James hilton collected n.., p.47
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.47
 

           James Hilton

  “I rang up from just outside. I thought you might not want to see me after our last meeting.”

  “I don’t think I should ever not want to see you. What’s been happening to you all this while?”

  “Not much. But I’ve got my sense of humor back.”

  “Where’s Wal?”

  “He’s gone to Russia—for good. You know I really admire him. He has the courage of what he believes, he’s going to become a Russian citizen if they let him. He wanted me to go with him—as his wife, but I just couldn’t. I’m weak—I couldn’t live in a little cubicle and learn a new language and wear rough clothes—I’d die of misery, even if I really loved him—which I’m beginning to doubt, now that he’s gone. I saw him off at Tilbury and felt awful, and then I went in a little pub near the docks and a fellow was standing in the doorway, playing a mandolin and singing with his mouth all crooked,—you know the way they do,—and inside the bar there was a workman sitting over a glass of beer and looking up at the other man with a funny sort of adoring expression, same as you see people looking up at the Madonna in Catholic pictures, and presently he said to me, quite casual, as if he’d known me for years—‘Gawd, I wish I could do that’ … and I wanted to laugh and cry together. I know I’ll never leave England as long as I live, so here I am—and Wal’s in Moscow.”

  Nineteen twenty-six went by, the year of the General Strike, and Germany’s admission to the League of Nations; of an Imperial Conference and trouble in Shanghai; of large socialist gains in municipal polls throughout England, and of Hitler’s climb towards power in Germany. Trade remained good; the stock market pushed up Rainier’s to twenty-five shillings in anticipation of a dividend which Charles again declined to pay. Nineteen twenty-seven brought riots in Vienna and executions in Russia; while for once Englishmen found themselves suddenly and astonishingly against something—they were against the Revised Prayer Book, proposed by the Church Assembly and sent to the House of Commons to be voted on, according to the curious English custom by which a political majority decides the dogmatic beliefs of a religious minority. And during the next year, 1928, the House of Commons again turned down the Revised Prayer Book, as if it tremendously mattered. But this flurry of against-ness was soon exhausted, and Englishmen, including Members of Parliament, resumed their benevolence towards most things that continued to happen throughout the world.

  And in that same year 1928 Bridget had another baby, her fourth, and Kitty got herself engaged again, to a young man named Roland Turner, who had advanced ideas about the “cinema,” and was understood to be working on a scenario or something or other that he hoped to sell for a fabulous price to somebody or other, but was otherwise romantically out of a job—romantically, because he wasn’t eligible for the dole yet managed to run a car.

  “And I suppose if he did draw the dole and couldn’t run a car, that would be prosaic?” Charles queried, when she told him.

  “You still think I’m a snob, don’t you? But I’m not—it isn’t that at all—I’m just lost in amazement, because he always dresses well and goes to the best restaurants, and has a sweet little studio off Ebury Street—I don’t know where he gets the money from, but I do wish you could find him something to do.”

  “But I don’t want any scenarios today, thank you.”

  “Not that, of course, but he can do all kinds of other things—write and paint, for instance—he does marvelous frescoes, at least they say the one he did was marvelous, but most of it came off during the damp weather. … He can paint machinery, too.”

  “Unfortunately we don’t paint our machinery.”

  “Pictures of machinery, I mean—he did one for an exhibition, symbolizing something—but I’m sure he could do a serious one, if you wanted it. Don’t you ever have illustrated catalogues?”

  Charles smiled. “Suppose you bring him to lunch?”

  They met at the Savoy Grill; Roland Turner proved to be rather tall and thin (“lissom” was almost the word); his clothes were impeccable, with just a faintly artistic note in his silk bow tie; his manners were perfect and his choices of food delicate; even his talk was sufficiently intelligent and modulated to what Charles felt to be an exactly determined mean between independence and obsequiousness in the presence of Big Business. Immediately after coffee the youth mentioned an afternoon appointment and decorously bowed himself out, leaving Kitty and Charles together.

  Laughing, she said: “He’s got no appointment, he’s just being tactful—giving me a chance to do the Don’t-you-think-he’s-wonderful stuff.” She paused for a few seconds, then added: “Well, don’t you?”

  “He’s a very personable young man, and if you like him, that’s the main thing.”

  “Personable? What exactly do you mean by that?”

  “Attractive.”

  “Are you sure it’s not something nice to say about someone you don’t care for?”

  “Not at all. I like him all right, and if there’s anything he could do that I wanted done, I’d be glad to give him the job.”

  “He was wondering about Stourton—do you think I could take him down there to see Uncle Chet?”

  “With what in mind?”

  “You’re so suspicious, aren’t you? Well, he has ideas about landscape gardening. … Of course he knows Chet and you aren’t my real uncles.”

  “I don’t see how he knows that, unless you told him, and I don’t see that it matters, anyway.”

  “I had to tell him—indirectly. You see, Mother discovered him first of all—in Mentone. He was staying with somebody there and they danced a lot—Mother and him, I mean. I think she rather fell for him, because when he came on to London she had him to stay at the house, with me as a sort of chaperon. We weren’t attracted at all in the beginning, but I began to be awfully sorry for him when I saw how bored he was with Mother. He has nice feelings, you know—I don’t think he’d have found it easy to switch over if she’d really been my mother.”

  “I’m afraid the point is too subtle for me to grasp.”

  “Well—like the Vortex, you know. … Of course Mother was furious.”

  “The whole situation must have amused you a good deal.”

  “Well, it had its funny side. … Of course his friends don’t like me—they never thought he’d pick up a girl.”

  “Are you in love with him?”

  “Yes, I think I am. … By the way, he’s having an exhibition of paintings at the Coventry Galleries—you will come, won’t you, and buy something?”

  He promised he would, and went to the private view the following week. He didn’t think much of the pictures, but his private view of Roland Turner was worth the journey—that suave young man, again impeccably dressed, saying the impeccably correct things about his own paintings to patrons who greeted him as they walked around, striking another exactly determined mean, Charles felt—this time between modesty and self-esteem. To please Kitty he bought a picture for five guineas—a view of an English country house as Botticelli might have painted it if he had painted English country houses rather badly.

  “It’s really very odd, Mr. Rainier,” said the young man, as Kitty proudly stuck the red star on the corner of the canvas, “but you’ve chosen the best thing I’ve ever done!”

  “Very odd indeed,” Charles answered, “because I know almost nothing about painting.”

  Afterwards he took them both to dinner at Kettner’s, encouraging them in a rather vulgar way to choose all the expensive items—caviare and quail and plenty of champagne. Of course the young man was a poseur, but halfway through the meal he became aware that he himself was posing just as artificially as the Philistine industrialist and champagne uncle. When Turner talked about Stourton (Kitty had evidently taken him there) and how wonderful it was to own such a place, Charles answered: “Oh, it’s an awfully white elephant, really. The house is uneconomical and the farms don’t pay. If it were nearer London my brother could carve it up into building plots, but as it’s only England’s green and ple
asant land nobody wants it and nobody can afford it and nobody will pay a decent price for anything that grows on it.”

  “But it’s a privilege, all the same, to keep up these old family possessions.”

  “It isn’t an old family possession—at least not of our family. My father bought it cheap because the other family couldn’t afford it.”

  “Well, he must have admired the place or he wouldn’t have wanted to buy it at any price.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. He liked buying things cheap. He once bought a shipload of diseased sharkskins because they were cheap and he thought he could make a profit.”

  “And did he?”

  “You bet he did.”

  “A businessman, then?”

  “Yes—like myself. But rather more successful because he had a better eye for a bargain and also because he lived most of his life during a rising market.”

  Turner gave a somewhat puzzled sigh. “Well, well, I suppose that’s the system.”

  “Except in Russia,” Kitty interposed. Then brightly: “Roland’s been to Russia too.” She must have been remembering Wal.

  With a slight awakening of interest as he also remembered Wal, Charles said: “Oh indeed? And what made you go there, Mr. Turner?”

  “I wanted to see what it was like.”

  “And what was it like?”

  The young man smiled defensively. “I don’t think I could answer that in a single sentence.”

  “Many people do. They say it’s all marvelous or else it’s all horrible.”

  “I didn’t see all of it, Mr. Rainier, and I didn’t think what I did see was either.”

  “So you don’t believe in the coming Revolution?”

  “I daresay it’s coming, but I don’t particularly believe in it.” And he added, with a gulp of champagne: “Just as you, Mr. Rainier, don’t particularly believe in capitalism, though you go on trying to make it work.”

  “I wonder if that’s true.”

  “The fact is, Mr. Rainier—perhaps we can both admit it after a few drinks—we neither of us believe in a damn thing.”

  Afterwards Charles regretted the conversation and his own pose throughout it, but he remained vaguely troubled whenever he thought of Roland Turner and Kitty; he slightly disapproved of that young man, and felt avuncular in so doing. He did not see them again that year, for they were abroad most of the time, and he himself had many other things to worry about. By April of 1929 he was so exhausted from overwork that, after settling an especially troublesome labor dispute at the Cowderton works, he went to Switzerland for a holiday, despite the fact that it was not a good time of the year—past the snow season, and before the end of the thaw. He stayed at Interlaken, in an almost empty hotel, and while he was there a letter came from Kitty, forwarded from an address in Provence through London. He wondered what she was doing in Provence until he read that she was with Roland Turner, who was engaged in painting a portrait of an Indian rajah. “He’s a very fat rajah,” she reported, “and he’s given Roland five hundred pounds to go on with, which I expect will be all he’ll get out of it, because the picture gets less and less like the rajah every sitting.” Charles replied from Interlaken, expressing pleasure that her fiancé had found such profitable employment—to which he could not help adding that the fee was much higher than the Rainier firm could ever have paid for catalogue illustrations. Two days later came a wire from Avignon: COMING TO INTERLAKEN DON’T GO AWAY EXPECT ME TEN TOMORROW MORNING.

  During the intervening day he wondered at the possible cause of her visit, though capricious changes of plan were really nothing to wonder at where Kitty was concerned; the theory he considered likeliest was that the portrait commission had fallen through, and that she and Roland had decided to touch him, as it were, for a Swiss holiday. (He had already discovered, from other sources, that Turner’s never-failing affluence was bound up with his never-failing debts and geared by his skill and charm in cadging.) He did not mind, particularly; after all, he could always go back to London if the situation became tiresome.

  It was a cold bright day when he waited on the Interlaken platform. There was still a fitter of shoveled snow in the gutters and against the railings, and the train came in white-roofed from fresh falls in the Simplon-Lötschberg. She was dressed in a long mackintosh with a little fur hat, like a fez, and as she jumped from the train before it quite stopped, it was as if something in his heart jumped also before it quite stopped.

  “Oh, Uncle Charles, I’m so happy—I was afraid you’d take fright and leave before I got here! It seems ages since I saw you. How are you?”

  “I’m fine.” (Breaking Miss Ponsonby’s old rule.) “And it is ages since you saw me—nearly a year. Where’s Roland?”

  “Not with me. I’ve left him. Take me somewhere for a drink—there was no diner on the train.”

  In a deserted restaurant-café opposite the station she told him more about it. “I found myself getting silly—saying silly things to all his silly crowd—there’s a regular colony of them wherever he goes. But more than that—after all, I don’t mind so much saying silly things myself, but it got to the point where I didn’t notice when things they said were silly. Softening of the brain—” she tapped her head. “I simply had to take it in time. And I felt sorry for the poor old rajah. He was pretty awful to look at, but at least he knew what’s what with women—which is more than most of Roland’s friends do.”

  “So I rather imagined.”

  “Of course you really fixed it—that night at Kettner’s.”

  “I fixed it?”

  “I could see you didn’t like him.”

  “On the contrary, I think I began to like him then—just slightly—and for the first time. He has his wits about him.”

  “He’d better have—they’re what he lives by. But it’s no good denying it—you don’t like him. I could feel that.”

  “Well, I’m not as keen on him as you are.”

  “Were.”

  “Oh, is it were? Well, in that case there couldn’t be a better reason for breaking off the engagement.”

  “But it never pleased you to think of me marrying him. Did it now?”

  “Why should that matter to you?”

  “Because it does matter! I can’t bear to do things you don’t want, except when you don’t want them to my face—like forcing myself on you here, I don’t mind that—” She suddenly lowered her head into her hands and looked up a few seconds later with eyes streaming. “Can’t you see you’ve spoilt me for other men?”

  “But, my dear—that’s ridiculous!”

  She went on: “I’m not asking for anything. I can go back by the next train if you’d prefer it. I’ll probably marry someone eventually and be quite happy, but it’ll have to be a man whom you like fairly well and who doesn’t sneer because you do an honest job of work instead of battening on rich people.”

  “Battening on poor people is more in my line—according to your former fiancé.”

  “Poor Wal—I often wonder what’s happened to him—I really liked him more than Roland. … By the way, I saw the papers—you’ve been having strikes at Cowderton, haven’t you? Was it very serious?”

  “While it lasted. That’s really why I came out here—for a rest.”

  “Oh God, why don’t you give the whole thing up? You’ve got enough money, haven’t you?”

  “For what?”

  “To live on, for the rest of your life, at about a thousand a year.”

  “Depends on several things—how long I live, how much a thousand a year will continue to be worth, and how long people will pay me anything at all for not working. … But that’s not the whole point, in any case.”

  “You mean you want to stay with the firm? It’s still a game, as you said in one of those letters—a game you want to win even if it isn’t worth playing? Haven’t you won enough? … Or maybe it’s more than a game now—it’s become the life-work?”

  He smiled. “Perhaps it’s somewhere betwe
en the two—more than a game, but not quite a lifework yet. You know, when I first took over the job it was with all kinds of reluctance—because I’d been more or less jockeyed into it by the family crying out to be saved. Well, that was the idea, originally—to save ’em and then be off quick, before they needed more saving. Rainier’s was just something that kept the family going, and I didn’t respect it enormously for that. But then, when I began to look into things personally, I found it kept a good many other families going. Over three thousand, to be precise.”

  “I see. Responsibility. Uncle Atlas.”

  “You can laugh at me if you like, provided you believe me sincere. I’m not a sentimentalist. I don’t call the firm the House of Rainier, or myself a Captain of Industry, or any of that nonsense. But there is a responsibility, no use denying it, in owning a three-thousand-family business. If I can contrive a little security for those people—”

  “But there isn’t any security—as you said yourself when I asked you about your thousand a year. It’s an illusion put up by banks and insurance companies and lawyers and building societies and everybody who goes without what he wants today because he thinks he’ll enjoy it more later on. Supposing some day we all find out there isn’t any ‘later on’?”

  “Then, my dear, will come Wal’s revolution.”

  “And we shall all make a grab for what we can get?”

  “Provided there is anything to get by then. If the whole thing’s an illusion, then the rewards may fade equally.”

  “Then you try to comfort those three thousand families by encouraging them to believe in a future that doesn’t exist?”

  “They don’t believe in it. Every street-corner speaker warns them not to at the top of his voice. What I do comfort them with, since you put it that way, is enough of a regular wage to buy food and pay their rent and smoke cigarettes and go to the local cinema. That keeps them satisfied to go on waiting.”

  “For the big grab?”

  “Or for the discovery that there isn’t anything left to grab.”

 
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