James hilton collected n.., p.6
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.6
 

           James Hilton

  Livia felt neither, however, so much as a queer kind of relief. She wept easily when her mother wept, for much the same reason that she made imitative noises when the dog barked or the cat mewed; but she had stared out of the drawing-room window with such protracted hopes of her father’s return that it was almost pleasanter not to have to expect him any more. Instead, she promptly added a new legend to that of the three little girls whose ghosts were supposed to haunt the neighborhood. She persisted in telling people (the people at Stoneclough, for she never met anyone else) that she often saw her father’s ghost in the clough, smoking and walking slowly and looking at the trees. She was so circumstantial in describing all this that Miss Fortescue grew nervous about driving to Browdley after dark, though there were several flaws in Livia’s story when Miss Fortescue analyzed it. For instance, how could Livia, who did not remember her father, even pretend to recognize his ghost? And then, too, the detail about the smoking. Not only had John Channing been a non-smoker, but Miss Fortescue was also sure that ghosts could not smoke. Livia, however, replied stoutly: “My daddy’s ghost does.”

  Which presented a problem that Emily, Miss Fortescue, Sarah, Dr. Whiteside (the family physician), and a few others were wholly unable to evaluate, much less to solve. Could it be that the child, in addition to believing a lie (which was only right and proper, in the circumstances), was also capable of telling one? Miss Fortescue thought not, again adducing the “smoking” detail. If Livia had uttered a falsehood with deliberate intent to deceive, surely she would not have invented such an incongruity; therefore, did it not prove that she was speaking what at least she regarded as the truth?

  In fact, it was neither a lie nor the truth, but some half-way vision in a child’s-eye view of the world, a vision that could start as easily from a lie deliberately told, and as easily end by sincerely believing it. Those three children, for instance; Livia had undoubtedly lied in claiming to have seen them, but later her fancy convinced her that she did see them, more than once; and this made her forget that she had lied in the first place. Nor was it ever a conscious lie that she saw her father, for by that time the clough was a place where she could see anything and anybody. The high trees arching over the stream as it tumbled from the moorland, the ruins of the old cottages where grass grew through the cracks of the hearthstones, the winding path leading down from the Stoneclough garden to the road—these were the limits of a world that did not exist elsewhere save in Grimm and Hans Andersen and the Tanglewood Tales—a world as young as the children who lived in it and the belief that alone made it real. And in the other world, meanwhile, she continued to learn mathematics, spelling, geography, history, and “Scripture” from Miss Fortescue, who was everlastingly thrilled by the secret that could not yet be told and by her own forbearance in not telling it; she also understood children just enough to feel quite certain that she understood Livia completely, which she never did. Old Sarah, who professed no subtleties, came much closer when she remarked, leaning over the child’s first attempts at arithmetic—“Queer stuff they put into your head, Livia—no wonder you see ghosts after it.” And it was Sarah who saw nothing queer at all in Livia’s question, when Miss Fortescue had informed her that Ben Nevis was the highest mountain in the United Kingdom: “Please, Miss Fortescue, what’s the lowest?”

  Another war did begin, as Emily had envisaged (but it was between Russia and Japan, and so not one in which an English household had to take sides); meanwhile Livia passed her sixth birthday; meanwhile also the cotton trade boomed and then slumped. This would have mattered more at Stoneclough had not Emily possessed a little money of her own; indeed, it was a subject of bitter comment throughout Browdley, where hundreds had been ruined as a result of the Channing crash, that the family responsible for it seemed to be flourishing just as formerly. But this was not quite accurate. Browdley did not realize how much had been abandoned—the town house in London, the holidays at Marienbad, the platoon of servants; and while to Browdley life at Stoneclough was itself a luxury, to Emily it was an economy enforced by the fact that the house was of a size and style that made it practically unsalable, and thus cheaper to stay in than to give up. So they stayed—she and Livia and Miss Fortescue and Watson the gardener-coachman-handyman (a truly skeleton staff for such an establishment); and the blacker the looks of Browdley people, as trade worsened and times became harder, the more advantageous it seemed that Stoneclough was so remote although so close—a moorland fastness that no one from the town need approach save in the mood and on the occasions of holidays. All of which, in its own way, conditioned Livia’s childhood. Sundays in summertime were the days when she must, above all things, remain within the half-mile of garden fence; weekdays in wintertime permitted her the greatest amount of freedom. It was easy, by this means, to keep her ignorant of everything except Miss Fortescue’s teachings and a general impression that all nature was kind and all humanity to be avoided.

  And Emily, who liked to put things off anyway, kept putting off the time for correcting all this. “Next year perhaps,” she would say, whenever Dr. Whiteside mentioned the matter. He was an old man who had brought both Livia and Livia’s father into the world; he did not greatly care for Emily and doubted the wisdom of most things that she did. “It’s time the child went to school and mixed with people,” he kept urging. “Why don’t you tell her the truth and get it over? You’ll have her self-centered and neurotic if she stays here seeing nobody but you and Sarah and Miss Fortescue…What does John think about it?”

  “He left it to me to tell her when I think the moment is right,” replied Emily, with strained accuracy. “She’s only eight, remember.”

  But it was just the same when Emily was able to say “She’s only nine” and “She’s only ten.” And by that time also another thing had happened. John had been transferred to a prison in the South of England, and Emily no longer saw him every month. After all, it was a long journey just for the sake of one short interview, and it was possible also to wonder what good it did, either to him or to her; letters were much easier.

  Not that Emily was a hardhearted woman—far from it. She had no bitterness against her husband for either the crash or the crime, or even against the country for having jailed him; she had no conviction that he deserved his punishment—nor, on the other hand, that he had been monstrously overpunished. The whole situation was one she could no longer come to terms with at all, since it had passed the stage of romantic interpretation. She was still able to weep whenever she thought of him, but equally able to do without thinking of him for long periods, and the idea of raking the whole thing up by telling Livia was not only distasteful, but something she was a little scared of. Already she was aware of something in Livia—character or personality or whatever one called it—that outclassed her own. For one thing, Livia had no fear—of ghosts, or being alone, or anything else. And also she would sometimes make scenes—curious, nerve-racking scenes that made Emily feel peculiarly helpless. Perhaps Dr. Whiteside was right and the child was neurotic—but would the knowledge that her father was in prison make her any less so? It was easy to think not.

  Nor was it clear that Livia would be made happier by school, for in addition to hating the idea of it, the child also seemed perfectly happy at Stoneclough. She had far more freedom than children have in many homes; she could play with dogs, cats, chickens, tame rabbits, and William the horse; she liked and was permitted to make cooking experiments in the kitchen and planting experiments in the garden; she could walk endlessly over nearby moorland and through the clough on weekdays; she could read library books sent up from Mudie’s in London, and there was that new invention, the phonograph, to amuse her. And on Sundays, to brighten the one day of restriction, old Mr. Felsby usually called. But it did not brighten things so much for Livia, who early formed the opinion that Mr. Felsby was a bore.

  Richard Felsby was seventy-eight, oaken in physique, the last of a generation destined to glower (within gilt frames) from above thousands of m
antelpieces upon dwindling families. Both the Channings and the Felsbys were, in this matter, typical; once so prolific, they seemed now in danger of reaching a complete full stop, for only the surviving Richard, the absent John, and the infant Livia could claim direct descent from the original Channing and Felsby who had built up the firm. The last of the Felsbys could not forgive the last of the John Channings—not so much on personal grounds (for Richard, disliking John’s newfangled business ideas long before the crash came, had dissolved partnership and retired a rich man), but because of the disgrace to the Channing name in a world that still associated a Channing with a Felsby. It was said that the trial and the scandal connected with it had aged Richard considerably, and if so, there were many in Browdley who wished it had done more, for the old man was generally disliked. When younger he had been against drinking, smoking, gambling, dancing, and theatergoing (anything, indeed, that might lessen the weekday efficiency of his employees); but of later years he had mellowed to the extent that he only scowled wordlessly if he came across Livia sewing or reading a novel during one of his Sunday visits. He did not much care for Emily, though he felt he ought to keep an eye on her; he was disappointed in Livia, because she was not a boy to carry on and rehabilitate the Channing name; and, as before remarked, he could not forgive John. But he was old enough both to remember and to revere the memory of John’s father, who had died some years before the turn of the century. Friend, partner, and contemporary, this earlier John had been, in Richard’s opinion, the last of the “good” Channings; and it was for his sake, chiefly, that the old man now visited Stoneclough.

  Besides being thus a tribute to the dead, the weekly visits were an undoubted trial to the living, for Richard honestly believed he conferred great benefits by patting Livia on the head and by discussing the state of the cotton trade in a loud voice with Emily. He discussed this because, with Livia hovering about, and in his usual mood by the time he arrived at the house, it was practically the only thing he dared discuss; for Dr. Whiteside had warned him against undue excitement, however caused. If he had anything to say about John he would therefore take Emily into a corner for a session of mysterious sibilant whispering, and sometimes in the middle of this Livia would burst into the room, whereupon Richard would boom out again about the state of the cotton trade. After this sort of thing had happened a few times Livia grew convinced that there was a “mystery” about her mother and old Mr. Felsby, and once the idea got into her head she was quick to notice other evidences of mystery—certain occasions, for instance, just before and just after her mother went away for a few days, when a curious air of tension filled the entire house, when even Sarah and Miss Fortescue seemed to rush from room to room with secrets as well as pins filling their mouths. Livia noted too the almost guilty look they had if she interrupted them at such times; it made her determined to discover what everything was all about, like the detective in some of her favorite stories. Actually “the Mystery of Stoneclough” (as she privately decided to call it) gave her an added interest in life, since it was clearly more exciting to live in a detective story than merely to read one, especially when the detective was herself. For that matter, she sometimes imagined she was the criminal also, or the suspected person who was really innocent, or the stupid policeman who made all the mistakes, or any other of the familiar characters…it was so easy, and so fascinating, to climb on the moors and lie down and imagine things.

  On the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1910, Livia entered the drawing room just in time to catch Mr. Felsby inveighing against “any man who makes a proposal of that kind.” In truth, there was nothing particularly mysterious about the words, since they referred to the wickedness of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Lloyd George, who was still bent on increasing taxes), but from force of habit Emily shot the old man a warning look, whereat Richard assumed his glassiest Christmas smile and reached out his less arthritic hand. Livia then allowed herself to be patted on the head as usual; but later, while Mr. Felsby enjoyed his usual nap, she pondered alone in the downstairs room which was her own whenever Miss Fortescue was away, since it was there that she received lessons, played quiet games, and felt entrenched in extra-special privacy. She was still pondering, with a book on her knee, when she overheard something else—her mother telephoning from the hall outside. Without any intention to eaves-drop at first, she gathered it was a long-distance call from London, and after that she listened deliberately. The talk continued, with long pauses and a lowering of her mother’s voice in short staccato replies; at last she heard her end up—“I can’t hear you—yes—no—I still can’t hear you—I’ll write…yes, I’ll think about it…yes, dear, happy Christmas to you too….Good-bye….” Livia then put aside her book and abandoned herself to wondering who “dear” was and what “it” was that her mother had promised to think about; and suddenly, as she speculated, an idea came that she instantly labeled as absurd, yet instantly allowed to take possession of her; supposing “it” had been a proposal of marriage? Doubtless the remark of Mr. Felsby’s she had overheard was really responsible; anyhow, during the next few minutes the idea became a perfectly tenable theory, and by the time her mother called her to tea the theory had developed into a near-certainty, strengthened by the absence of any comment about the telephone call. It would have been natural, Livia thought, for her mother to say, “Guess who rang up just now?”—and because this did not happen Livia stifled her own natural impulse, which was to ask.

  Presently, however, the near-certainty slipped back into a mere theory again, and then into its proper place as an absurd idea; a few guests began to arrive for the Christmas dinner, and the whole thing passed out of mind till it was revived hours later by a remark of Mr. Felsby’s about something else altogether—he was discussing the state of the cotton trade and trying to be seasonably cheerful about it. “There’s only one thing I can say, Whiteside—booms come after slumps just as slumps come after booms.”

  Dr. Whiteside, who wasn’t particularly interested in the cotton trade, though indirectly, like any other Browdley professional man, he depended on it for the quality of his living, responded absently: “That’s about it, Richard. It’s always been the same.”

  “How do you know it always will be the same?” Livia asked, with an air of casualness. “How do you know that this time it isn’t different?”

  Every eye was turned on a girl of eleven who could put such a question; Dr. Whiteside blinked quizzically, and after a rather awkward pause Mr. Felsby cleared his throat and snorted: “Never you mind. You’ll know what we mean when you grow up.”

  All at once Livia became really interested, but with a faraway rapt look that drew even more curious stares around the table. “But I know what you mean now,” she said quietly. “And I don’t think it’s right.”

  Richard Felsby snorted again, then gave a cross look to Emily, as if this were all her fault for not bringing up the child to have better manners; while Emily, with her own typical gesture of helplessness, began to expostulate: “Now, Livia dear, how can you contradict Mr. Felsby?”

  “Nothing’s ever just the same,” Livia repeated, cryptically and with the utmost adult solemnity. She had an odd feeling of being actually adult at that moment, of being carried along by an emotion that grew with its own momentum—as if she were dramatizing something in a rather marvelous extempore way. The drama she had constructed that afternoon was now an even bigger one in which she heard herself speaking lines as if they were being dictated by some inner yet half-random compulsion.

  “Livia dear—what on earth do you mean?”

  “Nothing can be just the same, even if it does happen again. It can’t, Mother.” Gradually, inexorably, the words moved to the vital point of attack, and her eyes flashed as she challenged the other eyes across the table—no, across the footlights that she had read about and imagined, but so far never seen. She knew she was acting, yet she could have vowed that her emotion was not wholly counterfeit.

  “But—Livia—w
hatever’s the matter? Has anything upset you?”

  “Nothing, Mother, except that…Oh, how could you even think of such a thing?…After being married to Father…”

  And at that moment she really meant it; the man whom she did not remember was now more than a ghost, he was at last a holy ghost, in his daughter’s imagination.

  A short time afterwards Livia, weeping and exhausted in her bedroom, gave way to equally sincere remorse. She knew that the strange scene had spoilt the evening, that it had distressed her mother, embarrassed Dr. Whiteside, infuriated Mr. Felsby, and caused the party to break up early; she knew she had in some way been rather wicked. “Oh Mother, I’m so terribly sorry. I don’t know what could have possessed me. I’ll never, never say such things again…It all sprang out of nothing—I just heard you talking on the telephone to someone, and the idea got hold of me that it was a man proposing to you.…”

  Livia felt her mother’s hand tighten over her own. “But—darling…”

  “Yes, I know, Mother, I know it’s silly.”

  But Emily didn’t think it was silly so much as uncanny. There was, of course, no question of her marrying; that was impossible under the existing conditions of British law. But she had fallen in love, and it was that man who had telephoned, begging her to come to London again as early as possible in the New Year. His name was Standon, and he had met Emily by chance in a London restaurant on her return north from one of those no longer monthly visits. He was several years her junior, and lived in a studio in Baron’s Court, painting portraits when he could get commissions, and idling when he could not. He liked Emily because she was easygoing and had money; she loved him because he was attractive and also (though she did not realize this) because she was starved for the kind of attention he was always most happy to provide. It was not a bad bargain, in the circumstances.

 
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