روز دوم - صبحگاه - 02

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روز دوم - صبحگاه - 02

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I had rarely had reason to enter my father’s room prior to this occasion and I was newly struck by the smallness and starkness of it. Indeed, I recall my impression at the time was of having stepped into a prison cell, but then this might have had as much to do with the pale early light as with the size of the room or the bareness of its walls. For my father had opened his curtains and was sitting, shaved and in full uniform, on the edge of his bed from where evidently he had been watching the sky turn to dawn. At least one assumed he had been watching the sky, there being little else to view from his small window other than roof-tiles and guttering. The oil lamp beside his bed had been extinguished, and when I saw my father glance disapprovingly at the lamp I had brought to guide me up the rickety staircase, I quickly lowered the wick. Having done this, I noticed all the more the effect of the pale light coming into the room and the way it lit up the edges of my father’s craggy, lined, still awesome features.

‘Ah,’ I said, and gave a short laugh, ‘I might have known Father would be up and ready for the day.’

‘I’ve been up for the past three hours,’ he said, looking me up and down rather coldly.

‘I hope Father is not being kept awake by his arthritic troubles.’

‘I get all the sleep I need.’

My father reached forward to the only chair in the room, a small wooden one, and placing both hands on its back, brought himself to his feet. When I saw him stood upright before me, I could not be sure to what extent he was hunched over due to infirmity and what extent due to the habit of accommodating the steeply sloped ceilings of the room.

‘I have come here to relate something to you, Father.’

Then relate it briefly and concisely. I haven’t all morning to listen to you chatter.’

‘In that case. Father, I will come straight to the point.’

‘Come to the point then and be done with it. Some of us have work to be getting on with.’

‘Very well. Since you wish me to be brief, I will do my best to comply. The fact is, Father has become increasingly infirm. So much so that even the duties of an under-butler are now beyond his capabilities. His lordship is of the view, as indeed I am myself, that while Father is allowed to continue with his present round of duties, he represents an ever-present threat to the smooth running of this household, and in particular to next week’s important international gathering.’ My father’s face, in the half-light, betrayed no emotion whatsoever.

‘Principally,’ I continued, ‘it has been felt that Father should no longer be asked to wait at table, whether or not guests are present.’

‘I have waited at table every day for the last fifty-four years,’ my father remarked, his voice perfectly unhurried.

‘Furthermore, it has been decided that Father should not carry laden trays of any sort for even the shortest distances. In view of these limitations, and knowing Father’s esteem for conciseness, I have listed here the revised round of duties he will from now on be expected to perform.’

I felt disinclined actually to hand to him the piece of paper I was holding, and so put it down on the end of his bed. My father glanced at it then returned his gaze to me. There was still no trace of emotion discernible in his expression, and his hands on the back of the chair appeared perfectly relaxed. Hunched over or not, it was impossible not to be reminded of the sheer impact of his physical presence – the very same that had once reduced two drunken gentlemen to sobriety in the back of a car. Eventually, he said: ‘I only fell that time because of those steps. They’re crooked. Seamus should be told to put those right before someone else does the same thing.’

‘Indeed. In any case, may I be assured Father will study that sheet?’

‘Seamus should be told to put those steps right. Certainly before these gentlemen start arriving from Europe.’

‘Indeed. Well, Father, good morning.’

That summer evening referred to by Miss Kenton in her letter came very soon after that encounter – indeed, it may have been the evening of that same day. I cannot remember just what purpose had taken me up on to the top floor of the house to where the row of guest bedrooms line the corridor. But as I think I have said already, I can recall vividly the way the last of the daylight was coming through each open doorway and falling across the corridor in orange shafts. And as I walked on past those unused bedrooms, Miss Kenton’s figure, a silhouette against a window within one of them, had called to me.

When one thinks about it, when one remembers the way Miss Kenton had repeatedly spoken to me of my father during those early days of her time at Darlington Hall, it is little wonder that the memory of that evening should have stayed with her all of these years. No doubt, she was feeling a certain sense of guilt as the two of us watched from our window my father’s figure down below. The shadows of the poplar trees had fallen across much of the lawn, but the sun was still lighting up the far corner where the grass sloped up to the summerhouse. My father could be seen standing by those four stone steps, deep in thought. A breeze was slightly disturbing his hair. Then, as we watched, he walked very slowly up the steps. At the top, he turned and came back down, a little faster. Turning once more, my father became still again for several seconds, contemplating the steps before him. Eventually, he climbed them a second time, very deliberately. This time he continued on across the grass until he had almost reached the summerhouse, then turned and came walking slowly back, his eyes never leaving the ground. In fact, I can describe his manner at that moment no better than the way Miss Kenton puts it in her letter; it was indeed ‘as though he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there’.

But I see I am becoming preoccupied with these memories and this is perhaps a little foolish. This present trip represents, after all, a rare opportunity for me to savour to the full the many splendours of the English countryside, and I know I shall greatly regret it later if I allow myself to become unduly diverted. In fact, I notice I have yet to record here anything of my journey to this city – aside from mentioning briefly that halt on the hillside road at the very start of it. This is an omission indeed, given how much I enjoyed yesterday’s motoring.

I had planned the journey here to Salisbury with considerable care, avoiding almost entirely the major roads; the route might have seemed unnecessarily circuitous to some, but then it was one that enabled me to take in a fair number of the sights recommended by Mrs J. Symons in her excellent volumes, and I must say I was well pleased with it. For much of the time it took me through farmland, amidst the pleasant aroma of meadows, and often I found myself slowing the Ford to a crawl to better appreciate a stream or a valley I was passing. But as I recall, I did not actually disembark again until I was quite near Salisbury.

On that occasion, I was moving down a long, straight road with wide meadows on either side of me. In fact, the land had become very open and flat at that point, enabling one to see a considerable distance in all directions, and the spire of Salisbury Cathedral had become visible on the skyline up ahead. A tranquil mood had come over me, and for this reason I believe I was again motoring very slowly – probably at no more than fifteen miles per hour. This was just as well, for I saw only just in time a hen crossing my path in the most leisurely manner. I brought the Ford to a halt only a foot or two from the fowl, which in turn ceased its journey, pausing there in the road in front of me. When after a moment it had not moved, I resorted to the car horn, but this had no effect other than to make the creature commence pecking at something on the ground. Rather exasperated, I began to get out and had one foot still on the running board when I heard a woman’s voice call: ‘Oh, I do beg your pardon, sir.’

Glancing round, I saw I had just passed on the roadside a farm cottage – from which a young woman in an apron, her attention no doubt aroused by the horn, had come running. Passing me, she swooped up the hen in her arms and proceeded to cradle it as she apologized to me again. When I assured her no harm had been done, she said: ‘I do thank you for stopping and not running poor Nellie over. She’s a good girl, provides us with the largest eggs you’ve ever seen. It’s so good of you to stop. And you were probably in a hurry too.’

‘Oh, I’m not in a hurry at all,’ I said with a smile. ‘For the first time in many a year, I’m able to take my time and I must say, it’s rather an enjoyable experience. I’m just motoring for the pleasure of it, you see.’

‘Oh, that’s nice, sir. And you’re on your way to Salisbury, I expect.’

‘I am indeed. In fact, that’s the cathedral we can see over there, isn’t it? I’m told it’s a splendid building.’

‘Oh, it is, sir, it’s very nice. Well, to tell you the truth, I hardly go into Salisbury myself, so I couldn’t really say what it’s like at close quarters. But I tell you, sir, day in day out we have a view of the steeple from here. Some days, it’s too misty and it’s like it’s vanished altogether. But you can see for yourself, on a fine day like this, it’s a nice sight.’ ‘Delightful.’

‘I’m so grateful you didn’t run over our Nellie, sir. Three years ago a tortoise of ours got killed like that and on just about this very spot. We were all very upset over that.’

‘How very tragic,’ I said, sombrely.

‘Oh, it was, sir. Some people say we farm people get used to animals being hurt or killed, but that’s just not true. My little boy cried for days. It’s so good you stopped for Nellie, sir. If you’d care to come in for a cup of tea, now that you’ve got out and everything, you’d be most welcome. It would set you on your way.’ ‘That’s most kind, but really, I feel I should continue. I’d like to reach Salisbury in good time to take a look at the city’s many charms.’

‘Indeed, sir. Well, thank you again.’

I set off again, maintaining for some reason – perhaps because I expected further farm creatures to wander across my path – my slow speed of before. I must say, something about this small encounter had put me in very good spirits; the simple kindness I had been thanked for, and the simple kindness I had been offered in return, caused me somehow to feel exceedingly uplifted about the whole enterprise facing me over these coming days. It was in such a mood, then, that I proceeded here to Salisbury.

But I feel I should return just a moment to the matter of my father; for it strikes me I may have given the impression earlier that I treated him rather bluntly over his declining abilities. The fact is, there was little choice but to approach the matter as I did – as I am sure you will agree once I have explained the full context of those days. That is to say, the important international conference to take place at Darlington Hall was by then looming ahead of us, leaving little room for indulgence or ‘beating about the bush’. It is important to be reminded, moreover, that although Darlington Hall was to witness many more events of equal gravity over the fifteen or so years that followed, that conference of March 1923 was the first of them; one was, one supposes, relatively inexperienced, and inclined to leave little to chance. In fact, I often look back to that conference and, for more than one reason, regard it as a turning point in my life. For one thing, I suppose I do regard it as the moment in my career when I truly came of age as a butler. That is not to say I consider I became, necessarily, a ‘great’ butler; it is hardly for me, in any case, to make judgements of this sort. But should it be that anyone ever wished to posit that I have attained at least a little of that crucial quality of ‘dignity’ in the course of my career, such a person may wish to be directed towards that conference of March 1923 as representing the moment when I first demonstrated I might have a capacity for such a quality. It was one of those events which at a crucial stage in one’s development arrive to challenge and stretch one to the limit of one’s ability and beyond, so that thereafter one has new standards by which to judge oneself. That conference was also memorable, of course, for other quite separate reasons, as I would like now to explain.

The conference of 1923 was the culmination of long planning on the part of Lord Darlington; indeed, in retrospect, one can see clearly how his lordship had been moving towards this point from some three years or so before. As I recall, he had not been initially so preoccupied with the peace treaty when it was drawn up at the end of the Great War, and I think it is fair to say that his interest was prompted not so much by an analysis of the treaty, but by his friendship with Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann.

Herr Bremann first visited Darlington Hall very shortly after the war while still in his officer’s uniform, and it was evident to any observer that he and Lord Darlington had struck up a close friendship. This did not surprise me, since one could see at a glance that Herr Bremann was a gentleman of great decency. He returned again, having left the German army, at fairly regular intervals during the following two years, and one could not help noticing with some alarm the deterioration he underwent from one visit to the next. His clothes became increasingly impoverished, his frame thinner; a hunted look appeared in his eyes, and on his last visits, he would spend long periods staring into space, oblivious of his lordship’s presence or, sometimes, even of having been addressed. I would have concluded Herr Bremann was suffering from some serious illness, but for certain remarks his lordship made at that time assuring me this was not so.

It must have been towards the end of 1920 that Lord Darlington made the first of a number of trips to Berlin himself, and I can remember the profound effect it had on him. A heavy air of preoccupation hung over him for days after his return, and I recall once, in reply to my inquiring how he had enjoyed his trip, his remarking: ‘Disturbing, Stevens. Deeply disturbing. It does us great discredit to treat a defeated foe like this. A complete break with the traditions of this country.’ But there is another memory that has remained with me very vividly in relation to this matter. Today, the old banqueting hall no longer contains a table and that spacious room, with its high and magnificent ceiling, serves Mr Farraday well as a sort of gallery. But in his lordship’s day, that room was regularly required, as was the long table that occupied it, to seat thirty or more guests for dinner; in fact, the banqueting hall is so spacious that when necessity demanded it, further tables were added to the existing one to enable almost fifty to be seated. On normal days, of course, Lord Darlington took his meals, as does Mr Farraday today, in the more intimate atmosphere of the dining room, which is ideal for accommodating up to a dozen. But on that particular winter’s night I am recollecting the dining room was for some reason out of use, and Lord Darlington was dining with a solitary guest – I believe it was Sir Richard Fox, a colleague from his lordship’s Foreign Office days – in the vastness of the banqueting hall. You will no doubt agree that the hardest of situations as regards dinner-waiting is when there are just two diners present. I would myself much prefer to wait on just one diner, even if he were a total stranger. It is when there are two diners present, even when one of them is one’s own employer, that one finds it most difficult to achieve that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is essential to good waiting; it is in this situation that one is rarely free of the suspicion that one’s presence is inhibiting the conversation.

On that occasion, much of the room was in darkness, and the two gentlemen were sitting side by side midway down the table – it being much too broad to allow them to sit facing one another – within the pool of light cast by the candles on the table and the crackling hearth opposite. I decided to minimize my presence by standing in the shadows much further away from table than I might usually have done. Of course, this strategy had a distinct disadvantage in that each time I moved towards the light to serve the gentlemen, my advancing footsteps would echo long and loud before I reached the table, drawing attention to my impending arrival in the most ostentatious manner; but it did have the great merit of making my person only partially visible while I remained stationary. And it was as I was standing like that, in the shadows some distance from where the two gentlemen sat amidst those rows of empty chairs, that I heard Lord Darlington talk about Herr Bremann, his voice as calm and gentle as usual, somehow resounding with intensity around those great walls.

‘He was my enemy,’ he was saying, ‘but he always behaved like a gentleman. We treated each other decently over six months of shelling each other. He was a gentleman doing his job and I bore him no malice. I said to him: “Look here, we’re enemies now and I’ll fight you with all I’ve got. But when this wretched business is over, we shan’t have to be enemies any more and we’ll have a drink together.” Wretched thing is, this treaty is making a liar out of me. I mean to say, I told him we wouldn’t be enemies once it was all over. But how can I look him in the face and tell him that’s turned out to be true?’ And it was a little later that same night that his lordship said with some gravity, shaking his head: ‘I fought that war to preserve justice in this world. As far as I understood, I wasn’t taking part in a vendetta against the German race.’

And when today one hears talk about his lordship, when one hears the sort of foolish speculations concerning his motives as one does all too frequently these days, I am pleased to recall the memory of that moment as he spoke those heartfelt words in the near-empty banqueting hall. Whatever complications arose in his lordship’s course over subsequent years, I for one will never doubt that a desire to see ‘justice in this world’ lay at the heart of all his actions.

It was not long after that evening there came the sad news that Herr Bremann had shot himself in a train between Hamburg and Berlin. Naturally, his lordship was greatly distressed and immediately made plans to dispatch funds and commiserations to Frau Bremann. However, after several days of endeavour, in which I myself did my best to assist, his lordship was not able to discover the whereabouts of any of Herr Bremann’s family. He had, it seemed, been homeless for some time and his family dispersed.

It is my belief that even without this tragic news, Lord Darlington would have set upon the course he took; his desire to see an end to injustice and suffering was too deeply ingrained in his nature for him to have done otherwise. As it was, in the weeks that followed Herr Bremann’s death, his lordship began to devote more and more hours to the matter of the crisis in Germany. Powerful and famous gentlemen became regular visitors to the house – including, I remember, figures such as Lord Daniels, Professor Maynard Keynes, and Mr H. G. Wells, the renowned author, as well as others who, because they came ‘off the record’, I should not name here – and they and his lordship were often to be found locked in discussion for hours on end.

Some of the visitors were, in fact, so ‘off the record’ that I was instructed to make sure the staff did not learn their identities, or in some cases, even glimpse them. However – and I say this with some pride and gratitude – Lord Darlington never made any efforts to conceal things from my own eyes and ears; I can recall on numerous occasions, some personage breaking off in mid-sentence to glance warily towards my person, only for his lordship to say: ‘Oh, that’s all right. You can say anything in front of Stevens, I can assure you.’ Steadily, then, over the two years or so following Herr Bremann’s death, his lordship, together with Sir David Cardinal, who became his closest ally during that time, succeeded in gathering together a broad alliance of figures who shared the conviction that the situation in Germany should not be allowed to persist. These were not only Britons and Germans, but also Belgians, French, Italians, Swiss; they were diplomats and political persons of high rank; distinguished clergymen; retired military gentlemen; writers and thinkers. Some were gentlemen who felt strongly, like his lordship himself, that fair play had not been done at Versailles and that it was immoral to go on punishing a nation for a war that was now over. Others, evidently, showed less concern for Germany or her inhabitants, but were of the opinion that the economic chaos of that country, if not halted, might spread with alarming rapidity to the world at large.

By the turn of 1922, his lordship was working with a clear goal in mind. This was to gather under the very roof of Darlington Hall the most influential of the gentlemen whose support had been won with a view to conducting an ‘unofficial’ international conference – a conference that would discuss the means by which the harshest terms of the Versailles treaty could be revised. To be worthwhile, any such conference would have to be of sufficient weight so that it could have a décisive effect on the ‘official’ international conferences – several of which had already taken place with the express purpose of reviewing the treaty, but which had succeeded in producing only confusion and bitterness. Our Prime Minister of that time, Mr Lloyd George, had called for another great conference to be held in Italy in the spring of 1922, and initially his lordship’s aim was to organize a gathering at Darlington Hall with a view to ensuring a satisfactory outcome to this event. For all the hard work on his and Sir David’s part, however, this proved too harsh a deadline; but then with Mr George’s conference ending yet again in indecision, his lordship set his sights on a further great conference scheduled to take place in Switzerland the following year.

I can remember one morning around this time bringing Lord Darlington coffee in the breakfast room, and his saying to me as he folded The Times with some disgust: ‘Frenchmen. Really, I mean to say, Stevens. Frenchmen.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And to think we have to be seen by the world to be arm in arm with them. One wishes for a good bath at the mere reminder.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Last time I was in Berlin, Stevens, Baron Overath, old friend of my father, came up and said: “Why do you do this to us? Don’t you see we can’t go on like this?” I was jolly well tempted to tell him it’s those wretched Frenchmen. It’s not the English way of carrying on, I wanted to say. But I suppose one can’t do things like that. Mustn’t speak ill of our dear allies.’ But the very fact that the French were the most intransigent as regards releasing Germany from the cruelties of the Versailles treaty made all the more imperative the need to bring to the gathering at Darlington Hall at least one French gentleman with unambiguous influence over his country’s foreign policy. Indeed, I heard several times his lordship express the view that without the participation of such a personage, any discussion on the topic of Germany would be little more than an indulgence. He and Sir David accordingly set upon this final crucial lap of their preparations and to witness the unswerving determination with which they persevered in the face of repeated frustrations was a humbling experience; countless letters and telegrams were dispatched and his lordship himself made three separate trips to Paris within the space of two months. Finally, having secured the agreement of a certain extremely illustrious Frenchman – I will merely call him ‘M. Dupont’ – to attend the gathering on a very strict ‘off the record’ basis, the date for the conference was set. That is to say, for that memorable March of 1923.

As this date grew ever nearer, the pressures on myself, though of an altogether more humble nature than those mounting on his lordship, were nevertheless not inconsequential. I was only too aware of the possibility that if any guest were to find his stay at Darlington Hall less than comfortable, this might have repercussions of unimaginable largeness. Moreover, my planning for the event was complicated by the uncertainty as to the numbers involved. The conference being of a very high level, the participants had been limited to just eighteen very distinguished gentlemen and two ladies – a German countess and the formidable Mrs Eleanor Austin, at that time still resident in Berlin; but each of these might reasonably bring secretaries, valets and interpreters, and there proved no way of ascertaining the precise number of such persons to expect. Furthermore, it became clear that a number of the parties would be arriving some time before the three days set aside for the conference, thus giving themselves time to prepare their ground and gauge the mood of fellow guests, though their exact arrival dates were, again, uncertain. It was clear then that the staff would not only have to work extremely hard, and be at their most alert, they would also have to be, unusually flexible. In fact, I was for some time of the opinion that this huge challenge ahead of us could not be surmounted without my bringing in additional staff from outside. However, this option, quite aside from the misgivings his lordship was bound to have as regards gossip travelling, entailed my having to rely on unknown quantities just when a mistake could prove most costly. I thus set about preparing for the days ahead as, I imagine, a general might prepare for a battle: I devised with utmost care a special staff plan anticipating all sorts of eventualities; I analysed where our weakest points lay and set about making contingency plans to fall back upon in the event of these points giving way; I even gave the staff a military-style ‘pep-talk’, impressing upon them that, for all their having to work at an exhausting rate, they could feel great pride in discharging their duties over the days that lay ahead. ‘History could well be made under this roof,’ I told them. And they, knowing me to be one not prone to exaggerated statements, well understood that something of an extraordinary nature was impending.

You will understand then something of the climate prevailing around Darlington Hall by the time of my father’s fall in front of the summerhouse – this occurring as it did just two weeks before the first of the conference guests were likely to arrive – and what I mean when I say there was little room for any ‘beating about the bush’. My father did, in any case, rapidly discover a way to circumvent the limitations on his effectiveness implied by the stricture that he should carry no laden trays. The sight of his figure pushing a trolley loaded with cleaning utensils, mops, brushes arranged incongruously, though always tidily, around teapots, cups and saucers, so that it at times resembled a street-hawker’s barrow, became a familiar one around the house. Obviously he still could not avoid relinquishing his waiting duties in the dining room, but otherwise the trolley enabled him to accomplish a surprising amount. In fact, as the great challenge of the conference drew nearer, an astonishing change seemed to come over my father. It was almost as though some supernatural force possessed him, causing him to shed twenty years; his face lost much of the sunken look of recent times, and he went about his work with such youthful vigour that a stranger might have believed there were not one but several such figures pushing trolleys about the corridors of Darlington Hall.

As for Miss Kenton, I seem to remember the mounting tension of those days having a noticeable effect upon her. I recall, for instance, the occasion around that time I happened to encounter her in the back corridor. The back corridor, which serves as a sort of backbone to the staff’s quarters of Darlington Hall, was always a rather cheerless affair due to the lack of daylight penetrating its considerable length. Even on a fine day, the corridor could be so dark that the effect was like walking through a tunnel. On that particular occasion, had I not recognized Miss Kenton’s footsteps on the boards as she came towards me, I would have been able to identify her only from her outline. I paused at one of the few spots where a bright streak of light fell across the boards and, as she approached, said: ‘Ah, Miss Kenton.’ ‘Yes, Mr Stevens?’

‘Miss Kenton, I wonder if I may draw your attention to the fact that the bed linen for the upper floor will need to be ready by the day after tomorrow.’

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

‘Ah, I’m very glad to hear it. It just struck me as a thought, that’s all.’

I was about to continue on my way, but Miss Kenton did not move. Then she took one step more towards me so that a bar of light fell across her face and I could see the angry expression on it.

‘Unfortunately, Mr Stevens, I am extremely busy now and I am finding I have barely a single moment to spare. If only I had as much spare time as you evidently do, then I would happily reciprocate by wandering about this house reminding you of tasks you have perfectly well in hand.’

‘Now, Miss Kenton, there is no need to become so bad-tempered. I merely felt the need to satisfy myself that it had not escaped your attention …’

‘Mr Stevens, this is the fourth or fifth time in the past two days you have felt such a need. It is most curious to see that you have so much time on your hands that you are able to simply wander about this house bothering others with gratuitous comments.’

‘Miss Kenton, if you for one moment believe I have time on my hands, that displays more clearly than ever your great inexperience. I trust that in years to come, you will gain a clearer picture of what occurs in a house like this.’

‘You are perpetually talking of my “great inexperience,” Mr Stevens, and yet you appear quite unable to point out any defect in my work. Otherwise I have no doubt you would have done so long ago and at some length. Now, I have much to be getting on with and would appreciate your not following me about and interrupting me like this. If you have so much time to spare, I suggest it might be more profitably spent taking some fresh air.’ She stamped past me and on down the corridor. Deciding it best to let the matter go no further, I continued on my way. I had almost reached the kitchen doorway when I heard the furious sounds of her footsteps coming back towards me again.

‘In fact, Mr Stevens,’ she called, ‘I would ask you from now on not to speak to me directly at all.’

‘Miss Kenton, whatever are you talking about?’

‘If it is necessary to convey a message, I would ask you to do so through a messenger. Or else you may like to write a note and have it sent to me. Our working relationship, I am sure, would be made a great deal easier.’

‘Miss Kenton …’

‘I am extremely busy, Mr Stevens. A written note if the message is at all complicated. Otherwise you may like to speak to Martha or Dorothy, or any members of the male staff you deem sufficiently trustworthy. Now I must return to my work and leave you to your wanderings.’

Irritating as Miss Kenton’s behaviour was, I could not afford to give it much thought, for by then the first of the guests had arrived. The representatives from abroad were not expected for a further two or three days, but the three gentlemen referred to by his lordship as his ‘home team’ – two Foreign Office ministers attending very much Off the record’ and Sir David Cardinal – had come early to prepare the ground as thoroughly as possible. As ever, little was done to conceal anything from me as I went in and out of the various rooms in which these gentlemen sat deep in discussion, and I thus could not avoid gaining a certain impression of the general mood at this stage of the proceedings. Of course, his lordship and his colleagues were concerned to brief each other as accurately as possible on each one of the expected participants; but overwhelmingly, their concerns centred on a single figure – that of M. Dupont, the French gentleman – and on his likely sympathies and antipathies. Indeed, at one point, I believe I came into the smoking room and heard one of the gentlemen saying: ‘The fate of Europe could actually hang on our ability to bring Dupont round on this point.’ It was in the midst of these preliminary discussions that his lordship entrusted me with a mission sufficiently unusual for it to have remained in my memory to this day, alongside those other more obviously unforgettable occurrences that were to take place during that remarkable week. Lord Darlington called me into his study, and I could see at once that he was in a state of some agitation. He seated himself at his desk and, as usual, resorted to holding open a book – this time it was Who’s Who – turning a page to and fro.

‘Oh, Stevens,’ he began with a false air of nonchalance, but then seemed at a loss how to continue. I remained standing there ready to relieve his discomfort at the first opportunity. His lordship went on fingering his page for a moment, leaned forward to scrutinize an entry, then said:

‘Stevens, I realize this is a somewhat irregular thing to ask you to do.’

‘Sir?’

‘It’s just that one has so much of importance on one’s mind just now.’

‘I would be very glad to be of assistance, sir.’

‘I’m sorry to bring up a thing like this, Stevens. I know you must be awfully busy yourself. But I can’t see how on earth to make it go away.’

I waited a moment while Lord Darlington returned his attention to Who’s Who. Then he said, without looking up: ‘You are familiar, I take it, with the facts of life.’

‘Sir?’

The facts of life, Stevens. Birds, bees. You are familiar, aren’t you?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, sir.’

‘Let me put my cards on the table, Stevens. Sir David is a very old friend. And he’s been invaluable in organizing the present conference. Without him, I dare say, we’d not have secured M. Dupont’s agreement to come.’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘However, Stevens, Sir David has his funny side. You may have noticed it yourself. He’s brought his son, Reginald, with him. To act as secretary. The point is, he’s engaged to be married. Young Reginald, I mean.’

‘Yes, sir.’

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

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘I’ll get to the point, Stevens. I happen to be the young man’s godfather. Accordingly, Sir David has requested that I convey to young Reginald the facts of life.’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘Sir David himself finds the task rather daunting and suspects he will not accomplish it before Reginald’s wedding day.’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘The point is, Stevens, I’m terribly busy. Sir David should know that, but he’s asked me none the less.’ His lordship paused and went on studying his page.

‘Do I understand, sir,’ I said, ‘that you wish me to convey the information to the young gentleman?’

‘If you don’t mind, Stevens. Be an awful lot off my mind. Sir David continues to ask me every couple of hours if I’ve done it yet.’

‘I see, sir. It must be most trying under the present pressures.’

‘Of course, this is far beyond the call of duty, Stevens.’

‘I will do my best, sir. I may, however, have difficulty finding the appropriate moment to convey such information.’

‘I’d be very grateful if you’d even try, Stevens. Awfully decent of you. Look here, there’s no need to make a song and dance of it. Just convey the basic facts and be done with it. Simple approach is the best, that’s my advice, Stevens.’

‘Yes, sir. I shall do my best.’

‘Jolly grateful to you, Stevens. Let me know how you get on.’

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