James hilton collected n.., p.7
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.7

           James Hilton
 

  After the scene at the Stoneclough Christmas dinner table of which Dr. Whiteside had been a witness, he pressed his argument that Livia should be told the truth and then allowed to mix with children of her own age; and even Emily (thinking of Mr. Standon) realized that something had to be done. However, a solution occurred to her of a kind that she delighted in—one that really solved nothing, but merely delayed the issue. Why not send Livia to a good boarding school in another part of the country? In such surroundings could she not mix with children of her own age as well as remain in happy ignorance about her father? If the headmistress were let into the secret beforehand, surely there was no reason why the plan should not work out perfectly?

  So Livia went to Cheldean, in Sussex, where for the first time in her life she was thoroughly unhappy. She had tried to look forward to meeting other girls, imagining that they would all be eager to know her; but the facts of school life, and even more the fictions, brought quick disillusionment. She could not fit herself easily into the patterns of school-girl right and wrong, of not doing things that were “not done,” of avoiding taboos. And questions that Miss Fortescue would have tried to answer even though they were unanswerable were thought merely exhibitionist or absurd at Cheldean; so after a few unwelcome experiences Livia ceased to ask them. That helped to lessen her initial unpopularity, the more so as she was growing up rather personably; she was a girl one would look at twice, even if one did not agree that she was beautiful.

  Meanwhile the cotton trade in and around Browdley slumped further, giving Mr. Felsby more to shout about during family dinners that took place at least once during every school vacation. And also during one of these vacations Livia was introduced to this man called Standon, who spent a week end at Stoneclough for the ostensible purpose of advising Emily about a color scheme for the drawing room. The visit was not an entire success, for Sarah thought it nonsense that a man should travel all the way from London to tell anyone how to paint a house, while Miss Fortescue could not believe that a youth with such exquisite manners was not somehow a deceiver. Livia simply did not like him. All this was a rather poor reward for Mr. Standon’s efforts to be agreeable to everybody, as well as for Emily’s carefully planned scheme to introduce him to the family without causing too much comment. But it was impossible for Mr. Standon not to cause comment, and though Mr. Felsby did not meet him, rumors of his visit got through to the old man and gave him material for unlimited banter afterwards. “And how’s your painter friend?” he would ask, nudging Emily in the ribs. “Still sleeping with nothing on?” (This was according to a horrified report made by Sarah after taking a cup of tea up to Mr. Standon’s bedroom early one morning.) Of course Mr. Felsby did not for a moment suspect that Emily was privileged to know how Mr. Standon slept.

  Standon, on his side, also realized that the visit had not worked out as well as had been hoped, but he was less disappointed than Emily because he had found the entire week end rather a bore—awful house, undistinguished food, uncouth servants, wet days, bleak scenery, and a precocious brat of a girl on holiday from a boarding school who (he could see) continually got on her mother’s nerves. Altogether he thought Emily much more fun in Baron’s Court, and hoped that all their subsequent meetings would be on his own ground. He really did like her, and forbore to sponge more than a poor artist must on a better-off woman. (For instance, she was going to buy him a motorcar, but in return he had promised to teach her to drive.) Knowing all about her past, having investigated it from newspaper files long before she told him, he could feel with some justification that he was being as good to her as to himself.

  As for Livia, she immediately connected Mr. Standon in her mind with the secret, or the mystery, or whatever it was; the more so as he was always whispering privately to her mother—more secrets, more mystery. And Emily, who had romantically set store on Livia liking him, was chagrined that the girl didn’t, and told her (truthfully but far too outspokenly on one occasion) that of course she wasn’t going to marry Mr. Standon. Whereupon Livia, surprised at the denial of something that had not been suggested, could feel only extra certainty that there was something between them—something, at any rate. A few terms of Cheldean had even given her a vague idea of what, and because she did not like Mr. Standon, she did not like the idea of that either. Whereupon a rift opened between mother and daughter, more insidious because neither would tackle it frankly; it was as if they understood each other too well, but also not enough. Anyhow, Livia went back to Cheldean with thoughts that cast a shadow over a term that happened to be her last. The shadow made it hard for her to write home, and once, when she had composed a letter in which she tried to be affectionate, a feeling of guilt, almost of shame, made her tear it up.

  It was Livia’s last term at Cheldean because of another unpleasant thing that happened.

  For some time there had been an epidemic of minor thieving on the school premises—money and small articles missing from dormitories, coats left in the locker room, and so on; the sort of thing that, if it for long goes undetected, can poison the relationships of all concerned—pupils, teaching staff, and school servants. Miss Williams, the Cheldean headmistress, had done all she could to probe and investigate, yet the thefts continued, culminating in the disappearance of a wrist watch belonging to Livia’s best friend. When news of this reached Miss Williams she summoned the whole school into the main hall—an event which, from its rarity, evoked an atmosphere of heightened tension.

  Miss Williams began by saying that, being convinced the thefts had been perpetrated by one of the girls, she had decided to call in a detective who would doubtless discover the culprit, whoever she was, without delay. She (Miss Williams) therefore appealed to this culprit (again whoever she was) to come forward and confess, thus avoiding the need for distasteful outside publicity, and also—here Miss Williams began to glare round the room—earning perhaps some remission of penalty.

  This appeal was followed by a long and, to Livia, terribly dramatic silence during which the word “detective,” as spoken by Miss Williams, turned somersaults in her mind.

  Then: “Well, girls? How long is one of you going to keep me waiting?”

  Still silence.

  Miss Williams glared round again before raising her voice a notch higher. “Girls…girls…I simply cannot believe this. Surely I am to get an answer?…Remember—I am particularly addressing myself to one of you—to one of you who is a Thief—here—now—in this hall! Some of you must be so close that you could touch her….”

  Suddenly Livia felt herself melting into a warmth that seemed to run liquid in her limbs; she could not check it, and in excitement let go a book she was carrying; everyone near her turned to stare, and she knew that her face was already brick-red.

  “Come now, girls…I will wait for sixty seconds and no longer…” Miss Williams then pulled an old-fashioned gold watch on a long chain from some pocket of her mannish attire and held it conspicuously in the palm of her hand. “Ten seconds already…twenty…thirty…” And then, in a quite different voice: “Dear me…will somebody go after Olivia?”

  Somebody did, and presently Livia was sitting, limp and still, on the couch in Miss Williams’s study, while Miss Williams, stiff and fidgety, drummed her bony fingers on the desk top.

  “But, Olivia…why do you keep on saying you didn’t do it?”

  “I didn’t, Miss Williams. You can punish me if you like—I’m not afraid. But I really didn’t do it.”

  “But nobody’s even accusing you—nobody ever has accused you!”

  “They thought it was me—they all saw how I looked—and then when I dropped the book—”

  “My dear child, if they did think you behaved suspiciously, whom have you to blame but yourself? What made you run out of the hall like that? Surely, if you knew you weren’t guilty—”

  “I knew, Miss Williams, but I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t guilty, and yet—and yet—”

  “Yes, Olivia?”

  “I felt gu
ilty.”

  Miss Williams’s eyes and voice, till then sympathetic, now chilled over. “I cannot understand how you could feel guilty unless you were guilty,” she said after a pause.

  “But I did, Miss Williams. I feel guilty—often—like that…Punish me if you like, though. I don’t care.”

  After another pause Miss Williams replied: “Suppose we say no more about it for the time being.”

  And there the matter had to remain, for the plain fact was that Miss Williams did not know whether Livia was guilty or not. She rather liked the girl, who had never been in any serious trouble before; yet there was something odd about her, something unpredictable; yet also something stoic—which was another thing Miss Williams rather liked. She could not avoid thinking of the secret that Livia did not know, and perhaps ought to know, at her age…or did she know already…partly…in the half-guessing way that was the worst way to get to know anything? That feeling of guilt, for instance (assuming there had been no grounds for it at Cheldean)—could it be that Livia suspected something in her own family to which guilt attached, and (by a curious psychological twist) was becoming herself infected by it? Miss Williams had not received a very good impression of Mrs. Channing from the correspondence they had had; she seemed a weak, dilatory person, incapable of facing her own or her daughter’s problems with any land of fortitude. Whereas fortitude, and problems, were Miss Williams’s specialties—whether, for instance, a headmistress should tell one of her girls something she had promised not to tell, if she believed it was in the girl’s best interest? For several weeks Miss Williams debated this problem with herself, while she continued to find things likeable in Livia; she even admired the girl for the way she faced up to the deepening mistrust with which the school as a whole regarded her; she admired the girl’s proud yet stricken eyes as she continued to take part in games and lessons; but she had had enough experience as a schoolmistress to know that nothing but absolute proof of someone else’s guilt could ever put things right, and if this did not soon appear, then there would arise a final problem—could Livia remain at Cheldean without harm to herself and to the morale of the school?

  One day towards the end of term Miss Williams reached a decision. She called the girl into her room and very simply told her the plain truth about her father. There was no scene, but after a long pause Livia said: “Can I go home now, Miss Williams?”

  “Home? You mean—to your mother?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why do you want to go home?”

  “I—I must go. Everything’s different. I said it would be. Nothing can ever be the same again.”

  Miss Williams did not ask when Livia had made this cryptic prophecy; she merely remarked: “I hope you’re not angry with your mother—she did what she thought was for the best.”

  “I’m not angry with anybody. Not even with Mr. Standon any more.”

  “And who’s Mr. Standon?”

  “The man my mother goes with.”

  “Oh come now…” And Miss Williams, coloring a little, felt the ice getting thin even under her own experienced feet. (But not, perhaps, so experienced in certain directions.) She added hastily: “Livia…I think we had better not discuss this any further for the present. And I’m not sure whether you ought to go home now or wait till the end of term. I’ll think it over and let you know in a few days.”

  Miss Williams planned to write Mrs. Channing a long letter of explanation which would arrive ahead of Livia; but this intention was frustrated by a much simpler act by the girl herself. She ran away from the school that same evening, taking nobody into her confidence, but leaving for Miss Williams a note in which there was, perhaps, just a whiff of histrionics:—

  DEAR MISS WILLIAMS—I am going home, and since you think I am a thief, I have stolen money for the fare from Joan Martin’s locker. I took a pound. Please give it back to her out of my bank money.

  Olivia

  The note was not discovered till the next morning, by which time Livia would have reached home. All Miss Williams could do, and with great luck, was to replace the pound before the loss of that was discovered also. She knew that Joan was Livia’s best friend and would willingly have lent the money had she been asked…A strange girl, Livia—perhaps not a bad girl; but still, it was just as well not to have her back at Cheldean.

  Livia reached Browdley before six o’clock on a windy March morning. Throughout the night-long train journey she had thought out the things she would immediately ask her mother; she wanted to know all the secrets, all the details that Miss Williams had not told because she probably had not known them herself. The list of these was mountainous by the time the cab came within sight of Stoneclough, gray and ghostly in the first light of dawn. In the yard beside the stables she was startled to see a new motorcar, with her mother in the driver’s seat and Mr. Standon hastily stowing bags into the back.

  “Livia! Livia! What on earth are you doing here?”

  As her mother spoke Livia noted the exchange of glances between her and Mr. Standon. The latter dropped the bags and came over with a smile of rather weary astonishment. He was a very elegant young man, but he did not look his best at six in the morning; and he had, indeed, received so many astonishments during the past twelve hours that he felt incapable of responding to any more. “Hello, Livia,” he remarked; it was all he could think of to say.

  Livia ignored him. “Mother—I’ve left Cheldean—I’ve run away—I’m never going back there—and I want to talk to you—I’ve got things to ask you—”

  “But Livia…not now…Oh, not now…” And a look of panic came over Emily’s face as she turned again to Mr. Standon. “Lawrence, do make haste…we can’t stop because of—because of anything…” Then: “We’ve—that is, dear—your mother’s in a hurry—”

  Livia knew from experience that Emily always called herself “your mother” to put distance between herself and the facing of any issue; it was like a shield behind which she could retire from a battlefield before the battle had begun.

  “Mother, you can’t go away yet. I’ve got most important things to talk to you about…alone.”

  “No, no, dear…Lawrence, put those bags in and let’s be off…If you’ve got into any trouble at Cheldean, don’t worry…Mother will write to Miss Williams and have it all put right.”

  “It isn’t that, Mother…Mother, please—please will you come into the house and let me talk to you for a while.”

  “Darling, I can’t—I just can’t—”

  But this was too much even for Mr. Standon. “Perhaps you’d better, Emily,” he advised. “You can’t let her go in without—without—” And the look between them was exchanged again.

  Emily slowly climbed out of the car, her face pale and distraught. She walked with Livia a few paces towards the side door leading through the kitchen into the house. They did not speak, but from the doorstep Emily gave one despairing look over her shoulder towards Mr. Standon, as if scared of going out of his sight. Then suddenly and hysterically she cried out: “Lawrence, I can’t tell her—I can’t, I can’t…You’ll have to.” Whereupon she ran back to the car and with almost absurd alacrity jumped in and drove off, leaving him to shout after her in vain and to turn to Livia with the faintest possible shrug.

  “Your mother’s upset,” he remarked mildly; and then, detaining her as she stepped towards the house: “I wouldn’t go in yet if I were you. Let’s have a little chat first.”

  Livia shook her head. “It’s cold here. And it’s my mother I wanted to talk to, not you.”

  “I know…but there’s something I can tell you, perhaps.”

  “You don’t have to. I know. And I don’t think it’s any of my business.”

  Mr. Standon looked nonplused for a moment, then shifted uncomfortably. “That isn’t what I…er…well, what I do mean is your business. It’s about your father.”

  He draped his hand over her shoulder at that word, as if to lessen the shock, but the fact that there was none made hi
m so uncomfortable that he took away his hand before Livia could reply: “I know about that too. Miss Williams told me. He’s not dead as my mother always said. He’s in a prison.”

  Mr. Standon gulped hard. “No…Not any more.”

  This time there was a shock, perceptible but well-controlled; the girl looked up at him inquiringly. “You mean he is dead now? He’s died?”

  “No, Livia. He’s—he’s been released. And—he’s here—now—in the house. He got here a few hours ago.”

  “But…but…my mother…why…”

  “I can’t explain all that.”

  She stared at him, incredulously, and while she did, the sound of a motor horn echoed from the road down below.

  He said hastily: “I’m sorry, Livia, but you see…well, that’s how it is.”

  The horn sounded again, peremptorily. Mr. Standon fidgeted as he went on: “Perhaps you’d like to come along…”

  “Come along? Where? With you?”

  “Not with me, exactly—with your mother. I’m sure that would be all right—”

  “But with you?”

  “Well…only in case…in case you wanted to be with her.”

  “But where’s she going? When is she coming back? Why must she go away at all?”

  “Livia, it’s no use asking me these questions. If you want to walk down the road and talk to her about it, come with me now.”

  “With you?”

  And the horn sounded a third time, causing Standon to exclaim, under his breath: “Damnation, she shouldn’t have run off like this…”

 
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