James hilton collected n.., p.61
James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.61James Hilton
“But he isn’t altogether someone else. He’s part of us—part of our happiness—don’t you feel that?”
“Darling, I do—and I also love you!”
“I love you too. Always.”
“The whistle’s going—I’d better get inside. Good-bye, Paula.”
“Good-bye, old boy.”
“That’s the first time you’ve said ‘old boy’ for weeks!”
“I know, I’m dropping it. Now I’m not a touring-company actress I don’t have to talk like one. I can impersonate anybody, you know—even the wife of a writer on a secret errand to an editor in Liverpool. …” The train began to move. “Oh, darling—come back soon!”
“I will! Good-bye!”
He reached Liverpool in the early morning. It was raining, and in hurrying across a slippery street he stumbled and fell.
RAINIER BEGAN TO TELL me most of this during the drive back from Melbury that night; a few minor details, obtained afterwards from other sources, I have since fitted in. We drove to his Club, because Mrs. Rainier was at Stourton; after perfunctory greetings to a few members in the lobby he ordered drinks to be sent up to the suite he usually lived in when Kenmore was not in use.
He had talked rapidly during the car journey, but now, in quieter surroundings, he seemed to accept more calmly the fact that there was much to tell that he could at last quite easily recall. Once, when I thought he was growing tired and might remember more if he rested for a while, he brushed the suggestion aside. “You see I want to tell you all I can in case I ever forget it again, and if I do, you must remind me—you must—understand?” I promised, and he continued: “Not that I think I shall—it’s too clear in my mind ever to be lost again. I could find Blampied’s old house in Vale Street now if I tried—Number 73, I think it was—or maybe 75—that much I have forgotten, but I suppose I can’t expect memory to come back without the normal wear-and-tear of years. Or can I? Has it been in a sort of cold storage, with every detail kept fresh?”
We laughed, glad of an excuse to do so, and I said it raised an interesting point which I wasn’t expert enough to decide. He then resumed: “Because I actually feel as if it all happened only the other day, instead of twenty years ago. That house of Blampied’s, for instance—it had four dreadful bay windows, one on each side of the front door and two others immediately above in the room that wasn’t occupied—the attics hadn’t got any bay windows. There was a pretty grim sort of basement, too, where the housekeeper lived—she didn’t have to, she chose it because she was crazy enough to like it. She was a queer woman altogether—God knows where Blampied picked her up or how long she’d been with him, but he cried when she died, and looked after her cat—which was also a queer animal, an enormous tabby—spent most of its life sleeping, probably because of its weight—it had won a prize as the biggest cat north of the Thames.” He added, smiling: “I daresay you think I’m inventing this—that there aren’t prizes for big cats. But some newspaper ran a competition as a stunt—two first prizes, for North and South London—and Blampied’s housekeeper’s cat won one of them.”
No, I thought—you’re not inventing; you’re just enjoying yourself rather indiscriminately, as a child frolics in the sand when he first reaches the seashore; I could see how, in the first flush of recollection, the mere placement of the past, the assembling of details one after the other, was giving him an intense pleasure, and one by no means discountenanced by his use of words like “grim” and “dreadful.”
He went on like that for some time, going back over his story, picking out details here and there for random intricate examination; and carefully avoiding the issue that was foremost in my thoughts. Then, once again, I saw that we had talked till dawn and well past it, for there was already a pale edge to the window. I switched off his bedroom light and pulled the curtains; far below us the early morning trams were curving along the Embankment. We watched the scene for a moment; then he touched my arm affectionately. “Time for an adjournment, I think. I know what’s in your mind, it’s in mine, too, but it’s too big to grasp—I’m collecting the small things first. You’ve been good to listen to me. What have we on Monday?”
My thoughts were so far away I could not give an immediate answer, though of course I knew. He laughed at my hesitation, saying he hoped I should not lose my memory just because he had regained his. By then I had remembered and could tell him: “Anglo-American Cement—ten-thirty at the Cannon Street Hotel.” To which he replied, almost gayly: “The perfect closure to all our conversation. …”
“Don’t you want me for anything tomorrow?”
“No, I’ll sleep most of the day … at least I hope so. … Good night.”
If this is a difficult story to tell, it may be pleaded in partial defense that the human mind is a difficult territory to explore, and that the world it inhabits does not always fit snugly into any other world. I must admit that I found the fitting a hard one as, some thirty-six hours later, I watched the sunlight stream through stained-glass windows to dazzle the faces of Anglo-American Cement shareholders. From the report afterwards sent out with the dividend I find that Rainier spoke as follows:—
“You will be glad to know that our sales have continued to increase throughout the year, after a somewhat slow beginning, and that prospects of continued improvement are encouraging. The government’s national defense preparations during the September crisis of last year led to additional consumption of cement throughout the country, and this, at prices we were able to obtain, resulted in generally satisfactory business. During the year we opened a new plant at Nottingham which we expect to enhance production very considerably during the coming year. Your directors are constantly watchful for any opportunities of further economies, either by technical developments or by the absorption of competing companies, and with these aims in view, it is proposed, in addition to the usual dividend of 10 per cent, to issue new shares at forty-two shillings and sixpence in the proportion of one to five held by existing shareholders.” (Loud applause.)
We had had no chance for private conversation on our way to the meeting, for the secretary of the company had driven with us; and afterwards there was a directors’ hotel lunch that did not disperse until almost three o’clock. As I went to retrieve our hats at the cloak room I overheard comments on how Rainier had been in grand form, looking so much better; wonderful year it had been; wonderful the way he’d pulled the Anglo-American out of its earlier doldrums—remember when the shares were down to five bob?—nice packet anyone could have made who’d helped himself in those days—well, maybe Rainier did, why not?—after all, he’d had faith in himself, faith in the business, faith in the country—that’s what was wanted, pity more people didn’t have it.
Later, as we were driving away, I repeated the compliments to Rainier, thinking they might please him. He shook his head somberly. “Don’t call it faith. I haven’t had faith in anything for years. That artist fellow, Kitty’s young man, told me that when he was drunk—and he was right. Faith is something deeper, more passionate, less derisive, more tranquil than anything I’ve ever felt in board rooms and offices—that’s why peace won’t come to me now. … God, I’m tired.”
“Why don’t you go home and rest?”
He stared at me ironically. “So simple, isn’t it? Just go home and rest. Like a child. … Or like an old man. The trouble is, I’m neither. Or else both.” He suddenly patted my arm. “Sorry—don’t take any notice of my bad temper.”
“I don’t think you’re bad-tempered.”
“By the way,” he said smiling, “I’ve just thought of something—it’s a queer coincidence, don’t you think?—two of my best friends I first met quite accidentally on trains … Blampied and yourself. …”
“I’m pleased you should class me with him.”
“Why not? He talked to me—you listen to me—even when I want to talk all night. That’s another thing I ought to apologize for—”
“I don’t think I’ve much more to say, unless there’s anything you’d particularly like to know?”
There were many things’ I wanted to know, but for the present I felt I could only mention one of them. “Those articles you wrote, some of which were published—”
“What papers did they appear in?”
“The Northern Evening Post took two or three—the worst. The others—don’t know what happened to them. Maybe they fell in the gutter when the car hit me.”
“You were carrying them—then?”
“Yes, I was on my way to see the editor.”
“A pity you hadn’t taken copies.”
“It was before the days I bothered about carbon paper. You see, I never behaved like a full-dress author. I used Blampied’s typewriter because he had one, but I didn’t card-index anything or call the room where I worked a study or self-consciously burn any midnight oil. Matter of fact, I was in bed by ten on most nights, and I wrote if and when I felt like it. I never thought of the word ‘inspiration’ as having anything to do with me—it was a continual vision of life that mattered more than words in print, but if I did get into print I had more ambition to be alive for half a day in a local paper than to be embalmed forever between covers on a library shelf.”
“All the same, though, those articles might have been collected in book form.”
“Blampied thought of that, and Paula and I once made a choice of what we thought were the best—but I wasn’t very keen on the idea, and it certainly wasn’t likely any publisher would have been either. I remember it chiefly because the evening we were choosing them Blampied came in and found us huddled together on the floor with the typed pages surrounding us. He asked, ‘What are you two planning—the book or your future?’—and Paula laughed and answered ‘Both.’ ”
We had entered Palace Yard, passing the saluting policeman and a swarm of newsboys carrying posters about Hitler. As we left the car a few seconds later Rainier added: “It’s odd to reflect, isn’t it, that at that very moment a few hundred miles away a man whom we had never heard of was also planning a book—and our future.”
We crossed the pavement and entered the Gothic doorway; the House, as always, seemed restful, almost soporific, on a summer afternoon.
“And you’ve never written anything like those articles since?” I queried, after a pause.
“I’ve been too busy, Sir Hawk, as the lady called you, and possibly also my prose style isn’t what it used to be. I did write one book, though—or perhaps Sherlock would have called it a monograph—the title was Constructive Monetary Policy and an International Cartel—I hope you’ve never heard of it.”
I said I had not only heard of it but read it.
“Then I hope you didn’t buy it when it first came out, because I came across it the other day on a barrow in the Farringdon Road, marked ‘Choice’ and going for fourpence.”
I smiled, recognizing the familiar self-ridicule by which he worked himself out of his moods. We walked on through cool corridors to the Terrace and found a table. As nearly always, a breeze blew over the parapet, bringing tangs of the sea and of wharves, a London mixture that added the right flavor to tea and buttered toast and the special edition of the Evening Standard. More bother about Danzig; Hitler had made another speech. Some Members came along, stopped at our table to exchange a few words of greeting; one of them, seeing the headlines, exclaimed: “Why don’t they let him have it, then maybe well all get some peace?”—but another retorted indignantly: “My dear fellow, we can’t let him have any more, that’s just the point, we’ve got to make a stand—eh, Rainier?” Rainier said: “We’ve got to have peace and we’ve got to make a stand—that’s exactly the policy of the government.” They passed on, uncertain whether he had been serious or cynical (and that uncertainty, now I come to think of it, was part of the reason why he hadn’t climbed the higher rungs of the Parliamentary ladder).
He looked so suddenly exhausted after they had gone that I asked if he had been able to sleep at all during the previous day and night.
“Not much. A few hours yesterday morning after you left. The rest of the day I devoted to an investigation.”
“I went to Vale Street to look for Blampied’s old house. It’s disappeared—been pulled down to make room for one of those huge municipal housing schemes. All that part of London seems to be changed—and it’s certainly no loss, except in memories. I couldn’t even find anybody who remembered Blampied.”
“That’s not very surprising.”
“Why not?” He stared at me sharply, then added: “D’you mean you don’t believe he ever existed?”
“Oh, he existed all right. But he died such a long time ago.”
“Good God! Within a year—of—of my—leaving—like that.”
“Not only within a year. Within a month. January 1920.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I also spent part of yesterday investigating. I searched the obituaries in newspaper files and found this.” I handed him a sheet of paper on which I had copied out the following from the Daily Gazette of January 17, 1920:—
We regret to announce the death at the age of seventy-four of the Reverend John Sylvester Blampied, for many years Rector of St. Clement’s Church, Vale Street, North London. Pneumonia following a chill ended a career that had often attracted public attention—particularly in connection with the preservation of ancient footpaths, a cause of which Mr. Blampied had been a valiant if sometimes tempestuous champion. His death took place in Liverpool, and funeral services will be held at St. Clement’s on Friday.
Rainier stared at the paragraph long enough to read it several times, then handed it back. His face was very pale. “Liverpool? What was he doing there?”
“It doesn’t say.”
“I—I think I can guess. He’d gone to look for me.”
“We don’t know that.”
“But isn’t it probable?”
“It’s—it’s possible. But you couldn’t help it. You couldn’t help finding out who you were.”
“I can’t help comparing what I found with what I lost!”
“You didn’t lose permanently. You’ve got it all back now.”
“But too late.” He waved his arm with sudden comprehensive emphasis. “Isn’t it too late? I’m down to ask a question in the House shortly, but not that question, yet it’s the only one worth asking or answering … isn’t everything too late? I should have stayed in that London attic. There were things to do in those days if one had vision to do them but now there’s neither time nor vision, but only this whiff of putrefying too-lateness. It was almost too late even then, except that by a sort of miracle there came a gap in long-gathering clouds—an incredibly last chance—a golden shaft along which England might have climbed back to glory.”
“Less lyrically, you mean you’d like to set the clock back?”
“Yes, set it back, and set it right, and then wind it up, because it’s been running down ever since Englishmen were more interested in the price of things on the market than what they could grow in their own gardens.”
“I see. A back-to-the-land movement?”
“Back anywhere away from me unrealness of counting able-bodied men as a national burden just because they’re listed as unemployed, and figures in bank ledgers as assets just because they’re supposed to represent riches. Back anywhere from the mood in which poor men beg me for jobs in Rainier factories and rich men for tips about Rainier shares.”
“All the same, though—and you’ve often said it yourself—the Rainier firm gives steady employment to thousands—”
“I know, I know. But I know too that the way that made Rainiers rich was the opposite of the way to make England strong.”
“Yet if war comes, won’t
“True—and what a desolate irony! But only half true, because strength is only half in tanks and steel. The other half is faith, wisdom—”
A House servant approached and said something in his ear; he answered, consulting his watch: “Oh yes. I’ll come at once.” Then he added to me: “It’s time for that question.”
We left the table and walked through the Smoke Room to the Lobby; then we separated, he to enter the Chamber, I to watch and listen from the Strangers’ Gallery.
Again, as earlier at the Cement meeting, I was in no mood for correct secretarial concentration; from where I sat the main thing that impressed me was his strained pallor on rising to speak; in the green-yellow glow that came on as dusk fell his face took on a curious transparency, as if some secret hidden self were flooding outwards and upwards. But that, I knew, was a mere trick of artificial light; the House of Commons illumination flatters in such a way, often gilding with spirituality a scene which is not, in itself, very remarkable—a few Members going through the formality which would later entitle them to boast of having “raised the matter in the House,” than which, except for writing letters to The Times, fortunate generations of Englishmen were never called upon to do more. That afternoon the benches were thinly populated, nothing important was expected, and I find from newspaper reports that the following took place:—
Mr. Charles Rainier (Conservative: West Lythamshire) asked whether a consignment of trade catalogues dispatched by a business firm in his constituency had been confiscated by the port authorities at Balos Blanca, and whether this was not contrary to Section 19 of the recent Trade Convention signed at Amazillo.
The Right Honorable Sir George Smith-Jordan (Conservative: Houghley), replying for the Government, said he had been informed by His Majesty’s Consul at Balos Blanca that the reported confiscation had been only partial and temporary, affecting a certain section of the catalogues about which there appeared to have been some linguistic misunderstanding, and that the greater part of the consignment had since been delivered to the addressees. As to whether the action of the port authorities had or had not been an infringement of any clause of the Amazillo Trade Convention, he was not in a position to say until further information had been received.
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