Authors: James Hilton
'But there are still some doubts in mine.'
'I know. It has been rather sudden--I mean, my decision what to do. I did not reach it, finally, till I walked past Rocher's by chance last night. By chance. Utterly by chance. My body was wandering with my mind--not far, but suddenly too far ever to return. I was under a considerable strain, you understand, and to see you there so comfortable, so gemütlich, eating your ice cream like a good bourgeois--to see you there so--so en famille . . . for I took the lady to be attached to you and not to your son till you explained. But perhaps I was right after all. If so, I congratulate you. Only in America could anyone so charming be still unmarried. It is a great country and they are a great people. Just think--they call this city Paris, France, in order to avoid any possible confusion with Paris, Texas, and Paris, Illinois.'
Charles smiled. 'I think your mind's still wandering. Let's get back to the point. Where were we?'
'In the Paris streets. You cannot imagine what my emotions were. I had walked for hours--and miles.'
Charles said quietly, as to himself: '"It is not many miles to Mantua, no further than the end of this mad world".'
'A quotation . . . nothing . . . MY mind was doing it then. . . . Go on.'
'There is no more to say. I am just waiting . . . for courage . . . to destroy by a single act the work and faith of a lifetime.'
'Perhaps the faith, at least, is already destroyed.'
'Yes . . . dissolved in fear.'
'And disappointment. I don't think, Palan, fear alone would have brought you.'
'You are kind to say that. It is why I have come to you instead of Sir Malcolm--a whim, I admit--just as the condemned man in one of your English prisons is allowed to choose what he wants for his last breakfast--how truly civilized that is! . . . Forgive me--I am overwrought, near the breaking point, and at such a time I cannot help seeming to take these matters lightly.'
'I understand. I'm a little bit like that myself.'
'I have noticed it, and it makes you simpatico--whereas I do not find Sir Malcolm simpatico.'
Charles could not repress a sharp twinge of pleasure, for he too had never found Sir Malcolm simpatico. He said: 'Sir Malcolm's indisposed, anyway, so perhaps--'
'Perhaps it is even en rčgle then, as well as a whim, that I should put myself in your hands?'
'In MY hands?'
Palan bowed slightly. 'If you do not object, M'sieur.'
'Oh, not at all, not at all.' Charles muttered the formula with which an Englishman sloughs off anything that causes him too little concern--or too much. As he did so he returned Palan's glance levelly and with a good deal of shrewdness. The situation was clearly of a kind he had read about lately, in newspapers and books and also in official reports; it had not happened to him before, but it had to a few others, though perhaps never so disconcertingly as to that Scottish nobleman when Rudolf Hess suddenly dropped into his back garden. . . . Charles said, as casually as he could to cover the flurry of his thoughts: 'Very well, Palan . . . but of course you know I can't promise anything officially--I'll have to talk to Sir Malcolm tomorrow, and he'll no doubt refer the matter to London . . . Though naturally if there's anything on your mind I'm at your service for as long as you wish--all night if necessary.'
'So now at last you are willing to lose your sleep?'
'In a good cause--always. Do you mind if I jot down a few things as you talk?'
'You evidently take it for granted that I have much to say.'
'I would assume so, yes. You'd hardly expect us to accept your bona fides without some more--or perhaps I should say--some LESS tangible evidence than yourself in person.'
'Not only simpatico but a smart cookie.'
'American for clever chap. You should learn American--might be useful some day.' And then, as if a breaking point had actually been reached, Palan's mouth became shapeless and speechless for a moment, while his eyes could only stare strickenly. Charles said, with sudden compassion: 'I've no authority to say this, but if I were you I wouldn't worry about catching that plane tomorrow.'
'Or about NOT catching it?'
'Perhaps that's what I really meant. Because surely there comes a time when counting the cost and paying the price aren't things to think about any more. All that matters is value--the ultimate value of what one does.'
'That has been your philosophy?'
'I've tried to make it so.'
Palan mopped his forehead and Charles waited, feeling he had said all he could to convey those of his emotions that were both expressible and permissible. After a long pause Palan said: 'I beg your pardon. I am in control now.' He moved his hand again to the bottle. 'May I--once more?'
'Certainly.' But Charles took it and began to fix the drink this time--a much less potent one. While he was so engaged he said quietly: 'So you were born at Nizhni-Novgorod.'
'You know the city?'
'I've never been there. It used to have a big fair every year, didn't it?'
'Oh yes. The Nizhni-Novgorod fair was famous all over the world. In those days. But not any more. Nothing is the same any more.'
'No, I suppose not.' Charles handed him the glass. 'Don't gulp it now. It's whisky, you know--not ice cream.'
Perhaps because this was the feeblest of all the jokes that had passed between them, they both laughed immoderately, seeking to relieve the tension that had gripped them and was also drawing them together. Then Palan said: 'Before I begin to talk seriously . . . one more toast--to OURSELVES--to the stuffy shirt and to the old hothead . . . The one not so hot, as they say in America, and the other--perhaps--not always so stuffy. . . .' He raised his glass. 'I take it that the nickname is from the phrase "stuffy shirt", is it not?'
'You mean STUFFED,' Charles corrected. 'No, nothing to do with it at all--at least, not in origin. But never mind . . . let's get to work.' He raised his own glass and muttered 'Cheers' or something that remotely sounded like it, then drew a notebook and pencil from a drawer of the desk.
* * * * *
Late one night a week later Charles wrote from his room at the Crillon:
My dear Anne,
I daresay you'll have seen from your Times and Herald-Tribune that l'affaire Palan has become public. It's pretty big news in the English and European papers, and my name has been given some prominence--more, in fact, than a minor diplomat could expect or desire. I must say it seems odd that after a lifetime of doing my job with fair success and no publicity at all I should suddenly achieve headline fame (or is it notoriety?) because an allegedly reformed character calls me simpatico and gives me the kind of eulogy generally reserved for obituaries. Of course the situation, as well as being politically gratifying, has caused some private amusement among our own people, but I shall hope to live it down if only Palan will stop giving interviews. However, the whole thing is probably no more than a nine days' wonder, though it will give me something extra to put in my book--which, by the way (and doubtless as a result), Macmillans have tentatively agreed to publish. So I really must begin work on the thing soon.
The new man they sent over to take Palan's place is just what he forecast--glum, grim, youngish, bald, and pink-cheeked, like a rather nightmarish baby. We have had our first clash already. Somehow, though, I don't think our people will waste much more time here--everything since the Palan defection has been really anticlimax. I shan't be sorry to get back to London again, especially now you are back in America. In a rather complicated way (which I shall perhaps have the chance of explaining to you some time) you yourself are at least partly responsible for the outcome of the Palan thing, though of course neither of us could have been even remotely aware of any such chain of cause and effect-- any more than (I will also explain this to you some time) the monkey that bit the King of Greece in 1920 could ever have supposed he was changing the history of the world. On consideration the parallel does not seem too flattering, but I will let it stand since (after so much that Palan has said about me) my reputation as a farceur is well established . . .
And now to more personal matters . . .
Several months later Charles wrote from his flat in Knightsbridge:
My dear Anne,
Thanks for your congratulations. Of course it's just a routine thing they give you more or less automatically when you've been a certain amount of time in the Service. I'm rather surprised the American papers made any mention of it--it was only in small print even over here. No, it doesn't carry a handle, thank goodness. Like my father, who was Sir Havelock for forty years, I'm snobbish enough to feel that a knighthood would put one on a level with many people one wouldn't care about--though of course if I were ever offered it (which isn't, I think, any longer a good bet) I should probably rejoice in secret. Anyhow, the C.M.G. leaves me very happily plain mister--it's really nothing but a small enamel cross hanging on a red and blue ribbon just below the white tie when one wears tails--and nowadays, even in London, there are few such occasions . . .
. . . Gerald has just gone back to school after a fine Christmas we had together in the Lake District, doing some of the easier climbs-- easier for him, that is, with his six-foot reach. He's very well and happy and has got to know a girl of about his own age to whom I can only apply the adjective 'strapping' in revenge for the one which, he reported, she bestowed on me--'spry'. Now how do you like that? Am I spry? Gerald met her halfway up a mountain, or halfway down, whichever way you look at it, but the way he looks at it is that fate engineered the whole thing. Perhaps it did. She's a nice girl, anyhow. . .
. . . and Palan continues to enjoy the favour that so often in this world seems to be granted to the one rather than to the ninety-and- nine. I understand he's already negotiating with Korda for the motion picture rights of his life story . . .
. . . and I have the interesting news, which I hope will please you, that I shall soon be crossing the ocean for a short spell in Washington--nothing uniquely important except to me personally, since there'll be a chance to see you. I shall arrive in New York about the tenth of next month . . .
. . . and now, before I send this off, may I add how much I . . .
* * * * *
When he had sealed and addressed the envelope Charles pottered about for a while, looking for that last little thing he would do before going to bed. He took out his notes for the book, but could think of nothing to add to them; then he pulled aside the curtains and looked down on the cars and buses cruising under the lights of a second post-war London in his lifetime. He felt that so many things had happened before, even though far differently, and the thing to do was perhaps just to sit by the window for a few minutes and remember how.