James hilton collected n.., p.63
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.63
 

           James Hilton

  “It isn’t that,” she answered, kneeling on the hearthrug. “But it makes a more cheerful background when so many uncheerful things are happening.”

  Looking at her then, I realized for the first time how much more she was than merely vivacious and attractive; her face had a beauty that poured into it from within—a secret, serene radiance. She went on, stooping to the fire: “You’ve saved me the trouble of calling at the office tomorrow—I wanted to ask about something.”

  “Good job you didn’t, because I’m not sure Mr. Rainier will be there.”

  “Oh? He’s gone away somewhere?”

  “Yes.” I remembered him saying she was never surprised at any of his movements. “And as I don’t know when exactly he’ll be coming back, I was wondering about the week-end plans.”

  “The political situation’s so serious I doubt if we’d have had the party anyway. Yes, let’s cancel it.”

  “That’s what I was going to suggest.”

  “Nice of you, but why didn’t you telephone?” She added hastily: “Not that I’m not pleased to see you—I always am—but it gave you the journey.”

  “Oh, I didn’t mind. I’m equally pleased to see you.”

  She laughed. “Now we’ve had the exchange of compliments—”

  She didn’t know what else to say, I could see that; and after a pause I resumed: “What was it you wanted to ask about if you had called at the office?”

  “Oh yes, maybe you can tell me just as well. Why did you and Charles drive out to Melbury the other night?”

  The sheer unexpectedness of the question nonplused me for a moment. In the meantime she went on: “And don’t blame Hanson—he wasn’t to know he’d overheard such a tremendous secret!” She was laughing.

  “Oh, not—er—exactly a secret.”

  “Well a mystery.”

  I said to gain time: “And you were going to pay a special visit just to ask that?”

  “Yes, indeed—I’ve been terribly curious ever since I heard about it.”

  “Then it’s my turn to say why didn’t you telephone?”

  “Perhaps because I wanted to see your faces when I asked you—it’s so much harder to hide something that way!” She laughed again. “Won’t you let me in on the puzzle? Melbury’s such an odd place for anyone to make a trip to.”

  It suddenly occurred to me that she had to know, and now was the chance to tell her. I said: “Mr. Rainier was once in a hospital at Melbury.”

  In the blaze of fresh firelight I could see the laughter drain away from her face and a sudden pallor enter it; but in another second she was smiling again.

  “Well it seems a queer reason for driving somewhere in pouring rain in the middle of the night. For that matter Charles was at other hospitals too—he was pretty badly hurt in the war, you know. It even affected his memory for a time. I never knew quite how much you had gathered about all that—” She was striving to seem very casual.

  “Just the main facts, that’s all.”

  “He told you them himself?”

  “Yes.”

  The smile remained as if fixed to her face. “Oh, I’m so glad, because it shows how close you must have been to him as a friend. He doesn’t often talk about it to anybody. And to me he never talks about it.”

  “Never?”

  “No, never. Isn’t that strange? But then he’s so little with me—and mostly we have business or politics to talk about. Our marriage is a very happy one, but it’s never been—well, close is perhaps the word. We’ve never even had a close quarrel.”

  “But you love him?”

  “Well, what do you think? I adore him—most women do. Haven’t you noticed that? All his life he could always have had any pretty woman he wanted.”

  “So it isn’t surprising that he got the pretty woman he wanted.”

  “More compliments? … Oh, but you should have seen the girl he was engaged to when I first became his secretary. I was his secretary—you knew that too, I suppose? She was much prettier than me, and younger. Kitty, her name was. She married somebody else and died—I can’t think why—I mean why she married somebody else, not why she died—she died of malaria—I suppose there’s no reason at all for that, except mosquitoes. I think they’d have been very happy—she and Charles, I mean, not the mosquitoes—but she’d have tried to make him give up the business. I know that, because she told me.”

  I could catch a note of hysteria subdued behind her forced facetiousness; I said, as calmly as I could: “You knew her well, then?”

  “Only by talking to her while she used to wait in the office for Charles.”

  “Tell me—if it isn’t impertinent to ask—were you also in love with him then?”

  She laughed. “Of course. Right from the first moment I set eye on him. … But that didn’t make me jealous of Kitty—only a bit envious, perhaps. I wonder how it would have worked out—Charles without all the business and politics. Of course he found out later I was the one to help him in that, and so I have—I’ve done my best to give him everything he wants—success—his ambitions … and yet sometimes lately I’ve thought … well, like my parable.”

  “Parable?”

  “Cynthia called it that during cocktails, don’t you remember? About going somewhere with someone and having doubts about it being the right road, but there’s nothing you can do but plod along until the other person begins to doubt. And then, of course, if you admit that you had doubts all the time, as likely as not he turns on you and says—well, why didn’t you warn me?”

  “Well, why didn’t you?”

  “Because he wouldn’t have taken any notice if I had. In fact he might not even have married me—and I wanted him to marry me. After Kitty died he threw himself into business more than ever—which gave me my chance—oh, I admit I was quite designing about it. So was he. He found how good I was—what a valuable merger it would be. He was always clever about mergers. …”

  “Did that entirely satisfy you?”

  “No, but I thought it might lead to something that would—to the real closeness. But it’s hard to get close when so many things are in the way. … May I have a light?” She was reaching for a cigarette on the side table and I could see that her hand was trembling. She added, as I held the match: “Do you want a drink in exchange?”

  “I think I’d rather wait till later.”

  “Later? Well, how long do you expect to sit up and talk parables?”

  I said then: “Mrs. Rainier, I think I’d better tell you more about the visit to Melbury.”

  “Oh yes, the mystery—do please tell me everything! What did you find there?”

  She was smiling as I began to tell her, and the smile grew faint as I proceeded, then appeared again in time for the end. I told her all that was important for her to know—the fact of his earlier marriage, his life during those brief months immediately afterwards, and how that life had come to an abrupt finish. I did not try to make it easier for her by a gingerly approach to the problem, or by minimizing its complexities. And I told her how he had reacted to the recent return of memory—his first excitement, then his calmer determination and bitter regret for the years between. Finally I told her that though it seemed to me highly unlikely that after two decades he would succeed in tracing someone who hadn’t apparently succeeded in the much easier task of tracing him during the same interval, and though the gap of years gave legal as well as every other kind of sanction to what had happened since, she must be prepared for the faint possibility; and that if it happened the publicity would be neither pleasant for her nor helpful to his position.

  “He must know that too.”

  “Yes, but in his present mood he doesn’t care.”

  “Oh, he doesn’t care?” She said that so softly, so gently, still smiling. I tried to think of something to express the wave of sympathy that overcame me; in the end I could only give her my silence. Presently she touched my hand and said: “Thank you for telling me all this.”

  “
I must say you take it very well.”

  “Did you expect me to make a scene?”

  “No, but … when I try to imagine your feelings …”

  “I don’t feel anything yet, at least not much, but I keep on thinking of what you said—that he doesn’t care!”

  “I know it’s terrible but—”

  “Oh, no, it’s wonderful! He’d throw over everything—his future—his ambitions—everything—if he could find her!”

  “In his present mood he thinks so.”

  “Don’t keep saying ‘in his present mood.’ Maybe his present mood is himself, and all the other moods were false. … How do we know?”

  “There’s one thing we do know—that people are remembered as they were last seen—and twenty years is a long time.”

  She turned to me with brightly shining eyes.

  “How sad that is, and how true.”

  “And from your point of view—how fortunate.”

  “Oh no, no—I wish she were still as he remembers her. I wish there were such a miracle. If all of us could go back twenty years—how different the world would be! I want him to be happy, I always have. … Now will you have your drink?”

  “If you will too.”

  She went over to the table and mixed them; I could see she was glad of something to do. Stooping over the glasses she continued: “I suppose he told you a great deal more than you’ve told me?”

  “Only details.”

  “Ah, but the details—those are what I want to hear. Did he remember things very clearly?”

  “Yes.”

  “Places and people?”

  “Yes.”

  “Tell me some of them.”

  I hesitated, again catching the note of hysteria in her voice; she added: “It doesn’t hurt me—as much as you think. Tell me some of them. … You say he met her first at Melbury?”

  “Yes—on that first Armistice Day.”

  “And they were married in London?”

  “Yes.”

  “Where did he propose to her? Did he tell you that?”

  “A village in the country somewhere—I think it was called Beachings Over.”

  “Beachings Over … an odd name.”

  “England is full of them.”

  “I know—like Nether Wallop and Shallow Bowells. …” She turned round with my drink. “And war coming to them all again. Do you think there’s still a chance of avoiding it?”

  “There’s always a chance of postponing it.”

  “No—we’ve had enough of that.”

  “I think so too.”

  “But we’re not ready yet, are we?”

  “We’re terribly unready. We missed our ways years ago and found a wide, comfortable road, fine for sleepwalkers, but it had the major drawback of wandering just anywhere, at random.”

  “Charles always thought that, but as a rich man it wasn’t easy for him to say so. Being rich tied his hands and stopped his mouth and took up his time—so that the wasted years wasted him too. …”

  “I think he’s begun to realize that.”

  “Yes, he’s sure of something at last. … Another drink?”

  “No, thanks.”

  A long pause. “There’s nothing we can do about it now, is there?”

  “Are you talking about—er—the country—or—er—”

  “Both, in a way.”

  “I think one can make up for lost time, but one can’t salvage it. That’s why his quest is so hopeless.”

  Her voice softened. “So you think that’s where he’s gone—to look for her?”

  “It’s possible. … But to look for her as she was, and that’s impossible.”

  The hysteria touched her voice again. “Tell me another detail—no matter how small or trivial—please tell me—”

  “I think you’re needlessly upsetting yourself.”

  “No, it isn’t upsetting—it’s—it’s almost helping me in a way—tell me something—”

  “I’d rather not, and besides, it’s hard to think—”

  “Oh, but you said he talked all night and you’ve only talked for an hour so far. There must be hundreds of things—names of places or incidents that happened here or there—or how she looked. …”

  “Well … let me see …”

  “How did she look? Did he remember her well?”

  “He seemed to, though he never described her exactly—but he did say—I believe he said when they first met she was wearing a little fur hat like a fez. … Or no, I may have mixed things up—that was Kitty when she stepped out of the train at Interlaken.”

  “Interlaken?”

  “They had a holiday there—he and Kitty.”

  “I know. And she was wearing a little fur hat like a fez? Or the other one? Or both, maybe—but wouldn’t that be rather improbable?”

  “Yes, of course. I’m sorry—it was like me to choose a detail I’d get confused over.”

  She put her hand in mine. “It doesn’t matter. You’ve been very kind. I wish I’d known you better—and earlier. Thank you again.”

  “You understand that I’m anxious to help both of you?”

  “Yes, I understand. But I don’t know how you can.”

  “Anyhow, there’s a sort of chilly comfort in thinking how unimportant all one’s personal affairs are these days.”

  She got up and began walking to the door. “Yes, but when that sort of comfort has chilled one quite thoroughly, the warmth comes—the feeling that nothing matters except personal feelings … the what-if-the-world-should-end-tonight mood.”

  We shook hands at the doorway, and there she added, smiling: “Perhaps our world is ending tonight. …”

  I stayed in the drawing room a little while after she had gone; then I thought it would be only civil to find Woburn. He was in the library, listening to the radio. “Still nothing definite. You know, if there’s a war, I want to get in the Air Force.” We had another drink and talked for about an hour before going upstairs.

  I had asked Sheldon to call me at seven; he did so, bringing in a cup of tea. “I thought you’d wish to know the news—it just came over the wireless.” Then he told me.

  I got up hurriedly. It was a perfect late-summer morning, cool and fresh, with a haze of mist over the hills. Woburn had brought a small radio into the breakfast room; we hardly exchanged a greeting, but sat in front of the instrument, listening as the first reports came through. Presently Mrs. Rainier entered, stood in the doorway to hear a few sentences, then joined us with the same kind of whispered perfunctory good-morning. The bulletin ended with a promise of more news soon, then merged into music.

  That was how we had breakfast on that first morning of the second war—to the beat of a dance band and with the sunlight streaming through the windows of Stourton.

  After breakfast we heard the news repeated, and found the strain almost intolerable. We strayed about the gardens, the three of us, then came back to the radio again; this time there were a few extra items, reports of half the world’s grim awakening.

  The newspapers came, but they were already old—printed hours before.

  I telephoned the City office, and had to wait twenty minutes before the line was clear.

  Then Woburn, after wandering restlessly in and out of rooms, said he would take a long walk. I think he would have liked either Mrs. Rainier or myself or both of us to suggest accompanying him, but we stayed each other with a glance. “He’s a nice boy,” she said, when he had gone.

  “Yes, very.”

  “Does Charles like him?”

  “Yes, I think so.”

  “I always hoped he would. I feel we’ve almost adopted him, in one sense.”

  “I sometimes think he feels that too.”

  “I’d like him to feel that … I once had a child, a boy, but he died. …”

  “I never knew that.”

  “Charles would have made a good father, don’t you think?”

  “Yes … he must have been terribly disappoint
ed.”

  “What will Woburn do now?”

  “He said he’d join the Air Force.”

  She moved restlessly to the radio, where the music had suddenly stopped. Another news item: the Germans had crossed the Polish frontiers at many places; the war machine was already clanking into gear.

  “I can’t stand this—I half wish now we’d gone with him for the walk. Don’t leave me alone here—you don’t have to return to the City, do you?”

  “No, not yet, anyhow. I just rang up the office. They haven’t had any news or message.”

  “Oh … let’s go somewhere then. I’ll drive you. There’s nothing else to do—we’ll go mad if we sit over the radio all day.”

  We took her car, which was an open sports Bentley, and set out. The Stourton parkland had never looked more wonderful; it was as if it had the mood to spread its beauty as a last temptation to remain at peace, or, failing that, as a last spendthrift offering to a thankless world. We passed quickly, then threaded the winding gravel roads over the estate to an exit I had not known of before—it opened on to the road to Faringdon. Through the still misty morning we raced westward and northward; but at Lechlade the sun was bright and the clock showed ten minutes past ten. A few miles beyond Burford the country rolled into uplands, and presently we left the main road altogether, slowing for tree-hidden corners and streams that crossed the lanes in wide sandy shallows, till at last in the distance we saw a rim of green against the blue.

  “Perhaps it will be a simpler England after the war,” was one of the things she said.

  “You’re already thinking of after the war?”

  “Of course. The next Armistice Day, whenever it comes.”

  “It’ll be a different England, that’s very certain. Not so rich, and not so snobbish—but maybe we can do without some of the riches and all the snobbery.”

  She nodded: “Maybe we can do without Stourton—and Bentleys.”

  “And two-for-one bonus issues.”

  “And guinea biographies like the one somebody once wrote about Charles’s father.”

  “And parties for His Excellency to meet the winners of the Ladies’ Doubles.”

 
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