James hilton collected n.., p.51
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.51
 

           James Hilton

  I said nothing, anxious not to, break any thread of recollection he was about to unravel, and afraid of the tension in my voice were I to speak at all.

  “There were so many hospitals,” he went on. “I was at Sennelager first—then Hanover. Then they exchanged the shell-shock and t.b. cases through Switzerland. So back home—Birmingham for a time—then Hastings—and another place near Manchester … then Melbury. That was the last of them. … I’d like to go to Melbury.”

  I still couldn’t answer; I was afraid of breaking some kind of spell. He seemed to read this into my silence, for he went on, in a kindly voice: “Do you mind? Or are you very tired?”

  “No, I’m not tired.” My voice was all right, but I was still apprehensive, and more so than ever when I realized he wanted to go to Melbury that very night, immediately. I added something about Hanson being probably tired, even if we weren’t—after all he’d driven us to Banford and back, and to ask him now to make another excursion into the distant suburbs …

  “Yes, of course—glad you thought of it.” He was always considerate to servants. “We’ll drop him here and send him home by taxi. Then I’ll drive—or perhaps you’d better if you think I’ve had too much to drink.” He was already reaching for the speaking tube, and had given the new instructions before I could think of anything else to say at all, much less frame an objection. Hanson pulled up at the curb, showing no more curiosity than a good servant should. But it was still pouring with rain, and he must have thought it odd to choose such a night for a pleasure drive.

  Rainier moved next to me in the chauffeur’s seat; as I drove off he said he hoped I knew the way.

  “Through Stepney and Stratford, isn’t it?”

  “Don’t ask me—I’ve never been there since—since the morning I left.”

  You remember it was a morning?”

  He turned to me excitedly. “Did I say morning? Yes, it was … and if I can only see the place again—”

  “You won’t see much tonight, I’m afraid.”

  “I didn’t see much last time, either—it was too foggy. God—that’s something else. … Just let me talk on anyhow. Don’t feel you have to answer—I know it’s hard to drive these juggernauts on a wet night—why does my wife always buy such monsters?—and we have four of them.”

  “Nothing to stop you buying a small car yourself if you wanted.”

  “But I’m not interested in buying cars.”

  I laughed and said: “Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re not interested in cars, you can’t blame Mrs. Rainier for buying the kind she thinks is suitable for a rich man who isn’t interested in cars.”

  “True, true. …” The side issue had lowered the tension.

  We drove through the almost deserted City, past Aldgate and along the wide, brilliant, rococo Mile End Road. It was midnight as we crossed Bow Bridge, five minutes past as we reached the fork of the road in Stratford Broadway; I had to drive slowly because of the slippery tram rails. Once I stopped to inquire from some men drinking at a coffee stall; they waved us on into the deepening hinterland of the suburbs. The slums here lost their sinister picturesqueness, became more and more drably respectable: long vistas of lamplit roads, with here and there a block of elementary schools rising like a fortress over the roof tops, and at every shopping center the same names in a different order—Woolworth, Maypole, Sainsbury, Home and Colonial, Lyons. We passed an old-fashioned church with a new-fashioned sign outside it, proclaiming the subject of next Sunday’s sermon—“Why Does God Permit War?”—and that set Rainier improvising on the kind of sermon it would be—“very cheerful and chummy, proving that God isn’t such a bad sort when you get to know Him”; and then abruptly, in the tangental way so characteristic when he was inwardly excited, he talked again of his favorite uncle the archdeacon. “He never preached a sermon on ‘Why Does God Permit War?’ To begin with, I don’t suppose he ever thought about it, and if he had, he’d probably have answered ‘Why shouldn’t He?’ He took it for granted that the Deity minded His own business, and that ‘God’s in His Heaven’ was just Browning’s way of putting it. All this craze for bringing Him down to earth and appealing to Him at every turn would have struck my uncle as weak-kneed as well as in appallingly bad taste. And yet, in his way, and on the outskirts of Cheltenham, he lived an almost saintly life. He would never kill insects that strayed into the house, but would trap them in match boxes and set them free in the garden. He approved of hunting, though, and thought the smearing of a girl’s face with fox blood after her first ride to hounds was a rather charming custom. All in all, I don’t suppose he was any more inconsistent than the modern parson who tries to combine Saint Francis, Lenin, and Freud into one all-embracing muddle.”

  We drove on through Leytonstone; there the tramlines ended and we could put on a little speed. It was just after one o’clock when we reached the market square in the center of Melbury; I pulled up and looked to him for further instructions. He was peering through the window and after a moment I wound the window down on my side. The rain had increased to the dimensions of a storm, and a solitary policeman sheltering under a shop awning called out to us: “Looking for somewhere?”

  Rainier turned at the sound of the stranger’s voice.

  “Yes, the hospital,” he answered. “Where’s the hospital?”

  “You mean the new one or the old one, sir?”

  “The old one, I think.” Then in a sudden rush: it’s on a hill—has big gates and a high wall all round it.”

  The policeman looked puzzled. “That don’t sound much like either of ’em.” Then, as I was about to thank him and drive off, he came towards the car, leaned in, and said, with a glance across me to Rainier: “You wouldn’t be meanin’ the asylum, would you, sir?”

  PART FOUR

  HE WAS SO TIRED OF stammering out to a succession of doctors all he knew about himself that eventually he jotted it down on a single sheet of notepaper for them to refer to at will. He had recently been transferred to Melbury from another military hospital, and the change had some what upset him, because it meant beginning everything all over again—contacts with new doctors, nurses, and patients, the effort to find another corner of existence where people would presently leave him alone. Besides, he didn’t like the place—it was too big, too crowded, and altogether too permanent-looking. Overworked psychiatrists gave him treatments that were supposed to have done well in similar cases, but perhaps it was part of his own case that he didn’t feel any similar cases existed, though he admitted there were many worse ones; he also felt that the doctors—grand fellows all of them, he had no specific complaints—aimed at raising a statistical average of success rather than his own individual cure.

  That particular morning in November he began the regulation mile along the cinder paths, glad that the fog had kept most of his fellow victims indoors. Only alone did his various symptoms ever approach vanishing point, and amidst the fog this sense of aloneness was intensified so reassuringly that as he continued to walk he began to feel a curious vacuum of sensation that might almost be called contentment. Walking was part of the encouraged regimen at Melbury; extensive grounds surrounded by a fifteen-foot spiked wall permitted it, while an army greatcoat kept the cold air from penetrating his thinnish hospital uniform.

  Suddenly, as he neared the main entrance where the name had been painted over (though it was still readable in burnt letters on brooms and garden took—“Property of the So-and-So County Asylum”)—suddenly, as the heavily scrolled ironwork of the gates loomed through the fog, a siren screamed across the emptiness beyond—a factory siren, already familiar at certain hours, but this was not one of them, nor did the sound stay on the single level note, but began soaring up and down in wild flurries. A few seconds later another siren chimed in, and then a third; by that time he was near enough to the gates to see two uniformed porters rush hatless out of the lodge, shouting excitedly as they raced up the shrouded driveway. For the moment—and he realized it
without any answering excitement—there was no one left on guard, no one to stop him as he passed through the lodge into the outer world, no one to notice him as he walked down the lane towards the town. Behind his mute acceptance of things done to him, there was a slow-burning inclination to do things for himself, an inclination fanned now into the faint beginnings of initiative; but they were only faint, he had no will for any struggle, and if anyone ran after him to say “Come back” he would go back.

  Nobody ran after him. The lane turned into the main road at the tram terminus; a small crowd was already gathering there in groups, chattering, laughing, greeting each newcomer with eager questions. Nor had the sirens stopped; they were louder now, and joined by tram bells, train whistles, a strange awakening murmur out of the distance. He walked on, still downhill, edging into the roadway to avoid people, glad that the fog was thickening as he descended. Soon he was aware of some approaching vortex of commotion, of crowds ahead that might cover all the roadway and envelop him completely; he felt as well as heard them, and a nagging pinpoint of uneasiness expanded until, to relieve it even momentarily, he turned into a shop at the corner of a street.

  The inside was dark, as he had hoped, revealing only vague shapes of counter, shelves, and merchandise; it seemed to be a small neglected general store, smelling of its own shabbiness. The opening door had tinkled a bell, and presently, as his eyes grew used to the dimness, he saw an old woman watching from behind the counter—thin-faced, gray-haired, rather baleful. He tried to ask for cigarettes and began to stammer. He always did when he talked to others, though he could chatter to himself without much trouble—that was one of the points he had noted for the doctors, though he suspected they didn’t believe him, and of course it was something he couldn’t prove. Just now, with all the extra excitement, his stammer was worse than ever—not a mere tongue-tie, but a nervous tic that convulsed his entire head and face. He stood there, trembling and straining for speech, at last managing to explode a word; the woman said nothing in answer, but after a long scrutiny began sidling away. He relaxed when she had gone, hoping she would just return with the cigarettes and not oblige him to say more, wondering if she would think it odd if he stayed to smoke one of them in the shop. Anyhow, it was good to be alone again. Then suddenly he realized he was not alone. A girl had entered, or else had been there all the time and he hadn’t noticed; she too was waiting at the counter, but now she turned to him and began urgently whispering. “She’s gone to fetch somebody—she knows where you’re from.”

  He stared hard, trying to isolate her face from the surrounding shadows.

  “You are, aren’t you?”

  He nodded.

  “She knows you’re not supposed to be out.”

  He nodded again.

  “Not that I’d blame anybody for anything today. The war’s over—you know that? Isn’t it wonderful … ? And you certainly don’t look as if you’d do any harm.” She smiled to soften the phrase.

  He shook his head and smiled back.

  “Well, if you have given them the slip, I wouldn’t stay here, old boy, that’s all.”

  He smiled again, a little bewildered; somebody was talking to him normally, casually, yet personally too. It was a pleasant experience, he wished it could go on longer, but then he heard the old woman’s footsteps returning from some inner room behind the shop; with a final smile he summoned enough energy to walk away. A few seconds later he stood on the pavement, blinking to the light, aware of the prevalent atmosphere as something pungent, an air he could not breathe, a spice too hot for his palate. Shouts were now merging into a steady sequence of cheers, and through the pale fog he saw a tram approach, clanging continuously as it discharged a load of yelling schoolchildren. He turned away from the clamor into a side street where two rows of small houses reached upwards like flying buttresses astride a hill; presently he came to a house with a dingy brass plate outside—“H. T. Sheldrake, Teacher of Music.” He spoke the name, Sheldrake, to himself—he always tested names like this, hoping that some day one of them would fit snugly into an empty groove in his mind. No, not Sheldrake. There was the sound of a piano playing scales; he listened, calming himself somewhat, till the playing stopped and shrill voices began. That made him move on up the hill, but he felt tired after a short distance and held to a railing for support. Just then the same girl caught up with him.

  “What’s the matter?”

  He smiled.

  “I followed you. Thought you looked a bit off-color.”

  He shook his head valiantly, observing her now for the first time. She was dressed in a long mackintosh and a little fur hat like a fez, under which brown straight hair framed a face of such friendly eagerness that he suddenly felt it did not matter if she saw and heard his struggles for speech; rather that than have her think him worse than he was. He wanted to say: You should see some of the other fellows up there—what’s wrong with me is nothing—just a stammer and not being able to remember things.

  While he was planning to say all this she took his arm. “Lean on me if you like. And talk or not, whichever you want. Don’t be nervous.”

  After that he decided to say merely that he was not really ill, but only tired after walking further than usual; he began bracing himself to make the effort, smiling beforehand to console her for the ordeal of watching and listening. Then a curious thing happened; it was like taking a rush at a door to break through when all the time the door was neither locked nor even latched. He just opened his mouth and found that he could speak. Not perfectly, of course, but almost as easily as if he were talking to himself. It made him gasp with an astonishment so overwhelming that for the moment he expected her to share it. “Did you hear that? I wasn’t so bad then, was I?”

  “Of course you weren’t. Didn’t I tell you not to be nervous?”

  “But you don’t know what a job I have, as a rule.”

  “Oh yes I do. I heard you in the shop. But that old woman would scare anybody. Where d’you want to go?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Well, this street doesn’t lead anywhere.”

  “I was just—walking.”

  “But weren’t you trying to get away?”

  “Not—not exactly. I hadn’t any real plans. I just came out because—well, because there was nobody at the gate.”

  “Do they look after you all right?”

  “Oh yes.”

  “I’ve heard they’re a bit rough with some.”

  “Not with me.”

  “All the same, you don’t really like the place?”

  “Not—not very much.”

  “Then you oughtn’t to be in it, surely?”

  “There’s nowhere else, until I get all right again.”

  “How can you get all right again when you’re not happy in a place?”

  He had often asked himself the same question, but he answered, parrying the idea: “Perhaps I wouldn’t be very happy anywhere—just now.”

  “But the war’s over—doesn’t that make any difference?” She came near to abrupt tears, then dashed a hand to her eyes and began to laugh. “Silly, that’s what I am—everybody’s gone silly today. Seems an awful morning to end the war on, doesn’t it?—I mean, you’d almost think the sun ought to shine—blue skies—like a picture. …” She almost cried again. “Shall we stroll down?”

  She gripped his arm as they slowly descended the hill. His walk was pretty good, and he was suddenly proud of it—just the faintest shuffle, nobody would notice. When they reached the piano teacher’s house he hesitated. “I’d rather not get mixed up with the crowd—if you don’t mind.”

  “Righto—we’ll keep well away.” She added: “So you don’t like crowds?”

  “Not very much.”

  “Or hospitals?”

  He smiled and shook his head.

  “Well, that’s fine. If I keep on trying I’ll really get to know you.”

  They both laughed; then she said: “There’s a place where we could
get some hot coffee, if you like that.”

  The Coronation Café was a cheap little place along the Bockley Road, patronized mostly by tramway men on duty who stopped their vehicles outside and dashed in with empty jugs, leaving them to be filled in readiness for the return trip. All day long these swift visitations continued, with barely time for an exchange of words across the counter. But today, the eleventh of November, 1918, drivers and conductors chatted boisterously as if they were in no hurry at all, and passed cheery remarks to the couple who sat at the marble-topped table in the window alcove. They could see the man was a soldier by his greatcoat, and it was a good day for saying cheery things to soldiers. “Wonder ’ow long it’ll take to git the rest of you boys ’ome, mate?” … “Maybe they’ll march ’em to Berlin now and shoot the old Kaiser.” … “Seems queer to ’ave the war end up like this—right on the dot, as you might say.” … “Wouldn’t surprise me if it’s just a rumor, like them Russians comin’ through.” … “But it’s all in the papers, see—it sez the Germans ’ave signed a what’s-a-name—means peace, don’t it?” All this and much else in snatches of news and comment. The proprietor always answered: “You’re right there, mister”—“That’s just what I always said meself,” or, if the remark had been especially emphatic: “You ’it the nail straight on the ’ead that time, mister.” Towards noon the fog grew very thick indeed and drivers reported crowds still increasing at the busy centers; workpeople had been sent home from offices and factories, as well as children from all the schools. Then the trams stopped running, impeded by fog and crowds equally, and as there were no more customers at the Coronation Café the proprietor set to work behind his counter, polishing a large tea urn till it glowed in the gloom like a copper sun. Presently he came over to the table. He was a little man, pale-faced, bald, with watery eyes and a drooping mustache.

 
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