James hilton collected n.., p.45
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.45

           James Hilton

  “Again, it’s hard to draw a line between speculation and legitimate business practice. Mr. Chetwynd bought rather large quantities of raw materials, thinking prices would continue to rise. In that he made the same mistake as a great many very shrewd and reputable people.”

  “Will he be forced into bankruptcy?”

  “A good deal depends on what happens to the firm. If it weathers the storm the bank would probably give him a chance—subject, of course, to mortgaging Stourton and cutting down personal expenses to the bone. That applies to the others also.”

  “I see. … Now may I ask you one final question? You were saying just now that the firm will need new money. You know how much I have myself. Would such a sum be any use in weathering the storm, as you put it?”

  “That also is hard to say, Mr. Charles. I hardly care to advise you in—”

  “I’m not asking for advice. I want to know how much the firm needs, so that I can judge whether it’s even possible for me to save the situation at all.”

  “I—I can’t say, Mr. Charles. The whole matter’s very complicated. We should have to see accountants, and find out certain things from the banks—it’s quite impossible for me to make an estimate offhand.”

  “Well, thanks for telling me all you can. Perhaps we could return by the side gate—I’d like to escape any more of the family wrangle if it’s still in progress. …”

  He drove away from Stourton an hour later, without seeing the family again; but he left a note for Chet with Sheldon, saying he would get in touch within a day or two. After a dash across London he was just in time to catch the last train from Liverpool Street and be in his rooms at St. Swithin’s by midnight. He had already decided to help if his help could do any vital amount of good. He couldn’t exactly say why he had come to this decision; it certainly wasn’t any sense of the moral obligation that Jill had tried to thrust on him. And he didn’t think it could be any sentimental feeling about the family, whom (except for Chet and Bridget) he didn’t particularly like, and whose decline to the status of those who had to earn their own living would not wring from him a tear. If sentiment touched him at all it was more for Sheldon and other servants whom he knew, as well as for the thousands of Rainier employees whom he didn’t know, but whom he could imagine in their little houses sleeping peacefully without knowledge that their future was being shaped by one man’s decision in a Cambridge college room. That aspect of the thing was fantastic, but it was true, nevertheless. But perhaps strongest of all the arguments was the fact that the money didn’t matter to him; even the income from it was more than he could ever spend; if he could put it to some act, however debatable, at least it would not be useless, as it was and always would be in his possession. For his own personal future had already begun to mold itself; he would probably stay at Cambridge after obtaining a degree. Werneth had once hinted at a fellowship, and if this should happen, he would be enabled to live frugally but quite comfortably on his own earnings.

  End of term came a couple of days later; he returned to London and took a room at a hotel. Having conveyed his conditional decision to Chet and to Truslove, he had now only to discover if his money had any chance to perform the necessary miracle. This meant interviews in City offices with bank officials and chartered accountants, long scrutinies of balance sheets and many wearisome hours in the Rainier Building, demanding documents and statements that took so long to unearth and were frequently so confusing that he soon realized how far Chet’s slackness had percolated downwards into all departments.

  One of the accountants took him aside after an interview. “It’s no business of mine, Mr. Rainier, but I know something of the situation and what you’re thinking of doing, and my advice to you would be to keep out of it—don’t send good money after bad!”

  “Thanks for the tip,” Charles answered, with no other comment.

  During the next two weeks it became a matter of some absorption to him to discover exactly what Chet had been up to. So far he hadn’t detected any actual crookedness—only the grossest negligence and the most preposterous—well, expansiveness was perhaps again the word. Chet had not only bought shares at absurd prices and in absurd quantities; he had done the same with office desks, with electric lamps, even with pen nibs. A small change, apparently fancied by him, in the firm’s style of note-paper heading had condemned enormous stacks of the original kind to wastepaper. An ugly marble mantelpiece in Chet’s private office had cost six hundred pounds. And so far as Charles could judge from his somewhat anomalous position of privileged outsider, every department was staffed by well-paid sycophants whose most pressing daily task was to convince their immediate superior that they were indispensable.

  By Christmas Charles had almost readied the same opinion as the accountant—that it would be folly to send good money after bad. Even a total repayment of loans would not alone suffice to lift the firm from the trough of depression into which the entire trade of the country was rapidly sinking; nothing could save an enterprise of such complexity but completely centralized and economical control. Without that a cash loan could only stave off the inevitable for a few months.

  On one of those oddly unbusinesslike days between Christmas and the New Year he lunched with Chet and Truslove in Chet’s office and told them this. “I must be frank, Chet. I’ve spent a fortnight looking into every corner I could find, and I’m not much of an optimist as a result. It isn’t only new money that the firm needs, it’s new—well, new other things.”

  Chet nodded with an air of magnanimous comprehension. “You’re probably right, old chap. How about a new boss? Suppose I were to swap round with George on the board?” Charles smiled gently. “I know my faults,” Chet ran on. “I’m a fair-weather pilot—good when everything’s on the up-and-up. Nobody can act and think bigger when times are right for it. But these days you want a chap who can act and think small. That’s what put George in my mind.”

  Charles was quite willing to subscribe to a theory that left Chet holding all the laurels, but he felt he had to say more. “I’m afraid it isn’t just a matter of changing the pilot. You’ve got to change a good deal of the ship. And you also may have to change the voyage—or perhaps even lie up in harbor for a time and make no voyages at all.”

  “Just a figure of speech, old chap—don’t press it too far.”

  “All right, I won’t … but take this lunch as an example. Although I’m a guest, you’ll perhaps forgive me for saying it’s a pretty bad lunch. And I know where it comes from—the canteen, as they call it, downstairs. And I’ve seen the prices on the menu, so I know your canteen is either badly managed or a swindle or both.”

  “Well, maybe—but surely it’s not so important—”

  “It’s one thing with another. The whole place wants reorganising from top to bottom, and I can’t exactly see George as the new broom.”

  “Well, let’s assume you’re right—but the more urgent issue still remains. The banks don’t give a damn whether the canteen serves good food or not. They just won’t wait for their money. What do you say, Truslove?”

  Truslove temporized as usual. “I think we owe Mr. Charles a deep debt of gratitude for devoting two weeks of his Christmas vacation to making this inquiry. I’m sure everything he has said is very valuable.”

  “But some of his cash would be more valuable still—don’t we agree, old chap?”

  “That, I understand, is why Mr. Charles has met us here—to give us his decision.”

  Both of them looked to Charles, who answered, rather hesitantly: “I was hoping you’d see what I’m driving at without forcing me to a direct reply. In my opinion a loan or even a gift wouldn’t help unless you completely reorganize the firm. That’s all I can say.”

  “You mean your answer’s a definite ‘no’?”

  “If you insist on putting it that way, but you’ve heard my reasons.”

  “Well, I’m damned.” Chet stared gloomily at the tablecloth for a moment, while the waitress came in with
coffee. Transferring his stare to the cup, he suddenly turned on her with a vehemence that almost made her drop the tray. “Call this coffee? Take it back and bring something worth drinking. And what’s the cause of the rotten meals we get here? Send up the canteen manager to my office afterwards … and let me look at your hands! Why … damn it, I won’t have this sort of thing—get your week’s wages and don’t come here again!”

  Throughout all this Truslove and Charles had looked on uncomfortably. As soon as the girl, too startled and upset to make any reply, had left the room, Charles said quietly: “I’m not sure that was very fair of you, Chet. She wasn’t responsible.”

  “What more can I do? Her hands—you should have seen them.”

  “Yes, yes … I daresay.”

  There was a long silence. Then Chet exploded:—

  “Well, have I done anything wrong? You talk about re-organization—what do you mean by it? If it isn’t just a word, tell me. Unless it’s merely that you haven’t got the courage to say outright that you’re not going to risk your precious cash. I’d respect you more for saying that than for hiding behind all this reorganization pi-jaw.”

  (“Pi-jaw”—that was the word they used at Netherton for interviews with the headmaster. It stirred in him a little instant pity for Chet.)

  “I’m not hiding behind anything.”

  “You mean you’d lend the money if we did reorganize?”

  Charles was silent a moment; Chet went on: “That’s a fair question, isn’t it, Truslove? Let him answer, then we’ll know where we stand. Let’s have a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ for God’s sake.”

  “Very well, then … probably I would.”

  Chet beamed. “Fine, old chap. I take back any aspersions, God bless. Now all you’ve got to tell us is what you’d call reorganizing. What have I got to do? Or what’s anybody got to do? And for that matter, who’s got to be the fellow to do it?”

  “I—I can’t easily answer those questions, Chet. I’m not a business expert. It’s hardly possible for me to suggest a new board, new managers, new heads of departments—all out of the blue—in a couple of minutes.”

  “You mean we ought to have new ones—all of them?”

  “I do.”

  “You mean you’ve seen enough during these last two weeks to get an idea who’s not pulling his weight?”

  “To some extent, yes.”

  Then Chet, beaming again, played his trump card. “Well, all I’ve got to say, old chap, is—come here and do the job yourself.” He kept on beaming throughout their stare of immediate astonishment. “Why not? Lend the money, then come and look after it. What could give you a better safeguard? You say you’re not a businessman, but you know enough to have found out what’s wrong—that’s a good deal of the way to knowing what’s right. Truslove, arrange a board meeting or whatever there has to be and get it all fixed up. I’ll resign, and then—”

  Charles got up from the table and strode to the window, interrupting as he stared over the City roof tops. “But I don’t want such a job—can’t you understand that? I’ve got my work at Cambridge—”

  “You could go back there afterwards—putting things straight mightn’t take you more than a few weeks, once you got down to it.”

  “But I’ve no desire to get down to it!”

  “Then it’s damnably selfish of you! Worse than that, it’s nothing but hypocrisy the way you’ve led us on into thinking you’d help us! First you make terms for getting us all out of a hole—then we agree to the terms—then you go back on them—”

  “But I never made such terms! I never hinted at tackling a job like this myself! I don’t even know that I could do it, anyhow.”

  Chet shrugged his shoulder, turning round to the lawyer. “Well, that’s his second ‘no’—I suppose we’ll just have to let the little tick go back to his study books.”

  (“Tick”—the worst term of Netherton opprobrium, and one that Charles had never used, even at school, because he had always considered it childish.)

  Afterwards, walking disconsolately along Cheapside and through Paternoster Row to Ludgate Hill and his hotel in the Strand, he felt he had considerably bungled the entire interview. He should have said “no” from the first; then there would have had to be only one “no.”

  Charles took over control of the Rainier firms in January 1921. To do so he obtained a term’s leave of absence from St. Swithin’s, smiling at the tense in Bragg’s remark: “You would have done very well here, you know.”

  “Would have? I still intend to.”

  “Well, we shall see, we shall see.”

  He practically lived in Chet’s office in Old Broad Street—no longer Chet’s, of course, but he refused to put his own name on the door. At a special board meeting he had been appointed managing director with the consent of the bank creditors, to whom he had turned over his own government securities. The bank men doubtless smiled over the arrangement, since it was one by which they could not possibly lose; while the family, faced with even a thousand-to-one chance, grabbed it gladly if not gratefully. They could not get it out of their minds that Charles was somehow taking advantage of them, instead of they of him; but if (as Kitty had said) they had ever had a scared feeling that brains might come in handy some day, this was undoubtedly the day. The scared feeling developed until they actually believed in him a little, but without reasoned conviction and certainly without affection—rather as if he were some kind of astrologer whose abracadabra might, after all, perform some miracle of market manipulation. That, of course, was their only criterion of success; and it so happened that the mere closing of bear accounts sent up the price of Rainier shares from half a crown to six shillings within a month of his taking control, a rise that considerably helped his prestige though he made no attempt to claim any. Less popular was his early insistence on economies in their personal lives, but after one or two suggestions had been badly taken, he contented himself with sending each member of the family a personal note, merely conveying advance information that the preference dividend that year would not be paid. (The preference shares were all held by the family.) Expected protests came in the form of a personal visit from Chet, telephone calls from Jill, Julia, and George, and a strong letter from Julian in Cannes. He took no notice of any of them, his only concession being an offer to Jill to pay for Kitty’s college education, if she still wanted one.

  Kitty came to his office to thank him. “Sweet of you, Uncle Charles. But of course you don’t mind my going to Newnham now you’re not at St. Swithin’s—isn’t that it?”

  “Not altogether. Besides, I hope I’ll be back there soon.”

  “You mean you haven’t taken on this as a lifework?”

  “Good heavens, no!”

  “I hear you’re dismissing everybody.”

  “Not everybody.”

  “And nobody wants to buy Stourton.

  “That doesn’t surprise me.”

  “Where do you live?”

  “In a little apartment near the British Museum.”

  “How appropriate! Can I visit you there?”

  “You wouldn’t find me in. I work late most evenings.”

  “Won’t you take me to lunch?”

  “I was just going to ask you. But there’s no taking—we have it here—on my desk. And it’s pretty bad—though not so bad as it used to be.”

  She chattered on about her personal affairs, the new and smaller house Jill and she had had to move into—a little suburban villa at Hendon, with only one maid—“and there’s a house further along the road where a little man kisses his wife on the doorstep every morning at three minutes past eight and comes running past our house to catch the eight-seven—just like you read about in the comic papers.”

  “I’m glad you live so near a station. It must be very convenient.”

  “I know—you think I’m a snob.”

  “Not exactly.”

  “Then what?”

  “I’m not quite certain.”
br />   “You mean you haven’t made up your mind?”

  “That would be too flattering to your sense of importance.”

  “I believe you do think about me, sometimes.”

  “Obviously—that’s why it occurred to me you might go to college.”

  “Uncle Charles … what’s going to happen to everybody … whether they go to college or not?”

  “I don’t think I know what you mean.”

  “I get terribly upset thinking about it sometimes. The little man who runs for the train every day—I’m not really a snob about him, I think he’s wonderful, and it’s beautiful the way you can always tell the time by him, and the way he always catches the train—at least I hope he does, in case somebody like you goes round his firm dismissing everyone who’s late. … Oh, but what’s going to happen, Uncle Charles—eventually?”

  “You mean will he stop running?”

  “Yes, or will the train stop running, or will he stop kissing his wife, or will you stop being able to dismiss people—I don’t know, it all seems so fragile—the least touch—”

  “I’ve had that feeling.”

  “Oh, you have?” Then pleadingly: “Don’t make a joke about too much to drink, or lobster for supper. Please don’t make a joke.”

  “I wasn’t going to. There isn’t any joke.”

  She said somberly: “I know that too, and I’m only seventeen.”

  A tap came at the door and a young man entered with a sheaf of papers. When he had gone Charles scanned them through, then apologized perfunctorily for having done so. “But you see, Kitty, I’m terribly busy.”

  “Perhaps I’d better leave you to it then?”

  “If you wouldn’t mind.” He smiled, escorting her to the door and saying as she left him: “I’m really glad you’re going to Newnham. Write to me when you’re there and tell me what it’s like.”

  Then he went back to his desk. The papers included a list of names, over a hundred, of employees who would have to go that week. He glanced down the list, initialed his approval of it, and passed on to another job.

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