James hilton collected n.., p.9
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.9

           James Hilton

  Livia was to leave by a night train on the Wednesday after Easter week. During the afternoon she had some last-minute shopping in Browdley, and returned towards dusk in the rather shabby old car that Martin had picked up at a bargain price and that only Watson’s constant attention kept in going order. The trunk was in the hall, roped and labeled; it was understood that there would be early dinner while Watson loaded up the car for the drive to the station. Livia, excited in a way she could not exactly diagnose, walked into the drawing room where she found Martin standing in front of the fireplace reading the paper. There was nothing odd in that, but when he put the paper aside to talk to her, Livia was transfixed by the sight of tears in his eyes.

  The conclusion she reached was inescapable. “Oh Martin, Martin—what’s the matter? If you don’t want me to go, I won’t. I don’t really care about Geneva or Switzerland or any place except here! I’d rather stay with you, Martin—”

  “Come here—” he interrupted. And then he stepped towards the girl and took her arm with a curious nervous pressure. “It isn’t that….”

  “Martin—what’s happened?”

  He picked up the paper, folded it to a certain place, and handed it to her. But she did not look at it; she kept staring at him till he had to say: “I’m afraid it’s bad news …Or would you rather have me tell you?”

  She looked at the paper then. It was a small paragraph on an inside page, reporting that Mrs. John Channing had been killed instantly when the car she was driving overturned on the road between Chartres and Orléans, and that a Mr. Standon, who was a passenger, had been severely injured. The reading public was further reminded that Mrs. John Channing was the wife of the same John Channing who, etc., etc.

  Livia did not speak. She read the paragraph over and over, trying to grasp not only what it meant, but what it signified in her own life; and then, because of the tears in Martin’s eyes, she began to weep herself. “Oh Mother…Mother…” she sobbed. But even while she did so a thought came to her in such a guise that she felt dreadful for having the kind of mind in which it could even exist—the thought that in his distress, which was also hers, Martin might now want her to stay at Stoneclough for company’s sake. Yet how could one help one’s thoughts, whatever they were? And she was distressed; her tears, imitative at first, were perfectly genuine as they proceeded. But she knew now, for certain, how much she wanted not to leave Stoneclough, and that all the excitement of packing to go abroad would be nothing to the quiet relief, even the sad relief, of unpacking.

  But it was not to be. As soon as she hinted at it, he said no; if the news had upset her very much she could postpone departure for a day or two, but that was all; and really, he thought it best for her to go; the change of scene and new companions would prove a great help, he assured her.

  “And it wouldn’t help you, Martin, if I stayed?”

  He half-smiled. “That’s very kind of you, my dear, but I really don’t think it would.”

  After that she was proud enough to leave that night, as had been planned, and not accept the short delay that was so pitiable a substitute for what she had hoped.

  But she was not long away from Stoneclough. The time was April 1914; she had one term at the Geneva school, then returned to England for the summer holidays just before the war broke out. And when the next term began, in September, the Germans were on the Marne and it was thought inadvisable to send English girls across France, even to the best Swiss finishing schools.

  One day, to escape a heavy shower, Livia entered the Browdley Public Library, and by sheer chance as she wandered in and out of the alcoves came upon a section dealing with law cases and jurisprudence; one of the books, conspicuous by its worn condition, proved to be a verbatim report of the Channing case. The name was a shock that set her heart beating, but a greater one came when she opened the book and found, against the title page, a photograph of her father as he had been at the time of the trial all those years before. So young, so handsome, so dashing; she could hardly believe it was the same man…and against the photograph, scrawled in pencil, was a word unknown to her, but which she guessed to be foul. It brought a flush to her face that she thought everyone in the library must notice, but no one did, and with a curious hypnotized fascination she took the book to a secluded table and began to read carefully. Later, when she had to leave, she hid it behind some other books, so that nobody should borrow it before she continued reading the next day. Not being a library member she could not borrow it herself, nor did she want to order a copy from a bookseller. But every afternoon for a week she spent an hour or two in the library alcove, trying to understand the crime that her father had committed. And for the most part she was mystified. It was all to do with another world—a world of complicated details and strange jargon—false estimates of reserves, duplicated stock certificates, and so on. What puzzled her was the intention behind it all, and to this she found no positive clue until she came to the defending counsel’s speech, in which her father was portrayed as a brilliant visionary who had wished to amalgamate a large group of cotton mills with a view to preventing their eventual bankruptcies as separate competitors. But then, when she came to the judge’s summing-up, the whole picture was different—that of an ambitious, unscrupulous adventurer, greedy for power, employing deliberate deceit to tempt unwary investors…The two pictures made the problem harder than ever, the more so as neither bore the slightest resemblance to the man she herself knew. She then reread the examinations and cross-examinations, seeking to disentangle some corroboration of one or other viewpoint out of the mass of opposite and bewildering evidence. The main thing she gathered was that her father had once been in a position to deal with vast sums of money, whereas now he could hardly afford the extra hundred pounds by which the taxes on Stoneclough had lately been increased.

  Some day, she thought, he would tell her all about it; and then he would be surprised to find out how much she knew already. But what did she know? The chief clue was missing…why had he done whatever it was that he had done? Not only why had he defrauded people, for that question had already been given two conflicting answers, but why had he been either the adventurer greedy for power, or the visionary with dreams of reorganizing an industry? Why? For it had been stated over and over again during the trial, as if it were against him, that the Channing Mill itself was sound until his own course of action ruined it; everything would have been all right, therefore, if he had let things alone. Only he hadn’t let things alone.

  And then, too, she realized with a sense of discovery, though it was obvious by simple arithmetic, that he had spent many years in the industrial and financial world before the crash. His career was referred to at the trial as having been an “honorable” one; distinguished connections were cited with a number of companies besides his own. Why, then, had he suddenly broken whatever were the rules of the game?

  There was yet a third character reading, scattered throughout the book in sundry penciled remarks. “Liar,” “Thief,” “Swindler,” were among the mildest of them; but on the last page was a clue, if not to her father’s motives, at any rate to his anonymous accuser’s. For in the margin alongside the judge’s pronouncement of sentence was the scribbled comment: “And not half of what the —deserved for ruining me and hundreds more.”

  Long after she had finished the book and had learned all she could learn from it she found that even passing the library gave her an itch of curiosity—was it still being read, was some other unknown borrower adding new penciled insults to the printed lines? She would sometimes dash into the building just to see, and one day she reflected how simple it would be to put the book under her coat and take it away as she walked out. But she could not make up her mind to do this. It was no question of the morals of stealing, or of risk in being discovered, but rather of her personal attitude towards Browdley: to remove the book would somehow be accepting defeat, whereas to leave it was—if not victory—at least a challenge and a defiance. So she left it, and the l
ibrary took on a curious significance in her mind: the place where the book was, and where people went who hated Martin.

  He never spoke to her about the past, or gave her any opening to ask him direct questions about it; but sometimes, apropos of other things, he made remarks that connected themselves with it in her mind—remarks that did not so much reveal the light as illumine the darkness. Once he said: “The hardest thing in the world is to understand how you were once interested in something that no longer interests you at all.” And another time, standing with her in the garden on one of those rare clear days when all Browdley could be seen in the distance, he said: “The factories look big, don’t they? They dominate the town like the cathedrals at Cologne or Amiens…perhaps they are cathedrals, in a way, if enough people believe in them.” And then he mentioned a lecture by a young fellow named Boswell who was trying to get on the Browdley Council—a lecture Richard Felsby had told him about in great indignation because it had blamed the Channing and Felsby families for much that was wrong about the state of Browdley. “There’s some truth in it, though. Whenever I think of those rows and rows of drab streets huddling under the cathedrals I have the feeling that if somebody were to send me to jail for that, I’d consider it a just sentence…We’re all guilty, Livia, of everything that happens. Read the papers and see how.” (It was the autumn of 1917, the blackest time of the war.) “And if guilt had to be paid for by punishment, then the earth would be one vast prison. Perhaps that’s what it is.”

  “The animals would have a good time if everybody was in prison,” Livia commented cheerfully. “They aren’t guilty, anyhow. In fact they don’t know anything about our wars and peaces—how can they? What does it matter to a worm whether he gets cut in half by a garden spade or by a shell bursting?”

  He smiled. “It would certainly be hard to convince him of the difference. Probably about as hard as to explain to Man the mind of God.” He turned with her into the clough. “By the way, I’m going to London for a few days. Anything you’d like me to get for you there?”

  “Can’t I come with you?”

  “Wouldn’t be much fun for you. It’s—it’s mostly a business trip.”

  “You mean—you’re going to—to start doing financial things again?” That was the nearest she ever came to a direct question.

  “Good God, no. Don’t you think I had enough?”

  That was the nearest he ever came to a direct answer.

  While he was gone she realized she was enjoying even the loneliness, because of the image of his return. That image hovered over the edge of every page of every book she turned to, was called to life by every loved phonograph record. Her eighteenth birthday came during his absence, and somehow she was not even disappointed that he had chosen to be away at such a time; maybe he had had no choice; there were still many things in his life of which she knew nothing. The long interval of the prison years, for instance. He never even hinted at them, yet—she argued—what else could have caused the disconnection between the kind of person he had been and the kind he now was? Some day, perhaps, he would tell her about that also. Some day, when she was old enough, he would think of her as a complete adult, within range of every possible adult confidence. She already felt she was, however little it might have occurred to him so far. She was also beginning to appraise herself physically, though without vanity, for she considered her body too small and her mouth too big; but in being thus ruthless she was merely, of course, denying herself what she did not want. She knew no boys or young men, and when sometimes in Browdley they would stare at her as if she attracted them, she herself was aware only of disinterest. She did not want—was sure she would never want—to attract anyone that way. There were other ways for which she felt herself far better equipped; she liked to think there was something rare and talismanic about her that could appeal to an older man.

  Yet she must not dramatize; he had once cautioned her about that, and ever afterwards she had known she had better not act before him; and this, by a subtle transition, meant that she need not act before him, thus (if she chose to look at it that way) relieving her of a burden rather than imposing on her a restriction. It was pleasant, anyhow, to think of the future that stretched ahead; she and Martin at Stoneclough, pottering about the garden, taking walks in the clough and on the moorland, visiting places together—the eventless days, the long firelit evenings. And, of course, to complete such felicity, the war would end sometime.

  Sarah, growing deafer and more asthmatic in her old age, seized the chance of Martin’s absence to urge her to “get out” oftener, to make friends with young people, to enjoy herself more. And this, from Sarah, who had always connected “enjoyment” with the Devil, was an amazing suggestion if Livia had been interested enough to think about it.

  But she merely replied, offhandedly as she always did to Sarah: “I do enjoy myself. I’m perfectly happy.”

  “It’s a pity you gave up school,” said Sarah.

  “Well, I never enjoyed myself much there, anyhow. And besides, I didn’t give it up—the school gave me up. Didn’t you know that? I was practically expelled, and then other schools wouldn’t have me—Martin didn’t tell me that, but I once saw some letters on his desk saying they couldn’t take me…I knew why even if he didn’t…You see, I’m a bad lot—like father, like daughter—isn’t that rather natural?”

  She knew, of course, that she was acting then; she was always ready to do so in order to shock old Sarah.

  When Martin came back she had been waiting for him for hours, but without urgency. Snow had fallen during the day, and this presumably had made his train late. It had also covered the drive as far as the road so thickly that Watson could not clear it in time to take the car to the station; so Martin would doubtless arrive by taxi. Earlier in the evening she had put on galoshes to enjoy the garden, where the snow lay piled in knee-high drifts—a rare enough sight to be novel, and so were the white slopes of the clough, through which the path ran untraceably except to one as familiar with it as she. The sky was blue-black and full of stars; they and the snow made a paleness bright enough to read by. And all around, especially when she listened for any car noise, there was a great blanket of silence that seemed to follow her into the house when she re-entered.

  He arrived about ten o’clock, having walked the last mile along the road because the taxi couldn’t get any further.

  “And with those thin shoes, Martin? You must be soaking wet…And carrying that bag all the way…”

  “It’s not heavy. I’ll go up and change immediately.”

  “Let me carry it for you.”

  “No, no…I’m all right. If I want anything I’ll ring for Sarah.”

  “She’s got a bad cough and went to bed hours ago.”

  “All right…I won’t want anything.”

  By the time he came down she had the drawing-room fire roaring high, and a tray of refreshments by the side of his favorite armchair—hot soup, sandwiches, whisky and soda.

  “Nice of you, Livia, but really and truly I don’t want anything—except the fire.”

  “But I’m sure you didn’t have any dinner—”

  “I managed all right. Don’t worry about me. Please don’t worry about me.”

  The way he said that made her instantly begin to do so. She noticed how more than usually tired he looked, his whole face drawn a little, hands trembling as he held them to the fire.

  “When you were so late I wondered if perhaps you weren’t coming back

  till tomorrow.”

  “No…it was just the weather.”

  “I thought perhaps your business had taken longer than you expected.”

  “No…there wasn’t much business.” His face lightened as he added: “I didn’t forget your birthday, but—I have an awful confession—I left what I bought you in the train. They were some special records—of Mozart. I knew you’d like them. I don’t know how I could have been so stupid, but it’s quite possible they’ll be turned in by the finder
. Unless he’s so disappointed when he unwraps the parcel that he smashes them in disgust.”

  “Oh no—nobody could deliberately smash Mozart records!”

  He smiled. “Maybe not. Anyhow, I left word about it—and if we don’t get them back I’ll buy you some more.”

  “Martin…I’m so sorry…don’t worry about it.”

  “Who said I was worrying about it?”

  “Well, you’re worrying about something—I can see from your face.”

  “I told you not to worry.”

  Suddenly, leaning forward to warm his hands, he slipped and fell to his knees. Only her nearness and quickness saved him; another few inches, another second, and he would have been burned. As it was, she managed to pull him back and saw then that it had been more than a slip, more than just tiredness. She was calm, yet uncertain what to do—call Sarah?—call a doctor?—but first, anyhow, there was the whisky. She forced a stiff drink between his lips, then began loosening his collar. While she was doing this his eyes refocused themselves.

  “I think you fainted, Martin.”

  He nodded, gulping over the taste of the whisky.

  “Seems so…and by the way, I shouldn’t have had that.”

  “Why not? It pulled you round.”

  “Maybe…only I’m not supposed to have it—now.”

  “Why now?”

  “Well, any time for that matter.”

  “You said now! Martin, what’s wrong? What’s happened? Are you ill?…Shall I call a doctor?”

  He shook his head. “No, I’ve had a doctor. That’s really what I went to London for. It’s nothing you need worry about…But perhaps I’d better go to bed now—and rest. I assure you it’s nothing you need worry about.…It’s—er—to do with my eyes. I’ve known for some time they weren’t quite as they should be. Old Whiteside diagnosed it wrong, of course…Well, anyhow, let’s hope those records turn up. At least I can hear properly.”

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