James hilton collected n.., p.69
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.69

           James Hilton

  Jessica was writing invitations when he found her later in the drawing-room. The engraved cards, filled in with handwritten names, lay spread out on the writing desk beside her—“Dr. and Mrs. Newcome request the pleasure of…”

  “Jessie,” he began, breathlessly and without preamble. “What’s all this about getting rid of Leni?”

  Jessica faced him with her thin, well-chiseled face, faced him also with her no-nonsense personality at full strength.

  “Yes, it’s quite true. I told her she couldn’t stay.”

  “But why?”

  “I had my reasons, I assure you.”

  “But it’s absurd to say we can’t afford her wage! She’s well worth it—Gerald likes her enormously—”

  “That was only the reason I gave her. It wasn’t the real reason.”

  “What was that?”

  “Do you really need me to tell you?” Her voice sharpened to the pitch in which, at meetings of this or that, she usually called some errant speaker to order. “Has it ever occurred to you that people aren’t always what they seem? I was far too trusting to take that girl without the usual inquiries, but I was relying—foolishly, no doubt—on your own assurance. I might have guessed how little you really knew of her. And I must say, too, that I didn’t take to her, even from the first.”

  Jessica was like that. She had a way of finding that she didn’t like people and then of saying that she never had liked them—thus imputing clairvoyance to herself and vaguely sinister attributes to her victims.

  “I don’t quite know, Jessie, what you’re driving at.”

  “Oh, you don’t? I’m glad you admit it. You don’t know, I suppose, that this girl was on the stage a few months back, doing a dance turn in fifth-rate shows? And you don’t know that she was dismissed because she tried to commit suicide!”

  “Oh yes,” said David, simply, “I knew all that.”

  Quite unconscious of having spoiled Jessica’s moment, his only thought was a reassuring one—that if that was all the trouble, what could the fuss be about?

  Jessica’s voice keyed up another half-tone. “So you knew? And you never told me?”

  “I never like to gossip about a patient’s private affairs.”

  “How very considerate to your patients! But hardly to your family! Did you really think a suicidal stage dancer—and a foreigner, at that—was the kind of person to have in a respectable household and look after a nervous child?”

  David blinked a little, thinking of Leni and of how silly it was to try to pin down the truth about people in words, because the words could all be true and yet have no truth in them. “She’s all right, my dear,” he said quietly.

  “You call her all right?…I’ve no patience with you, David. Apart from the risk of heaven knows what, don’t you think there’s enough scandal all over the town now that this story’s got about? Do you know she once appeared on the stage at the theatre here?”

  “Yes, that was where she broke her wrist last December, I attended her.”

  “Well, really! You knew all that and didn’t say a thing!”

  David was silent, and Jessica too. After a long pause she commented: “A queer business. Right from the first moment I was certain there was something queer about it.”

  “But there isn’t.”

  “There must be, if she’s the sort that tries to commit suicide.”

  “Oh, no, Jessie. It isn’t queer people who do that—it’s people just like everyone else—like you or me—if ever we were driven to it.” .

  “Well, I don’t want to argue. She’s got to go, that’s all.”

  “But Gerald—”

  “He must learn to manage without her. I’m sure she’s doing him no real good.”

  Then David, planting himself firmly on a small fragment of endangered territory, took a stand which was all the more obstinate for being minute. He was not really a good fighter. He hated squabbles and it was never easy for him to grasp such issues as could be involved in them. “She can’t go before the end of the month,” he said, as if pronouncing a moral dictum or an immutable law.

  “She can if I pay her.”

  “It isn’t a matter of paying. You can’t act suddenly like this and make her find new work and new lodgings at a moment’s notice.”

  “I don’t see that her future plans have anything to do with us.”

  “Maybe not, but I think we ought to treat her as a human being. We can’t just give her a few shillings and put her out in the street.”

  “You say we can’t?”

  “I say we mustn’t.”

  “Very well, if that’s your attitude she shall stay till her month is finished—which means another fortnight of her company. But don’t expect me to leave Gerald with her. You can look after the girl’s interests; I prefer to look after my own child’s…And now tell me about these invitations to the musical party—do you want the Cowens to come this year or not?”

  David shook his head bewilderedly and walked to the door. When he got there he said “Ask them if you like,” and passed into the corridor. He moved absently for a few paces, then his feet led him down the three familiar steps and through the green-baize-covered double doors into the surgery. There, entrenched in his own domain, he felt a little but not greatly eased. Of course it was quite true that in a cathedral town there was a lot of gossip, and Jessica, nearer to it in her daily contacts, was probably surer in reckoning its importance. And also, of course, so long as Leni could get another job as good or better, it didn’t really matter to her. He would write her a testimonial if she wasn’t fit for a theatre job, and perhaps, with her knowledge of German, she might find work as a teacher or in some firm. And though he would personally miss her, and he knew Gerald would too, her absence could only put back everything as it had been before, even for the boy. He smoked for a while and tried in vain to put the whole confusing issue out of his mind; till at last, far after midnight, his thoughts grew weary, pacifying him into a sense of communion with all other souls awake at that hour, with every striving puzzling soul beneath the roofs of Calderbury.

  When he saw Leni in the morning as he left for his round of visits he behaved as if nothing particular had happened. He was aware of a directly personal relationship between them, aware of it as never before; it touched something in him which was as solitary as itself. When he returned about noon Leni told him that Jessica had taken Gerald away and that the boy had made a scene.

  “When he said good-bye to you?”

  “He wasn’t allowed to say good-bye to me.”

  “Do you know where Jessie took him?”

  “To Mr. Simpson.”

  “Oh yes, my wife’s brother. He’s Vicar of St. Peter’s. Nice fellow—he’s looked after Gerald before.”

  “Do you think he’ll be happy?”

  “Gerald? I don’t know.” He leaned against the edge of the desk and began tapping it with his fingernail. “I’m sorry it’s all happened like this. I really am. But what can I do about it? I’m not one of those people who like to make trouble. Sometimes—sometimes I wish I were.”

  “Don’t worry,” she said. He knew her sympathy, yet felt it as a spell he must break at all costs.

  “Has Jessie come back ?” he asked.

  “No, not yet. She said she’d be out for lunch.”

  “Then…I won’t have any lunch. Just a cup of coffee and a sandwich here. Will you tell Susan ?”

  “I told Susan. I knew you always had that when Mrs. Newcome’s away.”

  “See that you get something yourself.”

  “I’m not hungry either.’

  Over the murmur of Calderbury activities there came the twang of the street piano that always moved along Shawgate on Thursday market days, pushed by an old wooden-legged character named Joe Moore. Presently Susan entered with a plate of sandwiches and coffee. “You must have some,” David said to Leni, thinking she might as well eat and drink in the surgery as anywhere else. He smiled and then had to add
: “I talked to Jessie, by the way, last night—and I’m sorry—personally I’m very sorry indeed—”

  “You mean I have to go?”

  “Not for a fortnight.”

  “But now that Gerald’s gone—”

  “I know, but I made Jessie agree to the fortnight.”

  The fortnight was offered between them as a symbol of the extent to which he had argued with Jessica and opposed her; as a gesture indicating action which, had he been inclined for any, he would have taken; as, finally, a gift which could not be refused.

  “Because, you see, during that fortnight we’ll have time to find you another job.”

  She nodded.

  “Or else, if we can’t, then I’ll pay your fare back to Germany.”

  Something in her change of expression served then as a reminder, so that he went on, hastily: “Oh, but I forgot—you said you didn’t want to go back, didn’t you?”

  “I can’t go back.”

  He accepted the statement as if it were only just beginning to occur to him how little he knew about her, as well as how remarkably little he had ever bothered to know.

  “…Because I ran away,” she added suddenly.

  “From home?”

  “No—from school…It was very strict and I hated it. The Russian frontier was quite close, so I ran away one night and went to St. Petersburg, to the dance school there, but the police found out about me, so I had to run away again. I hid myself on a ship in the docks and came to London. So you see I must stay in England now—I cannot go back to Germany. They would arrest me there—because of the forgery.”

  “Forgery? Why, what was that?”

  “On the passport when I went to Russia. You have to have a passport. I altered all the writing on the certificate—about my name and age. I just made up a name.”

  He began to smile. “But it wasn’t done with any criminal intent. I don’t suppose you’d find the authorities very hard on you. They wouldn’t send you to prison.”

  “Not to the prison, maybe, but back to the school.”

  He laughed. “Oh really, no—they couldn’t do that. At your age you’ve a perfect right—”

  “No, no, that’s just it—because on the passport I said I was twenty-five.”

  “And aren’t you?”

  “I’m nineteen.”

  David looked at her. He had never really wondered about her age, but now he realized that he. was astonished. Nineteen! It didn’t, of course, make any difference to the way he would treat her. He never condescended to youth, never behaved as if seniority gave him superiority. There was a sense in which he treated grown-ups as if they were children; but in the same sense he also treated children as if they were grown-ups. And there was this same childlike gravity in the readiness with which he believed people, because he knew he knew so little about the nature of truth, except that it could be very strange indeed.

  “You won’t tell anyone, will you? Not even the police—if they come to ask about me?”

  He touched her reddish hair, thinking it now a child’s. “I wouldn’t worry at all if I were you.”

  “No, I do not worry now. Because you do not worry, either. You never ask me about anything and that was why I have told you everything.”

  In the lives of most Calderbury citizens there was little that one might count the days to, either in fear or in anticipation. Months flowed by in a stream of busy uneventfulness, varied by occasions that arrived almost before one realized they were due: Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, the summer holidays; market day, Sunday, the monthly diocesan gazette, quarterly payments, the annual fair. From the bishop’s to the butcher’s, Calderbury lives were signposted thus, and years drove past without a gear change. Only the schoolboy crossing off dates to the end of term, or the old-age pensioner in fear of next winter’s chills, could taste the cruel beauty that time offers to those who are bound to count its fragments.

  Something of that cruel beauty entered the doctor’s house in Shawgate, touching him every morning as he rose and every evening when he had said good-night to his last surgery caller and there was nothing left but to smoke and go to bed. He preferred those final moments of the day alone, for he was, beyond outward fellowship and impersonal altruism, a solitary, aware of communion with life itself rather than with individual lives.

  But now, meeting Leni from time to time during the diminishing fortnight, a little of that calmness was dislodged. He saw her sometimes during the afternoons, when she played the piano in the drawing-room; once he got out his violin and began a sonata with her, but in the middle of it he heard Jessica entering the house and talking to Susan, so he made an excuse to discontinue the performance. He knew Jessica disliked music, and he had never found it possible to enjoy playing when she was at home. He said, putting his violin back in the case: “We must finish that sometime. And I must see about lessons for you—you really ought to have them, you know.” He kept saying that, but he never did anything about it.

  He knew, though she did not tell him, how little she wished to leave, yet how hard it was to stay, even those few more days. For Jessica, by pricks of word and action, was always indicating the obvious—that there was nothing to stay for, no work to do, no reason why she should not take her money and quit. The days passed slowly, braked by a curious brooding uncomfortableness; David, busy with his work, saw neither Jessica nor Leni for any length of time; yet whenever he entered the house he felt their presence in distant separate rooms. Perhaps it had been a mistake to insist on that fortnight; he thought so when, taking meals with Jessica, he measured her cold, controlled civility against the thoughts that might lie behind it. But when, at other times, he met Leni in the hall, or in the corridor outside the surgery, her smile made him feel that the fortnight was beautiful, with a beauty sharpened by all that made it unwise.

  He fretted, too, about Gerald and how he was faring, and once, after his day’s work, the news in the evening paper gave him a vision of human mischief larger, but no more wanton, than that which had invaded his own affairs. Seeking escape from an intolerable perception, he went out, took the path by the river, and climbed the Knoll. The vast unreason of the world assailed him, as well as a sense of his own unfitness for battle; and suddenly, with rueful self-scrutiny, he saw himself as he must seem to others, perhaps even to Leni—a weak-willed middle-aged husband who dared not say no to his wife. Yet it wasn’t really that he dared not. It was a profounder reluctance, an inertia of the spirit that fell on him whenever he faced a conflict outside the territory in which he could struggle with joy. To fight the blood flow as it streamed into the cavity of an operation, to fight the weakening of lungs and heartbeat, to fight death and the fear of death—these were his battles and he had no strength or will for others.

  He walked on, as far as the little wooden hut on the hill, and during a pause to light his pipe someone (he could not see who at first) came up to him and said something.

  “Leni!” he exclaimed, and then found himself speechless with surprise.

  “Yes, I often come here in the evenings. Have you any news of Gerald?”

  David flinched at the question. “Yes, I call and see him every day.”

  “How is he?”

  “Not very happy, I’m afraid.”

  “It is so silly that I cannot still look after him.”

  They walked on silently, and in a little gap of moonlight between the trees he began to study the outline of her face, the long slender nose, the forehead straight and ample. All at once he knew that he had her in memory forever, could trace that profile with closed eyes, every curve and line in precious ease to his imagination;.”

  “What are you thinking about?”

  “You and what is to happen to you.”

  “I shall get a job.”

  “Yes, and next time you oughtn’t to go in for these second-rate things—Pierrots at the seaside and the kind of show you were in when you first came here. I think you ought to try some really good theatre—in London.”

  She smiled, knowing the absurdity of it all. Their worlds were different, their ages were different, their lives and languages were different; yet all those differences became themselves absurd when measured against the flash of recognition that sprang between them at every nearness. She said, touching his arm as she walked: “Ah…du kleine doktor…I am not so good as that…You have never seen me dance, have you?”

  He shook his head. “What sort of dancing do you do?”

  “Some day I would like to show you. But I am not very good. Maybe if I could have stayed in Petersburg and worked hard for years at the school there—”

  He said, quite seriously: “Yes, I’m afraid we haven’t any good dancing school in Calderbury. It’s a pity your career had to be interrupted.”

  “But I have been so happy here,” she answered.


  IT HAD BEEN DAVID’S habit for many years to give a party during the latter half of July, a sort of garden party with music, to which all the notables of Calderbury society were invited. If the weather was warm and fine the French windows were thrown open to the walled garden, and the guests sat about in or out of doors as they chose. No other function in Calderbury’s year offered quite the same features, but it was generally considered that the doctor had established a right to be original and that his party was among the events of the social season. In truth, the originality had arisen merely from the fact that Jessica had wanted a garden party in summer while the doctor preferred a musical evening in winter, and neither wanted both. David had, indeed, a quiet liking for music that led him to join the Calderbury Philharmonic Society and play the violin in string quartets.

  It was during the second week of Leni’s last fortnight that the party was to take place. All day the sun had shone so warmly that one of Shawgate’s pavements had been deserted and the other crowded with shade-seeking shoppers. Jessica, always insistent on getting precisely what she wanted and at the most economical price, was among them; the tradesmen respected her for the qualities that made her visits a trial. Besides, they knew the doctor’s party was to be in the evening and that somebody would say, “Do tell me, Mrs. Newcome, where you got these delicious preserves?”

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