James hilton collected n.., p.42
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.42

           James Hilton

  The manuscript, neatly typed and with a covering letter, was brought to Stourton by special messenger on the evening before the funeral; Sheldon accepted it and placed it on the hall table; Charles, passing by an hour later, opened it at random. He happened to light on a description of Cowderton, where the Rainier steelworks were situated, and read:—

  But what has been sacrificed in the sylvan peace of its surroundings has been gained in the town’s prevalent atmosphere of optimism and prosperity; and for these gifts, connected so visibly with the firm of Rainier, Cowderton must thank the dreams of a lad who was himself born in the heart of rural England.

  Charles smiled slightly and did not read any more. He felt that the book, if it were all in such a vein, would probably have pleased his father, while at the same time affording him the additional pleasure of not being taken in by it.

  Others of the family, however, got hold of the manuscript and read enough of it to decide it was rather good, though of course they had to be a little patronizing about a mere writer, especially an unknown one, while at the same time nourishing the secret wonderment of all healthy-minded Philistines that the act of writing can be protracted throughout three hundred pages. But the manuscript’s chief value lay in its usefulness as a subject for conversation during the rather hard-going lunch party that assembled towards half-past two the following afternoon. Those who had just seen old Mr. Rainier’s remains lowered into their final resting place in Stourton Churchyard were relaxing after the strain of the ordeal while steeling themselves for another—the reading of the will; and there, at the table, with all the secrets in his pocket, sat Truslove, somehow larger now than life, munching saddle of mutton in full awareness that his moment was about to arrive, and striking the exact professional balance between serious-mindedness and good humor—prepared to respond to a joke if one were offered, or to commiserate with a tear if one were let fall.

  It seemed to be a family convention—unwritten, unspoken, even in a sense not consciously thought about—that Sheldon was one of them at such moments, and that as soon as the other servants had left the dining room his own remaining presence need impose no censorship. Chetwynd had been talking business optimism with Truslove. “What we’ve got to do now, old chap, is to plan for peace as efficiently as we planned for war, because there’s going to be no limit to what British industry can do in the future—why, only during the last few weeks one of our war factories turned to making motorcycles—we’re snowed under with orders already, simply can’t cope with them.” This was vaguely pleasant news to the family, though business was always tiresome—and yet, what else was there to talk about? Then somebody thought of the biography, and George asked Sheldon his opinion of it.

  “I looked it over, sir, and it seemed quite respectably written.”

  “Respectably—or respectfully?” put in Julian, staking out his epigram rather faster than usual.

  “Both, I think, sir.”

  Sheldon smiled, and then all of them, except Charles, began to laugh, as if suddenly realizing that there was no reason why they shouldn’t. In the midst of the laughter Chetwynd glanced across the table and caught a ready eye. “How about an adjournment to the library, Truslove?”

  Half an hour later the secrets were known, and there was nothing very startling about them. The bulk of Henry Rainier’s fortune, amounting after payment of death duties to over one million eight hundred thousand pounds, was divided equally between six of the children enumerated by name, except that Chetwynd, because of seniority and closer contacts with the industrial firms, took over a few additional controlling interests. Stourton was also left to him, as well as the town house in London. A few heirlooms went to various members of the family; there were bequests to servants and a few small gifts to charity. Charles, of course, was not mentioned.

  The whole revelation was so unspectacular that when Truslove had folded up the will and replaced it in his pocket there was a general feeling of relief and anticlimax. Any faint fears the family might have entertained (and there always are such faint tears where money is concerned) could now be disbanded; they were all going to stay comfortably rich for the rest of their lives—even richer than most of them had anticipated.

  Sheldon had not been present during the actual will reading, but when he next entered Chetwynd was the first to address him, almost jauntily: “Well, Sheldon, he remembered you. You get a thousand.”

  “That was very generous of Mr. Rainier.”

  “And if you take my advice you’ll put it back in the firm—wonderful chance to double or treble it. … However, we can discuss that later. By the way, I’m taking it for granted you’ll stay with me here?”

  “I shall be very pleased to do so, Mr. Chetwynd.”

  Chet, it was clear, was already seeing himself an Industrial Magnate, Master of Stourton, and Supreme Arbiter of Family Affairs. There was a touch of childishness in his attitude that prevented it from being wholly unpleasant. Having made his gesture, he now turned to Truslove, whose eye still watchfully waited. “Now, old chap, before we close the meeting, I think you’ve something else to say.”

  Truslove rose, cleared his throat, and began by remarking that it was perhaps appropriate at such a moment to turn from a sad event to one which, by being almost contemporaneous, had undoubtedly served to balance pleasure against pain, gain against loss. Indeed, had the late Mr. Rainier been permitted to learn of it, who knows but what … However, they knew his views about that, and the differences that had arisen between himself and Dr. Sanderstead; death had put an end to them, so it was perhaps unnecessary to refer to them again. What he did feel was undoubtedly what they all felt—a desire to welcome Mr. Charles to their midst and to assure him of their unbounded joy at the extraordinary good fortune that had befallen him. “We don’t pretend to understand exactly how it happened, Mr. Charles, but a very famous hymn informs us that God moves in a mysterious way.” A little titter all around the room. “And if our congratulations may have seemed either belated or lacking in expression, I am sure you will make allowances at this troubled time.”

  Charles bowed slightly. He did not think their congratulations either belated or lacking in expression—indeed, his chief complaint was that there had been so many of them so many times repeated.

  The lawyer continued: “Now I come to a matter nearer to my own province, and one that I must deal with directly and briefly. It has seemed both to Mr. Chetwynd, as the future head of the family concerns, and to myself, as representing in some sense the wishes which I feel would have been those of the late Mr. Rainier, a man whom it was my privilege to know for over forty years, and whose probable intentions I can therefore speak of with some justification …”

  And so on. What had happened, clearly, was that Truslove, having lost his battle with the doctors, had talked the family into an equity settlement—each of them agreeing to sacrifice a seventh part of his or her bequest in order that Charles should acquire an equal share. Dressed up in legal jargon, and with a good deal of smooth talk about “justice” and “common fairness,” the matter took ten minutes to enunciate, during which time Charles sat back in his chair, glancing first at one face and then at another, feeling that nothing could have been less enthusiastic than (except for Chet’s and Bridget’s) their occasional smiles of approval. Chet was expansive, like Santa Claus basking in an expected popularity; Bridget was sweet and ready with a smile, as always. But the others were grimly resigned to doing their duty in the most trying possible circumstances—each of them saying good-bye to forty thousand pounds with a glassy determination and a stiff upper lip. They were like boys at a good English school curbing their natural inclinations in favor of what had been successfully represented to them as “the thing to do.” Truslove must have given them a headmasterly pi-jaw, explaining just where their duty lay and how inevitably they must make up their minds to perform it; Chet had probably backed him up out of sheer grandiloquence—“Damn it all, we must give the fellow a square deal”
; begun under such auspices the campaign could not have failed. But when Charles looked at George, and Julia, and Jill, and Julian, and Lydia, he knew they were all desperately compelling themselves to swallow something unpleasant and get it over; which gave him a key to the mood in which he felt most of them regarded him: he was just a piece of bad luck, like the income tax or a horse that comes in last.

  Suddenly he found himself on his feet and addressing them; it was almost as if he heard his own voice, spoken by another person. “I’m sure I thank you all very much, and you too, Truslove. The proposal you’ve outlined is extremely generous—too generous, in fact. I’m a person of simple tastes—I need very little to live comfortably on—in fact the small income I already have is ample. So I’m afraid I can’t accept your offer, though I do once again thank you for making it.”

  He looked round their faces again, noting the sudden amazement and relief in the eyes of some of them—especially Chet’s wife, Lydia. Clearly they had never contemplated the possibility of his refusing. That began to amuse him, and then he wondered whether his refusal had not been partly motivated by a curiosity to see how they would take it. He really hadn’t any definite inclination, either to have the money or not; but his lack of desire for it himself was certainly not balanced by any particular wish that they should be enriched.

  Truslove and Chetwynd were on their feet with an instant chorus of objections. Truslove’s were doubtless sincere—after all, he had nothing to lose. But Chet—was it possible that his protests were waging sham war against an imperceptible hope that had dawned in him, a hope quite shamelessly reflected in the eyes of his wife? Was he seeking to employ just a featherweight too little persuasion to succeed? Charles did not believe that Chet would have attempted this balancing act if left to himself, but there was Lydia by his side, and he was undoubtedly afraid of her. Nevertheless he kept up the protesting, and Charles kept up the refusal; the whole family then began to argue about it, with more vehement generosity now that they felt the issue was already decided; but they made the mistake of keeping it up too long, for Charles suddenly grew tired and exclaimed: “All right then, if you all insist, I’ll agree to take it.”

  Truslove beamed on what he imagined to be his own victory; Chet, after a second’s hesitation, came across the room and shook Charles by the hand. “Fine, old chap. … Now we’re all set and Truslove can do the rest.” But the others could only stare in renewed astonishment as they forced deadly smiles into the supervening silence.

  There were papers they all had to sign; then Charles escaped upstairs. His room was the one he had slept in as a boy, though it had since been refurnished more opulently; it expanded at one corner into a sort of turret, windowed for three fourths of the circle, and from this viewpoint the vista of gardens and skyline was beautiful even towards dusk on a gray day. He was staring at it When Kitty entered. “Oh, Uncle Charles, I must show you this—it’s in today’s Times. …” She held out the paper, folded at the column of obituary appreciations. The item she pointed to ended as follows:—

  A lifelong individualist, there was never any wavering in his political and economic outlook, while his contributions to the cause of Free Trade, both financially and by utterance, were continual and ungrudging. A man whose character more easily won him the respect of his foes than the applause of the multitude, he rightly concentrated on an industrial rather than a political career, and though his representation of West Lythamshire in the Conservative interest had been in the strictest sense uneventful, his influence behind the political scene was never entirely withdrawn, nor did his advice go long unsought.

  “Uncle Charles, what does it mean?”

  “It’s just something—that somebody’s written.”

  “But I can’t understand it—at least, I can understand some of the words, but they don’t seem to mean anything. It’s about him, isn’t it?”

  He answered then, forgetting whom he was addressing: “It’s a charming letter about my father from a man who probably knew him slightly and disliked him intensely.”

  “Why did he dislike him?”

  He tried to undo the remark. “Stupid of me to say that—maybe he didn’t dislike him at all. … Run along—haven’t you had tea?”

  When he had been her age there had been a schoolroom high tea, with Miss Ponsonby dispensing bread and jam and cakes.

  “They’re serving it now on the terrace. Aren’t you coming down?”

  Self-possessed little thing; not quite spoilt yet.

  “I’ll probably miss tea today.”

  “Don’t you fell well?”

  “Oh, I’m all right.”

  “Did it upset you, going to the funeral?”

  “Funerals are always rather upsetting.”

  She still stood by, as if she wanted to be friendly. Suddenly she said: “Julian’s very funny, isn’t he?”

  “Yes, he’s quite the humorist of the family.”

  “He’s going back to Cannes tonight.”

  “Oh, is he?”

  “Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?”

  “A cigarette? Well—”

  “I do smoke, you know—most of the girls at Kirby do as soon as they get into the sixth.” She had taken a cigarette out of her bag and was already lighting it “You don’t mind, do you?”

  “Not particularly.”

  “I knew you wouldn’t. You don’t give a damn about anything.”

  “Do they also say ‘damn’ in the sixth?”

  “No—that’s what Mother said to Uncle Chet about you.”

  “I see. … Well …”

  “But I’ve got to stay here now till I finish it … Don’t you think Sheldon’s rather marvelous?”

  “Not only rather, but quite.”

  “I think he’s the one who really ought to write a book about Grandfather.”

  “Not a bad idea—why don’t you tell him?”

  “I did, but he only smiled. He’s so nice to everybody, isn’t he? We had a wonderful Christmas party here last year, before Grandfather was ill—we had charades and one of them was his name—Shell, you know, and then done—but of course everybody guessed it—it was far too easy. Then we had Buffalo—buff, the color, and then a Frenchman answering the telephone—and then the whole word Buffalo in America. … No, it wasn’t Christmas, it was New Year, because Bridget and I had an argument about who had the darkest hair to let the New Year in with … but I did it.”

  “You would, I’m sure.”

  “Will Uncle Chet have any New Year’s party this year?”

  “I shouldn’t think so. … Here’s an ashtray.”

  “What I really came for was to say good-bye. Mother wants to get away this evening.” She held out her hand.

  “Good-bye, Kitty—nice of you to come up.”

  He led her to the door. Then:—

  “Uncle Charles, is it true you don’t remember a thing that’s happened to you for over two years?”

  “Perfectly true.”

  “But how marvelous. Then anything might have happened to you?”

  He laughed at that and patted her on the shoulder. “Yes, and forgetfulness may have its points. For instance, I daresay you’d rather I forgot that you smoked a cigarette—or don’t you mind?”

  “Perhaps I’m like you—I don’t give a damn,” she answered, scampering out of the room. “Good-bye, Uncle Charles!”

  When she had gone he decided he had behaved pretty badly, encouraging her to smoke and swear; there was some imp of mischief in him that drove him to such things, except that “imp” and “mischief” were far too cheerful words for it.

  Dinner, a little later, proved another difficult meal. Julian, Jill, and Kitty had already left; others were planning a departure the following day. Julia and her husband had agreed to stay over the New Year, “helping” Chet and Lydia. Lydia said: “Jill and Julian were anxious to say good-bye to you, Charles, but they felt you mightn’t want to be disturbed, especially as Kitty said you weren’t comi
ng down for tea.”

  He smiled and said he perfectly understood. Chet talked business again with Truslove, who was staying the night; Chet also drank too much and said that British business was headed for the biggest boom in history, by Jove, always provided the government would keep off their backs. Which led to politics and the family constituency of West Lythamshire: “I’m no politician, old chap, but still if the local association were to make the, suggestion … of course it’s too early yet even to think of it.”

  But Chet evidently was thinking of it, readying himself for the doing of his duty, wherever it might lead him.

  The following morning, when George and his wife had left immediately after breakfast, taking Bridget with them, Charles suddenly decided to return to London with Truslove, who had a car. They drove away together, amidst noisy farewells from Chet and a few quiet words from Sheldon as the latter stowed away the bags.

  “Do you propose to stay in London, Mr. Charles?”

  “I’ll let you know, Sheldon. I’ll be all right, anyway.”

  “I hope so.”

  During the journey through Reading and Maidenhead he told Truslove he had been quite sincere in his original refusal of the equity settlement, and had only agreed to it because it was what the family said they wanted, so if they now cared to go back on the decision, it would still be all right with him.

  Truslove, of course, replied that that was out of the question. “In fact, Mr. Charles, you seem to have given this matter far too little thought. A quarter of a million pounds is not to be treated lightly.”

  “That’s just the point. I don’t know how to treat it.”

  Truslove assured him, entirely without irony, that there would be no trouble attaching to the inheritance. “The bulk of it’s invested in shares of the company—you’ll merely receive the regular dividends.”

  “That leads me to what I wanted to say. I’d rather not be connected with the family business at all. I’m not a businessman. If I have to have the money, I’d like to sell the shares immediately and invest the proceeds in government stock.”

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment