James hilton collected n.., p.48
James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.48James Hilton
“Which makes you one degree more cynical than they are. They don’t believe in the security they accept because they’re looking to the revolution, but you don’t believe in either the security of the present or the revolution of the future!”
“Your other ex-fiancé put it even more simply, my dear, when he said I didn’t believe in a damn thing.”
“Well, don’t you?”
“That’s what I’ve been asking myself very carefully and for a long time, and I still can’t find an answer.”
“Probably because you’ve been asking it too long and too carefully. The answer to that sort of question ought to fly out—like a child when he’s asked what he wants for his birthday—he always knows instantly without having to think—either a bicycle or a toy train or something. … Oh, I’m quite happy again now. I don’t miss Roland a bit. Just talking to you freely like this makes the difference, though you don’t talk to me freely—there always seems a brake on—I can hardly believe you once sent me those letters.”
“Curious—I don’t remember much about them. If you kept any, I’d like to—”
“Oh, no, never! That would be a really awful thing to do! And of course I know why you were so free in them—because you thought I was too young to understand. I was only the vehicle—the letter box, so to speak—where you posted them to another address.”
A gleam came into his eyes. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Well, what more could I have been in those days? Letters to a schoolgirl. … Of course I was crazy about you—always have been ever since that time at Stourton when I came up to your room and smoked a cigarette. Remember? … It might be fun if you loved me now—we’d have a good deal in common. I sometimes wonder why you don’t.”
“In my slow and careful way I’ve been wondering that too—ever since you stepped off the train.”
“Well, why don’t you—just to be curious?”
“I haven’t said I don’t.”
“Would it be so very incredible?”
“It would be fantastic!”
“Then it is fantastic.”
“Darling, you don’t mean—” She seized his hand across the table. “You’re not saying it just to be kind?”
“I don’t feel a bit kind. I feel—well, let’s stick to fantastic.”
“But I—I—I don’t know what else to say for the moment.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
They sat in silence, his hand changing places over hers. A train entered the station opposite; the tick of its electric engine was like a clock measuring the seconds. Presently she said: “There’s the oddest thing in my mind for us to do—if it’s all real and not a dream. Let’s go down the Danube in a canoe, as you always wanted.”
“Yes, we’ll do that. And up the Amazon too, if you like.” His face was very pale. “I’ll take a year off—from the firm and the City and the three thousand families and everything else. Let someone else have his turn. …”
Back at his hotel that night he could hardly believe in the changed future; it was almost as if he had been another person during the day and was now perusing with amazement a report of what had happened to someone else. He was not regretful—far from it—but a little bemused at so many decisions made all at once, somewhat startled that they must all have been his own, yet ready to accept them with a loyalty that might well become more enthusiastic when he had had a chance to think them over.
At breakfast he compared notes and found that her emotions had been similar only as far as a doubt as to whether he could really have meant what he said enough to go on meaning it; he assured her laughingly that he had and did, and immediately happiness blazed across the rolls and honey between them as they planned the trivial details of the day. The future was still fantastic to talk about, even to think about, and they agreed for the time being not to give themselves the even heavier task of explaining it to others. No one expected him in London before the end of the month (the Rainier board meeting was on the thirtieth), and no one knew she was not still in Provence, except Roland and his crowd, who did not count. Jill was in the Aegean, cruising among the antiquities but taking (one suspected) very little notice of them. He and Kitty could have at least two weeks in Switzerland before returning to announce the astonishing news to the family and to the world. Of course they could send the news by letter, but somehow to pull the lever that would release all the commotion even at a distance required a certain fortitude; they decided to enjoy those two weeks first of all.
And so began an interlude that might have been in another world, and almost was. They stayed for the first week in Interlaken, making it a center for mountain trips into the high Oberland. The weather improved after the last big snowfall of the year; the sun dried the drenched meadows, so that they were able to walk by the lakeside to Giessbach, and up the Lauterbrunnen Valley as far as the lower slopes of the Roththal. It was pleasant to see the industrious Swiss polishing up their ballrooms and cocktail bars and funicular railways in readiness for what was to come; but pleasanter still to tramp along the cleared roadways in face of the sun and snow. During the second week they discovered the hotel on the two-mile-high Jungfraujoch, where there was nothing to do but talk and absorb the physical atmosphere of being above and beyond the earth. They liked it enough to stay there till the last day before the necessary return to England.
That last day came, and with it the descent to natural levels—a curious deflation of mood that was easy to interpret as sadness at leaving a place where they had been so happy. Throughout the long rail journey through Berne and Basle to Boulogne the mood persisted—seemed impossible to shake off, being perhaps a physical effect of the changed altitude, they both agreed. They reached London amidst driving rain and had dinner in a restaurant near Victoria Station, saying all the time and over and over again how wonderful it had been in Switzerland and how sorry they were to have returned. The Rainier board meeting was four days away, and it was understood that no announcement of future plans should be hinted at to anyone until then.
The board meeting came, and with it all the commotion. He had not guessed how considerable it would be. He had suspected that the family would not be altogether pleased, but he hadn’t realized they would have so many reasons for being displeased. He soon found that they regarded his year’s absence from Rainier’s as a form of abdication amounting almost to desertion—in spite of the fact that they had long been jealous of what they called his “domineering” over the firm’s affairs. Then also, those who had hoped their children would inherit his personal fortune strongly resented his marriage to anybody at all; he hadn’t anticipated that, even remotely. And finally, all except Jill (and in one sense even including Jill) were manifestly and desperately jealous of his choice. Only Chet seemed to have any genuine tolerance of the idea—a tolerance not quite reaching the point of enthusiasm. He had so long joked about the need for Charles to “hurry up” that now Charles was hurrying up he could not withhold somewhat rueful good wishes.
The party at Stourton to celebrate the engagement was not a successful affair.
Then, in June, quite suddenly, Chet died after a heart attack, and plans for the marriage in July were postponed till autumn; it would have been impossible, in any event, to leave England during all the legal complications that ensued.
The marriage was finally fixed for October. Charles took Kitty to dine at Kettner’s again one night in late September, and for some reason the same mood came upon them as during the journey back from Switzerland five months before. She suggested that on his side, it was due to news in the evening paper—a big stock-market crash in New York, with inevitable repercussions in London.
He was too honest with her to accept that as a reason. “I’m not a speculator. Rainier’s dropped five shillings today, I notice, but it doesn’t affect me or the firm—they can go down ten times as much before it’ll begin to worry me. Matter of fact, everything’s bee
“That the fall will go much further.”
“How would you make money by backing your opinion?”
“Selling short, as they call it. That means—”
“I know—I learnt all about it at Kirby when we used to gamble in Rainier shares. Remember?”
“You must have lost everything.”
“Nearly everything. About thirty-two pounds all together.” She laughed. “Well why don’t you sell short?”
“I will, if it amuses you. But I’d have no other reason.”
“Yes do it—to amuse me. Please, Charles.”
“Then there’s two things I have to do at the office tomorrow morning.” He took out his notebook and made a pretense of writing something down. “Sell short to amuse Kitty. Also get Miss Hanslett to send out the wedding invitations.”
“Who’s Miss Hanslett?”
“My new secretary. You saw her last time you called.”
“Oh, that quiet girl?”
“I suppose she’s quiet. I certainly wouldn’t want her to be noisy.”
“Darling, how soon can we leave—afterwards?”
“You mean for our world tour? Maybe next month. It’ll be too late for the Danube, though, this year. We’d better do the Amazon first. Or the Nile.”
“No, not the Nile—Jill’s there.”
“What’s she doing?”
“Looking at the tombs, I suppose, and having a good time.”
But the laugh they rallied themselves into failed to shift the mood that made him, as soon as dinner was over, confess that he felt tired and would prefer an early night in bed. He dropped her at Jill’s new house in St. John’s Wood, where she was living with a cook-housekeeper, and kept the taxi for his own journey to Smith Square. But his apartment seemed so inexplicably cheerless that after a drink and an attempt to feel sleepy, he called another cab and drove round the West End till he found a film that looked tolerable enough for whiling away the rest of the evening. He stayed in the cinema less than an hour, his restlessness increasing all the time, so that at last he walked out and paced up and down the thronged pavements till past midnight, longing suddenly for the sun and snow of the Jungfraujoch, yet knowing that it was only a mirage of what he would still long for if by some miracle he were to be transplanted there.
Usually when he could not sleep he was quite satisfied to stay up reading, often until dawn; but that night he felt he would be far too restless to concentrate on any book, so he bought tablets and took several on his return to Smith Square. They gave him a heavy unrefreshing sleep, from which he woke about noon to find a penciled letter from Kitty at his bedside. It had been delivered by hand early that morning, and contained, in effect, the breaking of their engagement and an announcement that she was leaving immediately to join her stepmother in Luxor.
THE FIRST GRAY SMUDGE was peering over the hills and it seemed that we both saw it together. “Well, we’ve talked all night—and for the second time. Aren’t you sleepy yet?”
“No. … You were telling me about that letter, the one Kitty left for you. Didn’t it give any reasons?”
“Plenty. But I really think we’d better go to bed if we’re to be in any decent condition tomorrow. The crowd will soon be on us, worse luck.”
“Then why do you have them here?”
“That’s part of another story. Well, I must have a nightcap, even if it is morning. Have one with me?”
We went down to the library, feeling our way in the dim dawn shadows without switching on any of the house lights. Meanwhile he continued: “I’d show you that letter if I had it here, but it’s locked up in my safe in the City. I admit I’m sentimental about it—a little puzzled also. It’s the last word I ever had from her, except picture postcards from all kinds of places. What happened to her afterwards is what she said would happen—except that it didn’t last for long. She married a man she met in Egypt—she was quite happy—and he was a man I liked when I met him, but I didn’t meet him till after she was dead. He had plantations in the F.M.S. and she went out with him there and died of malaria within six months.”
He bent over the decanter, his shape and movements ghostly against the gray pallor from the windows. The moon had gone down, and it was darker than at midnight.
“And then?” I said.
He handed me a drink and raised his own.
“The rest,” he declaimed half-mockingly, “is a simple saga of success. I flung myself into business with renewed but disciplined abandon: I sold short and made more money out of the slump than I’d ever done out of ordinary trading; I accepted directorships in other companies and became what they call ‘a figure in the City’—I even assumed the burden of two other family heritages, by taking over Stourton and by allowing myself to stand for my father’s old Parliamentary seat of West Lythamshire. And a few years later, my affairs having more than survived the storms of 1931 and the doldrums of 1932, I married a lady who had become quite indispensable to me in this struggle for fresh fame and fortune—Miss Hanslett, the quiet girl. That again turned out to be an astonishing success. You never know what these quiet girls can do. From being quiet, she became one of the busiest and cleverest of London’s hostesses—and the miracle is, she’s still quiet—you’d hardly know the machine’s running at all.”
“So different from Miss Hobbs—but that, I suppose, is because you chose her yourself.”
“Or else she chose herself. She was just a girl in the general office first of all, until one evening I was working late and she invaded my private office to ask outright if she could work for me personally. Said she knew the other girl was leaving and she was certain she’d be better than anyone else. After that I simply had to give her either the sack or the job.”
“Anyhow, you made the right choice there.”
He laughed. “Oh yes, and I soon knew it. She was everything she promised. I’ve nothing but praise for her. I’d never have made so much money or acquired such style in after-dinner oratory but for her. She’s intensely loyal, tremendously ambitious for me, and personally charming. I love her more than most men love their wives. She’s guided my career—in fact she’s almost made a personally conducted tour of it. I never do anything, in politics or business, without seeking her advice. She runs Stourton and Kenmore like a pair of clocks—she doesn’t care if I’m in or out to lunch or dinner, or if I go to India or South America for six months or merely to Brighton for a week end. She’s everything a man like me could wish for in a wife—always provided—” He paused and took a drink, then added: “Always provided he’s completely satisfied to be a man like me.”
“And aren’t you?”
He took my arm. “Let’s save up something for another night. I’m going to bed, and after all this, I really think I shall sleep. Tell Sheldon not to wake me till the guests begin to arrive.”
The guests began to arrive in groups during the following afternoon, but I did not see Rainier till tea time, when he appeared on the terrace to greet the assembly; and from then throughout the week end I had no chance to talk with him alone. Nor with Woburn either, for that young man, after initial shyness, turned into a considerable social success. Observing him from time to time I felt there was a certain scientific detachment in his obvious effort to make good at his first fashionable houseparty (he had told me it was his first, and that he had never mixed in that class of society before); it was as if he were exploring himself, discovering his own powers; experimenting with the careless flatteries, the insincere attentions that make up the small change of such occasions; finding that he could do it just as well as people born to it, perhaps even a little better after practice. He was clearly a very adaptable and cool-headed young man, and the whole party was a good deal pleasanter for his being always at hand to pass interesting conversational cues, to make up a bridge four, to play
Mrs. Rainier was the perfect hostess as usual, and I should have been lost in admiration at everything she did had it not been a repetition on a larger scale of what she habitually did at Kenmore. All, in fact, was as gay and brilliant and smooth-running as usual, but something else was not quite as usual—and I don’t know how to describe it except as a faint suspicion that the world was already swollen with destiny and that Stourton was no longer the world—a whiff of misgiving too delicate to analyze, as when, in the ballroom of an ocean liner, some change of tempo in the engines far below communicates itself to the revelers for a phantom second and then is lost behind the rhythms of the orchestra.
The simile was Rainier’s as we drove back to London on Monday evening, leaving Woburn and Mrs. Rainier at Stourton. Within a few weeks the same misgiving, many times magnified, had become a headline commonplace; trenches were being dug in the London parks; the curve of the September crisis rose to its monstrous peak. Rainier lived at his Club during those fateful days and we were both kept busy at all hours transcribing reports, telephoning officials, and listening to the latest radio bulletins. Diplomatic machinery had swung into the feverish gear of guesswork and divination: Was Hitler bluffing? What sort of country was this new Germany? Would Russia support the Czechs? When would the bombers come over? Every chatterer could claim an audience; journalists back from Europe were heard more eagerly than ambassadors; the fact that all seemed to depend on the workings of one abnormal human mind gave every amateur psychologist an equal chance with politicians and crystal gazers. And behind this mystery came fear, fear of a kind that had brought earlier peoples to their knees before eclipses and comets—fear of the unknown, based on an awareness that the known was no longer impregnable. The utter destruction of civilization, which had teemed a fantastic thing to on grandfathers had become a commonplace of schoolboys’ essays, village debating societies, and after-dinner small talk; for the first time in human history a sophisticated society faced its own extinction not theoretically in the future, but by physical death perhaps tomorrow. There was a dreadful acceptance of doom in all our eyes as we sat around, in restaurants and at conference tables and beside innumerable radios, listening and talking and drinking, the only three things to do that one could go on doing—paralyzed as we were into a belief that it was too late to act, and clinging to a last desperate hope that somehow the negation of an act might serve as well.
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