James hilton collected n.., p.46
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.46

           James Hilton

  (But what would happen to them? And yet, on the other hand, what else could he do?)

  By Easter he had made economies everywhere, yet the continuing malaise of trade kept up a tragic pace. There were few positive signs that his job could be regarded as approaching an end, and it was small satisfaction to know that without his efforts the whole concern would have already foundered like a waterlogged ship. As it was, the pumps were just a few gallons ahead of the still-encroaching ocean. Even the very energies he devoted to the task, his frequent feelings of thanklessness and exasperation, fought for a continuance of effort; he was giving the job so much that he had to give it more, because “if you work hard enough at something, it begins to make itself part of you, even though you hate it and the part isn’t real.” He wrote that in a letter to Kitty, explaining why he would have to postpone returning to Cambridge for another term. He found he could write to her more freely than he could talk to her, and more freely than he could talk to anyone except Sheldon.

  He was still at his desk in the Rainier office when Kitty left Newnham in 1924. The desk was the same, one of Chet’s fantastic purchases that were really more economical to keep and use than to sell in exchange; but the office was different—no longer opulent in Old Broad Street within a few yards of the Stock Exchange, but tucked away in an old shabby building off St. Mary Axe. Convenient, though—within easy reach of Mark Lane Station, and near enough to the river to get the smell of the tide and an occasional whiff of tobacco from the big bonding warehouses.

  Much had happened since 1921. He had pulled Rainier’s out of the depths into shallow water; there had even, during the second half of 1923 and first few months of 1924, been a few definite pointers to dry land. The preference dividend was now being paid again, while the ordinary shares, dividendless and without sign of any, stood at twelve shillings and were occasionally given a run up to sixteen or seventeen. Chet had a continuing order with a broker to sell a couple of thousand at the higher figure and buy back at the lower; it was the only speculation Charles would allow, but Chet derived a good deal of pleasure from it, imagining himself a titan of finance whenever he made the price of a new car. Chet still lived at Stourton, though part of the place was closed up; it was really cheaper to live in a house one couldn’t sell than rent another.

  The rest of the family had had to make similar economies, but the real pressure bad been relaxed by the resumption of the preference dividend, and they were all comfortably off by any standards except those of the really rich. Jill could afford once more her cruises and flirtations, with no handicaps to the latter except advancing middle age and none to the former save an increasing difficulty in finding new places to cruise to. Julia and her husband lived in Cheltenham, playing golf and breeding Sealyhams; George and Vera preferred town life and had taken a newly built maisonnette in Hampstead. Julian was at Cannes, doing nothing in particular with his usual slightly sinister elegance; once or twice a year he turned up in London, took Charles for lunch to the Reform Club, and worked off a few well-polished epigrams. Bridget had married an officer in an Irish regiment and lived in a suburb of Belfast. She had had one child, a boy, and was expecting another. With George’s girl and Julia’s boy and girl, this made a problematical five as against seven of the previous generation, unless (as Chet put it) Charles hurried up. They were not, however, at all anxious for Charles to hurry up; and as both Lydia and Jill were past the age when any amount of hurry might be expected to yield result, and as Vera was sickly and Julia (so she boasted) had nothing to do with her husband any more, the ratio really depended on Bridget—plus, of course, an outside chance from Charles. Nobody even considered Julian in such a connection.

  Much more, though, had happened between 1921 and 1924. The ancient Irish problem had apparently been settled; a conference at Washington had arranged limitation of naval armaments between England, Japan, France, and the United States; someone had almost climbed Everest; the German mark had collapsed and French troops had entered the Ruhr; Mussolini was rebuilding Italy and had already bombarded Corfu; there had been an earthquake in Japan, there had almost been another war with Turkey, there was still a war in Morocco, and there was going to be an exhibition at Wembley.

  By 1924 Charles also had changed a little. It was not so much that he looked older—rather that he seemed to have reached the beginnings of a certain agelessness that might last indefinitely. He kept himself fit with careful living and week ends by the sea; faithful to memories, he had bought a small house in Portslade that was not too expensive to keep up in addition to his London apartment—no longer the one near the British Museum, but a service flat in Smith Square. He worked long office hours, and had to make frequent journeys to Rainier factories throughout England; there were certain hotels where he always stayed, and to the staffs of these he was satisfyingly known as the kind of man who gave no trouble, drank little, tipped generously but not lavishly, and always appeared to be wearing the same perfectly neat but nondescript suit of clothes. The fact that he was head of the Rainier firm merely added, if it added at all, to the respect they would have felt for such a man in any case.

  In 1924 Charles was thirty and Kitty nineteen. She had done well at Newnham, obtaining a second in the men’s tripos examination, but of course she could not take a degree. On the day that she finally left the college she went direct from Liverpool Street Station to the Rainier offices, hoping Charles might be free for lunch; he was out, but found her still waiting in his private room on his return during the late afternoon.

  “Oh, Uncle Charles, did you mind? I felt I must call—I feel so sad, I don’t know what to do with my life—I’ve said good-bye to so many people there seems nobody left in the world but you!”

  He laughed and telephoned for tea. “I’m glad I never had the experience of leaving Cambridge knowing it would be for good. It was only going to be for a term, and then two terms, and then a year …”

  “And what now? Don’t say you’ve given it up altogether.”

  “It must have given me up, anyway.”

  “But that’s so awful to think of. You fitted Cambridge life, somehow. Remember that day I came from Kirby and waited in your rooms at St. Swithin’s—just like this, except that the chair was more comfortable?”

  “I don’t hold with too comfortable chairs in offices.”

  “But you do remember that day?”

  “Yes—and so does Herring, I’m sure.”

  “God, I always thought it was a shame to drag you from what you wanted to do to run a business, but I must say you’ve done it pretty well—even Mother admits that, but I’ll tell you something that’ll amuse you—just because you’ve done it she thinks it couldn’t have been so very hard and probably other people could have done it just as well.”

  “Probably they could. Anyhow, if it releases your mother from any embarrassment of gratitude, it’s a thought worth thinking. Where is she now, by the way?”

  “Somewhere in mid-Mediterranean, drinking cocktails. Chet asked me down to Stourton for the week end. Why don’t you come?”

  “To be quite frank, because when I do go there, I’m usually bored.”

  “You mightn’t be if I were there too.”

  He laughed and said he’d think about it, and after thinking about it several times during the next twenty-four hours he rang up Chet and said he was coming. Chet was delighted. Apparently Kitty was in the same room with him when the conversation took place, because he heard her excited voice in the background, then a scuffle to grab the instrument, and finally a torrent of enthusiasm which he cut short by asking to speak to Chet again.

  He enjoyed himself at Stourton that week end, and his lack of boredom was not entirely due to Kitty, for there was another guest, a man who had traveled in China and was interesting to listen to if difficult to talk to—a division of labor which suited Charles; and there were also local people, agreeable enough, who played tennis in the afternoons and stayed to dinner. Actually he did not see much o
f Kitty, who seemed generally to be surrounded by handsome young men in white flannels, and when chances came to join her group he did not do so. He wondered why he did not, and with a touch of quizzical self-scrutiny was prepared to diagnose even a twinge of jealousy; he would really have liked to, just for the chance to laugh at himself, but honestly he could not. Naturally the girl liked people of her own age; but there was another sense in which he had to realize now how old as well as young she was; those youths treated her with such obvious worship, it would not be fair for him to come along with his usual offhand badinage as to a child, and so deflate her adult prestige. And yet that was the only way he knew how to treat her—casually, unsparingly, never very politely. Perhaps that made up the chief reason he kept out of her way.

  As soon as the dinner guests had left on the Sunday evening, he began to make his own farewells, for he intended to drive off early in the morning to reach his office by nine. Leaving Chet, Lydia, and Kitty in the drawing room, he sidestepped into the library for something to read in bed. It was a superb July night; he did not feel sleepy, yet he knew he must sleep—he had a busy day tomorrow. One of the library windows was open to admit the warm breeze; there was a full moon, and the illumination, tricked by flapping curtains, played over the books like something alive and restless. He was fumbling along the wall for a switch when he heard a sound behind him.

  “Uncle Charles—don’t put on any lights.”

  He turned round, startled. She went on: “Why have you been avoiding me? And don’t say you haven’t.”

  “Of course I won’t. I have. I know I have. And this is why. I can tell you very clearly, because I’ve been thinking it out myself.”

  He made his point about her age, and the young men, and his own offhand manner. When he had finished she said: “It’s too clear, too ingenious.”

  “But don’t you think one’s subconscious mind does work ingeniously?”

  “Maybe yours does. I’ll bet it would.”

  “You see, Kitty, you’re no longer a child.”

  “Oh God—for you to tell me that!”

  Suddenly the wind dropped, the curtains ceased flapping, the moonlight seemed to focus in a stilled and breathless glare upon her face. It was not exactly a beautiful face, but he knew at that moment it held something for him, touched a chord somewhere, very distantly. He said, smiling: “I’ll try to practise company manners for a future occasion.”

  “No, never do that. Be yourself—as you were in all those letters. And if you’d rather have the Cambridge life than run the firm, then give it up—before it’s too late!”

  “Now what are you talking about?”

  “You—you—because I’m always thinking about you. You’re not happy—you’re not real! But those letters you wrote were real—when you felt crushed and hopeless and things had gone wrong all day, and you used to sit in your office when everyone had gone home and type them yourself, with all the mistakes. … I suppose I’m being sentimental. The little college girl, treasuring letters from the beloved uncle who saved the family from ruin. … But haven’t you finished that yet? Haven’t you done enough for us? You pulled the firm through the worst years—now trade’s improving, Chet says, so now’s your time to get free! Don’t you realize that? You still hanker after the other kind of life, don’t you—study, books, all that sort of thing? When I came in just now and saw you in the moonlight peering along the shelves I could have cried.”

  “I don’t see why. I was only looking for the lights and hoping there was a detective novel I hadn’t read.”

  “But—but don’t you want—Cambridge—any more?”

  “I wonder, sometimes, if I do. … To grow old in a cultured groove, each year knowing more and more about less and less, as they say about those specialist dons, till at last one’s mental equipment becomes an infinitely long and narrow strip leading nowhere in particular—”

  “Like the Polish Corridor!”

  He laughed. “How do you think of such things?”

  “My subconscious—like yours—ingenious. But never mind that—what do you want to do?”

  “You talk as if I’d been complaining. Far from it. I’m quite satisfied to go on doing what I am.”

  “Managing the firm, increasing the dividends, refloating the companies, a regular Knight of the Prospectus, Savior of the Mites of Widows and Orphans—”

  “Now you’re being sarcastic.”

  “Can’t you think of anything you’ve ever wanted passionately and still—would like?”

  He said after a pause: “Yes, I can, but it’s rather trivial. When I was at school I had a great ambition to paddle down the Danube in a canoe, but my father didn’t approve of the idea and wouldn’t let me have the money for it.”

  “Oh, but that’s not trivial—it’s wonderful. And you can afford it now all right.”

  “The money, perhaps, but not the time.”

  “You ought to make the time.”

  He laughed. “If I can steal a quiet fortnight at Portslade I’ll be lucky this year.” He took her aria and led her towards the door. “And now, I’m afraid, since I have to leave so early in the morning—”

  “I know. You want to look for a book.” She suddenly took his hand and pressed it over the switch. “Good night, Uncle Charles.”

  As he went back to the shelves he heard her footsteps fading through the house—no longer a child, that was true, but she still scampered like one. He searched for a while without finding anything he wanted to read.

  Nineteen twenty-five was another improving year, the year of Locarno, the false dawn. It was a year perhaps typical of the twenties in its wishful optimism backed by no growth of overtaking realism; another sixpence off the income tax, another attempt to harness a vague shape of things to come with the even vaguer shapes of things that had been. For the public would not yet look squarely into that evil face (publishers were still refusing “war books”) and few also were those who feared the specter might return. The England hoped for by the majority of Englishmen was a harking back to certain frugalities of the past (lower and lower income tax, smaller and smaller government expenditure) in order to enjoy more and more the pleasures of the present; the Europe they dreamed of was a continent in which everybody placidly “saw reason,” while cultivating summer schools, youth hostels, and peasant-costume festivals in the best tradition of Hampstead Garden Suburb; in exchange for which the City would make loans, trade would thus be encouraged, and taxes fall still further. Mixed up with this almost mystic materialism was the eager, frightened idealism of the Labour Party (both the eagerness and the fright came to a head a year later, in the General Strike); the spread of the belief that the League of Nations never would be much good but was probably better than nothing, a belief that effectively converted Geneva into a bore and anyone who talked too much about it into a nuisance. Meanwhile a vast and paralyzing absence of hostility gripped Englishmen from top to bottom of the social scale, not a toleration on principle but a muteness through indifference; they were not against the League of Nations, they were not against Russia, they were not against disarmament, or the Treaty of Versailles, or the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, or the working classes, or Mussolini—who had, after all, made the Italian trains run on time. Their favorite gesture was to give credit to an opponent (“You’ll find a good many of those Labour chaps are quite decent fellows”); their favorite conclusion to an argument the opinion that, “Ah well, these things’ll probably right themselves in time.”

  And amidst such gestures and opinions the postwar England took physical shape and permitted itself limited expression. By 1925 the main features were apparent: arterial roads along which the speculative builder was permitted to put up his 600-pound houses and re-create the problem the roads themselves had been designed to solve; the week-end trek to the coasts and country through the bottlenecks of Croydon and Maidenhead; the blossoming of the huge motor coach, and the mushrooming of outer suburbs until London almost began where
the sprawling coast towns left off—while in bookshops and theaters the rage was for Michael Arlen and Noel Coward, two men whose deft orchestrations of nerves without emotions, cynicism without satire, achieved a success that must have increased even their own disillusionment.

  In this same year 1925 Rainier’s made a profit that could have paid a small dividend on the ordinary shares; but Charles chose not to do so, despite appeals and protests from the family. And in that same year Lydia died of pneumonia, and Bridget had another baby, and Kitty got herself engaged to a young man named Walter Haversham, who preached Communism at London street corners and had been to Russia. For six months she was swept by an enthusiasm which considerably shocked the family, but somehow did not especially disturb Charles. He saw her once carrying a pictorial banner with Wal (they called him Wal) in a May Day procession; when he met her some weeks later he chaffed her gently about it, saying that workmen on banners always had enormous fists, whether for fraternization or for assault and battery he could never be quite certain—maybe both. He smiled as he said it, but she suddenly flew into a rage, accusing him of being a coward who took refuge in cynicism from the serious issues of the world. “And don’t tell me I’ve lost my sense of humor. I have—I know I have. There isn’t any room for humor in the world as it is today. And it’s that English sense of humor, which everybody boasts about, that really prevents things from being done.”

  “You’re probably right. But think of all the things that are better left undone.”

  “The day will come when men may be killed for laughing.”

  “And that will also be the day when men laugh at killing.”

  She went out of his office, banging the door. He did not see her again for several months—till after the General Strike in 1926. One day she rang him up on the telephone. “Uncle Charles, may I come and talk to you?”

  “Of course.” He was about to add an invitation to lunch when the receiver was banged down at the other end. Two minutes later she came bounding into his office.

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