James hilton collected n.., p.62
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.62

           James Hilton

  Mr. Jack Wells (Labour: Mawlington) asked whether, having regard to the general unsatisfactoriness of the incident, His Majesty’s Government would consider the omission of Balos Blanca from the scheduled list of ports of call during the proposed Good-Will Tour of the British Trade Delegation in 1940.

  The Right Honorable Sir George Smith-Jordan: No, sir.

  Immediately after that, Rainier picked up his papers and walked out, leaving the Mother of Parliaments to struggle along with barely more than a quorum till after the dinner hour. Meanwhile I left the Gallery, in which a small crowd of provincial and foreign visitors had been defiantly concealing their disappointment at the proceedings below, and met him in the Lobby; he was gossiping with strangers, but behind the façade of casualness I saw how haggard he looked, his face restlessly twitching in and out of smiles. Seeing me approach he made a sign for me to wait while he detached himself from the crowd—they were constituents, he explained later, and constituents had to be humored, especially when one’s majority had been only twelve last time. “They’re so proud because they heard me ask about that catalogue business—they have a touching belief that a question in Parliament pulls invisible wires, sets invisible forces in motion, works invisible miracles all over the world.”

  Passing through the Smoke Room again on the way to the Terrace we saw the name “McAlister” on the notice board that announced current speakers; Rainier smiled and said that was fine—McAlister always gave one a chance to stroll for half an hour with the certainty of not missing anything. “By the way, I’m dining at the Historians’ Club’ so I don’t think I’ll need you for the rest of the evening.”

  “Are you down to speak?”

  “I’m not on the program but I daresay I’ll be asked.”

  “You don’t have to go if you’d rather not. I can make up some excuse.”

  “What’s the idea—encouraging me to shirk?”

  “I thought—perhaps—you might be feeling rather exhausted.”

  “Not a bit of it now. I’m game for more wan a speech at a Club dinner. You’d be surprised if you knew what’s in my mind.”

  We stepped into the cool evening air and began walking towards Westminster Bridge. He had given me a cue to say what I had been planning most of the day.

  “My advice would be to put the whole thing out of your mind, now that it’s happened at last, and there isn’t a gap any longer. You ought to be satisfied.”

  “Satisfied?” He swung round on me. “When you say that I wonder if—if you quite realize—what it all amounts to?”

  “Oh yes, I do. It means that so far as there was ever anything abnormal in your life, you’re now completely cured.”

  We came near the Bridge, a blaze of illumination from lines of trams, and in that light I saw such anguish in his eyes that I could only repeat, with an emphasis that somehow drained away as the words were spoken: “Utterly and completely cured.”

  “You don’t really think that’s all it amounts to? You must know there’s only one thing that matters—only one thing left for me to do.”

  “And that is?”

  “I must find her.”

  So there it was squarely before us, the issue that had of course been in my mind, that I had done a pathetic best to make him shirk by conscientiously shirking it myself. We walked a little way in silence.

  “After all these years,” I said at length, “it doesn’t seem very likely.”

  “I must try.”

  “It was up to her, surely, to look for you—yet apparently she never did.”

  “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t care. And besides—there’s my son. She was going to have a child.”

  “But even a return of memory can’t prove it was a boy.”

  He smiled. “No, but I hope so. I’ve always wanted a boy. He’d be eighteen now. I must find him … both of them.”

  “And if by chance—not that I think there is much chance—but just for the sake of argument—if you should happen to succeed, what then?”

  He answered with a certain impregnable simplicity: “Then I should be happy again.”

  “Possibly, but apart from your own personal happiness … Look here, why not think it over—not now—but later—calmly—when you’re alone?”

  “I’m calm now, and it doesn’t particularly help me to be alone when I think. I was thinking it over very clearly all the time I was asking that question in the House.”

  “Yes, I could see you were—but that doesn’t meet my point, which is that you haven’t—you can’t have—reckoned with all the complications—”

  “Complications? You’ll be telling me next I ought to consult old Truslove!”

  “Actually I wasn’t thinking of legal complications at all, though they doubtless exist. It’s other kinds you’d find most disagreeable—newspaper publicity, gossip and scandal that wouldn’t do you any good politically,”

  “I think I’ve had enough good done to me politically.”

  “And then of course there’s your wife. Whatever your private feelings are, and of course it’s none of my business, you ought at least to consider her position.”

  “Anything I ought to do now is nothing compared with what I ought to have done before.”

  “But that’s in the past—irrevocable.”

  “No, not if she and I can find each other again.”

  “It seems to me we’re talking about different persons.”

  “Oh, I see.”

  We walked on for another spell of silence. Then I said: “But you don’t even know that the … the other woman’s alive?”

  He was silent for a while. “Do you?” I pressed.

  “No, that’s true.” Then suddenly: “But if she is, and I can find her, then nothing on earth will stop me—neither publicity, nor politics, nor …” He turned to me abruptly. “I don’t want to be dramatic. Let’s leave that to the journalists, who’ll have the job of making a nine days’ wonder of it.”

  “Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll have more important news, the way events are going.”

  As we turned into the Smoke Room the board showed that McAlister was still speaking. A group of Members at one of the tables greeted Rainier chaffingly and asked him to join them; as if relieved to be rid of the argument he gave me a nod of friendly farewell and sat down with them, completely master of himself so far as voice and manner were concerned. But I heard one of them say, just as I was entering the corridor: “You look pretty washed-out, Rainier—what’s the matter? Hitler getting on your nerves?”

  I went back to my rooms in Bedford Square and spent the evening with the latest editions of the papers. But I could not keep my mind on the fast-developing European crisis; my thoughts were full of Rainier and his story; I mused upon his whole life as I now knew it: childhood at Stourton, with the despotic father and adored mother; schooldays; then the war, the hospitals, the brief unmemoried idyl; then the return to the routine struggle that had brought him wealth, power, and a measure of fame. I could not but feel his personal drama near to me as I turned on the radio for the larger drama of our times, for that too had reached a moment of desperate retrospect.

  About midnight I strolled into Tottenham Court Road and watched the crowd pouring out of theaters and restaurants; when I returned there was a letter pushed under the door. It was from Rainier, enclosing another letter. He wrote:—

  I said I would let you see that last note Kitty wrote me; here it is, and whatever it means to you, to me, rereading it just now, it meant as much more as you can possibly imagine. Yrs. C.R.

  The letter from Kitty, dated September 30, 1929, was as follows:—

  My dear Charles,

  I’m writing this in a hurry, but after thinking things out as slowly and carefully as even you could—in fact I’ve been gathering together many thoughts I began to have the moment we left the Jungfraujoch last April, in the train and on the boat, and then again off and on ever since, and especially in the restaurant tonight—Dearest, it wasn
t the weather or the altitude or the stock market—it was our own hearts sinking a little, and I’m going to face that frankly, because I doubt if you ever would or could. I can’t marry you, Charles dear—that’s what it amounts to. We’ve had marvelous times, we’d still go on having them, we have so much in common, the same way of seeing things, the same kind of craziness (though you keep yours in check more than I do)—you could make me perfectly happy if only I were selfish enough not to care or stupid enough not to notice that at some point in the final argument you waver and turn away. So here’s my decision—No, darling, while it’s still not quite too late; and here are my plans—I’m leaving London immediately, I’ll have gone before you read this—I shall probably join Jill (wherever she is, Luxor, I think) not tragically, but in a mood to see what fun I can find—and I usually can. I’m sending this by special messenger because I want it to reach you before you go to the office, so that you won’t send out those invitations and then have to cancel them—as for selling short to amuse me, it wouldn’t amuse me, I’m afraid, but if you think it would amuse you, why don’t you do it? Dear Charles, I want you to be happy, to be amused, to do things because you desire them, not because you’re urged or tempted; I wish we could be and do all we talked of on the mountain, but the fact is, I’m not the one for you, though God knows the mistake was excusable for both of us, because I’m nearly the one—I claim that much and it’s something to go on being proud of. But “nearly” isn’t enough for a lifetime—it would be too hard to strain after the hidden difference. And there’s something else that may sound utterly absurd, but let me say it—sometimes, especially when we’ve been closest, I’ve had a curious feeling that I remind you of someone else—someone you may have met or may yet meet—because with that strange memory of yours, the tenses get mixed up—or don’t they? But Charles, because I am so nearly the one, and because I love you more than anyone I shall ever marry, will you forgive me for this upset and stay friends?—K.

  I went to his City office the following morning and waited till after ten o’clock (he usually arrived at nine); then I rang up his Club and was told he had left very early, giving no forwarding address. It was a day of such important engagements that I went over to the Club immediately, hoping to find out more than they would tell me over the telephone.

  The porter, who knew me, said he had left about six, by car.

  “Hanson was with him then?”

  “No, sir, he drove alone. It wasn’t his usual car—quite a small one, a brown two-seater.”

  “But he hasn’t got a two-seater.”

  “Well, he went away in one—that’s all I can tell you, sir. I think it was an Austin, but I’m not sure.”

  “And he left no message for me?”

  “No, sir—no message for anybody, except that he’d be away till he got back. That was his phrase. He seemed in a very cheerful mood. I thought maybe he had some good news, but it don’t look like it from today’s papers.”

  “Well I expect I’ll hear from him—it’s all right.”

  I went away as if I thought it really was, because I was anxious not to start gossip at the Club. Then I went back to the City office and pretended the mystery was cleared up—he’d had to go away for a few days on an important political errand; I telephoned to cancel all his appointments for the day, giving the same story, except that to those in the political world I made out it was a business errand. There were certain advantages in belonging to two worlds. I wondered if I should hear from him, by either wire or telephone as the day proceeded, but no message came, and in the late afternoon I drove to Stourton. There were several cars outside the main entrance, but none was a brown two-seater; I hadn’t really expected it. Woburn met me on the threshold. “What are you doing here?” he greeted me, as if he owned the place.

  “What are you doing here, for that matter? Still on the catalogue?”

  “No, I’ve finished that and several more since. I’m just a guest.”

  “Well, that’s very nice.”

  “There’s going to be a big party this week end.”

  There was, and that was what I had come about. “Where’s Mrs. Rainier?”

  “On the terrace—dispensing cocktails and small talk with her usual glassy proficiency. Just a local crowd—they’ll go soon.”

  “Let’s join them.”

  I realized then, as soon as I saw her in the distance, how keenly my sympathies had been enlisted for a woman whose glassiest proficiency could hardly help her much in the situation that was now so rapidly developing. As we shook hands she seemed to me rather like a pathetic tightrope walker doing her tricks in confident unawareness that the rope was about to be cut.

  The crowd were mostly neighbors whom I had met before, but there was one fresh face—Sir William Somebody, whom I knew to be a retired diplomat who lived on his pension in a farmhouse rented from the Rainiers. Mrs. Rainier introduced me with the remark that perhaps, having just driven from London, I could give him the latest news. “Sir William thinks the situation’s far worse than people realize.”

  I passed on what news there was; then a girl called Cynthia exclaimed: “We mustn’t miss the wireless bulletin. Hasn’t he been making another speech today?” (It had come to the point where an unrelated “he” could only refer to Hitler.)

  “Just words, nothing but words,” someone else muttered.

  “Better than actions, anyhow.”

  Mrs. Rainier intervened lazily: “Oh, I’m not so sure of that as I used to be. I mean, when you’re waiting for something to happen, and rather dreading it …” She went on: “Have you ever been going somewhere with a crowd and you’re certain it’s the wrong road and you tell them, but they won’t listen, so you just have to plod along in what you know is the wrong direction till somebody more important gets the same idea?”

  “A parable, darling. Please interpret.”

  She seemed embarrassed by being the focus of attention—which was unusual of her. “No, thanks, Cynthia. That’s been enough words from me.” She laughed and came round with: the cocktail shaker, refilling the glasses, including her own.

  Sir William resumed: “Well, if he does march into Poland, we shall fight.” Then suddenly he pointed to the great avenue of elms for which Stourton was famous. “Look at those trees—planted two centuries ago, deliberately, by someone who thought of a time when someone else would see them like this. Who could do such a thing today?” Nobody informed him, and after a pause to deposit an olive stone in an ashtray he went on: “The most we do is to bury things under foundation stones so that future civilizations can dig into our ruins and wonder.”

  We all laughed, because after a few drinks what can one do but laugh; then in ones and twos the party dispersed and drove away in its cars. I went to the library and turned on the radio for the news bulletin; Hitler’s speech had been just another threat to march. Somehow one didn’t believe he would; there had been crises before, ending up in a deal; so that one had the half-cynical suspicion that both sides were secretly arranging another deal and that the wordy warfare was just shadowboxing, face saving, anything but a prelude to the guns. While I was listening Sheldon entered to announce that dinner would be almost immediately, and that Mrs. Rainier had said “not dress.”

  “Good—since I haven’t brought anything.”

  “I think Mrs. Rainier anticipated that.”

  “Very thoughtful of her.”

  “You left Mr. Rainier in the City?”

  “Er … yes.”

  “Then you’ll be going back in the morning?”

  “I expect so.”

  He nodded and went to the door, then turned and asked: “What’s going to happen, do you think?”

  “Can’t tell yet, but it looks pretty serious.”

  He said, still standing in the doorway: “I mean what’s going to happen to Mr. Rainier?”

  He went on, facing my stare: “You said he’s in the City.”

  “I didn’t say that. I said I left
him there.”

  “Don’t you know where he is now?”


  “Isn’t that rather peculiar?”

  “Many things are peculiar, Sheldon.”

  “Are you worried about him? … You must excuse me, I have a special reason for asking.”

  “I’m sure you have. It might even be the same reason I have for not answering.”

  He came back into the room. “Mr. Harrison … has he gone away to look for somebody?”

  “I really don’t think I can discuss—” Then something in his glance made me add: “But supposing he had—then what?”

  He smiled his slow slanting smile. “Then you don’t need to worry.”

  “I didn’t say I was worrying at all. But why don’t I need to?”

  “Because he won’t succeed in finding the person he’s looking for.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Because he never has succeeded.”

  He left the men, and a few minutes later the dinner gong sounded. When I joined Mrs. Rainier in the dining room, with Sheldon standing at the sideboard, I had a feeling they had been exchanging glances if not words about me, but I could not say much during dinner, on account of Woburn’s presence. As if by tacit agreement we left him most of the talking, which he kept up very agreeably throughout the meal—he was really a very adaptable young man, you would have thought him born and bred at Stourton, except that most of those who had been were so much leas smoothly articulate. I was wondering how I could shake him off afterwards, but Mrs. Rainier did it for me, saying outright that she expected I had some business to talk over, so if Woburn would excuse us …

  “Do you mind if we have a fire?” she asked, as soon as we were alone in the dining room. I helped her to remove the heavy screen, saying something about the night being cold for the eve of September.

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