James hilton collected n.., p.60
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.60

           James Hilton

  Out of the unused fifteen they chose two large attic rooms with a view over roof tops northward as far as Hampstead and Highgate, and it was fun to begin buying the bare necessities of furniture and utensils, searching the Caledonian Market for broken-down chairs that could be repaired and reupholstered, discarded shop fittings usable as bookshelves, an old school desk that showed mahogany under its coating of ink and dirt. Gradually the rooms became a home, and the entirely vacant floor beneath encouraged a kinship with roofs and sky rather man with the walls and pavements of the streets.

  Towards the end of September Blampied received a quarterly payment which he chose to devote to a crusading holiday rather than to paying arrears of his borough council rates; having invited Smith and Paula to join the expedition, he took them for a week into rural Oxfordshire “making trouble wherever we go,” as the parson put it, though that was an exaggeration. The question of country footpaths was, he admitted, his King Charles’s Head—every man, he added, should have some small matter to which he attaches undue importance, always provided that he realizes the undueness. Realizing it all the time, Blampied would puzzle over ancient maps in bar parlors, inquiring from villagers whether it was still possible to take the diagonal way across the fields from Planter’s End to Marsh Hollow, and generally receiving the answer that no one ever did—it was much quicker to go round by the road, and so on. “I reckon you could if you tried, mister, but you’d ’ave a rare time getting’ through them nettles.” A few more pints of beer would perhaps elicit the information that “I remember when I was a kid I used to go to school that way, but ’twouldn’t be no help now, not with the new school where it is.” Yet those, as the parson emphasized, drinking his beer as copiously as the rest, were the paths their forefathers had trod, the secret short cuts across hill and valley, the ways by which the local man could escape or intercept while the armed stranger tramped along the highroads. All of which failed to carry much weight with the Oxfordshire men of 1919, many of whom, as armed strangers, had tramped the highroads of other countries. They obviously regarded the parson as an oddity, but being country people they knew that men, like trees and unlike suburban houses, were never exactly the same, and this idea of unsameness as the pattern of life meant that (as Blampied put it) they didn’t think there was anything very odd in anyone being a little odd.

  Several times the parson spoke on village greens to small, curious, unenthusiastic audiences, most of whom melted away when he suggested that there and then they should march over the ancient ground, breaking down any barriers that might have been erected during the past century or so; but in one village there was a more active response, due to the fact that the closing of a certain path had been recent and resented. It was then that Blampied showed a certain childlike pugnacity; he clearly derived enormous enjoyment from leading a crowd of perhaps fifty persons, many of them youngsters out for a lark, through Hilltop Farm and up Long Meadow to the gap in the hedge that was now laced with fresh barbed wire. Smith found he could best be useful in preventing the children from destroying crops or tearing their clothes; he thought the whole expedition a trifle silly but pleasingly novel. Actually this particular onslaught had quite an exciting finish; the owner of the property, a certain General Sir Richard Hawkesley Wych-Furlough, suddenly appeared on the scene, backed by a menacing array of servants and gamekeepers. Everything pointed to a battle, but all that finally developed was a long and wordy argument between the General and the parson, culminating in retirement by both sides and a final shout from the General: “What the hell’s it got to do with you, anyway? You don’t live here!”

  “And that,” as Blampied said afterwards, “from a man who used to be Governor of so many islands he could only visit a few of them once a year—so that any islander might have met his administrative decisions with the same retort—‘What’s it got to do with you? You don’t live here!’ ”

  The notion continued to please him as he added: “I was missionary on one of those islands—till I quarreled with the bosses. I always quarrel with bosses. …”

  Gradually Smith and Paula began to piece together Blampied’s history. Born of a wealthy family whom he had long ago given up no less emphatically than they had him, he had originally entered the Church as a respectable and sanctioned form of eccentricity for younger sons. Later, even more eccentrically and with a good deal more sincerity, he had served as a missionary in the South Seas until his employers discovered him to be not only heretical, but a bad compiler of reports. After that he had come home to edit a religious magazine, resigning only when plunging circulation led to its bankruptcy. For a time after that he had dabbled in politics, joining the early Fabians, with whom he never quarreled at all, but from whom he became estranged by a widening gulf of mutual exasperation. “The truth is, Smith,” he confessed, “I never could get along with all the Risers-to-Second-That and the On-a-Point-of-Orderers. If I were God, I’d say—Let there be Light. But as I’m not God, I’d rather spend my time plotting for Him in the dark than in holding committee meetings in a man-made blaze of publicity!”

  He formed the habit of talking with the two of them for an hour or so most evenings, especially as summer lagged behind and coal began to burn in a million London grates. To roof dwellers it was a rather dirty but strangely comforting transition—the touch of smoke-laden fog drifting up from the river, the smell of smoldering heaps in parks and gardens, the chill that seemed the perfect answer to a fire, as the fire was to the chill. For London, Blampied claimed, was of all cities in the world the most autumnal—its mellow brickwork harmonizing with fallen leaves and October sunsets, just as the etched grays of November composed themselves with the light and shade of Portland stone. There was a charm, a deathless charm, about a city whose inhabitants went about muttering, “The nights are drawing in,” as if it were a spell to invoke the vast, sprawling creature-comfort of winter. Indeed no phrase, he once said, better expressed the feeling of curtained enclosure, of almost stupefying cosiness, that blankets London throughout the dark months—a sort of spiritual central heating, warm and sometimes weepy, but not depressing—a Dickensian, never a Proustian fug.

  Those were the happy days when Smith began to write. As most real writers do, he wrote because he had something to say, not because of any specific ambition to be a writer. He turned out countless articles and sketches that gave him pleasure only because they contained a germ of what was in his mind; but he was never fully satisfied with them himself and consequently never more than slightly disappointed when editors promptly returned them. He did not grasp that, because he was a person of no importance, nobody wanted to read his opinions at all. Presently, by sheer accident, he wrote something that fitted a formula; it was promptly accepted and—even more important for him at the time—paid for.

  After he had worked all morning he would often set out in the afternoon with Paula on a planless excursion decided by some chance-met bus; or sometimes they would tramp haphazardly first to the left, then to the right, mile after mile, searching for books or furniture in old, gas-lit shops, and returning late at night through the narrow defiles of the City. They liked the City, the city with a capital C, and especially at dusk, when all the teashops filled with men, a curious democracy within a plutocracy—silk-hatted stockbrokers buying twopenny cups while at the same table two-pounds-a-week clerks drank similar cups and talked of wireless or motor bicycles or their suburban back gardens. And afterwards, as Paula took his arm on the pavement outside, they would be caught in the human current sweeping along Old Broad Street in a single eastward stream, then crossing Liverpool Street like a flood tide into the vast station delta. He loved to see those people, so purposeful and yet so gentle, so free and yet so disciplined, hurrying towards the little moving boxes that would carry them home to secret suburbs—secret because they were so unknown to one another, so that a bus shuttling all day between Putney and Homerton gave one a mystical curiosity about all the people in Homerton who had never seen Putney, a
nd all the people in Putney for whom Homerton was as strange as—perhaps stranger than—Paris or New York. There was something fantastic, too, in that morning and evening migration, huger in man miles than any movement of the hordes of Tamerlane, something that might well be incomprehensible to the urban masses of the future, schooled to garden cities and decentralization. But there could never be such romance as in the pull of steam through the Bishopsgate tunnels, or faces that stared in friendly indifference as trains raced parallel out of Waterloo.

  He wrote of such things, and he wrote as he saw—a little naïvely, as if things had never been seen before—like the line drawings of a child, with something of the same piercing simplicity. It probably helped him, as Blampied said, to have forgotten so much about himself, because into that absence came an awareness far beyond the personal reach—the idea of the past as something to be apprehended in vision rather than explored in memory. He wrote, too, of the countryside as he had seen it: of the men in the pubs with their red faces shy over mugs of beer—old couples outside their cottages on summer evenings, silent and close, yet in that silence and closeness telling all there is in the world—a peddler unlatching a gate with slow steps towards a lonely house—farm workers at midday, asleep under trees—a little road over the hill, curving here and there for no reason at all … scene after scene, as a child turns pages in a loved picture book, yet behind the apocalyptic wonderment of it all there was something to which talks with Blampied had added shape and quality—the vision of a new England rooted far back in the old, drawing its strength from a thousand years instead of its weaknesses from a hundred.

  “Follow that vision,” Blampied once said. “Follow it wherever it leads. Think it out. Write it down. I’d say preach it if the word hadn’t been debased by so many of my own profession.”

  “I couldn’t preach, anyhow. No more public appearances for me after the last one.”

  “But preaching doesn’t need a pulpit. All it needs is what you have—a faith.”

  “Is yours the same faith?”

  “You have your vision of England, I have mine of the world—but your England will fit into my world.” He added, after a pause: “Does that sound arrogant? Maybe. We mustn’t be afraid of a secret arrogance. After all, we are spies of God, mapping out territory lost to the enemy when faith was lost.” His eyes twinkled as he touched his collar. “It isn’t this, you know, that makes me say so. Religion’s only one of the things that can die without faith. Take another, for the sake of something you may feel I’m more impartial about—take the League of Nations. It’s sickening now of that deadliest of modern diseases—popular approval without private faith; it will the because it demanded a crusade and we gave it a press campaign, because it’s worth our passion and we deluge it with votes of confidence and acts of indifference. It might have sprung alive out of the soul of a saint; it could only be stillborn out of a clause in a treaty. It should have been preached until we were all aflame with it; instead of which it’s been flattered and fawned upon till most of us are already bored with it. Sometimes I’ve even thought we should have given it ritual—a gesture to be made whenever the name’s mentioned, like the sign of the Cross for the faithful, or—for the faithless—blowing out the match after the second man’s cigarette.” As if reminded by that he pulled out his pipe and began to fill it as he continued: “This is a good moment to say how much I hope you’ll stay with me here—both of you. That is, if you’re happy.”

  “We’re very happy. But I have to think of how to make a living.”

  “Life’s more important than a living. So many people who make a living are making death, not life. Don’t ever join them. They’re the gravediggers of our civilization—the safe men, the compromisers, the money-makers, the muddlers-through. Politics is full of them, so is business, so is the Church. They’re popular, successful—some of them work hard, others are slack; but all of them can tell a good story. Never were such charming gravediggers in the world’s history—and part of their charm is that they don’t know what they are, just as they don’t know what we are, either. They set us down as cranks, oddities, social outsiders, harmless cranks who can’t be lured by riches or placated by compliments. But a time may come when we, the dangerous men, shall either be killed or made kings—because a time may also come when it won’t be enough to love England as a tired businessman loves a nap after lunch. We may be called upon to love her as the Irish love Ireland—darkly, bitterly, and with a hatred for some who have loved her less and themselves more.”

  After another of their talks he told Smith of a friend of his in Liverpool, editor of a provincial paper with a small but influential circulation. Apparently Blampied, unknown to Smith, had sent some of his literary work for this man to see; and now had come a request to see not only more of the work, but the writer of it. “So I hope you’ll pay him a visit, because whatever project he has in mind, or even if he hasn’t one at all, I know you’ll like him personally.”

  “Another dangerous man?” Smith queried.

  Blampied nodded with an answering smile.

  Smith was eager to go as soon as possible; after further communication an appointment was made for just after Christmas. Paula and he spent the intervening week in a glow of anticipation, culminating in a Christmas dinner in their own attic room, with Blampied as a guest. They decorated the place like children and found him like a third child in his own enjoyment of the meal and the occasion. Later in the evening he gave them, to their complete astonishment, an almost professional display of conjuring tricks; after which Paula offered some of her stage impersonations, including one of a very prim Victorian wife trying to convey to her equally prim Victorian husband the fact that she rather thought she was going to have a child. Towards midnight, when Blampied had drunk a last toast with them and gone down to his rooms below, they sat on the hearthrug in the firelight happily reviewing the events of the evening, and presently Smith remarked that her impersonation of the Victorian wife was new to him—he didn’t remember her ever doing it on the stage, but he thought it would have gone very well if she had.

  “But it wasn’t written then,” she answered. “I write all my own sketches—I always did—and I wrote this one last night when you were downstairs talking to Blampied. I suppose it was on my mind—the subject, I mean—because I’m in the same position, except that I’m not going to be prim about it.”

  He took her into his arms quietly, sexlessly, as they sat before the fire. Those were the happy hours.

  The next day, as if their happiness were not enough, Blampied brought them news of another kind. It was now many weeks since they had last seen any mention of the Fulverton case, and though they felt easier about it they still opened newspapers with a qualm. But that morning Blampied had been searching old papers for something he wished to trace and by sheer accident had come across something else. “It seems that your Thomas Atwill left hospital more than a month ago, and though of course that doesn’t mean the case is closed, I daresay the news will be a load off your mind.”

  It so definitely was that the idea occurred to them to celebrate by doing things they had been nervous of for so long—a regular evening out. They asked Blampied to join them, but he excused himself on the score of work; before they left the house, however, he shook hands with Smith and wished him a pleasant trip, for it had been arranged that he should leave that night for Liverpool. Even though it would only be for a few days, the impending separation added spice to the evening. They went first to the Holborn Empire to see little Tich, then for supper to an Italian restaurant in Soho. When they emerged, still with a couple of hours until train time, he saw a hansom cab swinging along Coventry Street, temptingly out of place on a cold December night, but for that very reason he waved to it, telling the man to take them anywhere, just for the ride. Under the windy sky the blaze of Christmas still sparkled in the shops as they drove away, jingling north and west along Regent Street, through Hanover Square and past Selfridge’s to Baker Str
eet, with ghosts of Londoners stepping out of then tall houses (“And if I mistake not, my dear Watson, here is our client just arriving”), bidding them Godspeed into the future; and because they both had faith in that future they were drenched in a sort of wild ecstasy, and had the cabby drive them round and round Regent’s Park while they talked and laughed and whistled to the parrots every time they passed the Zoo.

  Those were the happy moments.

  Later, on the platform at Euston, walking up and down beside the train, she said she wished she were going with him, though she knew they couldn’t afford it, the little money he was beginning to make by writing wasn’t nearly enough for such unnecessary jaunts. “I know that, darling, but I still wish I were going with you, and if you were just to say the word, like the crazy man you are, I’d rush to the booking office and buy a ticket—which would be stupid, I don’t really mean it—Smithy, I’m only joking, of course. But I’m part of you—I’ll only be half alive while you’re away—we belong to the same world, as Blampied says about his friends—”

  “I know that too. There’s something right about us—about our being together here. And Blampied wants us to stay.”

  “I’d like to stay too. I love that old ugly house.”

  “So do I. And d’you know, I don’t want to remember anything now—anything I’ve ever forgotten. It would be so—so unimportant. My life began with you, and my future goes on with you—there’s nothing else, Paula.”

  “Oh, what a lovely thing to tell me! And by the way, he said he hoped you wouldn’t remember.”


  “Yes. He’s devoted to you.”

  “I should be proud to think so, because I’m equally devoted to him.” He kissed her laughingly. “Must we spend these last few seconds talking of someone else?”

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