Authors: James Hilton
'Genius is a foolish word. It is not a label to be pinned on like a medal. Most likely you haven't got it, whatever it is--that I will readily admit. Maybe I would not recognize it even if you had it. I can only say that one of your paintings--the one of the ruins at Jumičges on that day when the white clouds were so big-- you remember?--I showed that to a friend in Paris.' He mentioned the name of a well-known dealer who had made a fortune by commissioning and marketing the work of the newer school of post- impressionists.
Charles forced a mask of nonchalance over his excitement. 'And did he say I had any genius?'
'Did he even offer you a price for the picture?'
'No. But he said something he would not have said if he had been quite sure you had only talent. He said you should go on painting for ten years and then, if he was still alive, let him see something else.'
Charles laughed and took Brunon's arm affectionately. 'Ten years, André . . . that's quite a time to wait, isn't it? Not that I'd mind a bit.'
* * * * *
Wednesday came and he went to London and took Lily to dinner at Le Beau Soleil. They talked till he had to leave to catch the last train that would get him back to Beeching that night (or rather, early the next morning); and this decided him that next time he would stay overnight at a hotel. He did so the following week, but then there was HER train home to consider; it left Liverpool Street at five minutes past midnight. 'Oh no, it isn't the last one, Charlie--trains go to Chilford every hour all night--that's the station after Linstead--but Dad doesn't like me to miss the twelve- five.' Of course he suggested seeing her home, which she wouldn't hear of at first--she said there was really no need, she was used to the journey alone and her parents' house was only a few minutes' walk from Linstead station. But it wasn't merely politeness, he explained; he really wanted that extra time with her, and since she also wanted it with him she soon relented. So it came about that at one o'clock on a spring morning, full of the scent of trees just breaking into bud, Charles saw Linstead for the first time.
Linstead is one of those huge dormitory suburbs of London that have spread till they touch other suburbs on all sides, like adjacent blobs of ink on blotting paper. You never know when you have entered or left Linstead unless you notice the slightly different ornamentation on the lamp-posts or a faint change in the texture of the road surfaces. The town has a core of history at its centre--a few old cottages in the widened High Road and a parish church rebuilt on the site of an earlier one; but for the most part (say ninety-nine per cent) Linstead is recent without being modern. Streets of small two-storied houses were pushed into a then open countryside by the speculative builder during the first decade of the century, their names sufficiently dating them--Kitchener, Roberts, Mafeking, Ladysmith. Lily lived in Ladysmith Road--Number 214, which was exactly like Numbers 212 and 216, to which it was physically joined, sharing the walls of both. For that matter it was exactly like every other house in Ladysmith Road, beginning on one side with Number 2 and going up to 278, and on the other side from 1 to 277.
Charles had never explored a suburb of this kind, never before having known anybody who lived in one, but he knew something of what they were like because every railway out of London in every direction ran through miles of them. The backs of the joined houses passed before the train traveller's eye in long successions, with gardens reaching to within a few feet of the tracks. Nobody could visit London frequently without sometimes, in sheer idleness, observing these back gardens, for they showed all the evidence of individuality that the houses so totally withheld. A paradise of flowers could succeed a littered wasteland in a second of train time; and on fine days the occupants were all so differently busy-- boys mending bicycles, men digging, women chattering to neighbours across fences or hanging up clothes. Even an animal population throve variously--cats and dogs, rabbits in hutches, birds in cages; and once Charles had seen a monkey in a red jacket strutting along a garden path with its proud owner.
But at the front of the houses facing the street all was uniform and characterless. The gardens there were small, with no more than a privet hedge to shield the bay windows from stares of passers-by-- though for added protection the windows themselves were veiled with thick lace curtains. In Ladysmith Road the bay windows stretched for half a mile without a break, and because the road was so respectable there was not so much as a damaged fence or a house turned into a shop to break the monotony. Charles, however, came upon it first at night, when the municipal lamps made a golden lane between structural perspectives that might have been Versailles for all he could see of them.
What he noticed most, during that first walk home with Lily from Linstead station, was that she seemed so thoroughly satisfied with the place. She pointed to the new cinema just opened in the High Road; she showed him the Carnegie Library and the secondary school and the shopping area which for some things, she claimed, was almost as good as the West End and much cheaper. But what stirred her to real boasting were the trees. Every road in Linstead, she said (and in Linstead the streets were all called roads), had trees planted on each side at intervals of a few yards, so that as they grew they would make long leafy avenues the like of which were not (she assured him) to be seen in any other suburb. And who did he think was largely responsible for this? 'My dad . . . he's in the Parks Department--it was his idea and at first the Council wouldn't agree because of the cost, but after a while they tried it in a few of the roads and it looked so nice they did it in all of them. My dad chooses the trees for the different roads--for Ladysmith Road he chose laburnum. This is Ladysmith Road. It'll look lovely in a few weeks.'
'I think it does now.' Which only meant that he was with her still, treasuring the last few moments before he must walk back to the station alone, but not knowing when exactly that last moment would come, since she hadn't told him the number of the house. It might be the next one, and too late. So there and then, a few laburnum trees away from Number 214, he stopped and pulled her into an embrace. He was shy and a little clumsy about it, but she yielded so utterly that he found confidence as well as ecstasy. 'Lily . . . are you surprised? You know I love you? . . . Do you?'
'Darling, yes. All along I have. But I didn't know if you . . . and now I'm so happy . . .'
He knew she had answered the question he hadn't yet asked, and how like her not to waste time, to let her mind race with her heart. They stood together for a long moment, exchanging words that fell away into speechlessness. Suddenly a large ginger cat sprang from a nearby garden and squirmed against them. She laughed herself out of his arms and stooped to caress the animal. 'Midge, Midge. . . . This is Mrs. Carroway's cat--she lives next door. . . . Midge, it's time I was home, isn't it? . . . Oh, Charlie, I won't sleep tonight and the South African mail goes out tomorrow, we'll be terribly busy at the office . . . Charlie, darling, I'm so happy . . . good night . . . Midge, Midge, Midge . . .'
She ran away, waving to him, the cat following her.
* * * * *
A week later Charles returned to Cambridge. On the way across London he met Lily for lunch and it was agreed that he must work hard and without time off till the examination. She not only consented, she insisted on it. Whatever happened, he must not neglect his work, though if she could help him by typing his notes . . . wasn't there anything like that she could do? 'Charlie, I know how important the examination is. That's why I don't mind not seeing you. We can write, of course, but send your letters to the office because the post comes at home after I leave in the morning.'
Within a week he had written that he must see her sooner, he couldn't wait till the end of term, he would take a day off the following week and come to London--he would work all the better
afterwards, he was certain. She wrote back a firm no, but after a second letter in which he said her refusal had made it hard for him to work at all, she gave in. Then, when they did meet, it was as if the last barrier had broken down and they could no longer think of their relationship as limitable either by times or places.
So thereafter, and throughout the term, meetings were every other week in London--on Saturdays, as a rule, since she finished work at one and they could spend the afternoon and evening together. Sundays, of course, she was entirely free, but that wouldn't have served, because she was expected to be at home most of the day unless she said where she was going and with whom. Without ever discussing exactly why, they both felt they had better keep their relationship as private as possible; all Charles's instincts were against letting his father know about her, though it was less clear why Lily had told her own parents so little about him. 'Of course they know there IS somebody, Charlie--and they know you're at Cambridge College. . . . But my dad--well, he's a bit old- fashioned about some things.'
On those Saturdays they went to all kinds of places--parks, museums, art galleries, the Zoo, the river up to Richmond and as far down as Woolwich. Sometimes they would take a bus at random and travel 'all the way', wherever it might lead and even in pouring rain; and then in some corner of a café in an unknown suburb find shelter and privacy. The hours sped by, no matter where they went. Usually he saw her home before beginning his own return journey, for he had to be back in college by midnight, and this meant catching the last train from Liverpool Street and a wild rush through Cambridge streets--scampering and running if the train were punctual, taking a cab if not. He managed to get in before the gates closed on every occasion except one, when there was thick fog; but this enabled him to clamber over the ancient college wall unobserved, following a tradition that was itself quite ancient. He barked his shins and ruined a pair of trousers and felt very adventurous. Those were happy days.
Once he took her to the Alhambra, where they saw a pale and polite resuscitation of the old-fashioned music-hall. But Little Tich was on the programme, and though far past his prime, was still incomparable. It was a twice-nightly show and they went again to the second 'house', staying just to see Little Tich. 'My mum and dad used to see him when they were young,' she said, enraptured. 'That was at the old Collins in Islington. They lived in Islington then. My dad was born there, and my granddad was born in a house that was pulled down to build St. Pancras Station. We're real Cockneys--on my dad's side. Mum comes from Norfolk. She was a cook in a big house and dad travelled for a firm that put water- pipes in greenhouses. That's how they met. He gave her a rose and she gave him a meat pie. They often laugh about it now. Funny, isn't it, to think of your parents just before they see each other for the first time, not knowing what's ahead--'
'WE'RE ahead,' said Charles. 'That's why it's funny.' But he was thinking that he didn't know where or how his own parents had met, and to change the subject even in his mind he added: 'So they got married and came to London and lived happily ever after?'
'Oh yes. They have tiffs sometimes, of course. Dad bringing in mud from the garden and things like that. Nothing serious. They both like a quiet life. Most years they go to the seaside for a week. Mum always liked Margate--that's where they had their honeymoon--but dad's a bit of a roamer.'
'So they roam?'
'They generally go to Margate. Or Broadstairs.'
Another time, on one of those Saturday excursions, he took a sketch- book with him. In a few minutes, while she watched, he roughed out an impression of the Serpentine on a May afternoon--children paddling and couples on the grass and riders close by along the Row. It was not very good because he had been showing off a little, anxious also not to spend much of their limited time on something he could do just as well on his own. If only their meetings could be oftener and for longer--if only he could take a holiday with her as he had with Brunon, driving an old car from village to village with no need to worry about missing trains or getting home late. . . .
She was captivated by the sketch and begged it from him. 'It's nothing,' he said, which was almost the truth. 'I've always liked trying to put what I see on paper. I paint a little, too, when I have time.' He was deliberately casual about it. He wanted her to ask to see his paintings and was slightly disappointed when she didn't, though it would have been hard to arrange if she had. Then he realized that such reticence was part of her entire attitude; despite willing gossip about her own and her family's affairs, she was equally willing not to know the things he did not choose to disclose. Likewise she accepted all his suggestions for places to visit, neither in subservience nor indifference, but from a simple pleasure she took in doing whatever he wanted.
She was small, physically, and all his own preferences were permanently set by it--her height was the right height, the crook of her arm in his had the cosy curve and pressure, beauty to him was in the angle of her upward glance as they walked along. And she was LOVING--in a curious way that warmed the blood yet cooled the fever of it. Many times he waited for her at street corners and on railway platforms and always, at the revelation that it was she and none of the hundreds of others that had passed or were passing, something in his mind clicked into certainty, like a key turning in a lock.
One evening as he was taking her home they met the Superintendent of Parks enjoying his evening stroll along Ladysmith Road. Naturally she made the introductions, and Charles noticed that after the first instant of surprise she showed little nervousness or embarrassment, but was clearly moved by an affection for both of them that made the whole encounter cordial. Mr. Mansfield was plump and slow-moving; the pursuit of horticulture under a municipal employer seemed to have given him a special serenity compounded of having a job he both enjoyed and could not lose. His high-pitched squeaky voice and Cockney accent (much more noticeable than Lily's) were odd but not inharmonious with his solid frame and deliberate movements.