James hilton collected n.., p.75
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.75
 

           James Hilton

  “Maybe,” I answered. “There was a lot of circumstantial evidence, and I daresay many men have been hanged on less. And then, of course, there was a certain amount of political feeling about the girl,—German, you remember,—and it was the first autumn of the War. We all believed she was a spy. That didn’t come up at the trial,—naturally,—but people like Brierley couldn’t help but be affected by it. The judge, I thought, was a shade too severe in his summing up—maybe he was affected too. War fever is an insidious disease.”

  “You take an interest in the case?”

  “I suppose I do—though only in a non-technical way. I gather that you’re interested too?”

  He smiled. “Didn’t I tell you he brought me into the world?”

  “He did that to a good many young people you can see around the streets of Calderbury.”

  “Yes, of course. But I didn’t mean it in quite that sense. You see…I’m his son.”

  I looked at him then, incredulous for the moment, then in sudden silence as I remembered Gerald. The little boy who cried and screamed and told lies and had nervous fits and whom nobody could control. He seemed embarrassed at having had to explain his identity and went on:—

  “I suppose you feel now you can’t discuss the case any more with me?”

  “Oh, I don’t mind. It’s more a question of whether you’ll want to discuss it with me when you know who I am.” I told him then my name, adding: “I think we met—years ago. At children’s parties.”

  He nodded with a heightening of what seemed a purely abstract interest. “Yes, I remember. And after that you were the star witness for the prosecution.”

  “Don’t hold that against me. I was too young to know what it was all about.”

  “Do you mean you no longer believe he was guilty?”

  He shot the question at me so abruptly that its awkwardness came as a challenge.

  “Will you take my word if I answer that I really don’t know?”

  He smiled. “Why, surely…What about another drink?”

  “I think it’s my turn,” I said, calling for Brierley.

  When we were left alone again I went on: “The evidence I gave was true enough, as far as it went.”

  “Yes, of course. I never doubted it. You saw my mother going into the house at a certain time, and you saw the other two leaving the house at a certain time. Ample opportunity. And a surgery full of poison. Logic. What more could you ask? Especially after the letter he’d written to the girl.”

  “Yes, it all pointed one way.”

  “And it all pointed wrong.”

  “Really?” (What else could one say? Well, there was one thing I could repeat.) “I must admit that if I’d known what use was going to be made of my evidence I’d have kept it to myself.”

  “But why?”

  “Because I always liked the little doctor.”

  “Yet you don’t feel certain that he wasn’t guilty?”

  “I don’t feel certain of anything. How can I? Something mysterious and terrible happened over twenty years ago when I was a boy—why expect me to fix blame? Maybe the court was right, maybe not. The thing looked possible—more than that—even probable. After all, we do know that murder is something that men will commit for love.”

  “So you think he was infatuated?”

  “Call it that if you like the word.”

  “I don’t, particularly. ‘Love’ is better.”

  “That’s the word I used.”

  “Maybe they mean the same.”

  “Maybe.”

  “Do you think you understood my father?”

  “Well, hardly—how could I? I was only a boy.”

  “There was something boyish in him. Childlike, almost. I once wrote a poem about him—perhaps I can remember it.” He paused a moment and then recited, rather well:

  “Both youth and age were his

  With no more change of scene

  Than from the blue of mountains

  Down to the level green.

  “And in that blue-green land

  Where English sons were bred,

  He knew the dead were living

  And saw the living dead!”

  I said: “I rather like that. And I think I understand what you’re driving at.”

  “The thing I’m driving at is that he wasn’t guilty.”

  “Maybe not.”

  “She wasn’t, either.”

  “You think not?”

  “My God, I’m not telling you what I think—I’m giving you facts.”

  It seemed to me that I couldn’t go on arguing with him. I said nothing, leaving him, if he chose, to continue. After an interval he said: “You see…I was in the house myself that night.”

  “Really?”(Again, what else could one say?) “How was that?”

  “Simple enough. I’d been quartered with an aunt and uncle who lived at the other end of the town. I was lonely and miserable with them—or rather, I should say, I was lonely and miserable without my father. Just a prisoner in an enormous shabby vicarage. That evening—you remember it was the evening war was declared—everyone was so excited by the news that I had my first chance to escape. I took it. I ran across the town, aiming for home. I climbed over the garden wall from the side footpath. Nobody saw me or would have cared much if they had. I thought the house was empty. I went to the surgery. It was always fun there, but that afternoon more than usual, because—well, because a cupboard usually kept locked was half open.”

  “Ah yes, I remember the evidence about that.”

  “So I had a nice game with some bottles, taking the corks out and sniffing. Damn lucky I didn’t poison myself—or perhaps damned unlucky, when you come to think about it. Suddenly I heard footsteps in the hall. I was scared. I shut the cupboard as quick as I could and pushed away the bottles on a shelf where there were other bottles. I didn’t want her to know I’d been touching anything.”

  “You knew who it was?”

  “Oh yes, her walk was quite unmistakable…Presently she came in and found me. She was very hot—it was a very hot day and she’d been out in the sun. ‘You here?’ she began, but she didn’t grumble as much as I’d expected. I think she was tired. ‘Where’s your father?’ she asked. I said I didn’t know. ‘He’s never here when he’s wanted,’ she said. Then she went to the shelf and took some pills out of a bottle. ‘I’ve got a bad head,’ she said, ‘and I want to lie down. Fetch a glass of water to my bedroom.’ So I did, and that was how it happened…All quite by accident, you see.”

  “Yes, I see.”

  “Don’t you believe me?”

  “May I say again—I don’t really know…At any rate, why didn’t you tell all this to the court?”

  “I never had a chance. I was only too glad to get away…I’d always been blamed for everything and I thought I should be again…So I ran back to my uncle’s house. They thought I was ill—one of my ‘attacks’ they called them—I used to have bad nerves when I was a child.”

  “And you didn’t tell anybody what had happened?”

  “Well, they didn’t tell me anything, either.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “They never told me anything was wrong. It was weeks afterwards they said my parents had both gone away and I couldn’t see them. Years later I found out what had really happened. It came—” he hesitated for the understatement—“as a considerable shock to me.”

  There was another long pause, during which I recollected as much as I could of Gerald’s reputation as a child. In the little town there had gathered quite a sizable legend of his precocious unreliability. He “romanced,” or, if you cared to use the less flattering word, he told the most astounding lies. He would (in the days when I had met him once or twice at children’s parties) assure people that he had seen an elephant in Shawgate, or a collision between two steam rollers going at full speed, or a man with three noses. And once, I remember, he told a few of us very solemnly that his father had bought a deathbed. How
he had picked up the word we could only guess, but it was clear that in his mind a deathbed was a particular kind of bed that one went to a furniture shop to buy; so that was what he told us, as calmly as you please. We thought it amusing that his own childish ignorance should so completely prove him a liar.

  Thinking of all this, I said: “Well, it’s a pity you didn’t tell the story when it might have done some good.”

  “Yes, but I shouldn’t have been believed. At least, I very much doubt it. Nobody ever believed me. Why, you don’t even believe me now. Do you? Honestly?”

  “May I say—for the third time—I simply don’t know what to believe.”

  “I don’t blame you. We none of us know much about what really happens. Or has happened. The real truth is often hidden—perhaps because it’s a dark truth…It seems to me that we’re all children of the dead—the dead who shouldn’t have died—the dead who were put to death. …And they wait with us all the time, hoping we’ll understand and learn something, but we don’t, and we can’t do anything about it…Is all that too mystical for you?”

  “I don’t quite know what you mean.”

  He laughed as he answered: “Why should you? To hell with you, anyway. That’s how you make me feel.”

  I smiled, liking him a little. After a short silence I said: “I’m interested in the girl—the German girl.”

  “Why?”

  “I liked the look of her, I think I saw her once—before I saw her in the court. There used to be a motor bus that made journeys between the foot of Shawgate and Lissington Hill—the seats faced each other and one day I sat opposite someone I couldn’t help staring at. Afterwards, when I described her to others, they said she must have been ‘the foreign girl who works at the little doctor’s.’ So maybe she was. She wore a brown coat and a black fur hat like a fez…But you knew her well, of course. Tell me. what she was like.”

  His face lit with the beginnings of excitement. “She was…oh, I can’t tell you. It’s the nearest thing to heaven in my mind,—the only meaning heaven has,—that memory I have of her and of him. The little doctor—my little father. I used to watch them smile at each other. I used to go to sleep after they had touched me. They were real—and that’s what’s so hard to believe—that they were ever real…Do you mind if we take a walk?”

  “Good idea.”

  We went out into the streets of Galderbury, where it was growing dusk and lights were blinking from shops and houses; and far ahead, at the top of Shawgate, the towers of the Cathedral lifted insubstantially into the darkening east. Calderbury had survived, though how narrowly none could say. We passed the house where the little doctor had lived, and then, along Briargate, we passed the jail where the little doctor had died. That was being pulled down also—it was far too big and the site had grown valuable. I was still a little bothered by not knowing how much to believe of all that Gerald had told me, but I felt there must be a sort of truth in it, somewhere. “Well,” I said, “you’re probably right and there isn’t a lot any of us can do.”

  “But there ought to be,” he answered, so desperately that I was startled. “And, oh God, if only there were…”

  THE END

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook onscreen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  So Well Remembered copyright © 1945 by James Hilton

  Random Harvest copyright © 1941 by James Hilton

  We Are Not Alone copyright © 1938 by James Hilton

  Cover design by Morgan Alan

  Published in 2013 by Open Road Integrated Media

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  James Hilton, James Hilton: Collected Novels

 


 

 
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