James hilton collected n.., p.54
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.54

           James Hilton
 

  Sometimes while he was busy in the garden the landlord, puffing and sweating in his shirtsleeves, would bring out a couple of pints of beer. He took a naïve, childlike interest in his protégé. “Easy does it, mate—don’t work your head off. Seen the paper? They ’aven’t ’anged the old Kaiser yet, but it looks like they’ll do for this chap Landru—supposed to have murdered twenty women—what d’you think of that?”

  Smith didn’t have to answer much, because the Biffer was always glad to talk, especially about his favorite diversion, which was a word competition in a well-known weekly paper. He usually sent in several entries; they consisted of some supposedly apt comment on a selected phrase. The prize-winning comment generally had wit, or at least a double meaning; but the Biffer could never grasp that, and his hard-wrought efforts were invariably trite, and just as invariably failed to score. But every night in the private bar he would discuss them with his regular customers, and in the daytime he was glad enough to add the new gardener to his list of consultants. The latter, encouraged to take a rest from work and study the weekly contest, soon developed an inkling of what might stand a chance, and from time to time made suggestions that the Biffer dutifully incorporated into his own efforts. Suddenly one of them won a prize of a hundred pounds, and never since his epic fight with the Gunner had anything happened to give the Biffer a greater feeling of elation. His first response was to insist on an equal split, paid over there and then in five-pound notes, for he believed (more truly than he realized) that the gardener’s emendation might have helped. But that was not all. In the Owl bar that same evening, under stress of many drinks and congratulations, he could not withhold credit as well as cash from his collaborator. “Quiet well-spoken sort of chap—stammers a bit—been shell-shocked in the war. Matter of fact, they ’ad ’im locked up in that big guv’ment hospital at Melbury till the poor chap got away. I reckon that’s a fine joke on them guv’ment busybodies—a feller they make out is off ’is chump goes and thinks up something that wins a hundred quid!” And the more the Biffer contemplated this extremely ironic circumstance, the more he repeated and elaborated it over a period of several hours and before changing audiences.

  A few evenings later Smith was tidying up in the greenhouse; but it was a Sunday and there had not been much to do. It was hardly time for Paula to come yet, even if she did come; he knew she was at Selchester that week—perhaps it was too far away. The uncertainty as to whether she would come or not made a curious little fret inside him; it didn’t matter so much if she wasn’t coming provided he hadn’t looked forward to it in advance. That brought him to a realization of how much he did look forward to her visits. Of course, now that he was getting better he didn’t expect to see her so much; she had been kind while he was ill, he mustn’t trade on that. And another thing was curious—his memory of the night she had brought him to the Owl, every word she had said, little intimacies of physical presence, details that swung like lamps amidst the background of fever and delirium. He could hardly believe that certain things had happened at all, that she had so comforted him throughout that long night of Armistice. There had been no other nights like that, there never would be, neither in his life nor in the world’s. He could not expect it; and it was natural that their relationship, begun in such a wild vacuum of despair and ecstasy, should by now have become a more normal one.

  Suddenly the greenhouse door opened and she stood there in the sunlight, breathless. “Oh Smithy, you’ve got to go—immediately! Drop those things and don’t stay here a moment longer. I’ll pack your bag—I’ll find where everything is—meet me in the Forest by the beech trees in half an hour! But go now—don’t waste any time—”

  “But what’s the matter? What on earth’s happened?”

  “Two men from Melbury Hospital talking to Biffer in the bar. They’ve come for you.”

  “For me?” He stared at her, bewildered at first, then enraged and indignant. “They want to take me back? They still want to get me?”

  She ran to him, holding him, trying to stop his cries. “Don’t shout—and don’t argue—just go as I tell you!” She pulled him out of the greenhouse and across the garden to the side gate. “Wait for me—you know where—I shan’t be long.”

  They met again, under the trees. He was calmer; he had waited, smoking cigarettes and thinking things out. The day had been hot and pockets of warm air lingered amidst the fast-cooling shades. The Forest was very beautiful, and something in him was beginning to respond to beauty, as to anger and indignation also. He sprang to eagerness as he saw her approach, carrying bags and parcels. They stood still for a moment, while she regained her breath. “It’s all right—nobody saw you—we’re safe so far. The men have gone—the Biffer got mad and said he’d give ’em what he gave the Gunner.” She laughed. “But of course that wouldn’t help—they’ve got the law on their side—the law and the doctors. … I didn’t say much to Biffer. He means well, but as soon as he’s had a few drinks he tells all he knows, which isn’t much as a rule, but it’s too much just now. So he’d better not know about us till he finds out.”

  “Us?”

  “Well, of course. We’re going together, aren’t we?”

  “But how can—I mean—”

  “Are you being the little gentleman again?”

  “It’s not that, but isn’t it time—”

  “Listen, Smithy, I’m only trying to help you—”

  “I know that, but it’s time I began helping myself.”

  “What a moment to think of it!”

  “It isn’t that I’m not grateful, but—”

  “I know, you feel independent. Well go on your own then, but where will it take you? You haven’t an idea. One place is as good as another, what’s wrong with Selchester then? I’m there for the week and after I’ve gone you can do as you like. … You’ve got those ten fivers in your pocket, haven’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then hand over half to me.”

  He did so, willingly and seriously; she took them with a laugh. “Thanks, Smithy—you’ll feel better now.”

  They reached Selchester late at night, after a confused journey by various trains and buses; but all the way he had been aware of a barrier rising between them, so that at Selchester Station she summoned a cab and did not suggest that he accompany her. “You’ll be all right, Smithy—the town’s full of pubs and lodgings—I reckon you’d rather choose one yourself. I lodge with the company, of course. Well, good night—you’re safe here if you look after yourself, and you will, won’t you?” She leaned up and gave him a sudden kiss—the first she had ever given him, but he knew it meant less than her hand touch the first time they had met. “Good night, old boy,” she repeated.

  “Good night, Paula.”

  When her cab turned the corner and he was left alone with the crowd of strangers in the station yard, he felt suddenly, hopelessly lost. It was a sensation of sheer panic for the moment, but he conquered it—as if he had seen a loathed insect and shudderingly ground it with his heel. He walked into a near-by hotel and engaged a cheap room under the name of Smith. They gave him a very small attic with dormer windows and a view over the railway goods yard; throughout the flight he kept waking up with a start whenever express trains screamed by, but somehow he did not mind that kind of panic; it was the inner kind that paralyzed him—or rather, could not quite paralyze him any more, since he had fought it, alone and so terribly, after she had gone. How comforting, as well as fearful, that word alone was; he wanted aloneness, because it was the hardest training ground for the kind of strength he also wanted; and yet, once he had that strength, he knew he would not wish to be alone. And he knew, too, that his feeling for Paula was no longer an eagerness to submit, like a child; but something positive, strong enough to demand equality, if there were ever to be any further relationship between them at all. He knew there probably could not be. That warm outpouring pity had saved his life, but he could only keep his life from now on by refusing it. Lying a
wake that night in the Station Hotel, he made up his mind that he would not try to see her in Selchester that week; she would be busy, no doubt, with rehearsals and performances; and he, too, ought to be busy—looking for a job if the town offered any, and if not, deciding where else to go.

  For five days he walked about Selchester alone. He visited the Cathedral, sat for hours in the Close under the trees, spent an afternoon in a very dull municipal museum, watched the trains in and out of the railway station, read the papers in the free library. None of these pursuits involved conversation, and—except to waitresses and the maid at the hotel—he did not utter a word for anyone to hear. Sometimes, however, during walks in the surrounding country, he talked to himself a little—not from eccentricity, but to reassure himself of the power of speech. There were a few factories also that he scouted around, wondering if he should ask for a job, but sooner or later he always found a door with a notice “No Hands Wanted.” He knew that subconsciously he was glad, because he still feared the ordeal of cross-examination by strangers.

  One rainy afternoon he sat in the refreshment room at the railway station, drinking a third cup of tea that he did not want and staring at an old magazine that he was not reading. Curious how one had to simulate some normal activity or purpose in life, even if one hadn’t one, or especially if one had a secret one; in a town café he could not have stayed so long without attracting attention, but at the station it was merely supposed he was waiting for a train. Trains were things people waited hours for; one did not, unless one were peculiar, wait hours for a desire to clarify itself. But that was what he was waiting for. It was Saturday; he had been in Selchester almost a week. He had a definite desire to go to the theater and see the show, but he could not decide until he felt certain what his desire signified. If it were weakness, an urge to go back on his pledge to himself, he would not give way; he could endure plenty more of the aloneness, it would not break him. But, on the other hand, supposing it were not weakness but strength—supposing it meant that he could now walk into a theater as normally as into a library or museum, could face the crowd and the lights and the excitement without a qualm?

  He had walked past the theater several times and had judged the kind of show it was from bills and photographs; nothing very uplifting, but probably good entertainment, and it would be interesting to see what she was capable of. Thus, he made his desire seem casual, normal, almost unimportant, until suddenly he decided he was strong and not weak enough to go. He got up and walked briskly to the counter to pay for the tea. “Gettin’ tired of waitin’?” remarked the girl, with mild interest “The Winton train’s late today.”

  “Yes,” he said, smiling. “I think I’ll get a breath of fresh air.”

  He left the station and walked through the rain to the center of the city, feeling more and more confident.

  It was an odd thing, this loss of memory; he could not remember personal things about himself, yet he had a background of experience that gave him a certain maturity of judgment. He had probably been to many theaters before, just as he had probably been to schools and received a decent education. There were things he knew that he could only have picked up from school-books, other things that he could only have learned from some forgotten event. It was as if his memory existed, but was submerged; as if he could lower a net and drag something up, but only blindfold, haphazardly, without the power of selection. He could not stare into the past; he could only grope. But by some kind of queer compensation, his eyes for the present were preternaturally bright; like a child’s eyes, naïve, ingenuous, questioning.

  In such a mood he sat in the third row at the first house of the Selchester Hippodrome that night and looked upon a show called Salute the Flag, described on the program as “a stirring heart-gripping drama, pulsating with patriotism and lit by flashes of sparkling comedy.” Actually it was a hangover from wartime, having begun in 1914 as a straight melodrama with no comedy at all, but with many rousing speeches that audiences in those days had liked to cheer. Then, as the war progressed and the popular mood changed from that of Rupert Brooke to that of Horatio Bottomley, the patriotic harangues were shortened to make room for the writing in of a comic part, which speedily became such a success that by 1918 the show had developed into a series of clowning episodes behind which the dramatic structure of what had once been a very bad play appeared only intermittently. Nobody knew the authorship of the original, or of any of the later accretions; successive actors had added a gag here and a gag there; every now and then the show became too long, and the parts left but were naturally those that elicited neither laughs nor cheers, no matter how essential they were to the original plot. But nobody minded that—least of all the audiences who paid their ninepences and shillings in the few remaining small-town English theaters that had so far escaped conversion into Cinema houses. Salute the Flag had certainly helped to preserve the very existence of such a minority; it had also made a great deal of money for a great many people. Probably, in the aggregate, it had been more profitable than many a better-known and well-advertised West End success.

  Smith found it endurable, even before the moment when Paula appeared. Her part in the play was trivial, that of an impudent girl at a hotel desk who got people’s bedrooms mixed up, but in one of the other scenes she stepped out of the part for a few impersonations in front of the drop curtain; he thought them pretty good, not from any definite competence to judge, but because of the warm vitality that came over the footlights with them, her own rich personality, full of giving—even to a twice-nightly audience. Evidently the audience too were aware of this, for they cheered uproariously, despite the likelihood that few had seen the originals, which included Gerald du Maurier, Gladys Cooper, Mrs. Pat Campbell, and the ex-Kaiser. They cheered so much that she came on again to give an impression of a society woman telephoning her lover, all smiles and simperings, in the midst of grumbling at her maid, all scowls and snarls—a bit of broad unsubtle farce that demanded, however, a sure technique of changed accents and facial expressions. She did not appear again till the final scene in the last act, when the heroine, a nurse, unfolded a huge and rather dirty flag in front of her, and with the words “You kennot fahr on helpless womankind” defied the villain, who wore the uniform of a German army officer, until such time as the entire rest of the company rushed on to the stage to hustle him off under arrest and to bring down the curtain with the singing of a patriotic chorus.

  Smith was halfway down the aisle on his way out of the theater when an usher touched him on the arm. “Excuse me, sir, one of the artists would like you to go behind, if you’d care to. She says you’d know who it was.”

  He hesitated a moment, then answered: “Why, of course.”

  “This way, sir.”

  He was led back towards the stage, stooping under the brass rail into the orchestra, stepping warily amidst music stands and instruments, then stooping again to descend a narrow staircase leading under the stage into an arena of ropes and canvas. The usher piloted him beyond all this into a corridor lined by doors; on one of them he tapped. “The gentleman’s here, miss.” A moment’s pause. “I expect she’s dressing, sir—you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back.”

  Again, after the usher had left him, he felt the beginnings of panic, but it was different now—an excitement that he fought only as much as he wanted to fight it. And the door opened before he could either yield or conquer to any extent.

  “Oh, Smithy—Smithy—you kept your promise!”

  She dragged him into the room with both hands and closed the door. It was a shabby little dressing room, with one fierce light over a mirrored table littered with paints and cosmetics; playbills and an old calendar on the wall; clothes thrown across a chair; a mixture of smells—grease paint, burnt hair, cigarettes, cheap perfume, lysol. She wore a dressing gown over the skimpy costume in which she was soon to appear again.

  “I didn’t see you till the end—glad I didn’t—I’d have been so excited I’d have ruined
the show.”

  He said, smiling: “I enjoyed it very much—especially your part.”

  “Oh no, Smithy, you don’t have to say things like that. … Tell me how you are! Better, I can see—or you wouldn’t be here. But what have you been doing with yourself all week?”

  “Oh, just looking around. Have to find some sort of a job, you know.”

  “Any luck?”

  “Not so far. I somehow don’t feel Selchester’s a very good place to try.”

  “We’re going on to Rochby next week. More chance in a place like that, maybe.”

  “I daresay I’ll get something somewhere.”

  “And you feel better?”

  “Oh yes—fine.”

  The call boy shouted through the door, “Five minutes, miss.”

  “That means I’ve only got five minutes.” She paused, then laughed. “I do say intelligent things, don’t I?”

  He laughed also. “They keep you pretty busy—two shows a night.”

  “Yes, but this is Saturday, thank heaven. You’d be surprised what a rest Sunday is, even if you spend most of it in trains.”

  “You leave in the morning?”

  “Ten o’clock.”

  “But it isn’t far.”

  “About three hours. We have a long wait at Bletchley. Somehow that always happens. I seem to have spent days of my life waiting at Bletchley.”

  “I don’t think I know Bletchley.”

  “Well, you haven’t missed much. There’s nothing outside the station except a pub that never seems to be open. Oh God, what are we talking about Bletchley for? … I’ve got some money of yours, you know that? Or did you forget?”

 
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