James hilton collected n.., p.66
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.66
 

           James Hilton

  “I didn’t send for you,” she answered, in German. “It was the boy who sells chocolates. He sent for you. He said you were always so very kind.”

  David was just as embarrassed as most men would be by such a remark.

  She went on: “He called you ‘the little doctor’—is that right? … ‘Der kleine doktor?’”

  Which completed his embarrassment, for he was one of those people who can live a whole lifetime without seeing or hearing the most obvious thing about themselves. He had not really known that he was called “the little doctor” until that moment, and he did not quite know whether he liked it or not; and, anyhow, the disclosure left him shyly disconcerted. And beyond all that he was troubled, perhaps by the rescoring of ancient mind tracks that the translation effort had entailed. He kept smiling the more steadfastly because he had used up all his German, and into a silence, as he packed his bag to go, came a revelation of her own mute solitariness in suffering. This made him feel towards her as to all such sufferers—that nothing could ever ease the embrace of pain and its victim except a gentle blessing on that embrace; and such a blessing he gave, in secret, on her behalf.

  “Good night,” he said, adding that he would call and see her again on Monday morning.

  On the way back to his house it occurred to him that he did not even know her name. He stopped again at the shop window and glanced down at the playbill till he came to “Leni Arkadrevna, Whirlwind Danseuse from St. Petersburg.” Goodness, he thought; that must be the one!

  On Monday, when he called, the girl had left. “She just went off yesterday morning, same as the theatricals always do of a Sunday.”

  “But she had a broken wrist! She couldn’t be any use like that!”

  “Well, maybe she had to go with the rest of ’em. Not that they seemed to have much to do with her, and you can’t hardly blame them, with her not speaking the language.”

  “But weren’t there other foreigners in the company? Wasn’t it a French play?”

  “Bless you, they was all English except her. And the show’s not really foreign—it’s just what they call it to make it sound better. She acted a Russian dancer, so I suppose that’s why they gave her the name.’

  “It wasn’t her real name, then?”

  “Shouldn’t think so. They never have real names.”

  “Do you know where the company’s moved on to?”

  “That I couldn’t say for sure, but I’ve an idea it might be Addington or Polesby or one of them places. They’d tell you at the theatre, I daresay.”

  But David didn’t bother to ask at the theatre. His curiosity was soon exhausted, for the theatrical world had seemed so unfamiliar when he had entered it momentarily that he could now accept any strangeness in its behavior. He was not passionately interested in the way touring companies functioned. Nor did he often think about the Russian-German-French girl (or whatever she really was) during the weeks that followed. He supposed she must be getting on all right somewhere or other; but it wasn’t his business, and he had too much other business, to inquire. He didn’t even put her down in his book, because he had forgotten her stage name, and, anyhow, he wasn’t going to send in a bill. And this was not wholly generosity, but partly mere trouble saving; for he had no secretary, and the extraction of small sums from patients who left the town was rarely worth the time and effort it would involve.

  CHAPTER TWO

  THE NEW YEAR CAME in, and life for the little doctor continued pretty much as it had throughout a number of old years; busily partitioned, and with its own private trouble (about Gerald) to fill the gaps between; a dull life if one could not guess the interest in his job that solely sustained him. He did not talk much about that job; he did not even have time to think about it, in an abstract sense, save when he was alone. Then his work would acquire a totality in which separate items might be puzzled over like a problem, but never ached over like a worry.

  He did not have many free moments. Most of his day was occupied with hospital work or visiting, he took his meals with Jessica, and in the evening there was the surgery; after which he was often tired enough to go to bed and very promptly to sleep.

  Once a week, varying the routine, he spent a whole day in Sandmouth. He had several patients in that rising watering place—Calderbury folk who, retired and rich, lengthened their lives by means of sea air, half-yearly dividends, and (he always hoped) the confidence they reposed in his own regular visits. He was inclined to smile at his confidence (since there were so many excellent doctors in Sandmouth); nevertheless, he enjoyed his day trips to the sea. He took few definite holidays, and if he did, he and Jessica and Gerald went away for a fortnight, which was much longer than he cared to be idle. But the Sandmouth excursions were pleasantly enforced by his work; he did not add that he liked them all the more because he made them by himself. They happened on Fridays, as a rule, and began by a morning cup of tea in the surgery long before anyone else in the house was astir; then came the walk to the station up the hill, through the Cathedral Close, and down the hill the other side. He liked that walk. It was a different life that one saw before seven in the morning—an hour at which all good deans and archdeacons were asleep, but at which in wintertime the lights were burning in innumerable little houses, workmen were washing over kitchen sinks, and their wives frizzling bacon and poking fires that had been banked down the night before. The working-class population of Calderbury was larger than a visitor might have suspected; indeed, within a few hundred yards of the Cathedral, in houses picturesquely ivy-clad, were conditions of overcrowding as deplorable as any in the more notorious slums of the big cities. David knew this. Presumably the Cathedral authorities knew it also, since they owned the property.

  One summer morning he caught, as usual, the seven-five—an absurdly early train, but there was no other till afternoon, and in those days travelers were at the mercy of the railway schedule. (To-day the buses leave for Sandmouth every hour from Calderbury Market Square, and do the journey, without change, in seventy minutes.) But the doctor did not mind the two and a half hours of starts and stops, of chuff-chuffing through the dappled countryside, with the tang of sea in the air for the last twenty miles. It gave him a chance to read the paper and a detective novel, to talk to some casually met stranger, to smoke his pipe, and (as a last resort) to do nothing at all but sit back and think. That girl of Mrs. Pembar’s—was it a blood dyscrasia or just an abnormal sensitivity? And old Doubleday’s self-styled “rheumatics,” which was really osteo-arthritis and would kill him in the end, what was to be done—was there anything that could be done? For that matter his own son…Mysterious flesh and bones and juices—so sweet for pleasure, so sour for pain; prison of man and empire to microbe; but beyond all that, as in Gerald, the dark alchemy of the mind that no brain surgery could explore. It was a problem that always beguiled him, and one to which, had he been granted time and the chance to specialize, he would have devoted himself. But his approach to it was, for those days, eccentric; he believed that mind was more than physical brain, and different from it in character—something that neither the surgeon’s knife nor the analyst’s reagents could reveal. He felt that it was, in a sense, pure God-stuff, and that the treatment of mental disease must leave the sphere of physical things and become spiritual, even mystic. The staff at Midchester County Asylum, of which he was on the Board and which he visited regularly, chaffed him about this and called him “the Witch Doctor,” and he chaffed them back by saying that it was a title he would gladly accept, and would they please appoint him officially?

  In Sandmouth that Friday morning the June sun blazed in a manner almost justifying the railway posters, and Station Avenue, sloping down to the Pierhead, was brilliant with the litter of cafe advertisements and stalls piled with colored buckets and gift pottery. Trams heaved over loops, while down every side street boarding-house maids breathed in the far-famed Sandmouth ozone through the dust and smells of their basement areas. David walked briskly along pavements jammed
with children sucking sticks of “rock” and grown-ups dawdling with precautionary mackintoshes; then he turned the corner by the Pierhead and threaded his way along the Promenade. Here the main army of holiday-makers paraded, beach photographers touted for custom, and the wire cages attached to lampposts filled up with banana skins and chocolate wrappings as fast as Corporation scavengers could empty them. Sandmouth on a summer day was not a wholly beautiful sight, but it was always human enough to be abundantly interesting, and when the weather was good David liked to walk by the edge of the waves, noticing the faces of deck-chair loungers and stumbling over sand holes dug by frantic children.

  That morning the sea was warm and calm, but the sky had a watery brightness foretelling clouds which, soon after midday, threw down spots of rain. It was during the afternoon that he made his visits; they were usually finished by five, so that he could comfortably catch the five-thirty. But the call at Mrs. Drawbell’s lengthened because a niece staying with her had taken a chill, and the call at Major Sanderson’s lengthened because the Major insisted on describing a new kind of indigestion he had acquired—to which David listened with sympathy combined with growing apprehension about the time. In the end he reconciled himself to losing the train, though actually, had he hurried, he could have caught it. He was like that—he would rather decide to miss something than have the uncertainty of chasing after it. There was no other train till the nine-seven, so he had three hours to spare. He strolled down Station Avenue to the Promenade where grey skies were breaking into one of those spectacular sea-horizon sunsets which can only be likened to picture-postcard views of themselves which would never attract the discriminating purchaser. The air, however, was cool and full of fragrances lifted by the rain, and now that the evening promised to be fine the crowds were beginning to emerge from hotels and boarding houses. David reached the Pierhead and, on sudden impulse, paid his twopence and clicked on to the wooden planks. There was something in the sound of walking on them, and in the splash of waves below, that gave him memories too far and strange to be analyzed; he had not been on Sandmouth Pier for years. It was a quarter of a mile long, terminating in a pavilion in which summer concert parties gave twice-nightly performances. One of these was imminent as he neared the festoons of colored electric globes that marked the pavilion entrance, and for a moment he watched the audience trickling in twos and threes past the pay booth. He noticed that the concert party advertised themselves as “The Cheerybles”; presently, approaching a placard more closely than before, his eye caught a programme announcement. One of its items engaged something in his mind that made him pause. “Leni Arkadrevna,” he read, “Whirlwind Danseuse from St. Petersburg.” Then he remembered, and on a second sudden impulse that evening he turned to the pay booth and bought a shilling deck-chair seat facing the open-air stage. The show was just beginning.

  He did not find it very entertaining, but a certain innocent curiosity about most things made it hard for him to feel bored; indeed, as he watched and listened to the rather feeble acting, and singing, a slow dreamy contentment came over him, focused slightly by the anticipation of seeing his ex-patient again. At any rate, with the alternative of nothing else to do, he did not regret the whim that had brought him to such a place. He enjoyed awareness of the massed humanity around him and of the snaky sea underneath—a hint of peril in such an assembly. And he was amused by a young man with an attractive smile who came jauntily forward and sang a song with words something like:—

  “Poor old England isn’t in the picture,

  Everything is foreign, you’ll agree,

  The table and the chairs,

  The carpet on the stairs, Were made in Ger-man-ee!

  But when you go out into the garden,

  Nestling in a little plot,

  There’s the sweetest English rose

  That in the summer grows,

  And that’s the only bit of English that we’ve got!”

  A piquant prelude to the appearance of a whirlwind dancer from St. Petersburg who spoke German. But, to his surprise, she didn’t appear, and her item on the programme was omitted without explanation; till suddenly, from the unison with which a particular chorus was sung, he realized that the show was over and the audience beginning to get up and move away. After a pause he rose with them and sauntered towards the exit, puzzled, but hardly troubling much. When, however, he passed a man in Pierrot costume who was about to enter the pay booth, he asked what had happened to the girl dancer. The question ignited something.

  “Happened to her? You can well ask that!”

  “Why, what’s the matter?”

  Just then another Pierrot rushed up and said something in the ear of the first one, whose response was to throw up his arms with a gesture of despair. “My God—she would! And now what do we do? A doctor—where the devil can we find a doctor?”

  “I am a doctor,” said David quietly.

  “You?”

  “Yes.”

  “No kidding?”

  “My name is—”

  “Oh, never mind—for heaven’s sake go round and see what’s up. Take him along, Jim.”

  Jim led the way through the rows of empty deck chairs, now awaiting their second audience, behind a wooden screen, and eventually to the back of the stage. It was part of David’s experience to be guided by devious routes to strange places, there to take charge of emergencies that occasioned him no real surprise. Only the mildest curiosity inspired him to ask his question again—what had happened to the girl? Was she ill? “It’s only luck if she isn’t dead.”

  “Oh?”

  “Shut herself in and turned on the gas, mister. What d’you say to that?”

  But all David could say to that was a rather surprised: “Gas on the end of a pier?”

  “Yes, mister. Gas an’ electric light and water and telephone—all in them pipes. You wouldn’t think it, would you?”

  Soon they came upon an excited group of concert artists and Pier officials. Someone was fanning a door backwards and forwards, and there was much eagerness to describe, rather confusingly, what had taken place. The girl, it seemed, had missed her cue for the whirlwind dance business, and nobody had had time to find out the reason for her absence until after the last curtain, when a locked door and a smell of gas were discovered and reported. The door was easily opened with the key of another door; then the girl was found, sprawled over a couch, half-dressed in the costume of her act, unconscious and breathing heavily in the tainted atmosphere. The tap of the radiator had been full on.

  David took in the scene professionally, noting the absence of skin discoloration and the comparative steadiness of the pulse. But most of all he noticed that her injured wrist, the one he had attended in Calderbury six months before, was badly swollen.

  There came over him at these times a sort of natural dignity, so that when he asked the crowd to disperse and leave him alone in the room, they did so without much demur.

  “Nothing to be alarmed about,” he said, reassuringly.

  “You mean she’ll pull through?” queried a thin man in evening clothes.

  “Yes, shell be all right soon.”

  “You really think so?”

  “Why, of course.” And he added, almost as if he were speaking to himself: “These walls are only matchboarding—they’re full of draughts. I don’t think anybody could do such a thing here without stopping up the cracks…it’s extraordinary, the way people don’t think of these details…”

  “Well, there’s one detail you can think of to save me the trouble, doctor.”

  “Yes?”

  “As soon as she comes to you can tell her she’s got the sack.”

  David looked up inquiringly.

  “I’m the manager and I don’t stand for this sort of thing. So you can tell her—see?”

  David was still looking up.

  “And tell her to clear out before we fetch the police! She could be locked up for this!”

  “I wouldn’t fetch the
police if I were you,” said David quietly. “It wouldn’t do your show any good.”

  The manager banged the door, and David began—artificial respiration, a hypodermic, just the routine procedure. He went to work with his usual precision, yet with something more than his usual awareness of irrelevancies: the little wooden dressing room, even shabbier than the brick one at Calderbury; the spotted mirror; the litter of paints and powders in front of it; an out-of-date trade calendar hanging on the wall; and—after a little while—the sound of piano and voices striking up the opening chorus of the second show. Odd background, odd accompaniment. And since it is often the oddest things that are apt to move one, so, as he looked at her, noting the closed eyes, the slightly parted lips, and the rise and fall of the breath, what touched him most to pity were the soles of her bare feet, hunched under her as she lay, and dirty from contact with the unswept floor boards.

  Presently she opened her eyes. They blinked to consciousness as she realized where she was, then focused to new astonishment at the sight of him; while her mouth, trying the German words before she spoke, twisted into a half-smile.

  “You? I must be dreaming! How can it be you—here?”

  And he answered, with the foolishness of sheer simplicity: “I come here every Friday.”

  “Der kleine doktor am jeden Freitagl”

  He sat beside her, rebandaging the wrist, trying to think of German words.

  “You must take care. This is bad…Am I hurting you now?”

  “Only a little.”

  “You should have rested—I told you that…”

  “I couldn’t.”

  “You mean you danced with your wrist in this condition?”

  “Yes—until to-night.”

  “But it must have been terribly painful—the vibration—”

  “It was driving me mad.”

 
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