Authors: James Hilton
Towards midnight Charles Anderson finished some notes on a talk he had had with a newspaper editor at lunch--nothing very important, but he thought he ought to keep Bingay decently informed. The hour and the completion of the task seemed to call for a drink, so he went to the bathroom for some water and then to his suitcase for the silver flask that he always carried on these junkets and tried to keep replenished. He was not much of a whisky drinker (so he would say of himself when he ordered wine), but he liked a nightcap either in bed before turning out the light or during that last half- hour of dressing-gowned pottering when he would tidy up the affairs of the day both in his mind and on his desk. He was tidy by nature and years of experience had made him save, whenever possible, some small but relaxing job for a final one, even if it were only an entry in his diary or a jotting for the book he was one day going to write.
Tonight, however, there was no doubt as to what the job should be. He had been thinking of it, off and on and with increasing satisfaction, all day; it had been a sort of protective armour at moments when he had needed it. And now, with the drink at his elbow and the sounds of the city pleasantly audible from beyond the closed and curtained windows, he took a sheet of hotel notepaper and wrote:
My dear Gerald,
As you may have seen from the very small print in the English papers, if you bother with them at all while you're on holiday, I'm with Sir Malcolm Bingay at the Conference here--a rather exacting job, one way and another, and I'll feel relieved when it's over, especially if we get any kind of agreement out of all the talk. Meanwhile there's a more cheerful event next Thursday which I expect is on your mind as well as mine. Do you remember (no, I daresay you were too young) that time at Parson's Corner when I visited you there and the fun we all had making plans for your seventeenth birthday? Anyhow, I'm enclosing a small gift in case you're still in Switzerland on the great day. I believe, though, you talked of returning to England about then, so it occurs to me, why don't you break the journey in Paris? We might see a few sights and have a civilised dinner for once, so let me know the date and time of your train if you can possibly manage it.
Your affectionate father,
That done, and the envelope addressed care of Thomas Cook's, Lucerne, Charles finished his drink in bed and went quickly to sleep. He was a good sleeper, not because he had nothing to worry about, but because as a rule he had worked hard enough to be tired and conscientiously enough to be untroubled by conscience; lately, though, he had begun to feel sometimes TOO tired. But there need not be much more of it, he consoled himself; he would soon be on pension, and with each recent year ambition had withdrawn less reluctantly from the probably unscalable cliffs and had begun to settle for the long comfortable valley just round the corner.
After a couple of days Charles received a wire from Interlaken:
MANY THANKS PARIS OKAY SHALL ARRIVE GARE DE L'EST SEVEN P.M THURSDAY IF YOU CAN MAKE IT DINNER WILL BE FINE THANKS ALSO FOR SPLENDID CHECK AFFECTIONATELY GERRY
When Charles had digested this he happily made a note in his engagement book and then muttered in the presence of Sir Malcolm Bingay's secretary: 'I don't mind okay, but MAKE it . . . and c.h.e.c.k. cheque . . . really . . . hasn't he got over all that yet?'
Charles was a handsome man for his age, which was fifty-two. His hair had turned austerely iron-grey, but without thinning, and since he was something of a gourmet his trim figure offered a special tribute to character and temperament. Most people liked him, including those who would have been astonished if he had ever achieved any sensational success; he never had, so in a sort of way they could like him all the more. Had he been born half a century earlier he would probably not have been nicknamed 'Stuffy' by his colleagues; perhaps also in those halcyon days he could hardly have escaped becoming an Ambassador or Minister in one of the South American or smaller European capitals. 'After you're fifty there'll be something wrong with you if you don't get a Legation,' he had been told on taking up his first post, but his informant had himself been a Minister who had modestly added, in echo of Lord Melbourne: 'There's no damn merit about it that I can see.' But perhaps, if not merit, which Charles had possessed, there had been other things, including luck and a Zeitgeist, that had counted against him; at any rate, he had not been given a Legation, and for the last year or so had been sticking around at the Foreign Office. This Paris Conference was really the most considerable event that had come his way since the war period, though it was far from being world-shattering, and he surmised that Bingay had taken him along chiefly because the Balkan angle might crop up. So far it hadn't, and Charles wished it would, as a wrestler hopes for a chance to display a hold in which he has long specialized. Charles thought it possible that if the Balkan angle did crop up he might even, in a minor professional way and entirely without headlines, distinguish himself.
That he had been born during the last Victorian decade instead of the first was perhaps in some ways a pity, because he had just the right degree of correctness for the older-fashioned diplomat, apart from a very genuine integrity, knack with languages, suave manners, and a pretty if slightly erudite wit. He had also a taste for classical music, detective stories, and dry wines which aptly counterbalanced his distaste for jazz, modern non-detective fiction, and sweet wines. If you thought him a snob, as some people did, you had to admit that at Schönbrunn or Tsarskoye-Selo or in a first-class compartment on the old chocolate-and-white London and North-Western Scotch Express (en route for Balmoral) he would have looked the real thing in times when the standards of reality, or perhaps of things, were very different. . . . Anyhow, his career had not been unworthy, and his small dinner parties in various parts of the world had even been notable--until the break in his life that occurred during the Second World War.
It was this, when it came, that had persuaded him to send Gerald, then aged five, to spend the rest of the war years in America. During such a regrettable but prudent exile Charles had written to his son regularly every week, and once, being on a mission that had sent him across the Atlantic in the autumn of 1941, he had been able to spend a convenient weekend with the Fuesslis at Parson's Corner, Connecticut.
The Fuesslis were connections of his wife's--genial people in the wholesale hardware business, comfortably off, and innocent enough to be proud of having an Englishman who was in Who's Who as their house guest. They made him as welcome as they had made Gerald, and Charles knew he owed them a debt he could never repay. True, the boy seemed to be acquiring a slight American accent, but perhaps this was unavoidable--he would unlearn it later when he came home, for of course the Germans would be defeated eventually; one took that for granted. For the time being it had been and still would be undeniably reassuring to think of him safe and sound and well fed, while his father breakfasted on Spam and put out incendiary bombs on Whitehall roofs.
Another thing that troubled Charles slightly during his brief visit to Parson's Corner was that the Fuesslis seemed to have odd ideas of how to treat a youngster. On the night that Charles arrived at their house it was doubtless excusable that Gerald should be allowed to stay up past his usual bedtime, but it seemed strange to Charles to have to sit at the dinner table not only with his own youngster but with the Fuesslis' daughter Louise, aged three. He ascribed it to the kindness of his hosts and the natural good manners of both children that such an extraordinary situation passed without untoward incident.
But an even odder thing happened on the day following. It was a Sunday, and the Fuesslis could think of nothing better to do than drive a hundred miles to nowhere in particular along roads crowded with other Americans doing the same thing. Charles and Gerald were placed together in the back seat of the Buick, and the boy, who certainly seemed happy enough, pointed out many local landmarks, such as Woodrow Wilson High, the new Sears Roebuck, and the place where a holdup man had recently been shot in a police chase. Towards evening Charles was beginning to feel hungry, the more so as lunch had been of the picnic variety, eaten in the car too hurriedly to be enjoyed. He was still thinking about a good dinner when the car turned into the parking area of what was apparently a large and popular roadside restaurant.
'I hope you like sea-food,' said Mr. Fuessli, as they walked their way amongst innumerable cars towards an entrance festooned with life-belts.
'Sea-food? . . . Er . . . fish, that is? Oh yes, I do, indeed.' (Which was true enough, though this 'sea-food' set Charles thinking that he also enjoyed 'land-food', if such a term could be used to describe a really delicious entrecôte, or perhaps the poulet sauté américain, which was, he supposed, the nearest approach to a national dish.)
'Then I can promise you something worth waiting for,' continued Mr. Fuessli, pushing into the lobby.
It soon became clear to Charles that 'waiting for' had been no idle phrase; for the place was crowded, the restaurateur did not greet them, no table had been reserved, and there were twenty or thirty patrons standing in line for the next one available.
'I guess you have to stand in line for EVERYTHING in England,' said Mrs. Fuessli.
'I believe my housekeeper does it very often,' answered Charles, gently.
Not by a word or gesture did he convey his real emotions, and the only additional comment he permitted himself was at the spectacle of so many children waiting--and by no means all of them good- mannered like Gerald and Louise. 'These youngsters,' said Charles tentatively. 'They--er--they don't . . . their parents, I mean . . . do they--er--take them in to dinner here?'
'Sure,' answered Mr. Fuessli. 'What else can they do with them?'
'They look a little tired--the children, I mean.'
'Oh, it's just the drive. Kids love it, anyway. Besides, you can't leave 'em at home without a sitter, and you can't always get a sitter, especially on Sundays.'
And true enough, when at last their turn came for a table Charles observed that the dining-room was quite overpopulated with children-- some, like Louise, young enough to occupy high chairs supplied by the restaurant.
'So they ENCOURAGE them to come here?' Charles mused, still grappling with his private astonishment.
'Oh, not by themselves--only with grown-ups,' Mr. Fuessli replied. 'Gosh, no--think of what this place would be like if they let the kids come in alone!'
Charles thought of it, and found the speculation indeed appalling. He noted meanwhile that there was even a special children's dinner at half-price--which Gerald and Louise both ate with relish. The sea-food, incidentally, proved to be excellent, and the Californian wine that Mr. Fuessli ordered was equal to some Charles had tasted from far more familiar bottles.
Over coffee, which they drank in a hurry because the line in the lobby was still long, Charles was anxious to dispel any impression that he had not thoroughly enjoyed himself. 'You mustn't think I don't appreciate your taking Gerald with you like this. It's just that--well, I suppose one gets used to old-fashioned ideas in England--I mean, that children have their meals in the nursery and go to bed soon afterwards . . . and besides, of course, we don't have places like this, even in peacetime.'
'Maybe you would have,' said Mr. Fuessli, 'if there was a demand for them.' (He had always found this principle valid in the hardware business.)
'That's very possible,' Charles agreed. 'And perhaps the truth is that some of us in England are TOO old-fashioned . . . for instance, I was twenty-one before my own father ever took me out to dinner.'
The Fuesslis looked incredulous.
Charles smiled. 'Of course that was overdoing it. I'll initiate Gerald much earlier.'
'INITIATE him?' Mrs. Fuessli echoed.
'In a sort of way. After all, there's a good deal of ritual in it-- how to explore a French menu, the wines that go best with various foods, clothes to wear on different occasions, what people to tip and how much--quite a lot to learn.'
'Don't you think one can pick up things like that without exactly learning them?' asked Mr. Fuessli.
'Better to learn them, then you don't pick them up wrong.' Charles did not intend to be either didactic or crushing, but he thought he might have sounded a little of both and it disconcerted him.
Mrs. Fuessli twinkled. 'And when do you think Gerry will be ready to start learning?'
'Oh, I'd say when he's at Cambridge--maybe eighteen or nineteen.' Charles added, lest he should seem to be taking the whole thing far too seriously: 'I'm already looking forward to it--a grand excuse to give myself what Lord Curzon once called a beano.'
They did not understand the allusion, so he had to explain that 'beano' was a sound if somewhat proletarian English word meaning 'a good time' (derived from 'beanfeast'), but that Lord Curzon, a man of unproletarian perspectives, had assumed from its appearance that the word was Italian, and had therefore pronounced it 'bay-ah-no'. Charles enjoyed dissecting the joke (for it had always had for him a flavour incommunicable perhaps to those who had not known Lord Curzon professionally); he hoped it might at least convince the Fuesslis that he had a sense of humour. But they merely smiled in a rather vague way, and after a pause Mrs. Fuessli returned to the subject of Gerald's 'initiation'.