James hilton collected n.., p.5
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.5

           James Hilton

  “Aye,” answered George mechanically. Then, recognizing the policeman on his beat, a friendly fellow always ready with a joke and (at election times) with a vote, George pulled himself together and made the necessary response. “How do, Tom.”

  “Fine, thanks—bar a touch of rheumatics…I was at the stone layin’. It’s bin a grand day for ye, and I wouldn’t say ye don’t deserve it.”

  “Thanks, Tom.”

  “Ye’ve worked for it hard enough. I can remember when ye used to swear ye’d have those Mill Street houses pulled down, and folks’d laugh at ye then, but I’ll bet they can see it’s no joke now. Aye, ye’ve made a grand start. How long d’you reckon the whole job’ll take?”

  “Years,” George answered (but he would have been shocked if he could have been told how many). His voice was rather grim, and he did not amplify as he usually did when anyone encouraged him to discuss his plans. Tom noticed this and muttered sympathetically: “Well, I’ll be gettin’ along—mustn’t keep you talkin’ this hour…’Night, George—or rather, good mornin’.”

  George fumbled the key in the lock and re-entered his house. He felt as he had hoped, exhausted, but not, as he had also hoped, insensitive to the aloneness. It flew at him now like a wild thing as he strode along the lobby and heard, in imagination, Livia’s call from upstairs that had so often greeted him when he came home late from meetings—“That you, George?” Who else did she expect it to be, he would ask her waggishly, and feel sorry that she was such a light sleeper, since his meetings were so often late and the late meetings so frequent….

  He went to the kitchen and made himself a cup of tea, sitting there at the small scrubbed table till dawn showed gray through the windows; then he went to the room with the books in it which he called his “study.” The timetable lay open on the desk, reminding him of the impending journey for which his tiredness now gave him even physical distaste; and next to the timetable was the small pile of letters that Annie had brought in during the interview with Winslow. George glanced through them idly, and with equal distaste. Suddenly then his glance changed to a gaze and his gaze to a stare, for the writing on one of the envelopes was Livia’s and the postmark was Vienna.

  He read it through, and through again, stumbling to his armchair with the aloneness all around him as he faced the issue. Time passed in a curious vacuum of sensation; he did not realize it was so long until he saw the sunlight brightly shining, glinting already on the gilt titles of his books. Then he crossed the room to his desk and reached for pen and paper.


  Then he wrote the letter without pause as follows:—

  DEAR LORD WINSLOW—By now you will have got my wire, and are probably surprised by my change of mind. The reason for it is simply that I have just read a letter from my wife. It came yesterday—actually while you and I were discussing things. I put it aside with other letters and only noticed it an hour ago. Though short, it is a very frank letter, and in view of what it says there seems little that I can do now—except what Livia asks. I do not pretend to understand how these things happen, and why, but I have to take into account her age, which was not much more than half mine when I married her, so that if it was a mistake, I’d blame myself more than her. Anyhow, it would be unjust and stupid to expect her to cling to it for the rest of her life. Maybe she is old enough now to know what she really does want, and if your son is also, I won’t stand in their way—no, I can’t—neither on moral grounds nor for social and professional reasons such as you might have. So there’s nothing I could do in Vienna except make the whole thing more troublesome for all concerned. Please excuse what may strike you as a hasty reconsideration and perhaps even the breaking of a promise, but I’ve already thought it all over as much as a thing like this can be thought over. As for what I feel, that matters to no one except myself, but I would like to say how deeply I appreciate the way you approached me yesterday. No one could have been kinder and I shall never forget it.

  Yours sincerely,


  George always signed himself “Geo.” in important or official letters because that was how Will Spivey set up his business letterheads—“Geo. Boswell, Printer and Bookbinder.” And under that, in smaller type: “Proprietor of the Guardian Press, Market Street, Browdley.” And under that, in even smaller type: “Estimates Free. Good Work Guaranteed.”

  About seven o’clock he went to the corner, posted the letter, and re-entered his house to find that Annie had returned from spending a night with her mother across the town and had already noticed his bag half-packed on the bed upstairs. “Another conference?” she exclaimed. “Why, it’s only last week end you was away at the last one….”

  “It’s canceled,” George answered. “I’m not going after all.”

  “Then I’ll unpack your things and have breakfast ready in a jiffy.”

  George was suddenly aware that he had none of his usual healthy early morning appetite, but she was in the kitchen before he could say so, and by the time he followed her there he had decided he might as well say everything else that had to be said and get it over.

  He stood in the kitchen doorway wondering how to make it sound not too dramatic, yet not so commonplace that she would miss the full significance. He began: “By the way, I’ve had news of Livia.” (He always called her “Livia” to Annie.)

  “You have?…Well, that’s nice. Did she say when she was coming home?”

  That was a good opening. “I’m—er—afraid she’s—she’s not coming home.”

  “What?” Annie swung round in consternation as she interpreted the remark in the only way that occurred to her. “Oh, my goodness, she’s not—she’s not—you don’t mean—” And then a flood of tears.

  It was quite a minute before George realized what was in Annie’s mind. Then he had to comfort her and meanwhile explain matters more specifically. “Good heavens, no—she’s all right—she’s quite well—nothing at all’s happened to her. She’s just not coming home…She’s decided to—to leave me. It does happen, sometimes—that people don’t hit it off together…I just wanted you to know, so that you can get her clothes in order—I expect she’ll be sending for them soon. No need to talk about it in the town yet, though of course people will have to know sooner or later.” (And no need, yet, to tell even Annie the other details.)

  Annie, having been heartbroken, now became furious. She belonged to a world in which women do not leave their husbands, but regard themselves as lucky to get and keep any man who does not drink, gamble, or beat them. And George not only possessed these negative virtues, but others to which Annie had for years accorded increasing admiration. She really believed him to be a great man, and for a wife to be dissatisfied with such a paragon seemed to her incomprehensible as well as shocking. She had never liked Livia as much as George, and that made her now feel that she had never liked Livia at all. “She’s a bad lot,” she whimpered scornfully. “And it’s all you could expect from where she comes from.”

  “Nay…nay…” said George pacifyingly. “She’s all right, in her own way. And maybe I’m all right in mine.”

  “I never really took to her,” Annie continued. “And I’m not the only one.…There was something queer about her, or folks wouldn’t have talked the way they did about her father’s death and what she had to do with it—because there’s never no smoke without fire—”

  “Oh yes, there is, often enough,” George interrupted sharply.

  “Well, anyhow, there was something queer about Stoneclough altogether—what with ghosts and drownings and every-thing—and I’m sorry if I’ve let out something I wasn’t supposed to….”

  She was on the point of weeping again, so George made haste to reassure her. “Oh, that’s all right, Annie. I don’t think you could tell me much that I didn’t hear at the time. But it was all gossip—not worth repeating now or even remembering—that’s
the way I look at it. I doubt if we’ll ever know the whole truth about what really happened.” He found something he could force a smile at. “And as for the ghosts—why, that’s only an old yarn—a sort of local legend…I heard it long before Livia was born.…”

  Part Two

  LIVIA HAD FIRST HEARD it from Sarah (combined cook, nurse, and housekeeper to the Channing family for half a century); it was the story of three girls who had lived about a hundred years ago in the cottages in the clough. They had been little girls, not more than nine or ten, and in those days children of that age went to work at the Channing Mill (the original one that straddles the stream where the water wheel used to be); and what was more, they had to get up in the dark of early morning to be at their machines by half-past five. Because they were always so sleepy at that hour the three had an arrangement among themselves that while they hurried from their homes they should link arms together, so that only the middle girl need keep awake; the two others could then run with eyes closed, half sleeping for those few extra minutes. They took it in turns, of course, to be the unlucky one. But one winter’s morning the middle girl was so sleepy herself that she couldn’t help closing her eyes too, with the result that all ran over the edge of the path into the river and were drowned. And so (according to legend—the story itself might well have been true) the ghosts of the three are sometimes to be seen after dark in the clough, scampering with linked arms along the path towards the old mill.

  Sarah told this to Livia by way of warning to the child never to stray out of the garden into the clough, for it was always dark there under the trees, and also, added Sarah, improving the legend to suit the occasion, the ghosts were really liable to be seen at any time of the day or night. But that made Livia all the more eager to stray. She was an only child, without playmates, and it would surely be breathlessly exciting to meet three possible playmates all at once, even if they were only ghosts. She was not afraid of ghosts. In fact she was not then, or ever, afraid of anything, but she had a precocious aversion to being bored, and it was boring to sit in the Stoneclough drawing room with her nose pressed to the windowpane, staring beyond the shrubs of the garden to that downward distance whence she believed her father, in some mysterious way, would return, since that was the way Sarah said he had gone.

  One gray October afternoon she managed to elude Sarah and escape from the house. There was a wet mist over the moorland; the shrubs of the garden dripped noisily as she ran among them and through the gate into the forbidden clough. She ran on, under the drenched trees, keeping watch for the ghosts, and presently the moisture that had been mist higher up turned to heavy rain; then she grew tired and cold, and—though still not in the least afraid—considerably disheartened by not meeting anyone. At last she came to the road to Browdley, though she did not recognize it, never having been walked so far by Sarah or her mother; but as she stared round, a horse and carriage came along which she did recognize. The horse was William, and Watson was driving, and inside the carriage, calling to her from the window, was her mother.

  So she was promptly rescued and made to sit on the familiar black cushions through which the ends of hairs stuck out and pricked her legs. It was an unfortunate encounter, for it doubtless meant that her mother would tell Sarah and Sarah would be cross (which Livia did not fear, but it was tiresome to anticipate), and worst of all, she would be watched henceforward more carefully than ever. So she made a quick and, for a child, a rather remarkable decision; she would say she had met the three little girls—the ghostly ones—in the clough, and had run after them because they beckoned her. That could serve, at worst, as an excuse; at best, it might completely divert attention from her own misdeed. Yet as she began, a moment later, she was curiously aware that her mother was showing little interest in the story; nor did she seem angry, or startled, or impressed, or any of the other things that Livia, aged four, had ideas but no words for. Her mother merely said: “Livia, you’re wet through—you must have a bath and change all your clothes as soon as you get home.”

  Nor later on was there any crossness even from Sarah, but instead a strange unhappy vagueness, as if she were thinking of something else all the time. When Livia retold her yarn, Sarah answered disappointingly: “It’s only a story, Livia, you mustn’t really believe it. There aren’t any such things as ghosts.”

  “Isn’t there the Holy Ghost?” Livia asked, remembering religious instruction imparted by Miss Fortescue, who came to the house every weekday morning, and seemed already to Livia the repository of everything knowable that one did not particularly want to know.

  “That’s different…Go to sleep now.”

  Not till the following morning was Livia told that her father was dead; and this was not true.

  She had been a baby at the time of her father’s trial and sentence, so that the problem of how much to tell her, and how to explain his absence or her mother’s distress, had not immediately arisen. The year had been the last one of the nineteenth century or the first of the twentieth (according to taste and argument); events in South Africa had gone badly, and men were being recruited for the least romantic, though by its supporters and contemporaries the most romanticized, of all England’s wars. Emily Channing, who was a romanticist about that and everything else, had concocted a dream in which her husband obtained his release to enlist, and eventually, on kop or veldt, “made good” by some extraordinary act of gallantry which would earn him the King’s pardon and possibly a V.C. as well. It was an absurd idea, for British justice is unsentimental to the point of irony, preferring to keep the criminal fed, clothed, and housed in perfect safety at the country’s expense, while the noncriminals risk and lose their lives on foreign fields. Channing knew this, and was not in the least surprised when the appeal his wife had persuaded him to make was turned down. But Emily was heartbroken, the more so as she had already told Livia that her father was “at the war.” It was a simple explanation in tune with the spirit of the times; Emily had found no difficulty in giving it, but Livia was really too young to know what or where “the war” was, and only gradually absorbed her father’s absence into a private imagery of her own.

  A couple of years later, however, the South African War was history, and there came that gray October day in 1903 when even a prison interview between husband and wife could not avoid discussion of the matter. For John Channing, after several years to think things over, was in a somewhat changed mood. Till then Emily and he had always comforted each other with talk of her waiting for him and the ultimate joys of reunion; but now, during the half hour that was all they were allowed once a month, he suddenly told her they must both face facts. And the facts, he pointed out, were that with the utmost remission of sentence for good conduct he would not be released until 1913, by which time he would be fifty, she would be thirty-eight, and Livia fourteen.

  But Emily (as before remarked) was a romanticist, and the interview was distressing in a way that no earlier one had been. Sincerely loving her husband, she could accept only two attitudes as proof of his continued love for her; that he should, as heretofore, expect her to wait for him, or that he should melodramatically beg her to “try to forget” him. And now, in this changed mood, he was doing neither. He was merely advising her that she should live her life realistically, feel free to make any association elsewhere that might at any time promise happiness, and forget him without feeling guilty if that should seem the easiest thing to do. If, on the other hand, this did not happen, and at the end of the long interval they both felt they could resume their lives together, then that would clearly be an experiment to be attempted. As for Livia, the suggestion he made was equally realistic—that the child should be told the plain truth as soon as she was old enough to understand it. “Why not? You certainly won’t be able to carry on with the war story now that there isn’t a war.”

  “I could tell her you were abroad,” Emily suggested, “doing some important work. Or I could say you were an explorer…And perhaps there will be another
war somewhere soon.”

  John Channing smiled—and his smile, Emily felt, was also different from usual. It was a slanting, uncomfortable smile, and it lasted a long time before he answered: “No, Emily—just tell her the truth. Of course you’ll have to be judge of the right moment, but there’s really no way out of telling her, once she begins to have school friends. And it would be far better for her to learn the facts from you than to pick them up in garbled scraps from other children.”

  “I shall tell her you’re innocent, of course.”

  The smile recurred. “Oh no, no, Emily—don’t ever do that. First, because I’m not, and second, because it would give her a grudge to go through life with—the worst possible thing for a youngster. Say that I’m guilty of what I’m here for, but you can add, if you like, that I’m not personally a vile character…That is, if you agree that I’m not.”

  “Wouldn’t that be very hard for her to understand at her age?”

  “At any age, Emily. Sometimes even I find it hard to grasp. But I’d rather have her puzzled about me than indignant on my behalf.”

  But Emily, distressed as she was, nevertheless declined to accept that alternative herself. To be puzzled was the one thing she abhorred, and to avoid it she could almost always discover a romantic formula. That accounted for her mood when, towards twilight as she returned home after the interview, she saw Livia wandering in the road below the clough; it was why she failed to scold her, or to listen to her prattle about ghosts; and it was why, next morning, after long consultations with Sarah and Miss Fortescue, she told Livia the only possible romantic lie about her father except that he was innocent—and that was, that he was dead. He had been killed, she said, in South Africa, and the war for which he had given his life had ended in victory. Emily found it possible to say all this convincingly, with genuine tears, and without going into awkward details. Doubtless in a few years (she reckoned) the truth would have to come out, but when it did it might even seem relatively good news to a child of maturer intelligence; while for the time being it surely could not upset Livia too much to think that a father whom she did not remember had died a hero. Pride more than grief seemed the likely emotion.

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