فصل 05

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فصل 05

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Chapter five

The Birds and Bees

In the busy days just before the conference, there was a great change in my father’s behaviour. He had a trolley loaded with cleaning equipment, teapots, cups and saucers. He seemed filled with a strange, youthful energy, and he pushed his trolley all around the house. He moved so quickly that a stranger might have thought that there were several men pushing trolleys around Darlington Hall, not just one.

The increasing pressure of the days just before the conference affected Miss Kenton, too, although in a completely different way.

I remember, for example, meeting her in the back corridor. I reminded her that the sheets for the bedrooms on the upper floor needed to be ready.

‘The matter is perfectly under control, Mr Stevens,’ she replied.

I began to move away, but Miss Kenton took one more step towards me with an angry expression on her face.

‘Unfortunately, Mr Stevens, I am extremely busy now,’ she said. ‘I wish I had as much spare time as you do. Then perhaps I too could happily wander about this house and remind you of tasks that you have perfectly under control.’

‘Now, Miss Kenton, there is no need to be so bad-tempered. I simply wanted to remind you…’

‘This is the fourth or fifth time this week, Mr Stevens, that you have reminded me to do something that I have already done,’ she interrupted me. ‘It is very strange to see you with so much spare time that you have nothing better to do.’

‘Miss Kenton, you must be very inexperienced if you think that I have any spare time. I hope that, in future years, you will understand more clearly how difficult it is to organize a great house like this.’

‘You are always talking about my “great inexperience”, Mr Stevens, but have you noticed anything wrong with my work? If you had, I’m sure you would have told me about it before now. Now, I have a lot of work to do. I would be grateful if you would stop interrupting me like this. If you have so much spare time, I suggest that you go for a walk outside and get some fresh air.’

With those words, she marched past me along the corridor. I was so surprised that I did not know what to do at first. Then, deciding that it was best not to say anything, I continued on my way. I had, however, almost reached the kitchen doorway when I heard the sound of angry footsteps coming back towards me again.

‘In fact, Mr Stevens,’ she called, ‘I would be grateful if, in future, you did not speak to me directly at all. If it is necessary to communicate with me, please use a messenger. Or you may like to write a note and have it sent to me. Now, I must return to my work. And you can continue to wander around the house criticizing people for no reason!’

Although I was annoyed by Miss Kenton’s behaviour, I had no time to think about it because the first guests had arrived. Two Foreign Office officials and Lord Darlington’s friend, Sir David Cardinal, had arrived before the other guests to discuss the conference. As I went in and out of the various rooms in which these four gentlemen sat, I could not avoid hearing parts of their conversation. They seemed to be talking most of the time about one man - an extremely important Frenchman whom I shall call Monsieur Dupont. On one occasion, I came into the smoking room and heard one of the gentlemen saying: ‘The future of Europe depends on persuading Dupont that we are right.’

In the middle of these discussions, his lordship asked me to perform a rather unusual task. He called me into his study, sat down at his desk and, as usual, pretended to start reading a book.

‘Oh, Stevens,’ he began. Then he did not seem to know how to continue, for he turned a page of his book and fell silent. A few moments later he tried again. ‘Stevens, I realize that this is a strange request.’

‘Sir?’

‘It’s just that I have so much to think about at present.’

‘I would be very glad to assist, sir.’

‘I’m sorry to have to ask you to do a thing like this, Stevens. I know you must be extremely busy yourself. But I can’t think of any other solution.’

He studied the book in front of him for several long seconds before continuing, without looking up:

‘You are familiar, I assume, with the facts of life.’

‘Sir?’

‘The facts of life, Stevens. Birds, bees, that sort of thing.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, sir.’

‘Let me be frank, Stevens. Sir David is a very old friend of mine. He’s brought his son, Reginald, to our conference as his secretary. Young Reginald is engaged to be married.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Sir David has been trying to tell his son the facts of life for the last five years. The young man is now twenty-three.’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘Well, Stevens, this is the problem. Sir David has asked me, as his oldest friend, to tell young Reginald about the facts of life. Sir David himself is nervous about doing it. He thinks it would be much better if I performed the task. The trouble is, I’m so busy with this conference.’ His lordship paused and went on studying the page.

‘Do I understand, sir, that you wish me to give young Mr Cardinal the necessary information?’

‘If you don’t mind, Stevens. It would be a great help. Sir David continues to ask me every couple of hours if I’ve done it yet.’

‘I see, sir. It must be very difficult for you.’

‘Of course, I realize what an awkward task this is, Stevens.’

‘I will do my best, sir,’ I assured his lordship. ‘It might, however, be difficult for me to find the right moment to deliver the information.’

‘I’d be grateful if you even tried, Stevens. It’s very decent of you. But listen, there’s no need to go into great detail. Just give him the basic facts, that’s all.’

An hour after my conversation with Lord Darlington, I noticed young Mr Cardinal alone in the library. He was sitting at one of the writing tables, working on some documents. Deciding to perform my awkward task as quickly as possible, I entered the library and gave a little cough.

‘Excuse me, sir, but I have a message for you,’ I said.

‘Oh, really?’ said Mr Cardinal, looking up from his papers. ‘From Father?’

‘Yes, sir. In an indirect sort of way.’

The young gentleman reached down into the black bag at his feet, brought out a notebook and pencil and said:

‘I’m ready, Stevens.’

I coughed again and said:

‘Sir David wishes you to know, sir, that ladies and gentlemen are different in a number of ways.’

I must have paused a little to consider the wording of my next sentence, because Mr Cardinal said:

‘I am aware of that, Stevens.’

‘You are aware, sir?’

‘My father constantly underestimates me, Stevens. I’ve done quite a lot of reading on the subject.’

‘Really, sir. Then, in that case, perhaps my message is unnecessary.’

‘You can assure Father that I have discovered everything I need to know. This bag is full of notes I have made on the subject.’

‘Indeed, sir?’

‘Unless, of course, Father has new information he wants me to think about. Is there anything more, for example, on this Dupont fellow?’

‘I believe not, sir,’ I said, attempting to hide my disappointment. I thought I had successfully completed the task, but found instead that I hadn’t even started it. However, before I could make another attempt on the subject, Mr Cardinal rose to his feet and said: ‘Well, I think I’ll go outside for some fresh air, Stevens. Thanks for your help.’

I had intended to speak again to Mr Cardinal immediately, but that afternoon - two days earlier than expected - Mr Lewis, the American senator, arrived. More guests arrived the next morning: two ladies from Germany who had brought with them a large team of servants as well as a great many trunks. Then, in the afternoon, an Italian gentleman arrived. He was accompanied by a servant, a secretary, an adviser and two security men.

Several more guests arrived the following day, and Darlington Hall was already filled with people of all nationalities two days before the conference began. Although the guests were always polite to each other, there was a strange atmosphere in the house. The visiting servants seemed to look at one another very coldly, and my own staff were glad to be too busy to spend much time with them.

One afternoon, while I was becoming increasingly busy with the many demands made of me, I glanced out of a window and saw young Mr Cardinal. He was taking some fresh air around the grounds. Although I had much more important things on my mind, I immediately thought of the task which Lord Darlington had asked me to perform, and which I had not yet completed. I decided that this was a suitable time and place for me to deliver the message.

I crossed the grass quickly and waited behind a bush until I heard Mr Cardinal’s footsteps along the path that bordered the lawn. Unfortunately, I misjudged the timing of my appearance from behind the bush. I had intended to come out on to the path while Mr Cardinal was still some distance away. I could have pretended to notice him for the first time, and started a conversation with him in a natural manner. However, I moved out from behind the bush a little too late, and, I regret to say, I frightened the young gentleman. He stepped backwards in alarm, holding his black bag tightly.

‘I’m very sorry, sir.’

‘Stevens! You gave me a shock.’

‘I’m very sorry, sir,’ I repeated. ‘But I have a message to deliver to you. If I may speak directly, sir, You will notice the geese not far from us.’

‘Geese?’ He looked around, a little confused.

‘And also the flowers and bushes. This is not, in fact, the best time of year to see them, but you will appreciate, sir, that in spring we will see a change - a very special sort of change - in these surroundings.’

‘Yes, I’m sure this is not the best time of year to see the grounds. But frankly, Stevens, I wasn’t paying much attention to the beauty of nature. It’s all rather worrying. That Monsieur Dupont has arrived in a very bad mood.’

‘Monsieur Dupont has arrived here at this house, sir?’

‘About half an hour ago. He’s in a terrible temper.’

‘Excuse me, sir. I must attend to the matter immediately.’

‘Of course, Stevens. It was kind of you to come out here and talk to me.’

‘Please excuse me, sir, but I have not quite finished my message on the topic of - as you say - the beauty of nature. If you would allow me to continue on another occasion, I would be most grateful.’

‘I shall look forward to it, Stevens. Although I’m more interested in fish than flowers and geese. I know all about fish.’

‘All living creatures will be relevant to our future discussion, sir. However, you must now please excuse me. I had no idea that Monsieur Dupont had arrived.’

With those words I hurried back to the house.

Monsieur Dupont was a tall, elegant gentleman with a grey beard. He had arrived in the sort of clothes that European gentlemen often wear on their holidays. As Mr Cardinal had said, Monsieur Dupont had not arrived in a good temper. A lot of things had upset him since his arrival in England. Among other things, he had painful sores on his feet after sightseeing in London. I told his manservant to speak to Miss Kenton, but this did not prevent Monsieur Dupont from shouting at me every few hours: ‘Butler! I need some more bandages!’

His mood seemed to improve, however, when he saw Mr Lewis. He and the American senator greeted each other as old colleagues. They went everywhere together, chatting quietly or laughing about old memories. The other guests, meanwhile, did not go near Monsieur Dupont. They seemed suspicious of him, which somehow seemed to emphasize his importance to the conference.

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