فصل 04

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فصل 04

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Chapter four

An Embarrassing Fall

The more I think about it, the less certain I am that Miss Kenton spoke to me on that day as boldly as I have just reported. It was still early in our relationship, and I am sure that she did not say things like: ‘These errors may be unimportant, but you must realize their larger significance.’ In fact, I think it was Lord Darlington who used those words.

March 1923

Two months after my conversation with Miss Kenton about the Chinaman, Lord Darlington called me into his study. The situation concerning my father had become very serious because it was after he had had his accident.

Whenever Lord Darlington wished to speak to me about something, he often pretended to be reading a book. He would wait for me to pass, then he would look up from his book and say: ‘Oh, Stevens. There was something I meant to say to you.’

I am describing this small detail in order to show that Lord Darlington was a shy and modest man. A lot of nonsense has been spoken and written recently about his lordship. Many reports have criticized the part he played in this country before and during the war. They claim that he was a selfish and foolish man. Let me say here that all these reports about him are completely false. Lord Darlington was a good man with a good heart. I am proud to have given my best years of service to such a true gentleman.

On this particular afternoon, Lord Darlington hardly looked up from his book as he asked:

‘Your father feeling better now, Stevens?’

‘Much better now, thank you, sir.’

‘Very pleased to hear that. Very pleased.’

There was a short, uncomfortable pause, then Lord Darlington said:

‘I wonder, Stevens, have there been any - well - signs at all? Any indications that your father might prefer an easier life these days? Work a little less hard, I mean?’

‘I believe, sir, that you can still completely depend on him to do his job. It is true that he has made one or two errors recently, but none of them has been serious.’

‘That’s true, Stevens. But nevertheless, we don’t want to see an accident like that again, do we? It could happen during dinner, while he was serving at table.’

‘It is possible, sir.’

‘Listen, Stevens. The first guests will be arriving here for the conference in less than a fortnight. What happens within this house may be very important for our country. I am not exaggerating, Stevens. We cannot possibly afford to have any accidents then.’

‘Indeed not, sir.’

‘I am not suggesting that your father should leave us, Stevens. I am simply asking you to reconsider his duties.’ His lordship then looked down again into his book and said: ‘These errors may be unimportant, Stevens, but you must realize their larger significance. Another accident might threaten the success of our conference in two weeks’ time.’

‘Indeed, sir. I fully understand.’

Lord Darlington had witnessed my father’s accident himself a week or so earlier. He had been with two guests, a young lady and gentleman, in the summerhouse and had seen my father crossing the lawn with a tray of refreshments. As my father began to climb the stone steps to the summerhouse, however, he fell. By the time I reached the scene of the accident, his lordship and his guests had turned my father on to his side and had tried to make him comfortable. My father was unconscious, and his face was strangely grey in colour. With the help of a wheelchair, my father was transported with difficulty into the house. By the time Doctor Meredith arrived, my father had woken up and was beginning to feel better.

The whole incident was clearly a great embarrassment to my father, but he soon forgot about it and returned to work. It was not easy, therefore, for me to tell him that it had been decided to reduce his work load. He was a proud man. Another difficulty for me was the fact that my father and I hardly ever talked to each other. For several years, even the smallest professional conversation had seemed to embarrass us. I had never really understood why.

In the end I decided to talk to my father privately in his room.

Early one morning, I climbed up to the top floor of the house and knocked gently on his door. My father was sitting on the edge of his bed in full uniform. He had obviously been sitting there for some time.

‘Ah,’ I said, and gave a short laugh. ‘I thought Father would be up and ready for the day.’

‘I’ve been up and ready for the last three hours,’ he said, looking me up and down rather coldly.

‘I have come here to tell you something, Father.’

‘Then be quick. I haven’t all morning to listen to you.’

‘The fact is, Father has been making a number of errors recently. His lordship believes - and I agree with him - that he is working too hard for a man of his age. His lordship is very worried about the smooth running of this house. He does not want any more unfortunate accidents, especially during next week’s important international conference.’

My father’s face, in the half-light, showed no emotion.

‘It has been decided, therefore, that Father should no longer have to serve at table.’

‘I have served at table every day for the last fifty-four years,’ my father said slowly and calmly.

‘Furthermore,’ I continued, ‘it has been decided that Father should not carry trays. I have here a list of his new duties.’

I did not wish, for some reason, to hand him the piece of paper directly, so I placed it on the end of his bed. My father glanced at it, then looked at me again. Eventually he said: ‘I only fell that time because of the steps. They’re not straight.’

‘Indeed. Now, I hope that Father will study this sheet of new duties. Good morning.’

That summer evening which Miss Kenton mentioned in her letter came very soon after that conversation. Indeed, it may have been the evening of that same day. As I have said before, I can remember the evening sunlight shining through the open bedroom doors into the dark corridor. And as I was walking past the bedrooms, Miss Kenton called to me.

I stood next to her by the window and looked down. We could see my father standing by the stone steps in front of the summerhouse. A soft wind blew through his hair and there was a deep frown on his face. Then, as we watched, he walked very slowly up the steps. At the top he turned and came back down, a little faster. He repeated this several times, his eyes never once leaving the ground. It was exacdy as Miss Kenton describes it in her letter: He seemed to be looking for a precious jewel that he had dropped there.

Some people might consider me to have been rather insensitive when I spoke to my father about his declining abilities. But the fact is, I had to deal with the problem in an impersonal and businesslike manner - as I am sure you will agree when I have explained the situation in more detail.

Lord Darlington had been preparing for the conference of March 1923 for many years. He had made his first trip to Berlin in 1920, and was unhappy when he returned to Darlington Hall. When I asked him how he had enjoyed his trip, he said: ‘Upsetting, Stevens. Deeply upsetting. It is not right for us to treat a defeated enemy like this. The war ended two years ago. We are making the people of Germany suffer too much. It is not like the British to be so unforgiving.’

After that, Lord Darlington spent more and more time trying to help the German people. Powerful and famous gentlemen became regular visitors to the house. Many of them came in secret, so I am unable to reveal their names to you. Some of the guests were so secret that I was not permitted to tell the staff who they were. However - and I say this with pride - his lordship never hid things from me.

Over the following two years, his lordship and a close friend of his, Sir David Cardinal, became the leaders of a powerful and important group of people who all agreed that the people of Germany had suffered enough. They believed that if the economic crisis in Germany became any worse, all of Europe would be in danger.

By the beginning of 1922, his lordship had a clear plan. He wanted an ‘unofficial’ international conference at Darlington Hall. He would invite people from European governments who agreed with his ideas about helping Germany. After this conference, these people would return to their countries and attempt to change their governments’ attitudes towards Germany.

As the date for the conference approached, the pressures on me began to increase. It was my responsibility to make sure that nothing went wrong. If any of the guests were, for some reason, dissatisfied with their stay at Darlington Hall, it could threaten the success of the conference. Great damage might be done to the future peace of Europe.

However, it was not possible for me to plan things as carefully as I wanted. I was aware that there would be twenty guests - eighteen gentlemen and two ladies. Each guest, however, was going to arrive with a team of secretaries and servants, and nobody knew exactly how many. It was impossible for me, therefore, to know how many rooms would be needed. Furthermore, a number of guests would be arriving some time before the conference, but nobody knew the exact dates of these arrivals.

I prepared for the conference like a general preparing for a battle. I produced a staff plan, and held a special meeting with everybody who worked in the house.

‘I know you all have a lot of extra work to do,’ I told them. ‘We are all under great pressure, but you can take great pride in performing your duties in the days ahead. It is possible that history will be made under this roof!’

The staff knew that I was not the kind of person to make exaggerated statements. They understood that something extraordinary was going to take place.

This was the general atmosphere of Darlington Hall at the time of my father’s accident. It was only two weeks before the conference, and I had many other urgent problems to think about. You will understand, therefore, why I might have seemed a little insensitive with my father when I informed him of the reduction in his duties.

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