. He knew Wilson must be staring at him all the time. As he carried his plate back to the table he said: “Well, it’s good to be back.” It was a remark without meaning—a tribute to a convention that did not perfectly fit, like Chetwynd’s clothes, but would do for the time being.

  “Yes, indeed, sir. Very glad to see you again.”

  “Thanks.” And he opened The Times, the dry and crinkly pages engaging another memory. “You still warm the paper in front of the fire, Wilson?”

  “Yes, sir. I always had to when Mr. Rainier used to come down—it’s got to be a sort of habit, I suppose.”

  “Queer how one always associates big things with little things. I get the whole picture of my childhood from the smell of toasted printer’s ink.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  He ate his ham and eggs, scanning the inside news page. Trouble in Europe—the usual Balkan mix-up. Trouble in Ireland, and that was usual too—British officers assassinated. Not much of a paper after the holiday—never was. The usual chatty leader about Christmas, full of Latin quotations and schoolmasterly facetiousness—dear old Times. A long letter from somebody advocating simplified
spelling—God, were they still at that? Now that the war was over, it seemed both reassuring and somehow disappointing that England had picked up so many old threads and was weaving them into the same pattern.

  Then Chetwynd, eldest of the brothers, began the procession.

  “Hello, old chap, how are you?”

  (What a thing to say! But still, what else?)

  (Miss Ponsonby, his old governess, had once adjured him: When people say “How are you?” the correct answer is “How are you?” If you tell them how you are, you show yourself a person of inferior breeding. … “But suppose, Miss Ponsonby,” he had once asked, “you really want to know how somebody else is, mustn’t they ever tell you?”)

  However he answered: “Hello, Chet. How are you?”

  “Want you to meet my wife, Lydia. … Lydia … this is Charlie.”

  An oversized good-looking woman with small, rather hostile eyes.

  And then Julia, plumper than when he had seen her last, but still the same leathery scarecrow—red-complexioned, full of stiff outdoor heartiness.

  “Hello, Charles! Sheldon told us all about it, and it’s just too wonderful. I can’t tell you how—”

  But then as he kissed her, the fire went out like damp match and they neither of what to say to each other. He and Chet almost collided in their eagerness to serve her with food; Chet beat him to it; he slipped back into his chair.

  “Kidneys, Julia?”

  “Only scrambled eggs, please, Chet.”

  “Not even a little piece of bacon?”

  “No, really, Chet.”

  “Any news of Father this morning?”

  “I saw one of the nurses as I came down—she said he’d had a fairly good night and was about the same.”

  “Oh good. … Quite sure about the bacon, Julia?”

  “Quite sure.”

  “Charles, what about you while I’m here? You don’t seem to have much on your plate.”

  “Nothing more for me, thanks.”

  “Well, must be my turn then, and I don’t mind admitting I’m hungry. Thrilling events always take me that way. … Too bad Father’s ill—we’d have had a party or something to celebrate.”

  “I’m sorry he’s ill, but not for that reason, I assure you.”

  “No? Well …” Chet came to the table with his plate, having deliberately delayed at the sideboard till he heard the voices of others approaching. Now he looked up as if in surprise. “Morning, George. … Morning, Bridget. …”

  George, a nervous smile on his plump moustached face; Bridget, the youngest of the family, sweet and shy, always ready to smile if you looked at her or she thought you were likely to look at her. George’s wife Vera, and Julia’s husband … an introduction necessary here—“Charles, this is Dick Fontwell”—“Ahdedoo, ahdedoo”—a tall, long-nosed fellow who threw all his embarrassment into a fierce handshake.

  Breakfast at Stourton was a hard meal at the best of times, only mitigated by ramparts of newspaper and unwritten permission to be as morose as one wished. But this morning they all felt that such normal behavior must be reversed—everybody had to talk and go on talking. Charles guessed that they were all feeling as uncomfortable as he, with the additional drawback of having had less sleep. During the interchange of meaningless remarks about the weather, the news in the paper, Christmas, and so on, he meditated a little speech which he presently made to them when Wilson had left to bring in more coffee.

  He began, clearing his throat to secure an audience: “Er … I really do feel I owe you all sorts of explanations, but the fact is, this whole business of coming back here is in many ways as big a mystery to me as it must be to you—I suppose loss of memory’s like that—but what I do want to tell you is that in spite of all the mystery I’m a perfectly normal person so far as everyday things are concerned—I’m not ill, you don’t have to be afraid of me or treat me with any special consideration. … So just carry on here as usual—I’m anxious not to cause any additional upset at a moment when we’re all of us bound to be upset anyhow.”

  He hoped that was a helpful thing to have said, but for a moment after he had finished speaking he caught some of their eyes and wondered if it had been wise to say anything at all. Then Bridget leaned over and touched his hand.

  “That’s all right, Charles.”

  Chet called out huskily from the far end of the table: “Quite understand, old chap. We’re all more pleased than we can say, God bless. Of course with the old man being ill we can’t exactly kill the fatted calf, but—but—”

  “I’ll consider it killed,” he interrupted, just as Wilson arrived with more coffee. They all smiled or laughed, and the situation seemed eased.

  Dr. Sanderstead had been expected for lunch, but he arrived a good deal earlier, along with Dr. Astley. Sanderstead was a wordy, elderly, fairly efficient general practitioner who could still make a good living out of his private patients, leaving a more efficient junior partner to take care of the rest. He had been the Stourton doctor ever since the family were children. Accompanied by the London heart specialist, whose herringbone tweeds for a country visit were almost too formally informal, he spent over an hour in the sickroom, after which Astley left and gave him a chance to talk to Charles alone.

  They shook hands gravely, then at the doctor’s suggestion began walking in the garden. Five minutes were occupied by a seesaw of congratulations, expressions of pleasure, thanks, and acknowledgments. Charles became more and more silent as these proceeded, eventually leading to a blank pause which Sanderstead broke by exclaiming: “Don’t be afraid I’m going to ask you questions—none of my business, anyhow. Sheldon told me all that you told him—it’s a very peculiar case, and I know very little about such things. There are some who claim to, and if you wished to consult—”

  “At the moment, no.”

  “Well, I don’t blame you—get settled down first, not a bad idea. All the same, though, if ever you want—”

  “That’s very kind of you, but I’d rather you tell me something about my father.”

  “I was coming to that. I’m afraid he’s quite ill.”

  They walked on a little way in silence; then Sanderstead continued: “I’m sure the first thing you wished to do on coming back to us in this—er—remarkable way was to see him, and for that reason I’m grateful to you for deferring the matter at my request.”

  Charles did not think there was any particular cause for gratitude. He said: “Tell me frankly how things are.”

  “That’s what I want to talk to you about. In a man of his age, and suffering from his complaint, complete recovery can’t exactly be counted on—but we can all hope for some partial improvement that will enable him to—to—face a situation which will undoubtedly give him a great deal of pleasure once the initial shock has been—er—overcome.”

  Charles was beginning to feel irritated. “You don’t have to break things gently with me, Sanderstead. What you’re hinting at, I take it, is that my father shouldn’t learn of my existence till he’s a good deal better than he is at present.”

  “Well—er—perhaps—”

  “To save you the trouble of arguing the point, I may as well tell you I entirely agree and I’m willing to wait as long as you think fit.”

  “I don’t know how to express my appreciation—”

  “You don’t have to. Naturally I’d like to see my father, but if you say he’s not well enough, that settles it. After all this time I daresay we can both wait a bit longer.”

  They did not talk much after that. Charles was aware he had rumpled the doctor’s feelings by not living up to the conventional pattern of a dutiful son; but he began to feel increasingly that he could not live up to any conventional pattern, still less could he be “himself,” whatever that was; all he could do was to cover his inner numbness with a façade of slightly cynical objectivity. It was the only attitude that didn’t seem a complete misfit.

  A further problem arose later in the morning, but Sheldon broac
hed it, and somehow he found it easier to talk to him.

  “Dr. Sanderstead tells me you’ve agreed to his suggestion that for the time being—”

  “Yes, I agreed.”

  “I’m afraid that opens up another matter, sir. Now that the servants know—which of course is inevitable—I don’t see how we can prevent the story from leaking out.”

  “I don’t suppose you can, nor do I see why you should. I’m not breaking any local bylaws by being alive, am I?”

  “It isn’t that, Mr. Charles, but your father sometimes asks to see a paper, and I’m afraid that once the story gets around it’ll attract quite a considerable amount of attention.”

  “Headlines, you mean?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “I wouldn’t like that for my own sake, let alone my father’s.”

  “It would doubtless be very unpleasant. A young man from the Daily Post was on the telephone just now.”

  “Already? Well, if they think they’re going to make a national hero of me, they’re damn well mistaken. I won’t see anybody.”

  “I’m afraid that might not help, sir. It’s their job to get the news and they usually manage it somehow or other.”

  “Well, what do you suggest?”

  “I was thinking that if somebody were to explain the matter personally on the telephone, giving the facts and using Mr. Rainier’s state of health as ground for the request—”

  “You mean get in touch with all the editors?”

  “No, not the editors, sir—the owners. You see Mr. Rainier has a large newspaper interest himself, and that makes for a certain—”

  “Owns a paper, does he? I never knew that.”

  “It was acquired since your time, sir. The Evening Record.”

  “Well, if you think it’ll do any good, let’s try. Who do you think should do the talking—George or Chet? Better Chet, I’d say.”

  “Well yes, Mr. Chetwynd would perhaps explain it more convincingly than Mr. George. But what I really had in mind—”

 
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