James hilton collected n.., p.41
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.41

           James Hilton


  “Lord Borrell has stayed here several times, sir—bringing his valet, a very intelligent man named Jackson. So I thought perhaps if I were to telephone Jackson—”

  An hour laser Chet came up to Charles with a beaming smile.

  “Everything fixed, old boy. Sheldon wangled it through Borrell of the International Press—there won’t be a word anywhere. Censorship at source. Borrell was puzzled at first, but eventually he said he’d pass the word round. All of which saves me a job, God bless.”

  So the story, which became one for curious gossip throughout the local countryside as well as in many a London club, was never hinted at by Fleet Street. The only real difficulty was with the editor of the Stourton and District Advertiser, a man of independent mind who did not see why he should not offer as news an item of local interest that was undoubtedly true and did not libel anybody. A personal visit by Chetwynd to the landlord of the premises in which the Advertiser housed its printing plant was necessary before the whole matter could be satisfactorily cleared up.

  Charles spent the morning in a wearying and, he knew, rather foolish attempt to play down the congratulations. Every servant who had known him from earlier days sought him out to say a few halting, but demonstrably sincere words. It rather surprised as well as pleased him to realize that he had been remembered so well; but the continual smiling and handshaking became a bore. There were new faces too, recent additions to the Stourton staff, whom he caught staring at him round corners and from doorways. They all knew his story by now and wished to see the hero of it; the whole thing was doubtless more exciting than a novel because more personal in their lives, something to save up for relatives when they wrote the weekly letter or took their next day off.

  Once, on his way through the house, he passed the room on the first floor where his father lay ill. It was closed, of course, but the door of an adjoining room was open, and through it he could see two young nurses chatting volubly over cups of tea. They stared as he went by, and from that he knew that they too had heard and were excited over the news.

  When he appeared at lunch, he found Sanderstead and Truslove in the midst of what was evidently a sharp argument. Truslove was the family solicitor, a sallow sharp-faced man in his late fifties. During the little hiatus of deferential how-d’ye-dos and handshaking, the doctor and the lawyer continued to glare at each other as if eager to make an end of the truce. It came as soon as Charles said: “Don’t let me interrupt your talk.”

  “What I was saying, Mr. Charles,” resumed Truslove, eager for an ally, “is that the problem has a legal as well as a medical side. Naturally one would prefer to spare your father any kind of shock, but can we be certain that he himself would wish to be spared—when the alternatives are what they are?”

  “All I can say,” Sanderstead growled, “is that in his present state a shock might kill him.”

  “But we have Mr. Charles to think about,” urged Truslove; which made Charles interject: “Oh, for heaven’s sake don’t bother about me.”

  “Very natural of you to say that, Mr. Charles, but as a lawyer I’m bound to take a somewhat stricter viewpoint. There’s the question of the Will.” He spoke the word reverentially, allowing it to sink in before continuing: “None of us should forget that we’re dealing with an estate of very considerable value. We should bear in mind what would be your father’s wishes if he were to know that you were so—so happily restored to us.”

  “We should also bear in mind that he’s a very sick man,” retorted Sanderstead.

  “Precisely—and all the more reason that his desire, which I am sure would be to make certain adjustment necessary for the fair and equal division—”

  Charles drummed his fingers on the table. “I get your point, Truslove, but I’m really not interested in that side of it.”

  “But it’s my duty, Mr. Charles—my duty to your father and to the family quite as much as to you. If I feel morally sure that a client of mine—”

  Sanderstead interrupted: “If changing his will is what you’re thinking about, he could no more do that than address a board meeting! And that’s apart from the question of shock!”

  “Isn’t it possible that a shock caused by good news might give him sudden strength—just enough to do what he would feel at once to be necessary?”

  “Thanks for the interesting theory, Truslove. When you want any advice about law, just come to me.”

  Charles intervened with a slightly acid smile. “I don’t know why you two should quarrel. You may be right, either of you—but suppose I claim the casting vote? I don’t want to see my father if there’s any chance the shock might be bad for him, and I don’t give a damn whether I’m in or out of his will. … Now are you both satisfied?”

  But of course they were not, and throughout lunch, which was a heavy affair with nobody quite knowing what to talk about, he was aware that the two men were engrossed in meditations of further argument.

  During the afternoon he tried for a little quiet in the library, but Chet found him there and seemed anxious to express his point of view. “You see, old chap, I can understand how Truslove feels. Legally you’re—well, I won’t say dead exactly—but not normally alive. He’s bound to look at things from that angle. What I mean is, if anything were to happen to the old man—let’s hope it won’t, but you never can tell—you wouldn’t get a look in. Now that’s not fair to you, especially as there’s plenty for everybody, God bless. That’s why I think Truslove’s right—surely there must be a way of breaking good news gently—Sheldon, for instance—”

  “Yes, we all think of Sheldon in emergencies. But I do hope, Chet, you won’t press the matter. Truslove tells me there’ll be no difficulty about my resuming the income we all had from Mother—”

  “But good God, man, you can’t live on five hundred a year!”

  “Oh, I don’t know. Quite a number of people seem to manage on it.”

  “But—my dear chap—where? What would you do?”

  “Don’t know exactly. But I daresay I should find something.”

  “Of course if you fancied a salaried job in one of the firms—”

  “I rather feel that most jobs in firms wouldn’t appeal to me.”

  “You wouldn’t have to take it very seriously.”

  “Then it would probably appeal to me even less. … But we don’t have to decide it now, do we?”

  “No, of course not. Have a drink?”

  “No, thanks.”

  “I think I will. Tell you the truth, all this is just about wearing me down. Gave me an appetite at first, but now I feel sort of—”

  “You mean all the fuss connected with my return?”

  “Oh, not your fault, old chap. After all, what else could you do? But you know what families are like—and wives. Argue a man off his head.”

  “But what could there have been any argument about?”

  “Well, Truslove and Sanderstead—like cat and dog all day. Personally, as I told you, I back Truslove—but Lydia—well, she’s never seen you before—she can’t help feeling there’s something a bit fishy about it—and of course, old chap, you must admit you haven’t explained everything down to the last detail.”

  “I’m aware of that. If the last detail were available, I should be very glad to know it myself.”

  “Don’t misunderstand me, though. Far more things in heaven and earth than—than something or other—know what I mean? I accept your statement absolutely.”

  “But I haven’t made any statement.”

  “Well, at breakfast you did—you said you were all right—normal, I mean. And I’m prepared to take your word for it whatever anyone else thinks.”

  “Meaning that your wife believes I’m a fake?”

  “A fake or else … Well if she does, she’s wrong, that’s all I can tell her.”

  “I hope you won’t bother to.”

  “Nice of you to put it that way, but still… Sure you won’t have a drink?”
r />   “No thanks.”

  “Cheerio, then. God bless. …”

  By evening he had decided to leave. It was not that anyone had been unkind to him—quite the contrary, but he felt that he was causing a disturbance, and the disturbance disturbed him just as much as the others. He had given Truslove and Sanderstead his decision; it merely irritated him that they continued to wrangle. “The fact is, Sheldon, my remaining here is just an added complication at the moment, affording no pleasure either to myself or anyone else—so I’ll just fold my tent and silently steal away. But I won’t go far and I’ll leave you my address so that you can get in touch with me if there’s any need—if, for instance, Sanderstead decides my father’s well enough to see me. Don’t tell Truslove where I am—I don’t want any messages from him—and as for what you say to the others, I simply leave it to you, except that I’d rather they didn’t take my departure as a sign of either disgust or—er—abdication. … Perhaps you could think of something casual enough? And while I’m in Brighton I’ll warm your heart by buying a few good suits of clothes.”

  “Brighton, sir?”

  “Yes, I always did like Brighton. I’ll be all right alone—don’t worry. If you could pack a bag for me, and get hold of a little pocket money from the family vault or archive or wherever it’s kept—I suppose the hardest thing is to find any spare cash in a rich man’s house. …”

  “I can advance it, sir, with pleasure.”

  “Good … and put a few books in the bag, some of my old college books if you can find them.”

  “Maybe you oughtn’t to overtax your mind, sir?”

  “On the contrary, I feel rather inclined to treat my mind as one does a clock when it won’t go—give it a shake-up and see what happens. … Oh, and one other thing—I’d prefer to have the car drive me to Scoresby for the train. I’m so tired of shaking hands with people, and most of the station staff at Fiveoaks—”

  “I understand.” Sheldon hesitated a moment and then said; “You really are going to Brighton? I mean, you’re not—er—thinking of—er—”

  Charles laughed. “Not a bit of it, Sheldon. Put detectives on me if you like. And to show you it’s all open and aboveboard, you can send a wire booking a room for me at the Berners Hotel.”

  “Berners? I don’t think that’s one of the—”

  “I know, but I looked it up in the back of the railway guide and it’s in Regency Square—where my mother and Miss Ponsonby used to rent a house for the summer when I was a small boy.”

  So much for sentiment; actually when he got there he found the Berners Hotel in Regency Square not quite comfortable enough, and moved to a better one the next day, notifying Sheldon of the change. It teased him to realize that though he did not care for grandeur and did not insist on luxury, he yet inclined to a certain standard in hotels—a standard above that of the clothes in which he had arrived at Stourton. He wished he hadn’t told the Liverpool tailor to throw away his original torn and rain-sodden suit; it might have afforded some clue to the mystery. He pondered over it intermittently, but the effort merely tired him and brought nearer to the surface an always submerged sadness, that sense of bewildering, pain-drenched loss. He was afraid of that, and found relief in recollecting earlier clear-seen days of childhood and boyhood, the pre-war years during which he had grown up to be—as Miss Ponsonby would have said (only a governess could say such a thing outright)—an English gentleman.

  Sheldon had packed a few books, chosen almost at random; a further selection, more carefully made, arrived from Stourton two days later. They included several he remembered studying in preparation for Cambridge—Stubbs’s Constitutional History of England, Bryce’s Holy Roman Empire, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Good meaty reading, a little tough in places, suitable for whole mornings on the Promenade in one of the glass shelters; equally suitable for wet days in the hotel lounge. One morning, walking along the cliffs towards Rottingdean, he met an elderly man with a dog; interest in a wreck on the beach below drew them into a conversation which presently veered to books and politics. For three successive mornings afterwards he took the same walk, met the same man, and continued the same conversation, each time more interestingly; but on the fourth morning the man didn’t appear, nor on any subsequent morning when Charles took the same walk. He didn’t particularly mind; indeed, it almost comforted him to think of such mutual contacts as possible without the foolish establishment of names and identities.

  Sheldon wrote to him regularly, giving him news of Stourton, but there wasn’t much to relate: Mr. Rainier kept about the same; Sanderstead and Truslove were still quarreling; while the family chafed more restively, finding Stourton rather dull to do nothing in, and wondering how long they must wait before they could decently decide to return to their respective homes. Not, of course, that they wanted the old man to die, but they clearly felt they shouldn’t have been sent for so soon; on top of which Charles’s return had somehow disturbed their equilibrium, for if there is one thing more mentally upsetting to a family than death, it must be (on account of its rarity) resurrection. All of which Charles either deduced from or read between the lines of Sheldon’s direct reportage of facts—such as that Truslove had had an unsatisfactory interview with Dr. Astley, that Chet’s wife was no longer on speaking terms with Bridget, that Chet had taken to spending most of his time practising shots in the billiard room, that the local vicar had paid a discreet visit hoping to see Charles, and that the weather was still fine, but the barometer beginning to fall.

  One morning at breakfast, while he was in the midst of reading Sheldon’s latest assurance that things were still about the same, a page boy brought a wire informing him at a glance that things were no longer the same at all. His father had died suddenly a few hours before.

  He packed his bag and left for Stourton by the next train, arriving at Fiveoaks towards late afternoon. There he acknowledged the greetings of several of the station staff (noting with relief that the sensation value of his own existence had considerably diminished), and hurried into the waiting car. This time the skies were darkening as the moment of the “view” appeared, but the great house still made its bow impressively.

  Sheldon was waiting at the open door to receive him; within the house, in the deliberately half-lit hall, Chet stood holding a whiskey and soda.

  “Hello, old chap. Had a good time? Sheldon says you’ve been dosing yourself with sea air—don’t blame you. … Turned chilly these last few hours—what about a drink?”

  Charles said he would have one, so Chet marched him into the dining room, where the liquor was kept. “You know, I once went to see a man in London—somewhere in Campden Hill I think it was—sort of artist’s studio—but the chap had built a regular bar, like a pub, at one end of his dining room—awfully good idea, don’t you think? … Well, God bless.”

  Charles asked for details of his father’s death and received them; then, alone, he went upstairs and entered the room where the old man lay. The numbness in his heart almost stirred; he touched the dead hand, feeling a little dead himself as he did so. Then he went downstairs to meet the others of the family, among them three recent arrivals, Jill with Kitty, and Julian. Jill was a heavily built smartly dressed woman in her late forties, the eldest of the family and the widow of a civil servant who had left her with a daughter by an earlier marriage of his own. Kitty was fourteen and generally described, even by those who did not dislike her, as “a bit of a handful.” Julian, back from Cannes, where he had been spending the winter, gave Charles a languid salutation and a remark evidently well prepared in advance. “How charming to see you again, Charles! I understand that when you regained your memory you found yourself in Liverpool on a wet day! Your only consolation must have been that it wasn’t Manchester!”

  Epigrams of this kind had established Julian’s reputation as the family wit, but they lacked spontaneity and his opening remark in any conversation was generally on a level, however disputable, to which he did not afterwards atta
in. In appearance he was tall, lean, and handsome in a rather saturnine, over-elegant way; he lived most of his life in fashionable resorts where he played a little tennis, indulged in little friendships, and painted little pictures of scenery which his friends said were “not so bad.”

  So now they were all gathered together, the Rainier family, in descending order of age, as follows: Jill, Chetwynd, George, Julia, Charles, Julian, and Bridget. It was a stale family joke to say that they were seven. Like many families who have dispersed, they found conversation hard except in exchanges of news about their own affairs—troubles with servants, new houses, business squabbles, and so on. During the difficult interval between death and the funeral it was Sheldon who took control like some well-built machine slipping into a particularly silent but effective gear. Charles was grateful for this, and especially, too, that Sheldon had arranged a quiet room for him, his old turret room, in which he could rest and read a good deal of the time. He was aware that all the family viewed him with curiosity and some with suspicion, and that intimacy with any of them would probably lead to questions about himself that he could not answer.

  A minor but on the whole welcome diversion was caused by the revelation that during the last twelve months of his life old Mr. Rainier had been having his biography written. The author was a young and unknown man named Seabury, who had apparently made a business of persuading rich men that posterity would regret the absence of any definitive story of their lives. Rainier, usually a shrewd detector of flattery, had in this case succumbed, so that the book had been commissioned, a sum paid to Seabury there and then, and a further sum promised “on completion” and “if approved.” When the old man’s state of health became serious, Seabury had evidently begun to fear for the balance of his payment, and so had hurried his manuscript into final shape, hoping perhaps to impress the assembled relatives by a certain fulsomeness of treatment that might be considered additionally appropriate in the circumstances.

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