James hilton collected n.., p.55
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.55

           James Hilton

  “No, but—”

  “Well, I’d better give it back since I’m off in the morning.”

  She began to fumble in her dress. “I carry it about with me—doesn’t do to leave fivers lying loose.”

  “Oh, but you mustn’t—”

  “Well, you don’t think I’m going to keep it, do you?”

  “I—I—never thought about it, but—”

  “Did you think I was going to keep it?”

  “Well—I don’t know—it would have been quite fair—after all, you’d done so much—”

  “Listen, you little gentleman—I kept it because I thought I’d have to help you again, and I thought you’d feel better if I was spending your own money! But now you are better, thank God, and you don’t need my help, so here you are!” She pushed the notes into his pocket. “I’ve got to go on again in two minutes, so don’t make me angry! You’ll need that cash if you’re looking for a job. … What sort are you looking for?”

  “Any kind, really—”

  “Outdoor or indoor?”

  “I’m not particular about that, provided—well, you know some of the difficulties—”

  “You’re scared they’ll ask you too many questions? What you’d really like is for someone to stop you in the street and say—‘I don’t know who you are, or what you’ve been, and I don’t care either, but if you want a job, come with me.’ Isn’t that the idea?”

  He laughed. “Yes, that’s exactly the idea, if anyone would.”

  “You wouldn’t mind what the job turned out to be, though?”

  “I think I could do anything that I’d have even the faintest chance of getting.”

  “Figures? Keeping books?”

  “Oh yes.”

  “A bit of talk now and again—even to strangers—in that charming way you have?”

  “I wouldn’t choose that sort of job, but of course—”

  “You mean you’re still bothered about meeting people?”

  He hesitated. She went on: “Well leave that out. What about a bit of carpentry mixed up with the bookkeeping?”

  “Why carpentry?”

  “Why not? … Back at the intelligent conversation, aren’t we?” The call boy knocked again. “Well … I suppose it’s got to be good-bye till we meet again—unless you want to see the show through twice—you’d be a fool if you did.”

  “Perhaps I could meet you somewhere afterwards?”

  “We always have supper together on Saturday nights—all the company, I mean—it’s a sort of regular custom, wherever we are. Of course I could take you as my guest, but there’d be a crowd of strangers.” Abruptly her manner changed. “Smithy, would you really come?”

  “Do you want me to come?”

  “I wouldn’t mind a bit, it’s what you want that matters. You’re free as air now—that’s how you always hoped to be. And they can be a rowdy gang sometimes. So please yourself, I’m not inviting you anywhere any more … but if you are coming, say so now, then I can tell them.”

  He felt suddenly bold, challenging, almost truculent. “I’ll come, and I don’t care how rowdy they are.”

  She flashed him a smile as she slipped off the dressing gown and put final touches to her make-up. “Number 19, Enderby Road—that’s near the cattle market—about eleven-thirty. You don’t need to hang around here for me—just go straight to the house at the time. I’ll come sharp—ahead of the others. See you then.”

  The rain had stopped; he took a long walk in the washed evening air, then sat on a seat in the Cathedral Close and smoked cigarettes till the chime of eleven. He could not quell his nervousness at the thought of meeting so many strange people for the sort of evening party that was a weekly custom of theirs—that in itself made him an outsider. He half wished he hadn’t said he would go, and it occurred to him that of course he didn’t have to—if he failed to turn up, that would be the end of it. But the reflection, though tantalising tip to a point, had the stinging afterthought that he would then not see her again.

  Enderby Road was a quiet cul-de-sac of Edwardian houses, most of them let to boarders; Number 19 looked no different from the others, but had a gas lamp outside the front gate. He waited there, watching for her after the Cathedral clock chimed the half-hour; it was comforting to reflect that nobody knew him yet—he was just an anonymous man standing under a lamppost Presently she turned the corner, her walk breaking into a scamper as she saw him. “On time, Smithy—I mean you are, I’m not. But I hurried to be ahead of the others—I didn’t even stop to clean off the make-up.”

  She led him into the house. “Wait in the hall while I go up and finish.”

  He waited about ten minutes; the hall was dark and smelt of floor polish with an added flavor—which he took practically the entire time to detect—of pickled walnuts. Near him stood a bamboo hall stand overloaded with hats and coats; the staircase disappeared upwards into the gloom with thin strips of brass outlining the ascent. Voices came from a downstairs room. He wondered what he should say if anyone came out of one of the rooms and accosted him, but when the thing happened it turned out to be no problem at all; the voices stopped, a thin old man with a high domed forehead suddenly emerged through one of the doors, collided with him, murmured “Pardon,” and disappeared along the passage. After a moment, he returned, collided again, murmured “Pardon” again, and re-entered the room. Then the voices were resumed.

  Soon after that she came down the stairs two at a time, to whisper excitedly: “Now I’m ready.”

  They entered the room, in which—despite the voices—there was only one person, the thin old dome-headed man; he was sitting at the dining table with a large book open before him, propped against the cruet. The domed head rose over the book as from behind a rampart.

  “Mr. Lanvin—this is Mr. Smith.”

  “A pleasure to meet you, my dear sir.” He smiled, but did not offer to shake hands. Then he closed the book slowly, and Smith could see it was a Braille edition. Somehow that gave him peculiar confidence; Lanvin could not see him, could only judge him by his voice; so for the time being he had only one thing to concentrate on.

  Lanvin was placing the book exactly in its place on a shelf; it was clear he knew by touch and feeling every inch of the geography of the room. “So you are to join the weekly celebration, Mr. Smith?”

  “That seems to be the idea. I hope you don’t mind.”

  “Mind? I’m a guest like yourself, though I’ve been one before. I warn you—they’re a noisy lot—though no noisier than I used to be in my young days. If they weary you later on, come over and talk to me.”

  Smith said he certainly would, and Mr. Lanvin began to talk about Shakespeare. It seemed he had been reading The Merchant of Venice, taking the various parts in various voices. “I used to be quite a good Shylock, though I say it myself—and of course it’s a fine acting part, and the trial scene has wonderful moments. But taking it all in all, you know, it’s a bad play—a bad play. Why do they always choose it for school use? The pound of flesh—gruesome. The Jewish villain—disgustingly anti-Semitic. And a woman lawyer—stark feminism. … Oh, a bad play, my dear sir. You’re not a schoolmaster, by any chance?”

  “I’m afraid not.”

  “Because if you were, I should like to … but never mind that. Since my eyes compelled me to retire from the stage I’ve spent a great deal of my time reading, and do you know, the Braille system gives one a really new insight into literature. You see, you can’t skip—you have to read every word, and that gives you time to think for yourself, to criticize, to revalue—”

  Meanwhile the door had reopened and a heavily built, red-faced, pouchy-eyed man stood in the entrance, waiting till he was quite sure he had been seen before stepping further into the room. Eventually he did so, exclaiming: “Paula, my angel, so this is the friend you spoke of?”

  She completed the introduction; the red-faced man’s name was Borley. He lost no time in dominating the scene. “Fine to have you with us, old chap.
” And then, dropping his voice to an almost secret parenthesis and leaning over the table with the gesture of one about to unveil something: “I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but the food in English boardinghouses is always in inverse proportion to the size of the cruet. The larger the cruet, that is, the worse the food. Now this is a perfectly enormous cruet.” He gave it a highly dramatic long-range scrutiny. “You’d think it ought to light up or play music or something—it’s really more like a municipal bandstand than a receptacle for Mrs. Gregory’s stale condiments.”

  Just late enough to miss these remarks the landlady entered with a trayful of small meat pies. Smith had to be introduced to her also, and it was Mr. Borley who made haste to do this. “Mrs. Gregory, I was just remarking on the quality of your food, and I perceive from yonder succulent morsels that all I have said will soon be amply demonstrated!” Whereupon Mr. Borley delivered a portentous wink all round the room while Mrs. Gregory bounced the tray on the table without much response. She looked so completely indifferent to the bogus compliment that Mr. Borley’s joke was somewhat dulled. “Glad to serve you all,” she muttered. “I do my best, as the saying goes—consequently is, I keep my reg’lars.”

  “You not only keep us, Mrs. Gregory, but we keep you—and proud to do it!”

  She shuffled out of the room, leaving Mr. Borley to proffer the dish of pies with an air of controlled distaste. “Well, the risk’s yours, Smithy. Don’t mind if I call you Smithy, do you? That’s what she calls you.”

  Rather to his surprise, after all this, Smith found the pies excellent. He said so to Mr. Borley, adding that he was even hungry enough to have another.

  “Right you are, then—and fortified by your example I’ll even try one myself.” Mr. Borley then began eating and hardly stopped throughout the entire rest of the evening He added, with his mouth full: “But if you’re a hungry man, God help you at Mrs. Beagle’s!”

  Smith did not see how the food at Mrs. Beagle’s, whoever and wherever she was, could be any concern of his, but he had no time to explore the point because another member of the party had just arrived—a young man in tweeds, puffing at a pipe, almost like a magazine advertisement of either the tweeds or the pipe; he had a pink, over-handsome, rather weak face to which only premature dissipation had begun to lend some interest. Once again Mr. Borley officiated at the introduction, and while he was still performing two other persons entered, one a pale thin girl with a large nose and spotty complexion, the other an elderly silver-haired man of such profoundly sorrowful appearance that the beholder could not keep back a first response of sympathy. Mr. Borley had to summon all his technical powers to hold attention against such competition, but he did his best by shouting the further introductions.

  The silver-haired man smiled and bowed, while the girl marched on Smith, delivered a crunching handshake, strode to the window, stared out for a moment as if deeply meditating, then swung round with husky intensity. “Oh, Mr., Smith, hasn’t it been a wonderful day? I’m sure you’re a rain lover like me!”.

  Smith felt somewhat cheered by a feeling that in this encounter all the others were standing round to see fair play, especially when the tweedy youth nudged him in the ribs. “Don’t worry about her—she’s always like that. Why Tommy married her nobody can imagine—not even Tommy any more … can you, Tommy?”

  Here a sharp-nosed, jockey-sized man with bloodshot blue eyes and straw-colored hair came across the room to be introduced, shook hands wordlessly and continued to do so while he glanced around with concentrated expressionlessness. Presently, turning his eyes on Smith, he whispered: “What made you first take an interest in slumming?” He went on, before Smith could think of any reply: “We’re just a low vulgar crowd. Rogues and vagabonds, they called us in Shakespeare’s time—am I right, Lanvin? We have no homes, we live in dingy lodginghouses in every middle-sized town in England, we know which landlady counts the potatoes, which theater’s full of fleas, and which has a roof that leaks on the stage when it rains. None of your high’ class West End stuff for us—we lure the coppers, the orange peel, and the monkey nuts and we spend our one-day-a-week holiday chewing stale sandwiches in Sunday trains.”

  Mrs. Gregory then came in with what was evidently the main dish—quantities of fried fish, chip potatoes, and hot peas; meanwhile Mr. Borley had been out and now reappeared carrying a crate of bottled beer. The party began to find places at the table while the sorrowful-looking man, whose name was Margesson and whom one would have expected to speak like an archbishop boomed across the table quite unsorrowfully and with the zest and accent of an auctioneer: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I remind you that we shall soon be at the mercy of Mrs. Beagle.” Here followed a chorus of groans and catcalls. “So I’m not going to keep you from the really serious business of the evening, which is to eat the last decent meal we shall have for a week. Before we begin, though, and speaking as the senior member of this company,—bar Lanvin, who’s a permanent resident,—may I offer you a welcome, Mr. Smith, and beg you to take no further notice of that truncated nitwit Tommy Belden, nor of that moon-faced stewpan, Richard Borley, nor of …” He had an insult for each of them, culminating in the arrival of a fat over-powdered woman with a large smile she bestowed upon everyone from the doorway, whereupon Margesson turned on her and exclaimed: “Now, Miss Donovan, you old bag of bones, don’t stand there ogling the men—come and meet our guest, Mr. Smith, commonly called Smithy—”

  And so it went on. Not till weeks later, when he had got to know them as human beings, did he realize that they had behaved with extra extravagance that evening in order to put him at his ease, and that the insults were a convention in which they took particular pride—the more horrific and ingenious, the warmer the note of friendliness indicated. A climax came when Margesson, at the end of dinner, rose to make an appeal on behalf of an actor whom they had formerly known and who had fallen on bad times, Margesson’s speech began: “Ladies and gentlemen, if such there still are among this depraved and drink-sodden gathering—some of you, even in your cups, may remember Dickie Mason, one of the dirtiest dogs who ever trod the boards of a provincial hippodrome—”

  The party lasted till after three in the morning, and was only then dissolved at the energetic request of Mrs. Gregory, who said the neighbors were being disturbed. Towards the end of it, Margesson took Smith aside and said: “Well? Can you stand us?”

  Smith answered with a laugh: “I think so. I’m having quite a good time, anyhow.”

  “The train’s at ten tomorrow morning.”

  “Yes, Paula told me.”

  “Some people sleep late, that’s all.”

  That seemed another odd remark, but he didn’t begin to grasp its significance till later on when several people shook hands or clapped him on the back with the remark: “See you tomorrow, Smithy.”

  Paula walked with him to the corner of the road. He said: “I’m really glad I came—they’re a warmhearted lot, and it’s nice of them to expect me to see them off in the morning.”

  “I’d better tell you what else they expect. They think you’re coming with us—to Rochby and all the other places.”


  “Now don’t begin to argue. Maybe I’ve bungled again—you’ve only got to say so, and the whole idea’s dropped. But there’s a job for you if you want it. In fact it’s just about a hundred jobs rolled into one—you’ll find that out, if you take it on, and if you don’t like it or something better turns up, then you’re free to go like a shot.”

  He said quietly: “What did you tell them about me?”

  “Just part of the truth. I said you’d been ill, that you were better now, that you were a friend of mine, and that you wanted a job. … But all that didn’t get it for you—don’t worry.”

  “What did, then?”

  She laughed in his face. “I may as well go on telling the truth, even if you hate me for it. I think it was probably because they could all see you were such a gentleman.”

  Afterwards he realized the meaning behind the remark. The other members of the company were not gentlemen, nor ladies either, in the restricted sense of the word. They could act the part, successfully—even terrifically; no duke or baronet ever wore an opera cloak or swung a gold-knobbed cane with such superb nonchalance as Mr. Borley—indeed, it is extremely probable that many a duke and baronet never possessed an opera cloak, or swung a gold-knobbed cane at all. And that, of course, was the point. The gentlemen in Salute the Flag lived up to the ninepenny-seat idea of gentlemen; they were much realer than the real thing. So also in speech and accent nobody could approach Paula for aristocratic hauteur: when, in her impersonation of a duchess, she exclaimed to a footman, “Do my bidding, idiot!” the blue blood became almost as translucent in her veins as in those of Mr. Borley when the latter addressed the German officer—“You contemptible hound—you unmitigated cur—you spawn of a degenerate autocracy!”

  In private life, so far as members of a second-rate touring company could enjoy any, they tended to keep up the manners and moods of their professional parts, combining them with a loud geniality expressed by a profusion of “old boys” and hearty back-slappings; yet behind all that they well knew the difference between the real and the too real, and how the same difference was apt to be recognized by others. Hence the usefulness of Smith. He had a way with him, despite—or perhaps because of—his shyness, diffidence, embarrassments, hesitations. Where Mr. Borley’s loud and overconfident “Trust me till the end of the week, old chap” failed to impress a country tradesman, Smith could enter a shop where he wasn’t known and ask for what he wanted to be sent to his hotel without even mentioning payment. And where even Mr. Margesson could not, with all his sorrowful glances, persuade a small-town editor to print as news a column of disguised and badly composed puffery, Smith could rewrite the stuff and have the newspapers eager for it.

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