James hilton collected n.., p.71
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.71

           James Hilton
 
“A good job she’s leaving in a few days, anyhow.”

  He said nothing.

  “Are you too tired to answer me?”

  Suddenly his nerves chafed to a raw edge he could barely endure. He said: “Yes, I’m rather tired. I’m sorry for the boy’s sake, that’s all.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “I just don’t see any point in sending her away or in sending him away.”

  “I don’t understand you.”

  “I’m talking about Leni.”

  “Oh, you are? I understand that, of course. It’s quite obvious why you want her to stay here.”

  “What on earth are you driving at?”

  Then, with even his indignation tired, he shrugged his shoulders and walked out of the room. It was true; they did not know what either of them meant; they had no points of contact, not even enough for an intelligible quarrel.

  He drank his coffee in the surgery, and afterwards, as he went out for a few afternoon visits, the cloud of doubt and desperation suddenly lifted when he passed Leni in the hall. In her smile he saw something that made him exclaim, eagerly: “Leni, the boy I told you about last night—that case I said was hopeless—do you remember?”

  “Yes?”

  “Well, it isn’t—quite.”

  “Nothing’s hopeless, is it?”

  He thought seriously for a moment: was it really true that nothing was hopeless? Then he offered the result of his self-questioning. “A few things, probably, but we don’t know what they are, thank heaven.”

  David had earned the reputation of being absent-minded—something in his glance, perhaps, in the casual way he would begin and end a chance conversation in the street, in the way he walked and dressed, with the knot of his tie always working looser and looser as the day advanced; most of all, perhaps, in the Legend of the Umbrella. This legend dated from 1902, from the service held in the Cathedral to celebrate the end of the South African War. David and Jessica had walked up Shawgate, David smoking a pipe and Jessica carrying an umbrella; and just outside the Cathedral porch, recollecting that he was about to enter a sacred building, David had pressed down the glowing tobacco and slipped the pipe, as he thought, into his pocket. But no; in the midst of the service the umbrella, left in the stand outside the pew, had begun to emit clouds of smoke and, before anyone could attend to it, burst into flame. No harm was done, nothing but a mild diversion caused, but the discovery of the doctor’s pipe in the wreckage had amused Calderbury more than it had amused Jessica.

  After that we called the doctor absent-minded and made jokes about the likelihood of his sewing up sponges in a patient’s body after an operation. To anyone who ever saw him operate, there could seem no risk of that. But he did, occasionally, forget appointments, and outside his professional work there lay a misty territory in which he could not be relied upon except for good intentions. This business of helping Leni to find a job was in just such territory. His promises had been sincere enough, but he had had no idea of the practical difficulties that might lie ahead. The uncomfortable thing (to him) was that she had to leave at all; not till the second week of the fortnight did he suddenly realize that within a few days she might find herself with nowhere else to go. Her arm was still unfit for the strain of regular stage dancing, even if any theatrical work had been on offer; and he had innocently imagined that in the last resort a knowledge of German would easily secure her a post in some school. He was surprised to find that so many other qualifications were required.

  When, however, he returned to the house at midday on the morning after the musical party, Leni had news. A private school near Manchester was actually advertising for a part-time teacher of German—“no diplomas necessary, only a guaranteed ability to speak and teach the language.” David, perceiving no freakishness in this, but simply common sense, was delighted; clearly it was just the thing. He even exclaimed: “Why, I go to Manchester now and again—I shall be able to look you up!”

  All afternoon a warm feeling enveloped him which was really a childish dream that this business of Leni, himself, and Jessica might be settled with good will all round and to everyone’s satisfaction: Leni in this new job, he himself seeing her from time to time, and Jessica—well, changing a little. It wasn’t that he wanted anything more of her—merely an absence of that silent hostility, that cold brooding of which he had lately become aware. So much of his life was beyond anything that she could touch; yet the part that wasn’t, though small, could fret the larger part, and did.

  Leni wrote an application for the job, and David composed a testimonial for her to enclose with it. Then he went out to visit two or three cases. It was a hot day, glooming over with an approaching storm, and when he returned about four o’clock he went into the drawing-room because he saw it was cool with drawn blinds and also empty. Jessica’s recent presence showed in a pile of letters on the bureau, addressed in her writing and waiting for the post. He might not have noticed them had not his sleeve, in passing, swept them over. Picking them up, he saw that one was addressed to the school near Manchester. Then Jessica entered, followed by Susan with the tea things, and he had the swift feeling that Jessica knew all about his having seen the address on that letter. He felt uneasy—partly, no doubt, his usual physical reaction to a storm. It was certainly coming. All day the heat wave had been lifting to a climax; the sky had grown opaque, like soiled muslin through which sunlight could barely strain. Then blackness began in a little patch and spread over half the sky. The storm broke while Jessica was pouring tea, and she said immediately: “David, please put the window up—we shall have all the tops of the curtains drenched.”

  He knew, or thought he knew, that she had asked him to do this because he disliked going near the window. It was not that he had any bodily fear; it was from the look of doom in the sky and from the sound of doom in the thunderclaps that he shrank as from the symbols of discord. He stood on the window seat and braced himself for an eruption that seemed due at any moment. It did not come, but the tension held him miserably.

  “I think you ought to know, David, I’ve just been writing letter…”

  He swung around. “You have? To that school? About Leni?”

  “You evidently have it on your mind…More tea?”

  “N—no…But why on earth should you have written?”

  “Well, you wrote, didn’t you?”

  “Only a testimonial.”

  “Don’t you realize what that means?”

  “Well, surely—”

  “Do you realize that if she’s put in a position of trust and betrays it you might be held responsible for concealing the truth?”

  “What truth? I only vouched for her character and knowledge of German.”

  “Character? Did you state that you met her first a few months ago, and that you didn’t know a thing about her past life except that she’d been on the stage and had tried to kill herself?”

  “But—why—surely—”

  “Well, I put it all in my letter in case you’d forgotten.”

  “But—she may not get the job if you’ve said all that.”

  “Isn’t that her business? Why not try minding ours for a change?”

  “Yes! Why not? That’s just it! Can’t you leave the girl alone?”

  “Can’t you?”

  Suddenly he realized that the letter was still there, unposted on the bureau. Striding over, he sought it hastily amidst the pile and tore it across. He was aware that the act was melodramatic, but all his nerves were craving for some if even the stupidest release in action.

  “That just gives me the trouble of writing another. Really, David, you do the most childish things.”

  The room lit up with the tremendous flashing and roaring outburst that he had been expecting, yet was not and never could be prepared for. He saw Jessica’s eyes gleaming at him across the hearthrug.

  “And one more thing, David. I believe she sometimes comes in here to play the piano?”

  “Yes, I said she c
ould. After all, what harm does it do? She’s really quite good at it—she ought to take it up seriously—”

  “I don’t wish her to play my piano in future, that’s all.”

  “But there isn’t any future! Good God, don’t you realize that? In five days—”

  “David, I think you’d better calm yourself.”

  “Yes, yes, I know—it’s the storm, I think—I must get away—”

  He rushed from the room and down the three steps, through the double doors into the surgery. It was far more dangerous there in a storm, for if a chimney stack were struck by lightning the debris would crash through the glass roof as through paper. But all he craved was the personal citadel where he could rest and be alone; and to be alone with Leni was still, in this deep sense, to be alone. There she was, arranging his papers, her upward glance a warm and welcoming thing.

  “Please…is anything the matter?”

  “I hate storms, Leni, that’s all.”

  “It is nearly over now.”

  “Yes, I hope so…I’m sorry to have to tell you…about that job…”

  He told her all that had happened, ending with: “I tore it up, but I daresay she’s written it again and posted it by now.”

  Suddenly it occurred to him that they were both children, acting and talking like children, with the same terrible intentness upon the hostile behavior of a grown-up.

  “It means I won’t get the job?”

  “Probably not. But don’t worry. I’ll look in at the Burrowsford Library to-morrow—there may be some advertisements in scholastic papers. The trouble is, as we’ve already found, most of those posts go to people who have degrees.”

  “Degrees?”

  “What do you call them? I forget. Diploma? Baccalaureate? Doctorate?”

  “Oh yes, I know.”

  An idea came to him, an offshoot, of an already favorite idea. “Of course there’s one thing you really ought to do, especially if you can’t get a job.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Take up the piano seriously. There must be a school somewhere you could join. Yes, I’ll look it up to-morrow in Burrowsford. There’s a conference there—I’ve got to attend. I hate things like that, but I’m on the board of the County Hospital and it lets me in for them now and again. Of course I could lend you the money for the fees and you could pay me back when you get a job again…Yes, that certainly is an idea. I’ll find all the details for you to-morrow. You see, there’s an excellent reference library in Burrowsford—much better than here… Perhaps the Academy of Music or something like that—in London, it might be. Maybe they offer scholarships and you could win one. I’ll find out everything for you.”

  “But I’m not really a pianist, you know. I’m a dancer.”

  “Ah yes, of course. I was forgetting. Well, perhaps you could do that as well.”

  “Did you ever see the Russian Ballet?”

  “I’m afraid not. In Calderbury, we hardly ever—”

  “When I was in Petersburg—before I had to escape—I once saw Nijinsky.”

  It was plain that he had never heard of Nijinsky. He said, “Oh yes?”

  “Would you like me to dance for you?”

  He answered, with a touch of shyness: “Well, that would be very nice. I should certainly like it. But I don’t quite see how—”

  “Yet sometime, perhaps?”

  “Yes, of course. Meanwhile I’ll look up those advertisements for you. I still feel that it would be worth your while to take up the piano seriously—” And his mind ran easily on, as pleasantly unimpeded by practical knowledge as it usually was outside his own immediate world. And the following morning he went to the Burrowsford conference, which was just what he had expected it to be. Four days of listening to reports and speeches, of being chaffed by colleagues, of eating hotel meals—it was not the kind of life for which he had any social or temperamental aptitude. During his first day he found time to visit the library and spend an hour searching in a desultory way through year books and almanacs. He was one of those people who dislike asking expert advice, and, of course, as a professional dispenser of such advice, he was wholly inconsistent in this. He would have blamed a mother for not calling him in till too late, but he would not ask a library assistant how to look up details about entry into colleges of music. After much random searching he was fortunate enough to hit on the information he wanted; then he sat at one of the library desks and wrote as follows:—

  DEAR LENI: I have looked into the matter we talked about. Of course I will give you full information when I return, but this is just to say that the idea of your taking up music at college seems quite possible, and you can count on me for any help that is needed. Not a word to Jessie, though, or she might try to interfere—we must be careful not to make the same mistake as last time…

  When he had written as far as that, it occurred to him, in one of those spasms of caution that sometimes come to people who are not naturally cautious, that Jessica might even intercept the letter and read it; and to such a peril the only safeguard seemed to be transcription into deliberately vague terms. So he rewrote as follows:—

  DEAR LENI: I have looked into the matter we were discussing yesterday, and I think the solution we thought of is the best, in the circumstances. Of course I will help you in it. All the information and details when I return. Not a word to J.—we must be careful not to make the same mistake as last time—you know what I mean? So destroy this as soon as you have read it…

  When he had sealed and posted the letter he felt a sort of childish glee in having done something clever—he almost hoped that Jessica would intercept his message, since precious little she would learn from it, and that, in a way, would serve her right. He felt rather like a schoolboy who has invented some baffling stratagem against a strict but respected teacher.

  Leni did not destroy the letter. It was the first she had ever received from him—the first time she had ever seen the words “Dear Leni” in his handwriting; and she kept it.

  Three days later David reached Calderbury during the afternoon and walked from the station. There had been heavy rain and the Close was full of mixture scents, pebbles and bars of sand washed out of the gravel, pavements still steaming in the after-sun. And suddenly, as he walked past the Cathedral, the thought invaded him, as never before, of Leni. She would be there when he reached the house in Shawgate, but after that day and the next she would never be there again. He did not, because he could not somehow, think of the future without her, but all the sad urgency of the moment flowed back into the past, forcing him to remember the times they had met and talked, and how many more there could have been had he but known how soon they were all to end. “I have grown fond of that girl,” he admitted to himself; and then, with a flash of self-blame, “Good heavens, four days at that confounded conference and now there’s only one other day before she goes…”

  When he reached the house the interior seemed dark after the bright sunshine. It was Susan’s half day off; Leni met him and said that Jessica was out also. “Would you like some tea?”

  “That’s just what I should like more than anything, Leni.”

  “Will you have it in the surgery?”

  “That would be nice, too.”

  “All right. You look pale. Have you been very busy?”

  “No, not busy—just bored. What have you been up to?”

  “Up to? What does that mean?”

  “What have you been doing?”

  “Packing.”

  “Oh yes, of course.”

  And there, facing him again, was the imminence of her departure. He pondered on it as he sat alone and listened to the clatter of cups in the kitchen. Presently she reentered, carrying a loaded tray.

  “Seen the papers these last few days?” he asked.

  She nodded.

  “Looks bad, but I don’t think it’ll come to anything over here.”

  “Come to anything?”

  “Anything bad, I mean. But it’
s bad enough for those who are in it. Good thing you’re not in your own country, perhaps. By the way, did you get my letter?”

  “Yes, it was so good of you to write.”

  “Well, I thought you’d be relieved to know. About the music, I mean. It’s a good idea … which reminds me, we can try over something this afternoon if you like—there’s no one in—”

  “But Mrs. Newcome said—”

  “She’ll never know.”

  “The people in the street will hear. Somebody will tell her.”

  “Then we’ll close all the windows!” He added, boyishly: “Are you afraid?”

  “Only for you, David.”

  “For me? Why, God bless my soul, what harm can come to me?”

  She answered, in German: “You have to stay here after I have gone.”

  “I know. I’m trying to realize it. It’s curious—I can’t quite grasp the fact that you really are going and that this is your last day here…I’ll miss you. And really, I don’t see why Jessie should forbid such a harmless thing.”

  So after the tea they went in the drawing-room and David stood on the window seat to close the windows. But one of them was stiff, and as he reached upwards to push, he lost balance and had to clutch a picture to save himself from falling. The picture came down on his head, showering him with dust; and of course he began to laugh, because he had a very simple and artless sense of humor. Then she went to the piano and he took out his violin and they began to play Mozart. The music streamed into the room, enclosing a world in which they were free as air, shutting out hatreds and jealousies and despondencies, giving their eyes a look of union with something rare and distant. David did not play very well—indeed, a good deal of the Mozart was much too difficult for him; but there was a simplicity that gave calmness to his effort, absorbing rather than interpreting the music. And he thought, as he played, that it was a strange thing, at forty-six, to know the sweetness and terror of existence as if one had never known them before, to look back mystically on the incredible chance of human contact, to feel some finger of destiny marking the streets of Calderbury where he had walked and talked with a girl.

 
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