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Mortimer’s Pond, Dorset

It would seem there is a whole dimension to the question ‘what is a “great” butler?’ I have hitherto not properly considered. It is, I must say, a rather unsettling experience to realize this about a matter so close to my heart, particularly one I have given much thought to over the years. But it strikes me I may have been a little hasty before in dismissing certain aspects of the Hayes Society’s criteria for membership. I have no wish, let me make clear, to retract any of my ideas on ‘dignity’ and its crucial link with ‘greatness’. But I have been thinking a little more about that other pronouncement made by the Hayes Society – namely the admission that it was a prerequisite for membership of the Society that ‘an applicant be attached to a distinguished household.’ My feeling remains, no less than before, that this represents a piece of unthinking snobbery on the part of the Society. However, it occurs to me that perhaps what one takes objection to is, specifically, the outmoded understanding of what a ‘distinguished household’ is, rather than to the general principle being expressed. Indeed, now that I think further on the matter, I believe it may well be true to say it is a prerequisite of greatness that one ‘be attached to a distinguished household’ – so long as one takes ‘distinguished’ here to have a meaning deeper than that understood by the Hayes Society.

In fact, a comparison of how I might interpret ‘a distinguished household’ with what the Hayes Society understood by that term illuminates sharply, I believe, the fundamental difference between the values of our generation of butlers and those of the previous generation. When I say this, I am not merely drawing attention to the fact that our generation had a less snobbish attitude as regards which employers were landed gentry and which were ‘business.’ What I am trying to say – and I do not think this an unfair comment – is that we were a much more idealistic generation. Where our elders might have been concerned with whether or not an employer was titled, or otherwise from one of the ‘old’ families, we tended to concern ourselves much more with the moral status of an employer. I do not mean by this that we were preoccupied with our employers’ private behaviour. What I mean is that we were ambitious, in a way that would have been unusual a generation before, to serve gentlemen who were, so to speak, furthering the progress of humanity. It would have been seen as a far worthier calling, for instance, to serve a gentleman such as Mr George Ketteridge, who, however humble his beginnings, has made an undeniable contribution to the future well-being of the empire, than any gentleman, however aristocratic his origin, who idled away his time in clubs or on golf courses.

In practice, of course, many gentlemen from the noblest families have tended to devote themselves to alleviating the great problems of the day, and so, at a glance, it may have appeared that the ambitions of our generation differed little from those of our predecessors. But I can vouch there was a crucial distinction in attitude, reflected not only in the sorts of things you would hear fellow professionals express to each other, but in the way many of the most able persons of our generation chose to leave one position for another. Such decisions were no longer a matter simply of wages, the size of staff at one’s disposal or the splendour of a family name; for our generation, I think it fair to say, professional prestige lay most significantly in the moral worth of one’s employer.

I believe I can best highlight the difference between the generations by expressing myself figuratively. Butlers of my father’s generation, I would say, tended to see the world in terms of a ladder – the houses of royalty, dukes and the lords from the oldest families placed at the top, those of ‘new money’ lower down and so on, until one reached a point below which the hierarchy was determined simply by wealth – or the lack of it. Any butler with ambition simply did his best to climb as high up this ladder as possible, and by and large, the higher he went, the greater was his professional prestige. Such are, of course, precisely the values embodied in the Hayes Society’s idea of a ‘distinguished household’, and the fact that it was confidently making such pronouncements as late as 1929 shows clearly why the demise of that society was inevitable, if not long overdue. For by that time, such thinking was quite out of step with that of the finest men emerging to the forefront of our profession. For our generation, I believe it is accurate to say, viewed the world not as a ladder, but more as a wheel. Perhaps I might explain this further.

It is my impression that our generation was the first to recognize something which had passed the notice of all earlier generations: namely that the great decisions of the world are not, in fact, arrived at simply in the public chambers, or else during a handful of days given over to an international conference under the full gaze of the public and the press. Rather, debates are conducted, and crucial decisions arrived at, in the privacy and calm of the great houses of this country. What occurs under the public gaze with so much pomp and ceremony is often the conclusion, or mere ratification, of what has taken place over weeks or months within the walls of such houses. To us, then, the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them. It was the aspiration of all those of us with professional ambition to work our way as close to this hub as we were each of us capable. For we were, as I say, an idealistic generation for whom the question was not simply one of how well one practised one’s skills, but to what end one did so; each of us harboured the desire to make our own small contribution to the creation of a better world, and saw that, as professionals, the surest means of doing so would be to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.

Of course, I am now speaking in broad generalizations and I would readily admit there were all too many persons of our generation who had no patience for such finer considerations. Conversely, I am sure there were many of my father’s generation who recognized instinctively this ‘moral’ dimension to their work. But by and large, I believe these generalizations to be accurate, and indeed, such ‘idealistic’ motivations as I have described have played a large part in my own career. I myself moved quite rapidly from employer to employer during my early career – being aware that these situations were incapable of bringing me lasting satisfaction – before being rewarded at last with the opportunity to serve Lord Darlington.

It is curious that I have never until today thought of the matter in these terms; indeed, that through all those many hours we spent discussing the nature of ‘greatness’ by the fire of our servants’ hall, the likes of Mr Graham and I never considered this whole dimension to the question. And while I would not retract anything I have previously stated regarding the quality of ‘dignity’, I must admit there is something to the argument that whatever the degree to which a butler has attained such a quality, if he has failed to find an appropriate outlet for his accomplishments he can hardly expect his fellows to consider him ‘great’. Certainly, it is observable that figures like Mr Marshall and Mr Lane have served only gentlemen of indisputable moral stature – Lord Wakeling, Lord Camberley, Sir Leonard Gray – and one cannot help get the impression that they simply would not have offered their talents to gentlemen of lesser calibre. Indeed, the more one considers it, the more obvious it seems: association with a truly distinguished household is a prerequisite of ‘greatness’. A ‘great’ butler can only be, surely, one who can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman – and through the latter, to serving humanity.

As I say, I have never in all these years thought of the matter in quite this way; but then it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly. I have also, no doubt, been prompted to think along such lines by the small event that occurred an hour or so ago – which has, I admit, unsettled me somewhat.

Having enjoyed a good morning’s motoring in splendid weather, and having lunched well at a country inn, I had just crossed the border into Dorset. It was then I had become aware of a heated smell emanating from the car engine. The thought that I had done some damage to my employer’s Ford was, of course, most alarming and I had quickly brought the vehicle to a halt.

I found myself in a narrow lane, hemmed in on either side by foliage so that I could gain little idea of what was around me. Neither could I see far ahead, the lane winding quite sharply twenty yards or so in front. It occurred to me that I could not remain where I was for long without incurring the risk of an oncoming vehicle coming round that same bend and colliding into my employer’s Ford. I thus started the engine again and was partially reassured to find that the smell seemed not as powerful as before.

My best course, I could see, was to look for a garage, or else a large house of a gentleman where there would be a good chance I might find a chauffeur who could see what the matter was. But the lane continued to wind for some distance, and the high hedges on either side of me also persisted, obscuring my vision so that though I passed several gates, some oí which clearly yielded on to driveways, I was unable to glimpse the houses themselves. I continued for another half-mile or so, the disturbing smell now growing stronger by the moment, until at last I came out on to a stretch of open road. I could now see some distance before me, and indeed, ahead to my left there loomed a tall Victorian house with a substantial front lawn and what was clearly a driveway converted from an old carriage track. As I drew up to it, I was encouraged further to glimpse a Bentley through the open doors of a garage attached to the main house.

The gate too had been left open and so I steered the Ford a little way up the drive, got out and made my way to the back door of the house. This was opened by a man dressed in his shirt sleeves, wearing no tie, but who, upon my asking for the chauffeur of the house, replied cheerfully that I had ‘hit the jackpot first time’. On hearing of my problem, the man without hesitation came out to the Ford, opened the bonnet and informed me after barely a few seconds’ inspection: ‘Water, guv. You need some water in your radiator.’ He seemed to be rather amused by the whole situation, but was obliging enough; he returned inside the house and after a few moments emerged again with a jug of water and a funnel. As he filled the radiator, his head bent over the engine, he began to chat amiably, and on ascertaining that I was undertaking a motoring tour of the area, recommended I visit a local beauty spot, a certain pond not half a mile away.

I had had in the meantime more opportunity to observe the house; it was taller than it was broad, comprising four floors, with ivy covering much of the front right up to the gables. I could see from its windows, however, that at least half of it was dust-sheeted. I remarked on this to the man once he had finished with the radiator and closed the bonnet.

‘A shame really,’ he said. ‘It’s a lovely old house. Truth is, the Colonel’s trying to sell the place off. He ain’t got much use for a house this size now.’

I could not help inquiring then how many staff were employed there, and I suppose I was hardly surprised to be told there was only himself and a cook who came in each evening. He was, it seemed, butler, valet, chauffeur and general cleaner. He had been the Colonel’s batman in the war, he explained; they had been in Belgium together when the Germans had invaded and they had been together again for the Allied landing. Then he regarded me carefully and said: ‘Now I got it. I couldn’t make you out for a while, but now I got it. You’re one of them top-notch butlers. From one of them big posh houses.’

When I told him he was not so far off the mark, he continued:

‘Now I got it. Couldn’t make you out for a while, see, ‘cause you talk almost like a gentleman. And what with you driving an old beauty like this’ – he gestured to the Ford – ‘I thought at first, here’s a really posh geezer. And so you are, guv. Really posh, I mean. I never learnt any of that myself, you see. I’m just a plain old batman gone civvy.’ He then asked me where it was I was employed, and when I told him he leant his head to one side with a quizzical look.

‘Darlington Hall,’ he said to himself. ‘Darlington Hall. Must be a really posh place, it rings a bell even to an idiot like yours truly. Darlington Hall. Hang on, you don’t mean Darlington Hall, Lord Darlington’s place?’

‘It was Lord Darlington’s residence until his death three years ago,’ I informed him. ‘The house is now the residence of Mr John Farraday, an American gentleman.’

‘You really must be top-notch working in a place like that. Can’t be many like you left, eh?’ Then his voice changed noticeably as he inquired: ‘You mean you actually used to work for that Lord Darlington?’

He was eyeing me carefully again. I said:

‘Oh no, I am employed by Mr John Farraday, the American gentleman who bought the house from the Darlington family.’

‘Oh, so you wouldn’t have known that Lord Darlington. Just that I wondered what he was like. What sort of bloke he was.’

I told the man that I would have to be on my way and thanked him emphatically for his assistance. He was, after all, an amiable fellow, taking the trouble to guide me in reversing out through the gateway, and before I parted, he bent down and recommended again that I visit the local pond, repeating his instructions on how I would find it.

‘It’s a beautiful little spot,’ he added. ‘You’ll kick yourself for missing it. In fact, the Colonel’s doing a bit of fishing there this minute.’

The Ford seemed to be in fine form again, and since the pond in question was but a small detour off my route, I decided to take up the batman’s suggestion. His directions had seemed clear enough, but once I had turned off the main road in an attempt to follow them, I found myself getting lost down narrow, twisting lanes much like the one in which I had first noticed the alarming smell. At times, the foliage on either side became so thick as practically to blot out the sun altogether, and one found one’s eyes struggling to cope with the sudden contrasts of bright sunlight and deep shade. Eventually, however, after some searching, I found a signpost to ‘Mortimer’s Pond’, and so it was that I arrived here at this spot a little over half an hour ago.

I now find myself much indebted to the batman, for quite aside from assisting with the Ford, he has allowed me to discover a most charming spot which it is most improbable I would ever have found otherwise. The pond is not a large one – a quarter of a mile around its perimeter perhaps – so that by stepping out to any promontory, one can command a view of its entirety. An atmosphere of great calm pervades here. Trees have been planted all around the water just closely enough to give a pleasant shade to the banks, while here and there clusters of tall reeds and bulrushes break the water’s surface and its still reflection of the sky. My footwear is not such as to permit me easily to walk around the perimeter – I can see even from where I now sit the path disappearing into areas of deep mud – but I will say that such is the charm of this spot that on first arriving, I was sorely tempted to do just that. Only the thought of the possible catastrophes that might befall such an expedition, and of sustaining damage to my travelling suit, persuaded me to content myself with sitting here on this bench. And so I have done for the past half-hour, contemplating the progress of the various figures seated quietly with their fishing rods at various points around the water. At this point, I can see a dozen or so such figures, but the strong lights and shades created by the low-hanging branches prevent me from making any of them out clearly and I have had to forgo the small game I had been anticipating of guessing which of these fishermen is the Colonel at whose house I have just received such useful assistance.

It is no doubt the quiet of these surroundings that has enabled me to ponder all the more thoroughly these thoughts which have entered my mind over this past half-hour or so. Indeed, but for the tranquillity of the present setting, it is possible I would not have thought a great deal further about my behaviour during my encounter with the batman. That is to say, I may not have thought further why it was that I had given the distinct impression I had never been in the employ of Lord Darlington. For surely, there is no real doubt that is what occurred. He had asked: ‘You mean you actually used to work for that Lord Darlington?’ and I had given an answer which could mean little other than that I had not. It could simply be that a meaningless whim had suddenly overtaken me at that moment—but that is hardly a convincing way to account for such distinctly odd behaviour. In any case, I have now come to accept that the incident with the batman is not the first of its kind; there is little doubt it has some connection—though I am not quite clear of the nature of it—with what occurred a few months ago during the visit of the Wakefields.

Mr and Mrs Wakefield are an American couple who have been settled in England – somewhere in Kent, I understand – for some twenty years. Having a number of acquaintances in common with Mr Farraday amidst Boston society, they paid a short visit one day to Darlington Hall, staying for lunch and leaving before tea. I now refer to a time only a few weeks after Mr Farraday had himself arrived at the house, a time when his enthusiasm for his acquisition was at a height; consequently, much of the Wakefields’ visit was taken up with my employer leading them on what might have seemed to some an unnecessarily extensive tour of the premises, including all the dust-sheeted areas. Mr and Mrs Wakefield, however, appeared to be as keen on the inspection as Mr Farraday, and as I went about my business, I would often catch various American exclamations of delight coming from whichever part of the house they had arrived at. Mr Farraday had commenced the tour at the top of the house, and by the time he had brought his guests down to inspect the magnificence of the ground-floor rooms, he seemed to be on an elevated plane, pointing out details on cornicings and window frames, and describing with some flourish ‘what the English lords used to do’ in each room. Although of course I made no deliberate attempt to overhear, I could not help but get the gist of what was being said, and was surprised by the extent of my employer’s knowledge, which, despite the occasional infelicity, betrayed a deep enthusiasm for English ways. It was noticeable, moreover, that the Wakefields – Mrs Wakefield in particular – were themselves by no means ignorant of the traditions of our country, and one gathered from the many remarks they made that they too were owners of an English house of some splendour.

It was at a certain stage during this tour of the premises – I was crossing the hall under the impression that the party had gone out to explore the grounds – when I saw that Mrs Wakefield had remained behind and was closely examining the stone arch that frames the doorway into the dining room. As I went past, muttering a quiet ‘excuse me, madam,’ she turned and said: ‘Oh, Stevens, perhaps you’re the one to tell me. This arch here looks seventeenth century, but isn’t it the case that it was built quite recently? Perhaps during Lord Darlington’s time?’

‘It is possible, madam.’

‘It’s very beautiful. But it is probably a kind of mock period piece done only a few years ago. Isn’t that right?’

‘I’m not sure, madam, but that is certainly possible.’

Then, lowering her voice, Mrs Wakefield had said: ‘But tell me, Stevens, what was this Lord Darlington like? Presumably you must have worked for him.’

‘I didn’t, madam, no.’

‘Oh, I thought you did. I wonder why I thought that.’

Mrs Wakefield turned back to the arch and putting her hand to it, said: ‘So we don’t know for certain then. Still, it looks to me like it’s mock. Very skilful, but mock.’

It is possible I might have quickly forgotten this exchange; however, following the Wakefields’ departure, I took in afternoon tea to Mr Farraday in the drawing room and noticed he was in a rather preoccupied mood. After an initial silence, he said:

‘You know, Stevens, Mrs Wakefield wasn’t as impressed with this house as I believe she ought to have been.’

‘Is that so, sir?’

‘In fact, she seemed to think I was exaggerating the pedigree of this place. That I was making it up about all these features going back centuries.’

‘Indeed, sir?’

‘She kept asserting everything was “mock” this and “mock” that. She even thought you were “mock,” Stevens.’

‘Indeed, sir?’

‘Indeed, Stevens. I’d told her you were the real thing. A real old English butler. That you’d been in this house for over thirty years, serving a real English lord. But Mrs Wakefield contradicted me on this point. In fact, she contradicted me with great confidence.’

‘Is that so, sir?’

‘Mrs Wakefield, Stevens, was convinced you never worked here until I hired you. In fact, she seemed to be under the impression she’d had that from your own lips. Made me look pretty much a fool, as you can imagine.’

‘It’s most regrettable, sir.’

‘I mean to say, Stevens, this is a genuine grand old English house, isn’t it? That’s what I paid for. And you’re a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You’re the real thing, aren’t you? That’s what I wanted, isn’t that what I have?’

‘I venture to say you do, sir.’

‘Then can you explain to me what Mrs Wakefield is saying? It’s a big mystery to me.’

‘It is possible I may well have given the lady a slightly misleading picture concerning my career, sir. I do apologize if this caused embarrassment.’

‘I’ll say it caused embarrassment. Those people have now got me down for a braggart and a liar. Anyway, what do you mean, you may have given her a “slightly misleading picture”?’

‘I’m very sorry, sir. I had no idea I might cause you such embarrassment.’

‘But dammit, Stevens, why did you tell her such a tale?’

I considered the situation for a moment, then said: ‘I’m very sorry, sir. But it is to do with the ways of this country.’

‘What are you talking about, man?’

‘I mean to say, sir, that it is not customary in England for an employee to discuss his past employers.’

‘OK, Stevens, so you don’t wish to divulge past confidences. But does that extend to you actually denying having worked for anyone other than me?’

‘It does seem a little extreme when you put it that way, sir. But it has often been considered desirable for employees to give such an impression. If I may put it this way, sir, it is a little akin to the custom as regards marriages. If a divorced lady were present in the company of her second husband, it is often thought desirable not to allude to the original marriage at all. There is a similar custom as regards our profession, sir.’ ‘Well, I only wish I’d known about your custom before, Stevens,’ my employer said, leaning back in his chair. ‘It certainly made me look like a chump.’

I believe I realized even at the time that my explanation to Mr Farraday – though, of course, not entirely devoid of truth – was woefully inadequate. But when one has so much else to think about, it is easy not to give such matters a great deal of attention, and so I did, indeed, put the whole episode out of my mind for some time. But now, recalling it here in the calm that surrounds this pond, there seems little doubt that my conduct towards Mrs Wakefield that day has an obvious relation to what has just taken place this afternoon.

Of course, there are many people these days who have a lot of foolish things to say about Lord Darlington, and it may be that you are under the impression I am somehow embarrassed or ashamed of my association with his lordship, and it is this that lies behind such conduct. Then let me make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. The great majority of what one hears said about his lordship today is, in any case, utter nonsense, based on an almost complete ignorance of the facts. Indeed, it seems to me that my odd conduct can be very plausibly explained in terms of my wish to avoid any possibility of hearing any further such nonsense concerning his lordship; that is to say, I have chosen to tell white lies in both instances as the simplest means of avoiding unpleasantness. This does seem a very plausible explanation the more I think about it; for it is true, nothing vexes me more these days than to hear this sort of nonsense being repeated. Let me say that Lord Darlington was a gentleman of great moral stature – a stature to dwarf most of these persons you will find talking this sort of nonsense about him – and I will readily vouch that he remained that to the last. Nothing could be less accurate than to suggest that I regret my association with such a gentleman. Indeed, you will appreciate that to have served his lordship at Darlington Hall during those years was to come as close to the hub of this world’s wheel as one such as I could ever have dreamt. I gave thirty-five years’ service to Lord Darlington; one would surely not be unjustified in claiming that during those years, one was, in the truest terms, ‘attached to a distinguished household’. In looking back over my career thus far, my chief satisfaction derives from what I achieved during those years, and I am today nothing but proud and grateful to have been given such a privilege.

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