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This seaside town is a place I have thought of coming to for many years. I have heard various people talk of having spent a pleasant holiday here, and Mrs Symons too, in The Wonder of England, calls it a ‘town that can keep the visitor fully entertained for many days on end’. In fact, she makes special mention of this pier, upon which I have been promenading for the past half-hour, recommending particularly that it be visited in the evening when it becomes lit up with bulbs of various colours. A moment ago, I learnt from an official that the lights would be switched on ‘fairly soon’, and so I have decided to sit down here on this bench and await the event. I have a good view from here of the sun setting over the sea, and though there is still plenty of daylight left – it has been a splendid day – I can see, here and there, lights starting to come on all along the shore. Meanwhile, the pier remains busy with people; behind me, the drumming of numerous footsteps upon these boards continues without interruption.

I arrived in this town yesterday afternoon, and have decided to remain a second night here so as to allow myself this whole day to spend in a leisurely manner. And I must say, it has been something of a relief not to be motoring; for enjoyable though the activity can be, one can also get a little weary of it after a while. In any case, I can well afford the time to remain this further day here; an early start tomorrow will ensure that I am back at Darlington Hall by tea-time.

It is now fully two days since my meeting with Miss Kenton in the tea lounge of the Rose Garden Hotel in Little Compton. For indeed, that was where we met, Miss Kenton surprising me by coming to the hotel. I had been whiling away some time after finishing my lunch – I was, I believe, simply staring at the rain from the window by my table – when a member of the hotel staff had come to inform me that a lady was wishing to see me at the reception. I rose and went out into the lobby, where I could see no one I recognized. But then the receptionist had said from behind her counter: ‘The lady’s in the tea lounge, sir.’ Going in through the door indicated, I discovered a room filled with ill-matching armchairs and occasional tables. There was no one else present other than Miss Kenton, who rose as I entered, smiled and held out her hand to me.

‘Ah, Mr Stevens. How nice to see you again.’

‘Mrs Benn, how lovely.’

The light in the room was extremely gloomy on account of the rain, and so we moved two armchairs up close to the bay window. And that was how Miss Kenton and I talked for the next two hours or so, there in the pool of grey light while the rain continued to fall steadily on the square outside.

She had, naturally, aged somewhat, but to my eyes at least, she seemed to have done so very gracefully. Her figure remained slim, her posture as upright as ever. She had maintained, too, her old way of holding her head in a manner that verged on the defiant. Of course, with the bleak light falling on her face, I could hardly help but notice the lines that had appeared here and there. But by and large the Miss Kenton I saw before me looked surprisingly similar to the person who had inhabited my memory over these years. That is to say, it was, on the whole, extremely pleasing to see her again.

For the first twenty or so minutes, I would say we exchanged the sort of remarks strangers might; she inquired politely about my journey thus far, how I was enjoying my holiday, which towns and landmarks I had visited and so on. As we continued to talk, I must say I thought I began to notice further, more subtle changes which the years had wrought on her. For instance, Miss Kenton appeared, somehow, slower. It is possible this was simply the calmness that comes with age, and I did try hard for some time to see it as such. But I could not escape the feeling that what I was really seeing was a weariness with life; the spark which had once made her such a lively, and at times volatile person seemed now to have gone. In fact, every now and then, when she was not speaking, when her face was in repose, I thought I glimpsed something like sadness in her expression. But then again, I may well have been mistaken about this.

After a little while, what little awkwardness as existed during the initial minutes of our meeting had dissipated completely, and our conversation took a more personal turn. We spent some time reminiscing about various persons from the past, or else exchanging any news we had concerning them, and this was, I must say, most enjoyable. But it was not so much the content of our conversation as the little smiles she gave at the end of utterances, her small ironic inflexions here and there, certain gestures with her shoulders or her hands, which began to recall unmistakably the rhythms and habits of our conversations from all those years ago.

It was around this point, also, that I was able to establish some facts concerning her present circumstances. For instance, I learnt that her marriage was not in quite as parlous a state as might have been supposed from her letter; that although she had indeed left her home for a period of four or five days – during which time the letter I received had been composed – she had returned home and Mr Benn had been very pleased to have her back. ‘It’s just as well one of us is sensible about these things,’ she said with a smile.

I am aware, of course, that such matters were hardly any of my business, and I should make clear I would not have dreamt of prying into these areas were it not that I did have, you might recall, important professional reasons for doing so; that is to say, in respect to the present staffing problems at Darlington Hall. In any case, Miss Kenton did not seem to mind at all confiding in me over these matters and I took this as a pleasing testimony to the strength of the close working relationship we had once had.

For a little while after that, I recall. Miss Kenton went on talking more generally about her husband, who is to retire soon, a little early on account of poor health, and of her daughter, who is now married and expecting a child in the autumn. In fact. Miss Kenton gave me her daughter’s address in Dorset, and I must say, I was rather flattered to see how keen she was that I call in on my return journey. Although I explained that it was unlikely I would pass through that part of Dorset, Miss Kenton continued to press me, saying: ‘Catherine’s heard all about you, Mr Stevens. She’d be so thrilled to meet you.’ For my own part, I tried to describe to her as best I could the Darlington Hall of today. I attempted to convey to her what a genial employer Mr Farraday is; and I described the changes to the house itself, the alterations and the dust-sheetings, as well as the present staffing arrangements. Miss Kenton, I thought, became visibly happier when I talked about the house and soon we were recollecting together various old memories, frequently laughing over them.

Only once do I recall our touching upon Lord Darlington. We had been enjoying some recollection or other concerning the young Mr Cardinal, so that I was then obliged to go on to inform Miss Kenton of the gentleman’s being killed in Belgium during the war. And I had gone on to say: ‘Of course, his lordship was very fond of Mr Cardinal and took it very badly.’ I did not wish to spoil the pleasant atmosphere with unhappy talk, so tried to leave the topic again almost immediately. But as I had feared, Miss Kenton had read of the unsuccessful libel action, and inevitably, took the opportunity to probe me a little. As I recall, I rather resisted being drawn in, though in the end I did say to her: ‘The fact is, Mrs Benn, throughout the war, some truly terrible things had been said about his lordship – and by that newspaper in particular. He bore it all while the country remained in peril, but once the war was over, and the insinuations simply continued, well, his lordship saw no reason to go on suffering in silence. It’s easy enough to see now, perhaps, all the dangers of going to court just at that time, what with the climate as it was. But there you are. His lordship sincerely believed he would get justice. Instead, of course, the newspaper simply increased its circulation. And his lordship’s good name was destroyed for ever. Really, Mrs Benn, afterwards, well, his lordship was virtually an invalid. And the house became so quiet. I would take him tea in the drawing room and, well … It really was most tragic to see.’ ‘I’m very sorry, Mr Stevens. I had no idea things had been so bad.’

‘Oh yes, Mrs Benn. But enough of this. I know you remember Darlington Hall in the days when there were great gatherings, when it was filled with distinguished visitors. Now that’s the way his lordship deserves to be remembered.’

As I say, that was the only time we mentioned Lord Darlington. Predominantly, we concerned ourselves with very happy memories, and those two hours we spent together in the tea lounge were, I would say, extremely pleasant ones. I seem to remember various other guests coming in while we were talking, sitting down for a few moments and leaving again, but they did not distract us in any way at all. Indeed, one could hardly believe two whole hours had elapsed when Miss Kenton looked up at the clock on the mantelshelf and said she would have to be returning home. On establishing that she would have to walk in the rain to a bus stop a little way out of the village, I insisted on running her there in the Ford, and so it was that after obtaining an umbrella from the reception desk, we stepped outside together.

Large puddles had formed on the ground around where I had left the Ford, obliging me to assist Miss Kenton a little to allow her to reach the passenger door. Soon, however, we were motoring down the village high street, and then the shops had gone and we found ourselves in open country. Miss Kenton, who had been sitting quietly watching the passing view, turned to me at this point, saying: ‘What are you smiling to yourself about like that, Mr Stevens?’

‘Oh … You must excuse me, Mrs Benn, but I was just recalling certain things you wrote in your letter. I was a little worried when I read them, but I see now I had little reason to be.’

‘Oh? What things in particular do you mean, Mr Stevens?’

‘Oh, nothing in particular, Mrs Benn.’

‘Oh, Mr Stevens, you really must tell me.’

‘Well, for instance, Mrs Benn,’ I said with a laugh, ‘at one point in your letter, you write – now let me see – “the rest of my life stretches out like an emptiness before me.” Some words to that effect.’

‘Really, Mr Stevens,’ she said, also laughing a little. ‘I couldn’t have written any such thing.’

‘Oh, I assure you you did, Mrs Benn. I recall it very clearly.’

‘Oh dear. Well, perhaps there are some days when I feel like that. But they pass quickly enough. Let me assure you, Mr Stevens, my life does not stretch out emptily before me. For one thing, we are looking forward to the grandchild. The first of a few perhaps.’

‘Yes, indeed. That will be splendid for you.’

We drove on quietly for a few further moments. Then Miss Kenton said:

‘And what about you, Mr Stevens? What does the future hold for you back at Darlington Hall?’

‘Well, whatever awaits me, Mrs Benn, I know I’m not awaited by emptiness. If only I were. But oh no, there’s work, work and more work.’

We both laughed at this. Then Miss Kenton pointed out a bus shelter visible further up the road. As we approached it, she said:

‘Will you wait with me, Mr Stevens? The bus will only be a few minutes.’

The rain was still falling steadily as we got out of the car and hurried towards the shelter. This latter – a stone construct complete with a tiled roof – looked very sturdy, as indeed it needed to be, standing as it did in a highly exposed position against a background of empty fields. Inside, the paint was peeling everywhere, but the place was clean enough. Miss Kenton seated herself on the bench provided, while I remained on my feet where I could command a view of the approaching bus. On the other side of the road, all I could see were more farm fields; a line of telegraph poles led my eye over them into the far distance.

After we had been waiting in silence for a few minutes, I finally brought myself to say:

‘Excuse me, Mrs Benn. But the fact is we may not meet again for a long time. I wonder if you would perhaps permit me to ask you something of a rather personal order. It is something that has been troubling me for some time.’

‘Certainly, Mr Stevens. We are old friends, after all.’

‘Indeed, as you say, we are old friends. I simply wished to ask you, Mrs Benn. Please do not reply if you feel you shouldn’t. But the fact is, the letters I have had from you over the years, and in particular the last letter, have tended to suggest that you are – how might one put it? – rather unhappy. I simply wondered if you were being ill-treated in some way. Forgive me, but as I say, it is something that has worried me for some time. I would feel foolish had I come all this way and seen you and not at least asked you.’ ‘Mr Stevens, there’s no need to be so embarrassed. We’re old friends, after all, are we not? In fact, I’m very touched you should be so concerned. And I can put your mind at rest on this matter absolutely. My husband does not mistreat me at all in any way. He is not in the least a cruel or ill-tempered man.’ ‘I must say, Mrs Benn, that does take a load from my mind.’

I leaned forward into the rain, looking for signs of the bus.

‘I can see you are not very satisfied, Mr Stevens,’ Miss Kenton said. ‘Do you not believe me?’

‘Oh, it’s not that, Mrs Benn, not that at all. It’s just that the fact remains, you do not seem to have been happy over the years. That is to say – forgive me – you have taken it on yourself to leave your husband on a number of occasions. If he does not mistreat you, then, well … one is rather mystified as to the cause of your unhappiness.’ I looked out into the drizzle again. Eventually, I heard Miss Kenton say behind me: ‘Mr Stevens, how can I explain? I hardly know myself why I do such things. But it’s true, I’ve left three times now.’ She paused a moment, during which time I continued to gaze out towards the fields on the other side of the road. Then she said: ‘I suppose, Mr Stevens, you’re asking whether or not I love my husband.’ ‘Really, Mrs Benn, I would hardly presume …’

‘I feel I should answer you, Mr Stevens. As you say, we may not meet again for many years. Yes, I do love my husband. I didn’t at first. I didn’t at first for a long time. When I left Darlington Hall all those years ago, I never realized I was really, truly leaving. I believe I thought of it as simply another ruse, Mr Stevens, to annoy you. It was a shock to come out here and find myself married. For a long time, I was very unhappy, very unhappy indeed. But then year after year went by, there was the war, Catherine grew up, and one day I realized I loved my husband. You spend so much time with someone, you find you get used to him. He’s a kind, steady man, and yes, Mr Stevens, I’ve grown to love him.’ Miss Kenton fell silent again for a moment. Then she went on:

‘But that doesn’t mean to say, of course, there aren’t occasions now and then – extremely desolate occasions – when you think to yourself: “What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.” And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr Stevens. And I suppose that’s when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long – my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.’ I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking. Before long, however, I turned to her and said with a smile: ‘You’re very correct, Mrs Benn. As you say, it is too late to turn back the clock. Indeed, I would not be able to rest if I thought such ideas were the cause of unhappiness for you and your husband. We must each of us, as you point out, be grateful for what we do have. And from what you tell me, Mrs Benn, you have reason to be contented. In fact, I would venture, what with Mr Benn retiring, and with grandchildren on the way, that you and Mr Benn have some extremely happy years before you. You really mustn’t let any more foolish ideas come between yourself and the happiness you deserve.’ ‘Of course, you’re right, Mr Stevens. You’re so kind.’

‘Ah, Mrs Benn, that appears to be the bus coming now.’

I stepped outside and signalled, while Miss Kenton rose and came to the edge of the shelter. Only as the bus pulled up did I glance at Miss Kenton and perceive that her eyes had filled with tears. I smiled and said:

‘Now, Mrs Benn, you must take good care of yourself. Many say retirement is the best part of life for a married couple. You must do all you can to make these years happy ones for yourself and your husband. We may never meet again, Mrs Benn, so I would ask you to take good heed of what I am saying.’ ‘I will, Mr Stevens, thank you. And thank you for the lift. It was so very kind of you. It was so nice to see you again.’

‘It was a great pleasure to see you again, Mrs Benn.’

The pier lights have been switched on and behind me a crowd of people have just given a loud cheer to greet this event. There is still plenty of daylight left – the sky over the sea has turned a pale red – but it would seem that all these people who have been gathering on this pier for the past half-hour are now willing night to fall. This confirms very aptly, I suppose, the point made by the man who until a little while ago was sitting here beside me on this bench, and with whom I had my curious discussion. His claim was that for a great many people, the evening was the best part of the day, the part they most looked forward to. And as I say, there would appear to be some truth in this assertion, for why else would all these people give a spontaneous cheer simply because the pier lights have come on?

Of course, the man had been speaking figuratively, but it is rather interesting to see his words borne out so immediately at the literal level. I would suppose he had been sitting here next to me for some minutes without my noticing him, so absorbed had I become with my recollections of meeting Miss Kenton two days ago. In fact, I do not think I registered his presence on the bench at all until he declared out loud: ‘Sea air does you a lot of good.’

I looked up and saw a heavily built man, probably in his late sixties, wearing a rather tired tweed jacket, his shirt open at the neck. He was gazing out over the water, perhaps at some seagulls in the far distance, and so it was not at all clear that he had been talking to me. But since no one else responded, and since I could see no other obvious persons close by who might do so, I eventually said: ‘Yes, I’m sure it does.’

‘The doctor says it does you good. So I come up here as much as the weather will let me.’

The man went on to tell me about his various ailments, only very occasionally turning his eyes away from the sunset in order to give me a nod or a grin. I really only started to pay any attention at all when he happened to mention that until his retirement three years ago, he had been a butler of a nearby house. On inquiring further, I ascertained that the house had been a very small one in which he had been the only full-time employee. When I asked him if he had ever worked with a proper staff under him, perhaps before the war, he replied: ‘Oh, in those days, I was just a footman. I wouldn’t have had the know-how to be a butler in those days. You’d be surprised what it involved when you had those big houses you had then.’

At this point, I thought it appropriate to reveal my identity, and although I am not sure ‘Darlington Hall’ meant anything to him, my companion seemed suitably impressed.

‘And here I was trying to explain it all to you,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Good job you told me when you did before I made a right fool of myself. Just shows you never know who you’re addressing when you start talking to a stranger. So you had a big staff, I suppose. Before the war, I mean.’ He was a cheerful fellow and seemed genuinely interested, so I confess I did spend a little time telling him about Darlington Hall in former days. In the main, I tried to convey to him some of the ‘know-how’, as he put it, involved in overseeing large events of the sort we used often to have. Indeed, I believe I even revealed to him several of my professional ‘secrets’ designed to bring that extra bit out of staff, as well as the various ‘sleights-of-hand’ – the equivalent of a conjuror’s – by which a butler could cause a thing to occur at just the right time and place without guests even glimpsing the often large and complicated manoeuvre behind the operation. As I say, my companion seemed genuinely interested, but after a time I felt I had revealed enough and so concluded by saying: ‘Of course, things are quite different today under my present employer. An American gentleman.’

‘American, eh? Well, they’re the only ones can afford it now. So you stayed on with the house. Part of the package.’ He turned and gave me a grin.

‘Yes,’ I said, laughing a little. ‘As you say, part of the package.’

The man turned his gaze back to the sea again, took a deep breath and sighed contentedly. We then proceeded to sit there together quietly for several moments.

‘The fact is, of course,’ I said after a while, ‘I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now – well – I find I do not have a great deal more left to give.’

The man said nothing, but nodded, so I went on:

‘Since my new employer Mr Farraday arrived, I’ve tried very hard, very hard indeed, to provide the sort of service I would like him to have. I’ve tried and tried, but whatever I do I find I am far from reaching the standards I once set myself. More and more errors are appearing in my work. Quite trivial in themselves – at least so far. But they’re of the sort I would never have made before, and I know what they signify. Goodness knows, I’ve tried and tried, but it’s no use. I’ve given what I had to give. I gave it all to Lord Darlington.’ ‘Oh dear, mate. Here, you want a hankie? I’ve got one somewhere. Here we are. It’s fairly clean. Just blew my nose once this morning, that’s all. Have a go, mate.’

‘Oh dear, no, thank you, it’s quite all right. I’m very sorry, I’m afraid the travelling has tired me. I’m very sorry.’

‘You must have been very attached to this Lord whatever. And it’s three years since he passed away, you say? I can see you were very attached to him, mate.’

‘Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?’ ‘Now, look, mate, I’m not sure I follow everything you’re saying. But if you ask me, your attitude’s all wrong, see? Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed. And all right, you can’t do your job as well as you used to. But it’s the same for all of us, see? We’ve all got to put our feet up at some point. Look at me. Been happy as a lark since the day I retired. All right, so neither of us are exactly in our first flush of youth, but you’ve got to keep looking forward.’ And I believe it was then that he said: ‘You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it. That’s how I look at it. Ask anybody, they’ll all tell you. The evening’s the best part of the day.’ ‘I’m sure you’re quite correct,’ I said. ‘I’m so sorry, this is so unseemly. I suspect I’m over-tired. I’ve been travelling rather a lot, you see.’

It is now some twenty minutes since the man left, but I have remained here on this bench to await the event that has just taken place – namely, the switching on of the pier lights. As I say, the happiness with which the pleasure-seekers gathering on this pier greeted this small event would tend to vouch for the correctness of my companion’s words; for a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.

A few minutes ago, incidentally, shortly after the lights came on, I did turn on my bench a moment to study more closely these throngs of people laughing and chatting behind me. There are people of all ages strolling around this pier: families with children; couples, young and elderly, walking arm in arm. There is a group of six or seven people gathered just a little way behind me who have aroused my curiosity a little. I naturally assumed at first that they were a group of friends out together for the evening. But as I listened to their exchanges, it became apparent they were strangers who had just happened upon one another here on this spot behind me. Evidently, they had all paused a moment for the lights coming on, and then proceeded to fall into conversation with one another. As I watch them now, they are laughing together merrily. It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly. It is possible these particular persons are simply united by the anticipation of the evening ahead. But, then, I rather fancy it has more to do with this skill of bantering. Listening to them now, I can hear them exchanging one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed. In fact, it is possible my bench companion of a while ago expected me to banter with him – in which case, I suppose I was something of a sorry disappointment. Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.

It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform. I have of course already devoted much time to developing my bantering skills, but it is possible I have never previously approached the task with the commitment I might have done. Perhaps, then, when I return to Darlington Hall tomorrow – Mr Farraday will not himself be back for a further week – I will begin practising with renewed effort. I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him.

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