Authors: James Hilton
Of course Charles thought the whole thing preposterous and a disturbing symptom of his father's heightened irresponsibility. He could not decide on the motive; whether Havelock by the completely unnecessary reference to 'my son' had sought deliberately to involve him in unpleasantness; or whether he had merely surrendered to some euphoria in which his mind (not for the first time) operated without judgment. Charles told him frankly that if the story got around it couldn't exactly help a budding diplomatic or any other kind of career. 'The fellow you called a swine may be the one I'll be having to ask for a job one of these days.'
Suddenly deflated, Havelock then claimed that this had never occurred to him, and that in any case the risk of real harm was trivial. Perhaps it was, Charles admitted; only time would show. When later the whole incident seemed without result of any kind, Charles could only conclude that the letter had attracted absolutely no attention, and that people to whom his father had talked had merely disregarded him as a crank. Full relief came later still, when The Times proved its unawareness by printing Havelock's next letter, which was innocuously concerned with the migratory behaviour of the green sandpiper.
But for the time, during that first week of the Easter vacation, it was only behind a curtain of exasperation that Charles could savour his own private happiness--the thought of the Wednesday ahead, the Wednesday he had chosen as just a random day for meeting Lily again, but which already he wished had been Monday or Tuesday.
* * * * *
As soon as he saw her pushing through the swing-doors of the Kingsway office he knew she had dressed up, and though she would have looked just as well to him in what she had worn at their first meeting, he was touched. Naturally, as a man, but still more as a man of his class, he had not thought to do anything similar. There were certain things one wore in the country and slightly different fashions at Oxford or Cambridge, and a third set of rules for London--none of them more difficult than the task of choosing a good tailor and paying his bills. Charles had indeed been in a state of high excitement as he dressed at Beeching that morning, but so far as clothes were concerned, he was just going up to town for the day, and anyone who saw him waiting on the platform at Stow Magna would have known exactly that.
They shook hands and for a moment were both of them nervous and almost speechless till he raised his arm to halt a passing taxi. 'We'll decide where we'll go while we're going,' he said gaily. And then to the driver: 'Trafalgar Square, to begin with.'
But he found she had very few ideas about lunch. It seemed that on certain gala occasions she had been to the Strand Palace and the Regent Palace, which she had thought very splendid; but they were not his style, and since he could not afford Claridge's or the Ritz, he wondered if she would be disappointed with the kind of restaurant that suited both his tastes and his pocket pretty well. There was one he and Brunon had discovered, called Le Beau Soleil, in Soho--a small foreign place with no marble and gilt about it, just a few tables in a plain room, rather grubby menus, and a good cuisine for the price. So he said, taking her arm in the taxi: 'Let's go somewhere I once went to--nothing much, but at least it's quiet and we can talk.' It wasn't even quiet; what he meant was that there was no six-piece orchestra booming out popular tunes to drown conversation or to fill the gap of silence between people who had nothing to say.
It troubled him to think that Le Beau Soleil might disappoint her; but soon he realized how willing she was, at all times beginning with that first one, to go where he took her and to be actively, not merely passively, happy about it. There was a sense, indeed, in which everything that ever happened to her was a gala occasion, needing no particular background to make her enjoy it to the full.
They had the plat du jour and she refused wine but drank several cups of coffee. The room was downstairs from the street level, in a sort of semi-basement whose windows looked up beyond a railed area to the pavement. One saw the legs of people passing continuously, but no more of them than that without craning one's neck. Sometimes a pair of legs would stop--perhaps to rest, or during the lighting of a cigarette, or for no special reason at all-- and then proceed again. Sometimes a pair of legs would stop close to another pair of legs--a meeting. It was amusing to guess, and then to lean sideways to verify. Once a man stooped and stared, presumably to see if the restaurant was full; it was the only outside face they saw, and behind the railings it looked like that of some strange crouching animal in a cage. 'But HE sees US through the bars,' she said. 'Maybe to him it looks as if WE'RE in the cage.'
'I've often had the same thought at the Zoo. . . . You like the Zoo?'
'I've never been,' she answered.
That seemed to him quite amazing. 'You've never been to the Zoo?'
'I've never been anywhere much--except round about where I live.'
He found, by closer questioning, that this was true--she had visited hardly any of London's famous sights; all she really knew of the city was the daily route by bus or tube from the station to the office, plus a few jaunts to cinemas and theatres. She had never been to the British Museum, though it was only a short stroll from where she usually had lunch. But she had been to Madame Tussaud's, and Charles hadn't. 'Reg took me. He wanted to see the Chamber of Horrors.' She didn't explain who Reg was, and Charles didn't ask; but the mere existence of a Reg stirred in him a desire to be the first to take her to all the places that Reg had so far neglected.
He got an impression that she had lived a very sheltered life at home--and of course there had been the war years during which sightseeing wasn't easy or always possible. She said she had reached the top class at Linstead High School for Girls, and had gone straight to an office job on leaving. 'We learned French at school,' she said proudly, 'but I don't remember much now.' This came out when the proprietor greeted them at their table and Charles addressed him in fluent French, resulting in the discovery that Le Beau Soleil was owned and managed by a Greek, and Charles did not know any modern Greek. He realized then from his dismay how much he had been wanting to show off in that particular fashion.
Suddenly, over a third cup of coffee, she noticed the clock. 'Oh, my goodness--a quarter to three. I'll have to run. Mr. Graybar . . .'
'May I say damn Mr. Graybar?'
She giggled. 'I've said that many a time. . . . It's all right, though--we're not so busy today and I'll work late tonight to make up for it. . . . But whatever could we have been talking about all this time?'
And that was a question hard to answer. For they had talked unceasingly, yet not about anything important. Just their own everyday affairs, which interested each other the more they were revealed, though Charles was still reluctant to be as frank as she was. It was strange; he did not mind impressing her with news of Cambridge, and the work he was doing, and his fluent French, but he did not want her to know much about Beeching. Yet perhaps he had been less reticent than he supposed, or else she had intuition about it, for in the taxi on the way back to Kingsway she said: 'Your family are rather well off, aren't they?'
'Oh no, not really. You can be poor nowadays if you own land. My father often has trouble paying his bills.'
'Do you own a lot of land?'
'Just farmland. All of it wouldn't be worth as much as a few square feet round here.' That was an exaggeration, but he wanted to minimize certain differences between them. Other differences he didn't mind--some even amused him. Her naďveté, for instance, and her lack of the pseudo-sophistication that most girls had--a lack which he knew had nothing to do with primness or being straitlaced. He noticed this when she declined a cigarette. 'You don't smoke or drink, Lily?'
'Well, I've tried them both, but dad doesn't like me to, till I'm older. And it costs money.'
'How much do you earn--if it isn't something I oughtn't to ask?'
'Why not? . . . Two pounds fifteen a week.' Charles was shocked; he had no idea that wages in offices were so low. But she seemed to think she was well paid. 'I'll say that for Mr. Graybar, he's not mean if you can do your job. He gave me the extra five shillings last New Year without even being asked. Of course I live at home, that makes it easy. I give my mum thirty shillings--she won't take any more. She's awfully good to me.'
He was beginning to realize already that Lily found most people 'awfully good' and therefore easy to excuse, forgive, appreciate, and love. And if love were too strong a word, surely any other would not have been strong enough for the emotion that radiated from her in all human directions. She loved her mother and father, her sisters and brother, the girls she worked with at the office; she even loved, in a sort of way, the redoubtable Mr. Graybar. And she had a bright cloudless mind that threaded the love into the pattern of all her behaviour. He could tell that from an incident when the cab waited in a traffic block at the corner of Aldwych. A queue was lined up for the gallery of a theatre and the usual buskers were doing their turns at the kerbside. One of them, singing in a cracked voice almost inaudible above street noises, turned to the cab and thrust his cap through the open window. The manner of the appeal was impertinent and the driver gestured him off, as Charles would have also had he not seen Lily fishing in her handbag.
'No, no, let ME. . . .' He managed to find a shilling in his pocket and dropped it in the man's cap.
'You shouldn't have done that,' she said, when the cab moved away.
'Why not? YOU were going to.'
'But a SHILLING!' she protested. 'They don't expect that much. Goodness, nobody could afford to, if it had to be a shilling.'
'So you always give to them?'
'If I'm passing I sometimes do. Some of them are really good singers, and if they aren't you feel sorry for them. . . . Only a few coppers, of course.'
'I'll bet that fellow didn't need money as much as you do. I'll bet he makes more in a day than you earn in a week.'
'But if people always thought like that they'd never give anything to anybody.' The cab was making the turn into Kingsway. 'Oh, Charlie, I've had such a wonderful time. I can't remember when I've talked so much. Next time I'll try not to.'
He took her hand in an uprush of exultation that gave his voice a tremor. 'Well, when shall it be--NEXT TIME? TONIGHT? What time do you leave the office?'
'Oh no, I'll be working late, and besides, they'll expect me at home.'
'You could telephone.'
'We haven't got a telephone at home--'
'How can you work late then, if they expect you--'
'Just an hour or so late doesn't matter--they're used to that. But if I went out for the evening--'
'That's what we'll do, the next time. The whole evening. The next time I come to the Museum. That'll be soon.' (But how soon? Not before the term began again? Could he endure such a delay?) 'What about the week after next? Wednesday again? We'll have dinner.'
They fixed a time and a place. There wasn't a whiff of coquetry in the way she agreed to what she was so willing and happy to do, and for that matter both 'the next time' and 'the evening' had been her words before his. It was also comforting, up to a point, to think that she probably loved him no less--and perhaps more already--than some of the other inhabitants of her world.
* * * * *
He did not overwork at the Museum that afternoon, and at Beeching, during the ensuing fortnight, he began to assemble the thesis into final shape. There was much more to be done for the Tripos examination than just that, but he would have all the following term for the rest of it once the thesis was out of the way. He found it hard to work at Beeching, and several times after breakfast he walked the dogs or rode his bicycle a few miles to some hill with a view or a tree-shaded river bank where he could concentrate on a book till distractions came--rain or a chill wind or his own thoughts tempting him to dream.
One morning he received a wire from Brunon suggesting a meeting somewhere immediately, since Brunon had accepted a post in France and would soon be leaving England. Charles had the idea to invite him to Beeching, and it was arranged that he should come to lunch and dinner and stay overnight. Brunon duly arrived and met Havelock, who turned on the charm and proved an entirely delightful host. There were such times as this when Charles felt, not so much that he loved his father, as that the emotion of loving a father would have been a satisfying one if he could ever have been given long enough to develop it.
During the drive to the station the next morning Brunon hinted at another holiday in France during the coming summer. 'We might go to the Cevennes and see those towns built on the tops of hills. I think you would find things to paint there.'
Charles answered vaguely, not because the idea did not attract but because his thoughts of Lily made the future hard to delimit. Brunon noticed this and continued: 'Well, let me know if you can manage it. . . . Or perhaps you have lost a little of your interest in painting since our Normandy excursion?'
'Not a bit. It's just that I'm working so hard and don't have as much time.'
'But you have scarcely mentioned painting while I have been here?'
'I don't often talk about it in front of my father. He isn't very interested.' Then Charles told Brunon about Charnock's visit and the opinion of Charles's work he had expressed.
Brunon snorted. 'That old pompier! What could you have expected? Pretty ladies on chocolate-box lids--it is all he is good enough for.'
'He did a portrait of my mother. I don't know if you noticed it-- over the mantelpiece in the hall.'
'I did, but I did not know it was your mother. A very beautiful woman--though not, in my opinion, a very notable painting. Just competent and commercial. And who am I, you may ask, to despise either quality? You are right: I am nobody, and my opinion, as I have often told you, is of no value whatever.'
Charles smiled. 'I have a feeling it is, if only because you've never told me
have any genius.'