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JAMES HILTON

ONE NIGHT, LONG AGO

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A syndicated short story published in, e.g.

The Detroit Evening Times, 26 May 1941
Good Housekeeping, June 1941 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2023
Version Date: 2023-12-05

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All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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ONE NIGHT, LONG AGO

Illustration

Illustration from Good Housekeeping, June 1941



Maybe it does happen only in stories that a strange man leans close to a woman
and says—well, you know what he says, even though it happens only in stories!




Illustration

Illustration from The Detroit Evening Times, 26 May 1941



ALL this happened many years ago, no matter exactly when or where; many other far more important things have happened since...


George Burnham would go far (somebody once said) if he lived long enough, and he probably would, since he was as careful about his health as about everything else. And his acquaintances knew also that the far distance would be achieved, not by any spectacular jumping or desperate frontal attack, but by neatly graduated steps. For George was sound, dependable, shrewd; George kept on passing examinations, saved his money, didn't drink or smoke; and his natural nervousness was counterbalanced by an immense and private conceit that remained unsuspected even by his closest friends. He had intelligent worries, too—not only about his future, but about the future, about the state of the country in general, and in particular about the trend of stock markets during the ensuing year—though all such worries, of course, only made him work harder at his job in a lawyer's office.

All in all, it didn't seem possible for George to fail in life, given a world in which virtue was even the least bit rewarded, and George's employers, the firm of Attenborough, Thriplow, Thriplow, and Turnberry, held as high an opinion of him as did Mary Attenborough, whose beauty was (one would have thought) reward enough for more virtues than most men have.

Mary and George were just "friends;" but it was part of George's plan to marry her someday, if only he could summon enough courage to propose. He was terribly scared of being turned down; yet his secret pride assured him that she doubtless inherited her father's smartness in knowing something good when he saw it. And George really was good—physically, mentally, and morally. The thing to do, of course, was to go on being just friends and concealing his real intentions until the Exactly Right Moment for disclosing them.

Of course, George's real intentions were not concealed from Mary at all. She knew he would someday propose to her, and she guessed she would probably accept.

There came a certain evening in June of a certain year when George felt the Right Moment might well be at hand, because on that particular evening Mary had been the witness of one of those small, almost imperceptible triumphs in which George's career abounded.

It had happened at a meeting of a local literary society to which George belonged. Literature was not really a source of much enjoyment to George, but for that very reason he felt it must be good for him; so it was one of the many things he cultivated in his spare time. And when Mr. Harvey Hedsall, famous not only as a corporation lawyer but as a book collector, consented to give a talk about his first editions, George not only contrived to be chairman at the meeting, but he learned by heart a speech in which he briefly mentioned Shakespeare, Plato, the disquieting state of the country, and the eminence of Mr. Hedsall.

I should add that George was only twenty-two and that his natural nervousness had made it very hard for him to become a public speaker. He had, however, set his mind to it, and finally he could occupy five minutes at any time in saying exactly the Right Thing. For George had a feeling for the Right Thing equal, if not superior, to his feeling for the Right Moment.


HE made his speech, and it was excellently received. He had wanted Mary to sit on the platform with him; but she had declined. Among the audience, though, she could perhaps better realize the success he had been. And as he kept glancing at her in the third row, he hoped she would be thrilling with as much pride in him as he was in himself. When he met her later, his mood was almost ebullient.

"But, Mary, you shouldn't have slipped away afterward. Why didn't you let me introduce you to Mr. Hedsall? Plenty of people stayed and introduced themselves."

"Oh, it doesn't matter, George," Mary answered cheerfully. "There's really not much point in meeting people you don't particularly feel you have things in common with. Life's too short."

George flashed her a look of puzzlement, in which there possibly lurked the faintest shadow of reproof. A side of her existed, he had to admit, that he didn't properly understand.

"Well, anyhow," he continued, "Mr. Hedsall couldn't have been nicer to me afterward. We talked for quite a time in the little room behind the platform, though there was a stream of other people wanting to talk to him, and when I saw him out to his car, he shook hands and said he hoped we should meet again."

"Well, I hope so, too," Mary said, "if you liked him."

"I think he might be a very useful man to know," replied George thoughtfully.

And then it was, as he took Mary's arm, that it suddenly occurred to him to top his triumph by making a definite proposal of marriage that very evening. Of course, he would be careful to add that he wasn't suggesting any immediate step—he was quite willing, indeed it would be only prudent, to wait till his salary had reached a certain figure, and what this figure would be, of course, they could settle by amicable discussion.

Just as for the Right Moment and the Right Thing, George had a feeling for the Right Place. Now it happened that Mary lived with her parents in a smart suburb across the river, while George had a couple of rented rooms in the city itself; so that often, when they had been out for the evening, he took Mary home by the midnight ferryboat. This means of transportation offered rows of deck seats, which could be quite suitably romantic on a June night, and the trip took twenty or twenty-five minutes, according to the tide—time enough for a fellow to propose to a girl who, he hoped but wasn't quite certain, could weigh future prospects as well as present actualities.

It must be admitted that the deck seats were much sought after, and George, knowing this, led Mary down to the pier by half-past eleven, at which time passengers were allowed on board. He was thus able to commandeer one of the more secluded seats, and wise he was to think of it, for the boat soon began to fill up, and within a few minutes all the other seats were taken.


GEORGE was perhaps as confident that night as he could be. Taking his hat off, he let the salty zephyrs riffle pleasantly through his neatly parted hair, breathing meanwhile deep gusts into his lungs—inhalations that he hoped would somehow quiet his nervousness and give him power to say the Right Things when the Right Moment came. It was certainly a well-chosen scene. The blue-black sky was overhead, and dark water lapped peacefully below; ropes twisted and strained as the tide pulled hard against the hull. A hurricane lamp on the captain's bridge sent down a cone of pallor that rather accentuated than dispelled the mystery of the night. Soon the gangways would be drawn up and the paddle wheels begin to revolve, churning a corridor of foam in a wide curve under the moon. Then, he felt, would come the Finally Perfect Moment. He was envisaging it with gathering hopefulness when suddenly, as his fingers idly roamed along the brim of his hat, a jarring awareness intruded.

Simply an awareness that this was not his hat.

To be sure, it looked like it, and it had fitted him normally during the short walk from the meeting to the pier; but he knew, from the sensation in his fingertips, that it wasn't his.

Now George (give him his due) was an honest fellow, and the first thing he did was to hold the hat in the cone of light from the hurricane lamp. An examination of the lining revealed something that caused him to exclaim, with a note of startled dismay, "My goodness, Mary, I've got Mr. Hedsall's hat!"

"Have you, George?"

"I must have taken it by mistake. Yes, I remember now—mine wasn't on the hook where I left it before the meeting, and there was such a crowd afterward in that room behind the platform our things must have got mixed up."

"Well, it's all right. You can send it back to him tomorrow."

"But he's leaving tonight—by the midnight train, he told me—and besides, he's probably got my hat. So he'll guess who took his."

"Maybe he took yours first, and it was his mistake."

"But don't you see, this is a better hat—he might think it wasn't a mistake on my part at all."

"Nonsense, George, I'm sure he won't."

"He might. Anyhow, he's bound to be annoyed. A pity, after the good impression I think I made on him."

"Oh, George, don't worry about it."

"I'm not exactly worrying—I'm just anxious to do the right thing."

George was silent for a time, and Mary knew so well from experience what his silence signified that she was not enormously surprised when he resumed, in a rather troubled voice: "Of course, there's only one thing to do really. I ought to catch him before his train leaves. Then at least he'll know it was a genuine mistake and that I did my best to rectify it."

"You mean go now?"

"There's time if I make a dash for it." He got up from his seat. "It's only a few minutes to the station. Yes, Mary, that's what I'd better do. Do you mind?"

"Not if you feel you must. I don't suppose I can keep your seat for you."

"Yes. I see... Well, I'll hurry, anyway." He moved off quickly and disappeared toward the gangway. As he pressed through the stream of people and explained his situation to the ticket officer on duty, he felt a twinge of disappointment about the seat he had surrendered. It was probably true—she wouldn't be able to keep it for him. And without that seat, so romantically secluded, how would he be able to achieve that supremely Right Conjunction of Time and Place so necessary for saying the Right Thing? Probably now he wouldn't risk proposing at all that evening. It was a pity having to postpone things; but it couldn't be helped.

One thing George knew for certain—he could never have got to the proposing stage with Mr. Hedsall's hat either on his head or on his mind.


MARY smiled slightly into the darkness. She was fond of George, though curiously unworried as to whether he would find Mr. Hedsall or be back in time to catch the boat. That also didn't seem to matter much.

Suddenly she realized that someone in the next seat was leaning toward her out of the shadows. A man's voice said quietly, "Your friend sounded rather upset."

She turned, startled; but before she had considered the propriety of answering, her answer came: "Oh, it's nothing. He just took someone else's hat and wants to return it, that's all. He'd better be quick, though. There really isn't too much time to spare."

The stranger looked at his watch in the cone of light. While he did so, she could half-see his face; it was an interesting face. "Nearly half an hour," he said. "More, probably. They never leave right on the dot."

She decided then against continuing a conversation with a stranger and so made no reply; but she felt him glancing at her sideways, as if waiting for one. Presently he pulled paper and pencil out of his pocket and seemed to be busy making notes about something. Well, that was all right. Evidently he had just meant to be friendly.

About ten minutes went by, during which he seemed entirely absorbed in his note taking. Then abruptly he spoke again. "I wonder if you can guess what I've just been doing?"

"Probably not," she said, without encouragement.

"I've been writing some verses."

"Oh?"

"Would you mind if I were to read them to you?"

What could one say? He still sounded friendly; he had a rather pleasant voice; too many people were near for him to be anything worse than a temporary nuisance; and George would be back soon.

"You don't really mind, do you?" he continued.

"Not particularly," she said, trying to seem more indifferent than she really felt, for she had already the beginnings of curiosity.

"Well, that's fine." And he read, very softly and in hardly more than a whisper, the following:


"I met you on the ferryboat. You said,
'There really isn't too much time to spare;'
And something—Heaven knows what—your lovely head,
Your words, or else the moonlight on your hair,
Gave me an oddish urge, a strange desire
To know you, hold you, and suddenly
Touch your sweet lips, and cry, with heart afire,
'You, you—in all the world—are meant for me!'
And if I had, whatever else may be,
You would have remembered me for that;
But as I merely turned to where you sat,
And said, 'They never leave right on the dot,'
You smiled, and didn't answer, and forgot."


As his voice faded into silence, she was again aware that he was staring at her, as if awaiting a reply. Then she realized that the silence was an illusion, a strange world into which his words had somehow beguiled her; actually the neighborhood was full of sounds—men and women talking and laughing, children scampering noisily and being scolded by their parents, the engines already throbbing.

"Well?" he said after a pause.

"Well?" she answered.

He laughed pleasantly. "Is that all you can say?"

"What do you want me to say? I'm not competent to give you any expert criticism."

"Oh, you aren't? Well, as it happens, that isn't exactly what I was after."

"Of course, if you want an outsider's opinion, it's quite clever—for something done on the spur of the moment. I once heard the same sort of thing done as a stage trick by somebody—I forget who."

"A stage trick! I'm a writer!"

"My goodness, how very, very interesting."

"You make me wonder if you really took in what I read. You're treating it so—so casually."

"Well," she asked, "how else should I treat it? Not seriously, I should hope?"

"So you do realize what it meant?"

"I heard what you read."

He laughed again. "But you're extraordinary! You might have been offended and walked off, or you might have been so embarrassed you wouldn't have been able to say a word, or you might have been—forgive me—so flattered you'd have gone all coy and confidential. But just to take it in your stride, like this, almost as if you're used to having confessions of love made to you in rhymed verse—"

"Evidently you're used to making them, or else why did you expect me to behave so differently?"

"Look here, let's be quite certain we know what we're talking about. It's true I have a knack for making my thoughts rhyme and scan; but that poem wasn't merely a literary exercise, and I've never written or read anything like it before. It's a new experience for me, whether it is for you or not. Do you believe me? I mean, do you believe that I'm telling the truth?"

"Well, if you are, it's just absurd and, really, rather unthinkable."

"You mean you reject entirely the possibility of anyone's falling in love at first sight? You know, of course, that it's been exploited in countless novels and plays—in fact, it's almost a stock-in-trade of writers, good and bad."

"Oh, yes, I know that."

"And you think they're all wrong? That they've just been writing about something that doesn't exist?"

"I didn't say that. It may exist, for all I know; but whether it does or not, you don't have to cross-examine me as if I were on trial for my life."


"THAT'S just what you are—and so am I. But let that pass. If you admit that falling in love at first sight can happen, that's enough; because all I claim is that it has happened—to me five minutes ago. The only difference between me and others is that I'm confessing it to the person concerned rather sooner than usual."

"Exactly. That's why it's so absurd."

"But wouldn't it be more absurd to say nothing about it and let the chance pass by? Listen—I saw you when you came on this boat with your friend. Something happened to me then. You and I were strangers. I had no means of forcing myself on you—your friend would naturally have objected if I had. By the way, who is your friend? Are you engaged to him?"

"Suppose I said he was my husband?"

"I shouldn't believe you. Let's go on calling him your friend. Chance took him away, giving me twenty or thirty precious moments to convey as much as most men spread over weeks or months. Just think—thirty minutes to arrange the affairs of a lifetime! Suppose I hadn't used those minutes, or had wasted them in idle chatter? Then I'd certainly never have seen you again as long as our two lives last. Don't you see that I had to violate the conventions—had to break down the barriers? Just think of it—thirty minutes."

"Ten of which you devoted to composing a poem."

"Yes, and do you know why? Because I'm a gambler. I took a chance within a chance. I guessed that if I told you the truth in prose, you'd have called the captain and told him there was a maniac on board or something. You might have."

"Yes, I might have."

"But you listened to the poem because you didn't quite know at first what it was all about, and by the time you did know, it was too late to object."

"Too foolish, also, after I'd been foolish enough to listen." She gave a little sigh. "Well, we'll admit we've both been foolish, and now your time's half gone, so let's talk about something else."

"Ourselves."

"Yourself if you like. But stick to facts."

"My name's Michael Croft. I've got a job of sorts on a paper; but I don't suppose I'll keep it long. I don't usually keep jobs. I sell a few stories now and again. I'm not very successful; but I'm pretty happy, one way and another. You'd like my friends. They're not quite so crazy as I am, and of course I'm not really so crazy myself as I must have seemed to you up to now."

"I should hope not."

"I'm good fun, though. You wouldn't be bored."

"Just stick to the facts."


"THAT reminds me, I'll be under the clock in the Market Square at noon tomorrow. I'll wait for you."

"You'll wait a long time."

"I don't mind. Any time you can manage."

"I thought we were going to drop the nonsense."

"Nonsense?"

"Well, fun, if you like. It is a bit funny, once one sees it from the right angle."

"But I'm perfectly serious. Tomorrow at noon."

"Look here, will you please realize that, though I don't feel offended or tongue-tied or flattered, I can't go on being amused at the same joke, and I haven't the slightest intention of meeting you tomorrow?"

"So you don't want to see me again—ever?"

"Why should I?"

"There's only one sensible reason—you dislike me. All right, I accept that. Instinctive dislike is like sudden infatuation—it can't be argued about. Some people loathe tomatoes. They can't tell you why, and it's silly to ask them. Believe me, I understand."

"Oh, do stop putting words into my mouth! I never said I disliked you."

"No? Then you mean you do like me?"

"It's not a matter of liking or disliking. I don't know you, so how—"

"How much do you have to know somebody before you agree to meet him again? Suppose you're at a dinner party and your host puts you next to an old bore, who asks you next week to one of her dinner parties, what do you say—yes or no?"

"No, if I can think of an excuse. Life's too short to do that sort of thing, and that's the second time this evening I've said it."

"Oh? What was the other?"

"It doesn't matter, and if you don't mind, Mr. Cross, we'll change the subject."

"Croft's the name, not Cross. And you didn't tell me yours."

"I'm not going to—and please stop asking me questions. Why not make ordinary conversation for a few minutes, just to show that you can?"

"I can't if I think I'm never to see you again. But once I know I shall, then I'll make ordinary conversation about anything you like—yes, anything in the world. The world itself, if you want. It's a pretty exciting world, don't you find? When you think how big and terrible and lonely the universe is, and how long eternity is, isn't the mere fact of being alive at any given moment the most amazing piece of luck? So whatever you do, don't waste it. Don't throw away chances. Have friends. Have fun. Marry the man you love and have a dozen children."

"And you call this ordinary conversation?"

"Yes—between you and me. We've got to exchange ideas. Isn't that what you were complaining about just now—that you didn't know me? You will soon, because I've got no secrets. Ask me anything you like—cross-examine me. I don't mind."

In the midst of her laughter the boat siren suddenly sounded.

"Come on, now—hurry," he shouted above the din. "You've got two more minutes. Fire away some questions."

She was still laughing. "All right, then. Do you smoke?"

"Yes, far too much."

"Drink?"

"I don't ever get drunk, if that's what you mean."

"Gamble?"

"I said I was a gambler. But not for money."

"Belong to any literary societies?"

"Good Lord, no. And look here, I'm not that sort of fellow at all. I don't like meetings and societies and social stuff. Life's too short, as you yourself said. Give me my own friends, give me good food and a good argument like the one we're having now, give me good books to read and now and then a good book to write—at least I hope there'll be one someday."

"So that's your ambition?"

"One of them. You know the other. My dear—whoever you are, I mean it, and it's the truth, and it's also the truth that I'll be waiting tomorrow at noon under the clock, whether you turn up or not, and that's all I can say, because your friend's just coming back."

That was true, too. George was just coming back.


ALL this happened years ago, no matter exactly when and where; many other far more important things have happened since.


Michael Croft's real name is one you may possibly have come across. He has written a few books that have attracted some attention. On the whole, his life has been one of striving, full of ups and downs, but with a good deal of happiness interspersed, always plenty of friends, never much money, and a large and uproarious family to spend it on. Naturally, he looks back on that midnight ferryboat trip as a turning point in his life, since it was then that he met Mrs. Croft.

But the odd thing is that George Burnham also looks back on that same evening as a turning point. George has gone far, as people said he would. He is rich and socially prominent. He belongs to all the right societies and also to the right society. You would certainly know his real name if I mentioned it. He married rather late in life—a Miss Shovelton. He has an only son at a university—rather a scapegrace, from all accounts, and that worries him a bit. In fact, it's just another of the numerous worries he has nowadays—income tax, the state of the country, his future, the future, and the possibility that the stock market hasn't any.

Sometimes he bores his son by reminiscing. "Let this be a lesson to you, my boy—always do the Right Thing at the Right Moment, however small or trivial it may seem to be. If I hadn't returned the hat to Mr. Hadsell promptly that night, the good impression I'd already made on him would have been destroyed, and I'm sure I should never have become a partner in the firm of Hedsall, Burnham, Ledgwood, and Shovelton. Think of that!"


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.