James hilton collected n.., p.64
James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.64James Hilton
She laughed. “And champagne when you’ve already had enough champagne.”
“How can we be so absurd—on a day like this?”
“Maybe it isn’t so absurd.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Oh, just somewhere in England, as the war bulletins may say one of these days.”
We drove on, mile after mile, till at a turn of the road the hills ahead of us sharpened into a ridge and at the same turn also there was a signpost which made me cry out, with a sudden catch of breath: “Did you see that?”
“I know. I wanted to come here.”
“But—you shouldn’t—it’s only torturing yourself—”
“No, no. I promise I won’t be upset—see, I’m quite calm.”
“But all this probing of the past—”
“That’s where the future will take us, maybe—back to the past. A simpler England. Old England.”
And then we came upon the gray cottages fronting the stream, the square-towered church, the ledge in the stream where the water sparkled. We parked our car by the church and walked along the street. A postman late on his morning rounds stared with friendly curiosity at us and the car, then said “Good morning.” A fluff of wind blew tall hollyhocks towards us. Somebody was clipping a hedge; an old dog loitered into a fresh patch of shade. Little things—but I shall remember them long after much else has been forgotten.
There seemed no special significance anywhere, no sign that a war had begun.
But as we neared the post office I caught sight of something that to me was most significant of all—a small brown two-seater car. I walked over to it; a man saw me examining the license. “If you’re looking for the tall gentleman,” he came over to say, “I think he took a walk up the hill.”
I turned to Mrs. Rainier. “Charles?” was all she whispered.
“Might be. It meets the Club porter’s description and it was hired from a London firm.”
We turned off the main road by a path crossing an open field towards the hill; as we were climbing the chime of three quarters came up to us, blown faint by the breeze. The slope was too steep for much talk, but when we came within a few yards of the ridge she halted to gain breath, gazing down over the village.
“Looks as if it has never changed.”
“I don’t suppose it has, much, in a thousand years.”
“That makes twenty seem only yesterday.”
“If we meet him, what are you going to say?”
“I don’t know. I can’t know—before I see him.”
“He’ll wonder why on earth we’ve come here, of all places.”
“Then well ask him why on earth he’s here. Perhaps well both have to pretend we came to look at the five counties.”
She resumed the climb, and in another moment we could see that the summit dipped again to a further summit, perhaps higher, and that in the hollow between lay a little pond. There was a man lying beside it with arms outstretched, as if he had flung himself there after the climb. He did not move as we approached, but presently we saw smoke curling from a cigarette between his fingers. “He’s not asleep,” I said. “He’s just resting.” I saw her eyes and the way her lips trembled; something suddenly occurred to me. “By the way, how did you know there were five counties?”
But she didn’t answer; already she was rushing down the slope. He saw her in time to rise to his feet; she stopped then, several yards away, and for a few seconds both were staring at each other, hard and still and silent. Then he whispered something I couldn’t hear; but I knew in a flash that the gap was closed, that the random years were at an end, that the past and the future would join. She knew this too, for she ran into his arms calling out: “Oh, Smithy—Smithy—it may not be too late!”
We Are Not Alone
IN A SMALL CATHEDRAL town where changes are few, there are always people who remember who used to live in a particular house, what happened to them there and afterwards, and so on. Thus, when a chain-store company bought a site at the corner of Shawgate and sent men to break up the old Georgian frontage, there were reminders all over the town—“That was where the little doctor lived.” It was a long time ago. The house had never been occupied since, and for a reason that made passers-by stare curiously as the picks swung through the dust clouds. In due course the job reached a stage when the whole of an inside wall was exposed, and on it, still hanging, a smashed picture which a workman sold for half a crown to a bystander. It proved on examination to be a faded etching of angels grouped around an arch of flowers, but when viewed at more than arm’s length the whole design took on the likeness of a human skull. Some forgotten Victorian artist must have thought this clever; he could hardly have imagined that it would ever be so appropriate.
For the little doctor, who had lived in that house for years, was finally hanged for the murder of his wife. A young woman was charged with him, and she too was sentenced to death. The case attracted a good deal of attention at the time, not only amongst the general public but in legal circles also. “The framing of the indictment to include both prisoners,” says one authority, “was perfectly logical and proper, for English law holds that if murder is committed, joint responsibility can be established against any number of persons without regard to the question of who struck the fatal blow. Thus it was possible throughout the Newcome trial to ignore the problem (interesting but perhaps insoluble) of individual behavior during the crucial hours. All the same, the defense seems to me to have been somewhat mismanaged; indeed, it was generally admitted afterwards that Sir Guy Lockhead made a cardinal mistake in putting Dr. Newcome in the witness box to face a Crown cross-examination. My own plan, had I been defending Newcome, would have been to stress the undoubted fact that all the evidence was circumstantial, and to urge that it was the duty of the prosecution to prove it to the hilt rather than expect my client to refute it. I am inclined to think that if this had been done, an opposite verdict might have been returned (even against the racial and political feeling that was aroused by the nationality of the female prisoner); for there was much in the doctor’s favor had not his hesitations, inconsistencies, and farfetched explanations created such a bad impression.”
Thus one of the leading jurists of the day. He was not present at the trial, nor is it likely that his balanced scrutiny would have been affected by the picture I have in my own mind, of a grey day, herald of winter, the gas jets in the courtroom dimmed and flickering, so that as daylight faded, the shapes of judge, jury, and prisoners swam in a greenish twilight: the muffled Cathedral chimes each quarter hour, the hissing of the heating apparatus, voices that droned on more and more slowly as if they must die at last in darkness.
The little doctor, as I saw him then, was very quiet and still. But once, during some evidence of a particularly repetitive kind, there came into his quietude a sudden emptying of consciousness that could only mean one thing, and that an extremely shocking thing in a man on trial for his life. He had dozed off! His head nodded for a moment, till a warder tapped him so vigorously on the shoulder that he nearly slid to the floor.
“The court would be obliged if the prisoner would pay attention.”
“I beg your pardon,” answered the little doctor, almost inaudibly.
If you were born in Calderbury during the first decade of the twentieth century, David Newcome may well have ushered you into the world, for he had begun to practise in 1899. A year after that he married the daughter of a rural dean; they had one child, a boy. Jessica mixed with the best Cathedral society and was always on the committee of this, that, and the other. David didn’t share many of her interests; sometimes he went to Sunday service with her, but more often not, for a doctor ha
Perhaps too there was endearment in the diminutive, for a film of guilelessness often covered his brown eyes when he looked one over; and when he examined a child, one could think of two children examining each other. He had beautiful hands, simple manners (no manners at all, Jessica sometimes said), and a way of telling the truth if he thought you needed it. “There’s nothing the matter with you,” he would declare, quite simply, and leave you to try another doctor if you wanted coddling. His voice was quiet, and to those who preferred their own he would listen for a while—or, at any rate, seem to be listening. He smoked cherry-wood pipes which he bought for a penny each, and he always wore the same sort of dark blue suit. When he was seen about the town with Jessica people would say, acknowledging her by the adjective they bestowed on him, “There goes the little doctor.”
Calderbury was a pleasant town in those days. I always thought it the right kind of place for civilized living—small enough to be walked through in half an hour, yet of a dignity and importance beyond mere size. Its Cathedral was good fourteenth-century Gothic with later accretions, and the only building of any rival conspicuousness was the massive stone jail, built in the thirties by an architect who took an evidently depressing view of the extent and permanence of Calderbury’s criminality. The town itself, though you had heard of it, was probably one that you missed visiting thirty years ago, if only because the railway had sent it no more than the branch line of a branch line. Yet this was perhaps a lucky chance, for after half a century this line had come to easy terms with the town’s prevalent mood, so that the time-table could conveniently dismiss the inquirer with a sentence: “See trains to Marsland and thence about five times daily.”
Behind the streets rose the Knoll, a wooded hill surmounted by a stone obelisk; the best way to climb it was by the footpath from the steep part of Shawgate, beyond a row of Georgian houses. The little doctor lived in one of these. It was well-built and elegantly proportioned, but rather dark, owing to a cedar tree in the back garden and close-mesh curtains which, for front windows right on the street, were a needed barrier to the inquisitive. Calderbury folk were not more than normally curious, but the doctor’s house stood halfway up the hill and most people climbed slowly, with halts to stare at shop windows, dogs in the gutter, or the butcher’s boy freewheeling dangerously down. Assuredly the interior of Jessica’s drawing-room, if visible, would have added to these attractions. It was very prim and chintzy, with water colors and illuminated mottoes and a model of a church, carved in sandalwood, which a missionary uncle had brought back from Ceylon.
Along the side of the house ran a narrow alley, flanked by rows of white shells, spoils from some unidentifiable seashore. These pointed the way to the doctor’s surgery, which, at some earlier period of its existence, had been a lean-to greenhouse, so that a faintly horticultural atmosphere still clung to its shelving and glass roof, even though the former was crowded with bottles and the latter covered by adjustable paper blinds. It was, if you came to think about it, an exceedingly cramped, unsuitable, and ill-arranged structure, but it had, for David, the incomparable advantage of being a place apart.
Not that, in any conscious way, he had grown tired of Jessica. It was rather that his attitude towards her had leveled into a passive acceptance of her status as his wife; no flicker of impulse disturbed something which was not quite serenity and not quite boredom either. This condition, which some people flatteringly call happiness, David did not call anything; he did not even think about it. He just did his job, year by year, and would have been tolerably content with the wrong sort of wife if only he could have had the right sort of child. It didn’t seem, as the years went by, that Gerald was going to be that. There was a nervousness in the boy that was almost pathological, and none the less so because Jessica regarded it as mere naughtiness. Upon this point of interpretation David and Jessica had their rare quarrels; for the boy’s tantrums stirred David to a degree of patience which to Jessica was an added irritation. Curious foolery, so it was reported by those who had access to overlooking windows, went on in the Shawgate garden between father and son—foolery in which it would have been hard to say whose behavior was the more fantastically infantile. Jessica always thought the whole thing was rather disgraceful. But when Gerald developed one of his notorious crying fits it was David who would devote hours to pacifying him, fighting the enemy with fear-stilling hands; for David knew the terror a child can have when a shadow climbs a wall, or when a train screams through a station, or when, in some story book, a page is turned shudderingly upon a hated picture. And he knew how terror can sometimes fascinate till the dreaded thing is loved and the mind twists into lonely corridors; he knew, too, that nothing is terrible if it is not felt to be. For there was that picture of angels looking like a skull; by some chance the boy liked it, and was overjoyed when David produced a real skull—relic of student days—to give meaning to what had hitherto been a merely entertaining mystery. And David, demonstrating thus, was inspired to do so by an intrepidity he could hardly explain—a desire to establish one thing at least of which the boy should never be afraid; and that was Death.
David’s practice was one of the best in Calderbury, but that was not so very good, and there was nothing sensational about it—thousands of small-town doctors followed a similar routine. The brass plate said “Physician and Surgeon,” and of these functions the latter consisted of emergency work and operations on his own patients at their homes or in the local hospital. In those days there was less specialization and more all-round versatility; David could clip off an appendix or chisel a mastoid with as much confidence as he would invade territory now held by the dentist and the chiropodist. He was, indeed, an excellent surgeon and there was a sense, difficult for the laymen not to misinterpret, in which he enjoyed a morning at the operating table. Physicking was the more arduous, since it entailed a daily tour of Calderbury’s narrow streets, the climbing of innumerable dark and steep stairways, and—every evening except Sunday—a two-hour session in the surgery. You did not, unless you belonged to Cathedral society, make a special appointment to see the little doctor. If you were well enough you came, you waited, and you were seen. And if, unfortunately, you weren’t well enough, then a familiar phenomenon turned the corner of the street—the little doctor on a very shabby bicycle, with his bag strapped to a carrier over the rear mudguard. The streets of Calderbury were mostly steep and cobbled, and he rode along them with a degree of peril well orchestrated by experience. He always said that he couldn’t afford to motor, and when it was suggested that he could, he fell back on a second line of defense by saying that cycling gave him hard exercise and that otherwise he would have none. But the truth was probably that he disliked changes and found it hard to make up his mind for them. So he went on cycling throughout the year, in rain and cold wind, and fog; and one day in 1910, after a crash into the back of a farm cart on Lissington Hill, it was wondered amongst Calderbury citizens whether he would buy a car at last. But no; he bought another bicycle. And he had, by the way, a peculiar style of mounting and dismounting: he would wheel the machine a few paces, stare at it intensely for a second or two, and then, with an extraordinary upward and sideways leap, launch himself on to the saddle by means of a projecting “step” on the back axle. I never saw another cyclist do anything like it, and I do not know whether the little doctor was ever taught it in those far-off nineties when people were taught cycling, or whether he invented it himself.
He was well liked in Calderbury. He did not waste much time in spoken sympathy, or even seem to worry much if his patients died, though he was sometimes inclined to boast if they didn’t die—as when, for instance, in an epidemic
A large map of England hung on the wall of the surgery waiting room; Cornwall was yellow, Devon red, Hampshire cream, and you couldn’t tell the difference between Cumberland and Westmoreland because they were so far away at the top. There was an oblong mahogany table with nothing on it but a plantless plant pot and some tattered magazines. On the mantelpiece a gilt clock ticked loudly under a glass dome, and above this hung a framed diploma certifying in a very spidery handwriting something that nobody ever bothered to stand on a chair and read. Fifteen chairs, in fact, were ranged against the four walls, and when they were all occupied the assembly, with the big table in the middle, looked like some fantastic board meeting. You had time to notice all these things while waiting for your turn. And at intervals the inner glass-paneled door would open, a patient would emerge and the next one rise eagerly; and then you would hear two distinctive good-evenings: the one that meant “You’re calmer now, you can go away easier in mind; things aren’t quite so bad, are they?”—and the other that meant “You’re worried, I know. Please tell me all about it; I’m here to help you.” And when, on summer nights, the sunlight slanted in, you could watch the yellow bars climb up from the Isle of Wight to Birmingham—never higher because of the roof across the street; and after they had gone away altogether Susan would come in with a lighted taper for the gas. It burned green and pale, with a hissing sound. And then the inner door opening again…“Good evening”—“Good evening…” Oh, little doctor, please be kind to me when it comes my turn…
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