James hilton collected n.., p.53
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.53
 

           James Hilton

  “I shan’t mind.”

  “You sleep well?”

  “Sometimes.”

  “Lie awake thinking about things?”

  “Sometimes.”

  “About who you are and all that?”

  “Sometimes.”

  Her voice softened with curiosity as she looked down at him. “Drink it up, Smithy. What does it feel like—to think of the time before—before you can remember?”

  “Like trying to remember before I was born.”

  She gave his hand an answering touch. “Well, you’re born again now. So’s everybody. So’s the whole world. That’s the way to look at it. That’s why there’s all this singing and shouting. That’s why I’m drunk.”

  “Are you?”

  “Well not really with drinks, though I have had a few. It’s just the thought of it all being over—I’ve seen so many nice boys like yourself, having a good time one week and then by the next … Oh well, mustn’t talk about that—better not talk any more about anything; you’re too sleepy; and so am I. How about making a bit of room?”

  Without undressing, except to slip off her shoes, she lifted the blankets and lay down beside him. He felt her nearness slowly, luxuriously, a relaxation of every nerve. “Tell you what, old boy, I’m just like a mother tonight, so cuddle up close as you like and keep warm. … Good night, Smithy.”

  “Good night.”

  “And Paula’s the name, in case you’ve forgotten that as well.”

  But he felt no need to answer, except by a deeper tranquillity he drew from her, feeling that she was offering it. The crowd were still singing “Knees Up, Mother Brown” in the bars below. It sounded new to him, both words and tune, and he wondered if it were something else he had forgotten. He did not know that no one anywhere had heard it before—that in some curious telepathic way it sprang up all over London on Armistice Night, in countless squares and streets and pubs; the living improvisation of a race to whom victory had come, not with the trumpet notes of a Siegfried, but as a common earth touch—a warm bawdy link with the mobs of the past, the other victorious Englands of Dickens, Shakespeare, Chaucer.

  Presently, as he lay listening, he fell asleep in her arms.

  In the morning he had a temperature of 103. He didn’t know it; all he felt was a warm, almost cosy ache of all his limbs, as well as a trancelike vagueness of mind. She didn’t know it either, but his flushed face and incoherent speech made her telephone for a doctor. A majority of the other occupants of the Owl on that first morning of Peace were also flushed and incoherent, though from a different cause. The Biffer himself, sprawling, disheveled, and half undressed, snored loudly on a sofa in the little room behind the private bar; Frank, the bartender, boastful of never having touched a drop, languished in sober but melancholy stupor on the bench in the public bar, watching the maids sweep sawdust and broken glasses into heaps. Other persons, including a second bartender, a waiter, and several dilatory patrons who had either declined or been unable to go home, were not only fast asleep in various rooms and corridors, but likely, to remain so till many more hours were past. It had been a night in the history of the Owl, as of the world.

  The only doctor who heeded the call proved, on arrival, to be extremely bad-tempered. As she met him in the lobby he took a sharp look round, eyeing distastefully the prostrate figures visible through doorways. “Daresay you know how busy I am—three Bockley doctors down with the flu—I’m trying to do the work of five men myself, so I hope you haven’t brought me here for nothing. I know Briggs—known him for years—he drinks too much and I’ve told him he’ll die of it—what more can I do? A man has a right to die as well as live the way he chooses—anyhow, a doctor can’t stop him. By this time she had led him upstairs and into the bedroom. He walked across to the bed, took one look, and swung round angrily. “What’s the idea? Who is he?”

  “He’s been a soldier. He’s ill.”

  “But I thought it was Briggs. … You had no right to drag me out here—who are you?”

  “A friend of the Biffer—like yourself.”

  “Well, I’ve no time for new cases,”

  “But he’s ill. Can’t you see that?”

  “How much did he drink?”

  “Nothing. It isn’t that.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I was with him.”

  “You’re his wife?”

  “No.”

  “Well, what is he to you? And what’s he doing here? You call me away from my regular patients—you tell me it’s urgent—I hurry here because Briggs is an old friend—” But by this time he had drawn back the blankets. “Why, God bless my soul, the man’s in his uniform. …”

  “I told you—he’s been a soldier.”

  “He’s still a soldier—he belongs to a hospital.”

  “Aren’t you going to help him at all?”

  “Can’t interfere in a military case—all I can do is notify the authorities. What’s the fellow’s name? … Ah, here it is—”

  “But he’s terribly ill.”

  “He’ll be sent for.”

  “But you can’t leave him like this!”

  “You don’t need to instruct me in my duty.”

  Smith half heard all this as he lay on the bed, his mind tremulous with fever and his body drenched in perspiration; he heard the door close and then saw her face coming towards him out of a mist.

  “I bungled that, Smithy. I’m afraid the old boy’s gone back to tell ’em you’re here.”

  He smiled. He didn’t care. She seemed to read that in his face. She went on: “Yes, you think it doesn’t matter, you’d just as soon go back—but would you, when you once got there? You don’t really want to be in a hospital again. … Or do you?”

  He smiled again, more faintly. He was too ill to speak.

  “Well, if you die, it’ll be pretty hard to explain you being here, but if you weren’t going to die I wouldn’t be so pleased at having let you go. So you’d just better stay here and not die, Smithy.”

  He kept smiling as if the whole thing increasingly amused him.

  Thus it happened that when, towards twilight, the doctor revisited the Owl, striding into the lobby in an even greater hurry and temper than before, she met him there with answers rehearsed and ready.

  “Well, young lady, I’ve made arrangements about that man. The Melbury Hospital will send an ambulance this evening.”

  “But he’s gone!”

  “What?” She repeated: “He’s gone.”

  The doctor flushed and seemed on the verge of an outburst, then suddenly began to cough. She thought he looked rather ill himself. When he could regain breath he said more quietly: “You’d better do some explaining. Where has he gone? How did he get away?”

  She offered him a chair. “Maybe he wasn’t so ill. Perhaps he was just drunk, as you said.”

  “Nonsense! He’s a shell-shock case, if you know what that is—has delusions that people are against him. Men like that can be dangerous—might have a crazy fit or something.” He began to cough again. “Now come on, don’t waste any more of my time. Tell me where he is.”

  She was facing him steadily when all at once his coughing became worse; he struggled with it for a while and then gasped: “Where’s Briggs? Let me talk to him about this.”

  “He’s out.”

  “Well, I’ll call again later when I’ve finished my round.” He seemed to have a renewal of both energy and anger as he stalked out of the room, for he shouted from the doorway:

  “It’s all a pack of lies you’ve been telling—I know that much!”

  But he did not call back later when he had finished his round. In fact he never did finish his round. He collapsed over the wheel of his car half an hour later, summoning just enough final strength to pull up by the roadside. It was a lonely road and they did not find him till he was dead. The flu of 1918 was like that.

  Later in the evening a military ambulance drove up to the Owl and drove away again after
a few minutes. The Biffer was emphatic in his assurance that there must have been some mistake—nobody on his premises was ill. But he called the driver and the two attendants into the private bar and hospitably stood them drinks.

  The flu had other victims: Biffer Briggs himself, Frank the bartender, Annie the maid; they recovered. But an old man named Tom who for decades had odd-jobbed in the Owl garden died quietly, like ten millions more throughout Europe; indeed the war during all its years had not taken so many. But because the larger claims were made without horror they were surrendered without concern, and the Owl was far less perturbed when three fourths of its occupants were ill and near to death than on a night some months before when a German air raider had dropped a solitary bomb in a meadow miles away.

  Meanwhile Lloyd George was organizing his khaki election; the world grew loud with promises; the ex-Kaiser was to be hanged; the losers must pay the whole cost of the war; the armies of the victors were all to come home and find work waiting for them; the new world was to be one of peace and plenty for Englishmen. Among all the promises a few things were real and immediate: a vote for the women, and gratuities to the men as they put off their uniforms—sums in cash that ranged from the field marshal’s fortune to the private soldier’s pittance. The morning these were announced Paula took the newspaper upstairs along with the breakfast tray, but said nothing till she was holding a thermometer to the light. “Well, Smithy, you’re down to nearly normal, so I reckon I can tell you the other good news—the government owes you some money.” She read him the details and added: “So stop worrying—you’ll be able to pay for everything soon.”

  “But in the meantime?”

  “Now what’s bothering you?”

  “I hate to seem inquisitive, but—I mean—you—you probably aren’t so well off as—as to be able to afford—to help me—”

  “Darling, I’m not well off at all, but helping you isn’t bankrupting me, either. And why should you hate to seem inquisitive?”

  She sat on the bed waving the thermometer happily. “I’m afraid you’re too much of a gentleman, old boy. After all, you don’t know what you are, do you? Maybe you’re a lord or an earl or something. Can’t you remember going to Eton? You talked a good bit lately while you were in a delirium, but it was all war stuff—not very helpful. You’ve been pretty bad, incidentally—know that? This morning’s the first time you’ve dropped below a hundred.” She poured out a cup of tea. “All the others caught it too—good job I didn’t.”

  “You’ve been living here?”

  “Living and lifesaving. The flu closed the theater so I’d have had nothing else to do, anyway.”

  “I still don’t see how you can afford to help me like this.”

  “Darling, I’ll let you into a secret—I’m not paying for your room, but if it makes you feel better, you can turn over anything you like as soon as the government gives you the money.”

  “That’s another trouble. I can’t be demobilized till I’m officially discharged from hospital.”

  “Well, hurry up and get better, then they’ll discharge you quick enough.”

  “But—in the meantime—don’t you see?—I can’t hide—like this—in somebody else’s house!”

  “But you don’t have to hide. I’ve talked to the Biffer about you already.”

  “You mean he knows I’m here—and where I come from?”

  “Yes, and he doesn’t mind. Doesn’t give a damn, in fact. I knew I could fix it.”

  “But—why does he think you’re doing all this for me?”

  “Well, why do you think I am?” She laughed. “It’s just a hobby of mine. Now listen to this—it’s the Biffer’s idea, not mine. He says for the time being—when you’ve got over this flu and are strong enough—why don’t you do a bit in the garden same as old Tom used to? If you like, that is. Might be good for you to have a quiet job in the fresh air—you wouldn’t have to talk to people much. And it’s lovely here when the summer comes.”

  Something flicked against his memory. “You said that once before.”

  “Did I?”

  “The night we came here—as we walked through the garden in the fog. You said—‘It’s lovely here when the summer comes.’ ”

  “Well, it certainly is, but I don’t remember saying it. And you’re the one who’s supposed to forget things!”

  “That’s why I’m always trying to remember them—things that have happened before.”

  The Biffer’s not minding was a mild way of expressing his willingness to co-operate. He was, in truth, delighted to join in any outwitting of authority, which he visualized as the same malign power that had placed so many restrictions on his wartime management of the Owl. Jovial, obese, and somewhat thick-witted after the hundreds of collisions his skull had withstood in years gone by, he remained the product of an early education that had taught him to read printed words with difficulty and to believe them with ease; so that he did indeed believe the things he could read with least difficulty—which included the sporting pages of the daily papers, Old Moore’s predictions, and “powerful articles” by the more down-writing journalists of the day. He had a few fierce hatreds (for such things as red tape, government interference, and Mrs. Grundy) and a few equally fierce affections, such as for Horatio Bottomley, “good old Teddy” (meaning the late King Edward the Seventh), and Oxford in the Boat Race. He took pride in the oft-repeated claim that “there ain’t a more gentlemanly House than the Owl in all London,” and that it should shelter a victim of the things he most hated added zest to a naturally generous impulse. “Pack of Burercratic busybodies,” he exclaimed, during his first meeting with the victim. “Just let ’em come ’ere, that’s all. I’ve still got strength to give ’em what I gave the Gunner!” What he had given the Gunner (at Shoreditch on May 17,1902) was a straight left hook in the fourteenth round—this being the peak of his career, and one which, in money and fame, he had never afterwards approached. But he had bought the Owl with the money, and the fame, carefully husbanded too, had survived pretty well within a ten-mile radius of his own brass-bound beer engines.

  So Smith began to work in the garden of the Owl; and in the meantime President Wilson crossed the Atlantic to be cheered as a new Messiah in the streets of London, Rome, and Paris; English, French, and American troops held the Rhine bridgeheads; the first trains crept again through the defiles of the Brenner; and in the great cities of central and eastern Europe revolution and famine stalked together.

  It was the Biffer’s second-favorite boast that from the garden of the Owl you could see “the Palace” on a dear day—the Alexandra Palace, that was, seven miles west across the Lea Valley; in the other direction the trees of Epping Forest made a darkly etched panorama that grew brown, and then suddenly green, as spring advanced. There was only preparatory gardening to be done until that time, but then the grass grew long in a single week and a line of daffodils flowered in every window box. Hardly anyone visited the garden during the daytime, and by evening, when a few already preferred to take their drinks out of doors, Smith was in bed and asleep, except on Sundays, when Paula would generally pay a visit if her show were playing in or near London.

  Of course he knew she didn’t come to see him only, but chiefly the Biffer and the crowd in the bar, who all seemed to be her friends and greeted her with vociferous cordiality; naturally she spent a good deal of the time with them, and it wasn’t easy to get away for a solitary chat with a semi-invalid. She managed it, though, as a rule, meeting him in the garden and walking with him along the Forest paths as far as the big beech trees. He enjoyed such walks, because it was dark and he still shrank from meeting people; but he also shrank from the thought that he might be dragging her away from much livelier company in the bar. He tried to tell her this.

  “Don’t you worry, Smithy. I won’t let you bore me.”

  “But you have such a good time with the crowd.”

  “I know—that’s because I like people. Can’t help it. But don’
t think so little of yourself—you’re included. Gives me plenty of fun to see you getting better like this, week by week.”

  “Yes, I think I am getting better.”

  “You only think you are?”

  “I still don’t like to talk to people, though.” He tried to explain. “It isn’t so much fear of them as a sort of uneasiness—as if I really oughtn’t to be alive, and everybody knows it and wonders why I still am. I know that’s foolish, but it isn’t enough to know—I’ve got to feel, before I can free myself.”

  “You will, Smithy. You’ll suddenly feel you’re free as air one of these days.”

  “If I do, I’ll have you to thank—chiefly. You’ve given me so much of your tune.”

  “Oh God, don’t start being grateful. Listen, I’ll tell you something. If you oughtn’t to be here, neither should I, and I wouldn’t be, but for luck. A house I was living in was hit by a bomb—I was asleep in one room and two people were killed in the next. I wasn’t going to tell you that—thought it might upset you to be reminded of the war, but now maybe it’ll cheer you up to think we’re born like that. They did their best to finish us off, Smithy, but we managed to trick ’em somehow or other. That’s the way to feel, and it’s easier now the war’s over and there’s a future.”

  “I’d like to feel that, if I could.”

  “You will. You’ll go on getting better, and then one night I’ll see you in the front row of the stalls, watching the show.”

  “Yes, I’d like to see you act.”

  “Oh, don’t come for that reason. I don’t act—I’m just a comic.”

  “I will come, when I’m better.”

  “That’s a promise, now!”

  There wasn’t only the question of his reluctance to meet strangers. Any prospective employer, no matter how sympathetic, would ask for details of his history, his army discharge papers and so on, and if it came out that he’d escaped from a mental hospital the authorities would certainly send him back there, at least for tests and observation, and if he were sent back, even for a short time, he felt terribly certain he would get worse again. There was nothing for it but to stay where he was and be thankful for such a sanctuary; it was really an astounding piece of good fortune ever to have found it. So he stayed, pottering about the Owl garden and gradually returning to the world of ordinary awareness. There came a day when he could open a newspaper and face whatever catastrophe the turn of a page might reveal; another day when he could pick up an exciting novel without perilously identifying himself with one or other of the characters. He was recovering.

 
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