James hilton collected n.., p.74
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.74

           James Hilton
 

  She looked at him gravely for a moment and then answered: “No. Did you?”

  “I didn’t either. Did you think I did?”

  “I wondered.”

  “I wondered too.” Then he smiled. “Forgive me. How could such a suspicion—”

  “But if it’s really true that neither of us—”

  “Yes?”

  “Then who?”

  “Yes, that’s the trouble. That’s why they won’t believe us. They have to find some answer. They have to blame somebody. And it’s so easy to prove things by evidence.”

  She put up her hand and touched his face as a blind person memorizes. “They are going to kill us, David, though we haven’t done any wrong at all.”

  “I know.” And he added, seeing beyond her, hundreds of miles beyond her: “We are not alone.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “These things are always happening. Don’t be afraid of death. It isn’t the worst we have to face—only the last.”

  “But that is why it is the worst.”

  “No, no, we should fear birth far more if we could look ahead to it.” And then, half-impishly, he began to improvise on the theme, to play with the idea for her comfort and his own. “Oh, much more, I assure you. I’ve often thought that. Suppose, just for argument, that everything did happen the other way round. Suppose people gathered in a churchyard and hauled you from a hole in the ground in a wooden box and took you back to a house, and after a day or so the box was opened and you were laid on a bed, and a few days later people gathered at the bedside and all at once the breath of life came into you, bringing agony first of all, then less and less till you could actually stir and creep about, walking with a stick perhaps and being for a time a bit deaf and blind and crazy…”

  “Horrible!”

  “But not nearly as horrible as when you come to the other end. For think of the day you’d leave school and begin to stay at home in the nursery. Think of the first time you’d really believe in Santa Claus and hang up your stocking on Christmas Eve! Think of people patting you on the head as you grew younger every day, as you gradually lost speech and height and weight and personality! That last stumbling walk across the hearthrug before you settled down to pram life! How unutterably tragic—far more so than growing old and dying!”

  “But—never—never—to see you again!”

  “Maybe you will. If there’s a next world I’ll try to find you in it as I found you in this. There will be other worlds, surely, or maybe this world over again…worlds in which the things we have won’t be wasted like this…I’ll find you…do you remember that first night I did find you? Very windy—later on it rained. First of all I went to the theatre, and you’d gone. But I found you in the end.”

  “—I saw you through the mirror as you came into the room, and I knew you must be the little doctor because you looked so…you looked so…Oh, David—David!…Why does it have to happen like this?”

  Afterwards, while Leni was hastening back to Midchester in a car with drawn blinds, the listeners in the next room compared notes. It was generally admitted that the interview had been a failure.

  “Of course it was pretty obvious he smelt a rat. Didn’t you hear him whisper ‘We’re not alone’? That was a hint to her to be careful what she said…It’s my belief Millman gave the game away talking to him beforehand. Not too subtle, the Major, compared with the old doc—he’s got his head screwed on all right—”

  “Till to-morrow morning,” somebody answered with a nervous smile, for hanging is really no joke.

  Twilight ushered in the evening, and David watched the slow glooming of the sky with full awareness that it was tor the last time. He was not unhappy. He was not afraid. He was quite calm when the Governor and the Chaplain paid the formal visits that were part of enjoined routine.

  The Chaplain came first, a jolly-looking redfaced parson chosen for the job of ministering to the spiritual needs of prisoners because it was supposed that he knew how to deal with men, could meet them on their own level, and so on. His sermons were always full of pat-you-on-the-back optimism, and he said “damn” just to prove his good fellowship. He had known Jessica, through her connection with the Cathedral clergy, and she had always regarded him as “just the kind of parson the modern world needs.” All of which might have made him embarrassed to meet David, had he not been the kind of man who is rarely embarrassed. He sat on the edge of the bed and beamed with man-to-mannishness. “Comfortable, eh, Newcome? Having all you want?”

  “Yes, thank you,” said David, who always filled in gaps of emotional response by being polite.

  “Thought you might care for a little chat, y’know. How’re you feeling? All right? Pretty cheerful? Read the papers, I suppose? Damned awful thing if the boys aren’t home by Christmas, eh? Still, it can’t be long after—we’ve certainly got the enemy by the short hairs—”

  Suddenly David realized who this man was. “Why, you knew Jessie, didn’t you?” he interrupted.

  Even the Chaplain’s nerve was somewhat unprepared for the shock of such a reference. “You mean—you mean—Mrs.—the late Mrs. Newcome? Why, yes, I did know her—yes, of course I did.” (As he said to Millman afterwards: “You could have knocked me down with a feather when he mentioned her—so damn casual, you wouldn’t believe it possible…”)

  Then David began to talk quite normally—that is to say, from the Chaplain’s point of view, quite abnormally. “I’m glad to speak to someone who knew her, because you’ll understand about Gerald—that’s my boy. Jessie had sent him away to her brother-in-law—Simpson, you know, he’s the Vicar of St. Peter’s. I’m sure he’s being looked after all right, but I do hope they haven’t told him—very much—you know what I mean—you see he’s so nervous—”

  My dear Newcome, you needn’t worry on that score. I happen to know that your boy’s been told nothing—absolutely nothing. As a matter of fact he’s at present away at the seaside—much the best idea, don’t you think? I suppose some day…but for the present—well, he just thinks his mother and father have gone away somewhere for a time…Of course if you’d put in an application I’ve no doubt they’d have allowed you to see him—but all the same—”

  “Oh, I never thought of it—oh, dear no. I wouldn’t like him to come here at all—he’d be frightened—he was always scared of policemen. I think that was because Jessie always used to say, ‘I’ll fetch a policeman to you,’ whenever he misbehaved—a mistake to say things like that to a nervous child. And that’s what I want to talk to you about…You know Jessie meant well, but she didn’t really understand the boy. She and I had different ways with him, and I think—I really do think—mine was better. I wish you’d tell the Simpsons that if you get the chance. Tell them not to worry the boy, just let him grow up and conquer things for himself …and then some day, maybe, he can know the truth about me—about—to-morrow, I mean…”

  “Well, Newcome, I must say I think that’s very sensible of you. You can rest assured I’ll do my damnedest for the youngster. Keep an eye on him myself, I give you my word. As ’matter of fact, if I had my way I’d tell him a complete lie about you—I’d say you’d joined up and made the—er—the supreme sacrifice—give the little chap something to be proud of…Why not—eh, why not?”

  And then the Governor, Major Millman, entered the room and smiled nervously. The Chaplain included him in the conversation by a jovial nod. “Well, here we are, Millman—discussing the War and what not—I’d just been struck with an idea—”

  Millman sat on the edge of the table and fidgeted. He was always apt to be upset by this last interview with a condemned prisoner, for he knew from experience how unpleasantly it could sometimes turn out. He felt almost grateful to Newcome for not being the kind of person who would make a hysterical scene. “Don’t go,” he muttered to the Chaplain.

  The latter turned to David. “Well, don’t you think it’s what we ought to tell the youngster?”

  David made a mild gesture
of protest with his hands. “Oh no—don’t tell him that—never tell him anything like that—please don’t—”

  “But why not? Isn’t it something that might have happened but for—”

  “Oh no, no—”

  “But why not, man?”

  David said quietly: “You see, I don’t think I could ever kill anybody.”

  “But I’m talking about the War.”

  “I know. That’s what I mean. War is killing.” Suddenly the little doctor’s voice rose slightly. “How could I spend so many years fighting for life and then fight against it? Why do you expect me to undo everything I have ever done? How can you live and sleep while this is all happening? How can you? Governor—preacher—we’ve put such a lot of trust in you two—why have you let things come to this? Why can’t you save us from these crazy miseries? Why should we put up with you if you can’t? What use are you? People only ask to live in peace and do their work—you can have all the noise and nonsense to yourselves! We don’t ask miracles. But in God’s name, haven’t you learned anything in two thousand years ? We’re not afraid of death, but we’ll need to be afraid of life itself unless you fix things better in the future!”

  David sank down in the chair with his head in his hands. He was exhausted. He so rarely talked to people like that—it was an effort that left him entirely spent. When he looked up he saw that both the Governor and the Chaplain had gone, and that a familiar face was across the table top. “Hello, George,” he said, smiling.

  “Good afternoon, sir. Duty again.”

  “You sound hoarse—or is it my ears?”

  “Not your ears, sir—my throat. I’ve a bit of a cold.”

  “Well…it won’t matter much if I catch it from you, will it?”

  “Ha, ha…that’s a good one…glad you’re feeling cheerful. When I first come in, sir, and saw you sittin’ with your head down, I thought you was takin’ on.”

  “Taking on?”

  “Worritin’, sir. They do, you know, most of ’em, when it gets as near as this. But as I’ve said to all my mates, sir, I do believe the little doctor won’t bat an eyelid.”

  “Do they call me the little doctor?”

  “Yes, sir—some of ’em bein’ Calderbury men for years, same as yourself. They like you, sir.”

  “Do they? Well, I like them, too. I love them.”

  “Well sir, no harm in that, I’m sure. Would you like a cup of tea?”

  “Thanks, George…Oh—and George—about to-morrow morning—it’s all over pretty quickly, I imagine?”

  “Oh, bless you, yes, sir—nothing to worry about. Won’t take more than a minute from the time you step out of here. No waitin’.”

  Crossing the graveled yard, the Governor and the Chaplain paced with many undertones and shoulder shruggings.

  “Quite startled me, the way he suddenly launched out. What had he got against us, anyway?”

  “Damned if I know, Millman. I suppose it’s as I’ve said all along—the fellow’s pretty well off his head.”

  “Well, well, I’ll be glad when it’s over—I hate these affairs…”

  In the morning a light drizzle was falling, and David, after a night no more troubled than many previous nights, rose before dawn and watched a simple greyness invade the sky. Through the barred window he could soon see the prison wall, a long horizon of granite, with but two interruptions, the towers of the Cathedral, ghostly through the rain. Over the roofs there came the steady chimes, by long association more a part than a breaking of the silence; the first real sound began at seven, when the early morning train arrived from Marsland with the newspapers. David heard it steaming and clanking into the station. Only a whisper from afar; but it was the voice of Calderbury each morning, and David heard it as a friend’s.

  We live in a town for years and all its voices come to us so casually and with such small effort that we hardly know them till we are about to leave, and then, into our regret comes some little thing, the rattle of a cart over cobblestones, an old cracked bell in a church tower, the shout of a boy selling newspapers; and we can answer with nothing but our love. David was leaving Calderbury that morning. He knew it, and his heart was full of love for the little town and for its people. And he remembered, as often happens on the last, the first day he had seen it—Jessie pointing across the water meadows from the train window—“There you are, David—that’s Calderbury. See the Cathedral? No, no, not there, stupid—that’s the electricity works. There!” And he remembered, smiling to himself, that habit Jessie had always had—of seeing something herself and expecting other people to see it instantly, on a mere nod. That was one of the things he had had to put up with; but he had always respected her, and people didn’t realize how shocked, as well as puzzled, he had been when…But it was all such a long time ago now, nearly three months. Questions—answers—“Now, doctor, would you mind telling us…I put it to you, Dr. Newcome…But surely, doctor…Come now, doctor, you really must explain…Don’t lie to us, Newcome…”

  “I don’t lie, my friends, I can’t help it if the truth doesn’t sound true. Perhaps the truth is always strange. They say my boy Gerald never tells the truth—but he does, sometimes, often, only people don’t believe him. Truth is what is believed—a lie is what is disbelieved—how’s that for a pair of definitions? I don’t much care for them, but the world does. Let me tell the truth just once before I die. I call it love…”

  The two warders got up (they had not undressed) when they saw him standing by the window, and George bade him good-morning.

  “Good morning, George. Don’t bother. It’s still very early. I’m all right.”

  “What would you like, sir? Coffee? Tea?”

  “It matters so much, doesn’t it? Let’s say tea.”

  So the tea was made, and David drank two cups. He did not eat anything, but he smoked his pipe for a while. He felt—well, not exactly nervous, but a little excited, as when, during student days, he had made his first knife cut into living flesh.

  Presently a stranger entered the room and pinioned his arms with a leather strap; he submitted to this without word or murmur. Then he saw the Governor and the Chaplain standing by. “Good morning,” he said, and smiled at them.

  Across the graveled yard there was a small building whose use he had not realized before, but it was not far to walk to it, through the rain and in the chilly morning air. Then, obeying the gestures of the stranger, he stood on a little platform with his head under a wooden beam. A white hood was put over his head. Just at that moment he heard George cough, and then (they were his last words) he said, in a voice that came muffled through the hood: “That cold of yours isn’t any better, George.” The noose slipped over his head and he suddenly remembered Leni, and her little crushed smile, and that she too, at the same moment in Midchester…Come with me, go with me, I don’t know where, but there are a few of us, we make a good company already, we carry love in our hearts, we are not alone…

  The lever moved, and the little doctor’s body fell into the pit, from which, later in the day, it was retrieved for burial inside the prison precincts.

  EPILOGUE

  I WAS IN CALDERBURY a few weeks ago and as I passed the corner of Shawgate I noticed that workmen were pulling down the old house. One of the inside walls was exposed to view, and on it hung what seemed, at a distance, to be a picture that no one had bothered about. Even while I watched, it was taken down by a workman, and later I saw it handed over to someone in the little crowd which, in days of unemployment, and especially in a place like Calderbury, always collects round any scene of activity.

  He was a young man of perhaps thirty, slim and hot at all robust-looking, attractive in an eager, ascetic way, and rather shy in manner as he took the picture, wrapped it in a newspaper he carried, and tried to slip away unobserved. But the crowd turned their slow curious eyes on him and someone called out: “Let’s have a look, mister.” At that he almost bolted, crossing the road at a tangent, and colliding with me on t
he opposite curb. The picture fell with a tinkle, and I made some apologetic remark, though it was really his own fault. He answered: “Oh, it doesn’t matter—the glass was smashed already.”

  With a tidy gesture which I liked in him he began to kick the glass fragments into the gutter, away from danger to passing traffic. I joined him in this usefulness, and while we were both busy I said: “I don’t know what sort of treasure you’ve got, but I suppose you know who used to live in that house they’re pulling down.”

  “Oh, yes,” he answered. “The little doctor. Did you know him?”

  “Fairly well. I liked him. He cured me of asthma.”

  He laughed. “Well, that’s certainly a good reason for liking him. I wonder if mine is as good. He brought me into the world.”

  We walked along some way in silence, wondering perhaps whether each was inclined for the other’s company. Presently he said: “I suppose you remember the case?”

  “You mean the—the Calderbury case?”

  “Is that what you call it? I didn’t realize it was quite so famous. I’ve been abroad a long time.”

  “But you’re a native of Calderbury?”

  “I left when I was nine. America—journalism—various things. I write poems—occasionally.”

  He said that in a nervous and rather truculent way.

  “It’s a pleasant diversion,” I replied, “apart from any value in the poems.”

  He laughed enough for me to realize that I had said the right thing. “Come into my hotel and have a drink,” he invited.

  We went in and stood by the counter in the cool bar of the “Greyhound.” There was no one about except Brierley, the landlord. He served our drinks and disappeared behind the glass screen. “Now that’s the fellow,” I said, “who really could tell you something about the Calderbury case. He was foreman of the jury.”

  “Don’t ask him, please. I’ve read all the newspaper reports—I’m not specially interested in the police-court angle. I suppose it was a fair trial as trials go.”

 
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