James hilton collected n.., p.67
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.67
 

           James Hilton

  “But, my dear girl—why on earth—why—was that why—you tried to—”

  She shook her head.

  “Then why?”

  “Just—that there was nothing else.”

  “Nichts anders?”

  “Nothing except night after night—like this.”

  “Couldn’t you go back to your own country?”

  She shook her head again.

  “You have no parents there—no relatives—no friends?”

  “No one.”

  “Is that why you are unhappy?”

  All at once tears began to roll down her cheeks, streaking the grease paint; she did not make a sound, and there was no movement but that of the tears. Neither did David move, but his stillness and silence had compassion.

  After a pause she smiled. He asked the reason and took to his heart a schoolboy translation of her answer: “Because I am so glad you didn’t tell me not to cry…and I knew you wouldn’t…”

  A doctor is so familiar with most of the things that can happen to minds and bodies that little can startle him. He learns to divide his effort into separate compartments, so that while attending to one patient he does not think of the last or of the next. Moreover, he can leave the operating table or the bedside, switching off his attention, as it were, whenever he feels he has done all he can; and this judgment he can reach unfettered, since there are others to humanize it after he has gone.

  Little of which applied to David’s position in a girl’s dressing room at the back of the pavilion on Sandmouth Pier. He did not know what more he could do, yet he did not feel he could say good-night and leave her. There was much he could have explained but for the language obstacle, at least an ease he could have given to the leave-taking. And while he was thus hesitating and wondering, a man arrived with an envelope which the girl opened; it contained a week’s wages and notice of summary dismissal. She showed it, smiling wryly as she did so; then, with a shrug, she began to change out of her costume into ordinary clothes. She had no shyness.

  “You see, I must go now. They will not have me any more,”

  “But where will you go?”

  “Away from here. Somewhere. I don’t know.”

  He could see she was anxious to leave before the second show ended, and he thought this was a good thing if she could manage to do it. He helped her to dress, therefore, and when she was ready they left together through a back door. Nobody seemed to notice them.

  “The cold air will help you,” David said, as they began to walk along the Pier towards the shore. He had to take her arm because she staggered a little. He noted that it was half-past nine; he had missed the last train to Calderbury. That meant staying overnight and taking the first train in the morning.

  It was a clear night, full of stars; the chain of lights round the curve of the bay glittered across the intervening sea; the Pier lights at intervals threw moving shadows across her face. She could not walk without clinging to him for support, as he soon realized, especially when a cool wind rose into flurries. She was feeling now the full effects of the strain she had undergone, and in her touch was something remote and slumberous, as if half her consciousness were still far away, ready to respond only to a call that followed it as far. David kept silent for a long while, unwilling to disturb, even by expressing it, a sympathy which he felt was real between them. In a distant way he thought it strange that he should thus be pacing Sandmouth Pier at night, but he found it familiar that someone near him should be needing help, should fear a future. There was a sense in which he too had fear, though less personally; just that it often seemed to him that the injustice of the world could only lead to some vast and doomful reckoning. Even in the microcosm of Calderbury he felt this whenever he climbed rickety stairs to attend illness that fresh air or good food could have prevented. Something must happen some day to such a precarious social balance; cathedral bells would not always ring upon an acquiescent world. He never spoke of this, because it was in essence a mystic feeling, beyond any words in which he could convey it to anyone he had ever met. Yet with this girl he had a curious awareness that communication was possible, that the very urgency of the moment formed a link between her own hot despair and his own cool foreboding. He began to talk in a mixture of English and German. “You’re not really tired of life. You’re tired of pain and loneliness and hopelessness. You don’t really want to die. The time to die is when you have something to die for—the time to be tired of life is when life is tired of you…” And so he talked, stumbling over the words, yet with a deeper sureness that was like the breaking in of a new instrument by a virtuoso. She clung to him then with far more than her uninjured arm, till at last a physical drowsiness conquered and he knew that she was almost asleep as she walked.

  They left the Pier and threaded through the crowds on the still frequented Promenade. He led her to her lodgings, an apartment house dingy even for a back street in a seaside town. He imagined that would be the end of their meeting, but at the house there was a surprise. By some lightning spread of gossip, the landlady had learned of happenings at the Pier Pavilion, with the result that she stood truculently in the front hall, hips firm and lips tightened. “I’ll have no sooicides in my house!” came her immediate greeting, as David helped the girl up the flight of steps to the porch. “No turning the gas on here and blowing us all up while we’re in our beds! Here’s your bag—you can take it and go! And if that’s your gentleman friend I hope he knows all about you!”

  David didn’t know what to do, and he was a little upset, as he always was by scenes outside the realm of pathology. He could pacify a frenzy within the walls of Midchester County Asylum, but he shrank from the less tolerable madness of those whom the world called sane. He could think of nothing but to take the girl away immediately, which meant to walk to the cab stand at the corner and drive somewhere; but of course the cabman wanted an address, and the only one that occurred to him on the spur of the moment was the Victoria Hotel, where he intended to stay himself, and where he had occasionally stayed before. So they drove there, the girl by this time so desperately tired that she could hardly stand up in the hotel lobby. The clerk, recognizing David but not quite sure of his name, appraised his companion curiously, wondering if she had drunk too much and if she were his wife. It was all rather odd, but none of his business; but he thought it odder still when, on being presented with the register for signature, David had to question the girl before he wrote her name. Then he wrote “Leni Krafft.” He asked for two single rooms, and the clerk allotted them on the same floor. Then the doctor asked for a trunk call to Calderbury and the clerk overheard him explaining why he couldn’t return home that night. But (or so at any rate he said afterwards) the clerk suspected that the doctor might not be giving the right explanation.

  David did not sleep well. He was puzzled and a little perturbed. He knew that in the morning he could not simply pay the two bills together, say good-bye, and never see the girl again. There comes a degree of contact where one cannot, without injury, untwist the fateful into the casual. He knew she had hardly any money. He knew she had no friends. He knew she had no job, and could not get one till her wrist had mended, and that she spoke only a few words of English. He knew her state of mind, and what it had so recently led her to attempt. He alone knew all these things about her. And he knew other things from experience, for there were folks in Calderbury, happy enough now, who at one time would have put an end to themselves but for his patient soothing of ruffled minds. It wasn’t that he ever argued much or was noisily cheerful; it was something that came to him instinctively out of his own feeling for the terror and beauty of life, something harmonious where all else made discord. And he had also the professional interest that every doctor takes in his patient, a desire to finish a job and pass on to another job. It was hard to know what to do in a case like this, but he well knew that to do nothing at all would be impossible for him.

  In the morning they breakfasted together in a room that faced b
lue seas and a sunny sky. She looked much better, having slept off most of the ill-effects of the night before; but there was still in her face the set of some profoundly tragic experience. He talked during the meal as if no problems had to be encountered, but afterwards he told her that he would lend her money which she could repay when she got another theatre job. “Sandmouth’s a good place to recuperate for a few weeks—by that time your wrist ought to be better. Find some quiet lodgings where you can take things easily, then next Friday I’ll call and see how you’re getting on. I come here, as I told you, every Friday.”

  “You are so kind…If everyone were as kind as you…”

  Something in the little crushed smile she gave him as she said this made him reply: “I believe you’re still worrying. Tell me what it is. Perhaps I can help you.”

  “No…no more…”

  “All right. I’ll see you again next Friday.”

  “You are so kind,” she repeated, evading the question he had hinted. But he was not really very curious.

  After breakfast they found a comfortable boarding house, the sort that announced itself as a private hotel, in a street leading off the Promenade. She left her bag there and paid a week’s rent in advance, for which she had money enough of her own. Then they shook hands, and she gave him the little crushed smile again, and he went off to the station to catch the morning train. He was in Calderbury by noon. It irked him to cram all his visits into half a day, but he felt some compensating satisfaction in having done one of those things he ought to have done; even more, he felt he could now put the matter completely out of his mind for a week.

  CHAPTER THREE

  THE LITTLE DOCTOR WAS modest, if one had to think of a single adjective for him; but his modesty was more accurately a lack of worldly ambition combined with a dislike of comparing himself with other people. It never occurred to him that he was a better doctor than his colleagues (though he was), and if anyone had suggested that this made him too good for Calderbury, he would have replied that nothing was too good for Calderbury. He cared little about money or position and had long ceased to regret the brilliant career that had once been forecast for him and was now out of reach. Indeed to every might-have-been he offered the crowning indignity of forgetfulness, save when some specific reminder nudged him.

  Such a reminder was the German primer which he took down from a dusty shelf on the Thursday after meeting Leni in Sandmouth. Since he had to see her the next day he thought he might as well look over a few words. The book brought memories of student days in London, when he had walked the wards at St. Thomas’s Hospital and lodged near by in Battersea. He had studied German then with some idea of having a year’s specializing in Vienna, but the plan was abandoned when his father died and left far less money than had been expected. Feeling that he must begin to earn something to support his mother, he had then used up a small inheritance to buy a general practice in a Manchester suburb, where for several years he was both overworked and under-rewarded. He fell ill, debts accumulated, his mother died, and eventually there was nothing left but to sell out at a loss and take a long holiday. After this he bought the Calderbury practice, then an inferior one, and settled down in the more congenial atmosphere of a small cathedral market town. But he still could not convert his skill and effort into anything that would pay rates and bills. He was one of those men who have no knack of extracting financial profit, and very soon he might have become that pathetic thing, a bankrupt doctor, had not Jessica taken his affairs in hand.

  Jessica was a year or two older than he. Even in those days she had had a tough, leathery skin (the result of much gardening) and a rigid eye (the result of much chairmanship of small meetings). Indefatigable at the tea urn, both in drawing-rooms and in church halls, she might have made an admirable colonial bishop’s wife—and, indeed, would have if a certain young vicar, since raised to the episcopacy, had not preferred someone far less suitable. After that she had taken pains to marry the little doctor.

  And he, worried by debts (not really worried, but just bothered, for botheration was as much as anything connected with money could ever cause him), allowed himself for a short time the necessary illusion that passive willingness was really active desire.

  It had been, by outward signs, a successful marriage. Jessica had reorganized all of David’s life that was reorganizable; the house at the corner of Shawgate was bought with her money; and though David jibbed at complete supervision of his business affairs, her secret interferences were more frequent and more considerable than he ever suspected. She turned a loss into a profit and David gave her all the credit for doing it without any profound conviction that it was worth doing.

  Friday morning came—only a few hours after he had closed the German primer at his bedside. The day promised to be fine, and as the train left Calderbury the twin towers of the Cathedral rose above a film of mist that covered the town. They looked spectral, sailing through the sky when a curve of the line kept them long in view. Presently the line crossed the water meadows to the bridge over the river, then entered a cutting. It was all such a simple thing, to travel these few miles, yet that morning it seemed to David inexpressibly strange and lovely. He opened his paper and began to read, but as soon as the train emerged from the cutting his eyes wandered again, over fields where cattle stood and where the steam from the engine, rolling in little clouds, caused them hardly to stir. Serene and secure, this world, poised on an edge it could not glimpse. The train wheels caught a rhythm which, for some reason, translated into German words, words that he must have read in the text-book the night before:—

  Noch erkannt und sehr gering

  Unser Herr auf der Erde ging…

  Lissington…Stamford Magna…Pumphrey…Marsland Junction. One changed there, and, with nothing else to do for ten minutes, one often watched the tank engine shunting round to the other end of the train, ready for the return journey to Calderbury. Then the second train came in, for Creston and Sandmouth only. The little doctor found a compartment, saw someone he knew slightly, nodded, and settled down with his paper again. For half a mile the express went back along the same line, then at the junction swerved aside to show the single track to Calderbury wandering away into a green distance. And somehow, vagrantly, the thought came to David that Calderbury was lost and that the line was trying to find it.

  At Sandmouth he walked immediately to the Promenade, turning into the side street where the clifflike boarding houses soared from area basement to attic, bourgeois castles, flaunting their cruets on bay-window dining tables with an air of buxom integrity. How little it mattered where anything happened compared with what did happen; and this sense of fatefulness came to him as he climbed the flight of steps that led to one of the closed front doors. He was really rather nervous about this visit, and with some idea of getting it over he took it first on his list.

  The landlady showed him to a room on the first floor overlooking the street. He had not, a week earlier, disclosed his own profession, lest admission might be refused to a sick person; and now he thought it simpler to keep up the assumption of some private friendship with the girl. He was startled a little, though he made no comment, when the woman said: “I don’t think your young lady’s very well. Maybe it’s her arm. I’d take her to see a doctor if I were you.”

  A moment later he was investigating. The girl seemed less agitated in mind—that was something; she greeted him cheerfully. But her wrist was still inflamed and obviously painful—which was not surprising, after her previous neglect of it. He told her frankly that it was her own fault for not obeying the instructions he had given her at Calderbury; how could she possibly have danced with broken bones chafing each other at every sudden movement? And now, as a result, the mending would be more difficult; there might even be complications; at any rate, she would have to carry her arm in a sling for weeks.

  She nodded when he had finished, accepting both the situation and the blame for it. That made him smile and ask, more gently: “Do
you like it here?”

  She nodded and smiled back.

  Yes, she was more cheerful; that was a great deal—more important, really, than her wrist.

  “I think you’d better stay another week—since it seems to be doing you good. You’re not lonely?”

  “No.”

  “Made any friends?”

  “The landlady’s little boy. I take him for walks sometimes.”

  “Good. Can you understand anything he says?”

  “He doesn’t talk a great deal. And I’m learning English lessons from a book. I never had time before.”

  Up to then he had talked in German; now he said, in English: “I shall have to brush up my German, too, then we’ll be quits. Do you really like children?”

  “Yes, indeed.”

  He had a sudden idea.

  “I’ve got a little boy, you know. He’s nine. It would be a change for him to come to Sandmouth, but I’ve never known quite what to do with him while I make my round of visits. I wonder if…if I were to bring him next week…I could leave him in your charge for a few hours?”

  “Yes, please.”

  “But I’m afraid he’s not quite an ordinary little boy.”

  “No?”

  “He’s rather nervous and excitable—and sometimes difficult—do you know what I mean?”

  “I don’t mind. Please bring him.”

  It was just an idea, and one which, had he thought twice, he might never have put forward; for it was always possible that Jessica would object, and he disliked arguing with her. Jessica, however, was glad enough to have Gerald out of the house for a day, and quite indifferent when David explained that he had a patient at Sandmouth who had promised to act as nursemaid while he made his calls.

  The arrangement, therefore, stood; but it entailed a good deal of trouble which Jessica herself would scarcely have thought worth while. David did not mind. He was careful to wait at the very front end of the stations at both Calderbury and Marsland Junction, so that the train did not rush by as it entered the station; that always terrified Gerald, and David understood as if it were the most natural thing in the world; which, indeed, he knew it was, in Gerald’s world. And then there were the actual hours of travel, during which the boy was apt to get tired and fidgety, so that he sometimes made himself a nuisance to others in the compartment.

 
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