James hilton collected n.., p.65
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.65
 

           James Hilton

  So, as a child, one watched and prayed while the Cathedral bells chimed the quarters; and the prayer was answered. He was kind, none ever kinder. Once, when he had pulled out a loose tooth not quite painlessly, he promised a child a real steam engine with real steam. It was absurd, since it would cost far more than the fee, and no one expected anything to come of it—no one except the child, who believed and waited in vain. But a story came from the man who kept the town’s toy shop—that David had been there to buy the steam engine, but that Jessica interfered and wouldn’t let him spend the money. One could hardly blame her.

  The trouble with genius (because I think, in some ways there was a touch of that quality in the little doctor) is that it is essentially alone. The most you know is that it is there; you cannot really come to terms with it; it is something that gives and cannot take. There were times when David sat by the bedside of old and dying people, and something passed between them in a finger touch; but you could no more describe it or analyze it than you can trap the wisp of memory that strays from a forgotten dream. And it came again in his jokes with children. Most of these look rather silly on paper, but here is one which was remembered because it shocked Jessica so much. There were mice in the kitchen of the house and she had sent for Tom Riddle, who was Calderbury’s vermin catcher and insect exterminator—a friendly little fellow with a drooping moustache and a squeaky voice. It so happened that he arrived in the midst of a children’s party and announced himself as “the mice man.” This seemed to amuse David enormously and he began a sort of game with the children to find how many other kinds of men would rhyme with “mice man”—“rice man, ice man, nice man,” and so on. Whereupon Teddy Farrell suggested “Christ man” (he was the seven-year-old son of the Arch-deacon and had probably caught the phrase from one of his father’s sermons), and David, laughing like a child himself, began to make a jingle of it:—

  Mice man or Christ man,

  So long as you’re a nice man—

  but Jessica wouldn’t let him get any further. She thought it was blasphemous, and even more urgently wondered what Teddy would go home and tell his father.

  I daresay I was too old, when I first met him, ever to know the little doctor in this childlike and more elemental sense. I was twelve and had for years suffered from recurring bouts of asthma. Other doctors had grown tired of me; patent medicines had been tried in vain. So I went at last to David, and it was then, one summer evening, that I watched the sunlight climb the counties over the map. When my turn came I sat in the leather armchair that had a footrest and a swivel arrangement for tilting backwards, and described (as clearly as only a bright grammar-school boy can) exactly what was the matter with me. Was it very serious? Would I ever get better? Was there a cure?

  “I don’t really know,” David said (it was one of the things which a doctor should never say and which David often said), and after looking puzzled for a moment added: “But I think you ought to keep a diary.”

  “I do,” I answered, rather proudly.

  “And do you put in it everywhere you go every day?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, you must go on doing that, and you must also put down how the asthma is every day…Do you like detective stories?”

  I said I did, and he lent me Trent’s Last Case.

  For two months I kept that diary, noting each day where I went and how much better or worse I was. Then I went to see him again. “Ah,” he said, “now we can behave as if we were from Scotland Yard. A crime has been committed and we must look for clues. I see that on April nineteenth, after visiting your Uncle Richard, you had a particularly bad attack. Now what’s your hypothesis?”

  That was just how a boy of twelve, and top of his class, liked to be talked to; and in less than a week a theory was formulated. Just cats. Uncle Richard had a cat, and so had other people whom I knew and visited; I liked cats and always fondled them at every opportunity. But David wasn’t satisfied till he had taken me to Chancey Gardens.

  Chancey was a place about fifty miles away where there were, and perhaps still are, side shows, a small zoo, and an amusement park. The expedition required a whole day, and it seemed remarkable, to others much more than to me, that David should hand over his affairs to a colleague in order to give a schoolboy an outing. But we had a good time. We tried the merry-go-round and the test-your-strength machines, and afterwards we ate ice-cream out of penny cones. Then we looked in at the lion house, where I promptly began to sneeze and gasp for breath. “You see?” David said, quite pleased with himself. “Any of the cat tribe, apparently…now that’s very remarkable…”

  So I avoided the cat tribe, and the asthma left me. Whenever I met David again he would ask me how I was, but I felt that he already half-knew and was for that reason less interested. I always hoped he would take me somewhere again (in fact I used to dream he would), but he never did, and our trip to Chancey became a strange memory in the end. Because I loved the little doctor, and it was because of me, partly, that he was hanged.

  CHAPTER ONE

  ONE COLD GUSTY NIGHT in December a boy rang the bell of the doctor’s house in Shawgate, and when Susan came to the door left word that there had been an accident to a dancer at the local theatre and would the doctor please come at once. Bestowing her usual skeptical scrutiny on such a messenger, Susan pressed for further details, but the boy could give none and ran off home, leaving her to waken David from the peacefulness of a last pipe in the surgery. He had had a busy day and was tired, but when she reported the message he nodded vaguely and began putting things in his bag.

  “At the theatre, Susan? A dancer?”

  “So the boy said. I don’t know why they should send for you, anyway—Dr. Cowell lives much nearer.”

  “I’d better go.”

  “It’s probably nothing much. Shall I light your bicycle lamp for you?”

  “Oh, I think I’ll walk. It’s only over the hill past the Cathedral.”

  “But it’s a rough night.”

  “Do me good to get some fresh air. I can walk it in ten minutes.”

  He put on his overcoat, wrapped a muffler round his neck, pulled the brim of his hat well down, and set out. He often walked if his destination were near the Cathedral, for the steepness of Shawgate made cycling hardly worth while. Besides, for a late evening call, it was a good way of waking up. Many times on similar occasions he had conquered the inertia of the body, moving in sheer automatism through the dark streets until physical effort or mental curiosity provoked a liveliness. And if anyone had said there was anything especially fine in such self-discipline, he would have answered that it was just a job, and that no one hated it sometimes more than he.

  A rough night, indeed. There were few strollers in such weather, and the Cathedral, chiming the hour of ten, seemed to bowl the strokes along the corridors of the wind. It was one of those nights when, in imagination, the centuries slipped back and Calderbury was again a fortress of souls with a priestly garrison; every lighted window hinting at safety amidst peril, the warm, tranquil comfort of men who felt they were safe because they knew they were saved. Such an atmosphere had lingered from the age of Chaucer to the age of Dickens, and though modernity might seem to efface it in the daytime, there only needed a dark night for its return. It harbored, too, a feeling that earth and stones could hold some secret essence of all that had happened around and about them, so that after a thousand years a street became almost animate, leaning its walls a little forward to catch the sound of friendly footsteps. David felt that his own footsteps were friendly, both to past and to present; that he was a part of the continuous agony of existence that had clustered about this ancient hill since the first mason carved the first gargoyle. And even longer; for the whole span of centuries from cathedral to cinema was but a scratch upon the heritage of a million weather-beaten years.

  So he mused (being slightly pagan and pantheist as well as Christian, and slightly agnostic about all of it) as he turned the angle whence Shawg
ate makes its steeper aim direct to the Cathedral towers. And because he was tired and a little breathless from climbing against the gale, he halted a moment by a street lamp; and again because there was a playbill of the local theatre in a shop window near by, he crossed the pavement to give it a second’s glance.

  It advertised a show called Les Nuit [sic] de Paris, which it described as “A Riot of Mirth-Provoking Naughtiness, Direct from the Gay Capital, with a Galaxy of Continental Stars.”

  The Theatre Royal in Calderbury dated from the fifties and had been modernized at various times to conform with fashions that afterwards made it seem more outmoded than ever; in structure it was the type that Crummies had played in, with horseshoe auditorium and a long-disused and very lofty “gods.” In its day it had ministered to the cream as well as to the milk of Calderbury society—even clerics had occupied its uncomfortable red plush seats to watch Mrs. Ebbsmith push her Bible into the fire, or to see Boucicault’s Colleen Bawn dive into a tank of real water and come up dripping to take a curtain call. Which, of course, was somewhat before the little doctor came to Calderbury, and a good deal before the first picture camera flickered in a converted mission hall off Briargate. By the time of Les Nuit [sic] de Paris the theatre had sunk to a level from which not even clerical visitation could or would effect a rescue. Stucco had peeled off the outside walls, the words “Theatre Royal” were spelt in empty sockets for which nobody could afford lights, moth and fleas inhabited the plush-hung boxes that nobody ever entered. The very boards of the stage sagged with dry rot, which was, indeed, the cause of mishap during the third act of one of those Parisian nights.

  That third and last act was nearly over when David arrived. He found nobody on duty to admit or question him. Entering by the stage door, he made his way along a dimly lit corridor echoing with the sound of excessively nasal singing. Then he pushed through another door and found himself stumbling against a heap of bright-colored dresses. Here a stout man in shirt sleeves seemed to be manipulating scenery.

  “I’ve been sent for—” began David.

  “Just a minute,” answered the stout man, suddenly hauling till the veins of his forehead stood out; whereat the singing swelled into climactic frenzy, whistling and shouting answered it, and a moment later an avalanche of girls swept past the little doctor as he waited, bag in hand. They chattered together, some rough-voiced and crudely spoken, a few round-shouldered and flat-chested; one girl coughed and clung momentarily to an iron pillar; another stopped to scratch herself. It was a new atmosphere for him, but full of pathological landmarks, signals of flesh and blood which stood, so many of them, at danger. The girls shed their skirts to make another heap of clothes, and from this, as from some multi-petaled flower, there rose a mingled smell of dust, cheap perfume, old wood, and human bodies.

  “I’m a doctor. Someone sent for me about an accident here.”

  The stout man turned a casual eye. “Accident?” Then, into space: “Hey, Jim! Know anything about an accident?”

  “To one of your dancers,” David added, recollecting.

  A voice answered: “We ain’t got only one dancer. She slipped as she came off, if you call that an accident.”

  The stout man jerked his hand. “Maybe it’s her. You’ll find her along there.”

  “Thank you.”

  David walked between cliffs of slowly swaying canvas till he came to a group of girls wiping grease paint from their faces. They took no notice of him and after a moment he asked: “Is there a girl here who dances?”

  “Oh, you mean What’s-her-name? Try the door right at the end.”

  He walked farther till a closed door stopped him; he tapped on the panel, but there was no answer; then he turned the handle and found the room empty. He went back to the girls.

  “There’s nobody in.”

  “No? Then she must have gone home.”

  “But—well, I’m a doctor—I was sent for to see this girl—or to see someone, at any rate—about an accident.”

  “An accident?”

  “Hasn’t there been an accident? Didn’t she slip and hurt herself?”

  “Don’t know, I’m sure. We weren’t on during her turn.”

  Had they been less casual, had they been able to confirm or deny or explain anything, he would probably have concluded that since the girl had been well enough to go home she could not have been very badly hurt. And he would probably have gone home then himself, assuming his summons to have been a thing done hastily and afterwards regretted. But that air of casualness, so foreign to the routine of his own profession, stiffened his conscientiousness to the point of obstinacy; even if the whole thing were a hoax or a false alarm, he could not now be satisfied till he had definitely established it so. After some trouble he extracted the girl’s temporary address from the stage doorkeeper: Number 24, Harcourt Row.

  He walked there in a drizzling mist; the wind had calmed suddenly, and the bare trees hung tired and still and heavy with raindrops. One might have noticed then that he wasn’t really little at all, merely that his well-proportioned figure marked a difference from the common identification of size and strength. There was something resolute in his stride along the pavements, and a look of quiet challenge in the way he turned the corner of the Row and glanced up at the dark facade.

  At Number 24 an elderly woman answered his continued ringing; she had to unlock the door. He knew her by sight; she knew him in the same way; and only this prevented the voicing of her resentment at being dragged out of bed at such an hour. Even as it was, her manner was far from cordial. When David had stated his business she muttered truculently: “Well, so far as I know she’s in bed and asleep by now. She had her key. I never wait up. It’s bad enough to let to theatricals without having to keep their hours.”

  “Is that her room immediately above the porch?”

  “Yes, that’s it.”

  “There’s a light in the window.”

  “And I suppose you want me to see if anything’s the matter?”

  “Just find out if she sent for me, that’s all. You see, somebody sent for me.”

  “It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve hoaxed a doctor,” she retorted, as she shuffled along in her slippers and began to climb the stairs. David remained in the dark hallway, trying to recall her name—ah yes, she was Mrs. Patterson; her husband had been Joe Patterson—worked at the brewery—diabetic—died of it—one of Cowell’s patients. A doctor remembers things that way. He could hear the creak of the joists as Mrs. Patterson walked over them, the sound of a door opening; he could smell stale cooking and stuffy rooms. He had waited in so many houses, had climbed so many stairs to so many bedrooms, that his nerves as well as his ears and eyes and nostrils had acquired a curious sensitivity to the atmosphere of an interior; and now, waiting in that small lodging house in Harcourt Row, awareness came to him of something strange and unusual. He had no time to wonder what it was, or even whether it had any existence outside his own mood; for Mrs. Patterson creaked her way down the stairs carrying a lighted candle.

  “You’d better come up and see her. I can’t understand a word she says—she’s foreign. She’s hurt her arm, by the look of it.”

  “All right.”

  He followed upstairs, till the woman opened the door of a very small room, crowded with shabby furniture and lit by a single unshaded gas light. A bed occupied most of the space, and on this sat a girl. David saw her face first of all through a wall mirror that happened to be in line with it; stained with grease paint, it struck him disturbingly, so that he stared for a moment, hardly realizing that the eyes he met in the glass could really be seeing him also.

  They were amber-brown, curiously matched with reddish-tinted hair; matched, too, in their pained, difficult eagerness, with the set of lips and mouth. David went to her. He saw at once that her left wrist, resting over her knee as she sat, hung limply. She did not speak, but pointed to it, and when he stooped and held it, feeling what was amiss, her lips parted and blood cam
e rushing into the marks that her teeth had made.

  “It is broken?” she said.

  “I’m afraid so,” he answered simply, kneeling to open his bag on a chair. He noticed then that a piece of stocking stuck to her leg in a smear of blood and dirt; nothing much, but the kind of thing he was always careful about. After bandaging the wrist he set about to clean this cut and asked Mrs. Patterson for warm water.

  “You’re going to have to rest for a while,” he said to the girl. She nodded, but he was not sure that she knew what he meant.

  “You dance, don’t you?”

  Again she nodded.

  “Well, you’ll have to rest. You can’t dance with an arm in a sling, and that’s what you’ll have to have.” He spoke plainly, as he always did, but with compassion and increasing doubt as to whether she understood him. “You know some English?” he queried.

  “Ein wenig…a little…”

  He smiled more easily. “That’s about how much I speak your language, too.”

  He was prepared then for the torrent of words that usually outpours if one confesses even a slight knowledge of a stranger’s tongue; but to his surprise she was silent.

  He tried to make conversation but soon come to the end of his scantily recollected German. He had never been in Germany or spoken the language colloquially; and it was fully fifteen years ago that he had studied it for some very elementary examination. Since then he would lazily have accepted the statement that he “knew German,” but now, on such sudden demand, he found he could not remember equivalents for even the commonest words. And her own meagre English did nothing to help him out. But he did manage to ask why she hadn’t waited for him at the theatre, since she had sent for him there.

 
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