روز سوم - عصر موقع - 02کتاب: بازمانده روز / فصل 9
روز سوم - عصر موقع - 02
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From the time she first arrived at Darlington Hall right up until perhaps a month or so before that incident in my pantry. Miss Kenton’s days off had followed a predictable pattern. She would, once every six weeks, take two days off to visit her aunt in Southampton; otherwise, following my own example, she would not really take days off as such unless we were going through a particularly quiet time, in which case she might spend a day strolling around the grounds and doing a little reading in her parlour. But then, as I say, the pattern changed. She began suddenly to take full advantage of her contracted time off, disappearing regularly from the house from early in the morning, leaving no information other than the hour she might be expected back that night. Of course, she never took more time than her entitlement, and thus I felt it improper to inquire further concerning these outings of hers. But I suppose this change did perturb me somewhat, for I remember mentioning it to Mr Graham, valet-butler to Sir James Chambers – a good colleague who, incidentally, I seem now to have lost touch with – as we sat talking by the fire one night during one of his regular visits to Darlington Hall.
In fact, all I had said was something to the effect that the housekeeper had been ‘a little moody of late’, and so had been rather surprised when Mr Graham nodded, leaned towards me and said knowingly:
‘I’d been wondering how much longer it would be.’
When I asked him what he meant, Mr Graham went on: ‘Your Miss Kenton. I believe she’s now what? Thirty-three? Thirty-four? Missed out on the best of her mothering years, but it’s not too late yet.’
‘Miss Kenton’, I assured him, ‘is a devoted professional. I happen to know for a fact that she has no wish for a family.’
But Mr Graham had smiled and shook his head, saying: ‘Never believe a housekeeper who tells you she doesn’t want a family. Indeed, Mr Stevens, I should think you and I could sit here now and count up at least a dozen between us that once said as much, then got married and left the profession.’ I recall I dismissed Mr Graham’s theory with some confidence that evening, but thereafter, I must admit, I found it hard to keep out of my mind the possibility that the purpose of these mysterious outings of Miss Kenton was to meet a suitor. This was indeed a disturbing notion, for it was not hard to see that Miss Kenton’s departure would constitute a professional loss of some magnitude, a loss Darlington Hall would have some difficulty recovering from. Furthermore, I was obliged to recognize certain other little signs which tended to support Mr Graham’s theory. For instance, the collection of mail being one of my duties, I could not help noticing that Miss Kenton had started to get letters on a fairly regular basis – once a week or so – from the same correspondent, and that these letters bore a local postmark. I should perhaps point out here that it would have been well nigh impossible for me not to have noticed such things, given that throughout all her preceding years at the house, she had received very few letters indeed.
Then there were other more nebulous signs to support Mr Graham’s view. For instance, although she continued to discharge her professional duties with all her usual diligence, her general mood tended to undergo swings of a sort I had hitherto never witnessed. In fact, the times when she became extremely cheerful for days on end – and for no observable reason – were almost as disturbing to me as her sudden, often prolonged sullen spells. As I say, she remained utterly professional throughout it all, but then again, it was my duty to think about the welfare of the house in the long term, and if indeed these signs tended to support Mr Graham’s notion that Miss Kenton was contemplating departing for romantic purposes, I clearly had a responsibility to probe the matter further. I did then venture to ask her one evening during one of our sessions over cocoa: ‘And will you be going off again on Thursday, Miss Kenton? On your day off, I mean.’
I had half expected her to be angry at this inquiry, but on the contrary, it was almost as though she had been long awaiting an opportunity to raise the very topic. For she said in something of a relieved way:
‘Oh, Mr Stevens, it’s just someone I knew once when I was at Granchester Lodge. As a matter of fact, he was the butler there at the time, but now he’s left service altogether and is employed by a business near by. He somehow learnt of my being here and started writing to me, suggesting we renew our acquaintance. And that, Mr Stevens, is really the long and short of it.’ ‘I see. Miss Kenton. No doubt, it is refreshing to leave the house at times.’
‘I find it so, Mr Stevens.’
There was a short silence. Then Miss Kenton appeared to make some decision and went on:
‘This acquaintance of mine. I remember when he was butler at Granchester Lodge, he was full of the most marvellous ambitions. In fact, I imagine his ultimate dream would have been to become butler of a house like this one. Oh, but when I think now of some of his methods! Really, Mr Stevens, I can just imagine your face if you were to be confronted by them now. It really is no wonder his ambitions remained unfulfilled.’ I gave a small laugh. ‘In my experience,’ I said, ‘too many people believe themselves capable of working at these higher levels without having the least idea of the exacting demands involved. It is certainly not suited to just anybody.’ ‘So true. Really, Mr Stevens, what would you have said if you had observed him in those days!’
‘At these sorts of levels, Miss Kenton, the profession isn’t for everybody. It is easy enough to have lofty ambitions, but without certain qualities, a butler will simply not progress beyond a certain point.’
Miss Kenton seemed to ponder this for a moment, then said:
‘It occurs to me you must be a well-contented man, Mr Stevens. Here you are, after all, at the top of your profession, every aspect of your domain well under control. I really cannot imagine what more you might wish for in life.’ I could think of no immediate response to this. In the slightly awkward silence that ensued, Miss Kenton turned her gaze down into the depths of her cocoa cup as if she had become engrossed by something she had noticed there. In the end, after some consideration, I said: ‘As far as I am concerned, Miss Kenton, my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself. The day his lordship’s work is complete, the day he is able to rest on his laurels, content in the knowledge that he has done all anyone could ever reasonably ask of him, only on that day, Miss Kenton, will I be able to call myself, as you put it, a well-contented man.’ She may have been a little puzzled by my words; or perhaps it was that they had for some reason displeased her. In any case, her mood seemed to change at that point, and our conversation rapidly lost the rather personal tone it had begun to adopt.
It was not so long afterwards that these meetings over cocoa in her parlour came to an end. In fact, I recall quite clearly the very last time we met like that; I was wishing to discuss with Miss Kenton a forthcoming event – a weekend gathering of distinguished persons from Scotland. It is true the event was still a month or so away, but then it had always been our habit to talk over such events from an early stage. On this particular evening, I had been discussing various aspects of it for a little while when I realized Miss Kenton was contributing very little; indeed, after a time, it became perfectly obvious her thoughts were somewhere else altogether. I did on a few occasions say things like: ‘Are you with me, Miss Kenton?’ particularly if I had been making a lengthy point, and though whenever I did so she would become a little more alert, within seconds I could see her attention drifting again. After several minutes of my talking and her contributing only statements such as, ‘Of course, Mr Stevens,’ or, ‘I quite agree, Mr Stevens,’ I finally said to her: ‘I am sorry, Miss Kenton, but I see little point in our continuing. You simply do not seem to appreciate the importance of this discussion.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Stevens,’ she said, sitting up a little. ‘It’s simply that I’m rather tired this evening.’
‘You are increasingly tired now, Miss Kenton. It used not to be an excuse you needed to resort to.’
To my astonishment, Miss Kenton responded to this in a sudden burst:
‘Mr Stevens, I have had a very busy week. I am very tired. In fact, I have been wishing for my bed for the last three or four hours. I am very, very tired, Mr Stevens, can you not appreciate that?’
It is not as though I had expected an apology from her, but the stridency of this reply did, I must say, take me aback a little. However, I decided not to get drawn into an unseemly argument with her and made sure to pause for a telling moment or two before saying quite calmly: ‘If that is how you feel about it, Miss Kenton, there is no need at all for us to continue with these evening meetings. I am sorry that all this time I had no idea of the extent to which they were inconveniencing you.’
‘Mr Stevens, I merely said that I was tired tonight…’
‘No, no, Miss Kenton, it’s perfectly understandable. You have a busy life, and these meetings are a quite unnecessary addition to your burden. There are many alternative options for achieving the level of professional communication necessary without our meeting on this basis.’ ‘Mr Stevens, this is quite unnecessary. I merely said …’
‘I mean it, Miss Kenton. In fact, I had been wondering for some time if we should not discontinue these meetings, given how they prolong our already very busy days. The fact that we have met here now for years is no reason in itself why we should not seek a more convenient arrangement from here on.’ ‘Mr Stevens, please, I believe these meetings are very useful…’
‘But they are inconvenient for you, Miss Kenton. They tire you out. May I suggest that from now on, we simply make a special point of communicating important information during the course of the normal working day. Should we not be able to find each other readily, I suggest we leave written messages at one another’s doors. That seems to me a perfectly fine solution. Now, Miss Kenton, I apologize for keeping you up so long. Thank you very kindly for the cocoa.’ Naturally – and why should I not admit this – I have occasionally wondered to myself how things might have turned out in the long run had I not been so determined over the issue of our evening meetings; that is to say, had I relented on those several occasions over the weeks that followed when Miss Kenton suggested we reinstitute them. I only speculate over this now because in the light of subsequent events, it could well be argued that in making my decision to end those evening meetings once and for all, I was perhaps not entirely aware of the full implications of what I was doing. Indeed, it might even be said that this small decision of mine constituted something of a key turning point; that that decision set things on an inevitable course towards what eventually happened.
But then, I suppose, when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one’s past for such ‘turning points’, one is apt to start seeing them everywhere. Not only my decision in respect of our evening meetings, but also that episode in my pantry, if one felt so inclined, could be seen as such a ‘turning point’. What would have transpired, one may ask, had one responded slightly differently that evening she came in with her vase of flowers? And perhaps – occurring as it did around the same time as these events – my encounter with Miss Kenton in the dining room the afternoon she received the news of her aunt’s death might be seen as yet another ‘turning point’ of sorts.
News of the death had arrived some hours earlier; indeed, I had myself knocked on the door of her parlour that morning to hand her the letter. I had stepped inside for a brief moment to discuss some professional matter, and I recall we were seated at her table and in mid-conversation at the moment she opened the letter. She became very still, but to her credit she remained composed, reading the letter through at least twice. Then she put the letter carefully back in its envelope and looked across the table to me.
‘It is from Mrs Johnson, a companion of my aunt. She says my aunt died the day before yesterday.’ She paused a moment, then said: ‘The funeral is to take place tomorrow. I wonder if it might be possible for me to take the day off.’ ‘I am sure that could be arranged, Miss Kenton.’
‘Thank you, Mr Stevens. Forgive me, but perhaps I may now have a few moments alone.’
‘Of course, Miss Kenton.’
I made my exit, and it was not until after I had done so that it occurred to me I had not actually offered her my condolences. I could well imagine the blow the news would be to her, her aunt having been, to all intents and purposes, like a mother to her, and I paused out in the corridor, wondering if I should go back, knock and make good my omission. But then it occurred to me that if I were to do so, I might easily intrude upon her private grief. Indeed, it was not impossible that Miss Kenton, at that very moment, and only a few feet from me, was actually crying. The thought provoked a strange feeling to rise within me, causing me to stand there hovering in the corridor for some moments. But eventually I judged it best to await another opportunity to express my sympathy and went on my way.
As it turned out, I did not see her again until the afternoon, when, as I say, I came across her in the dining room, replacing crockery into the sideboard. By this point, I had been preoccupied for some hours with the matter of Miss Kenton’s sorrow, having given particular thought to the question of what I might best do or say to ease her burden a little. And when I had heard her footsteps entering the dining room – I was busy with some task out in the hall – I had waited a minute or so, then put down what I was doing and followed her in.
‘Ah, Miss Kenton,’ I said. ‘And how might you be this afternoon?’
‘Quite well, thank you, Mr Stevens.’
‘Is everything in order?’
‘Everything is quite in order, thank you.’
‘I had been meaning to ask you if you were experiencing any particular problems with the new recruits.’ I gave a small laugh. ‘Various small difficulties are apt to arise when so many new recruits arrive all at once. I dare say the best of us can often profit by a little professional discussion at such times.’ ‘Thank you, Mr Stevens, but the new girls are very satisfactory to me.’
‘You don’t consider any changes necessary to the present staff plans on account of the recent arrivals?’
‘I don’t think any such changes will be necessary, Mr Stevens. However, if I change my view on this, I will let you know immediately.’
She turned her attention back to the sideboard, and for a moment, I thought about leaving the dining room. In fact, I believe I actually took a few steps towards the doorway, but then I turned to her again and said:
‘So, Miss Kenton, the new recruits are getting on well, you say.’
‘They are both doing very well, I assure you.’
‘Ah, that is good to hear.’ I gave another short laugh. ‘I merely wondered, because we had established that neither girls had worked previously in a house of this size.’
‘Indeed, Mr Stevens.’
I watched her filling the sideboard and waited to see if she would say anything further. When after several moments it became clear she would not, I said: ‘As a matter of fact, Miss Kenton, I have to say this. I have noticed one or two things have fallen in standard just recently. I do feel you might be a little less complacent as regards new arrivals.’ ‘Whatever do you mean, Mr Stevens?’
‘For my part, Miss Kenton, whenever new recruits arrive, I like to make doubly sure all is well. I check all aspects of their work and try to gauge how they are conducting themselves with other staff members. It is, after all, important to form a clear view of them both technically and in terms of their impact on general morale. I regret to say this, Miss Kenton, but I believe you have been a little remiss in these respects.’ For a second, Miss Kenton looked confused. Then she turned towards me and a certain strain was visible in her face.
‘I beg your pardon, Mr Stevens?’
‘For instance, Miss Kenton, although the crockery is being washed to as high a standard as ever, I have noticed it is being replaced on the kitchen shelves in a manner which, while not obviously dangerous, would nevertheless over time result in more breakages than necessary.’ ‘Is that so, Mr Stevens?’
‘Yes, Miss Kenton. Furthermore, that little alcove outside the breakfast room has not been dusted for some time. You will excuse me, but there are one or two other small things I might mention.’
‘You needn’t press your point, Mr Stevens. I will, as you suggest, check the work of the new maids.’
‘It is not like you to have overlooked such obvious things, Miss Kenton.’
Miss Kenton looked away from me, and again an expression crossed her face as though she were trying to puzzle out something that had quite confused her. She did not look upset so much as very weary. Then she closed the sideboard, said: ‘Please excuse me, Mr Stevens,’ and left the room.
But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.
But I see I am becoming unduly introspective, and in a rather morose sort of way at that. No doubt, this has to do with the late hour, and the trying nature of the events I have had to endure this evening. No doubt, too, my present mood is not unconnected with the fact that tomorrow – provided I am supplied with petrol by the local garage, as the Taylors assure me I will be – I should arrive in Little Compton by lunch-time and will, presumably, see Miss Kenton again after all these years. There is, of course, no reason at all to suppose our meeting will be anything but cordial. In fact, I would expect our interview – aside from a few informal exchanges quite proper in the circumstances – to be largely professional in character. That is to say, it will be my responsibility to determine whether or not Miss Kenton has any interest, now that her marriage, sadly, appears to have broken down and she is without a home, in returning to her old post at Darlington Hall. I may as well say here that having reread her letter again tonight, I am inclined to believe I may well have read more into certain of her lines than perhaps was wise. But I would still maintain there is more than a hint of nostalgic longing in certain parts of her letter, particularly when she writes such things as: ‘I was so fond of that view from the second-floor bedrooms overlooking the lawn with the downs visible in the distance.’ But then again, what is the purpose in endlessly speculating as to Miss Kenton’s present wishes when I will be able to ascertain these from her own person tomorrow? And in any case, I have drifted considerably from the account I was giving of this evening’s events. These last few hours, let me say it, have proved unreasonably taxing ones. One would have thought that having to abandon the Ford on some lonely hill, having to walk down to this village in near-darkness by the unorthodox route one did, would be sufficient inconvenience to befall one for a single evening. And my kind hosts, Mr and Mrs Taylor, would never, I am certain, have knowingly put me through what I have just endured. But the fact is, once I had sat down to supper at their table, once a number of their neighbours had come calling, a most discomforting set of events began to unfold around me.
The room downstairs at the front of this cottage would appear to serve Mr and Mrs Taylor as both dining room and general living quarters. It is a rather cosy room, dominated by a large, roughly hewn table of the sort one might expect to see in a farmhouse kitchen, its surface unvarnished and bearing many small marks left by choppers and bread-knives. These latter I could see quite clearly despite the fact that we were sitting in a low yellow light cast by an oil lamp on a shelf in one corner.
‘It’s not as though we don’t have electricity out here, sir,’ Mr Taylor remarked to me at one point, nodding towards the lamp. ‘But something went wrong with the circuit and we’ve been without it now for almost two months. To tell you the truth, we don’t miss it so much. There’s a few houses in the village that’s never had electricity at all. Oil gives a warmer light.’ Mrs Taylor had served us with a good broth, which we had eaten with helpings of crusty bread, and at that point, there had been little to suggest the evening held for me anything more daunting than an hour or so of pleasant conversation before retiring to bed. However, just as we had finished supper and Mr Taylor was pouring for me a glass of ale brewed by a neighbour, we heard footsteps approaching on the gravel outside. To my ears, there was something a little sinister in the sound of feet coming ever closer in the darkness up to an isolated cottage, but neither my host nor hostess seemed to anticipate any menace. For it was with curiosity and nothing else in his voice that Mr Taylor said: ‘Hello, now who could this be?’ He had said this more or less to himself, but then we heard, as though in reply, a voice call outside: ‘It’s George Andrews. Just happened to be walking by.’
The next moment, Mrs Taylor was showing in a well-built man, perhaps in his fifties, who judging from his dress had spent the day engaged in agricultural work. With a familiarity which suggested he was a regular visitor, he placed himself on a small stool by the entrance and removed his Wellington boots with some effort, exchanging a few casual remarks with Mrs Taylor as he did so. Then he came towards the table and stopped, standing to attention before me as though reporting to an officer in the army.
‘The name’s Andrews, sir,’ he said. ‘A very good evening to you. I’m very sorry to hear about your mishap, but I hope you’re not too put out to be spending the night here in Moscombe.’
I was a little puzzled as to how this Mr Andrews had come to hear of my ‘mishap’, as he termed it. In any case, I replied with a smile that far from being ‘put out’, I felt extremely indebted for the hospitality I was receiving. By this I had of course been referring to Mr and Mrs Taylor’s kindness, but Mr Andrews seemed to believe himself included by my expression of gratitude, for he said immediately, holding up defensively his two large hands: ‘Oh no, sir, you’re most welcome. We’re very pleased to have you. It’s not often the likes of yourself comes through here. We’re all very pleased you could stop by.’
The way he said this seemed to suggest the whole village was aware of my ‘mishap’ and subsequent arrival at this cottage. In fact, as I was soon to discover, this was very close to being the case; I can only imagine that in the several minutes after I had first been shown up to this bedroom – while I was washing my hands and doing what I could to make good the damage inflicted upon my jacket and trouser turn-ups – Mr and Mrs Taylor had conveyed news of me to passers-by. In any case, the next few minutes saw the arrival of another visitor, a man with an appearance much like that of Mr Andrews – that is to say, somewhat broad and agricultural, and wearing muddy Wellington boots, which he proceeded to remove in much the way Mr Andrews had just done. Indeed, their similarity was such that I supposed them to be brothers, until the newcomer introduced himself to me as, ‘Morgan, sir, Trevor Morgan.’ Mr Morgan expressed regret concerning my ‘misfortune’, assuring me all would be well in the morning, before going on to say how welcome I was in the village. Of course, I had already heard similar sentiments a few moments earlier, but Mr Morgan actually said: ‘It’s a privilege to have a gentleman like yourself here in Moscombe, sir.’ Before I had had any time to think of a reply to this, there came the sound of more footsteps on the path outside. Soon, a middle-aged couple were shown in, who were introduced to me as Mr and Mrs Harry Smith. These people did not look at all agricultural; she was a large, matronly woman who rather reminded me of Mrs Mortimer, the cook at Darlington Hall through much of the twenties and thirties. In contrast, Mr Harry Smith was a small man with a rather intense expression that furrowed his brow. As they took their places around the table, he said to me: ‘Your car would be the vintage Ford up there on Thornley Bush Hill, sir?’ ‘If that is the hill road overlooking this village,’ I said. ‘But I’m surprised to hear you’ve seen it.’
‘I’ve not seen it myself, sir. But Dave Thornton passed it on his tractor a short while ago as he was coming home. He was so surprised to see it sitting there, he actually stopped and got out.’ At this point, Mr Harry Smith turned to address the others around the table. ‘Absolute beauty, it is. Said he’d never seen anything like it. Put the car Mr Lindsay used to drive completely in the shade!’ This caused laughter around the table, which Mr Taylor next to me explained by saying: ‘That was a gent used to live in the big house not far from here, sir. He did one or two odd things and wasn’t appreciated around here.’ This brought a general murmur of assent. Then someone said: ‘Your health, sir,’ lifting one of the tankards of ale Mrs Taylor had just finished distributing, and the next moment I was being toasted by the whole company.
I smiled and said: ‘I assure you the privilege is all mine.’
‘You’re very kind, sir,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘That’s the way a real gentleman is. That Mr Lindsay was no gentleman. He may have had a lot of money, but he was never a gentleman.’
Again, there was agreement all round. Then Mrs Taylor whispered something in Mrs Smith’s ear, causing the latter to reply: ‘He said he’d try to be along as soon as he could.’ They both turned towards me with a self-conscious air, then Mrs Smith said: ‘We told Dr Carlisle you were here, sir. The doctor would be very pleased to make your acquaintance.’ ‘I expect he has patients to see,’ Mrs Taylor added apologetically. ‘I’m afraid we can’t say for certain he’ll be able to call in before you’d be wanting to retire, sir.’
It was then that Mr Harry Smith, the little man with the furrowed brow, leaned forward again and said: ‘That Mr Lindsay, he had it all wrong, see? Acting the way he did. Thought he was so much better than us, and he took us all for fools. Well, I can tell you, sir, he soon learnt otherwise. A lot of hard thinking and talking goes on in this place. There’s plenty of good strong opinion around and people here aren’t shy about expressing it. That’s something your Mr Lindsay learnt quickly enough.’ ‘He was no gentleman,’ Mr Taylor said quietly. ‘He was no gentleman, that Mr Lindsay.’
‘That’s right, sir,’ Mr Harry Smith said. ‘You could tell just watching him he was no gentleman. All right, he had a fine house and good suits, but somehow you just knew. And so it proved in good time.’
There was a murmur of agreement, and for a moment all present seemed to be considering whether or not it would be proper to divulge to me the tale concerning this local personage. Then Mr Taylor broke the silence by saying: ‘That’s true what Harry says. You can tell a true gentleman from a false one that’s just dressed in finery. Take yourself, sir. It’s not just the cut of your clothes, nor is it even the fine way you’ve got of speaking. There’s something else that marks you out as a gentleman. Hard to put your finger on it, but it’s plain for all to see that’s got eyes.’ This brought more sounds of agreement around the table.
‘Dr Carlisle shouldn’t be long now, sir,’ Mrs Taylor put in. ‘You’ll enjoy talking with him.’
‘Dr Carlisle’s got it too,’ Mr Taylor said. ‘He’s got it. He’s a true gent, that one.’
Mr Morgan, who had said little since his arrival, bent forward and said to me: ‘What do you suppose it is, sir? Maybe one that’s got it can better say what it is. Here we are all talking about who’s got it and who hasn’t, and we’re none the wiser about what we’re talking about. Perhaps you could enlighten us a bit, sir.’ A silence fell around the table and I could sense all the faces turn to me. I gave a small cough and said:
‘It is hardly for me to pronounce upon qualities I may or may not possess. However, as far as this particular question is concerned, one would suspect that the quality being referred to might be most usefully termed “dignity”.’ I saw little point in attempting to explain this statement further. Indeed, I had merely given voice to the thoughts running through my mind while listening to the preceding talk and it is doubtful I would have said such a thing had the situation not suddenly demanded it of me. My response, however, seemed to cause much satisfaction.
‘There’s a lot of truth in what you say there, sir,’ Mr Andrews said, nodding, and a number of other voices echoed this.
‘That Mr Lindsay could certainly have done with a little more dignity,’ Mrs Taylor said. ‘The trouble with his sort is they mistake acting high and mighty for dignity.’
‘Mind you,’ put in Mr Harry Smith, ‘with all respect for what you say, sir, it ought to be said. Dignity isn’t just something gentlemen have. Dignity’s something every man and woman in this country can strive for and get. You’ll excuse me, sir, but like I said before, we don’t stand on ceremony here when it comes to expressing opinions. And that’s my opinion for what it’s worth. Dignity’s not just something for gentlemen.’ I perceived, of course, that Mr Harry Smith and I were rather at cross purposes on this matter, and that it would be far too complicated a task for me to explain myself more clearly to these people. I thus judged it best simply to smile and say: ‘Of course, you’re quite correct.’ This had the immediate effect of dispelling the slight tension that had built in the room while Mr Harry Smith had been speaking. And Mr Harry Smith himself seemed to lose all inhibitions, for now he leaned forward and continued: ‘That’s what we fought Hitler for, after all. If Hitler had had things his way, we’d just be slaves now. The whole world would be a few masters and millions upon millions of slaves. And I don’t need to remind anyone here, there’s no dignity to be had in being a slave. That’s what we fought for and that’s what we won. We won the right to be free citizens. And it’s one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out. That’s what dignity’s really about, if you’ll excuse me, sir.’ ‘Now now, Harry,’ Mr Taylor said. ‘I can see you’re warming up to one of your political speeches.’
This brought laughter. Mr Harry Smith smiled a little shyly, but went on:
‘I’m not talking politics. I’m just saying, that’s all. You can’t have dignity if you’re a slave. But every Englishman can grasp it if only he cares to. Because we fought for that right.’
‘This may seem like a small, out of the way place we have here, sir,’ his wife said. ‘But we gave more than our share in the war. More than our share.’
A solemnness hung in the air after she said this, until eventually Mr Taylor said to me: ‘Harry here does a lot of organizing for our local member. Give him half a chance and he’ll tell you everything that’s wrong with the way the country’s run.’ ‘Ah, but I was just saying what was right about the country this time.’
‘Have you had much to do with politics yourself, sir?’ Mr Andrews asked.
‘Not directly as such,’ I said. ‘And particularly not these days. More so before the war perhaps.’
‘It’s just that I seem to remember a Mr Stevens who was a member of parliament a year or two ago. Heard him on the wireless once or twice. Had some very sensible things to say about housing. But that wouldn’t be yourself, sir?’ ‘Oh no,’ I said with a laugh. Now I am not at all sure what made me utter my next statement; all I can say is that it seemed somehow called for in the circumstances in which I found myself. For I then said: ‘In fact, I tended to concern myself with international affairs more than domestic ones. Foreign policy, that is to say.’ I was a little taken aback by the effect this seemed to have upon my listeners. That is to say, a sense of awe seemed to descend on them. I added quickly: ‘I never held any high office, mind you. Any influence I exerted was in a strictly unofficial capacity.’ But the hushed silence remained for several more seconds.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ Mrs Taylor said eventually, ‘but have you ever met Mr Churchill?’
‘Mr Churchill? He did come to the house on a number of occasions. But to be quite frank, Mrs Taylor, during the time I was most involved in great affairs, Mr Churchill was not such a key figure and was not really expected to become one. The likes of Mr Eden and Lord Halifax were more frequent visitors in those days.’ ‘But you have actually met Mr Churchill, sir? What an honour to be able to say that.’
‘I don’t agree with many things Mr Churchill says.’ Mr Harry Smith said, ‘but there’s no doubt about it, he’s a great man. It must be quite something, sir, to be discussing matters with his like.’
‘Well, I must reiterate,’ I said, ‘I didn’t have a great deal to do with Mr Churchill. But as you rightly point out, it’s rather gratifying to have consorted with him. In fact, all in all, I suppose I have been very fortunate, I would be the first to admit that. It has been my good fortune, after all, to have consorted not just with Mr Churchill, but with many other great leaders and men of influence – from America and from Europe. And when you think that it was my good fortune to have had their ear on many great issues of the day, yes, when I think back, I do feel a certain gratitude. It’s a great privilege, after all, to have been given a part to play, however small, on the world’s stage.’ ‘Excuse me asking, sir,’ Mr Andrews said, “but what sort of a man is Mr Eden? I mean, at the personal level. I’ve always had the impression he’s a jolly decent sort. The sort that can talk to anyone high or low, rich or poor. Am I right, sir?’ ‘I would say that is, by and large, an accurate picture. But of course I have not seen Mr Eden in recent years, and he may have been much changed by pressures. One thing I have witnessed is that public life can change people unrecognizably in a few short years.’ ‘I don’t doubt that, sir,’ said Mr Andrews. ‘Even Harry here. Got himself involved with his politics a few years back and he’s never been the same man since.’
There was laughter again, while Mr Harry Smith shrugged and allowed a smile to cross his face. Then he said:
‘It’s true I’ve put a lot into the campaigning work. It’s only at a local level, and I never meet anyone half as grand as the likes you associate with, sir, but in my own small way I believe I’m doing my part. The way I see it, England’s a democracy, and we in this village have suffered as much as anyone fighting to keep it that way. Now it’s up to us to exercise our rights, every one of us. Some fine young lads from this village gave their lives to give us that privilege, and the way I see it, each one of us here now owes it to them to play our part. We’ve all got strong opinions here, and it’s our responsibility to get them heard. We’re out of the way, all right, a small village, we’re none of us getting younger, and the village is getting smaller. But the way I see it we owe it to the lads we lost from this village. That’s why, sir, I give so much of my time now to making sure our voice gets heard in high places. And if it changes me, or sends me to an early grave, I don’t mind.’ ‘I did warn you, sir,’ Mr Taylor said with a smile. There was no way Harry was going to let an influential gentleman like yourself come through the village without giving you his usual earful.’
There was laughter again, but I said almost immediately:
‘I think I understand your position very well, Mr Smith. I can well understand that you wish the world to be a better place and that you and your fellow residents here should have an opportunity to contribute to the making of a better world. It is a sentiment to be applauded. I dare say it was a very similar urge which led me to become involved in great affairs before the war. Then, as now, world peace seemed something we had only the most fragile grasp of, and I wished to do my part.’ ‘Excuse me, sir,’ said Mr Harry Smith, ‘but my point was a slightly different one. For the likes of yourself, it’s always been easy to exert your influence. You can count the most powerful in the land as your friends. But the likes of us here, sir, we can go year in year out and never even lay eyes on a real gentleman – other than maybe Dr Carlisle. He’s a first-class doctor, but with all respect, he doesn’t have connections as such. It gets easy for us here to forget our responsibility as citizens. That’s why I work so hard at the campaigning. Whether people agree or disagree – and I know there’s not one soul in this room now who’d agree with everything I say – at least I’ll get them thinking. At least I’ll remind them of their duty. This is a democratic country we’re living in. We fought for it. We’ve all got to play our part.’ ‘I wonder what could have happened to Dr Carlisle,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘I’m sure the gentleman could just about use some educated talk now.’
This provoked more laughter.
‘In fact,’ I said, ‘although it has been extremely enjoyable to meet you all, I must confess I’m beginning to feel rather exhausted …’
‘Of course, sir,’ Mrs Taylor said, ‘you must be very tired. Perhaps I’ll fetch another blanket for you. It’s getting much chillier at night now.’
‘No, I assure you, Mrs Taylor, I’ll be most comfortable.’
But before I could rise from the table, Mr Morgan said:
‘I just wondered, sir, there’s a fellow we like to listen to on the wireless, his name’s Leslie Mandrake. I just wondered if you’d happened to have met him.’
I replied that I had not, and was about to make another attempt to retire only to find myself detained by further inquiries regarding various persons I may have met. I was, then, still seated at the table when Mrs Smith remarked: ‘Ah, there’s someone coming. I expect that’s the doctor at last.’
‘I really ought to be retiring,’ I said. ‘I feel quite exhausted.’
‘But I’m sure this is the doctor now, sir,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘Do wait a few more minutes.’
Just as she said this, there came a knock and a voice said: ‘It’s just me, Mrs Taylor.’
The gentleman who was shown in was still fairly young – perhaps around forty or so – tall and thin; tall enough, in fact, that he was obliged to stoop to enter the doorway of the cottage. No sooner had he bade us all a good evening than Mrs Taylor said to him: ‘This is our gentleman here, Doctor. His car’s stuck up there on Thornley Bush and he’s having to endure Harry’s speeches as a result.’
The doctor came up to the table and held out his hand to me.
‘Richard Carlisle,’ he said with a cheerful smile as I rose to shake it. ‘Rotten bit of luck about your car. Still, trust you’re being well looked after here. Looked after rather too well, I imagine.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘Everyone has been most kind.’
‘Well, nice to have you with us.’ Dr Carlisle seated himself almost directly across the table from me. ‘Which part of the country are you from?’
‘Oxfordshire,’ I said, and indeed, it was no easy task to suppress the instinct to add ‘sir’.
‘Fine part of the country. I have an uncle lives just outside Oxford. Fine part of the country.’
‘The gentleman was just telling us, Doctor,’ Mrs Smith said, ‘he knows Mr Churchill.’
‘Is that so? I used to know a nephew of his, but I’ve rather lost touch. Never had the privilege of meeting the great man, though.’
‘And not only Mr Churchill,’ Mrs Smith went on. ‘He knows Mr Eden. And Lord Halifax.’
I could sense the doctor’s eyes examining me closely. I was about to make some appropriate remark, but before I could do so, Mr Andrews said to the doctor:
‘Gentleman was just telling us he’s had a lot to do with foreign affairs in his time.’
‘Is that so indeed?’
It seemed to me that Dr Carlisle went on looking at me for an inordinate length of time. Then he regained his cheerful manner and asked:
‘Touring around for pleasure?’
‘Principally,’ I said, and gave a small laugh.
‘Plenty of nice country around here. Oh, by the way, Mr Andrews, I’m sorry not to have returned that saw yet.’
‘No hurry at all, Doctor.’
For a little time, the focus of attention left me and I was able to remain silent. Then, seizing what seemed a suitable moment, I rose to my feet, saying: ‘Please excuse me. It has been a most enjoyable evening, but I really must now retire.’ ‘Such a pity you have to retire already, sir,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘The doctor’s only just arrived.’
Mr Harry Smith leaned across his wife and said to Dr Carlisle: ‘I was hoping the gentleman would have a few words to say about your ideas on the Empire, Doctor.’ Then turning to me, he went on: ‘Our doctor here’s for all kinds of little countries going independent. I don’t have the learning to prove him wrong, though I know he is. But I’d have been interested to hear what the likes of yourself would have to say to him on the subject, sir.’ Yet again, Dr Carlisle’s gaze seemed to study me. Then he said: ‘A pity, but we must let the gentleman go off to bed. Had a tiring day, I expect.’
‘Indeed,’ I said, and with another small laugh, began to make my way round the table. To my embarrassment, everyone in the room, including Dr Carlisle, rose to their feet.
‘Thank you all very much,’ I said, smiling. ‘Mrs Taylor, I did enjoy a splendid supper. I wish you all a very good night.’
There came a chorus of, ‘Good night, sir,’ in reply. I had almost left the room when the doctor’s voice caused me to halt at the door.
‘I say, old chap,’ he said, and when I turned, I saw he had remained on his feet. ‘I have a visit to make in Stanbury first thing in the morning. I’d be happy to give you a lift up to your car. Save you the walk. And we can pick up a can of petrol from Ted Hardacre’s on the way.’ ‘That is most kind,’ I said. ‘But I don’t wish to put you to any trouble.’
‘No trouble at all. Seven thirty all right for you?’
‘That would be most helpful indeed.’
‘Right then, seven thirty it is. Make sure your guest’s up and breakfasted for seven thirty, Mrs Taylor.’ Then turning back to me, he added: ‘So we can have our talk after all. Though Harry here won’t have the satisfaction of witnessing my humiliation.’ There was laughter, and another exchange of good nights before I was at last allowed to ascend to the sanctuary of this room.
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