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Events of International Significance
Mr Cardinal’s father, a close friend and colleague of his lordship’s for many years, had been tragically killed in a riding accident three or four years earlier. Meanwhile, young Mr Cardinal had become a journalist famous for his funny, clever articles on international affairs.
Lord Darlington did not like Mr Cardinal’s articles very much. He often used to look up from his newspaper and say something like:
‘Young Reggie’s writing such nonsense again. I’m glad his father’s not alive to read this.’
But Mr Cardinal’s articles did not prevent him from being a frequent visitor at the house. Indeed, his lordship treated him like a member of his own family, although Mr Cardinal still always gave prior warning of his visits. That evening, therefore, I was a little surprised when I answered the door and saw him standing there.
‘Oh, hello, Stevens, how are you?’ he said. ‘I was just wondering if I could stay for the night. I’ve got a bit of a problem, I’m afraid.’
‘It is very nice to see you again, sir. I shall tell his lordship you are here.’
‘I had intended to stay at Mr Roland’s place, but there’s been a misunderstanding and they’ve gone away somewhere. I hope it’s not too inconvenient. I mean, there aren’t any special arrangements for tonight, are there?’
‘I believe, sir, that his lordship is expecting some gentlemen to call after dinner.’
‘Oh, that’s bad luck. I seem to have chosen a bad night. I’d better stay out of the way, I think. I’ve got some work to do, anyway.’
‘I shall tell his lordship that you are here, sir. You are in good time to join him for dinner.’
I left Mr Cardinal in the drawing room and made my way to the study, where his lordship was working on some papers. When I told him of Mr Cardinal’s arrival, a look of surprised annoyance crossed his face. Then he leaned back in his chair with a deep frown.
‘Tell Mr Cardinal I’ll be down soon,’ he said finally.
When I returned downstairs, I discovered Mr Cardinal walking around the drawing room. He seemed rather nervous. I gave him his lordship’s message and asked him if he would like some refreshments.
‘Just some tea, thank you, Stevens. Who is his lordship expecting tonight?’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid I’m unable to tell you.’
‘No idea at all?’
‘I’m sorry, sir.’
‘Hmm, interesting. Oh well, I’d better stay out of the way.’
Soon afterwards, I went down to Miss Kenton’s room. She was sitting at her table, although there was nothing in front of her and her hands were empty. Indeed, something about her suggested that she had been sitting like that for some time.
‘Mr Cardinal is here, Miss Kenton,’ I said. ‘He’ll require his usual room tonight.’
‘Very well, Mr Stevens. I shall prepare it before I leave.’
‘Ah, you are going out this evening, Miss Kenton?’
‘I am indeed, Mr Stevens.’
Perhaps I looked a little surprised, for she went on:
‘You will recall, Mr Stevens, that we discussed this a fortnight ago.’
‘Yes, of course, Miss Kenton. I beg your pardon. I had forgotten.’
‘Is something the matter, Mr Stevens?’
‘Not at all, Miss Kenton. Some visitors are expected this evening, but your presence will not be required.’
‘We agreed a fortnight ago, Mr Stevens, that I could have this evening off.’
‘Of course, Miss Kenton. I do beg your pardon.’
I turned to leave, but then I was stopped at the door by Miss Kenton saying:
‘Mr Stevens, I have something to tell you.’
‘Yes, Miss Kenton?’
‘It is about my friend, whom I am going to meet tonight.’
‘Yes, Miss Kenton.’
‘He has asked me to marry him. I thought I ought to tell you.’
‘Indeed, Miss Kenton. That is very interesting.’
‘I have not made up my mind yet. He starts a new job in the West Country next month. As I say, I haven’t decided yet. But I thought you should be informed of the situation.’
‘I’m very grateful, Miss Kenton. I do hope you have a pleasant evening. Now please excuse me.’
I met Miss Kenton again about twenty minutes later. I was halfway up the back stairs carrying a heavy tray when I heard the sound of angry footsteps on the floor below me. Turning, I saw Miss Kenton staring up at me from the foot of the stairs.
‘Mr Stevens, do I understand that you wish me to remain on duty this evening?’
‘Not at all, Miss Kenton. As you explained, you did inform me of your intentions some time ago.’
‘But I can see you are very unhappy about my absence tonight.’
‘Not at all, Miss Kenton.’
‘Then why are you making so much noise in the kitchen? And why do you keep marching up and down the corridor outside my room? Were you hoping to make me change my mind?’
‘Miss Kenton, the slight excitement in the kitchen is only because Mr Cardinal has come to dinner. There is absolutely no reason why you should not go out this evening.’
‘I intend to go out, Mr Stevens. I wish to make this clear. I made arrangements weeks ago.’
‘Indeed, Miss Kenton. And once again, I wish you a very pleasant evening.’
There was an odd atmosphere at dinner that evening between the two gentlemen. For long moments, they ate in silence. During one of these silences, Mr Cardinal said: ‘Something special tonight, sir?’
‘Your visitors this evening. Special?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you, my boy.’
‘Oh dear. I suppose this means I can’t join you.’
‘Join me in what?’
‘Whatever’s taking place tonight.’
‘Oh, it wouldn’t interest you. Besides, it’s private. And you’re a journalist.’
After dinner, the gentlemen went into the smoking room. However, in contrast to their quiet mood at dinner, they soon began to exchange angry words with each other. Of course, I did not stop to listen, but I could not avoid hearing his lordship shouting: ‘But that’s not your business, my boy! Not your business!’
I was in the dining room when the two gentlemen eventually came out. They seemed calmer. As they crossed the hall, his lordship turned to Mr Cardinal and said: ‘Now remember, my boy I’m trusting you.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Mr Cardinal said with some annoyance. ‘I promise.’
At eight thirty, I heard the sound of motors outside. I opened the door to a policeman. Over his shoulder I could see that other policemen with guns were moving off in different directions. The next moment, I was showing two very important gentlemen into the hall, where they were met by his lordship. He quickly took them into the drawing room.
Ten minutes later there was the sound of another car and I opened the door to Herr Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador. He, too, disappeared quickly into the drawing room. A few minutes later, when I was called in to provide refreshments, the four gentlemen were discussing sausages. The atmosphere seemed, on the surface, quite friendly.
After serving the four gentlemen with drinks, I went to my position near the entrance in the hall. I had been standing there for two hours when the back doorbell was rung. When I went down, I discovered a policeman standing there with Miss Kenton. He asked me to confirm her identity. Minutes later, as I was shutting the door, I noticed Miss Kenton waiting for me, and said: ‘I hope you had a pleasant evening, Miss Kenton.’
She made no reply, so I repeated my comment as we were crossing the floor of the unlit kitchen.
‘I did, thank you, Mr Stevens,’ she said at last.
‘I’m pleased to hear that.’
Behind me, Miss Kenton’s footsteps suddenly stopped, and I heard her say:
‘Are you not at all interested in what took place between my friend and me, Mr Stevens?’
‘I do not mean to be rude, Miss Kenton, but I really must return upstairs immediately. Events of international significance are taking place in this house.’
‘Very well, Mr Stevens. As you are in such a hurry, I shall be brief. I have accepted my friend’s proposal of marriage.’
‘Really, Miss Kenton? Then may I offer you my congratulations.’
‘Thank you, Mr Stevens. Of course, I will not break my contract, but I would be very grateful if you could release me earlier. My friend begins his new job in the West Country in two weeks’ time.’
‘I will do my best to find a replacement at the earliest opportunity, Miss Kenton,’ I said. ‘Now please excuse me. I must return upstairs.’
I started to walk away again but, just as I had reached the door, I heard Miss Kenton’s voice. ‘Mr Stevens,’ she said, her voice echoing strangely in the dark and empty kitchen. ‘After the many years of service I have given in this house, is that all you have to say?’
‘Miss Kenton, you have my warmest congratulations. But I repeat, there are matters of international importance taking place upstairs, and I must return immediately.’
‘Did you know, Mr Stevens, that you have been a very important figure for my friend and me?’
‘Really, Miss Kenton?’
‘Yes, Mr Stevens. We often amuse ourselves with little stories about you.’
‘Indeed, Miss Kenton. Now please excuse me.’
I went up to the hall and returned to my position by the main door. However, five minutes later, Mr Cardinal appeared in the doorway of the library and signalled for me to come over.
‘Hate to bother you, Stevens,’ he said. ‘But could you possibly fetch me a little more whisky? The bottle you brought in earlier seems to be finished.’
‘You are very welcome to whatever refreshments you desire, sir. However, as you have some work to do, I wonder whether another bottle is a good idea?’
‘My work will be fine, Stevens. So be a good fellow and get me another bottle.’
‘Very well, sir.’
When I returned to the library a moment later, Mr Cardinal was wandering around, reading the names of books on the shelves. As I approached, he sat down heavily into a leather armchair. I went over to him, poured a little whisky and gave him the glass.
‘You know, Stevens, we’ve been friends for some time, haven’t we?’
‘I always look forward to a little chat with you whenever I come here. Would you like to join me in a little drink?’
I politely refused his kind invitation, but Mr Cardinal insisted. ‘I do wish you’d sit down, Stevens. I want us to talk as friends.’
‘I’m sorry, sir.’ I put down my tray and sat down - in an appropriate fashion - in the armchair that Mr Cardinal was indicating.
‘That’s better,’ Mr Cardinal said. ‘Now, Stevens, I really ought to be truthful with you. As you have probably guessed, I didn’t come here tonight by accident. Somebody told me about what’s going on here. I don’t suppose you can tell me whether the Prime Minister’s here, can you?’
‘The Prime Minister, sir?’
‘Oh, it’s all right, you don’t have to tell me. I understand you’re in a difficult position.’ He looked away tiredly for a moment towards his papers, which were scattered over the desk. Then he turned to me again and said: ‘You know, Stevens, his lordship’s been like a second father to me. I care for him very deeply. But we must face facts. He’s in trouble, and I’m extremely worried about him. He’s dealing with very powerful people here, and he doesn’t really understand what’s going on.’
‘Stevens, do you know what’s happening at this exact moment in that room across the hall? There are four men in that room - I don’t need you to confirm it. His lordship, the British Prime Minister, the head of the Foreign Office and the German Ambassador. His lordship has worked hard for this meeting, and he genuinely believes he’s doing something good and honourable. Do you know why his lordship has brought these gentlemen here tonight?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all? Aren’t you curious?’
‘I do not believe that I am not curious, sir. However, it is not my job to display curiosity about such matters.’
‘I suppose you think that’s being loyal? To his lordship? Or to the King?’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I fail to understand what you are proposing.’
Mr Cardinal shook his head sadly. ‘I’m not proposing anything, Stevens. Quite frankly, I don’t know what we can do. But I wish you would be more curious.’
He was silent for a moment and seemed to be staring emptily at the area of carpet around my feet. Finally he looked up and said:
‘Are you sure you won’t join me in a drink, Stevens?’
‘No thank you, sir.’
‘The fact is, Stevens, his lordship doesn’t realize what’s happening. He’s become Herr Hitler’s puppet. Have you noticed what’s been happening over the last three or four years?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I have not.’
‘Of course not, Stevens. You’re not curious. The problem is, Stevens,’ Mr Cardinal said, moving into a more upright position in his armchair, ‘his lordship is a true, old English gentleman. He feels it is honourable to offer generosity and friendship to a defeated enemy. But they’re using him, Stevens - the Nazis are using him to help them achieve their own terrible aims. Do you remember that American senator all those years ago? He said the world was too complicated for true gentlemen. Well, he was right. You’ve seen how they have used his lordship, haven’t you, Stevens?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot say that I have.’
‘Well, I don’t know about you, Stevens, but I’m going to do something about it. If Father were alive, he would do something to stop it. You have no idea what they’re discussing in that room across the hall, Stevens? Then I’ll tell you. His lordship has been trying to persuade the Prime Minister to accept an invitation to visit Herr Hitler. And that is not all, Stevens. His lordship is discussing the possibility of a royal visit to Germany. Everybody knows the new king has always been enthusiastic about the Nazis. Well, apparently he’s keen to accept Herr Hitler’s invitation. His lordship is now trying to persuade the British government to agree to this awful idea.’
‘I’m sorry, sir, but I have to say that I trust his lordship’s judgement completely.’
At that moment I heard the bell from the drawing room. I asked Mr Cardinal to excuse me, and I left the room.
In the drawing room, the air was thick with tobacco smoke. The gentlemen sat and smoked in silence, while his lordship asked me to bring up a bottle of wine from the cellar. As I was making my way along the darkness of the corridor towards the cellar, the door to Miss Kenton’s room suddenly opened.
‘I am surprised to find you still awake, Miss Kenton,’ I said when I saw her in the doorway.
‘Mr Stevens, I was very foolish earlier,’ she said.
‘Excuse me, Miss Kenton, but I have no time to talk just now.’
‘Mr Stevens, you must not take anything I said earlier seriously. I was simply being foolish.’
‘Miss Kenton, I cannot remember what you may be referring to. Besides, events of great importance are developing upstairs, and I cannot stop to chat with you. I suggest that you go to bed.’
With that, I hurried on. It did not take me long to find the bottle in the cellar. Just a few minutes after my brief meeting with Miss Kenton, I was walking along the corridor again on my return journey. As I approached Miss Kenton’s door, I saw from the light around its edges that she was still awake. And that was the moment, I am now sure, that has remained clearly in my memory to this day. At that moment, as I paused in the darkness of the corridor, a tray in my hands, something told me that just a few metres away, on the other side of the door, Miss Kenton was crying. I do not know why I was so sure of this. I had certainly not heard any sounds of crying.
I do not know how long I remained standing there. At the time it seemed a significant period, but in reality it was probably only a few seconds. For, of course, I was required to hurry upstairs to serve some of the most important gentlemen in Europe. I’m sure that I would not have delayed there for long.
After serving the gentlemen in the drawing room, I returned to my position in the hall. I stood there for another hour until the gentlemen finally departed. As I stood there, a strange thing began to happen. I began to experience a deep feeling of pride. I had, after all, just come through an extremely difficult evening, throughout which I had managed to preserve my dignity. My father would have been proud of the way I had performed my duty that night.
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