James hilton collected n.., p.72
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.72
 

           James Hilton

  When the last chord had been struck he began mumbling something about her playing being full of promise, and that she really ought to join some academy or conservatoire.

  “You are so kind,” she said.

  “Kind? Why do you always say that?”

  “Because you always say things like that, and you just say them because you are kind, that is all.”

  “But I mean them.”

  “I know. But you don’t mean them to mean anything.”

  “Now you’ve puzzled me!” He smiled.

  “Dear, I know why it is. You can’t help it. And I love you—I can’t help that!”

  But he was already bustling about saying, “Now I must put up that picture before anybody comes.”

  “You didn’t hear me?”

  “I’m sorry…what was it?”

  She said, smiling: “I know. There is just one thing more. I will dance for you.”

  “Dance for me? Here? Now?”

  “Yes. You know the prelude of Chopin that goes like this—” she hummed a few bars of it. “You play that on your violin—I will dance to it.”

  “But—”

  “Yes? You are afraid if anybody comes ? You are afraid if anyone sees through the window? Pull over the curtains. Take up the rugs…Please do that until I come back…”

  She ran out of the room and was away a few minutes. During this interval David waited indecisively at first, then, with a sudden clinching of intention, did as she had asked.

  First the curtains, then the rugs. The room filled with a warm twilight; he did not switch on any lights because the sunshine out of doors came through the fabric of the curtains in a luminous glow. Then he took his violin and tried over, very softly, the prelude she had mentioned.

  Presently she came into the room, dressed in a ballet costume that bore, if he had noticed it, the creases of repeated packings and unpackings. Had he noticed, too, he would have seen that it was a little shabby, and had never been anything remarkable even when new. But in the twilight he saw nothing but a strange vision of the mind, something he had never expected to see in this life, an embodiment of light and air, on tiptoe with a dream. He took up his violin and began to play, watching her all the time. She was magic to him. There was something between them pouring always in invisible streams, the awareness of beauty in peril.

  So on an August afternoon, behind drawn curtains in a Calderbury drawing-room, a girl danced for the little doctor. The room filled with the emptiness of all the world except themselves, and this emptiness soared in their hearts until, just on the edge of flight, the spell was broken by the ringing of the telephone.

  David put down his violin. Leni stopped still. “A call for me probably,” he said, beginning to walk away. Leni more slowly followed. A moment later he was finding his bag and hat in the surgery.

  “That boy, you know—the pneumonia case—I have to go at once.”

  “And I must change and finish packing. I’ll tidy the room up too.”

  “Thanks…Maybe I’ll be back soon.” And he added, gently: “It was very beautiful.”

  Ten minutes later he was in the familiar strangeness of rooms and stairs. There could be no doubt about the case this time.

  He sat by the bedside, taking a small hand in his own, and the boy, half conscious as he fought for breath, looked up and smiled. Suddenly—almost immediately—death came. Weeks afterwards the boy’s father, in the fourale bar of the “Greyhound,” described the incident. “He killed our Johnny, too. Pewmonia, Johnny had, double pewmonia, and Newcome had bin to see him several times but never done the boy no good. And it was that night—that night, mind you. Maybe he was thinkin’ about it all the time he was with our Johnny. Because what d’you think he did when he got to the boy? Why, nothing. Just sat there and let the poor kid die without so much as raising a finger! The dirty swine!”

  We do not know what to-night, much less to-night’s newspaper, will bring. Some secret intersection of seconds and inches may mean an end to us, our age, the world. In Calderbury on that evening of August fourth, the train brought in later editions from Marsland, catching the sunset on its windows so that a flash of crimson streaked the watermeadows. In the streets of the town the newspapers were scrambled for, and one of them by the little doctor, who stood reading it as he held his bicycle at the curb. “Looks bad, doctor,” someone said.

  “Yes, indeed. Good God, I never thought they’d actually come to it!”

  “Soon over, you bet. Wait till the Navy—”

  Half listening, he read paragraphs about mobilizations, troops rushed to frontiers, bombardments, opened on fortifications, refugees streaming from ravaged lands, the plight of travelers and aliens. Abruptly then he moved off along Briargate, pedaling faster than usual, till he was hot and breathless. He entered the house through the surgery, leaving the bicycle against the wall in the outside alley. Mechanically he unlocked a cupboard to replace some drugs he had carried with him in his bag. He could feel his heart pounding with excitement as he climbed the stairs to the attic room where he guessed Leni would be waiting. He was that strange creature, a quiet man resolved upon an act. The trouble was that life with Jessica had given him this curious reluctance, outside his own world, to make decisions; she had made so many for him, and her intolerance of most that he dared to contemplate himself had blanketed him with at least a vagueness and at most an obstinacy. Only in his own world was there freedom of mind and hand; and in that world he had been eager to imprison himself for such freedom. He had never bothered much about exterior events. He had found contentment within the circle of a few things he cared for, and outside it he walked as a child.

  But now, having suddenly made up his mind, he was in a tremendous hurry. He must act. He must even oppose Jessica, if need be—must use decision, cunning, worldly wisdom, a host of qualities strange to him. “Leni, my dear—you can’t wait till to-morrow—you’ve got to get away now—to-night!”

  She was kneeling on the floor of the attic room, packing clothes into a bag.

  “But—why?”

  “It’s in the paper. England and Germany may be at war by midnight. That means you must get away. You must go back—to Germany—at once—before anything can happen—”

  “But I can’t—I—”

  “I tell you you must get out of England—somewhere—anywhere. Don’t you realize what it’ll be like if you stay? Already they’re arresting and imprisoning people. Hurry now and finish packing—we have to leave at once.”

  “We?”

  “Of course. I’m going to help you. We’ve missed the last train, but there’s one from Marsland that goes at ten to twelve—we can get there somehow—”

  “We?”

  “Yes, yes—I’m going to take you to a seaport and arrange for you to get away in time—so hurry, please hurry…” And so he talked on. She didn’t want to go and finally she was hysterical. He calmed her and after about an hour they went downstairs and through the surgery into the narrow path flanked by the white sea shells. There the sight of his bicycle leaning against the wall gave him both confidence and a new access of caution. “You mustn’t be seen leaving the town, especially with me, so this is what we must do…Now let me think—it’s almost dusk—you take the path to the Knoll and wait for me by the wooden hut—you remember it? We’ll meet there and go on—I’ll take the long way round by the lane—”

  She hesitated a moment, then nodded. As soon as she had gone, the path between the high walls seemed an empty canyon, and in his own heart an equal emptiness gave answer. He must help her out of the country. He must act. He must be forceful and yet remain calm. So he waited to light his pipe, waited after that for a whole minute by his watch, and then, wheeling the bicycle, emerged into the street.

  Through the quiet streets off Briargate and into Lissington Lane the little doctor hastened, full of the strange sensation of having decided to do something at last. He thought he was clever to have arranged to meet Leni at the wooden hut,
because it was dark there, and no one would see their faces. And it was clever of him also, he thought, to have arranged separate journeys to the rendezvous, for while no one would think much of seeing either of them alone, the pair of them might be (indeed, in the past, had been) gossiped about. So he cycled along, slowly because of the steepness, making a short cut to the edge of the town, where, a little way along the lane, a field path led to the Knoll. He would have to wheel his bicycle there, along the zigzag path over the quarry, and so to the wooden hut in the dark part of the woods.

  Even in Calderbury streets he hoped that no one would notice him, and he pulled his hat well down over his eyes with some vague idea of disguising himself. But after almost colliding with another cyclist he gave this up as impracticable; besides, a few people saw him, anyway, calling to him out of windows and doorways as he went by: “Good night, doctor…Heard the news, I suppose?”—to which, because he could not think of anything else and also because he was incapable of not returning cordiality, he answered in a strained voice: “Good night, Jim…yes…Good night, Dick…Good night, Mrs. Hargreaves.” Once, at a street corner, he overheard a man telling a small group of people: “There’s a big battle going on in the North Sea—our Tom heard it from the telephone exchange. The German fleet is sinking…”

  Presently he came to the field path. It was a lovely night, warm from the earth; and he felt, as he always did when he had seen recent death, a mystic communion with all things living and dead, as well as a perception of their own communion; so that, through such a prism of consciousness, he could sense life in a dead stone and death in a living tree. As he came to the edge of the disused quarry he happened to kick a pebble and heard it fall a hundred feet to the rocks and undergrowth at the base of the cliff. Perhaps the universe had been made as chancily as that.

  Soon, through the trees, he saw the shape of the wooden hut, and beside it, waiting for him, Leni. He could not see her clearly, but as he approached she came to him, and they stood for a moment, searching each other’s eyes till light was born in them, and it seemed to him then that the universe might even more probably have been made like that.

  “Have you been waiting long?”

  “About ten minutes. I didn’t mind.”

  “We must move on. Did anyone see you?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, once we’ve got away.”

  They descended the Knoll by a path that led them to the other side of it, whence, at the foot, the water meadows stretched to the Marsland Road. The night was pale over those meadows, and only the sudden lighting of cigarettes marked pairs of lovers couched in the long grasses; there was no sound but secret voices under the mist and the hum of the bicycle as David pushed it. He was hoisting it over the last stile when the Cathedral chimed the three quarters. “Now we’re all right,” he said, stooping to light the lamp when they reached the highway. Warm dust-scented air lingered over the graveled road. “Have you ever ridden on the back of a bicycle? You’ll find it quite easy. Put your left foot on the axle step and your right knee on the mudguard—you’ll manage.”

  So they began the journey from Calderbury, with the lamplight flickering and swerving as David pedaled along. The road lay slightly uphill, and it was hard work; but there was no traffic as there would be to-day, no speeding cars, no young men with motorcycles racing between the hedges, no huge omnibuses linking the villages at forty miles an hour; only an old man plodding home, who called “Good night” without knowing, without even trying to see, who passed him. And presently the moon rose and the twin towers of the Cathedral stiffened against the blue-black sky, calling eleven as David topped the hill and prepared to freewheel down. The hill heaped behind, with the dark shape of the Knoll farther still behind, the gradient spinning them into shadows of cold air under trees, and then into the bright glassy moonlight of the level. And after miles of this, keeping a good rate, David began to whistle in pure enjoyment. He often did so as he went about the countryside at night, and if people heard a whistling cyclist they sometimes said: “Bet you that’s the little doctor.” So now he went on whistling till the beginning of Croombury Hill made him save his breath, and a few yards higher forced him off his machine altogether. He dismounted with the usual acrobatic flourish for which Leni was hardly prepared and which would have capsized her into the ditch had she not been agile.

  “This is a steep one,” he said, affectionately, to the earth and sky, and then paused in the middle of the road, feeling in his pocket for pipe and tobacco and matches. “But we’re doing fine—we’ll easily catch the ten to twelve. Are you tired?”

  “No, but it hurts my knee a little.”

  “It’s not far now—just through Lissington village and over the next hill. I know all the country round here. Every village and lane and path. I know the people in the cottages, and in the churchyards too. This is a good country, England. I’ve been round about here for fifteen years. You must have been a baby when I first put up my plate. Hundreds of miles away in some German village I’ve never heard of, and you grew up—all unknown to me, all those years—to fall over one night and break your wrist in Calderbury. If you hadn’t come here and done that I’d never have known you at all. That’s a funny thing. And it’s funnier still to think that I shouldn’t have missed knowing you…Some German village, wasn’t it? Tell me about it.”

  “It was a city, really—Königsberg. My parents both died when I was young and I was sent to a school—the school I ran away from.”

  “We’re at the top of the hill now. Better jump on again. We can go on talking.”

  He kept his cherry-wood pipe in his mouth and the smoke and sometimes the flakes of hot tobacco flew back in her face as they gathered speed. “Plenty of time,” he muttered, wobbling dangerously as he pointed to the horizon. “There are the Junction lights—see them? That reddish glow yonder!”

  But at the foot of the hill there was a bad patch in the road and crossing it too fast and with the added weight the back tire suddenly deflated. David braked with a vehemence that nearly threw Leni forward over his head. “Oh dear, that’s really a nuisance,” he said, contemplatively, coming to a standstill and viewing the rear wheel. “We’ll just have to push on and walk. Plenty of time if we hurry a bit.” He wheeled the machine for a little way, then it occurred to him that it was no help and that they would gain time by leaving it. He took it through a gate into a field and partly hid it in a hedgerow.

  They went on again, but Leni was limping from her right knee; she could not walk very fast, and the Junction lights seemed far away. He put his arm round her so that she might lean some of her weight on him. A little wood came slowly towards them on the left, snuffing out the roadway and changing the sound of their footsteps. From the distance came the clank of wagons in the shunting yard, and an owl mournfully replied from the little wood near by. They both laughed at that. But when they entered the moonlight again the horizon glow looked no nearer. “Just a matter of stepping out,” he said, but they could not easily increase their pace. And when, still a long way off, they heard the train they had aimed for puffing out of the station, it was almost a relief to slacken, to sit on a stile while David smoked a pipe, to talk intermittently and catch the tiny friendly sounds of a twig snapping or a dog barking distinctly.

  An early morning train left Marsland at six-five, and David thought it would probably connect with other trains so that they could reach the coast by afternoon. They had six hours to wait—no big hardship on a summer night. Half a mile further on he knew that the side of the road heaped into a dry bed of bracken; sometimes, cycling around, he had paused there for a few minutes’ rest. It was a place called Potts Corner, though why and who Potts was nobody knew. But there was a big elm growing there, and a signpost marking a field path to Stamford Magna.

  So when they were tired of talking they walked to the Corner and lay down on the turf and bracken. There are some moments that are hung in memory like
a lamp; they shine and swing gently and one can look back on them when all else has faded into distance and darkness. Often afterwards David remembered that roadside corner and the hours he spent there; and sometimes he thought of things he would like to have said and done while there was yet a chance; but actually he said and did very little, because he was tired, and with tiredness had come an old familiar inability to make up his mind. Presently, with his arms round her, she fell asleep. A little wind stirred in the elm overhead; the air grew chilly as the night advanced. He began to wish he had brought an overcoat. For that matter he wished he had brought food, and far more money than was in his pockets; and then he reflected how bad he really was at planning these things, and how much more efficient Jessica would have been. And also he remembered Leni’s own carelessness of detail when she had tried to take her life at Sandmouth; strange that he should be showing such similar lack of forethought in his efforts to save it. And then he began to feel sleepy himself.

  Dawn came—the dawn of that first day of war. He got up, leaving her still sleeping, and walked a few yards to the signpost. “Stamford Magna, 2 miles.” To peace, how many days, months, years? He lit a pipe and watched the dawn turn to sunrise. The spire of Lissington Church pricked over the lightening horizon; day came rolling over the little hills, filling the sunken roadways, glistening on the wheat fields, wakening the birds. A harness jingled in some far stable. In a little while it would be time to walk to the Junction; where he had remembered there were chocolate slot machines. Then later, when they reached some bigger place, they could have a real breakfast.

  He roused her and they passed on together, facing the early morning sunlight. Soon the road entered the long level stretch at the end of which could be seen the station buildings and a signal tower. It was ten to, six when they approached the entrance to the ticket office and David had another of those precautionary ideas that only occur to people who are not really good at precautions—it suddenly occurred to him that at the station everybody knew him well and that it would be safer to slip on to the platform through the shunting yard and board the train without taking tickets. This he did, easily enough, for the train was already drawn up at the platform and there was ample choice of unoccupied compartments. He knew that the train would take them as far as Charlham, where they could buy the tickets and pick up an express to London.

 
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