James hilton collected n.., p.56
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.56

           James Hilton

  No doubt it was for somewhat similar reasons that Nicholas Nickleby became a success with the company of Vincent Crummies—except, of course, that Nicholas graduated as an actor. Smith did not aspire to that, but he speedily became almost everything else—advance press agent, scene painter, bookkeeper, copy writer, toucher-up of scenes that were either too long or too short or not wholly successful, general handy man, odd-jobber, negotiator, public representative, and private adviser. He was always busy, yet never hurried; always pleasant; yet never effusive; always reserved, yet never disdainful. In short, a perfect gentleman.

  There certainly could not have been devised a more likely cure for all that remained of his mental and temperamental difficulties. The constant meetings with strangers, the continual handling of new problems and thinking out of extempore solutions, the traveling from one town to another, the settlement in new lodgings—all combined to break down the pathological part of his shyness; yet shyness still remained, and with it there developed an almost ascetic enjoyment of certain things—of rainy hours on railway platforms with nothing to do but watch the maneuvers of shunting in a goods yard, of reading the numbers on houses in a strange town late at night, knowing that one of them hid a passing and unimportant destiny. His work also brought him into contact with average citizens of these many provincial towns—the barber, the tobacconist, the stationmaster, the shopkeepers who were given a couple of free seats in exchange for a playbill exhibited in their windows, the parson who sometimes preached a sermon attacking the show as indecent (good publicity if you could get it), sometimes the parson who came himself with his wife and children, but most often the parson who neither attacked nor patronized, but just passed by in the street with a preoccupied air, recognizing the smartly dressed strangers as “theatricals” and therefore in some vaguely opposite but no longer warring camp. One of these clerics, with whom Smith got into conversation, commented that the Church and the theater were now potential allies, being both sufferers from the same public indifference—“Your leaky roof and my leaky roof are the price paid for the new cathedrals of Mammon.” Whereupon he pointed across the street to a new cinema advertising a film which, so it turned out after further conversation, they had both of them recently enjoyed.

  Smith saw a good deal of Paula during these busy days and even busier evenings, but somehow their relationship did not seem to progress to anything warmer or more intimate. Outwardly he became just as friendly with a few of the others, especially with young Ponderby, the tweedy youth, whom he grew to like. Ponderby was not much of an actor; his job depended entirely on the possession of astoundingly conventional good looks. In Salute the Flag all he had was a couple of lines; he rushed into the general’s headquarters with the cry, “The enemy are attacking! Give the order to advance!”—whereupon the general, who was a spy in disguise, was supposed to look sinister while Ponderby backed towards the door, delivering his second line as an exit: “Or if you don’t, sir, then, by heaven, I will myself!” This was designed to bring a round of applause, and by careful attention to timing and movement Ponderby usually got one. Margesson, who managed the company, was very strict about everyone getting his “round.” There was a technique about such things: you stood in the doorway, hand on the doorknob, staring hard and throwing your voice up to the farthest corner of the gallery—if the “round” didn’t come, or came too sluggishly, you rattled the doorknob and repeated the final line with greater emphasis.

  One Saturday, in the town of Fulverton, Ponderby spent the morning drinking in an attempt to destroy the effect of too much drinking the night before; by midafternoon, when he and Smith happened to be alone together in the lodginghouse, it was clear that he could perform in the evening only with extreme hazard, if at all. He had done this sort of thing several times before, so Smith neither believed nor disbelieved a story of bad news from home; but he felt some sympathy for the youth, especially as he knew this latest offense would probably cost him his job. Ponderby knew this too, and as the hour approached for the first show he took quantities of aspirin and pick-me-ups, all of which only added to his symptoms of physical illness. By six o’clock he was begging Smith to take over his part, as the only way by which Margesson might be placated; after all, provided the show wasn’t interfered with, Margesson might not care—the part was so small, and the clothes would fit too. Smith was reluctant to agree; he didn’t feel he would be any good as an actor, even in the least possible part; but then Ponderby wasn’t good either, so that argument didn’t carry far. And it was undoubtedly true that the part, though small, was structurally important, so that a last-minute cut would be extremely awkward; and Saturday, also, was the best night for Fulverton audiences. Everything forced him to an eventual consent, subject to Margesson’s approval; but he still did not like the idea.

  He went to the theater earlier than usual and found Margesson in the midst of some trouble with scene shifters; when he said that Ponderby was ill and he himself could take his part, Margesson merely answered in a hurry: “Had too much to drink again, I suppose. … All right then—mind you get your round.”

  He did not have any chance to tell Paula about it, but the news that he was taking Ponderby’s part caused little surprise; he was such a handy man, and the part was only two lines—there seemed nothing very remarkable about the arrangement.

  He was a trifle nervous as he changed into the uniform of a British second lieutenant, but not more so than he often was at times when people would never guess it. Quite a natural nervousness too; he knew that many actors and public speakers were always like that, it was really abnormal not to be. Something in the look of himself in the mirror struck a half-heard chord in his submerged memory; he did not come on till the middle of the last act, so he had time to smoke cigarettes and try to catch the chord again, but that was stupid; the more he stared at himself in the mirror, the less he could remember anything at all. Then suddenly, with a frightening stab of panic, he asked himself what Ponderby’s lines were—he had never thought of memorizing them, because he assumed he knew them so well; he practically knew the whole show by heart, for that matter—they all did. But now, when he sought to speak them to himself, what the devil were they? He tried to visualize that part of the play: the general at his desk, twirling his mustaches and muttering “Hein” under his breath—that was to show he was a spy in disguise; then Ponderby rushing in—“The enemy are attacking! Give the order to advance!” Now why should a second lieutenant tell a general what to do? Never mind—that was part of the play. Anyhow, Ponderby backed across the stage—not too quick, though—give the general time to give some more twirls and look suspicious; then on the exit—“Or if you don’t, sir, then, by heaven, I will myself!” That was it; and wait for the round. … He said it all over again to himself: “The enemy are attacking—give the order to advance—or, if you don’t, sir, then, by heaven, I will myself!” Twenty words—the smallest part in the show. Saying them over a third time, he heard the call boy’s “Ready, sir.”

  He went out into the wings, standing where he could see the general at his desk. The general (little Tommy made up with comic mustaches) was rifling drawers with a terrific amount of noise (exactly as a spy wouldn’t do), glancing through piles of paper in search of a stolen treaty—even if it were there, he was going through them so fast that he couldn’t possibly find it; but that again had to be done or nobody would get the point—anything else was what Margesson called “this damsilly West End pansy-stuff where you come on the stage and light a cigarette with your back to the audience and call it acting.” Smith stood there, waiting for the cue, which was the word “Hein.” He felt a little queer; he was going to do something he had never done before; it would be awful if he did it badly, or didn’t get his round; the only comfort was that Ponderby did it pretty badly himself.

  Suddenly he heard the general say “Hein.” It electrified him, like a word spoken inside his own head; he felt his feet as items of luggage that didn’t belong to him as
he marshaled them for the forward rush. His first impression was of a dazzling brilliance and of the curious fact that there was no audience at all; then, as he stared to verify this, faces swam out of the darkness towards him: row upon row, stalls, boxes, circle, balcony, all were returning his stare from tens of thousands of eyes—quizzically, he thought at first, as if they were aware that this was the supreme moment of all drama and were anxious to compare his performance with previous ones by Irving, Coquelin, and Forbes-Robertson … but then, with a flash of uneasiness, he saw malevolence too, as if they hated him for not being Irving, even for not being Ponderby. He knew he had to conquer this uneasiness or it would conquer him, just as he knew he had to rush up to the general’s desk and say “The enemy are attacking—give the order to advance!” He saw Tommy eyeing him watchfully—that was part of the play, but Tommy’s eye held an extra watchfulness, as if he were hating him too—for not being somebody else.

  And then a very dreadful thing happened; he began to stammer. It was the old, the tragic stammer—the one that made his face twist and twitch as if he were in a dentist’s chair; he stood there, facing the general, facing the audience, facing God, it almost seemed, and all he could do was wrestle with the words until they came, one after the other, each one fighting to the last.

  The audience began to titter, and when he crossed the stage to struggle with the rest of the words they were already yelling with laughter. “Or if y-y-you d-d-don’t, sir, then, b-b-by G-g-god, I w-w-will m-m-myself!” The laughter rose to a shriek as he still stood there, waiting, trembling, with lips curving grotesquely and hand fumbling at the door; and when he finally rattled at the knob till it broke off and rolled across the stage into the footlights, the whole house burst into hilarious shouting while the lads in the gallery stamped their feet and whistled through two fingers for over a minute.

  He got his “round” all right.

  He left the stage in a daze, somehow finding himself in the wings, passing faces he knew without a word, yet noting for agonized recollection later that some looked anxious, others puzzled, a few were actually convulsed with laughter. Alone at last in the dressing room he closed the door, locked it, and for several minutes fought down an ancient resurrected hell of fear, mental darkness, and humiliation. Several knocks came at the door, but he did not answer them. Later, when the wave had passed over and he knew he was not drowned but merely swimming exhausted in an angry sea, he summoned enough energy to change his clothes. By that time the play had reached the final scene in which all the company would later be on the stage—he waited for the cue, “You cannot fire on helpless womankind,” followed by the cheers and rough-and-tumble of the rescue party. Backstage would be deserted now; he unlocked his way into the corridor and escaped through the stage door into an alley by the side of the fire staircase. As he turned the corner he could see a long queue already forming for the second performance, which reminded him that Ponderby’s part must be played by someone else in that; Margesson would have to arrange it; anyhow, that was a trifle to worry about, a mere pinhole of trouble compared with the abyss of despair that he himself was facing.

  Of course he must leave; they would not wish him to stay; he could offer no explanation, because there was none that would not repeat his humiliation a hundredfold.

  Hurrying across Fulverton that night, across the brightly lit Market Street full of shoppers, through the side roads where happy people lived, it seemed to him that someone was always following, footsteps that hastened under dark trees and dodged to avoid street lamps; an illusion, perhaps, but one that stirred the nag and throb of countless remembered symptoms, till it was not so much the ignominy of what had happened that weighed him down as the awareness of how thinly the skin had grown across the scar, of how near his mind still was to the chaos from which it had barely emerged. He hurried on—eager to pack his bag and be off, away from Fulverton and the troubled self he hoped to leave by the same act of movement; for surely place and self had some deep association, so that he could not now think of Melbury without… and then the renascent fear in his soul took shape; they were still trying to get him back to Melbury—they had been trying all the time, while he, falsely confident during those few weeks of respite, had gone about with an increasing boldness until that very night of self-betrayal. And such stupid, unnecessary self-betrayal before a thousand onlookers, among whom was one, perhaps, who did not laugh, but rose from his seat and quietly left the theater, taking his stand on the pavement where he could watch every exit. … Suddenly Smith began to run. They should not get him—never again. He stopped abruptly in the next patch of darkness, and surely enough the footsteps that had been following at a scamper then also stopped abruptly. He ran on again, dodging traffic at a corner and almost colliding with several passers-by. It was man to man, as yet—the enemy were attacking, give the order to advance! He turned into the short cut that led directly to his lodgings—a paved passageway under a railway viaduct. Then he saw there was a rope stretched across the entrance and a man standing in front of it.

  “Sorry, sir—can’t get by this way tonight.”

  “But—I—what’s the idea? Why not?”

  “Can’t be helped, sir—it’s the law—one day a year we have to keep it closed, otherwise the railway company loses title.”

  “But I must go—I’m in a hurry!”

  “Now come on, sir, I’m only doing my duty—don’t give me no trouble—”

  Suddenly he realized that there was more than one enemy; this man was another; there were thousands of them, everywhere; they probably had the district surrounded already. …

  “Come along, sir, act peaceable—”

  “Peaceable? Then why are you carrying that gun?”

  “Gun? Why, you’re off your chump—I’ve got no gun! D’you mean this pipe?”

  But he wasn’t taken in by that, any more than by the nonsense about the railway company and its tide; he jumped the rope, hurling the fellow aside, and ran along the passageway; in a couple of minutes he had reached the lodginghouse, whereas it would have taken ten by the road.

  He had hoped to have the place to himself, knowing that on Saturday nights most landladies did their week-end shopping. But he had forgotten Ponderby, who shouted a slurred greeting from the sitting room as he passed by to climb the stairs. “Hello, Smithy—get along all right? Knew you would—nothing to it—damn nice of you, though, to help me out …”

  He heard Ponderby staggering into the lobby and beginning to follow him upstairs, but the youth was very drunk and made long pauses at each step, continuing to shout meanwhile: “Was Margie wild? I’ll bet he would have been but for you. Why don’t you come down and have a drink with me—you deserve it. … Friend indeed and a friend in need—that’s what you are—no, I’m the friend in need and you’re the … oh well, never could understand the thing properly. What’re you doing up there? Not going to bed yet surely? What time is it? Maybe I’d better go to bed, then they’ll all know I’ve been ill. … What’s that? Can’t hear what you say. …”

  Smith repeated: “No, don’t come up, I’m coming down.”

  “All right, Smithy—I’ll go down too and get you a little drink. Must have a little drink—you deserve it.”

  By this time Smith had packed; he was naturally a tidy person, and having to do so regularly had made him expert and the job almost automatic. As he descended the stairs he felt calmer, readier to do battle with the forces arrayed against him; and that made him feel a little warm towards the weak healthy boy who never did battle at all, but just drank and debauched himself in a bored, zestless way. He turned into the sitting room, where Ponderby lay sprawled again on the sofa, head buried in the cushions.

  “Hello, old boy—was just mixing you a drink when this awful headache came on again. Don’t mind me—sit down and give me all the news.”

  Smith did not sit down, but he took the tumbler, which was almost half full of neat whiskey, poured most of it back into the bottle, and sipped
the remainder. He did not usually drink, but he hoped now it might help to steady his nerves, might give him greater calmness for the journey, wherever that was to be.

  “Tell me all the news, Smithy. Don’t mind me—I’ve got an awful head, but I’m listening.”

  Smith said there was no particular news to tell.

  “Oh, I don’t mean the theater—damn the theater—I mean news. Heard the paper boy in the street an hour ago—shouting something—went out and bought one—there it is—couldn’t read it, though—my eyes gave out on me. What’s been happening in the world?”

  Smith stooped to pick up the paper with momentary excitement; was it possible that already … no, of course not—an hour ago was actually before the thing happened, apart from the time it would take to make a report and get it printed. He glanced at the headlines. “Seems those two fellows have flown across the Atlantic—Alcock and Brown.”

  “Flown across the Atlantic? That’s a damn silly thing to do—but I’ll tell you what, it’s better than being an actor. Well, drink a toast to ’em, old boy—what d’you say their names are?”

  “Alock and Brown.”

  “Alock, Brown, Smith, and Ponderby—drink to the lot of us. Sounds like a lawyer’s office—that’s the job I used to have—in a lawyer’s’ office. Damn good lawyers, too—wouldn’t touch anything dirty. That’s why they got so they wouldn’t touch me. Rude health like mine in a lawyer’s office—out of place, old boy—sheer bad taste—frightens the clients. So one fine day I did a skedaddle from all that messuage. Know what a messuage is? Lawyer’s word. …”

  Smith said he must go, if Ponderby would excuse him.

  “Go? Not yet, surely—wait till the others come—don’t like to be left alone, Smithy.”

  “I’m sorry, but I really must go now.”

  Then Ponderby raised his head and stared.

  “Right you are, then … but good God, what’s the matter? Been in a fight or something?”

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