Authors: James Hilton
'Ah yes, the Ceinture.' Charles could not repress an emotion of astonishment--that anyone who had never seen Paris before could allow himself to be taken in and out without even leaving the train for a quick look. 'You were here once when you were a baby--just passing through. But this can be called your first real visit.'
'Yes. I know I ought to get a thrill.' The boy was peering through the window. 'I must say everything looks a bit run down after Switzerland.'
'Everything is. France, remember, has been through two world wars.'
'And the Swiss have been sitting pretty, I know. But the mountains-- the clean air--I think that's really more in my line than big cities.'
'You went to the right country, then. You look very fit. And still growing--or is it my imagination?'
Gerald was a little shy of his height, which was already six foot one. He laughed. 'Oh, I hope not, or I'll be a freak. I think I've stopped, though.'
'I sometimes wish I had an inch or two more myself. Not that five feet nine is really short. But you can look over my head.'
'It's useful in climbing,' Gerald admitted.
'Did you do much of that?'
'Just Pilatus and the Faulhorn and some of the easier ones.'
Charles was suddenly aware of an emotion which, in a younger man and in connection with a woman, he would have diagnosed as jealousy. 'So you got along all right with that schoolmaster--I forget his name?'
'Tubby Conklin? Oh, he isn't so bad when you get to know him. Not really stuffy--just a bit of a watchdog. I suppose he felt he had to be, with all of us on his hands.'
STUFFY. Charles caught the word as if it had been a hit below the belt, but immediately decided that Gerald was unlikely to have heard of the nickname--and if he had, as he must sooner or later, what did it matter? Perhaps that was one of the confessions that would develop so naturally towards midnight at the Cheval Noir. He imagined an opening. 'D'you know what they call me at the Office, Gerald? STUFFY Anderson.' (Pause for merriment.) 'I suppose having any sort of nickname's a good sign--after all, they called Disraeli Dizzy, but you can't imagine Gladstone ever being called Gladdy. . . . Gladwyn Jebb, perhaps, but not Gladstone. . . . I hope, though, I'm not TOO stuffy. Now that you're old enough to judge, you must tell me if ever you think I am.' Perhaps he would be able to talk like that before the evening was over.
Gerald was still staring out of the taxi window. 'Where are we going, dad?'
'The Crillon. My hotel. I thought you might like a bath before dinner. I have to change myself anyhow.'
'Change? You mean--' Gerald looked round and seemed to be studying his father's attire.
'Well, I had thought of a black tie in your honour.'
'I'm afraid I didn't bring--'
'Oh, then it doesn't matter. I'll wear what I have on, and if your lounge suit needs pressing the hotel people can do it in a hurry.'
'I'm terribly sorry, Dad, but I'll have to wear what I have on, too. All my clothes went through in a trunk to London--this bag's only got souvenirs and things in it--'
What Gerald had on included an open-necked shirt, tweed jacket, and grey flannel trousers.
Charles smiled. 'You could have something of mine, but since you've grown so tall I rather doubt . . . Well, the only real essential is a tie--which I CAN provide. I can also lend you pyjamas.'
'In case you forgot to pack them. And don't worry about a room-- the Crillon can fix you up in my suite.'
'But I--I'm--I wasn't planning to stay overnight. I'm booked through on the boat train from St. Lazare--'
'Yes. I'm terribly sorry if--'
Charles was hurt, but did not want to hurt himself more by showing it. 'You didn't say so, and I'm afraid I assumed--'
'I didn't think it mattered so long as there was time for dinner.'
'Of course. Oh, of course. Though if you wished I daresay even as late as this I could have your train ticket changed--'
'Except that I--I'd--well, actually I'd planned to join up with some of the others on the boat-train--some of the people I'd been with--I sort of promised . . . And then I've got dates in London tomorrow--Mallinson, for one--he has to fix a filling that came loose, so you see . . .'
'My dear boy, that's all right--don't let it bother you. I'm glad you're careful of your teeth--most important. . . . Well, here we are--the Place de la Concorde--one of the great sights of the world, and the best time to see it is about now when the lights are just coming on. Rather splendid, don't you think?'
Gerald seemed much more impressed by his father's suite when they reached it. 'The British taxpayer certainly has to shell out for this,' he commented, walking around.
'Only because the British Government is anxious that its representatives abroad should not appear as impoverished as they usually are.'
Gerald grinned. 'Are WE impoverished?'
'We certainly should be if we had to live on my salary.'
'Ah . . . so the old family fortune's standing up pretty well?'
Charles was never quite sure when Gerald was having fun with him, or what kind of fun it was. He answered, half seriously: 'It isn't much of a fortune, after inflation and taxes. But you needn't worry.'
'Oh, I don't. . . . You know, dad, if I were you I'd spend every penny during the next ten years or so, then you'd be sure of enjoying yourself. Or is that a crazy idea?'
'Not at all. You'd be surprised how popular it seems to be--hence in part the present state of Europe. But don't get me on to politics or I shall say the kind of things that annoy Sir Malcolm.'
'Boss, chief, or head of department.'
'Like rod, pole, or perch?'
'What kind of chap is he?'
'Very able. I'd introduce you if he were staying here, but he prefers the Embassy. A fine diplomat and--so they say--an EXCEEDINGLY fine bridge player.'
'I guess all that means you don't like him much.'
'Oh now, come, come,' protested Charles with restrained glee. 'You mustn't guess anything of the sort. Sir Malcolm and I work very well in harness. But even a horse doesn't want to be in harness all the time.'
Gerald laughed heartily, and Charles thought that the evening, after a somewhat inauspicious start, was proceeding well.
* * * * *
An hour later they were at the corner table in the Cheval Noir with Henri hovering about them like a benign and elderly angel. Charles introduced Gerald proudly. 'Henri, I want you to meet my son. Quite an occasion--his first evening in Paris as well as his seventeenth birthday.'
Henri bowed, but Gerald offered his hand; Charles was pleased at this--it was intelligent of the boy to realize that Henri was not just an ordinary restaurant keeper. After the exchange of civilities Charles added: 'Henri is one of mankind's truest benefactors--his huîtres Mornay puts him with Cellini and Michelangelo. Too bad they're out of season--oysters, I mean.'
After Henri, beaming at the compliment, had gone off, Gerald said: 'Do you really think cooking's an art like painting, dad?'
'A much HIGHER art than some modern painting. Anyhow, it's a polite thing to say to a cook who really is an artist.'
'I suppose being a diplomat you get a lot of practice saying polite things.'
'I wish I got more. I sometimes feel at a disadvantage because I'm not equally proficient in saying nasty things.' He was thinking of Palan.
'Perhaps because the world isn't getting any better.' Charles rallied himself from the dark reflection. 'Though I must admit I see it looking pretty good here and now.' Henri was serving the Vino de Pasto. 'I'm very happy to be with you tonight, Gerald. I drink an affectionate toast to your future.'
Gerald grinned embarrassedly, then sipped from his glass. 'Thanks, dad. Is this sherry?'
'Yes. . . . Smoke a cigarette if you like--it's the only wine that isn't spoiled by smoking.' Charles, proffering his cigarette case, thought he had conveyed his hint rather tactfully. 'I hope you like it.'
'It's--well, I daresay one could get used to it.'
'Just about my own first reaction. That, I remember, was at a Foundation dinner at Cambridge. I mixed my drinks rather recklessly--with the inevitable result. My gyp told me afterwards I'd tried to festoon the chapel belfry with toilet paper.'
Gerald laughed. 'It's hard to imagine you ever getting drunk.'
'That's because you think of me as I am today.'
'Or else because I really don't know you properly.'
The remark, so seemingly cold, was actually warm to Charles; it hinted that Gerald too was aware of the barrier and that such awareness might be a first step towards their joint effort to remove it. He said agreeably: 'I've often thought that's one of the biggest drawbacks of a career like mine. Chopping and changing posts, with you in England half the time when you were a baby, then the war came and you went to America, and even after that there was school and we could only meet during the holidays if I happened to be in London. The wonder is we know each other at all. But now you're getting older and I'm not likely to be abroad so much, things ought to work out better.'
Charles waited for a word of encouragement, then decided that the boy's friendly face was itself one. He continued: 'Besides, I'll be off duty for good in a few more years. I'd thought of buying a place in the country if I can find something that isn't too huge or too cute. How would you like that?'
'You mean a place like Beeching, dad?'
'Oh no, much humbler . . . but I'm sure you don't remember Beeching.'
'I do--because I remember Grandfather there.'
'There was a big white fireplace and once a hot coal fell out on the rug and Grandfather squirted soda water over it. I think that's really the first thing I remember about anything.'
'I don't recall the incident, but there was certainly a big white marble fireplace in the hall, so perhaps you're right. . . . Much TOO big--the fireplaces and everything else--we used to consume fifty tons of coal a year and still the rooms were chilly in the winter. Think of trying to get fifty tons of coal nowadays to heat a private house. . . . No, the place I might look for would be small and modern--just to settle down in after I've retired. Not too far out of London, but quiet.'
'You might be lonely. You're so used to London.'
'Don't forget there's the book I'll be writing.'
'You're really going to do it?'
Charles smiled; the book was almost a joke because it had been talked about for so long. Whenever Charles said anything witty at a dinner party, which was fairly often, people were always apt to exclaim: 'You know, Charles,' (or 'Stuffy' if the occasion were intimate or ribald enough) 'you really ought to write a book some day', to which Charles would answer either thoughtfully 'Yes, I suppose I might', or confidently 'That's exactly what I intend to do.' But nobody really believed he would, whatever he said; somehow he dined out too often and lived too elegantly to seem capable of such sustained effort. So one day the book would astonish everyone by actually appearing--published by Macmillan, he hoped, and at not more than twenty-five shillings, if the price of things didn't go up any more. But it would offer a further surprise by being the kind of book few would expect from him--a really serious and authoritative piece of work--in fact, that of a man WHO OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN MADE AN AMBASSADOR. Charles could even extract wry satisfaction from the thought that this lesson would be learned too late, for he was fairly certain now that it WOULD be too late. He was disappointed, but realized that the character he had built up for himself would not allow him to show it.
Anyhow, it was his secret intention that the book should reveal rather startlingly that behind the façade he really did know his job, and it pleased him in rueful moods to invent comments he would most like his friends to make--not to him but amongst themselves. 'Really, you know, I've read worse. Well-documented--almost scholarly in spots. Didn't think Stuffy had it in him. The Observer gives it the big article--calls it "a footnote to history".' The phrase suited Charles's humility at the shrine of Clio, and also his own experience, derived from Gibbon, that footnotes were apt to be more interesting than the larger print. Not, of course, that there would be much of that sort of thing in it--just a few titbits here and there . . . mostly it would deal with the Balkan and Greco-Turkish problems, would record matters of which he had been both witness and student, such as that delineation of the Macedonian frontier that had made him (for what it was worth, and it appeared nowadays to be worth nothing) the greatest living authority on the ethnographic history of the Sanjak of Belar-Novo. (Which was the only unique distinction he ever claimed for himself, and often, like so much else that he said, it raised a laugh.)
So he replied to Gerald, thinking of all this and trying not to seem portentous: 'I really ought to tackle the damn thing, Gerald. My career, though far from outstanding, hasn't been entirely uneventful. . . . Rome--Bucharest--Athens--I happened to be there at interesting times. And other places. Some day I'll tell you about them.'
'I'm looking forward to the book.'
'Oh yes, that would probably be easier for both of us. You could skip when you were bored.'
Gerald gave his father an appraising glance which he turned into a smile. 'You know, dad, you're a bit prickly, aren't you?'
'Prickly?' Now came the perfect cue. 'I've been called STUFFY in my time, but PRICKLY . . . Well . . .'
But Gerald passed over 'stuffy' without interest. 'I mean, you put up your defences even when nobody's attacking.'
'Do I? Maybe a conditioned reflex after so many years in the Service. I'll try to unlearn it when I'm just a retired old has- been writing a few pages a day in that terrible handwriting of mine-- or perhaps I ought to learn to type and spare the eyesight of some unfortunate secretary.'
'How long do you think it will take you?'
'Two or three years--maybe more. I won't mind.'
'Sort of a labour of love?'