Authors: James Hilton
We had reached the hotel and he had to get his key at the bureau. As we went up to the fifth floor he said: “All this is mere beating about the bush. The fact is, Conway isn’t dead. At least he wasn’t a few months ago.”
This seemed beyond comment in the narrow space and time of an elevator ascent. In the corridor a few seconds later I responded: “Are you sure of that? How do you know?”
And he answered, unlocking his door: “Because I traveled with him from Shanghai to Honolulu in a Jap liner last November.” He did not speak again till we were settled in armchairs and had fixed ourselves with drinks and cigars. “You see, I was in China in the autumn on a holiday. I’m always wandering about. I hadn’t seen Conway for years. We never corresponded, and I can’t say he was often in my thoughts, though his was one of the few faces that have always come to me quite effortlessly if I tried to picture it. I had been visiting a friend in Hankow and was returning by the Pekin express. On the train I chanced to get into conversation with a very charming Mother Superior of some French sisters of charity. She was traveling to Chung-Kiang, where her convent was, and, because I knew a little French, she seemed to enjoy chattering to me about her work and affairs in general. As a matter of fact, I haven’t much sympathy with ordinary missionary enterprise, but I’m prepared to admit, as many people are nowadays, that the Romans stand in a class by themselves, since at least they work hard and don’t pose as commissioned officers in a world full of other ranks. Still, that’s by the by. The point is that this lady, talking to me about the mission hospital at Chung-Kiang, mentioned a fever case that had been brought in some weeks back, a man who they thought must be a European though he could give no account of himself and had no papers. His clothes were native, and of the poorest kind, and when taken in by the nuns he had been very ill indeed. He spoke fluent Chinese as well as pretty good French, and my train companion assured me that before he realized the nationality of the nuns, he had also addressed them in English with a refined accent. I said I couldn’t imagine such a phenomenon, and chaffed her gently about being able to detect a refined accent in a language she didn’t know. We joked about these and other matters, and it ended by her inviting me to visit the mission if ever I happened to be thereabouts. This, of course, seemed then as unlikely as that I should climb Everest, and when the train reached Chung-Kiang I shook hands with genuine regret that our chance contact had come to an end. As it happened, though, I was back in Chung-Kiang within a few hours. The train broke down a mile or two further on, and with much difficulty pushed us back to the station, where we learned that a relief engine could not possibly arrive for twelve hours. That’s the sort of thing that often happens on Chinese railways. So there was half a day to be lived through in Chung-Kiang—which made me decide to take the good lady at her word and call at the mission.
“I did so, and received a cordial, though naturally a somewhat astonished, welcome. I suppose one of the hardest things for a non-Catholic to realize is how easily a Catholic can combine official rigidity with non-official broadmindedness. Is that too complicated? Anyhow, never mind, those mission people made quite delightful company. Before I’d been there an hour I found that a meal had been prepared and a young Chinese Christian doctor sat down with me to it and kept up a conversation in a jolly mixture of French and English. Afterwards, he and the Mother Superior took me to see the hospital, of which they were very proud. I had told them I was a writer, and they were simple-minded enough to be a-flutter at the thought that I might put them all into a book. We walked past the beds while the doctor explained the cases. The place was spotlessly clean and looked to be very competently run. I had forgotten all about the mysterious patient with the refined English accent till the Mother Superior reminded me that we were just coming to him. All I could see was the back of the man’s head, he was apparently asleep. It was suggested that I should address him in English, so I said ‘Good afternoon,’ which was the first and not very original thing I could think of. The man looked up suddenly and said ‘Good afternoon’ in answer. It was true; his accent was educated. But I hadn’t time to be surprised at that, for I had already recognized him, despite his beard and altogether changed appearance and the fact that we hadn’t met for so long. He was Conway. I was certain he was, and yet, if I’d paused to think about it, I might well have come to the conclusion that he couldn’t possibly be. Fortunately I acted on the impulse of the moment. I called out his name and my own, and though he looked at me without any definite sign of recognition, I was positive I hadn’t made any mistake. There was an odd little twitching of the facial muscles that I had noticed in him before, and he had the same eyes that at Balliol we used to say were so much more of a Cambridge blue than an Oxford. But besides all that, he was a man one simply didn’t make mistakes about—to see him once was to know him always. Of course the doctor and the Mother Superior were greatly excited. I told them that I knew the man, that he was English, and a friend of mine, and that if he didn’t recognize me, it could only be because he had completely lost his memory. They agreed, in a rather amazed way, and we had a long consultation about the case. They weren’t able to make any suggestions as to how Conway could possibly have arrived at Chung-Kiang in his condition.
“To make the story brief, I stayed there over a fortnight, hoping that somehow or other I might induce him to remember things. I didn’t succeed, but he regained his physical health, and we talked a good deal. When I told him quite frankly who I was and who he was, he was docile enough not to argue about it. He was quite cheerful, even, in a vague sort of way, and seemed glad enough to have my company. To my suggestion that I should take him home, he simply said that he didn’t mind. It was a little unnerving, that apparent lack of any personal desire. As soon as I could I arranged for our departure. I made a confidant of an acquaintance in the consular office at Hankow, and thus the necessary passport and so on were made out without the fuss there might otherwise have been. Indeed, it seemed to me that for Conway’s sake the whole business had better be kept free from publicity and newspaper headlines, and I’m glad to say I succeeded in that. It could have been jam, of course, for the press.
“Well, we made our exit from China in quite a normal way. We sailed down the Yang-tse to Nanking and then took a train for Shanghai. There was a Jap liner leaving for ’Frisco that same night, so we made a great rush and got on board.”
“You did a tremendous lot for him,” I said.
Rutherford did not deny it. “I don’t think I should have done quite as much for any one else,” he answered. “But there was something about the fellow, and always had been—it’s hard to explain, but it made one enjoy doing what one could.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “He had a peculiar charm, a sort of winsomeness that’s pleasant to remember even now when I picture it, though, of course, I think of him still as a schoolboy in cricket flannels.”
“A pity you didn’t know him at Oxford. He was just brilliant—there’s no other word. After the War people said he was different. I, myself, think he was. But I can’t help feeling that with all his gifts he ought to have been doing bigger work. All that Britannic Majesty stuff isn’t my idea of a great man’s career. And Conway was—or should have been—
. You and I have both known him, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s an experience we shan’t ever forget. And even when he and I met in the middle of China, with his mind a blank and his past a mystery, there was still that queer core of attractiveness in him.”
Rutherford paused reminiscently and then continued: “As you can imagine, we renewed our old friendship on the ship. I told him as much as I knew about himself, and he listened with an attention that might almost have seemed a little absurd. He remembered everything quite clearly since his arrival at Chung-Kiang, and another point that may interest you is that he hadn’t forgotten languages. He told me, for instance, that he knew he must have had something to do with India, because he could speak Hindostani.
“At Yokohama the ship filled up, and among the new passengers was Sieveking, the pianist,
for a concert tour in the States. He was at our dining table and sometimes talked with Conway in German. That will show you how outwardly normal Conway was. Apart from his loss of memory, which didn’t show in ordinary intercourse, there couldn’t have seemed much wrong with him.
“A few nights after leaving Japan, Sieveking was prevailed upon to give a piano recital on board, and Conway and I went to hear him. He played well, of course, some Brahms and Scarlatti, and a lot of Chopin. Once or twice I glanced at Conway and judged that he was enjoying it all, which appeared very natural, in view of his own musical past. At the end of the program the show lengthened out into an informal series of encores which Sieveking bestowed, very amiably, I thought, upon a few enthusiasts grouped round the piano. Again he played mostly Chopin; he rather specializes in it, you know. At last he left the piano and moved towards the door, still followed by admirers, but evidently feeling that he had done enough for them. In the meantime a rather odd thing was beginning to happen. Conway had sat down at the keyboard and was playing some rapid, lively piece that I didn’t recognize, but which drew Sieveking back in great excitement to ask what it was. Conway, after a long and rather strange silence, could only reply that he didn’t know. Sieveking exclaimed that it was incredible, and grew more excited still. Conway then made what appeared to be a tremendous physical and mental effort to remember, and said at last that the thing was a Chopin study. I didn’t think myself it could be, and I wasn’t surprised when Sieveking denied it absolutely. Conway, however, grew suddenly quite indignant about the matter—which startled me, because up to then he had shown so little emotion about anything. ‘My dear fellow,’ Sieveking remonstrated, ‘I know everything of Chopin’s that exists, and I can assure you that he never wrote what you have just played. He might well have done so, because it’s utterly his style, but he just didn’t. I challenge you to show me the score in any of the editions.’ To which Conway replied at length: ‘Oh, yes, I remember now, it was never printed. I only know it myself from meeting a man who used to be one of Chopin’s pupils .… Here’s another unpublished thing I learned from him.’”
Rutherford steadied me with his eyes as he went on: “I don’t know if you’re a musician, but even if you’re not, I dare say you’ll be able to imagine something of Sieveking’s excitement, and mine, too, as Conway continued to play. To me, of course, it was a sudden and quite mystifying glimpse into his past, the first clew of any kind that had escaped. Sieveking was naturally engrossed in the musical problem, which was perplexing enough, as you’ll realize when I remind you that Chopin died in 1849.
“The whole incident was so unfathomable, in a sense, that perhaps I should add that there were at least a dozen witnesses of it, including a Californian university professor of some repute. Of course, it was easy to say that Conway’s explanation was chronologically impossible, or almost so; but there was still the music itself to be explained. If it wasn’t what Conway said it was, then what
it? Sieveking assured me that if those two pieces were published, they would be in every virtuoso’s repertoire within six months. Even if this is an exaggeration, it shows Sieveking’s opinion of them. After much argument at the time, we weren’t able to settle anything, for Conway stuck to his story, and as he was beginning to look fatigued, I was anxious to get him away from the crowd and off to bed. The last episode was about making some phonograph records. Sieveking said he would fix up all arrangements as soon as he reached America, and Conway gave his promise to play before the microphone. I often feel it was a great pity, from every point of view, that he wasn’t able to keep his word.”
Rutherford glanced at his watch and impressed on me that I should have plenty of time to catch my train, since his story was practically finished. “Because that night—the night after the recital—he got back his memory. We had both gone to bed and I was lying awake when he came into my cabin and told me. His face had stiffened into what I can only describe as an expression of overwhelming sadness—a sort of universal sadness, if you know what I mean—something remote or impersonal, a
, or whatever the Germans call it. He said he could call to mind everything, that it had begun to come back to him during Sieveking’s playing, though only in patches at first. He sat for a long while on the edge of my bed, and I let him take his own time and make his own method of telling me. I said that I was glad his memory had returned, but sorry if he already wished that it hadn’t. He looked up then and paid me what I shall always regard as a marvelously high compliment. ‘Thank God, Rutherford,’ he said, ‘you are capable of imagining things.’ After a while I dressed and persuaded him to do the same, and we walked up and down the boat deck. It was a calm night, starry and very warm, and the sea had a pale, sticky look, like condensed milk. Except for the vibration of the engines, we might have been pacing an esplanade. I let Conway go on in his own way, without questions at first. Somewhere about dawn he began to talk consecutively, and it was breakfast time and hot sunshine when he had finished. When I say ‘finished’ I don’t mean that there was nothing more to tell me after that first confession. He filled in a good many important gaps during the next twenty-four hours. He was very unhappy, and couldn’t have slept, so we talked almost constantly. About the middle of the following night the ship was due to reach Honolulu. We had drinks in my cabin the evening before; he left me about ten o’clock, and I never saw him again.”
“You don’t mean—” I had a picture in mind of a very calm, deliberate suicide I once saw on the mail-boat from Holyhead to Kingstown.
Rutherford laughed. “Oh, Lord, no—he wasn’t that sort. He just gave me the slip. It was easy enough to get ashore, but he must have found it hard to avoid being traced when I set people searching for him, as of course I did. Afterwards I learned that he’d managed to join the crew of a banana-boat going south to Fiji.”