James hilton collected n.., p.50
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.50
 

           James Hilton

  So we trooped round to the little room at the back of the platform where a few mournfully mackintoshed women were loitering while the pianist scrawled his signature across their programs in a mood of equal mournfulness. The entrance of Madame Navoida brought a touch of life to these proceedings, and I noticed then a certain vital quality that made her still an attractive woman, despite sagging lines and the bizarre make-up. As soon as the autograph seekers left she approached Casimir as one making a stage entrance, kissed him resoundingly on both cheeks, and cried: “Casimir, mon cher, tu étais magnifique!” Then, for a moment, she gabbled something incomprehensible and turned to Rainier. “He speaks Hungarian best. I have to tell him he is wonderful now, but soon I shall tell him he was awful—atrocious! Poor boy, he is always tired after a concert—please excuse him. He says he has a headache.”

  Rainier answered: “That’s too bad! I was about to suggest that you both had dinner with us somewhere—that is, if you had nothing else to do.”

  Her face lit up. “Oh, but we should be enchanted! It is so kind of you. I am sure his headache will get better. But there is one thing I must tell you beforehand—he will not dress. Not even a smoking. Only for the casinos where they will not admit him otherwise—and then he curses all the time. So if you do not mind—”

  “Not at all. We probably wouldn’t dress ourselves, anyway.”

  “Then he will be delighted.” She turned to her husband.

  “Casimir, this is—” And of course another turn. “But I do not know your name?”

  I had guessed it would come to that, and I remembered that moment on Armistice Day when all Rainier’s pleasure had disappeared at the enforced disclosure of his identity. I wondered if it would be different with foreigners to whom his name would almost certainly be unknown.

  But he answered, with a sort of gleeful solemnity: “Lord Frederic Verisopht—and this—” with a bow to me—“is Sir Mulberry Hawk. …”

  Having arranged to meet them at seven at Poldini’s we spent the interval at Rainier’s club, where his spirits soared fantastically. When I reminded him of an engagement to speak that evening at the Annual Dinner of the Gladstone Society he told me to wire them a cancellation on account of urgent political business. “That’s all very well,” I answered, “but then somebody will see us dining at Poldini’s with a couple who look like a rather seedy croupier and a soubrette out of a prewar musical comedy.”

  He laughed. “Not if we do what nobody else does nowadays—engage a private room.”

  “And what was the idea of introducing me as Sir Somebody or other?”

  “To find out whether she reads Dickens. You evidently don’t. … Well, that was partly the reason. The other was to give her a thrill. I’m sure titles do. Poldini’s will too—it’s got that air of having seen better and more romantic days. I rarely go there, so the waiters don’t know me, and I’ve never been in one of their private rooms since my uncle took me when I was twelve years old. That’s a story in itself. I don’t think I ever told you about him—he was a charming and very shortsighted archdeacon, and the only one out of my large collection of uncles whom I really liked. He liked me too, I think—we often used to spend a day together. One evening during the Christmas holidays, we felt hungry after a matinée of Jack and the Beanstalk, so as we were walking to the nearest Underground station he said, ‘Let’s go in here for a snack—and it was Poldini’s. I think he mistook it for some sort of cheap but respectable teashop—anyhow, we walked in, all among the pretty ladies and the young men-about-town; we were the cynosure of every eye, as novelists in those days used to write—because it wasn’t at all the kind of place a Church of England dignitary would normally take his schoolboy nephew to, and my uncle, with his white hair and flashing eyes (the drops he had to put in them made them flash), must have looked rather like Hall Caine’s Christian about to create a disturbance. … Anyhow, old Poldini,—he’s dead now,—scenting something funny about us, pretended all his tables were booked and asked if we’d mind dining upstairs—so up we went, my uncle blinking his way aloft without a word of protest, and presently Poldini showed us into a cosy little room furnished in blue and gold, with a very thick carpet and a convenient chaise longue against the wall and gilt cupids swarming in a suggestive manner all over the ceiling—in fact, Poldini took charge of us completely, recommending à la carte dishes and serving them himself, and as the meal progressed my uncle grew more and more surprised and delighted—still under the impression it was an A.B.C. or some such place; and when the bill came I snatched it up and said I’d stand treat, and he said, ‘My boy, that’s very generous of you’—and by God, it was, for it took all the money he’d just given me as a Christmas present. But I never let him know, and to the end of his life he always used to tell people he’d never enjoyed a better meal than at that eating house off the Strand … eating house, mind you!” He took a long breath and added: “So that’s where we’ll dine tonight—among the ghosts of the past—a couple of milords entertaining the toast of the town—and rather battered toast, if you’ll pardon two bad puns at once.”

  When I look back on that evening I remember chiefly, of course, the incident that crowned it; but I can see now that the entire masquerade was somehow Rainier’s last and rather preposterous effort to tease a way into self-knowledge, and that the climax, though completely accidental, was yet a fitting end to the attempt. I realized also, even if never before, how near he was to some catastrophic breakdown—partly from overwork, but chiefly from the fret of things that could not be forgotten because they had never been remembered. And all that day, ever since meeting Nixon, the fret had strengthened behind an increasing randomness of acts and words.

  We drove to Poldini’s through the rain, and were glad to find the place reasonably unchanged—still with its private rooms upstairs, little used by a generation that no longer needs such an apparatus of seduction, and therefore slightly melancholy until gardenias and ice buckets revived a more festive spirit. Then, with some commotion, the Navoidas arrived, the pianist rather pale and glum in a long overcoat with an astrakhan collar, and Madame very florid and voluble with heavy gold bangles and ancient but good-quality furs, obviously bewitched (but by no means ill-at-ease) at the prospect of dining intimately with English nobility. We soon discovered that both of them were equally accomplished champagne bibbers, but whereas Madame grew livelier and gayer with every glass, her husband sank after the first half-dozen into a settled gloom from which he could only stir himself at intervals to murmur to the waiter a demand for “trouts”—for there had been some confusion over his order, due perhaps to the waiter’s reluctance to believe that anyone in 1939 would ask for truites bleues in addition to Beluga caviare, steak tartare, and English rosbif. But all that too, and to Rainier’s feverish delight, was in the halcyon tradition—the age of monstrous dinners and fashionable appendicitis, the one most often the result of the others.

  Presently, after the popping of the fourth magnum, Madame grew sentimental and talked of her romantic adventures in all parts of the world—a recital garnished with copious quotations from the poets, of whom she knew so many in various languages that I began to think it really must be a passion with her quite as genuine as that for Heidsieck; she liked amorous poetry best, and there was something perhaps a little charming in the way she obviously did not know which was too hackneyed to quote, so that from a worn-out tag of Shakespeare she would swerve into a line from Emily Brontë or Beddoes. A few words she wrongly pronounced or did not understand; she would then ask us to correct her, quite simply and with an absence of self-consciousness that made almost piquant her theatrical gestures and overstudied rhythms. Suddenly I realized, in the mood of half-maudlin pity that comes after a few drinks yet is none the less percipient, that she was a sadly disappointed woman, getting little out of later life that she really craved for, without a home, a wanderer between hotels and casinos, listening to the same old Brahms and Beethoven in half-empty concert halls, tied for
the rest of her days to a flabby maestro, yet alive in her illusion that the world was still gay and chivalrous as a novelette.

  After Rainier had called for more cognac he asked if she had any ideas for spending the rest of the evening, because he’d be glad to go on to a show if she fancied any particular play. She answered, with enthusiasm: “Oh yes, it is so kind of you—there is one place I have always wanted to go because I have heard so much about it—your famous old English music hall!”

  Rainier said how unfortunate that was, because the famous old English music hall no longer existed; there were only assortments of vaudeville turns and dance bands.

  “Then perhaps we could go to see Berty Lowe.”

  “Berty Lowe?”

  “A man at the hotel told me this morning he was acting in London somewhere, and I should like to see him because I once knew an Englishman in Budapest who used to do imitations of him. He always said Berty Lowe was the greatest comedian of the famous old English music hall.”

  Rainier had asked the waiter for an evening paper and was now glancing down the list “Yes, he used to be quite funny, but I haven’t heard of him in London for years—he’s a bit passé you know … well, he’s not at the Coliseum or the Holborn Empire … that rather limits the possibilities … wait a minute, though—‘Berty Lowe in Salute the Flag Twice Nightly at the Banford Hippodrome’—”

  She clapped her hands ecstatically. “Oh, I should love to go there!”

  “But it’s miles away in the suburbs—” he was beginning, but suddenly then I could see the mere caprice of the idea seize hold of him; to drive out to Banford to see Berty Lowe at the local Hippodrome was in the right key of fantasy for such an evening. He handed me the paper. “They call it a riot of rip-roaring rib-tickling—doesn’t that sound awful? Wish you’d ring ’em up and book a box for four at the second house.”

  “Salute the Flag,” echoed Madame, with hands clasped. “Oh, I know I am going to love it if it is about soldiers. The Englishman I knew in Budapest was a soldier. It was during the war, but he wasn’t interned at first, because the Hungarians always liked the English, but when he began to send me flowers every day with little notes hidden in them—written in English, of course—the police arrested him for espionage, but when they translated the notes—oh, mon dieu, you should have seen their faces—and his—and mine—because, you see, he was crazily in love with me—crazily—not a bit like an Englishman! Oh, how I wish I had made them give me back those notes. … Casimir, of course, was mad with jealousy.”

  Casimir, no longer capable of being mad with jealousy, looked up as a dog will on hearing his name mentioned, then shook his head with a bemused belch over his unfinished crêpes Suzettes.

  I went out to telephone.

  An hour later we were sitting on four very uncomfortable cane chairs as the curtain rose on Salute the Flag. It had been a mistake, I could see, to have engaged a box; the orchestra seats would have been much more comfortable, and further away from certain plush hangings which, on being merely touched, shook out clouds of dubious-looking dust I gathered from the way we were escorted to our seats, and also from the fact that the other boxes were empty, that our arrival had created a little stir; it would be odd, I thought, but perhaps not absolutely catastrophic, if some member of the audience were to recognize Rainier. However, no one did, despite the fact that some of the actors played at us outrageously—even, by the end of the show, making jokes about “the gentleman in the box who’s fast asleep.” It was true; Casimir was fast asleep. Madame awakened him several times, but he slumped forward again almost immediately; soon she gave it up as a bad job.

  As for the play, it had been (I guessed) an originally serious melodrama on a wartime theme, dating probably from 1914 or 1915; its villains had then been Germans of impossible villainy and its heroes English soldiers of equally impossible saintliness. A quarter of a century of lucrative adaptation, however, had merged both the villainy and the saintliness into a common mood of broad comedy burlesque; such patriotic speeches as remained were spoken now only to be laughed at, while the hero’s first appearance was in the always comic uniform of a scoutmaster.

  But Madame was puzzled. During the intermission she said: “I cannot understand why they laugh at some of the lines. When the recruiting sergeant made that speech about the British Empire, what was funny about it?”

  “It’s just our English sense of humor,” Rainier explained. “We think recruiting sergeants are funny. We think long speeches are also funny. The British Empire has its funny side too. So put them all together and you can’t help making an Englishman laugh.”

  “But it was a patriotic speech!”

  “Englishmen think them the funniest of all.”

  “But in Austria, if anyone laughed at a patriotic speech there would be a riot and the man would be arrested.”

  “That just proves something I have long suspected—that Austria isn’t England.”

  “You know Austria?”

  “I once spent a few days in Vienna on business.”

  “Ah, you should have stayed longer and gone to the Semmering and then to Pressburg down the Danube in a steamboat.”

  “Curious you should mention it, but that was one of my boyhood ambitions. But in a canoe, not a steamboat.”

  “Oh, but that would be more wonderful still! Why did you not do it?”

  “Because when I first wanted to, I hadn’t enough money—then later, when I had enough money, I hadn’t the time … and today, whatever I have, there isn’t any Austria.”

  “Ah yes, it is so sad. But let us not think about it—see, the curtain rises!”

  She said that so much like a musical-comedy cue that I almost expected to see her jump down to the stage and begin a song. However, Salute the Flag was doubtless better entertainment. It continued to be equally hilarious during its second half, though Berty Lowe, as the heavily mustached German general, was actually less funny than some of the smaller parts; there was one especially that had the audience holding their sides—when an English subaltern entered his colonel’s tent (the colonel being a German spy in disguise) to exclaim, between chattering teeth and amidst paroxysms of stammering—“The enemy advances—give the order to attack, or, by heaven, sir, I will myself!” As a rule I do not care for jokes based on any physical defect, but I must admit that this particular player brought the house down by some of the most ludicrous facial contortions I have ever seen—the whole episode being topped by the final gag of a doorknob coming off and rolling across the stage when he banged his exit.

  It was difficult to keep up or down to such a level, but the play romped on with a good deal of vulgar gusto until the last scene, evidently the dramatic high-spot of the original play, when the heroine, threatened by the villain with a revolver, cried: “You cannot fire on helpless womankind!”—whereat another woman, of suggestive male appearance and elephantine proportions, invaded the stage from the wings brandishing weapons of all kinds from tomahawk to Mills bomb. Crude, undoubtedly; but the Banford audience loved it, and were still laughing throughout the perfunctory finale in which all the cast rushed on to the stage to chase off the villain and line up for a closing chorus.

  As we left the theater I saw that Rainier’s mood had changed. He almost bundled Madame and her husband into the car, and spoke very little during the ride back to London; she chattered to me for a while, but Rainier’s moods had a queer way of enforcing their atmosphere upon others, and she also was somewhat subdued by the time we reached their hotel in Russell Square and set the two of them down on the pavement.

  “Good-bye, my lord,” she said to Rainier, evidently remembering her manners but not the name. But she remembered mine. “Good-bye, Sir Hawk.”

  Casimir nodded grumpily as she took his arm to help him up the hotel steps. The last we saw was her effort to get him through the revolving door. It should have been funny, but perhaps we had had enough laughter for one evening; it wasn’t funny, therefore, it was somehow rath
er sad.

  “Of course she’s ruined him,” Rainier commented, as we drove away towards Chelsea.

  “What makes you think that?”

  “His playing. I could tell he was good once.”

  “Well, he’s ruined her too. She can’t get much fun out of life, watching over him wherever they go. Incidentally, I think she was rather shocked by our rough island humor.”

  “Probably it was too unsanitary and not sexy enough for her.”

  “And then that fellow’s stammer. I suppose on the Vienna stage you couldn’t have an officer stammering—only a private.”

  “God, yes—that stammer … they kept it in—and the doorknob coming off as well. … But the gag at the end was new.”

  “Sounds as if you’ve seen the show before.”

  He was thoughtful. “Yes, I think I have.”

  “Not surprising. It’s been played up and down everywhere for years.”

  “But more than that—more than seeing it before—I—I—” He turned to me with a curious abrupt eagerness. “Do you mind if we drive around for a while before going home?”

  “Of course not. … But what’s happened? You look—” I stopped, but he cut in sharply: “Yes, tell me—what’s the matter with me—how do I look?”

  I said, meeting his eyes and speaking with as little excitement as I could: “You look as you did when I first saw you staring at a mountain because you thought you recognized it—through the train windows that Armistice Day.”

  “Armistice Day,” he repeated. Then he added, quietly, almost casually: “I was in hospital … I mean on that first Armistice Day—the first one of all. The real one.” He suddenly clutched my sleeve. “Yes, I remember—I was at Melbury!”

 
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