James hilton collected n.., p.43
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.43
 

           James Hilton

  “But, Mr. Charles, I—I really don’t advise—”

  “Why not? Isn’t it possible to do that?”

  “Possible, of course—the shares command a very ready market. But I couldn’t advise it—not as things are.”

  “That’s odd—I always thought you lawyers had a passion for government stocks. Aren’t they supposed to be safer than anything else? What about consols?”

  Truslove seemed disturbed at the prospect of having to assess the relative merits of consols and Rainier ordinaries. “Naturally I’ve nothing against government securities—no one can have, and I should be the first to advise such prudence in investment, but for … well, perhaps I may let you into a secret—of course the whole matter’s very technical and hasn’t been settled yet, but it was on the cards when your father passed away and I think events will go forward a little quicker now … it’s a question of refloating the entire group of Rainier companies on terms that would of course be very favorable to present holders. I can’t give you any details, but you’ll realize why it would be unwise to dispose of anything at the present moment.”

  “Still, I’d rather you sell. I’m not interested in speculation and share movements. I really mean what I say, so don’t wait for me to change my mind.”

  “Of course if you give me direct instructions, I can’t refuse. But you realize that, in addition to any question of capital value, the income from government stocks will be very much less?”

  “I don’t mind that, either. I’ll probably live very well on a fraction of it. Matter of fact, you might as well know my plans. I’m going to Cambridge.”

  “Cambridge?”

  “I was going to go there, you know, when war broke out—I’d really taken the entrance examination. Not a bad idea to go on where you left off, especially if you can’t think of anything else to do.”

  His rooms at St. Swithin’s overlooked the river and the Backs, and from the first January day when he settled in, he felt peace surrounding him. It was not that he himself was at peace—often the contrary; but he always felt the rooms and the college weighing with him, as it were, in the silent pressures of his mind. His rooms were rather austerely furnished when he took possession; he made them less so by books, pictures, and a couple of easy chairs, yet they still remained—as Herring, his gyp, remarked—a reading gentleman’s rooms. After half a century of experience as a college servant, Herring counted himself fortunate whenever a newcomer to his staircase entered that category.

  Charles had visited Cambridge for a week during his last term at Netherton; he had then put up in back-street lodgings while taking the Littlego, which had left him no time to make acquaintances or get much impression of the place except that he thought he was going to like it. He was glad of this now, for it meant that no one remembered him and that his past life was neither known nor inquired about. To be a younger son of a rich industrialist counted for nothing among dons and fellow undergraduates; that he had served in the war merely placed him among the vast majority; and that he made few friends and liked to be left alone was, after all, the not unusual characteristic of reading gentlemen.

  He told his Senior Tutor, a harassed little man named Bragg, that he would like to take history; and a further interview with Werneth, the history don, decided him to try for the tripos instead of an ordinary degree. So he acquired the necessary books, began to attend recommended lectures, and dined in Hall for the required nights each week—which is about all a Cambridge life need consist of structurally, until the scaffolding is removed later and one sees how much else there must have been.

  Sheldon sent him news from Stourton fairly often, generally to say there wasn’t any news. Still reading, however, between the lines, Charles gathered that Chet and Lydia were failing to evolve a well-controlled household, and that Sheldon was less comfortable than in the earlier days of despotism. Truslove also wrote, reporting progress in his own sphere; transfers of property took time, and it was March before the lawyer could notify him that he no longer possessed any financial interest in the Rainier enterprises. The shares had been sold for seventy shillings (fifteen more than the price at Christmas), and the purchaser had been none other than Chetwynd, who had apparently been glad to add to his own already large holding. Truslove added that he regarded the price as satisfactory, though he still thought the sale unwise in view of a probably much higher price eventually.

  Charles wrote back that he was perfectly satisfied, and that if his “unwise” action had been the means of obliging Chet, so much the better. Just about then came the Easter vacation; he did not visit Stourton or see any of the family, but spent the three weeks in an unplanned trip around northern France, visiting Chartres, Lisieux, Caen, and Rouen. Returning to London the day before the Cambridge summer term began, he bought an evening paper at Victoria Station and glanced through what had come to be the almost usual news of famine and revolution somewhere or other on the Continent; not till late at night, in his hotel room, did he happen to notice a headline on the financial page—“Rainier’s Still Soaring: Reported Terms of Bonus.” He read that the shares had topped five pounds and that there was talk of an issue of new stock to existing shareholders in the proportion of two for one. It wasn’t all very clear to him, for he never studied the financial columns and did not understand their jargon; but he realized that from the point of view of immediate profit, Truslove and Chet had been right, and he himself wrong; which didn’t trouble him at all. He was almost glad for his own sake, as well as Chet’s, for he would have had no use for the extra money, whereas Chet enjoyed both spending and the chance to say “I told you so, old chap.” In fact he felt so entirely unregretful about what had happened that he sent both Chet and Truslove short notes of congratulation.

  The next day he went to Cambridge and completely lost track of financial news amidst the many more interesting pursuits of term time. He still did not make friends easily, but he joined the “Heretics” and sometimes attended the weekly debating sessions over the fish shop in Petty Cury; he also came to know the occupant of the rooms next to his on the same staircase—a high-caste Hindoo named Pal who was a mathematician and perhaps also a genius. Pal claimed to feel numerals emotionally and to find them as recognizable as human faces; Charles took him first as an oddity, then as a personality, later as a friend. He formed a habit of having coffee in Pal’s rooms once or twice a week.

  As summer came, he did most of his reading on the river, generally on the Upper Cam at Grantchester, and sometimes he would portage the canoe across the roadway to the deep tranquil reach beyond the Old Mill. One morning, having done this, he turned to the right, along a tributary; the going was difficult, for he had to slide over sunken logs and push away branches that trailed in the water, but after an arduous yard-by-yard struggle he was suddenly able to paddle into a dark pool overhung with willows; and there, as he rested, a feeling of discovery came over him, as if it were the Congo or the Amazon instead of a little English stream; he felt strangely happy and stayed there all day till it was time to return for tea at the Orchard, which was the Grantchester resort patronized by undergraduates. He was on friendly terms with the old lady there who served strawberries and cream under the apple trees, and when he showed his scratched arms and said where he had been, she answered very casually: “Oh, you must have been up the Bourne—Rupert Brooke used to say how beautiful it was there—he got his arms scratched too.” Somehow the whole incident, with its hint of something seen by no human eye between Brooke’s and his own (highly unlikely, but tempting to contemplate), gave him a curious pleasure which he felt he would spoil by ever going there again; so he never did.

  He got on well with lecturers and tutors, and soon acquired one of those intangible reputations, breathed in whispers across High Tables, that rest on anything except past achievement; he lived retiringly and took hardly any part in University activities, yet it had already become expected that he would do well. Werneth had even consented to his taking the first part of
the history tripos in July—after two terms of preparation for an examination for which most students took three, and some even six. “But you have a good background of knowledge,” he told Charles, adding with a smile: “And also a good memory.”

  On an impulse he could not check quickly enough Charles answered: “It’s odd you should compliment me on my memory, because—” And then he told Werneth about his war injury, and the strange gap of years which he had christened in his own mind the Dark Corridor.

  Werneth listened with an abstract attention beyond the range of mere inquisitiveness. After the brief account was finished, he tore a sheet of paper from a pad on his desk and drew a large rectangle. “Not exactly my province, as a historian, but nevertheless quite a teasing problem, Rainier. Your life, from what you say, appears to be divided into three parts—like Caesar’s Gaul?”

  “Or like Regent Street,” Charles interjected, beginning to be amused.’

  “Or like a Victorian novel,” capped Werneth, delightedly.

  “Or like an artichoke,” recapped Charles.

  That put them both in a highly agreeable mood. “Let us call the parts A, B, and C,” resumed Werneth, drawing verticals across the rectangle and lettering the segments. “A is your life before the war injury; B is your life between that injury and the moment in Liverpool last December 27 when, according to your statement, you suddenly remembered your name and identity; C is your life since then. Now it is demonstrably true that during Period C—that is to say, at the present time—you enjoy a normally clear recollection of both Period C and Period A, but not of Period B. Am I right?”

  “Perfectly.”

  “And it must also be inferentially clear that during Period B you could not have had any recollection at all of Period A?”

  “Naturally not.”

  “Thank you. … There’s only one thing more I should like to ask—and that is if I might send this diagram to my friend Dr. Freeman, of St. Jude’s, along with a brief resume of the facts which it illustrates?”

  When Charles hesitated before replying Werneth added: “I won’t mention your name if you’d prefer not.”

  Charles then consented. The matter was not referred to at his next meeting with Werneth, but some weeks later the history don asked Charles to stay behind after a lecture. “As I expected, my friend Freeman found my notes on your case extremely teasing. In fact he’d very much like to meet you if you haven’t any objection. You probably know his reputation as a philosopher and psychologist.”

  Again Charles was reluctant, and again consented on the understanding that his name was not to be divulged; so the curious meeting took place in Werneth’s rooms. The eminent authority talked to Charles for over an hour in a completely detached and anonymous way, stating as his opinion that Period B would probably return, though there could be no certainty about it or prophecy as to the time required. Charles had several further interviews with Freeman, and began to take a certain pleasure in consulting an expert thus obliquely; he thought it typical of the amenities of Cambridge civilization that such a plan could have been worked out to suit him. At the same time he came to like Freeman personally, so that when his own identity became later revealed through an accident, it did not bother him much.

  Charles took a First Class in the first part of the history tripos, which was quite a brilliant achievement in the circumstances. After consultations with Bragg and Werneth, he decided to switch over to economics during the following year—an effective piece of specialization, for he had already gone a certain way in economic history. He was increasingly interested in the background of knowledge and theory behind the lives of men, and the astounding clumsiness of world behavior compared with the powers of the planning mind. To use Werneth’s favorite word, he found the paradox teasing.

  During the Long Vacation he stayed in Cambridge, putting in mornings and evenings of study interspersed with afternoons on the river or walks to Grantchester through the meadows; he liked Cambridge during vacation time—the quieter streets, the air of perpetual Sunday, the August sunlight bleaching the blinds in many a shop that would not pull them up until term time. Most of the bookshops remained open, however, and there were a few good concerts. The two months passed very quickly.

  Sheldon wrote to him every week, but with no news except of domestic trouble at Stourton—an outbreak of petty thefts due (Charles could judge) to Chet’s refusal to back up Sheldon in some earlier trouble with one of the gardeners. Now that it was too late, Chet seemed to be handling the matter rather unfortunately, dealing out wholesale dismissals to servants who had given years of service, and leaving a staff both too small and too disgruntled to work well. Chet also wrote, giving his side of the question, casting doubts on Sheldon’s efficiency, and asking how Charles, as one of the family, would feel about selling the place. Charles replied instantly that Chet should sell by all means; Stourton was far too big for any modern uses, and family sentiment should not weigh against common sense. Chet did not reply to that, but a few weeks later, at Cambridge, Charles heard from Truslove that Stourton was on the market, but wouldn’t be easy to sell “in these days.”

  Then one Saturday, returning to his rooms from a lecture, he found Kitty sprawled on a sofa and Herring teetering doubtfully in the pantry. “Hello, Uncle Charles,” she cried loudly, and then added in a whisper: “That’s for his benefit. He didn’t believe me—I could see that.”

  “But why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Charles began, trying to infuse a note of mild pleasure into his astonishment.

  “Because you’d probably have told me not to,” she answered promptly.

  He admitted he probably would, and then asked why she had come.

  “It’s my birthday.”

  “Is it? But—well, many happy returns—but—”

  “Uncle Chet promised me a big party at Stourton, but he canceled it at the last moment because he said Aunt Lydia wasn’t very well, and as I’d already got leave of absence from Kirby I didn’t feel I could waste the week end.”

  “But you’re not intending to stay here for the whole week end, are you?”

  “Oh yes, I’ve taken a room at the Bull. Surprising what a girl can do by herself these days.”

  “But if they find out—at Kirby—”

  “That I’ve been visiting one uncle instead of another? Will it matter? And I don’t really care if they do find out—I’m tired of school anyway. I’d like to go to Newnham.”

  “Anything wrong with Somerville at Oxford?”

  “Oh, how you’d loathe to have me anywhere around, wouldn’t you?”

  He began to laugh and suggested taking her to lunch.

  “Can’t I have lunch here—in the college?”

  “No.”

  “Well, that’s better than the little German at our school who pretends to be French and gives us art lessons—he gets in an awful temper and then says, ‘In one word I vill not have it.’ ”

  They lunched at Buol’s, in King’s Parade, and afterwards he said: “Now, young lady, having invited yourself here, you’ll have to take the consequences. My usual way of spending an afternoon is to punt up the river, and I don’t care how dull you find it, it’s either that or off you go on your own.”

  “But I don’t mind at all—I can punt awfully well.”

  “You won’t get the chance—I’ll do the punting.”

  But she lazed quite happily during the hour-long journey, chatting all the time about school, life, the family, herself, and himself. “It’s made a great difference, you passing that examination, Uncle Charles. I believe the family had an idea you were a bit queer till you did that—now they still think you’re queer, but a marvel too. You’ve quite pushed Uncle Julian off the shelf as the one in the family with brains.”

  He made no comment; the effort of digging the pole in and out of the river bed gave him an easy excuse for silence. He didn’t dislike Kitty, indeed there were certain qualities in her—or perhaps there was only one quality
that definitely attracted him.

  She went on: “Of course the family don’t really respect brains—they just have a scared feeling that brains might come in handy some day.”

  “What makes you say that?”

  “Oh, I don’t know—just the general atmosphere before Mother went away. She’s at Cannes, you know—staying with Uncle Julian.”

  They had tea at the Orchard and then returned to her hotel for dinner. “I’m glad you’re showing up with me here,” she said, as they entered the lobby, he in cap and gown as prescribed by University regulations for all undergraduates after dark. “It lets them know I’m respectable even if I am only fifteen. … By the way, how old are you?”

  “Twenty-six.”

  “Do you feel twenty-six?”

  “Sometimes I feel ninety-six—so I try not to bother about how I feel.”

  “Are you happy?”

  “Oh, happy enough.”

  “Can you remember ever being terribly happy?”

  He pondered. “Once when I was a small boy and Sheldon visited us at Brighton for some reason, and he took me for a walk along the Promenade instead of Miss Ponsonby.” He laughed. “Such a thrill.”

  She laughed also. “And I was happiest once when I’d had a toothache and it began to stop. Before it finished stopping. I really enjoyed the last bit of the pain.”

  “Morbid creature.”

  “But pain is part of love, isn’t it?”

  He was studying the menu. “At the moment I’m rather more concerned with the question of steak versus lamb chops.”

  “You would say that, but you don’t really mean it. … Oh, and another time I was happy was Armistice Night, at school. So wonderful, to think the war was all over, wasn’t it? Like waking up on end-of-term morning and realizing it’s really come. But somehow everything’s been a bit of a letdown since, don’t you think? I mean, if you stop now and say to yourself, the war’s over, the war’s over, it can’t keep on making you happy as it did that first night, can it?”

 
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