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Authors: James Hilton

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So Well Remembered

BOOK: So Well Remembered
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JAMES HILTON
SO WELL REMEMBERED
First published by Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1945
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PART ONE

That day so well remembered—a day, indeed, impossible
to forget —was the First of September, 1921; on the morning of which
George Boswell—then only Councillor Boswell, then sandy-brown-haired
with not a trace of grey—woke before dawn, looked at his watch, and
promptly slept again till Annie brought in the morning paper, a cup of tea,
and some letters that had just arrived. Amongst them was a note from Lord
Winslow’s secretary, saying that his lordship would arrive at Browdley
Station by the noon train, in good time for the foundation-stone-laying; and
this made George very happy and proud, because Lord Winslow was not an
ordinary kind of lord (a type which George, never having met any, imagined
for himself and then proceeded to scorn on principle), but a special kind who
had not only devoted a lifetime to public service but had also written
several distinguished books.

At half-past seven George got up, put out his blue serge suit (the one
reserved for big events), and shaved with especial care, scanning meanwhile
the cheerful headlines of the paper propped against the mirror, and noting
with approval, whenever he looked beyond it, the misty promise of a fine
summer day. By eight he was at the breakfast-table, eating ham and eggs and
exchanging good- humoured chatter with Annie, the elderly ‘help’ who looked
after the house and did her best to overfeed him during his wife’s absence;
by nine he was at his desk, composing an article for the Browdley and
District Guardian, which he owned and edited. He did not write easily as a
rule, but this time the phrases came on a wave of exhilaration, for though he
had a few private doubts that the Treaty of Versailles was all it should be,
he was prepared to give the future the benefit of them, the more so as it was
natural for him to give the future the benefit of anything. Anyhow by ten
George had composed a suitably optimistic editorial; noon saw him at the
railway station to welcome Lord Winslow; by one o’clock he had made a short
speech at the Town Hall luncheon; and by a quarter to two he was in his seat
on the improvised dais at the corner of Mill Street, blinking in the sunshine
and beaming his satisfaction to the four winds, one of which, then prevalent,
wafted back the concentrated smell of Browdley’s industries. But George did
not mind that—indeed, it was the remembered perfume of his childhood,
of days spent on the banks of the canal that threaded its way between factory
walls, taking waste water hot from each one, so that a fog of steam drifted
over the surface and spread a low- hanging reek of oil, chemicals, and
machinery. Waiting on the platform for the ceremony to begin, George sniffed
and was happy.

A great day for Councillor Boswell and for Browdley, and also (one
gathered) for England and for the world. History, George reflected, could not
have done a better job of dramatization—August Thirty-First, the
Official End of the Great War (some sort of lawyers’ technicality, but it
still made good news)—September First, the Foundation-Stone-Laying of
Unit One of the Mill Street Housing Scheme that was to replace some of
Browdley’s worst slums. A great day, indeed. George, as his glance roved
around, was proud to have the dedicator (a Bishop) on his left, the guest of
the occasion (Lord Winslow) on his right, and various local bigwigs beyond
and behind; but he was proudest of all to see the crowd, and only wished it
as large as it would have been if Browdley folk weren’t such notorious
slackers about civic affairs. He said so later, when he got up to speak, and
was applauded for his downrightness. George, in fact, was invariably
downright; it was natural for him, and a quality which, sometimes
disconcerting but always good-humoured, did as well in Browdley as the smooth
tongue of the diplomat, and perhaps better. There was a legend that when he
had wanted a rich local manufacturer to donate a mansion for use as a
municipal museum, he had said: “See here, Bob, I’m not ASKING this— I’m
DEMANDING it. You and your folks have exploited this town for the best part
of a century—if there was any justice you’d have been hanged long ago.
But as there isn’t—let’s have that house.” And he had got it.

Furthermore, George thought, it was a shame that only a few hundreds,
instead of thousands, had turned out to welcome a man like Lord Winslow
—or was it possible they didn’t know how distinguished Lord Winslow
really was? But George’s personal enjoyment of the proceedings was not to be
lessened—not even when the town brass band began to play Sousa rather
badly in the shadow of a large Union Jack hung upside-down—a detail
that remained unnoticed save by a solitary busybody who afterwards wrote a
letter about it which the Guardian did not print. Altogether the scene was
typical of many a quietly happy English occasion during those distant years
when Englishmen could be quietly happy.

George’s face was also typically English (which means, perhaps, nothing
more than that he might have passed, in their respective countries, for a
Dane, a Norwegian, a Swede, a German, or a Norman Frenchman, but not so
easily for an Italian, a Greek, or a Spaniard); at any rate, he was blue-eyed
and ruddy-cheeked, the mouth expanding into smiles of shy benevolence as
greetings came from the crowd, the chin steady and square, with none of the
false dynamism of the acute angle. George, at thirty-five, was a good-
looking man, if one cared to call him that, but he seemed to merit some
solider adjective than could be applied equally to youthful film-actors and
tennis-champions; there was a touch of earthiness in him that matched well
with his wide shoulders and strong hands and genial provincial burr. It was a
quiet, almost a humorous touch, behind which, in a sort of ambush, there
lurked ambitions and determinations that had already left their mark on
Browdley.

This housing development was one of them—a modest triumph (George
called it) of practical idealism over the ninety per cent of apathy and ten
per cent of pure selfishness that comprise idealism’s biggest enemy. George
could justifiably smile as he stared about him that September afternoon, for
this was the first fruit of his Councillorship and the first post-war
improvement in Browdley to get beyond the talking stage. Only George knew the
struggle it had been through almost incredible thickets of vested interests
and Government red tape; but here it was at last, something actually begun
after all the argument, and his friends and fellow-citizens might well give
him a cheer. Even the Mayor, who was among his strongest political opponents,
could not restrain a reluctantly cordial smile.

George was telling the Bishop that he had been born in one of the slum
houses just demolished—Number Twenty-Four, Mill Street, to be precise
—and the Bishop was chaffing him about not having had it preserved as a
place of historical interest with a mural tablet to commemorate the great
event. George laughed and said he would have taken such an idea far more
seriously twenty-odd years ago, and then he confessed that as a small boy he
had once read how the desks at Harrow School were carved with the names of
famous men; and that in order not to disappoint posterity he had carved his
own name on the inside of the privy-door at the end of the backyard of Number
Twenty-Four—not a very romantic substitute for a desk at Harrow, but
the handiest available in his own limited world.

“Ah, dear me,” exclaimed the Bishop, who was a Harrovian and a little
shocked at first, but then when he looked at George’s face, so clearly that
of a man telling a simple story of something that had very simply happened,
he was won over, as people nearly always were by George; so he added with a
smile: “Ah, well—a harmless occupation, I daresay.”

George went on without realizing the extent of his conquest: “Aye, it was
the only place I was ever left alone in those days, because we were a large
family, and a four-roomed house doesn’t allow for much privacy. Fortunately
my father started work at six in the morning and didn’t come home till six at
night—I hardly saw him except on Sundays when he marched us all off to
chapel.”

“Ah, grand folks, those old Nonconformists,” murmured the Bishop, turning
on the magnanimity.

“He was a local preacher too,” George continued, pointing suddenly up Mill
Street. “There’s the chapel, and there”—swinging his arm in the
opposite direction—“there’s Channing’s Mill, where he
worked—”

“CHANNING’S? Not—er—Channing and Felsby?”

“Aye, that’s what it used to be. You knew of it?”

“I’m afraid so.” The Bishop smiled ruefully. “I—er—I once had
a few shares in it.”

“You were better off than my father, then, because he had a lifetime in
it. From the age of ten to the day he died—fifty years, and for half of
every year, except on Sundays, he only saw daylight through the mill
windows.”

“Ah, terrible—terrible,” murmured the Bishop.

George chuckled. “Maybe, but he didn’t feel that way. I don’t believe it
ever occurred to him. He was quite content all week looking forward to
Sunday.”

“When he enjoyed his preaching, no doubt.”

“You bet he did, and he was a dab hand at it too. I’ve heard him last a
couple of hours, without a note, and fluent all the time.”

The Bishop sighed. “Ah, that’s a wonderful thing—to possess the gift
of tongues, so that one never has to think for a word—”

“Maybe that’s it,” said George. “It’s the thinking that spoils it.” His
eyes twinkled and his voice, as nearly as a voice can, nudged the Bishop in
the ribs. “Once I remember my father started off a prayer with ‘Oh God, if
there be a God’—but he said it in such a grand booming voice that
nobody noticed it any more than he had.”

“Except you,” interjected Lord Winslow, who had been overhearing the
conversation from the other side. George turned, a little startled at first,
and then, seeing a smile on his lordship’s face, smiled back and replied
thoughtfully: “Aye, that’s so. I suppose I was always a bit of a one for
noticing things.”

By then the band had finished playing and it was time for George to open
the proceedings. He did so in a speech that lasted a few minutes only; one of
his virtues, innocently acquired because he regarded it as a drawback, was
that ceremonial oratory did not come easily to him. But he had a pleasant
voice and a knack of using simple words as a first-class workman uses tools;
his newspaper editorials were not so good, because he ‘polished’ them too
much. There was also a hint of the child in him that appeared now in his
unconcealed and quite unconcealable pleasure; he could not help letting
Browdley know how pleased he was, not only with the town for having elected
him one of its councillors, but doubtless also with himself for having so
well merited the honour. A certain inward modesty made tolerable, and even
attractive, an outward quality that might have been termed conceit. And when,
having briefly introduced Lord Winslow, he sat down amidst another gust of
applause, the life of the gathering seemed to centre on his still beaming
countenance rather than on the tall, thin, pallid stranger who rose to pay
him conventional compliments.

Winslow, of course, was a much better speaker by any erudite standards. To
the acceptable accent of English aristocracy and officialdom he added an air
of slightly bored accomplishment that often goes with it, and the chiefly
working-class audience gave him respectful attention throughout an address
that was considerably above their heads. Had he been of their own class they
might have shouted a few ribald interruptions, but they would not do this to
a stranger so clearly of rank; indeed their patient silence implied a
half-affectionate tolerance for ‘one of the nobs’ who eccentrically chose to
interest himself in Browdley affairs instead of in the far more glamorous
ones they imagined must be his own—the sort of tolerance that had
evoked an audible exclamation of “Poor little bugger!” from some unknown
citizen when, a few years back, a royal prince had passed through the town on
an official tour. To Browdley folk, as they looked and listened now, it
seemed that Lord Winslow was all the time thinking of something else (as
indeed he was), but they did not blame him for it; on the contrary, the
cheers when he finished were a friendly concession that he had doubtless done
his best and that it was pretty decent of him to have bothered to do anything
at all.

BOOK: So Well Remembered
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