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DAY FOUR · AFTERNOON

Little Compton, Cornwall

I have finally arrived at Little Compton, and at this moment, am sitting in the dining hall of the Rose Garden Hotel having recently finished lunch. Outside, the rain is falling steadily.

The Rose Garden Hotel, while hardly luxurious, is certainly homely and comfortable, and one cannot begrudge the extra expense of accommodating oneself here. It is conveniently situated on one corner of the village square, a rather charming ivy-covered manor house capable of housing, I would suppose, thirty or so guests. This ‘dining hall’ where I now sit, however, is a modern annexe built to adjoin the main building – a long, flat room characterized by rows of large windows on either side. On one side, the village square is visible; on the other, the rear garden, from which this establishment presumably takes its name. The garden, which seems well sheltered from the wind, has a number of tables arranged about it, and when the weather is fine, I imagine it is a very pleasant place to partake of meals or refreshments. In fact, I know that a little earlier, some guests had actually commenced lunch out there, only to be interrupted by the appearance of ominous storm clouds. When I was first shown in here an hour or so ago, staff were hurriedly stripping down the garden tables – while their recent occupants, including one gentleman with a napkin still tucked into his shirt, were standing about looking rather lost. Then, very soon afterwards, the rain had come down with such ferocity that for a moment all the guests seemed to stop eating just to stare out of the windows.

My own table is on the village square side of the room and I have thus spent much of the past hour watching the rain falling on the square, and upon the Ford and one or two other vehicles stationed outside. The rain has now steadied somewhat, but it is still sufficiently hard as to discourage one from going out and wandering around the village. Of course, the possibility has occurred to me that I might set off now to meet Miss Kenton; but then in my letter, I informed her I would be calling at three o’clock, and I do not think it wise to surprise her by arriving any earlier. It would seem quite likely then, if the rain does not cease very shortly, that I will remain here drinking tea until the proper time comes for me to set off. I have ascertained from the young woman who served me lunch that the address where Miss Kenton is presently residing is some fifteen minutes’ walk away, which implies I have at least another forty minutes to wait.

I should say, incidentally, that I am not so foolish as to be unprepared for disappointment. I am only too aware that I never received a reply from Miss Kenton confirming she would be happy about a meeting. However, knowing Miss Kenton as I do, I am inclined to think that a lack of any letter can be taken as agreement; were a meeting for any reason inconvenient, I feel sure she would not have hesitated to inform me. Moreover, I had stated in my letter the fact that I had made a reservation at this hotel and that any last-minute message could be left for me here; that no such message was awaiting me can, I believe, be taken as further reason to suppose all is well.

This present downpour is something of a surprise, since the day started with the bright morning sunshine I have been blessed with each morning since leaving Darlington Hall. In fact, the day had generally begun well with a breakfast of fresh farm eggs and toast, provided for me by Mrs Taylor, and with Dr Carlisle calling by at seven thirty as promised, I was able to take my leave of the Taylors – who continued not to hear of remuneration – before any further embarrassing conversations had had a chance to develop.

‘I found a can of petrol for you.’ Dr Carlisle announced, as he ushered me into the passenger seat of his Rover. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, but when I made inquiries as to payment, I found that he, too, would hear none of it.

‘Nonsense, old boy. It’s only a little bit I found at the back of my garage. But it’ll be enough for you to reach Crosby Gate and you can fill up good and proper there.’ The village centre of Moscombe, in the morning sunshine, could be seen to be a number of small shops surrounding a church, the steeple of which I had seen from the hill yesterday evening. I had little chance to study the village, however, for Dr Carlisle turned his car briskly into the driveway of a farmyard.

‘Just a little short cut,’ he said, as we made our way past barns and stationary farm vehicles. There seemed to be no persons present anywhere, and at one point, when we were confronted by a closed gate, the doctor said: ‘Sorry, old chap, but if you wouldn’t mind doing the honours.’ Getting out, I went to the gate, and as soon as I did so, a furious chorus of barking erupted in one of the barns near by, so that it was with some relief that I rejoined Dr Carlisle again in the front of his Rover.

We exchanged a few pleasantries as we climbed a narrow road between tall trees, he inquiring after how I had slept at the Taylors and so forth. Then he said quite abruptly: ‘I say, I hope you don’t think me very rude. But you aren’t a manservant of some sort, are you?’

I must confess, my overwhelming feeling on hearing this was one of relief.

‘I am indeed, sir. In fact, I am the butler of Darlington Hall, near Oxford.’

‘Thought so. All that about having met Winston Churchill and so on. I thought to myself, well, either the chap’s been lying his head off, or – then it occurred to me, there’s one simple explanation.’ Dr Carlisle turned to me with a smile as he continued to steer the car up the steep winding road. I said:

‘It wasn’t my intention to deceive anyone, sir. However …’

‘Oh, no need to explain, old fellow. I can quite see how it happened. I mean to say, you are a pretty impressive specimen. The likes of the people here, they’re bound to take you for at least a lord or a duke.’ The doctor gave a hearty laugh. ‘It must do one good to be mistaken for a lord every now and then.’ We travelled on in silence for a few moments. Then Dr Carlisle said to me: ‘Well, I hope you enjoyed your little stay with us here.’

‘I did very much, thank you, sir.’

‘And what did you make of the citizens of Moscombe? Not such a bad bunch, are they?’

‘Very engaging, sir. Mr and Mrs Taylor were extremely kind.’

‘I wish you wouldn’t call me “sir” like that all the time, Mr Stevens. No, they’re not such a bad bunch at all around here. As far as I’m concerned, I’d happily spend the rest of my life out here.’ I thought I heard something slightly odd in the way Dr Carlisle said this. There was, too, a curiously deliberate edge to the way he went on to inquire again:

‘So you found them an engaging bunch, eh?’

‘Indeed, Doctor. Extremely congenial.’

‘So what were they all telling you about last night? Hope they didn’t bore you silly with all the village gossip.’

‘Not at all, Doctor. As a matter of fact, the conversation tended to be rather earnest in tone and some very interesting viewpoints were expressed.’

‘Oh, you mean Harry Smith,’ the doctor said with a laugh. ‘You shouldn’t mind him. He’s entertaining enough to listen to for a while, but really, he’s all in a muddle. At times you’d think he was some sort of Communist, then he comes out with something that makes him sound true blue Tory. Truth is, he’s all in a muddle.’ ‘Ah, that is very interesting to hear.’

‘What did he lecture you on last night? The Empire? The National Health?’

‘Mr Smith restricted himself to more general topics.’

‘Oh? For instance?’

I gave a cough. ‘Mr Smith had some thoughts on the nature of dignity.’

‘I say. Now that sounds rather philosophical for Harry Smith. How the devil did he get on to that?’

‘I believe Mr Smith was stressing the importance of his campaigning work in the village.’

‘Ah, yes?’

‘He was impressing upon me the point that the residents of Moscombe held strong opinions on all manner of great affairs.’

‘Ah, yes. Sounds like Harry Smith. As you probably guessed, that’s all nonsense, of course. Harry’s always going around trying to work everybody up over issues. But the truth is, people are happier left alone.’ We were silent again for a moment or two. Eventually, I said:

‘Excuse me for asking, sir. But may I take it Mr Smith is considered something of a comic figure?’

‘Hmm. That’s taking it a little too far, I’d say. People do have a political conscience of sorts here. They feel they ought to have strong feelings on this and that, just as Harry urges them to. But really, they’re no different from people anywhere. They want a quiet life. Harry has a lot of ideas about changes to this and that, but really, no one in the village wants upheaval, even if it might benefit them. People here want to be left alone to lead their quiet little lives. They don’t want to be bothered with this issue and that issue.’ I was surprised by the tone of disgust that had entered the doctor’s voice. But he recovered himself quickly with a short laugh and remarked:

‘Nice view of the village on your side.’

Indeed, the village had become visible some way below us. Of course, the morning sunshine gave it a very different aspect, but otherwise it looked much the same view as the one I had first encountered in the evening gloom, and I supposed from this that we were now close to the spot where I had left the Ford.

‘Mr Smith seemed to be of the view,’ I said, ‘that a person’s dignity rested on such things. Having strong opinions and such.’

‘Ah, yes, dignity. I was forgetting. Yes, so Harry was trying to tackle philosophical definitions. My word. I take it it was a lot of rot.’

‘His conclusions were not necessarily those that compelled agreement, sir.’

Dr Carlisle nodded, but seemed to have become immersed in his own thoughts. ‘You know, Mr Stevens,’ he said, eventually, ‘when I first came out here, I was a committed socialist. Believed in the best services for all the people and all the rest of it. First came here in ‘forty-nine. Socialism would allow people to live with dignity. That’s what I believed when I came out here. Sorry, you don’t want to hear all this rot.’ He turned to me cheerily. ‘What about you, old chap?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir?’

‘What do you think dignity’s all about?’

The directness of this inquiry did, I admit, take me rather by surprise. ‘It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,’ I said. ‘But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public’.

‘Sorry. What does?’

‘Dignity, sir.’

‘Ah.’ The doctor nodded, but looked a little bemused. Then he said: ‘Now, this road should be familiar to you. Probably looks rather different in the daylight. Ah, is that it there? My goodness, what a handsome vehicle!’ Dr Carlisle pulled up just behind the Ford, got out and said again: ‘My, what a handsome vehicle.’ The next moment he had produced a funnel and a can of petrol and was most kindly assisting me in filling the tank of the Ford. Any fears I had that some deeper trouble was afflicting the Ford were laid to rest when I tried the ignition and heard the engine come to life with a healthy murmur. At this point, I thanked Dr Carlisle and we took leave of each other, though I was obliged to follow the back of his Rover along the twisting hill road for a further mile or so before our routes separated.

It was around nine o’clock that I crossed the border into Cornwall. This was at least three hours before the rain began and the clouds were still all of a brilliant white. In fact, many of the sights that greeted me this morning were among the most charming I have so far encountered. It was unfortunate, then, that I could not for much of the time give to them the attention they warranted; for one may as well declare it, one was in a condition of some preoccupation with the thought that – barring some unseen complication – one would be meeting Miss Kenton again before the day’s end. So it was, then, that while speeding along between large open fields, no human being or vehicle apparent for miles, or else steering carefully through marvellous little villages, some no more than a cluster of a few stone cottages, I found myself yet again turning over certain recollections from the past. And now, as I sit here in Little Compton, here in the dining room of this pleasant hotel with a little time on my hands, watching the rain splashing on the pavements of the village square outside, I am unable to prevent my mind from continuing to wander along these same tracks.

One memory in particular has preoccupied me all morning – or rather, a fragment of a memory, a moment that has for some reason remained with me vividly through the years. It is a recollection of standing alone in the back corridor before the closed door of Miss Kenton’s parlour; I was not actually facing the door, but standing with my person half turned towards it, transfixed by indecision as to whether or not I should knock; for at that moment, as I recall, I had been struck by the conviction that behind that very door, just a few yards from me, Miss Kenton was in fact crying. As I say, this moment has remained firmly embedded in my mind, as has the memory of the peculiar sensation I felt rising within me as I stood there like that. However, I am not at all certain now as to the actual circumstances which had led me to be standing thus in the back corridor. It occurs to me that elsewhere in attempting to gather such recollections, I may well have asserted that this memory derived from the minutes immediately after Miss Kenton’s receiving news of her aunt’s death; that is to say, the occasion when, having left her to be alone with her grief, I realized out in the corridor that I had not offered her my condolences. But now, having thought further, I believe I may have been a little confused about this matter; that in fact this fragment of memory derives from events that took place on an evening at least a few months after the death of Miss Kenton’s aunt – the evening, in fact, when the young Mr Cardinal turned up at Darlington Hall rather unexpectedly.

Mr Cardinal’s father, Sir David Cardinal, had been for many years his lordship’s closest friend and colleague, but had been tragically killed in a riding accident some three or four years prior to the evening I am now recalling. Meanwhile, the young Mr Cardinal had been building something of a name for himself as a columnist, specializing in witty comments on international affairs. Evidently, these columns were rarely to Lord Darlington’s liking, for I can recall numerous instances of his looking up from a journal and saying something like: ‘Young Reggie writing such nonsense again. Just as well his father’s not alive to read this.’ But Mr Cardinal’s columns did not prevent him being a frequent visitor at the house; indeed, his lordship never forgot that the young man was his godson and always treated him as kin. At the same time, it had never been Mr Cardinal’s habit to turn up to dinner without any prior warning, and I was thus a little surprised when on answering the door that evening I found him standing there, his briefcase cradled in both arms.

‘Oh, hello, Stevens, how are you?’ he said. ‘Just happened to be in a bit of a jam tonight and wondered if Lord Darlington would put me up for the night.’

‘It’s very nice to see you again, sir. I shall tell his lordship you are here.’

‘I’d intended to stay at Mr Roland’s place, but there seems to have been some misunderstanding and they’ve gone away somewhere. Hope it’s not too inconvenient a time to call. I mean, nothing special on tonight, is there?’ ‘I believe, sir, 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 keep my head low. I’ve got some pieces I have to work on tonight anyway.’ Mr Cardinal indicated his briefcase.

‘I shall tell his lordship you are here, sir. You are, in any case, in good time to join him for dinner.’

‘Jolly good, I was hoping I might have been. But I don’t expect Mrs Mortimer’s going to be very pleased with me.’

I left Mr Cardinal in the drawing room and made my way to the study, where I found his lordship working through some pages with a look of deep concentration. When I told him of Mr Cardinal’s arrival, a look of surprised annoyance crossed his face. Then he leaned back in his chair as though puzzling something out.

‘Tell Mr Cardinal I’ll be down shortly,’ he said finally. ‘He can amuse himself for a little while.’

When I returned downstairs, I discovered Mr Cardinal moving rather restlessly around the drawing room examining objects he must long ago have become familiar with. I conveyed his lordship’s message and asked him what refreshments I might bring him.

‘Oh, just some tea for now, Stevens. Who’s his lordship expecting tonight?’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I am unable to help you.’

‘No idea at all?’

‘I’m sorry, sir.’

‘Hmm, curious. Oh, well. Better keep my head low tonight.’

It was not long after this, I recall, that I went down to Miss Kenton’s parlour. She was sitting at her table, though there was nothing before her and her hands were empty; indeed, something in her demeanour suggested she had been sitting there like that for some time prior to my knocking.

‘Mr Cardinal is here, Miss Kenton,’ I said. ‘He’ll be requiring his usual room tonight.’

‘Very good, Mr Stevens. I shall see to 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, we discussed this a fortnight ago.’

‘Yes, of course, Miss Kenton. I beg your pardon, it had just slipped my mind for the moment.’

‘Is something the matter, Mr Stevens?’

‘Not at all, Miss Kenton. Some visitors are expected this evening, but there is no reason why your presence will be required.’

‘We did agree to my taking this evening off a fortnight ago, Mr Stevens.’

‘Of course, Miss Kenton. I do beg your pardon.’

I turned to leave, but then I was halted at the door by Miss Kenton saying:

‘Mr Stevens, I have something to tell you.’

‘Yes, Miss Kenton?’

‘It concerns my acquaintance. Who I am going to meet tonight.’

‘Yes, Miss Kenton.’

‘He has asked me to marry him. I thought you had a right to know that.’

‘Indeed, Miss Kenton. That is very interesting.’

‘I am still giving the matter thought.’

‘Indeed.’

She glanced down a second at her hands, but then almost immediately her gaze returned to me. ‘My acquaintance is to start a job in the West Country as of next month.’ ‘Indeed.’

‘As I say, Mr Stevens, I am still giving the matter some thought. However, I thought you should be informed of the situation.’

‘I’m very grateful, Miss Kenton. I do hope you have a pleasant evening. Now if you will excuse me.’

It must have been twenty minutes or so later that I encountered Miss Kenton again, this time while I was busy with preparations for dinner. In fact, I was half-way up the back staircase, carrying a fully laden tray, when I heard the sound of angry footsteps rattling the floorboards somewhere below me. Turning, I saw Miss Kenton glaring up at me from the foot of the stairs.

‘Mr Stevens, do I understand that you are wishing me to remain on duty this evening?’

‘Not at all, Miss Kenton. As you pointed out, you did notify me some time ago.’

‘But I can see you are very unhappy about my going out tonight.’

‘On the contrary, Miss Kenton.’

‘Do you imagine that by creating so much commotion in the kitchen and by stamping back and forth like this outside my parlour you will get me to change my mind?’

‘Miss Kenton, the slight excitement in the kitchen is solely on account of Mr Cardinal coming to dinner at the last moment. There is absolutely no reason why you should not go out this evening.’ ‘I intend to go with or without your blessing, Mr Stevens, I wish to make this clear. I made arrangements weeks ago.’

‘Indeed, Miss Kenton. And once again, I would wish you a very pleasant evening.’

At dinner, an odd atmosphere seemed to hang in the air between the two gentlemen. For long moments, they ate in silence, his lordship in particular seeming very far away. At one point, Mr Cardinal said: ‘Something special tonight, sir?’

‘Eh?’

‘Your visitors this evening. Special?’

‘Afraid I can’t tell you, my boy. Strictly confidential.’

‘Oh dear. I suppose this means I shouldn’t sit in on it.’

‘Sit in on what, my boy?’

‘Whatever it is that’s going to take place tonight.’

‘Oh, it wouldn’t be of any interest to you. In any case, confidentiality is of the utmost. Can’t have someone like you around. Oh no, that wouldn’t do at all.’ ‘Oh dear. This does sound very special.’

Mr Cardinal was watching his lordship very keenly, but the latter simply went back to his food without saying anything further.

The gentlemen retired to the smoking room for port and cigars. In the course of clearing the dining room, and also in preparing the drawing room for the arrival of the evening’s visitors, I was obliged to walk repeatedly past the smoking-room doors. It was inevitable, then, that I would notice how the gentlemen, in contrast to their quiet mood at dinner, had begun to exchange words with some urgency. A quarter of an hour later, angry voices were being raised. 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! That’s not your business!’ I was in the dining room when the gentlemen eventually came out. They seemed to have calmed themselves, and the only words exchanged as they walked across the hall were his lordship’s: ‘Now remember, my boy. I’m trusting you.’ To which Mr Cardinal muttered with irritation: ‘Yes, yes, you have my word.’ Then their footsteps separated, his lordship’s going towards his study, Mr Cardinal’s towards the library.

At almost precisely eight thirty, there came the sound of motor cars pulling up in the courtyard. I opened the door to a chauffeur, and past his shoulder I could see some police constables dispersing to various points of the grounds. The next moment, I was showing in two very distinguished gentlemen, who were met by his lordship in the hall and ushered quickly into the drawing room. Ten minutes or so later came the sound of another car and I opened the door to Herr Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador, by now no stranger to Darlington Hall. His lordship emerged to meet him and the two gentlemen appeared to exchange complicit glances before disappearing together into the drawing room. When a few minutes later I was called in to provide refreshments, the four gentlemen were discussing the relative merits of different sorts of sausage, and the atmosphere seemed on the surface at least quite convivial.

Thereafter I took up my position out in the hall – the position near the entrance arch that I customarily took up during important meetings – and was not obliged to move from it again until some two hours later, when the back door bell was rung. On descending, I discovered a police constable standing there with Miss Kenton, requesting that I verify the latters identity.

‘Just security, miss, no offence meant,’ the officer muttered as he wandered off again into the night.

As I was bolting the door, I noticed Miss Kenton waiting for me, and said:

‘I trust you had a pleasant evening, Miss Kenton.’

She made no reply, so I said again, as we were making our way across the darkened expanse of the kitchen floor: ‘I trust you had a pleasant evening, Miss Kenton.’

‘I did, thank you, Mr Stevens.’

‘I’m pleased to hear that.’

Behind me, Miss Kenton’s footsteps came to a sudden halt, and I heard her say:

‘Are you not in the least interested in what took place tonight between my acquaintance and I, Mr Stevens?’

‘I do not mean to be rude, Miss Kenton, but I really must return upstairs without further delay. The fact is, events of a global significance are taking place in this house at this very moment.’ ‘When are they not, Mr Stevens? Very well, if you must be rushing off, I shall just tell you that I accepted my acquaintance’s proposal. ‘

‘I beg your pardon, Miss Kenton?’

‘His proposal of marriage.’

‘Ah, is that so, Miss Kenton? Then may I offer you my congratulations.’

‘Thank you, Mr Stevens. Of course, I will be happy to serve out my notice. However, should it be that you are able to release me earlier, we would be very grateful. My acquaintance begins his new job in the West Country in two weeks’ time.’ ‘I will do my best to secure a replacement at the earliest opportunity, Miss Kenton. Now if you will excuse me, I must return upstairs.’

I started to walk away again, but then when I had all but reached the doors out to the corridor, I heard Miss Kenton say: ‘Mr Stevens,’ and thus turned once more. She had not moved, and consequently she was obliged to raise her voice slightly in addressing me, so that it resonated rather oddly in the cavernous spaces of the dark and empty kitchen.

‘Am I to take it,’ she said, ‘that after the many years of service I have given in this house, you have no more words to greet the news of my possible departure than those you have just uttered?’ ‘Miss Kenton, you have my warmest congratulations. But I repeat, there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and I must return to my post.’

‘Did you know, Mr Stevens, that you have been a very important figure for my acquaintance and I?’

‘Really, Miss Kenton?’

‘Yes, Mr Stevens. We often pass the time amusing ourselves with anecdotes about you. For instance, my acquaintance is always wanting me to show him the way you pinch your nostrils together when you put pepper on your food. That always gets him laughing.’ ‘Indeed.’

‘He’s also rather fond of your staff “pep-talks”. I must say, I’ve become quite expert in re-creating them. I only have to do a few lines to have the pair of us in stitches.’ ‘Indeed, Miss Kenton. Now you will please excuse me.’

I ascended to the hall and took up my position again. However, before five minutes had passed, Mr Cardinal appeared in the doorway of the library and beckoned me over.

‘Hate to bother you, Stevens,’ he said. ‘But I couldn’t trouble you to fetch a little more brandy, could I? The bottle you brought in earlier appears to be finished.’ ‘You are very welcome to whatever refreshments you care for, sir. However, in view of the fact that you have your column to complete, I wonder if it is entirely wise to partake further.’ ‘My column will be fine, Stevens. Do get me a little more brandy, there’s a good fellow.’

‘Very well, sir.’

When I returned to the library a moment later, Mr Cardinal was wandering around the shelves, scrutinizing spines. I could see papers scattered untidily over one of the writing desks nearby. As I approached, Mr Cardinal made an appreciative sound and slumped down into a leather armchair. I went over to him, poured a little brandy and handed it to him.

‘You know, Stevens,’ he said, ‘we’ve been friends for some time now, haven’t we?’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘I always look forward to a little chat with you whenever I come here.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Won’t you care to join me in a little drink?’ That’s very kind of you, sir. But no, thank you, I won’t.’

‘I say, Stevens, are you all right there?’

‘Perfectly all right, thank you, sir,’ I said with a small laugh.

‘Not feeling unwell, are you?’

‘A little tired, perhaps, but I’m perfectly fine, thank you, sir.’

‘Well, then, you should sit down. Anyway, as I was saying. We’ve been friends for some time. So I really ought to be truthful with you. As you no doubt guessed, I didn’t happen by tonight just by accident. I had a tip-off, you see. About what’s going on. Over there across the hall at this very moment.’ ‘Yes, sir.’

‘I do wish you’d sit down, Stevens. I want us to talk as friends, and you’re standing there holding that blasted tray looking like you’re about to wander off any second.’ ‘I’m sorry, sir.’

I put down my tray and seated myself – in an appropriate posture – on the armchair Mr Cardinal was indicating.

‘That’s better,’ Mr Cardinal said. ‘Now, Stevens, I don’t suppose the Prime Minister is presently in the drawing room, is he?’

‘The Prime Minister, sir?’

‘Oh, it’s all right, you don’t have to tell me. I understand you’re in a tricky position.’ Mr Cardinal heaved a sigh, and looked wearily towards his papers scattered over the desk. Then he said: ‘I hardly need to tell you, do I, Stevens, what I feel towards his lordship. I mean to say, he’s been like a second father to me. I hardly need to tell you, Stevens.’ ‘No, sir.’

‘I care deeply for him.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And I know you do too. Care deeply for him. Don’t you, Stevens?’

‘I do indeed, sir.’

‘Good. So we both know where we stand. But let’s face facts. His lordship is in deep waters. I’ve watched him swimming further and further out and let me tell you, I’m getting very anxious. He’s out of his depth, you see, Stevens.’ ‘Is that so, sir?’

‘Stevens, do you know what is happening at this very moment as we sit here talking? What’s happening just several yards from us? Over in that room – and I don’t need you to confirm it – there is gathered at this moment the British Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the German Ambassador. His lordship has worked wonders to bring this meeting about, and he believes – faithfully believes – he’s doing something good and honourable. Do you know why his lordship has brought these gentlemen here tonight? Do you know, Stevens, what is going on here?’ ‘I’m afraid not, sir.’

‘You’re afraid not. Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all? Aren’t you curious? Good God, man, something very crucial is going on in this house. Aren’t you at all curious?’ ‘It is not my place to be curious about such matters, sir.’

‘But you care about his lordship. You care deeply, you just told me that. If you care about his lordship, shouldn’t you be concerned? At least a little curious? The British Prime Minister and the German Ambassador are brought together by your employer for secret talks in the night, and you’re not even curious?’ ‘I would not say I am not curious, sir. However, it is not my position to display curiosity about such matters.’

‘It’s not your position? Ah, I suppose you believe that to be loyalty. Do you? Do you think that’s being loyal? To his lordship? Or to the Crown, come to that?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, I fail to see what it is you are proposing.’

Mr Cardinal sighed again and shook his head. ‘I’m not proposing anything, Stevens. Quite frankly, I don’t know what’s to be done. But you might at least be curious.’ He was silent for a moment, during which time he seemed to be gazing emptily at the area of carpet around my feet.

‘Sure you won’t join me in a drink, Stevens?’ he said eventually. ‘No, thank you, sir.’

‘I’ll tell you this, Stevens. His lordship is being made a fool of. I’ve done a lot of investigating, I know the situation in Germany now as well as anyone in this country, and I tell you, his lordship is being made a fool of.’ I gave no reply, and Mr Cardinal went on gazing emptily at the floor. After a while, he continued:

‘His lordship is a dear, dear man. But the fact is, he is out of his depth. He is being manoeuvred. The Nazis are manoeuvring him like a pawn. Have you noticed this, Stevens? Have you noticed this is what has been happening for the last three or four years at least?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, I have failed to notice any such development.’

‘Haven’t you even had a suspicion? The smallest suspicion that Herr Hitler, through our dear friend Herr Ribbentrop, has been manoeuvring his lordship like a pawn, just as easily as he manoeuvres any of his other pawns back in Berlin?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I have not noticed any such development.’

‘But I suppose you wouldn’t, Stevens, because you’re not curious. You just let all this go on before you and you never think to look at it for what it is.’

Mr Cardinal adjusted his position in the armchair so that he was a little more upright, and for a moment he seemed to be contemplating his unfinished work on the desk near by. Then he said: ‘His lordship is a gentleman. That’s what’s at the root of it. He’s a gentleman, and he fought a war with the Germans, and it’s his instinct to offer generosity and friendship to a defeated foe. It’s his instinct. Because he’s a gentleman, a true old English gentleman. And you must have seen it, Stevens. How could you not have seen it? The way they’ve used it, manipulated it, turned something fine and noble into something else – something they can use for their own foul ends? You must have seen it, Stevens.’ Mr Cardinal was once again staring at the floor. He remained silent for a few moments, then he said:

‘I remember coming here years ago, and there was this American chap here. We were having a big conference, my father was involved in organizing it. I remember this American chap, even drunker than I am now, he got up at the dinner table in front of the whole company. And he pointed at his lordship and called him an amateur. Called him a bungling amateur and said he was out of his depth. Well, I have to say, Stevens, that American chap was quite right. It’s a fact of life. Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts. You’ve seen it yourself, haven’t you, Stevens? The way they’ve manipulated something fine and noble. You’ve seen it yourself, haven’t you?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t say I have.’

‘You can’t say you have. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to do something about it. If Father were alive, he would do something to stop it.’

Mr Cardinal fell silent again and for a moment – perhaps it was to do with his having evoked memories of his late father – he looked extremely melancholy. ‘Are you content, Stevens,’ he said finally, ‘to watch his lordship go over the precipice just like that?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, I don’t fully understand what it is you’re referring to.’

‘You don’t understand, Stevens. Well, we’re friends and so I’ll put it to you frankly. Over the last few years, his lordship has probably been the single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks. All the better because he’s sincere and honourable and doesn’t recognize the true nature of what he’s doing. During the last three years alone, his lordship has been crucially instrumental in establishing links between Berlin and over sixty of the most influential citizens of this country. It’s worked beautifully for them. Herr Ribbentrop’s been able virtually to bypass our foreign office altogether. And as if their wretched Rally and their wretched Olympic Games weren’t enough, do you know what they’ve got his lordship working on now? Do you have any idea what is being discussed now?’ ‘I’m afraid not, sir.’

‘His lordship has been trying to persuade the Prime Minister himself to accept an invitation to visit Herr Hitler. He really believes there’s a terrible misunderstanding on the Prime Minister’s part concerning the present German regime.’ ‘I cannot see what there is to object to in that, sir. His lordship has always striven to aid better understanding between nations.’

‘And that’s not all, Stevens. At this very moment, unless I am very much mistaken, at this very moment, his lordship is discussing the idea of His Majesty himself visiting Herr Hitler. It’s hardly a secret our new king has always been an enthusiast for the Nazis. Well, apparently he’s now keen to accept Herr Hitler’s invitation. At this very moment, Stevens, his lordship is doing what he can to remove Foreign Office objections to this appalling idea.’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot see that his lordship is doing anything other than that which is highest and noblest. He is doing what he can, after all, to ensure that peace will continue to prevail in Europe.’ ‘Tell me, Stevens, aren’t you struck by even the remote possibility that I am correct? Are you not, at least, curious about what I am saying?’

‘I’m sorry, sir, but I have to say that I have every trust in his lordship’s good judgement.’

‘No one with good judgement could persist in believing anything Herr Hitler says after the Rhineland, Stevens. His lordship is out of his depth. Oh dear, now I’ve really offended you.’ ‘Not at all, sir,’ I said, for I had risen on hearing the bell from the drawing room. ‘I appear to be required by the gentlemen. Please excuse me.’

In the drawing room, the air was thick with tobacco smoke. Indeed, the distinguished gentlemen continued to smoke their cigars, solemn expressions on their faces, not uttering a word, while his lordship instructed me to bring up a certain exceptionally fine bottle of port from the cellar.

At such a time of night, one’s footsteps descending the back staircase are bound to be conspicuous and no doubt they were responsible for arousing Miss Kenton. For as I was making my way along the darkness of the corridor, the door to her parlour opened and she appeared at the threshold, illuminated by the light from within.

‘I am surprised to find you still down here. Miss Kenton,’ I said as I approached.

‘Mr Stevens, I was very foolish earlier on.’

‘Excuse me. Miss Kenton, but I have no time to talk just now.’

‘Mr Stevens, you mustn’t take anything I said earlier to heart. I was simply being foolish.’

‘I have not taken anything you have said to heart, Miss Kenton. In fact, I cannot recall what it is you might be referring to. Events of great importance are unfolding upstairs and I can hardly stop to exchange pleasantries with you. I would suggest you retire for the night.’ With that I hurried on, and it was not until I had all but reached the kitchen doors that the darkness falling again in the corridor told me Miss Kenton had closed her parlour door.

It did not take me long to locate the bottle in question down in the cellar and to make the necessary preparations for its serving. It was, then, only a few minutes after my short encounter with Miss Kenton that I found myself walking down the corridor again on my return journey, this time bearing a tray. As I approached Miss Kenton’s door, I saw from the light seeping around its edges that she was still within. And that was the moment, I am now sure, that has remained so persistently lodged in my memory – that moment as I paused in the dimness of the corridor, the tray in my hands, an ever-growing conviction mounting within me that just a few yards away, on the other side of that door, Miss Kenton was at that moment crying. As I recall, there was no real evidence to account for this conviction – I had certainly not heard any sounds of crying – and yet I remember being quite certain that were I to knock and enter, I would discover her in tears. I do not know how long I remained standing there; at the time it seemed a significant period, but in reality, I suspect, it was only a matter of a few seconds. For, of course, I was required to hurry upstairs to serve some of the most distinguished gentlemen of the land and I cannot imagine I would have delayed unduly.

When I returned to the drawing room, I saw that the gentlemen were still in a rather serious mood. Beyond this, however, I had little chance to gain any impression of the atmosphere, for no sooner had I entered than his lordship was taking the tray from me, saying: ‘Thank you, Stevens, I’ll see to it. That’ll be all.’ Crossing the hall again, I took up my usual position beneath the arch, and for the next hour or so, until, that is, the gentlemen finally departed, no event occurred which obliged me to move from my spot. Nevertheless, that hour I spent standing there has stayed very vividly in my mind throughout the years. At first, my mood was – I do not mind admitting it – somewhat downcast. But then as I continued to stand there, a curious thing began to take place; that is to say, a deep feeling of triumph started to well up within me. I cannot remember to what extent I analysed this feeling at the time, but today, looking back on it, it does not seem so difficult to account for. I had, after all, just come through an extremely trying evening, throughout which I had managed to preserve a ‘dignity in keeping with my position’ – and had done so, moreover, in a manner even my father might have been proud of. And there across the hall, behind the very doors upon which my gaze was then resting, within the very room where I had just executed my duties, the most powerful gentlemen of Europe were conferring over the fate of our continent. Who would doubt at that moment that I had indeed come as close to the great hub of things as any butler could wish? I would suppose, then, that as I stood there pondering the events of the evening – those that had unfolded and those still in the process of doing so – they appeared to me a sort of summary of all that I had come to achieve thus far in my life. I can see few other explanations for that sense of triumph I came to be uplifted by that night.

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